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Kids, Interrupted 

Growing up the hard way

Wednesday, Apr 3 2002
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By the early 1960s, American literature could easily be mistaken for an overcrowded mental asylum -- everywhere one turned, characters in novels and plays were flying over cuckoos’ nests or rose gardens, and those who were sane desperately sought a Catch-22 to be declared crazy. It wasn‘t hard to discern in many asylum settings metaphors for the culture of Cold War conformity, and to see in their patients an American youth chafing at authority. Most of us of a certain age remember David and Lisa as the emblematic 1962 “art film” by Frank Perry about two psychotic adolescents who meet in a home for disturbed children and who, against all odds, eventually connect with each other. James Reach later stage-adapted Eleanor Perry’s screenplay, which was based on psychiatrist Theodore Isaac Rubin‘s novel, and it is Reach’s adaptation that‘s being staged by Blue Sphere Alliance at the Lex Theater.

Set in a liberal-minded mental institution for rich kids, the story tracks new student David Clemens, a morbid control freak who views physical contacts with others as brushes with death and who dreams that the arms of a gigantic clock are beheading his supposed enemies. Against his deeper instincts he is attracted to a chaotic spirit named Lisa, who speaks only in childish rhymes and whose alter ego, “Muriel,” communicates only through writing. Anyone familiar with the asylum genre instantly recognizes David and Lisa’s signposts: kindly shrink, befuddled parents, the field trip and its collision with the outside world.

Yet there is nothing artificial or sentimental about the play, and director Anthony Barnao wisely plays it as it lays while sticking to the novel‘s period, 1958. Thanks to Barnao and costume designer Shon Leblanc, this bare-bones production knowingly re-creates the starchy Eisenhower years, whose arthritic conservatism criminalized intimacy and nonconformity.

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In a way, David is the son of an America obsessed both with making money and with the denial of death, a boy whose failure to fully adapt to these obsessions has turned him into a fascist robot; Lisa, though, is a schizophrenic rebel whose spontaneous gestures anticipate the anarchic ’60s. David and Lisa is not a formal declaration of war against the old order, but a quiet declaration of independence from the parents who tried to enforce its puritanical assumptions at home. Certainly, the stony effeminacy of Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin‘s smoldering beatnik allure helped make the film version a memorable artifact of its time.

Blue Sphere has mounted this production with two large casts, some of whose members are culled from USC’s L‘Chaim Theater Ensemble; I saw the FridaySunday lineup, which featured Gabriel Gutierrez as David and Crystal Robison as Lisa, a pair of young actors with a precocious command of their stage personas. Moira Price also turned in a brief but hilariously brittle performance as the smothering mother who enjoys a glass of scotch while browbeating husband Bill Rutoski. I only wish Karl Calhoun had imparted more empathy or just plain oomph into his role as Dr. Alan Swinford.

The play’s episodic structure poses a bigger problem, however; in order to convey the emotional evolution of its two principals, David and Lisa is composed of innumerable blackouts, which, despite a minimal amount of furniture shifting, end up draining much of this show‘s life. There must be another way of rendering Eleanor Perry’s script, but that, I suppose, would make it another play.

J for J, currently running at the Court Theater, represents another kind of generational struggle, although here it‘s more a case of the Me Decade taking on the Greatest Generation. Jenny Sullivan’s semiautobiographical play examines the relationship among her, her brother and their father, the late movie actor Barry Sullivan. Languidly graceful, darkly handsome, Sullivan was one of Hollywood‘s perennial second-stringers who appeared in films and TV shows that were good, bad and ugly, but who was always in demand. Few familial stories are more poignant than those of children whose lives never fully flower in the shadow of famous parents, but this show, in which the playwright appears as herself, doesn’t articulate enough of a dramatic dilemma to justify its 90-minute length.

Sullivan‘s story begins with a game at Dodger Stadium spent with her brother, John (John Ritter), after which Jenny sprinkles some of Dad’s ashes on the field. Later, his ghost (Jeff Kober) appears to her at home and reveals a journal he began keeping when John was born. In these pages, read aloud by Jenny, we find a laconic and socially conscious Barry trying to explain to his son the nature of WWII, American bigotry and the death of FDR. In J for J (the title is Barry‘s shorthand for “Journal for Johnny”), the evening’s momentum is partly prodded along by Jenny‘s own memories and partly by Barry’s entries.

What‘s clearly not in his diary is an admission from Barry that John is retarded. Jenny also complains to us that she is not mentioned all that much in its pages. “What about ME!” she fairly shouts. The father’s epistolary omission, along with his unwillingness to even name his son‘s condition, is the source of Jenny’s lifelong anger -- and an evening of gripes that soon become wearisome. By 21st-century standards, thrice-married Barry Sullivan was clearly not ideal dad material (although his journal suggests he took fathering more seriously than did many men of his time), but at least he looked great in a fedora and topcoat, and lived up to his era‘s strong-and-silent masculine ideal.

Male taciturnity is publicly scorned today, along with drinking and whoring -- contemporary moralists insist on showing FDR in a wheelchair while they snatch the cigarette from his mouth. Too often, Jenny’s narrative assumes this revisionist tone; her father may have lived a life of deep denial by refusing to utter the word retarded, but at least he didn‘t suck out a room’s air with lines like “I‘m pissed!,” “I hate my life!” and “Look at meeeeeee!” -- as does his daughter.

Not surprisingly, the playwright’s self-absorption also skews her narrative focus. A 1991 scene in which she drives her now-elderly father to Pomona, to bring the institutionalized John news of his mother‘s death, would seem ripe for some gruesomely funny moments, but it instead becomes an aria of complaint about Barry’s silence, his smoking and even the choice of highway he asks his daughter to take to Pomona.

Director Joseph Fuqua takes J for J about as far as he can, assembling a handsome-looking event on Hugh Landwehr‘s set, whose intentionally artificial proscenium arch is fashioned from bricks of journal entries, while upstage a pair of stylized quadrilaterals form windows. The actors are onstage for almost all of the play: Jenny and John are usually found center stage, while Barry mostly sits at stage left in the past, at a small desk and typewriter; a bottle of Jack Daniel’s 15 feet away provides his motivation to cross the stage now and then.

Ritter, in a truly difficult role, turns in a fine perform-ance as John, a part that could have easily degenerated into an exercise in tics and scene chewing. Instead, he applies just the right amount of movement when his character is disengaged, and expressive pathos when he is speaking, to create a fully realized presence out of a deeply retarded person.

Meanwhile, as a ghost, Kober may not have many decisions to make onstage, but his stoic elegance and sonorous voice give substance to a character whose carefree stroll through life is slightly hobbled by regret. The two male actors‘ psychological modulations are missing in Jenny’s portrayal, whose mostly upbeat delivery is almost hygienic in its enthusiasm. J for J benefits from some good performances and nice technical flourishes, but its mawkishly confessional tone is betrayed by the bane of this genre: home movies and photo slides. In the end, the audience member can be forgiven for exclaiming, “What about ME!”

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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