Name That Loon

Every molecule of my hyper-educated mind, every atom of refined artistic taste yearns to dismiss the old-fashioned, cornball 1950 John Patrick comedy, The Curious Savage, now transported through that ever-churning South Florida time machine to the stage of the Caldwell Theatre. This is not new, not moving, not powerful, and could even be considered potentially offensive in that it treats blacks somewhat as old movies tended to -- like slow-minded idiots. Here the heroes are a perpetually amusing band of schizophrenics -- they're literally insane.

But the audience member in me must admit that the production is too well-executed and, frankly, too much fun to trash. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as pure entertainment.

Naturally, all the well-worn cliches crop up at one point or another: the lovable loonies in the charming asylum (later exploited in bubble-gum cinema, such as Dudley Moore's Crazy People and Michael Keaton's The Dream Team), the rotten stepchildren plotting to strip their eccentric stepmama of her fortune by having her wrongfully committed, a Marcus Welby-wise psychiatrist, and his nurse with a heart of gold. The entire sitcom gang, every last stereotypical one of them, populates this plot, but with a difference: Unlike the schlockmeisters of modern popular culture, John Patrick -- best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning Teahouse of the August Moon and films such as Three Coins in the Fountain -- is an intelligent, adept writer, displays an interesting wit, and actually engages you for a brisk two hours.

Not only does Patrick's work shine because it stems from a bygone era when writers were actually paid to think rather than crank out factory-quality dreck, but his play luxuriates in the actions of eleven quirky players; for many of today's authors, any more than two to five characters and one set produces a problem too complicated for them to handle.

This crowd-pleasing relic opens in a private nuthouse called The Cloisters, where a bunch of nonmedicated loonies indulge in bizarre but harmless rituals. Lovely Florence carries around a stuffed "son," plump Hannibel wrenches horrid tones from a warped violin, plain Fairy May tells wild lies with aplomb and gusto, pretty Jeffrey covers a war wound that doesn't exist, and hostile Mrs. Paddy refuses to speak ever since her husband told her to shut up one too many times.

Enter the Savages, a trio of rich brats, dragging stepmom Ethel behind them, with no other wish than to dump the old lady in this cushy cookie jar for good. Considering that Ethel intends to use their $500 million inheritance to set up a "memorial fund" -- dedicated to helping people do foolish things -- the kids desperately need her declared insane and stashed out of sight.

Even though she carries a hyperbolic Teddy Bear, Ethel, it turns out, possesses more spunk than anyone in the locale. Quick with a quip and intent on keeping the bucks from her greedy, nasty stepchildren, there's never any doubt that the combo of Ethel and her new, cracked buddies will prevail in the end. But the manner in which the gang-who-couldn't-think-straight goes about defeating Ethel's progeny, curing their own compulsions in the process, provides a share of chuckles, if not surprises.

Patrick's dialogue deserves special note ("Have we seen you on the stage?" the loons ask Ethel. "Not unless you were quick," she responds). Michael Hall's direction keeps the characters and action scampering along, and the acting is adequate, with only a few exceptions on either end of the scale. Pat Nesbit (a Caldwell regular) is deliciously evil as stepdaughter Lily Belle, and Joy Johnson projects dignity, courage, and honest frustration as Ethel. It's fair to say that Johnson plays a key role in the production's success. Her acting enhances, moment to moment, Patrick's work. In the scenes where stepdaughter Nesbit and stepmother Johnson claw at each other, the comedic timing crackles. However, Maura Soden as Fairy May and Warik as Titus the senator-stepson neglect to build characters, and artlessly force lines from their mouths like false compliments.

Of course, the idea of insanity as a safe, pleasant condition spiced with an abundance of zany stunts grates on modern sensibilities, and the notion of $500 million being converted and destroyed without a soul noticing won't even make sense to Donald Trump. Even so, John Patrick -- 85 years old and still capable of crafty one-liners during his brief opening-night speech -- isn't Beckett or Shepard or Williams and has never claimed to be. He's a professor emeritus of broad comedy, pre-dating Neil Simon by a decade, and noted for producing old chestnuts worthy of one last look -- like this one.

Faced with political choices bordering on insanity, an economy incapable of supporting anyone's family, and the inevitability of natural disasters, it's fine to shun the body of literati for an evening and just enjoy mindless entertainment, especially when it comes from a wordsmith much higher on the food chain than most modern hacks, and from an actress, Joy Johnson, who knows how to serve those words.

THE CURIOUS SAVAGE by John Patrick, directed by Michael Hall; with Andrea O'Connell, John Felix, Maura Soden, John G. Preston, Viki Boyle, Joe Warik, Tim Powell, Pat Nesbit, Joy Johnson, Kim Cozort, and John Gardiner. At the Caldwell Theatre Company, 7873 North Federal Hwy, Boca Raton, through October 18. Performances Friday & Saturday at 8:00 p.m., Sundays at 2:00 p.m. & 7:00 p.m. Tickets costs $20 ($5 student rush). Call 462-5433 (Broward) or 407-241-7432 (Boca Raton).


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