Life in Southern California is, yes, phony and flaky. Once in a while a movie or a play celebrates all that peculiar sunny fakery with affectionate parody (Steve Martin's L.A. Story comes to mind) or abject pessimism (Sam Shepard's anti-Hollywood plays). And now there's one more take on the L.A. lifestyle: Aurora native turned L.A. playwright Jake Jay Clark's Make a French Scene. Funny, edgy and knowing, the Germinal Stage Denver production of this intelligent play reminds us just how mad American mainstream culture has become. But while Clark's vision of an L.A. suburb named Westlake Village is dark indeed, it is not without warmth. He likes his characters, and however much we laugh at them, pity them, maybe even recognize them, we can't really despise them.
We are greeted by a really awful (read: wonderful) set--happy faces have been painted all over the floor and on the one prominent piece of furniture. The room is painted in yellows and greens that are too cheery to be real, and potted flowers and greens bank the back of the stage. Uncomfortable wrought-iron furniture keeps the characters from relaxing into the set--everything and everyone is on edge.
As the action begins, Dag is pontificating to his wife, Renata, about what a great guy he is and how lucky she is to be his wife. He has decided that he is the master of his fate and congratulates himself on his success as a human being. The whole diatribe is a quintessential bit of new-age positivism and as transparent as cellophane: This guy is a loser. When Renata is finally allowed to speak, she lets him know how much she hates the new solarium he built and the other rooms he has added onto the house as expressions of whatever navel-gazing "personal growth" he happened to be experiencing at the time. This is not a happy woman. All she wants is to open a boutique with her own money--money that Dag must sign over to her.
Into this domestic squabble enters the family counselor--a particularly aggressive and obnoxious woman named Kiri who recommends botanic therapy. (Don't ask.) Kiri is particularly gifted at stirring up trouble among her patients, and, first thing we know, she has implied to Dag that Renata wants out of the marriage. Meanwhile, Dag's best friend, an alcoholic named Baird, shows up demanding an ashtray and something to drink.
Misreading his wife's intentions--all she really wants is her money, after all--Dag thinks she's having an affair with a banker and wants a divorce. A complicated series of misunderstandings focuses Clark's wit on the self-centered nature of these relationships. Baird, for instance, is on Dag's side--until he believes the door is open to Renata's heart. This mess of emotions and wrong assumptions gets even nastier with the arrival of Luthmilla, spoiled college brat and daughter of Dag and Renata.
G. Scott Campbell as the clueless Dag finds just the right comic tone here--confidant buffoonery that slides easily into icy malice and back to big-dog self-interest with nary a glitch. Jenny MacDonald charms and warms her audience as Renata--even when the relentless pettiness of her marriage threatens to turn us off. MacDonald is always a pleasure to watch, because her sagacious style is rooted in the careful layering of emotion.
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Amy Roeder is a scream as Luthmilla, a snide, bitter and over-indulged character who invariably sparks with self-pity and unjustifiable rage. Genevieve Nedder as Kiri seems a bit youthful for the role, though she, too, has her moments. But the most intense and complex of the night's performances belongs to Joe McDonald as Baird. McDonald understands the absurdist qualities of the dialogue, and he negotiates the twists and turns of Clark's humor with quick glances, a gift for exquisite nuance and a marvelous staccato energy that makes us actually care for the bum.
Just as McDonald is perfect for Baird, no director in town could possibly have done better by this play than Ed Baierlein. It's almost as if Clark wrote it for the Germinal, it's such a perfect match of talents. Baierlein's crisp, smart direction keeps the action going lickety-split and offers up just the right pathos to soften the pessimism that underlies the play. Clark is no misanthrope. But he knows bunk when he sees it--especially as embodied in a place as well-manicured as Westlake Village.
Make a French Scene, through December 15 at Germinal Stage Denver, 2450 West 44th Avenue, 455-7108.