Failure to Astonish

The talky script, in Sams's version anyway, commits the cardinal sin that students in Creative Writing 101 are warned about: The characters tell us everything in long expository paragraphs -- especially during an insufferably flat first act -- instead of showing us who they are through action and interaction. And because the script bangs us over the head with speeches about the play's themes, we never stand a chance of intuiting those themes, which include the tension between order and disorder in domestic life, the conflict between fate and free will in determining one's destiny, and the damage inflicted by despairing elders on their hopeful children. In other words, for a show about subterranean longings, very little happens below the surface of the text. Instead of scathing psychological insights, Indiscretions serves up soap opera.

Ernotte resets the play in present-day New Orleans and saddles his actors with Louisiana accents. (The decadent Southern locale recalls another poet of the theater, Tennessee Williams, in whose shadow, by comparison, Cocteau the dramatist pales.) Because the director fails to set a consistent tone for the show the evening awkwardly ricochets between burlesque, camp, and tragedy. Ernotte never elicits a sense of mystery about the play's issues and relationships, both of which demand more complexity: Nothing beyond the obvious is evoked, hinted at, or even embellished.

Although hampered by a banal script, the actors manage to deliver energetic, although rarely nuanced, performances. Shipley as the life-sucking mother, Foster as the Machiavellian aunt whose frozen heart begins to melt by Act Three, and Mullavey as the ineffectual father-husband-paramour all have their moments. But Stear and Egolf, as the young lovers, carry the show. The play takes off when they are together during Act Two. The chemistry between them is so palpable we feel something is actually happening on-stage instead of events and emotions only being talked about. Egolf not only depicts Madeleine as equal parts self-possessed, vulnerable, graceful, and tough, she makes us care enough about her to root for her happiness with Michael. And Stear conveys ambiguity in his portrayal of Michael -- the actor has the character deftly shift from a deliriously happy young man to a spoiled wounded child to a rejected lover whose depression may prove dangerous to himself and the people around him.

Considering the richness of some of Cocteau's other creations, Indiscretions's one-dimensionality disappoints. The play's treatment at Coconut Grove Playhouse can hardly be termed bad theater. It just is not, in the tradition of Cocteau's master works, astonishing.

Indiscretions (Les Parents Terribles).
Written by Jean Cocteau; directed by Andre Ernotte; with Sandra Shipley, Meg Foster, Greg Mullavey, Rick Stear, and Gretchen Egolf. Through November 24. For information, call 442-4000 or see "Calendar Listings.

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