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THEATER REVIEW : ‘After Midnight’: Morality Tale of Evil’s Lure

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

By all rights, Howard Burman’s stage adaptation at Long Beach’s Cal Rep of Lee Abbott’s novella “Living After Midnight” shouldn’t work. Abbott has been called “a maximalist” and “a linguistic hellion,” and that only suggests the half of it. This reviewer habitually jots down dialogue lines during performances but Abbott-speak utterly defies jotting down. His is an English that has leaped into a grammatical realm of Hochdeutsch in the fast lane.

No, it shouldn’t work on stage, and not just because the prose seems unsuitable for playing. Director Ronald Allan-Lindblom would appear to have compounded the impossibilities by helping (with filmmaker Sharyn C. Blumenthal) devise a film to run along with the play. Unless you’re George Coates or Robert Wilson, multimedia theater is usually much better as an idea than a reality.

And yet . . . it usually works, this snarled, snarling first-person account of Reed (Blake Steury), a fidgety alternative newspaper writer drawn deep into crime by Gregory (Ziggy) Wagrowski’s seductive Hoffman, or “H-Man,” as Reed calls his old college buddy. Despite his rise at the paper from listings editor to writer, Reed tells wife Carole (Beth Kellermann) that he doesn’t want kids yet, that he wants to “misbehave.”

Knock, knock. Who’s there? H-Man. We know he’s lying to Reed about his New Mexico spread, just as we know H-Man is this morality tale’s means to an end. The laws governing “Living After Midnight” have nothing to do with the American theatrical belief in psychological motivation, and everything to do with the ancient Greek theater of inevitability.

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Like a Times Square sign, Steury’s face transmits Reed’s astonishment at how far he slides into petty thievery with H-Man. His face only gets bigger on film (transferred to video on a sizable screen)--a medium that lets Reed’s inner voice resonate like a bad dream as it floats above the increasingly pressurized action. No awkward direct addresses or asides here; Burman’s taste for novel adaptations at Cal Rep has found with Abbott’s tale an ideal melding of mood, form and electricity.

The switches between film and stage did not always precisely click Saturday, but it never impeded on Wagrowski’s snake-like performance, curling inside our head and Reed’s with its venomous fangs wide open. He suggests a guy who’s almost tired of picking on 7-Elevens for a living (and Bill Bushnell, in a rare acting turn, nicely suggests a store owner tired of getting robbed) but still turned on by danger’s thrill--the thrill that hits Reed like a contagion.

Unexpectedly, the combined charge of Aaron Bennett’s wailing onstage sax, Dianne Branson’s spare Expressionist set and Jon Limbacher’s ‘round-midnight lights amplify Abbott’s nasty world better than Blumenthal’s sometimes stodgy film. Her camera tracks Reed with pop-video archness but it never drowns out a very old, yet very new story that really believes in good and evil.

Living After Midnight,” California Repertory Theatre, Cal State Long Beach, 1250 Bellflower Blvd. Wednesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m. Ends May 3. $15; (310) 985-5526).

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