Theater Reviews

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The Blank Theatre Company, Hollywood
Through July 1


In "Missouri Waltz," film actress Karen Black has written a poignant, tender, maddening mess of a play that feels like a cross between "Our Town," Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" and the old TV sitcom "Bewitched." The result is a tantalizing but lumpy stew suggesting that Black has much more to tell us when she figures out just what that is.

The play's opening scene skillfully evokes a sense of time (1973) and place (a small town in Missouri) charged with family memory and nostalgia. Chrissie (Black) is in the parlor speaking wistfully about her life and marriage to Donald, who is now dead. After a while she's joined by her feisty sister, Bea (Dana Peterson), who gives us the lowdown on her charming but cheating ex-husband, Anton (Eric Pierpoint). The sisters are poles apart temperamentally, but obviously close.

As it happens, Chrissie and Bea have been dead for years -- an auto accident took them together -- but for some unexplained reason are still hanging around the old homestead. When their pregnant niece, Zoe (Whitney Laux), returns home after five years on an Oklahoma commune, Chrissie and Bea are delighted to have the company. Zoe can't see or hear her talkative aunts, of course, but as we soon find out they have ways of making their presence felt.

What follows is a rather awkwardly told tale in which Zoe falls into the clutches of unscrupulous Anton and almost loses the house to him. Chrissie and Bea, by a series of contrived interventions that take us straight into sitcom land, manage to rescue Zoe each time she's in jeopardy. But that's not the play's main problem.

"Waltz" is missing something vital at its center: the truth about Chrissie's life. Hints are dropped that Chrissie and Donald's marriage wasn't nearly as idyllic as we've been led to believe; but apparently, even as a spirit, Chrissie can't seem to stop sentimentalizing and rationalizing the past. That's probably why she's still stuck on this earthly plane, where no self-respecting spirit wants to stay.

That's also why the drama with Zoe doesn't work as well as it should. It's largely a smokescreen to hide the fact that Chrissie isn't coming clean about her life. As a result, the play ends on a tidy, false note that doesn't do justice to the characters or themes Black has raised. That's a shame, because there are pockets of good and deeply felt writing to indicate that Black's not wanting in the talent department.

The cast, under Angela Garcia Combs' indulgent direction, does a fair job with the characters, unfinished as they are. Grammy nominee Harriet Schock has written five engaging songs for the characters, which they sing in low-key fashion and when the spirit moves them, so to speak. Weston Blakesley appears in the thankless role of Jerry, a local with an old crush on Bea. At roughly an hour and 45 minutes, the play would also profit from an act break.

MISSOURI WALTZ
Presented by the Blank Theatre Company
Credits:
Playwright: Karen Black
Director: Angela Garcia Combs
Songs: Harriet Schock
Set designer: Ginnie Ann Held
Lighting designer: Jake Stone
Costume designer: Sherry Linell
Sound designer: Max Smerling
Accompanists: Michelle Krell, Harriet Schock
Producers: Daniel Henning, Stacy Reed, Noah Wyle
Cast:
Chrissie: Karen Black
Bea: Dana Peterson
Zoe: Whitney Laux
Anton: Eric Pierpoint
Jerry: Weston Blakesley
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