THEATER REVIEW : 'Birdsend' Tries to Soar, but Remains Earthbound

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The hero of Keith Huff's "Birdsend" believes he can fly. And why not? A talking pigeon tells him so. But gravity is a funny thing. Sometimes what we hope will be aerodynamic isn't, as many playgoers can attest.

Elegantly staged at the Gascon Theatre Center in Culver City, "Birdsend" is one of those sparse, ethereal, literary plays that have pure theater written all over them. Unfortunately, this particular specimen, lacking much momentum or definition, remains as earthbound as its childlike protagonist.

Bird (Enrico Colantoni) is a down-at-the-heel schizophrenic who forever dreams of a better life. When we first meet him, he has lent $500 and a couch in his dingy Chicago apartment to Margie (Amy Scholl), an ex-girlfriend pregnant with another man's child.

Margie thinks Bird is weird but nonetheless accepts his marriage proposal. The fellas at the packing plant where Bird works think he's weird too, and they aren't nearly as accommodating. They are especially annoyed after overhearing his banter with a pigeon named Ig (Jon Ross, providing the voice for an animatronic puppet bird), who Bird imagines is urging him to test his wings.

You know exactly where "Birdsend" is headed all along. When Bird begs his psychiatrist (Edwina Moore) to take him off anti-psychotic medication, his downfall--literally and figuratively--is more or less assured.

But the play suffers from a more serious technical problem. To breathe life into the tired avian symbolism, the writing must take us completely inside Bird's yearning, upside-down world (Elizabeth Egloff handled a similar dramatic metaphor much more effectively in "The Swan," now at Odyssey Theatre Ensemble). But as a character, he remains vexingly flat--a cipher with an idiot's grin.

Fourth of July Creek Productions has brought impressive talent to the project. Broadway veteran Walton Jones (author of "The 1940s Radio Hour") has directed with warmth and a light touch. Rick Ortenblad's handsome and functional set, backed by stacks of crates and pallets, elegantly uses desks and windowsills on casters as free-floating scenic elements.

Colantoni, best-known for his work on TV's "Hope and Gloria," has fine comic timing, though his performance seems oddly mannered. When working at the packing plant, for instance, he moves a crate, tallies it up with a piece of chalk and then turns around and hops on the balls of his feet, as if performing a ritualized little dance. The effect is interesting at first but soon becomes distracting. George Muschamp does fine as Bird's benevolent and patronizing boss, while Kenny McCabe and Lance LaShelle do the best they can as a pair of one-note heavies.

Colantoni will play the lead at weekend performances, with Jonathan Slavin filling in on Thursdays and Fridays.

* "Birdsend," Gascon Theatre Center, 8737 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Oct. 29. $15. (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

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