With Wit and Winks, a Revisited Sitcom Holds 'Phacts of Life'


A level of garage theater so unfettered as to suggest divine intervention distinguishes "The Phacts of Life," playing Thursdays at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's Renberg Theatre to screamingly funny effect.

Under Christian McLaughlin and Tom Booker's shrewd direction, the bare-bones sendup has a shark-like drive beneath the adolescent concept: three episodes of the 1980s NBC sitcom "The Facts of Life," presented in their entirety.

From the opening tableau accompanying the theme song, everyone involved painstakingly replicates the Teflon-coated cadences of the young ladies of Eastland School, the pride of Peekskill, N.Y.

Here is spoiled heiress Blair (Sam Pancake), diametrically pitted against streetwise Jo (Steve Sobel). Their younger coevals, impressionable Natalie (Julie Brown) and excitable Tootie (Daniele Gaither), function as buffers for these combustible forces. Overseeing them and scattered guest stars is doting housemother Mrs. Garrett (Madeline Long).

"Phacts" alternates two sets of message-laden episodes weekly; the reviewed performance featured "Best Sister," a two-part offering originally airing in 1983, and "Cousin Geri Returns" from 1981.

"Sister" finds Blair's semi-sibling Meg (Kate Flannery) revealing she has entered a convent, with Jo's decision to become a bride of Christ resulting in more than one Danny Thomas-style water-spitting take.

"Cousin Geri" concerns another Blair relative, the "handicapable" stand-up comic (Terrence Michael), whose flirtation with French teacher Mr. Palmer (Jason Ginsberg) elicits typical Eastland School misunderstandings.

The formulaic scripts have ample risibility factor, but it's the winking self-commentary supplied by the cast that elevates this to camp Valhalla.

Long's perfect mimicry of Charlotte Rae's plum-pudding tones grows more unintelligible with each entrance and/or snort from her flask. Pancake has Lisa Welchel's twangy Blair-isms down cold, exploring infinite hilarious variations, especially the lesbian undercurrent with Sobel's fearlessly hirsute salute to Nancy McKeon's tough girl.

Gaither runs her spot-on Kim Fields portrait through the deadpan wringer, and Brown makes mincemeat of Mindy Cohn's squinting mien, with both actors supreme at the "Sister" crisis involving Jo's artwork.

The second program promises Mink Stole and John Pardee in "Different Drummer" (Blair and mentally challenged admirer); "Runaway" (in which Tootie does just that); and a Cousin Geri encore.

Though anarchistic and conceivably incendiary to those sweet souls who actually revere the television series, the decibel levels of audience enjoyment indicate that some cagey investor stands to make a bundle by steering this demented crew into "Real Live Brady Bunch" territory.


"The Phacts of Life," Renberg Theatre, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, the Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. Thursdays, 9 p.m. Ends Sept. 26. $15. (323) 850-7300. Mature audiences. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday September 15, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 307 words Type of Material: Correction Actress' name--Lisa Whelchel's last name was misspelled in a review of "The Phacts of Life" in Thursday's Calendar Weekend.
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