Theater Reviews

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Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (Through Dec. 7)

Only a couple days removed from the election, Barack Obama has begun to throw a shadow over the theater. Here, it's over Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Robert Schenkkan's lost-in-time tale about love and redemption, embodied in the mostly chance encounter in 2003 Austin between a Cuban exile and a Southern widow.

This two-hour slow-motion dating ritual between a day laborer (Demian Bichir) with serious writer's block and a desperate woman (Shannon Cochran) who used to be a housewife is overly laden with conventional dialogue and predictable twists and turns.

Unfortunately, what might have been moving and even relevant in the moral morass and suffocating apathy of the Bush years becomes trivial and self-involved in the suddenly new post-election mood of energy and hope.

A pity because Schenkkan handles language with imagination and flair -- Cochran's garden contains Shakespearean patches of honeysuckle, wild rose and mint -- and periodically conjures up extraordinary images: Bichir's hypnotic description of the birth of Cuban music; his poetic tale of death in "cities beneath the water, full of lights and happy people," followed by salvation through an exotic mythological device; or Cochran's powerful explosion of anger and terror as she relives her terrible secret in Act 2.

But every time Bichir resorts to speaking frenetically in Spanish when he is frustrated unnervingly recalls male Latino stereotypes from the past century. And Schenkkan simply does not give Cochran enough material to make her postcoital transformation into a raging angel anything but a dramatic device.

In fact, just why Schenkkan is attracted to and has affection for his two lonely characters is unclear. Perhaps it has some basis in the common threads he uses to bring them together: Cuba, of course, which serves many artists as an artistic conscience and an idealized romantic paradise, baseball (to the extent that Cochran even quotes Satchell Paige) and rum.

But for most intents and purposes, their emotional roots in the playwright's psyche are obscure, and even Schenkkan's use of the songs they heard as children (she from her mother, he from his country) do not exert sufficient expressive power to compellingly illuminate the play.

The performances by Bichir and Cochran are uniformly full-bodied, relentless and self-consciously articulate to the point that the audience realizes only late in the game that this is going to be more than a light comedic love duet, further handicapped by the fact that there is only fitful sexual chemistry between them.

Perhaps director Richard Seyd, by smoothing out the contours of the dialogue and the development of the relationship, could have nurtured their smoldering fires to create more heat.

To some extent, the acting is overshadowed by the handsome production, which includes an overgrown backyard, a hulking bedroom set and costumes that are so brilliantly simple that they seem to mandate strong but relatively unnuanced emotional responses that prevent the play, commissioned by and first produced at the 2005 Oregon Shakespeare Festival, from being a winner.

Presented by: Geffen Playhouse in association with Friedson Enterprises.
Cast: Demian Bichir, Shannon Cochran.
Playwright: Robert Schenkkan.
Director: Richard Seyd.
Set design by Michael Ganio.
Costume designer: Frances Kenny.
Lighting design: York Kennedy.
Sound design: Jon Gottlieb.
Projection design: Jason H. Thompson.
Casting director: Phyllis Schuringa.

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