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Gutter-dämmerung

Photo by Buddy Hickerson

YOU HAVE TO LIKE A MUSICAL THAT BEGINS with the line "I'm not crazy!" The disclaimer comes from a narrator about to explain how his small California town came to be controlled by extraterrestrial life forms hatched from giant seedpods. This is, of course, the story behind The Body Snatchers, novelist Jack Finney's 1954 thriller that Don Siegel adapted onscreen into Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Siegel's landmark B film snugly fit Cold War neuroses onto what was basically a Darwinian vampire story — science-fiction movie audiences suddenly saw an America threatened not by grotesque monsters, but by people who looked like us — were us. Our worst enemy had become the community.

A new Body Snatchers, "loosely based" upon Finney's book and wisely played for laughs, has opened as a visiting production at the Odyssey Theater; it tosses out much of the film's content while goofily embracing some of the novel's minor details. (Throwing away, as it were, a coat for the buttons.) In the process, this story about the ultimate identity theft loses its possibilities as a political fable concerned with the dangers of conformity.

Ed Howard's book sets the proceedings in contemporary Mill Valley — the Marin County locale that was the inspiration for Finney's fictional Santa Mira. The town is suggested by set designers Jaret Sacrey and Adam Gascoine's cartoony silhouette of rolling hills, though a profile of the area's familiar Mount Tamalpais would have worked even better. The townsfolk, who move about a spare, multitiered stage, are equally caricatured and seem to spend most of their time talking about sex or drugs.

Our storyteller, Dr. Miles Bunnell (Bennell in the novel), is certainly obsessed with both, especially when high school sweetheart turned porn actress Becky Driscoll (DeLee Lively) returns home from Hollywood. The doctor (Eric Eichenberger) immediately orders up a prescription of cocktails and pills — an exaggerated spin on the book's Bennell, who begins Finney's story by pouring himself an office drink and later relies on a regimen of bennies and morphine to battle the pod people. In fact, Dr. Bunnell more resembles William Burroughs' drug-addled Dr. Benway than Finney's laconic humanist.

The musical is mostly taken up with Bunnell's horndogging while town members become mired in accusations of homosexuality and incest. Odd to say, this all sounds better than it plays out. For one thing, the cloning of the town's population inside the alien pods, from which they're reborn into unemotional, apathetic zombies, recedes so far into the background that an interplanetary invasion is almost forgotten. It's as though the characters are too busy living in the gutter to look at the stars. This might work if the script were sharper, but Howard's infantile dialogue is preoccupied with scatological references and Becky's porny sexuality. Not exactly the Lubitsch touch.

Aficionados of Finney's book and Siegel's film will be disappointed, to say the least. To be fair, Howard has every right to radically reconstruct the original characters for this spoof, for Finney's people invite caricature in a Rocky Horror sort of way. (The doctor's name, after all, is a near homonym for banal.) Howard's mistake is to make all of the story's principals so relentlessly one-note and always out there with their clownish personas that the evening gets very tiresome very fast. Call me 20th-century, but I would have preferred the doctor's lust and penchant for substance abuse to only occasionally crack his businesslike demeanor, which would have made his aberrant behavior all the more subversive. The same with the priapic patriarch (William Knight) and his Sapphic daughter, Wilma (Stacy Sibley). It is in suppressed gestures and words left unspoken that both horror and comedy reside. Yet all these characters become so annoying after only a few minutes that before long you want that fourth wall to be put back up — and fast.

Another problem is that, unlike Finney's readers and Siegel's audience in the 1950s, we're in on the gag — we know what's happening with the pods and their assimilation of the townspeople, so we have nothing to do but wait for the characters to figure it out. It's a long wait, considering that the show's songs (lyrics by Howard and composer Bob Lesoine) seem to belong to another musical entirely, without any need to service the story at hand. The mostly blues-flavored music is powered by J. Michael's energetic piano work, but even his crisp playing cannot save the simplistic and often lyrically repetitive songs.

The production doesn't get much help from Thomas W. Jones II's direction, which has actors mug and wildly gesticulate and, for some reason, acquire black-leather wardrobes over the course of the evening. And, even though sound designer Eric Bleuer has miked the stage, it's often difficult to hear some of the singers, who, by and large, have good strong voices. In the end, characters who walk around shouting about their kinks for two hours don't make for much of a fear factor.

HAYNES BROOKE'S PROGRESSIVE CHAIN BOWLing is an hour of quirky, intelligent fun, a play within a play that eventually turns inside out. But what else can you expect from an outfit called the San Fernando Valley Life Studies Institute, this one-act's purported sponsor? Here, three institute members portray a trio of characters in a story of love and ambition — while "understudying" for themselves. Richard Hurley (Brooke) is a bright guy with a problem: The educational media company he heads has lost some funding, forcing him to lay off Ellen St. James (Elizabeth Dement), whose clear, authoritative voice graces the company's classroom-instruction audiotapes.

Unbeknownst to Ellen, Richard has a long-simmering crush on her; unbeknownst to Richard, she has now taken up with an electronic-music composer named Doug Baker (Ken Palmer). Doug is also a would-be painter ("I don't show"), but his claim to fame is an instrument whose sounds are produced by the insects trapped inside its guts. Actually, though, the bugs are just for show, as the "Insectatron" works just fine without them in compositions with names like "Anguish of the Larvae (With Gnats)."

When Richard learns of Ellen's romance with Doug, he does what any man in his position would: goes bowling, smokes pot, drinks malt liquor and concocts a phony system of mathematical inquiry he dubs "unmath." In line with the story's Newtonian plot physics, Ellen reacts by trying to steal unmath for her own start-up company. Brooke's play is a study of passive aggressions and intellectual pretensions, a tender look at people's dependencies and modest dreams that never becomes overtly cute, despite the nerdy horn-rims and sensible-gray business attire the actors wear.

Smartly directed by John Sylvain, the show is bathed in a low-key, Nichols-and-May wit — analytical yet empathetic. Sylvain's actors take turns mounting small pedestals in the center of the Actors' Gang side theater or manning an upstage table loaded with amps that project music and sound effects, all delivered with crystalline sharpness thanks to Brooke's sound design.

Progressive chain bowling, Richard explains, is a form of ninepins in which one bowler may earn points from another player's strikes, or lose from another's gutters. Similarly, Brooke's characters, who are supposed to be playing other, "fictionalated" characters, are both rewarded and penalized by other people's mistakes and mitzvahs. It's a metaphor that serves well these three determined yet myopic characters who blunder through their small lives.

BODY SNATCHERS . . . THE MUSICAL | Music and lyrics by BOB LESOINE & ED HOWARD | Book by HOWARD | At the ODYSSEY THEATER, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. | Through February 22

PROGRESSIVE CHAIN BOWLING | By HAYNES BROOKE At ACTORS' GANG, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through March 29


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