THEATER REVIEW : Dated 'Owl and Pussycat' Is at Sea

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Theatre District, a recent addition to the county's storefront troupes, goes in for old Broadway plays. Their latest, "The Owl and the Pussycat," is a case in point.

When Bill Manhoff's comedy about a pair of San Francisco apartment dwellers opened in 1964, it was considered an incipient sign of changing times. The two characters definitely did not fit the uptown mold.

One, a would-be writer who works in a bookstore, is a pseudo-intellectual mope. The other, a would-be model who turns tricks, is an illiterate prostitute working out of her living room. Both were regarded, on Broadway at least, as daringly downtown.

Keep in mind that the counterculture had yet to be invented, let alone mainstreamed. Beatniks still hung around North Beach and the hungry i. The Free Speech Movement was just getting started in Berkeley. And Vietnam was no more than a rumor.

You have to maintain that sort of perspective to appreciate why "The Owl and the Pussycat" seems so far away and long ago. But even if you do, it doesn't help explain why anyone would bother to revive it.

Manhoff's two-hander isn't seen much anymore--and for good reason. Its language has gone stale. (When is the last time you heard someone called a "pansy fink?") It strains for wittiness. ("I may be a prostitute, but I'm not promiscuous.") And its characters are sadly outdated caricatures.

To breathe a semblance of life into "The Owl and the Pussycat," you need a pair of charismatic actors with appealing idiosyncrasies. Anything less will sink like a stone. (Alan Alda and Diana Sands sold the original production. The subsequent movie was a dopey vehicle for George Segal and Barbra Streisand.)

At the Theatre District, Alexandra Hoover (Doris) and John Bowerman (Felix) try to project their personalities onto their roles with a dogged combination of hard work and goodwill. But inexperience and slight talent eclipse their effort. The result, on opening night, was a long, sluggish evening.

A less-than-luminous first act comes off best because the situation is being established: Doris barges in on Felix in the middle of the night, angrily looking for a place to stay. She has been evicted from her apartment because he has spied on her through his window and has complained to her landlord about her professional activities.

The second act bogs down interminably with six separate scenes--count 'em, six--each duller and more repetitive than the previous as an emotionally needy Doris and a coldly cerebral Felix take up living together. By the time the silly third act arrives, with more of the same, the play has seriously overstayed its welcome.

The detailed set looks like a painstaking labor of love. All the design elements seem right: bookshelves crammed with books, an apt living-room sofa and desk, cozy upstairs sleeping loft. The atmospheric kitchen window, painted on the wall, is a crowning touch--especially when lighted to create the effect of a moonlit night. The costumes, too, are well-considered.

But the production's elaborate trappings don't compensate for the emptiness of the play or the unseasoned performances. "The Owl and the Pussycat" is no hoot.

* "The Owl and the Pussycat," the Theatre District, 1599 Superior Ave., Costa Mesa. Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m. Ends Dec. 18. $12. (714) 548-7671. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

Alexandra Hoover: Doris W.

John Bowerman: F. Sherman

A Theatre District production of a play by Bill Manhoff. Directed by Mario Lescot. Producer and sound technician: Bonnie Vise. Set design: Two Blue Chairs Inc. Lighting technician and stage manager: Sharon Evans.

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