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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Borrowed Time’ a Comedy That Suspends Mystery

TIMES STAFF WRITER

We’ll have none of this “Grim Reaper” talk.

Instead, death is called “you big Squashapussoshapuss” by one of the characters in “On Borrowed Time,” at the Pasadena Playhouse. It’s that kind of a play--a cute little comedy about death.

It first appeared on Broadway in 1938, one day before the opening of “Our Town,” another play in which folksy all-American characters confronted their mortality. “Our Town” is a much better play. But that doesn’t mean that the modest charms of “On Borrowed Time” should be forgotten.

Both plays could be called examples of middle-American “Magical Realism,” to borrow a phrase from Latin-American literature. Magical events occur within a realistic context.

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In “On Borrowed Time,” Gramps (Conrad Bain) staves off Death in the form of Mr. Brink (Wren Brown) by trapping him in an apple tree. Mr. Brink has just claimed Gramps’ wife, son and daughter-in-law, but the old man is determined to hang around long enough to raise his grandson Pud (Miles Young), thus saving the boy from the clutches of mean old Demetria Riffle (Patricia Fraser), the kid’s aunt.

In Sheldon Epps’ staging, Brown’s Mr. Brink is dressed in a creamy white suit and speaks in calm, firm, perfectly articulated phrases. Occasionally he cracks a smile. For those of us who can see him (some characters can’t), this Mr. Brink isn’t scary for a second.

Our fear of death is brushed aside. But then playwright Paul Osborn, adapting a novel by Lawrence Edward Watkin (who goes unacknowledged in the Pasadena program), didn’t want to frighten. He was making the very sensible point that death is a part of the life cycle, that the power to ward it off could create major problems.

One version of the text takes this cheerful attitude even further, ending the play with a joke that indicates that people don’t change after they die--a contradiction to what Mr. Brink has said earlier. This production eliminates that particular joke. That’s smart; the script has enough jokes already, some of which are fairly amusing, if not exactly sidesplitters.

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Still, the play would be a deeper experience if it evoked a shiver or two along with the laughter. It’s a rather flat parable, lacking the extra dimensions one might expect from a play about death.

The major premise of the plot is that death is stayed--Mr. Brink is imprisoned in the tree--because a trivial “good deed” that Gramps performed gave him the unwitting power to prevent anyone who climbs his tree from coming down. Gramps tricks Mr. Brink up into his tree, and there he must stay--with death held in abeyance for every living creature on Earth--until Gramps lets him descend.

The source of Gramps’ power is awfully flimsy, by the standards of traditional fairy tales and myths. It’s not as if he’s given three wishes in return for saving someone’s life or because he did God a favor. Perhaps this is part of the joke--that something so insignificant could set off an event of such cosmic importance. Yet it makes Mr. Brink look remarkably ineffectual. If death can be postponed this easily, how does Mr. Brink ever get anything accomplished?

If Gramps were invested with his powers for a weightier reason, or at least through a ritual that could lead us to believe there was a greater purpose, the play might acquire its missing dimensions.

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But there isn’t a whiff of ritual here. Gramps doesn’t hold much truck with religion of any kind. Any sense of mystery is discouraged by this user-friendly play. Consequently, it’s nice but not challenging or haunting. It’s not nearly as memorable as “Our Town” or even “Tomorrow’s Monday,” a more realistic and deeply felt Osborn comedy, now at the Crossley Theatre in Hollywood.

Bain graduated to Gramps from a minor role in a recent production of “On Borrowed Time” on Broadway, and he works up a fine bluster as the irascible old cuss. On his more tender side, the chemistry between Bain and young Young, as his grandson, provides most of the production’s pleasure.

Fraser and Lance Davis, as the local asylum director, are funny as the play’s stock villains.

Richard Hoover’s apple tree is inviting enough to tempt, well, Death itself. And at play’s end, the golden light designed by Victor En Yu Tan shimmers artfully through a forest of ropes at the back of the stage, suggesting a hint of the wonderment that awaits the characters, after the final curtain. Too bad there aren’t a few more such hints in the play itself.

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