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Stage Reviews: Comedy, grim sleaze and charming reminiscence on NYC stage

Thursday, December 03, 1998

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

Second of four parts.

NEW YORK - If three plays could ever represent such a varied zoo of theater as New York presents, today's might serve. At one extreme is a commercial comedy, at the other, a grim slice of sleaze. And somewhere on a separate theatrical planet is a personal reminiscence, not a play but a special entertainment/education for the hardcore theater fan.

Alan Ayckbourn, "Communicating Doors"

When I saw this in London two years ago, I thought the prolificAyckbourn might have a Broadway hit. His many comedies have done well at regional and community theaters, but his subtlety and structural invention don't translate well commercially. "Communicating Doors," though, is a sci-fi-thriller-farce that just needed Stockard Channing and a top-notch production to crack the Broadway barrier.

In the event, it's gotten Patricia Hodges (a fine actress, but without Channing sizzle) and nearly-top-notch treatment at a major off-Broadway house. David McCallum is on hand for recognition value, though Mary-Louise Parker has left the cast, replaced by the capable Anne Bobby.

The result is an appealing entertainment, schlocky in places, which pays off with a surprisingly warm-hearted ending.

Surprise is the name of Ayckbourn's game. He's one of our very best theatrical gamesters, on a level with Tom Stoppard, but here without the demands on audience intelligence with which Stoppard sometimes alienates.

"Communicating Doors" is set in a London hotel in 2018. Poopay, a hapless young tart, has been hired to witness a deathbed confession. But when it turns out the deathbed may be hers, she hides in a closet, only to find herself back in 1998, meeting Ruella, the woman whom she has learned is to be murdered that very night.

It takes a humorous, disbelieving while for characters and audience to work this out. Then Ruella takes a trip back to 1978 to prevent a similar murder, and the time-travel complications swirl and multiply, lots of laughs and a few thrills mixing as the killer discovers that magical closet door.

The payoff is in the bond that develops between Ruella and Poopay. Bobby is a charm. She lacks the squirrelly whine that could be funny at the start, but she shows a sure instinct for understated comedy as the role develops. Hodges is a wiry dynamo as the capable Ruella, driving the play along.

McCallum plays the comic hotel security man with rumpled, stock company goodwill. Like the hotel decor, he barely changes over the years - a good joke about hotels. Ruella and Poopay hardly have to change, because they are time-traveling and remain themselves, but Ruella's husband (Tom Beckett) has to appear in all three decades, and it just doesn't work - it's the play's weakest link.

Unfortunately an understudy was in for the villain at the performance I saw, and to say he lacked menace is an understatement.

Theaters in Pittsburgh will grab this one when the rights become available. I already have casts in mind, whether for Public Theater or Little Lake.

At Variety Arts, 110 Third Ave.; call 800-432-7250.

Alexander H. Cohen, "Star Billing"

Nearing 80, Alexander Cohen is a theatrical and TV producer with an astonishing career - mainly behind him, but you never know. He's presented such luminaries as Richard Burton, Marlene Dietrich, John Gielgud, Jerry Lewis, Maurice Chevalier - whom hasn't he presented? This is the man who invented the "Nights of 100 Stars."

Having done all that, what more natural than that this witty, passionate impresario should decide to put himself on stage to reminisce? At least the talent won't give the producer as much trouble as did Dietrich and Lewis, his favorite villains.

So Cohen takes to the podium and begins a humorously self-deprecating account of his professional life. A born entrepreneur who dropped out of school to make money, he found himself a Broadway producer at 21.

His first show bombed - Cohen is hilarious in savoring negative critical nuggets - but his second was "Angel Street," and he was off and running.

Towards the end of his 85-minute talk, he slips into prophetic guru mode, telling us just what's wrong with today's theater financing that dooms individual producers like him to extinction. Though lacking anecdotal comedy, these wise words have zest and will appeal especially to the theatrical junkies for whom this evening is pure nectar.

The night I was there, the audience was packed with theater folks, and Cohen's wife, writer Hildy Parks, graciously worked the lobby. It felt like the inner circle. What started out as a limited engagement promises to last, so take note.

If you can't go, get a program! Produced "without special arrangement with The Shubert Organization," it begins in standard format, listing every major Broadway producer, set by Maison de Stools, casting (U.S.) by Alexander H. Cohen, standby Brad Pitt, lighting by Con Ed . . . it's a deft parody, affection spiced with a glint of revenge.

At 7 p.m. Sundays and 8 p.m. Mondays, Douglas Fairbanks Theatre, 432 W. 42 St.; call 800-432-7250.

Harry Gibson, "Trainspotting"

Yes, this is the same story as the 1996 British movie about the drug underworld in Scotland. But it's no rip-off. Gibson adapted the play from Irvine Welsh's novel some years ago, and the play was a shock success in Britain before John Hodge adapted the novel to the screen.

So New York got "Trainspotting" late, after its shock value had been anticipated by the movie, which must be why it closed suddenly last weekend after a short run.

It's a shame, because Gibson's production at the small Players Theatre had an interestingly grimy theatricality.

A succession of scenes sketching the lives of a loosely connected group of young druggies, "Trainspotting" works best as intermittently powerful acting moments, proving the human glow that offsets the depressing content of these tales of degradation, brutality, crudity and despair.

Featured was the convincing Seth Ullian, handsome Josh Peace and overwrought Sebastian Roche. Of special interest to Pittsburghers was the one woman, young Tessa Auberjonois (daughter of René and grand-daughter of Fernand, former PG European correspondent). She showed more variety and ability than when I saw her at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in 1996, her sweet face contrasting tellingly with the scatological material.

"Trainspotting" will survive, its appeal to actors insuring production by students and fringe groups - not by your community theater.

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