On Theater: Savagery onstage in Westminster

Once upon a time, in the 1930s and '40s, Broadway thrived on large-cast comedies packed with eccentric characters, some of which won Pulitzer prizes ("You Can't Take It With You" in 1937, "Harvey" in 1945).

A decade later, John Patrick took his shot at the genre with "The Curious Savage," which didn't win the Pulitzer (that came two years later with "The Teahouse of the August Moon"), but it, along with "The Hasty Heart," proved among his more popular offerings for community theater companies.

It's been absent from local stages for quite a while, but the Westminster Community Theater is reviving it as part of the group's 50th anniversary season in a warm, wacky production directed by the one-man backstage show called Greg Z. Newcomb (he also designed the show's sound, lighting, props and set, as well as handling programs and photography).

"Savage" is set in an upscale convalescent hospital for affluent but mildly disturbed people, to which its heroine, Ethel Savage, is committed by her three grown, avaricious stepchildren. They are the play's real "savages," with a lower-case S.

When it's discovered that she's cleaned out the family's bank accounts after the death of her husband, the threesome descend on the funny farm with blood in their eyes and malice in their hearts. But the ball, and the cash, are in Ethel's court and she serves up a doozy of a wild-goose chase.

Balancing the hateful heirs are Ethel's companions at the home, a diverse bunch of loonies who become addled allies, along with the kindly doctor and manager of the sanitarium. It's a tricky operation filling the small Westminster stage with all 11 actors, but somehow Newcomb manages the process successfully.

In the central role of Mrs. Savage, Mary-Pat Gonzalez beautifully illuminates her crazy-like-a-fox character, easing the stress on her fellow inmates along the way. She takes special satisfaction in frustrating the stepkids, tripping them up with their own greediness.

Of these characters, Jeff June impresses most prominently as the self-absorbed senator (did he have to be called "Titus"?) seething over the lost millions. Natalie Beisner also shines as the sultry, chirpy spoiled princess, while Jim Perham takes a more conservative approach as the often-overruled judge.

It's the patients who really steal the spotlight, however, and the one with the least lines garners the most laughs. That would be Kip Hogan as a nearly mute artist who spews out lengthy lists of her dislikes, then retreats to her shell and swipes many scenes merely by her facial reactions.

Tara Golson excels as a hyperactive young lady with questionable fashion sense. Bill Paxson is fine as a statistician who plays the violin (badly) for anyone who'll listen, as is Eduardo Mora as a World War II pilot who survived a crash minus a few brain cells and plays the piano (wonderfully) only when no one's around. Anya Lee tugs at the heartstrings as a young woman who's replaced her lost child with a rag doll.

There's no Nurse Ratched in this cuckoo's nest — just the opposite in Teresa Greening as the sweet, caring facility manager and Michael Corcoran as the patient, understanding doctor.

The story itself may be somewhat long in the tooth, both chronologically and theatrically, but the show remains quite enjoyable at the Westminster Community Theater.

TOM TITUS reviews local theater for the Independent.

If You Go

What: "The Curious Savage"

Where: Westminster Community Theater, 7272 Maple St., Westminster

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 29

Cost: $10 to $17

Information: (714) 527-5546 or http://www.wctstage.org

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