Do Not Adjust Your Seat

Veteran Madison Avenue ad exec Marshall Karp moved to Los Angeles in 1987 and garnered modest success writing for such TV shows as Amen, starring Sherman "George Jefferson" Hemsley, and Baby Talk, featuring Connie Sellecca and George Clooney. Four years before he devoted himself to such Hollywood shlock, though, he wrote an even bigger piece of drivel: Squabbles, a tasteless, run-of-the-Borscht Belt play that has, according to its author, been produced by more than 350 theaters worldwide.

At the same time Karp was hacking out television comedies in California, Denver audiences were taking notice of a new theater company known primarily for its eloquent productions of plays about gay life. Recently, The Theatre Group, as it's now known, announced the acquisition of additional theater spaces in town that will allow for the simultaneous presentation of plays in four different theater spaces.

Inexplicably, the Group has chosen to open its new Phoenix Theatre space by subscribing to the world according to Karp: Create a tidy family situation comedy that audiences can identify with, pepper the action with one-liners that appear to be drawn from the Catskills circa 1950, and tie up the action with a few platitudes about a socially relevant topic. It might not be great theater, but Squabbles sure sells tickets--in this case, at eighteen dollars a pop.

Jerry (Matt Cohen) is a young advertising copywriter whose wife, Alice (Terri Enders-Miller), becomes pregnant with their first child. On the heels of this good news, which they share with Alice's live-in father, widower Abe (Roger Simon), Jerry's divorced mother, Mildred (Sue Leiser), calls with the news that a fire has destroyed her home. Not wishing to turn their backs on her, yet ever mindful that she and Abe do not get along, the young couple reluctantly invite her to stay in their house on a temporary basis. True to the play's title, the elder couple constantly bicker. Underneath their arguing, however, lies the true source of their mutual antagonism: They're in love. Bringing full circle the wheel of role reversal, Abe and Mildred move out of the house to shack up in a one-bedroom apartment.

Karp's humor initially is jarring, characterized by ethnic slurs ("No matter what you say about Puerto Ricans, they flush the toilet") and generally offensive situations (one character laments the difficulty of writing an advertising jingle that will effectively sell feminine-hygiene products). Even assuming that Karp is attempting parody along the lines of TV's Archie Bunker, this wretched script is a far cry from All in the Family--mainly because the gratuitous insults are never put in perspective by another character's contrasting commentary.

In spite of the play's considerable shortcomings, there are a few bright spots in director Bev Newcomb's production: Leiser's heartwarming matron is well-crafted, occasionally eliciting good-natured laughter from the audience. The play also manages to touch upon the difficult decisions faced by children whose parents and grandparents are unable to care for themselves.

All too often, though, this ill-conceived effort makes you wonder why you returned to your seat after intermission instead of heading smartly for the nearest exit.--Lillie

Squabbles, presented by The Theatre Group in an open-ended run at The Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive, 860-9360.