The Nuclear Family

Chemistry of Change explodes

In a fairer world, there would be a high-priced bidding war to entice the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company to move into your town. Rents would be lowered. Tax incentives offered. Bribes tendered. Fullerton would offer the eyesore that used to be the Fox Fullerton. Huntington Beach would raze Ruby's and build a theater at the end of the pier. Irvine would surrender its City Hall—and oral sex for everybody!!!!!

Increasing rents are forcing the Rude Guerrillians to seriously ponder a move from their downtown Santa Ana digs of more than two years. Wherever the troupe lands, the community in which it finds itself will be treated to a case study of that rarest of theatrical entities in Orange County: a smart and gutsy theater company that defines success based solely on the strength of its artistic convictions rather than box-office receipts or the happy barking of audiences brought up on TV, Neil Simon and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Take the company's current production of Marlane Meyer's dark romantic comedy, The Chemistry of Change.Featuring horned devils; aging spinsters; man-hating shrews; matriarchs who take care of their brood by performing illegal abortions; and the late, creepy Long Beach Pike, it's the type of edgy, disconcerting and unpolished gem that few theater people would read, let alone produce.

Does that make it a great play? No. Where some plays—far, far too many—are wretched experiences because they seem content to satisfy the most repugnantly mediocre of middle-of-the-road tastes, The Chemistry of Changeis guilty of something different: trying to do so much that it ultimately does very little. It's about shape-changing alcoholics who may or may not be shape changers, about mysterious carnival barkers who may or may not be the devil incarnate, about prison pen pals who may or may not be knights in tarnished armor—or dastardly manipulators.

In other words, it's hard to get a handle on what this play is truly about because Meyer is so in love with her wonderful mastery of language that her point is buried in a blizzard of words. But it's still an intriguing play, one that carries with it ample risks and rewards.

Jay Fraley, making his directorial debut, reaps some of those rewards and is burned by some of those risks. He does stellar work with his actors and the pace of the play. Things never lag. But he's done little to impose an overall vision or concept on the shapeless material. For instance, you'd hardly know from the set or costumes that this play is set in 1955—and Meyer's fairly nonspecific dialogue doesn't help. Chronology is important to a play that is, on one discernible level, about the roles of men and women and sexual politics. Nor are the constantly shifting tonal patterns of Meyer's play—veering from brutal surrealism to rosy '50s cornball romance à la My Little Margie—fully realized. It's a play with a bizarre range of emotions and situations, and it should soar higher and dive deeper into its absurdist world. For the most part, Fraley's production sticks to the middle. While that's the safest route, it's not the most satisfying.

While this Chemistry of Changeisn't deeply satisfying, it is absorbing. And while the highs and lows of Meyer's complicated script aren't fully nailed, the dark but strangely loving humor of the play is.

Obligatory synopsis: Lee is the mother of four very screwed-up children who range in age from high school to, apparently, early 40s. Lee runs a home-office abortion business, assisted by her gambling-addict sister, Dixon, and her man-hating daughter, Corlis. But her real business is elsewhere: each of her several fiancés is wooed and wowed by Lee, marries her, is subsequently terrified by her nightmarish brood and leaves her—gladly—with a nice divorce settlement. She's done this seven times and is looking for husband No. 8.

Lee sets her sights on the local scrap-metal king, but in an effort to get him out of the house in double time, she's invited her reprobate son, Baron, back home from a sanitarium where his violence, voices and raging alcoholism have been kept in check.

A few days with Baron, and the metal king should be ready to jet to Reno. But on her way to meet No. 8, Lee runs into Smokey, a horn-tipped sideshow exhibitor who runs something called the Hell Hole at the Long Beach Pike. Some weird type of romance blooms, and whether this is a most sinister affair or true love remains to be seen.

The play is most interesting in the first half, when we meet the characters and when Meyer's writing is at its most secretive and powerful. But the setup never pays off, victimized both by Meyer's obtuse dramaturgy and the aforementioned directorial dilemma. But the cast is uniformly excellent—even though we're never sure about the characters' ages. (Until I looked at a copy of the script, it seemed actors in their 30s or 40s were being asked to play teenagers.) On the one hand, that's kind of what Meyer's play is about: the shifting sands of personality and gender, sexual roles and wage earners. This is a nuclear family reaching critical mass and ready to blow. But you never quite get a handle on any of the characters.

That's not a comment on the cast's skill. Karen Mangano as Lee and Steve McCammon as Smokey are the perfectly drawn couple at the play's center. Mangano is both beautiful and sick; she wants to provide for her family without being dominated by a man. McCammon is sinister and manipulative but with a golden heart; rarely is the devil such a nice guy. Susan E. Taylor as Corlis is also exceptionally drawn as the daughter who is constantly in the shadow of her glamorous mother, cultivating a deep hatred of men that is a shallow substitute for her resentment of Mom.

The rest of the cast is also strong, but Meyer's script gives them short shrift. We're introduced to emasculated high school students who get dwarves pregnant, card sharks, and Tom Waits-like philosophizing drunks, but we never fully get to know any of them.

And that's what this production feels like. We get glimpses, teases, prods and pushes toward something truly evocative and unique. But things never come fully together. Even so, The Chemistry of Changeis a most welcome sight on a local stage, and one more example of Rude Guerrilla's stranglehold on an informal title that most theaters don't even seem to realize is important, let alone attainable: Theater That Matters.

The Chemistry of Change at Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana,

(714) 547-4688. Opens Fri. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through June 17. $12-$15.

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