THEATER REVIEW : 'Nellies' Shows Promise in L.A. Debut

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In "A Fistful of Nellies" at Highways, the Nellie Olesons bring their distinctive brand of humor to L.A. for the first time.

Name sound familiar? Well, Nellie Oleson was the snippy little blond who plagued Laura in "Little House on the Prairie." It's an offbeat name for this gay-oriented, New York-based sketch comedy group. In fact, offbeat is what the Nellies Olesons do best.

Some of the sketches go beyond the offbeat to the weird--"Saturday Night Live" with a dada slant. Two closeted homosexuals, dining with their wives, spot each other across a crowded room and perform a torrid pas de deux while the women chatter on, oblivious. A boozy matron does a live cable talk show from her living room sofa, until her exasperated lesbian daughter points out that the program exists only in her imagination. A spectacularly twisted family redefines "dysfunctionalism" in an off-the-wall John Waters parody.

The Olesons include founding members Nora Burns and Terrence Michael, and relatively recent additions Peg Healey and Tony Markham. All are attractive, versatile, physically deft performers, puckish gender-benders who really know how to put across their iconoclastic characters.

The problem is not in the wit, but in the writing. Promising concepts tend to fizzle in the execution. Exercisers in a "12-step step class," who work their abs by reaching for their higher power, elicit chuckles instead of what could have been guffaws. A "Mommie Dearest" game show, hosted by a Joan Crawford clone, starts promisingly, then overstays its welcome by a few too many arcane camp references.

Burns is an unmitigated hoot as a signer at a lesbian convention, whose graphic hand gestures leave no doubt about what she is saying. Burns also scores as Menorah, the "Jewish Madonna." Healey brings down the house with her wide-eyed Barbie impersonation, proving that those stiff arms and agonizingly arched insteps are a liability, even when you live in a Malibu Dream House. In a number of precision movement routines, Michael and Markham show off their fine dance skills, and Michael takes prissiness to new heights in his solo sketch about a fussy roommate.

A running Calvin Klein perfume gag hilariously skewers that meretricious ad campaign, and makes an important sociological statement about responsibility in advertising. It's one of the most sustained efforts in an uneven evening, which contains lots of laughs, but a few too many missed opportunities.

* "A Fistful of Nellies," Highways, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8:30 p.m. Ends Jan. 20. $10. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes.

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