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Music Men

Photo by David Elzer

Out of Tune, Michael Loprete’s 80-minute play currently on view at the Groundlings, is an anomaly, to put it mildly — an unpretentious comedy in a town of feral showboating, a tale so quietly in touch with our drifting age that audiences cannot but wince with uneasy recognition. The story is simple enough: Three men in their mid-30s have been playing together in a cover band since college. This description says it all, for purgatory has few corners more shunned than those reserved for regurgitators of “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Margaritaville” and “Moonshadow.” Years ago, old tunes were called “standards” and could be heard honorably tinkling in piano bars from Marin to Aran; but the band is an all-together different proposition and its members are caked in a cultural slime redolent of TV dinners, coat-hanger aerials and living with one’s parents.

Our brown-shoed heroes, members of Vibe Tribe, are clueless to this truth, and nearly impervious to its consequences. As one of his dates points out, the group’s self-absorbed leader, Dan (Stirling Greg Gardner), sleeps in sweatpants on a futon. John (Loprete) dreams of being allowed, one night, to sing his own composition — a song about a warlock — while Kevin (Michael Naughton, alternating with Matt Winston) talks up his hypothetical screenplay, “a love story set against the Soviet collapse... kind of Gatsby meets glasnost.”

These aren’t the little people with the big dreams we’re used to seeing onstage but diminutive personalities with miniature ambitions. Dan, John and Kevin float through life feeding on the plasma of their own illusions, content with burning their personal music CDs and performing first Fridays at Sharkeez. Inevitably, the women in their lives bring them crashing to earth, and the show’s at its funniest when the guys are individually forced to leave their boys’ life to become failed men. These confrontations power the evening along, not so much as a tightly plotted narrative but as a series of deadly funny sketches.

Only John is married; when his wife, Caroline (Loretta Fox), asks him to follow through on a long-delayed chore of putting up a birdhouse, he indolently begs off with the excuse, “It’s always something. Towel racks, doorknobs... Why can’t we just leave stuff the way it is?” He soon finds out that thwarting Caroline’s wish to have a child requires a whole lot more cunning. Dan, who sees himself living in a world of sarcastic party patter, runs into an ex (Kristen Shaw) and quickly reveals his angrily plaintive view of women — a display soon repeated when he beds another man’s girlfriend (Megahn Perry). Kevin, seemingly the most rational of the trio, nevertheless hooks up with a sulky and racist topless dancer (Nicole Ghastin) who keeps him at arm’s length sexually.

Out of Tune may not show much in the way of storytelling chops, but Loprete’s command of the American idiom and his understanding of the land mines that men set for themselves make this sad comedy as perceptive as anything this side of playwright Justin Tanner. And, to his credit, Loprete’s female characters, while not onstage enough, are able to stand out vividly as individuals.

Caroline, in particular, smolders with a middle-aged Southern Californian’s dawning envy and despair when she talks of having a baby — not because it would keep their marriage together, but because it might allow her to salvage some shred of success: “Lately I see these women... women that I like.... And they’re writing their novel or running a good sitcom. And they have the perfect midcentury house with the perfect view.... And they live with whoever or maybe they’re alone, and kids aren’t a part of it. Which seems okay for them. And now I look at these women and it just makes me really, really sad.”

Director Phil LaMarr has assembled a fine cast and stages an airtight show on Joel Daavid’s spare set. (Shelly Morris’ lighting, however, is extremely unflattering and the uncredited sound design, which blasts soft rock during scene changes, is far too loud for the space.) If LaMarr sometimes encourages Out of Tune to become a cringefest, it makes the show’s quieter moments resonate all the more.

The late Ossie Davis wrote his play Purlie Victorious: A Comedy in Three Acts at a moment when the civil rights movement was just beginning its decisive phase and meeting violent resistance from Southern segregationists. The piece debuted in New York in 1961 and, in 1970, was turned into a Broadway musical simply called Purlie. Looking at the Pasadena Playhouse’s revival, it’s hard to see how Davis’ story about a black preacher scheming to win money for his church in rural Georgia could be taken as a serious commentary about race relations — or much else, for that matter.

The book, written by Davis, Philip Rose and Peter Udell, follows a defiantly proud minister named Purlie Victorious Judson (Jacques C. Smith) as he tries to channel some inheritance money to his church by persuading a young woman named Lutiebelle Gussie Mae Jenkins (Paulette Ivory) to impersonate his deceased cousin. The plan is to convince the local landowner, Cap’n Cotchipee (Lyle Kanouse), to hand over the dead cousin’s money to Lutiebelle, who will turn around and give it to Purlie. The Cap’n, suffice to say, is a bloated old racist, one who walks around his cotton plantation with a bullwhip tucked into his belt — a whip whose lash Purlie felt some 20 years ago.

One or two obstacles threaten the preacher’s efforts, but they are nothing compared to the severe problems the story itself poses. For one thing, the big inheritance that will let Purlie purchase the deed to his church is $500, a relatively paltry sum even in Kennedy dollars — in anyone’s dollars — yet Purlie and his late cousin’s mother, Aunt Missy (Loretta Devine), become so animated by its very mention that you’d think they were getting the take from The Great Train Robbery. Then there’s the matter of Lutiebelle’s selfless masquerade; recruited by Purlie from an Alabama choir, she asks for (and is offered) nothing in return for her services. It’s apparent she harbors romantic feelings toward the indifferent Purlie, but no matter how slight a musical premise, it still needs to offer more in the way of character motivation — and to explain why Lutiebelle doesn’t pocket the money herself, which would at least lend a plot twist to this uncompromisingly transparent narrative.

Even this production’s costumes, by Paul Tazewell, are a bit bewildering. The women’s simple but smart summer dresses seem appropriate to the early ’60s, but Purlie wears a Victorian frock coat, red vest and striped trousers. Meanwhile, the fedora’d Cap’n ambles around in the white-linen suit normally associated with post-WWII patriarchs named Big Daddy, even as the ensemble of field hands are attired in the kind of Depression-era threads that might be called Scottsboro Casual.

No matter, though, for these inconsistencies pale in comparison with the show’s sporadic interest in plot and an altogether circus-like environment that panders for laughs by bringing out the buffoon in nearly every character, making this a kind of Li’l Abner for black folks. James Leonard Joy’s set, with its sensuous flow of curving trees and undulating fields, along with its impressionist huddle of buildings, suggests regionalist canvases of the 1930s. But Purlie’s characters remain caricatures, floating above adult issues like balloons at a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.

If there is a silver lining to Purlie, it’s that Geld’s music reflects the relatively candid melodies of pop- and gospel/blues-flavored show tunes of the late 1960s and very early ’70s. The songs are free of the treacly and utterly insincere soft-rock ditties that have inflicted such shows as Wicked and Aida on an innocent public today. And director Sheldon Epps’ endeavor, produced in association with Chicago's Goodman Theater, is a showcase of technique, from the ensemble’s vocals to Kenneth Lee Roberson’s choreography; the orchestra, directed by Ronald (Rahn) Coleman, offers a powerhouse sound to the proceedings. You can see why Purlie won a pair of Tonys for its performances (Cleavon Little’s and Melba Moore’s) but for nothing else — even by 1970 it was an artifact that belonged, along with frock coats and bullwhips, in a museum of American curiosities.

OUT OF TUNE | By MICHAEL LOPRETE | Groundling Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood | Through August 9 | (323) 934-4747

PURLIE | Book by OSSIE DAVIS, PETER UDELL and PHILIP ROSE | Music by GARY GELD, lyrics by PETER UDELL | Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. | Through July 31 | (626) 356-7529