'Dying for Laughs': Comedy Where Chemistry Works

"Dying for Laughs" is one of those terrific little surprises that crop up now and then at smaller stages--in this case, the Santa Monica Playhouse.

Jerry Sroka and John Fleming have pulled off a deceptively difficult task: writing a solid, urbane and very funny domestic comedy in the Neil Simon mode. Best of all, the premiere production features a Broadway-caliber cast blessed with remarkable chemistry.

Sroka plays Marty, a nebbishy sitcom writer who hasn't found much work since his last series about two orthodontists. Marty's live-in girlfriend, Lee (Gwendolyn Coleman), urges him to reunite with his ex-partner, Robb (Vasili Bogazianos). The two reluctantly take a job writing for a foul-mouthed comedian named Stephanie Smart.

That's when the real fun begins. Smart drags the two writers into her complicated personal life, including her apparent affair with her manager (Elisa Surmount) and her growing gambling debts to mobsters.

Hollywood insiders will probably appreciate the show's in-jokes and self-deprecating look at show biz. Yet director Chris DeCarlo rightly keeps the focus on the actors, who transform a clever script into a beautifully timed, spring-heeled little comedy.

Sroka, himself a sitcom veteran, plays a superb straight man to the delightfully sarcastic Bogazianos. Coleman suggests--often deliberately--Mary Tyler Moore in "The Dick Van Dyke Show" of the 1960s. And Stuart Pankin is devilishly hilarious in a role that puts Mrs. Doubtfire to shame.

* "Dying for Laughs," Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th St., Santa Monica. Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 6:30 and 9:30 p.m.; Sundays, 5:30 p.m. Ends Aug. 28. $19.50-$20.50. (310) 394-9779. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

'Weird Romance' Charms at First

The weirdest thing about "Weird Romance," an ambitious science-fiction musical at Theatre 1761 in Los Feliz, is that its two parts were ever joined in the first place.

"Beauty and the Beast" composer Alan Menken and librettists Alan Brennert and David Spencer have crafted a sly and charming computer-age fable as the first act. But the confused, plodding follow-up resembles nothing so much as a work in progress. The resulting pair of offbeat tuners really has little in common besides the same director, Steve Josephson, and an exuberant young cast.

The first story, "The Girl Who Was Plugged In," concerns a bag lady (Margo Upham) whose soul scientists have transferred to the body of a blond mannequin (Marguerite Macintyre) in order to create an instant celebrity. The book, based on James Tiptree Jr.'s story, tells this fairy tale with wit and sensitivity, vividly evoking a brave new world of outlaw corporate CEOs and humble silicone farmers. Menken's songs, while not stellar, fit the narrative well and are usually a pleasure.

But the spell is broken after intermission. In "Her Pilgrim Soul," Brennert penned an intriguing but strangely inert tale of a scientist (Christian Whelan) who falls in love with a laboratory-generated hologram of a woman (Macintyre) who died years before.

Too many of the scenes remain stuck in the lab, mired in scientific mumbo jumbo, and the music is never lively or interesting enough to provide any momentum. Even the performances begin to flag, too, as the actors run out of ways to make a five-minute idea interesting for an hour.

* "Weird Romance," Theatre 1761, 1761 N. Vermont, Los Feliz. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Ends July 30. $15. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

'Red River Rats' Studies Heroism

"Red River Rats," at the Burbage Theatre, ponders military heroism with all the subtlety of a Veterans Day parade.

Set at a reunion for eight former Vietnam fighter pilots, Paul Gillette's one-act devolves into a virtual court-martial melodrama, a pale successor to "The Caine Mutiny" and "A Few Good Men."

The title characters were once flying aces shot down over North Vietnam's Red River and held as POWs. Now, they are middle-aged burghers who punch one another's pot bellies and trade nicknames like "Woo Woo" and "Easy Ed." "They're not exactly 'Top Gun,' " says a skeptical prostitute (Judi Diamond) hired for their reunion.

But the bash is interrupted when Graziani (Jack Scalia), who was severely tortured as a POW, insists on inviting a fellow ex-pilot whom the others believe turned traitor during the war. What follows is a mildly involving, if far too preachy and morally simplistic, study of military courage.

Director John Pieplow has an unfortunate tendency to allow his actors, especially Scalia, full rein to indulge the script's most melodramatic excesses. This leads to some clenched-fist speechifying that undercuts any nuance Gillette may have intended.

Good thing overacting is not punishable by court-martial.

* "Red River Rats," Burbage Theatre, 2330 Sawtelle Blvd., West Los Angeles. Fridays-Saturdays, 9:15 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Sept. 4. Tickets: $15. Information: (310) 478-0897. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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