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No runs, a few hits, no real errors: a sketchy ‘Ravine’

Times Staff Writer

From 1949 to 1959, several cultures clashed at Chavez Ravine, near downtown Los Angeles.

A quiet Mexican American neighborhood was taken by eminent domain to make way for a public housing project, promoted by postwar liberal idealists. Then political winds shifted, and the housing plan died. Instead, the land was used for Dodger Stadium.

The Chavez Ravine saga is a fascinating urban chronicle. But is it a play? “Chavez Ravine,” at the Mark Taper Forum, is a collection of comedy sketches in search of a play.

Culture Clash -- the trio (Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza) who created “Chavez Ravine” -- wanted to make the material as breezily ingratiating as possible. And they often succeed.

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But in the process of introducing the 51 characters who are listed in the program, the point of the production too often becomes the quick-change artistry of Culture Clash, not the complicated tale of Chavez Ravine. The show’s cartoonish surface never subsides long enough for an emotional center to emerge.

The narrative begins at the end -- in April 1981, when Fernando Valenzuela of the Dodgers pitched his celebrated opening-day shutout of the Houston Astros. Siguenza does an amusing Valenzuela impersonation, while the toupee-wearing Montoya chatters on as Vin Scully.

Culture Clash suggests that as a Mexican, Valenzuela might have felt some deep-rooted simpatico with the earlier Chicano inhabitants of Chavez Ravine on that storied day. Apparitions of these former residents approach him, between pitches, and begin telling him what life used to be like in the small communities of La Loma, Palo Verde and Bishop.

Going into a full-fledged flashback to 1946, the first extended scene with these neighborhood folk revolves around a party for the area’s non-Latino priest (Siguenza). Yet this character disappears for the rest of the play.

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Instead, after a scene with the proposed housing project’s architect, Richard Neutra (Siguenza), and the site manager for the Housing Authority Frank Wilkinson (Montoya), we return to the neighborhood under the guidance of a narrator, a poet named Manazar (Siguenza). It’s a little late to introduce a narrator. He explicitly compares himself to the role of the Stage Manager in “Our Town.” Yet the Stage Manager speaks the first words of “Our Town” -- and “Chavez Ravine” might seem more cohesive if Manazar had appeared in the first scene with Valenzuela.

The neighborhood scenes cohere somewhat around Henry Ruiz (Salinas) and Maria Ruiz (Eileen Galindo), a brother and sister with opposite views on the redevelopment controversy. Henry, a war veteran, welcomes the prospect of moving his family out of his cramped quarters in Chavez Ravine, but community activist Maria and her mother (Montoya) insist on preserving the neighborhood.

The possibility that this family’s story might provide a spine for the narrative doesn’t last long, however. Before the first act ends, most of the neighbors agree to leave, swayed by a distinguished local communist (Siguenza), who is another pivotal character who appears for only one brief scene.

The Henry and Maria conflict dissolves in the second act, which focuses on the arrival of the Dodgers. Although Maria remains, opposing the Dodgers as she had previously opposed the Housing Authority, Henry disappears until the last few moments of the play.

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Salinas is kept busy with his merciless caricature of L.A. Mayor Norris Poulson as a dim bulb who is easily turned on and off by the city’s real power players. The most sinister of these figures is the Watchman (Siguenza), who apparently is supposed to be Norman Chandler, the publisher of The Times during that era.

“Chavez Ravine” assumes a familiarity with Los Angeles names that will probably make this production impossible to export. To its credit, the script makes oblique references to the later controversy surrounding the dismantling of neighborhoods on Bunker Hill to make room for the theater in which “Chavez Ravine” is taking place.

The script’s funniest in-joke occurs during a sequence depicting the shattered feelings of Brooklynites upon hearing that their beloved Dodgers would move to L.A. Among them is “10-year-old Gordie Davidson” (Siguenza) who observes, “It’s really sad.... Maybe one day I’ll produce a play about it.” Of course, anyone who doesn’t realize that Gordon Davidson runs the Taper won’t get the joke. The second act has several other crowd-pleasing comedy stunts that don’t add anything to the point of the play, such as a simulation of the Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” routine and the descent of “Dodger Dog Girl” (Montoya) from overhead for a monologue.

A few of the many profanities and other choices of slang also sound gratuitous or anachronistic; would an elderly Spanish-speaking woman of that era casually use a raw English cuss word? Would Maria, in 1946, have told her priest that becoming a nun is “for squares”?

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The script spreads its sympathies among the evicted communities, the blacklisted urban planner Wilkinson and later the Dodgers, celebrating the team’s city-uniting qualities.

The Taper deserves praise for devoting some of its resources to rigorously local subject matter this season (also demonstrated in the better “Living Out”). But despite the manifest abilities of Culture Clash to play dozens of people in one evening, the jaunty musical accompaniment of the Rodarte Brothers and John Avila and the overall efficiency of Lisa Peterson’s staging, “Chavez Ravine” doesn’t achieve the intensity you expect from 2 1/2 hours in the theater. This “Ravine” isn’t very deep.

*

‘Chavez Ravine’

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Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, July 2, 2:30 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.

Ends: July 6 matinee

Price: $31-$45

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Contact: (213) 628-2772

Running Time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas, Herbert Siguenza, Eileen Galindo...Many roles

By Culture Clash. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Set by Rachel Hauck. Costumes by Christopher Acebo. Lighting by Anne Militello. Sound by Dan Moses Schreier. Music director-arranger John Avila. Music by Scott Rodarte, Randy Rodarte, Avila and Montoya. Production stage manager James T. McDermott

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