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THEATER REVIEW : Uninspired Satirical ‘Gift’ Fails to Defend Its Thesis

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Tannhauser’s Gift,” a CalRep production in Long Beach, has at least one key ingredient of satire: anger. If it also had focus and subtlety, it would really be something.

“The story you are about to see is true,” writes playwright Howard Burman in the program notes. “Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.”

Burman alone can vouch for the authenticity of his story. But there are few likely innocents in this satire of academia run amok.

The play (which, it should be noted, has no evident connection to Wagner’s opera “Tannhauser”) intends to ridicule the fashionable schools of thought on today’s college campuses: feminism, deconstruction, multiculturalism, etc.

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No doubt universities, with their increasingly radicalized academic factions, deserve a biting dramatic critique similar to Moliere’s attack on 17th-Century salon society in “The Learned Ladies.” And CalRep, a professional company based on the campus of Cal State Long Beach, would seem qualified to deliver it.

But while “Tannhauser’s Gift” may deserve credit for picking a worthwhile target and launching a passionate attack, the rest of this heavy-handed piece barely rates a passing grade.

The title character is a young student (Doina Roman-Osborn), the serene daughter of a rich businessman, who has for some unknown reason placed herself on the upper-story ledge of a campus administration building.

This sets off a frenzy among administrators and faculty members, who hope to exploit the girl for the sake of various academic or fund-raising causes before she presumably commits suicide. The lone voice of reason is Jordan (John Shepard), who resembles the annoyingly soulful literature teacher in the film “Dead Poets Society.”

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Obvious as it is, the premise should play better than it does. These are not characters so much as mouthpieces, and their dialogue sounds cribbed, with little exaggeration, from real-life bull sessions in the faculty lounge.

One especially interminable volley finds Jordan battling a rabid feminist (Deanna Boyd) and her patently ridiculous argument--or “argufemt,” as she prefers to call it.

Apparently at a loss for how to end all this, Burman tacks on a bizarre conclusion that seems to come from nowhere. For some reason, the finale resembles a pep rally.

The high-rise set--depicting three stories in a pair of adjacent campus buildings--is impressive but unfortunately turns the actors in director Ronald Allan-Lindblom’s production into talking heads. By midway, everyone is reduced to shouting slogans from his or her window.

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Perhaps it’s an intentional metaphor for today’s academic environment.

* “Tannhauser’s Gift,” Studio Theatre, California State Long Beach, 7th Street and W . Campus Drive, Long Beach. Wednesdays, 6 p.m., Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Nov. 18. $15. (310) 985-7000. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.


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