THEATER REVIEW : 'Hand Behind the Face' a Wild Paranoid Excursion

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

While Ebbe Roe Smith was scripting the film "Falling Down," he must have imagined fantastic scenarios about homicide and urban paranoia. Rather than neglect those surreal visions of a gun-crazy society, the dedicated man-of-the-theater transplanted them to the stage. Now "Falling Down" has a spiritual double in Smith's "The Hand Behind the Face" at the Odyssey Theatre.

Smith could subtitle it "Breakdown." "Hand" plays like a zany trip into the head of Michael Douglas' psychotic antihero. It's the world of assassination according to Howard Stern, a comic-book version of "Woyzeck," brought hilariously alive by exceptional performers.

The title refers to corporate and government sponsors of war and terrorism--the hidden "hands" manipulating infamous killers. Smith also plays a "hand": "Mr. Smith," a cool talent scout in search of potential assassins.

An anonymous war is ending, and soldier Eric (V. J. Foster) is looking forward to peace. But a team of recruiters, led by Mr. Smith, point out that "this peace thing is great for the civilians, but it's hell on warriors." Eric rejects a lucrative contract and a chance to become a "fabulous assassin."

The first act is motivated by Eric's various escapes from the seductive salesmen, while the second act demonstrates his talent for mass murder. But a plot synopsis offers minimal support for this wild ride into Smith's lunatic universe.

It's how, not what, that matters here. Grown-ups act like kids playing "army" on a schoolyard. Gunfire is mimicked with childish vocal sounds. Bunraku puppets become Eric's dizzy parents.

There are brilliant moments of stage business. While Eric is hiding on an island, Mr. Smith arrives by helicopter--a toy held aloft by an actor imitating propeller noise. Then the intrepid recruiter "wades" ashore, by walking through buckets filled with water.

The actors impeccably maintain the absurdity. Smith is precision incarnate. Foster's John Wayne imitation is perfect. Sharon Barr's Eastern European terrorist, in a black babushka, is priceless. Cynthia Ettinger's Marilyn Monroe parody and Patti Tippo's Margaret Thatcher imitation are noteworthy.

Total control ultimately undermines corporate headhunter Smith, but it also topples playwright-director-star Smith. Although the writing is lyrical, wise and witty, the script needs editing. The evening is 30 minutes too long. The plot urgently requires more focus and clarity. And the direction is frequently too slow for satire.

But even while "Hand" is falling down, we remain gripped by Smith's paranoid visions.

* "The Hand Behind the Face," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 24. $12. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

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