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THEATER REVIEW : TV Nostalgia Stirs in ‘Let Him Sleep’ : The Brea Theatre League tunes into the aura, tone and flavor of the very sort of early ‘50s sitcom that Peg Kehret’s comedy recalls.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At the beginning of the Brea Theatre League’s production of Peg Kehret’s “Let Him Sleep ‘Till It’s Time for His Funeral,” an obviously beleaguered television floor manager comes out and sets up the audience for a live broadcast of the popular “Sudsy Comedy Hour.” An opening announcement is made over appropriately banal music, and a vocal group pipes an equally innocuous commercial for the sponsor, Sudsy Soap.

There’s no indication in the program whether this setup was the playwright’s idea. If it was, it provided her with a clever way to evoke the aura, tone and flavor of the very sort of early ‘50s sitcom that her play essentially is. If this was director Pattric Walker’s inspiration, he found a sure way to make a dated and overly convoluted comedy work well.

Kehret has given us pretty insignificant froth about mistaken intentions, misinterpreted clues and skewed conclusions. Edna Dollefson frets over husband Harold’s fear and anger at his approaching 50th birthday, plans a surprise premature funeral instead of a conventional party and invites all Harold’s friends and co-workers so he can realize how loved and needed he is.

Harold discovers her notes about renting the funeral home, buying the casket, etc., and thinks she’s planning to have him murdered for his insurance money. When Edna finds his one-way escape ticket to Mexico, she thinks he’s meeting an inamorata south of the border. Sound like “I Love Lucy” or any of the other improbable early sitcoms that spawned today’s equally improbable descendants?

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If Kehret meant it as an affectionate spoof, it works--but only because director Walker means it that way too. His action is fast and furious, and about as surface as it can be. He doesn’t allow his actors to take things too seriously. They certainly are serious in their manner, though, or the comedy wouldn’t be there.

Joan Neubauer as Edna and Jaye Wilson as her buddy Mille believe every moment. Gordon Marhoefer scores with his forthright sincerity as Mille’s husband and Harold’s best friend. Along with Ross Burton, as the representative of a “Heart’s Desire Contest,” they make all this really look like the kind of nonsense that kept America home 40 years ago.

Only Dan Rodgers as Harold and Leanna Rodgers as the Dollefson’s contest-obsessed daughter allow themselves to go over the genre’s limit, mugging and amplifying the comedy to little avail.

Still, Walker’s sense of style is impeccable, and if the one joke that keeps the whole thing together has begun to flag by the end, the energy with which Walker fuels it keeps it charming and often funny.

* “Let Him Sleep ‘Till It’s Time for His Funeral,” Curtis Theatre, Brea Civic and Cultural Center, Brea. Today, Saturday, and March 10, 11, 12 and 16-19 at 8 p.m.; Saturday and March 12 and 19 at 2 p.m. $7-$12.50. (714) 990-7722. Running time: 1 hours, 45 minutes. Joan Neubauer Edna Dollefson

Dan Rodgers: Harold Dollefson

Leanna Rodgers: Elizabeth Dollefson

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Jaye Wilson: Mille Westmore

Gordon Marhoefer: Russ Westmore

Ross Burton: Mr. Jansen

A Brea Theatre League production of Peg Kehret’s comedy, directed by Pattric Walker. Producer: Howard Johnston. Executive producer: Darrell Connerton. Scenic design: Michael Schweikardt. Lighting design: Alfred Ronquillo Jr. Sound: Terry Bailey. Costume/makeup design: Michelle Eden. Stage manager: Joe Faucher.

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