'Abingdon Square' has dreamlike structure

On the surface, "Abingdon Square" looks a lot like Edith Wharton territory: An orphaned teen girl in pre-WWII New York City marries a well-heeled man twice her age who provides for all her needs except the sexual and emotional ones. But while she may have recognized the milieu, the acerbic Wharton wouldn't likely have appreciated the moral and dramaturgic contortions of Maria Irene Fornes' weirdly formal, meditative 1987 play, now in a stellar if staid L.A. premiere under director Martha Demson.

Fornes' economical text, which is rife with short scenes between blackouts, has her characters postulate directly what's on their minds -- indeed, many scenes are effectively monologues -- but her storytelling structure is less straightforward, even dreamlike.

We don't, for instance, find out much about the tender courtship of Juster (hollow-eyed, affecting Weston Blakesley) and Marion (pointedly blank Heather Fox) until late in the second act, well after the May-December romance has gone south. And Fornes doesn't exactly spell out how Marion's self-described "drowning in vagueness," which has her sublimating her ill-defined longings by ecstatically declaiming Dante in her underwear, leads to her subsequent extreme measures, including an infidelity or two.

This teasing indirection is no doubt preferable to a more ham-fisted approach, particularly since Fornes still manages a bracingly dramatic climax between Juster, Marion and Juster's sweet-natured son, Michael (a convincing James Brandon), as well as a surprising, Pieta-like denouement. On the other hand, the play's narrative and logical switchbacks are often more baffling than evocative.

Demson's direction is appropriately calm and circumspect, and she creates some marvelously ambiguous, haunting stage pictures with Maureen Weiss and Josh Worth's set and Dan Reed's lights. Indeed, if "Abingdon Square" feels like something more than the sum of parts that don't quite add up, it's largely to the credit of Demson and her committed cast, particularly Fox and Blakesley, whose striking mismatch proves to be as strangely moving as it is disorienting.

-- Rob Kendt

"Abingdon Square," Open Fist Theatre Company, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 14. $18. (323) 882-6912. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

*

'Grace & Glorie' offers life lessons

"Why couldn't you let me die in my ignorance?" wails a dirt-poor, cancer-ridden mountain woman at the realization that her narrow, inflexible beliefs might have needlessly enslaved her to a life of hardship and sacrifice.

Riveting moments of self-awareness like this yank Tom Ziegler's "Grace & Glorie" out of the more familiar and predictable elements in a story of precarious friendship between two women from very different backgrounds who teach one another valuable life lessons. After an off-Broadway run, Ziegler's play was filmed in 1998 with Diane Lane and Gena Rowlands. While Judy Welden's staging for NoHo's Eclectic Company Theatre doesn't sport that kind of pedigree, the revival finds its way -- after a shaky start -- to some genuinely moving performances.

At heart the play is a variation on the "country mouse versus city mouse" motif (with terminal illness thrown in to raise the dramatic stakes).

Elderly but still-feisty Grace (Nan Tepper), who's spent her entire life within 50 miles of her remote farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, squares off against the well-intentioned but naive overtures from volunteer hospice worker Gloria (D.J. Harner), a transplanted New Yorker bent on redeeming a past mistake.

All the expected conflicts surface (youth versus maturity, education versus horse sense, sophistication versus simple living) -- sometimes more times than really necessary. Some faltering delivery, particularly in the initial scenes, calls out for more performance polishing.

Production values are definitely from the Blue Ridge side of the budget spectrum, and occasionally distracting, as in the problematic sound montages and easily fixable prop lapses (lose the white eggs, please!)

But where the show takes flight is in the surprisingly touching exchanges where these two opposites discover the terrors -- and dreams -- they have in common. By the end, both actors have impressively shaped formula into unique, flesh-and-blood characters with whom time is well spent.

-- Philip Brandes

"Grace & Glorie," Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m., through Feb. 1; returns Sundays, Feb. 15 and 22 at 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Feb. 22. $15. (818) 508-3003. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

*

Troupe shines as Gogol's 'Madman'

Mad, bad and dangerous only to himself, the protagonist of Nikolai Gogol's "Diary of a Madman" is both instantly recognizable and disturbingly alien. A civil servant apparently driven crazy by a toxic mix of drudgery, solitude and class envy, he raves in an alternately comic and nihilistic stream of consciousness about his workplace, his landlady, his random lusts and ambitions. He starts out fairly rational, then cycles through understandable bitterness to the outright insanity of believing he is in fact Ferdinand the Eighth, King of Spain.

Almost buried in this seemingly arbitrary rant is a finely honed and witty piece of writing -- an aria of matter-of-fact absurdity that predates the modernist experimentalists who added an "ism" to "absurd" by roughly a century (Gogol wrote it in 1829 and had it published it five years later).

In director Don Eitner's stage adaptation, in circulation since the mid-1960s and now in a new Odyssey Theatre revival, our antihero (played with admirable, well-worn conviction by Tom Troupe) tromps about in his one-room flat in a series of sharp, elliptical scenes that descend pretty quickly from amusing kvetching to outright lunacy. Troupe is dashingly loopy yet never pandering, in a fourth-wall-breaking performance that easily justifies his strong rep as a seasoned, ready-for-anything man of the theater.

It must be said, though, that Dale Barnhart's music and sound design is disconcertingly subpar. Danny Truxaw's set is convincingly lived-in and has some diverting tricks up its sleeve. But the main reason to read this "Diary" is to observe Troupe etch a case study of an obsessive-compulsive imagination gone seriously astray. A mere actor's showcase? Perhaps. But an actor of Troupe's caliber puts the "show" in showcase.

-- R.K.

"The Diary of a Madman," the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays 7 p.m. (Sundays, Feb. 1 and 5 and March 7, 3 p.m. No performance today.) Ends March 7. $20.50 to 22.50. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.

*

Gilgamesh revisit features Cobain

Eva Anderson's "The Epic of Gil" at the McCadden Place Theatre has an evocative concept, but its promise seeps away into dead ends and anticlimax.

As we are informed in the press notes, this is a modernized take on the ancient Sumerian myth of Gilgamesh, a story most famous for its pre-biblical account of a great flood. Actual parallels to the source material are scanty, but that wouldn't matter if the entire enterprise weren't so generally sodden. From the outset, Anderson and director Adrian A. Cruz leave us adrift in a sea of unspecific angst.

The setting is Aberdeen, the tiny logging community in Washington State where rock star Kurt Cobain was raised. To give you an idea of the tone, Cobain (Ben Messmer), a doomed stoner who speaks to us from beyond the grave, is the cheeriest presence in the show. Patrick J. Adams plays the youthful Gil, a high school dropout who, despite no other outward signs of delusion, thinks that Cobain is his father, and chats with him on a regular basis. Gil's fast-food worker mom (Colleen Kane) is a simple-minded innocent with a steel plate in her head and a mysterious past. Gil's girlfriend Tish (Natalie Urquart) is being sexually abused by her wealthy mill owner father (Brian McGovern) -- an 11th-hour "revelation" that is painfully predictable.

When Gil encounters the feral, homeless Ed (Dylan Kenin), they clash, then bond, then collude in inevitable disaster. All the depression, malaise and gloom are punctuated by a very few laughs, most of which we suspect are not intentional. Brandon Keropian Olmos' thrumming sound design and Nick Potter's "live sound mix" mislead us into thinking that something genuinely suspenseful may yet occur. It's a vain hope.

Given the right treatment, even slackers can be taut -- a fact that has apparently eluded all involved.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

"The Epic of Gil," The McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Jan. 31. $12. (877) 298-0124. Running time: 2 hours.

*

A pared-down 'Vinegar Tree'

First produced in 1930, Paul Osborn's fluffy romance "The Vinegar Tree" receives a hit-and-miss revival from the Action/Reaction Theater -- the company's first outing at its new Glendale space.

The facility is still being modified to meet the needs of a professional theater, and director Michael Holmes' pared-down production reflects the limitations of the physical plant. However, beyond that obvious deficit, the production is itself rough-hewn and under-rehearsed. Casting missteps are a particular problem. A young juvenile lead seems more charmless than charismatic, a much-married femme fatale is not quite fatale enough, and an embittered curmudgeon seems merely peevish.

The action takes place at a posh but isolated New York estate in 1929, and judging from the carefree interactions of these obviously affluent characters, the stock market crash hasn't happened yet. Lovers' quarrels, clandestine affairs and brittle dialogue are the order of this summer evening, but as far as drawing room comedies go, the play seems a Noel Coward also-ran.

"The Vinegar Tree" predates Osborn's "Morning's at Seven," a well-crafted comedy that was recently and successfully revived on Broadway and in Los Angeles. Compared to that play, "Vinegar" seems disappointingly slight.

However, a few performances rise above the ephemera. Kelly Franett is stiff-necked but believable as a successful artist in the throes of a romantic crisis. Although she sometimes seems hesitant in her line delivery, Kathy Pearson is formidably fluttery as a batty matron bent on a romantic misadventure. And Lindsey Scott is a thoroughly prepossessing young ingenue with an aquiline profile and a keen sense of timing.

-- F.K.F.

"The Vinegar Tree," Action/Reaction Theater Company, 1728 Canada Blvd., Glendale. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. No performance on Jan. 31. Ends Feb. 1. $15. (818) 786-1045. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

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