By Daryl H. Miller
Times Staff Writer
March 2, 2005
LA JOLLA -- Such drama and vitality. So full of surprises. And, oh, what range.
It would be nice to be able to attach these descriptions to the show that inaugurates La Jolla Playhouse's much-anticipated third performing space: the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre. But "Private Fittings," a retrofitted French farce, is the sort of "adaptation" of a classic that, in updating the action to present-day La Jolla, turns the central character, a philandering doctor, into a "spiritual healing therapist," the trusty manservant into a surfer-dude pool boy and so on through Southern California stereotypes.
Happily, though, qualities such as drama, vitality and surprise do apply to the theater itself. Part of the larger Joan and Irwin Jacobs Center, the Potiker is a particularly high-tech version of what's known as a black box theater. This means it's a bare, black-walled room in which seating can be arranged into most any configuration imaginable. Such flexibility opens the venue to experimentation and, one hopes, boundless creativity.
Commissioned for the Potiker, "Private
Fittings" is based on an early play by Georges Feydeau, whose name today
is virtually synonymous with farce. The wry views on morality and marriage
expressed in this 1886 play, Feydeau's first full-length project, would
be given fuller expression in such high-speed, complexly plotted laugh
fests as "Hotel Paradiso" and "A Flea in Her Ear." The translation-adaptation
is by Mark O'Donnell, perhaps best known as coauthor of the book for the
"Hairspray." An antic staging, by artistic director Des McAnuff, shows off the theater's bells and whistles. The main setting, by Neil Patel, is a monstrous mega-mansion done up in retro-hip décor so "in" that, in another five minutes, it'll be "out."
This is the home of a well-to-do
doctor who, in O'Donnell's update, is a charlatan "personal life coach."
Regulars at La Jolla's fundraising galas, the doctor (Kyle Fabel) and his
recent bride (Stana Katic) are a glittering match. But as the story begins,
the doctor has been out all night attempting a tryst and is trying to enlist
his dim-blond pool boy/personal assistant (Eric Wippo) in covering the
absence. A boorish friend (Chris Hoch), the doctor's meddling mother-in-law
(Joan van Ark), the object of infatuation (Jessica Boevers), her jealous
husband (Chris Kipiniak) and the husband's mistress (Lucia Brawley) all
materialize at delicate moments, hurtling the situation
Farce is meant to move like a Ferrari, traveling so fast it pins the passenger to his seat. In McAnuff's hands, this three-act comedy, performed without intermission, steadily accelerates to the desired speed.
As the ride rips along, it's interesting to note that the actresses cast as wife and mistress are, except for hair color, mirror images of each other, suggesting that the doctor's ardor is spurred as much by danger as by the actual women involved.
The fast-moving landscape is dominated by Van Ark, a cyclone of manic energy as her drama queen of a mother-in-law develops into a one-woman Greek tragedy. Also enjoyable is the rubber-faced Hoch as the sexually confused, often-befuddled friend.
The scene changes, though, are the production's truest thrills. The play gets its title from the middle act, which shifts to a dress-design atelier appropriated for the doctor's dalliances. McAnuff uses this as an opportunity to show off the Potiker's capabilities. From above the stage, set decorations are lowered; from below, large furnishings are lifted. Other furnishings, outfitted with rollers, are whisked from the wings by assistants wearing in-line skates.
The cleverness, however, can't conceal the paucity of a script that provides such predictable lines as "What, did the Botox freeze your face again?" — delivered by the doctor to his glowering wife. Or that regards all Southern Californians as surfer dudes and trophy wives. It's awfully slight material for the launch of such an exciting new facility.
Where: La Jolla Playhouse's Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, Revelle College Drive at La Jolla Village Drive
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.
Ends: March 27
Price: $36 to $52
Contact: (858) 550-1010 or lajollaplayhouse.com
Running Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
Joan van Ark...Harriet
Translation/adaptation by Mark O'Donnell,
of Georges Feydeau's "Tailleur pour dames." Director Des McAnuff. Set Neil
Patel. Costumes Paul Tazewell. Lights Howell
Binkley. Stage manager Nevin Hedley.