THEATER REVIEW : 'Darkroom': Laughs Despite Fuzzy Focus

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Playwright Robert Barnett had a clever idea for his romantic comedy "Darkroom," which is playing at the Long Beach Studio Theatre.

Beth is a struggling Chicago photographer whose biggest claim to fame is her commercial pictures of beef cuts for a meatpacker. Her second biggest claim is her habit, with the exception of her first husband, Jay, of picking married men for relationships.

At the beginning of Act I, Jay turns up--on the outs with the male lover for whom he left Beth--and needing a haven. Simultaneously, Peter dashes in, having left his wife and children for Beth. Will Beth's entire past show up to haunt her?

You can see the laughs coming. Some of them even arrive.

The play's problem is lack of focus, the obscuring of a good premise with implausible extra characters and illogical running gags that detract from Beth's basically funny situation.

Among those gags, Beth's barking and howling like a dog when she's upset, and an annoying windup alarm clock that Jay puts in the refrigerator, and which is still ringing weeks later when the fridge door is opened. Who's been winding it? More illogic dwells beneath those high points.

Director Peter Sands accepts it all at face value and handles the style briskly, in its wild-and-woolly '70s manner. Sands even manages to make much of it funny with the help of a capable cast.

Angela Eads gives Beth a frenetic, distracted air that makes the character look more real than Barnett has written her. She even manages not to look embarrassed while barking, and her sincerity rewards her with honest laughter.

On an equally energized comic level is James Stellos as Jay, who manages his character's camp without falling into stereotype, except for the operatic aria and old show tunes he's called upon to attempt.

Patrick Neil Quinn, as the very obtuse Peter, has many good moments, rising handily above a character who is scripted as flat as an old tire.

Too much is made of Laura Morris' role as Peter's Italian-American wife Theresa, forcing attention away from the original premise and from Beth herself. But Morris gets much humor out of Theresa's vulnerability and brashness. She even helps the viewer ignore the incorrect syntax with which her dialogue is riddled.

Neil Tadken is too much the rube as Jay's pseudo-cowboy lover, who has returned to fetch him. But he does have a flair for a comic line-reading and a puppy-dog warmth. Garrett Mathany has an amusing and brief appearance as a blond lifeguard Jay has lured to the apartment, who turns out to be Theresa's cousin, and is terrified of exposure.

Bob Kokol's Chicago flat setting looks lived in, and is as realistic as Barnett's script should have been to keep the promise of its premise.

*"Darkroom," Long Beach Studio Theatre, 5021 Anaheim St., Long Beach. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sun. matinee at 2. Ends Oct. 16. $10. (310) 494-1616. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Angela Eads: Beth O'Neill

James Stellos: Jay Wills

Patrick Neil Quinn: Peter Urbanski

Garrett Mathany: Anthony Pelligrini

Laura Morris: Theresa Urbanski

Neil Tadken: Wayne Hodges

A Long Beach Playhouse production of Robert Barnett's comedy. Directed by Peter Sands. Scenic design: Bob Kokol. Lighting and sound design: Martin G. Eckmann.

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