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American Idols 

From Raymond Chandler to “Anywhere, U.S.A.”

Wednesday, Jan 18 2006
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Welcome to Los Angeles, where understudies played the entire weekend at Pacific Resident Theater in Raymond Chandler’s The Blue Dahlia — four of them on the Sunday matinee. (Their ensemble consists of 19 players.) The theater announced that due to an “emergency situation,” the leading man would play the role with script in hand. Turns out that “emergency” was actually the reshooting of a commercial.

Director Dan O’Connor adapted Raymond Chandler’s Oscar-nominated 1946 screenplay in a production that premiered at this venue in 1989. This is a remounting with a different cast — or casts — of a production that opened last year. The story is a murder mystery about the shooting death of a dress-shop owner (Martha Hackett) shortly after her hot-headed sailor husband, Johnny Morrison (Kelly Boulware, holding book), returns from the war to find her getting a bit too cozy with a local club owner (Matt McKenzie). There are red herrings and wrong turns, a Mafia clan and a hard-boiled detective (Bryant Kent), but the point is really a small mystery wrapped in a big bubble of atmosphere. The central character is Los Angeles, shrouded in cigarette smoke and Chandler’s noir wit — not so much the city as a myth of the city that paved the way for Dragnet,and is now part of an international, bygone mystique.

Johnny, disgusted after having left his wife (dead or alive we don’t yet know), hitches a ride with a mysterious blond (the hypnotic understudy, Valerie Dillman), who can’t decide if she’s going to Malibu or Laguna. She’ll toss a coin to decide which.

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“What happens when the coin slips under the davenport?” Johnny asks.

“I go to Long Beach,” she quips with a sliver of a smile.

During their romantic scene, Boulware — possessing a boyish, Jimmy Stewart charm — flipped through his script, clearly having lost his place. Dillman leaned in to help him before looking up to smile, knowingly, at the audience. The moment contained the kind of sly theatricality that made for a snug fit with O’Connor’s stylish, subtle separations of action and wordless comment.

Maura M. Knowles slides in and out of view on a rotating pedestal high above the action, to croon ironic ditties (such as “The Hand I Hold Belongs to Somebody Else”) during which somebody below lies in a pool of blood. But half of the atmosphere comes from Audrey Eisner’s glam, period costumes, the other half from the wonderful acting, even when it’s an understudy losing his place.

From the specificity of The Blue Dahlia’s L.A. setting, playwright-director Edward Ryan’s new play, American Idle,takes us to “Anywhere, U.S.A.” I’m still trying to imagine where that might be, especially after moderating a discussion last week among theater critics from around the country as part of the annual USC/NEA Arts Journalism Institute. In responding to playwright Robert Schenkkan’s fury at the Bush administration in Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates at the Taper, a writer from Ohio wrote a simple reference to “the arrogance of power in the current presidential administration,”admitting that such a phrase would never get printed in his hometown newspaper. An editor from South Carolina said that if such a phrase crossed her desk, she too would not allow it into her newspaper, insisting that such a personal political opinion has no place in a theater review. I argued that in L.A., such a view of current White House hubris isn’t an opinion, it’s a given — a point echoed by a writer from the San Francisco Bay area. “Not in Kentucky,” gently countered a writer from Danville. Which leads back to the question of where, precisely, “Anywhere, U.S.A.” could be, especially in a politically charged play like American Idle.

Its setting is the home of a nuclear, Caucasian family that assembles frequently to pray, and is headed, with a nod to Albee, by George and Martha (Thomas E. Evans and Susan Peahl). The clan is rounded out by son Jimmy (Allan Dodge Groves), an ROTC inductee en route to Iraq, and 16-year-old daughter Violet (Leslie Murphy), who’s plotting to elope with her U.C. Berkeley–bound, African-American school friend (Rashad El Amin). We know who they are by their T-shirts. Jimmy’s reads “Kill ’Em All” while Violet’s espouses a comparatively mild “Say No to Wal-Mart.”

Amiable, platitude-spouting George is a union rep at his company — a hotel chain that’s just been merged. For agreeing to concessions, including layoffs of fellow union members, George is awarded a company car. For dealing with the devil, a company manager named Mr. Mr. (Jaimie Roedel), George will pay. And the play is really the story of George’s financial and emotional collapse, from being so spineless and blind in a world, as in Death of a Salesman, that’s programmed to screw you to the wall. Meanwhile, Jimmy can’t get dad’s Trans Am to start (as in Trans American, “an American classic” we’re told repeatedly). Like America, the car is just flooded, George says. No, Jimmy argues, it’s falling apart.

Finally, in another defining metaphor, there’s Uncle Willy (Rich Perez), a cross-dresser with no place else to live, hoping to make his fortune as pop star Ashley Hilton in a star turn on American Idol. For this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, he undergoes a sex-change operation — castrating himself for a shot at fame and fortune, while the world around him collapses.

There are nuances: Brother and sis, though at each other’s throats, clearly care for each other, and impetuous Violet has an awakening about her boyfriend’s politics.

Evans plays George as a big, befuddled lug of a guy. Murphy’s Violet seethes with furious indignation, against which Peahl’s fastidious Martha throws her hands up in despair. Perez’s Uncle Willy has a dance number, where he exhibits more charisma than in his speaking scenes. There’s also a messenger, a neighbor named Bruno (Todd Duffey) who keeps bursting in with news, like the chorus in a Greek tragedy.

American Idle is a play that’s furious at the direction the country is sliding, and that’s to its credit. It then spends that credit by failing to distinguish between satire and tragedy. Uncle Willy and the family scenes are mostly sketches about symptoms and symbols. Meanwhile, George’s universe is imploding for reasons he can’t fathom. He’s a latter-day Willy Loman trapped in a farce by Dario Fo. As the play starts to dig for the causes of his misery, Uncle Willy has another dance number, or Jimmy and Violet argue about Iraq in lines lifted from MoveOn.org. It’s too much for one play.

Through the fall of George, Ryan tries to unravel a mystery. At the same time, in his satire of America, he made up his mind about things before he started typing. If Ryan keeps working on it, his play’s future lies in the mystery, not the certainty.

RAYMOND CHANDLER’S THE BLUE DAHLIA | Adapted by DAN O’CONNOR from the screenplay by RAYMOND CHANDLER | Presented by PACIFIC RESIDENT THEATER, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice | Through Feb. 5 | (310) 822-8392

AMERICAN IDLE | Written and directed by EDWARD RYAN | At THE COMPLEX, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through Feb. 11 | (310) 228-6237

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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