To the opening notes of Louis Armstrong’s “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” Ridiculous Fraud paddles us back into the brackish backwaters of the Beth Henley South. Along these banks, dysfunction darkens family trees like clots of moss. Fathers miss their sons’ weddings while serving time for fraud, one-legged girls adopt false identities and abandon their children, and love teases like a drunken party guest, tapping someone's right shoulder then ducking to the left.
Ridiculous Fraud – in its West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through November 19 – mixes its comedy with observations of the fragmenting American family. Deception is both funny and not so funny as the silly and sentimental vie for our affections. But don't expect bureaucratic fraud among the foibles. The New Orleans of this pre-Katrina script is FEMA-free.
Several elements generally flavor a Henley play: characters angled off-center trying to straighten out or come to terms with their aberrance in families struggling for unity in the face of strange challenges against a crazy world backdrop with a Southern accent. Fraud’s central trio of Clay brothers mirrors the sisters in Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, the play that earned the playwright a Pulitzer Prize more than two decades ago.
The apparently adjusted Andrew (Matt McGrath) – the only brother with a wife, a career and a normal name – has the eldest brother syndrome of being a placater, which should help his negotiating if he wins his political race. McGrath has mastered the paste-on grin of the politician. When he snaps that on that face-widener, he looks like John Edwards. Middle brother Kap (Matt Lescher) is a “’tweener,” smarter and less responsible than his older brother; infinitely more focused and appealing than his younger brother. Last and least is Lafcad (Ian Fraser), the short post on this three-legged stool.
The Clays are tangled up with the Chrystals, the family of Andrew’s wife Willow (Betsy Brandt) and an obvious step up the food service chain. If there’s much to daddy Ed Chrystal, Paul Vincent O’Connor isn’t getting it. He's relying on the dialogue to be funnier than it is and clomps his lines down. Nike Doukas, on the other hand, in a break from her usual SCR headline responsibilities, is Maude. As Ed’s second wife and Willow’s stepmom, she is the play’s only sympathetic character – and not just because she’s dying. She wears her weariness well, understandably not tortured about her inability to give up the cigarettes that are killiing her. Doukas shows that Maude may be the spot in the play where Henley’s heart lies. The script’s subconscious seems to want to refocus things in Maude's POV: as if gathering up the cracked dishes of both families in a checkered picnic blanket and carting them off to Maude's kitchen for a good spray down.
The remaining characters are the reliable Randy Oglesby’s Uncle Baites and Eliza Pryor’s Georgia. Pryor and Ott haven’t figured out how to give the gimpy Georgia balance between her troubled past and her present daffy quest. In fact, Ott does not seem to have found the right carburetor settings at which to blend the play’s meaning and craziness. The mixed blessing of having fraud and deception as message and motif is that plot twists that cut in to surprise have already been undercut by the early establishment of a world where everybody’s hiding something that eventually will come out.
CREDITS: by Beth Henley, directed by Sharon Ott. Ian Fraser, Matt McGrath, Betsy Brandt, Matt Letscher, Randy Oglesby, Eliza Pryor, Nike Doukas, Paul Vincent O’Connor. Hugh Landwehr, sets; Joyce Kim Lee, costumes; Peter Maradudin, lights; Stephen LeGrand, sound; Randall K. Lum, stage manager. South Coast Repertory Segerstrom Stage • October 20-November 19, 2006 • West Coast premierePowered by Sidelines