THEATER REVIEW : Father Knows Best in 'Alone Together'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

You can go home again. So say the 30-year-old and 28-year-old Butler boys, as they return to the family homestead in "Alone Together," at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Their parents, George (Nicholas Pryor) and Helene (Nancy Dussault), don't exactly kill the fatted calf in honor of the homecoming. After 30 years of raising three sons, the youngest of whom is finally off to college, they want their own lives back.

Apparently a lot of people have found themselves in this situation recently. At intermission on opening night, a couple was overheard discussing the resemblances between the play and their own lives.

But that doesn't necessarily make "Alone Together" more than a situation with a string of jokes attached. Lawrence Roman's comedy is more adept with one-liners than with any fresh insights.

The action begins with an amazing coincidence. Just as Son No. 3 (John Allee) is off to college, while his parents are still saying their farewells, Son No. 1 (Maury Ginsberg) returns through the back door and ensconces himself in his old room. His parents, unaware of his presence, begin to make love on a rug in front of the fireplace. Guess who interrupts their romance. And Son No. 2 (Spencer Garrett) isn't far behind.

The play is written so that the sons look as spoiled and unreasonable as possible, while the parents come off as far too generous and reasonable, thus flattering the target audience--which is likelier to be in the parents' age range.

The oldest of the brood, Michael, is a math whiz who has fled advanced research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology because he's afraid he can't cut it. He's partially an absent-minded professor, scurrying across the upstairs hallway with unexplained pots of something that steams. But he's also a smooth manipulator, stopping his father's first attempt to crack the whip before it begins, with effusive talk about how grateful he is for his parents' succor.

The middle son, Elliott, is a womanizer who has been kicked out of his own home in Texas by his estranged wife. With Garrett playing Elliott as an urban cowboy and Ginsberg playing Michael as a neurotic Northeasterner, it's not easy to believe these two are related. Or that both have grown up in suburban L.A., where the Butlers have a home that looks as if it were could have been designed by the same hacienda-influenced architect who designed the Pasadena Playhouse itself (the set designer is Gary Wissmann).

But the comic exaggerations aren't over with the arrival of Elliott. Next in line is a very young, very flaky, very casual acquaintance of Son No. 3, Janie (Shawn Modrell), who needs a place to stay temporarily while she gets ready for Santa Monica College. That the parents allow her, too, to invade their privacy defies credibility. But it also serves to extend the play to a fuller length and to provide a suggestion of sexual fun and games with the sons before we hear Janie declare her devotion to celibacy.

As the play winds to its easily foretold conclusion, we do get the requisite moments when the parents finally probe into each other's personalities deeply enough to find something slightly unpleasant. It doesn't justify this display of extreme wimpiness, but then one doesn't expect this kind of play to make that kind of sense.

One does expect some easy gags, and David Galligan's cast knows how to get them. Dussault snags more of them than anyone, and she also maneuvers deftly through Helene's transformation from submissive mom to Woman on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Even so, when the final confrontation with Son No. 1 takes place, it's still Pryor's dad who has to do the dirty work. In the end, father does know best.

Though the play has television written all over it, it opened on Broadway, where it didn't last long. But it has enjoyed successful runs in Europe, we're told, not to mention the Harlequin Dinner Theatre in Orange County, Costa Mesa Civic Playhouse and La Mirada Theatre.

It's an inoffensive little comedy, more irksome for what it says about programming at the Pasadena Playhouse than for anything within the play itself.

* "Alone Together," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends June 27. $31.50. (818) 356-PLAY. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes. Nicholas Pryor: George Butler

Nancy Dussault: Helene Butler

John Allee: Keith Butler

Maury Ginsberg: Michael Butler

Spencer Garrett: Elliott Butler

Shawn Modrell: Janie Johnson

By Lawrence Roman. Directed by David Galligan. Sets: Gary Wissmann. Lights: Kevin Mahan. Costumes: Bonnie Stauch. Sound: Frederick Boot. Production stage manager Kathleen Horton. Stage manager Christopher Hardt.

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