'Charlie' Holes Up in Tiny Space

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Playwright David Westheimer was surely happy when his Southern drama "My Sweet Charlie" made it to Broadway in 1966, despite critical drubbings in Boston and Philadelphia tryouts. Westheimer was surely just as unhappy when "Charlie's" Broadway life ceased three weeks later.

In a different, yet similar way, Westheimer might be happy to know that news of "Charlie's" death was greatly exaggerated; it is being revived in Orange County. He might not be thrilled, though, with where it's being done.

For one thing, his audience might never find the theater--namely, the new Ensemble Theatre--because it is tucked behind and underneath a bleak, cookie-cutter mall in a distant corner of Orange. (The hand-painted sign is easy to miss.)

Once theatergoers do find it, they might wonder if they're in a real theater. The lobby is friendly enough, but the house itself is, to say the least, eccentric. The acoustic tile ceiling is inches above your head. The five center seats are virtually in the actors' laps, while the remaining 25, none of them raked, are off on the sides or blocked by the front row. Noted my companion: "You can smell the particle board." The fan trying to keep the place cool made my contact lenses dry up and my eyes water.

So, how's the play? While it's easy to see why the critics killed it the first time, the members of director Robert Blankenship's cast do the essential, which is to plug into their characters and let them breathe. After a while, you don't even notice that particle-board odor (from Ellwood Smith's not-very-Southern-rural set).

Although the actors could broaden their emotional ranges, and they let go too soon of the initial tension, Roosevelt Blankenship Jr. as Charles, a black civil-rights activist, and Debbie Caceres-Gerber as Marlene, poor, white and pregnant, also never let the pressure in the relationship flag.

Westheimer has these outcasts holed up in an abandoned house, a kind of sanctuary from the scorn of the outside world, which gives Charlie and Marlene a sense of commonality.

This is an unsubtly veiled Christian romance, with the lion and lamb sleeping--in a sense--together, the defamed woman given new strength by the good man who makes the ultimate sacrifice for her, and their final hours together are cheered by a Christmas tree (though director Blankenship should make sure the tree has lights, or cut the dialogue referring to them).

It's also a wildly unlikely fantasy of black and white understanding, with Charlie, who is on the lam for killing a man, staying on long past the time a man with his smarts would. This violates another piece of Westheimer's colorblind didacticism: that while the white character is pretty slow upstairs, the black character reads and thinks. But only so far as it's convenient for the narrative.

With some nice, dry support from colleagues Ali Vossough (in double roles) and Belinda Wilson, Caceres-Gerber and Roosevelt Blankenship uncover some human fire that makes the crude melodramatics only more negligible. Now, all they need to do is find the right play.

'My Sweet Charlie'

An Ensemble Theatre presentation of an Eastern Boys production. Written by David Westheimer. Directed by Robert Blankenship. Set by Ellwood Smith. With Debbie Caceres-Gerber, Roosevelt Blankenship Jr., Belinda Wilson, Ali Vossough and Robert Blankenship. At the Ensemble Theatre, 844 E. Lincoln Ave., Orange. Performances Thursday through Saturday at 8:30 p.m. Through Sept. 26. $15. (714) 998-2276.

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