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THEATER REVIEW : Few Signs of Life in ‘Martin’s Place’ : Despite dramatic flashes, the saloon play is mired in static circumstances.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; <i> Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times. </i>

There’s a stasis that hovers like a shroud and slowly chokes the life out of the saloon play “Martin’s Place” at the American Renegade Theatre.

Adapting scenes and characters observed as a youth in a small town in south Michigan, playwright Martin Perrini dramatizes that often reliable genre, middle-aged angst in a bar.

We open on a forlorn loser named Charlie Navarre (Elkanah J. Burns) drinking a couple of beers on his 50th birthday in a neighborhood bar called Martin’s Place. A parade of hangers-on materializes, one by one through swinging doors.

We come to realize the play’s anti-hero, lachrymose Charlie, is emotionally bankrupt--pondering where his life has gone--and ultimately suicidal. At one point the action revs up when he accidentally kills a character with the swing of a beer bottle, but the death scene looks hopelessly hokey.

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Worse, the victim is plopped face down in the rear booth of the saloon for the last 45 minutes of the play, which must be an actor’s worst nightmare, unless he can take a nap.

More crucially, the challenge for actor Burns and especially director David Cox is to insinuate throbbing life into stagnant circumstances that have little purpose.

Instead the play is airless and interminable and seems to move, if at all, sideways instead of forward. The staging lacks edge and crispness on that otherwise great barroom of a woody interior set. (The textured set design is by Cox and Clancy Halsey.)

The playwright and the director clearly want to mirror psychological depth, the past, loss and touches of poetry, but Burns’ Charlie is only colorless and morose.

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For all of that, this play might still look promising on paper. Years ago the playwright’s acting teacher, Lee Strasberg, of all people, encouraged Perrini to develop the characters, and the play later won a national playwriting competition.

Perrini’s writing is not without its dramatic flashes, if only there were more of them. The whole first act is dead on its feet, as if everybody is striving hard for the reality of a neighborhood saloon instead of something larger than life.

As for the other townspeople who drift in and out, most fail to advance the theme or focus the action, materializing like stock figures in a play you’ve seen before. Perrini unwisely wants it all, comedy and misery, not to mention tragedy.

Then there’s Martin (the tiresomely unfunny Paul Vent) as the entitled bar owner and affable religious zealot who makes you want to scream. Worse, he’s constantly running to the john with diarrhea. (We even see scrawny Vent naked on the toilet in the production’s wretchedly single worst scene).

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Other resident drifters include a callow troublemaker (Len Plummer, the show’s best actor), a banal, heavyset prostitute (Gail Bearden), her loudmouthed trick (Mike Reynolds), a sweet, mentally impaired youth who only makes squeaking sounds (impressive Harlan Glenn), and a gay sport of an arm wrestler (infectiously spirited Laird Scott) who is the most harmonious and original of the rumpled bunch.

These home-grown characters, some shaped by dreary lives in Detroit auto plants, seldom--except for Scott’s engaging gay guy--take dramatic flight, even though they have twice as much to say as taciturn Charlie.

As you might sense, there’s a play buried here somewhere if the playwright wants to find it and start over again.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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WHERE AND WHEN:

What: “Martin’s Place.”

Location: American Renegade Theatre, 11305 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.

Hours: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday. Ends Feb. 19.

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Price: $12 and $15.

Call: (818) 763-4430.


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