STAGE REVIEWS : 'T. J.' an Uneven Romp Told in Rhymed Couplets

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The vast majority of people who saw Tony Richardson's rousing 1963 film adaptation of Henry Fielding's "Tom Jones," starring a bounding Albert Finney, seem to remember two things about it: its rambunctious wit and the suggestive eating scene between Tom and Mrs. Waters that redefined the consumption of food as something not merely savory but scandalously, deliciously salacious.

All of those people may get a charge out of Howard Burman's theatrical adaptation of the same novel for the California Repertory Company on the campus of California State University in Long Beach. The acting is uneven, as is the staging by John Frederick Jones, which does not always elude clumsy overcrowding of Cal Rep's small stage or keep its minor actors in check. But there are enough good performances in key roles delivered at a smart clip to offset a good deal of the supporting cast's mugging and its unseasoned work.

"T. J.," as the show has been cavalierly named, is a play with music--complex, punctuating songs by composer Martin Herman that often substitute for narration or action (as in "Tally-Ho," a sung account of Sophie Western's fall from a horse by a chorus that watches it happen). They sweeten the experience measurably.

Burman's spoken text, which is well-served by direct-address Story Theater techniques, comes entirely in rhymed couplets. It's not "La Bete" nor is it up there with Richard Wilbur's genial versions of Moliere, but it works. Despite the dicey business of speaking lines in skillful or far-reaching rhymes, Burman's verse catches on, ranging from the clever ("Bedfordshire" rhyming with "dead for sure") to the unobtrusive. His grammar occasionally goes astray ("Can we have a little talk, just you and me?"), but not his irony.

The show is slightly collegiate in concept (we've had an excess of bright young faces in the last couple of decades) and slightly dated in format (we've also had a surfeit of Story Theater), but the company's top players are strong enough to carry the day with brisk, well-considered performances.

Gregory Mortensen is a quick, intelligent Tom, with a gift for understated comic timing. Gary Armagnac plays a measured Fielding who bridges gaps in the action with a balance of dramatic license and elliptical narrative. Beth Kellerman's keen sense of character in a trio of roles shines as the independent Mrs. Fitzpatrick and as nasal Lady Bellaston. And Penelope Miller Lindblom's voluptuous Mrs. Waters is a minor triumph.

The eating scene between her and Tom is as much the highlight of this piece as it was the highlight of the movie. Miller Lindblom's chaste deliberation as she gingerly tucks a napkin between the globes overflowing from her bodice, her aggressions on an unsuspecting drumstick, her care and feeding of the silently reeling Tom, morsel by reluctant morsel, bite by seductive bite, are small temblors on a well-worn path to explosive lust.

Indeed, if there is a weakness here it is in the character of Tom's beloved Sophie. Kimberly Seder does her level best to give us a strong-minded young woman who tries to deal sanely with Tom's amorous escapades, but it's the wrong tack. What is needed is a tremulous, terminal innocence. A sane woman comes off as a wimp for forgiving such a frequent transgressor, even when his contrition and charms are persuasive.

The show's ending is a particularly well-handled affair, in which Tom is first hanged and then--a writer's prerogative--unhanged and allowed to live happily ever after. Shades of "The Robber Bridegroom" here, but all is fair in love and theater. "Tom is saved," go the rhymed couplets, "in spite of the way he's behaved."

Burman's herculean effort is greatly enhanced by Herman's inviting, harmonic songs that are anything but casual ditties. The text itself, however, would benefit from another round of tightening up, but beware of its rhyme schemes. They can be contagious.

All this charm and suave depravity can't be cited for its brevity. It's not deep, but it's a breeze and the verse designed to please. It's not Fielding, it's not Finney, but this Burman is no ninny, and when all is said and done, "T. J.," in a word, is fun.

* T. J.," California Repertory Theatre, Cal State Long Beach, 7th Street and West Campus Drive, Long Beach. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Wednesday and April 8, 2 p.m.; Ends April 25. $8-$14; (310) 985-5526. Running time: 2 hours.

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