Mommie Dearest 

Jean Cocteau's family from hell

Wednesday, Jul 15 1998
In this century's first half, being a surrealist playwright - as was Jean Cocteau - was the aesthetic equivalent of being an anarchist. Which meant being on the losing side of history. "Life may be loopy," theater history tells its scribes, "but plays - the ones that last, anyway - are built on a sequential structure, not just a series of free associations or a parade of symbols. So keep your dripping clocks and your logic that oozes out into little puddles. Clean up your mess, and bundle it into some kind of package, however contrived."

It was in the mid-17th century that the likes of Moliere and, a little later, Marivaux tweaked the French notion of the "well-made play" into farce, the model of ordered absurdity. Like them, Cocteau worked mostly in Paris - but lurched away from their comparatively taut structure when he tried to shunt his opium-induced dream plays (e.g., Orpheus, Antigone, The Infernal Machine) and scenarios for surreal ballets (e.g., The Wedding on the Eiffel Tower) onto the public.

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Les Parents Terribles (or Indiscretions, as it's been known since Jeremy Sams translated it a few years back for the Royal National Theatre) is, then, something of a departure for Cocteau, an excursion into the kind of farcical shapes and domestic quagmires for which his Comedie-Francaise/Italienne predecessors are known. In Daniel O'Connor's rambunctious staging (of Sams' snappy translation) for Pacific Resident Theater, Cocteau emerges as a distant cousin to Christopher Durang. But where Durang is just a petulant kid still carping at the sadistic nuns in his Catholic school, Cocteau shows some heart alongside his wit - a much classier act.

Indiscretions (1938) takes on a domestic family so incestuous and otherwise fucked-up it could only have come from Greek tragedy. Cocteau then shoves it through the genteel three-act structure of "boulevard theater" (to which the characters cheerfully refer). Almost all of the characters have scandalous secrets, some of which are juicy enough to permit blackmail as a credible plot device. Sometimes, being privy to many of these secrets, we're thrust through the cotton stage curtain and into these intrigues: into the sordid, linen-draped bedroom of aging diva Yvonne (Marcia Firesten), or - after her cluttered boudoir has been removed for Act 2 - into the pristine, airy studio of Yvonne's young, beautiful rival, Madeline (Katy Selverstone). Here, thanks to Victoria Profitt's ingenious set, the eye is drawn to a few set pieces that, in the now sparse decor, become metaphors: a bathtub; a spiral staircase leading to a vaulted, soundproof chamber; the surrounding sky-blue wall on which are scribbled a couple of chalklike sketches of Paris, chunks of the city hanging in air - as in, yes, a dream.

The plot turns on the competition between the two women - as though between order and disorder - for the affections of Yvonne's foppish 22-year-old son, Michael (Michael E. Rodgers). After an enigmatic sequence of people showing up, slamming doors and leaving again, Act 1 gets rolling with Yvonne in an almost suicidal pique, her lips perpetually twisted, staggering around her bedroom, flinging her arms in despair and sporadically shrieking about how Michael never came home last night. He was probably with a woman, explains her cool-as-ice caretaker-sister, Leo (Kathleen Garrett, or was that the ghost of Joan Crawford?). When Michael finally shows up, mother and son engage in a few cuddly bounces on the mattress and an exchange of pet names that are way, way off the map. Meanwhile, Leo observes without judgment - albeit with complaint - that Yvonne's exaggerated affection for her son has turned her quietly raging husband, George (Matt Gottlieb), into a family outcast. (The romantic history between George and Leo is yet another story.)

"I thought you'd be happy," Michael exclaims to his now forlorn mum, after telling her of his plans to marry his newfound love, Madeline. "Happy?!" she spits back. "Is this how you repay me?" And she hasn't even met the girl. So much for rite of passage.

This all sets up a nightmarish meeting between Madeline and Michael's family from hell. When they show up at her door, Madeline and Michael don't yet realize that the sugar daddy whom Madeline is preparing to dump for Michael is actually Michael's father. That Madeline must keep this news a secret from Michael (in a blackmail contrived by Leo and George) becomes the emotional pinnacle of the play - as outlandishly funny as it is harrowing.

This is all clearly spun from Sophocles' Oedipus the King, and the beauty of O'Connor's staging lies not only with his inspired ensemble but with his skillful balance between hand-wringing, melodramatic farce and the soul of ancient Greek tragedy that's at the play's core. It also goes to show just how well-ordered a dream can be.

Although Pacific Resident Theater is somewhat a darling of the critics, I've found much of their past work to be overrated. Here, however, they've struck gold. If they can sustain the opening-night standard, to miss Indiscretions will be your loss.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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