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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Better Days’: A Satirical Look at a Crumbling Town

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Talk about a worst-case scenario.

A Massachusetts mill town’s one big plant has closed--just in time for a bitterly cold winter. Everyone is laid off. Packs of dogs roam the street. So do gangs of spooky-looking juveniles and professional arsonists.

It’s also a funniest-case scenario. Richard Dresser’s “Better Days,” at the Cast Theatre in Hollywood, is a satire that won’t stop biting.

“Better Days” is one step away from the world of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days” (a production of which is also playing in Hollywood). While Dresser’s characters are not yet immobilized in mounds of earth, they might as well be.

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Nevertheless, like the woman in “Happy Days,” they keep up their spirits. It’s pathetic. And hilarious.

Ray (Gregg Henry) literally keeps up his spirits. He believes he’s receiving messages from the great beyond. He’s trying to start the True Value Church as a way out of his mess.

His wife Faye (Lin Shaye) is more practical, deciding which belongings to sell and which to burn--in order to heat the house. She also brings in a few bucks from her job at the Hungry Pilgrim restaurant, where she might even get to be manager--if the building isn’t torched for the insurance money.

Organizing the torching of the town is Bill (John Apicella), a sinister newcomer who meets Faye and then Ray and his pals through a classified ad.

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Ray and his pals were laid off from the plant, but naive Arnie (David Wells) is trying to start a new career at the Seven 11. Phil (Vincent Guastaferro) has already been through one new career, as a fly-by-night lawyer, and now is trying to hawk Amway products out of his home--which is to say, his car. Phil’s new girlfriend, doped-up Crystal (Kristen Lowman) likes him primarily for the highs he provides from his oven cleaner samples.

Warning: The play is a cartoon. Feeling the characters’ pain is not a high priority. We are asked to examine their values and delusions and judge our own values and delusions accordingly.

Some may not like this kind of distancing, but the play is probably funnier because of it. The play’s situation is so bleak that laughter is probably the only response.

Others may say the root causes of this town’s malaise are not given sufficient attention. These people might want to see another play about an economic crisis in a New England town, “Other People’s Money” (coming soon to Pasadena Playhouse), as well as “Better Days.” If “Better Days” slights the causes in favor of the effects, “Money” slights the effects in favor of the causes; together, they complement each other.

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But Dresser’s play, enhanced by Lisa James’ staging, has the more caustic point of view. The final scene, when it looks as if the entire town is really placing its hopes on Ray’s cockamamie church, is somewhat sobering, but until then this is a riotously withering glance at some of the worst traits in the American personality.

Henry, who deserves a patent on staged portraits of desperate schemers, is in his usual fine form. But the funniest--and the saddest--image in the play belongs to Shaye, dressed in her tawdry Hungry Pilgrim waitress outfit (costumes: Vicki Sanchez), trying to make it through a New England winter under circumstances no less trying than those facing the original Pilgrims.

Apicella has some wonderful moments elaborating on Bill’s gangster’s ethics. Guastaferro skillfully charts the ups and downs of Phil’s ego, and Wells’ Arnie adds a welcome note of sweet stupidity. Lowman, in the least consequential role, is nonetheless memorable.

As designed by Andy Daley, Ray and Faye’s apartment looks appropriately precarious, and Leonora Schildkraut’s sound track suggests the hordes outside the hovel.

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“Better Days,” Cast Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends April 28. $15. (213) 462-0265. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

‘BETTER DAYS’

Gregg Henry: Ray

David Wells: Arnie

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Lin Shaye: Faye

Vincent Guastaferro: Phil

Kristen Lowman: Crystal

John Apicella: Bill

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A play by Richard Dresser. Produced by Linda Bernstein, Diana Gibson, Gregg Henry. Director Lisa James. Set by Andy Daley. Lights by Ilya Mindlin. Costumes by Vicki Sanchez. Sound by Leonora Schildkraut. Production stage manager Shawn La Vallee.


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