"Is this why I gave birth to you?" Yvonne asks of her son Michael, shrieking with indignation. Michael is also called Mickey, Mickey bear, my baby and, when he falls in love with a young woman, "you murderer!"
Yvonne and Michael are a tad too close.
In 1938, when Jean Cocteau's "Les Parents Terribles" opened in Paris, it was shut down by the Municipal Council. Perhaps it was those long kisses between mother and son in Yvonne's overstuffed bed.
One decade's scandal is sometimes another's comedy. In a bracingly funny new translation by Jeremy Sams for Britain's Royal National Theatre, the play found its way to Broadway in 1995 under the title "Indiscretions." Though the title may have been neutered, the play was not. Now "Indiscretions," which neither wholly condemns nor trivializes the damage of familial perversions, is having its Los Angeles premiere in an estimable production at Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice.
The plot may seem overladen with melodrama or sickness but, in fact, it is beautifully constructed for farce: The son is uncomprehendingly in love with his invalid mother, who lives only for him. An aunt harbors lifelong designs on the father, who is having an affair with the son's fiancee.
The play has so much stuff in it that it can be seen as a serpentine soap opera, an outrageous boulevard farce, a primal tragedy and a love story. Working with a deeply committed ensemble, director Daniel O'Connor touches on each one of these forms at various times, while keeping the play centered on farce, which is exactly right.
Set designer Victoria Profitt establishes the claustrophobic trap that is Yvonne's bedroom. Fabric covers everything--walls and furniture--and on the floor Oriental rugs overlap other rugs. In Marcia Firesten's bravely blowzy portrayal, Yvonne wears makeup not just in the usual places but all over her face. She never walks when she can stumble.
Yvonne is looked after, sort of, by her sister and polar opposite, Leo, played by Kathleen Garrett as a frighteningly competent woman in the Joan Crawford-Rosalind Russell mode. Where Yvonne's hair looks like the nest of several messy birds, Leo sports tight curls, each one a perfect circle. If they could meet in the middle, the two sisters might form one reasonable person.
Matt Gottlieb is solid as the father George, part wimp, part tyrant. As the too-adored son, Michael E. Rodgers is excellent; he is the jittery embodiment of a person terrified that he's going to find out what he already knows. When he falls in love with Madeleine, the delicate mechanism whereby the family pretends to be normal completely caves in.
On Broadway, this fact was dramatized by a spectacular act of hydraulics, whereby the entire set fell apart into rubble at the play's end. Pacific Resident Theatre proves that the play is every bit as shattering and funny when staged the old-fashioned way, on an intact floor.
In two instances, the cast swerves toward the margins. Garrett plays Aunt Leo as if she were Mrs. Danvers with a sense of humor, and at times she strays dangerously close to camp. But she is very entertaining. On the other end of the spectrum, Katy Selverstone goes for an anguished naturalism when she has to fight for the man she loves. These performances tug at the play in opposite directions. But the play contains them.
"Indiscretions" is an improbably funny look at the functionality of dysfunction. Michael falls for Madeleine, and her clean-lined apartment indicates to us that he has escaped the dense forest of his mother's neediness. But almost immediately, Madeleine is zipping his pants and picking the lint off of his collar, and it's clear that inter-dependency comes in many colors. Cocteau shows that his story might be tragic but it's also sweet and it's also human.
* "Indiscretions," Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice, Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends July 26. $20. (213) 660-8587. Running time: 3 hours.