To Live and Cry in L.A.

Being a teenager is hard enough. What if you also happen to be gay and living in Middle America? If you have any survival instincts at all, you head for either coast as soon as you can. That's exactly what happens with the characters in the monologues "Dream Man" and "Bathhouse Benediction." Seeking work and love, they land in Los Angeles, but the promise held out to them by that city never materializes. In "Dream Man," Christopher is a phone sex operator; in "Bathhouse," John is a bartender. By the time we meet them on-stage, they are lonely men, providing a tenuous salvation for others through their jobs while longing to be saved themselves.

Currently at Area Stage Company on Lincoln Road under the umbrella title Dream Men, the sometimes poignant, sometimes pretentious one-act monologues were written by playwright-AIDS activist James C. Pickett, who died from complications related to the disease in 1985. Pickett understood the need for dreaming as a way out of the misery of daily life. In Dream Men, he conveys erotic fantasy, religious imagery, and adolescent memories through a blend of lyrical poetry, rueful humor, and gritty sexual description. Because they tend toward the literary and reflective instead of the dramatic and active, the monologues are not easy to perform. Ironically, the more dramatic of the two, "Dream Man," is less memorable in its current production, owing to Ralph de la Portilla's edgy, caricatured portrayal of Christopher. Conversely, Brian Santucci (John) handles the uneven material in "Bathhouse Benediction" with greater authority, giving an understated performance.

"Dream Man" takes place during a holiday weekend, prime time for Christopher, a man in the fantasy business who boasts about the efficiency of his phone-sex delivery: "I'll have old Rodney off in three seconds flat." In between role-playing Jesus for a first-time caller and acting "a bitchin' Valley boy" for a repeat customer, Christopher takes a call from his former lover. The two fell in love in Kentucky and ran away to live together in L.A. A until his lover abandoned him. Over the course of the monologue, Christopher's swagger gives way to pain and desperation, and, out of anger, he dangerously exploits a crazy caller from New York City.

"Bathhouse Benediction" opens at 5:00 a.m. in a bathhouse room, where we meet John. An escapee from Indiana, he once dreamed of writing and acting, but now, as a bartender, he services his customers in much the same way Christopher does. To the men buying drinks across his bar, he "can be anybody they want me to be." John first relates tales of lost love, then reveals his unhappy relationship with a sadistic father, whose death he just has learned of. John has come to the bathhouse "to seek my father in here, bits and pieces of him."

Although distinguished from each other by the characters' individual voices and experiences, the monologues share styles (both move back and forth between events in the present and memories of the past) and themes (the power of fantasy to give meaning to life and to underpin the erotic). Director Stephen Simmons reinforces the differences by varying lighting and rhythm in each segment. Scenic designer Michael Essad and lighting engineer Carey Hart light "Dream Man" like a harsh yellow office, while the smoky blue of a steam room illuminates "Bathhouse." While the former pulses with a manic and overwrought energy, the latter is low-key, conversational, and contained. Unfortunately, Ralph de la Portilla, excellent when last seen on-stage in Marat/Sade, exaggerates his phone-sex operator's desperation with eye-rolling, facial tics, and canned voices. He also acts out A rather than speaks A Pickett's hard-to-perform poetry and sing-songs its rhythms. On the other hand, as the resigned bartender with a self-deprecating sense of humor, Brian Santucci attempts no pyrotechnics; he comes across as infinitely more vulnerable and real, particularly in his rendering of a love affair with his high school's quarterback, who leaves him for a cheerleader.

Although bold in its explicit description of gay sex, Pickett's writing fails to engage deeper emotions. Santucci's performance taps into the feelings Pickett masks with his sexual brashness A a place of sadness and loss known by everyone, both gay and straight.

Far from the bathhouses, bars, and phone-sex lines of Los Angeles lies the Eastern European town of Chelm, home to a simpleton aptly named Shlemiel; the town also serves as the setting for an inventively staged operetta about his escapades. Shlemiel the First is the product of a collaboration among some of the heaviest hitters in the literary and theater worlds, including the late Isaac Bashevis Singer, on whose play the new show is based, and Robert Brustein, founding director of American Repertory Theater (ART) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and drama critic for the New Republic, who conceived and adapted Shlemiel as a musical. The entire production is under the auspices of ART, which has brought much of its prodigious designing, directing, and acting talent here before premiering Shlemiel on Broadway this spring.

As much as I love Singer's stories, his playful Shlemiel tale is slight when translated to the musical stage: The town good-for-nothing is sent forth to spread the wisdom of Chelm to the world in the hope that an enhanced reputation will replenish the town's diminished resources of money and sour cream. Shlemiel returns home the very next day by mistake, thinking he is in a second Chelm. All manner of chaos ensues as a result of mistaken identity A at least until the end. Then everything is happily resolved in a satirical (I assume, given Brustein's reputation as an intellectual) celebration of Forest Gump-esque dumbness. Also unremarkable is the accompanying score. Although tuneful and lively, the music doesn't vary much and the lyrics are never as quick and clever as the Gilbert and Sullivan songs they seem to want to emulate. Out of sixteen numbers, only a few stand out: "We're Talking Chelm," the witty anthem of the town's wise men; "Yenta's Blintzes," a mock-tragic ode to Jewish mothers' cooking; and the lovely romantic duets "The Screen Song" and "Can This Be Hell?"

Other elements more than carry the evening, however. The Klezmer Conservatory Band provides live music, under the expert direction of Zalmen Mlotek. (An authority on Yiddish music, Mlotek has kept busy this winter in South Florida, also serving as musical director for Bagels & Yox.) In the orchestra pit and as itinerant players roaming the stage with clarinet, trombone, mandolin, and pennywhistle, the klezmer musicians express that blend of the mournful and the satiric that signifies the Yiddish sensibility. Robert Israel's magical realist set -- complete with a sloping floor, trees, and boulders that parade around the stage, plus a monochromatic backdrop meant as a homage to Chagall -- enhances the music. Meanwhile, Catherine Zuber's extraordinary, puppetlike costumes slyly transform one character into another, as cast members take on different roles.

David Gordon's impeccable direction and choreography whip all this into shape, leaving after-images on the brain A visual imprints of the women of Chelm in their babushkas and dresses sweeping the floor in unison in one scene, the sages drumming the backs of chairs while singing and dancing in another. Finally, the talented cast, all of whom sing, dance, and act with aplomb, delivers exuberant performances. In particular Paul Sand's unassuming Shlemiel looks and acts like Gene Wilder gone to the shtetl, and Charles Levin (Gronam Ox) gives a juicy rendition of a bombastic husband and chief wise man. But the fabulous Marilyn Sokol outdoes them all in a trio of roles, appearing as Shlemiel's daughter, Gittel, the sage known as Sender Shlamazel, and the real brains behind Chelm, Gronam Ox's wife, Yenta Pesha.

Brustein and gang make a lot out of a little story, resulting in an evening of theater as lip-smacking good as one of Yenta's blintzes.

Stage Notes
Sometimes the best way to enjoy a short story is to hear it read out loud. New York City's Symphony Space understands how pleasurable that can be and has garnered a reputation for producing staged readings by seasoned actors of some of the best stories ever written. Under the title Selected Shorts, a varied program of stories is performed at Symphony Space and elsewhere around the country. Miami Book Fair International has hosted Selected Shorts numerous times in the past, and this year brings its "Comedy Classics" to Miami Beach Monday, March 13, at 8:00. Isaiah Sheffer reads "Heart of a Champion," by T. Coraghessan Boyle; Joe Grifasi reads "The Kugelmass Episode," by Woody Allen; and Laura Esterman reads "The Loudest Voice," by Grace Paley. The free event takes place at the Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Rd. Call 237-3258 for information.

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