Someone give Robert G. Leigh a red pen, and make it quick. That's the only way Leigh's bold staging of David Halliwell's 1966 obscure gem of a play, Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs, will merit a balls-to-the-wall, no ifs-ands-or-buts-about-it recommendation.
The production clocks in at more than three hours, and even though this is an often savagely funny and eloquent play, it still feels like . . . more than three hours long.
Halliwell, who toyed with theater for a few years before writing for the BBC, apparently never wrote a word he didn't like. While he is skilled enough to string them together, his play cries out for judicious cutting, something the playwright didn't bother with in 1966 but a director has every right to attempt.
Tightening up this often-meandering script wouldn't just relieve the cramps in the audience's asses, it would also further illuminate the dark irony at the core of Halliwell's intriguing play: a subversive artist's high-sounding assault on middle-class sensibilities reveals a man who just wants to destroy. It's a lesson that even a black-clad anarchist in Seattle, Montreal or downtown Los Angeles could be well-served by.
The key character is Malcolm (played charismatic and borderline pathological by the quite talented Michael Ambrosio), a rebellious student booted out of an art school in a small industrial city in the depressing heart of England. As a mid-'60s subversive with an anarchistic streak, Malcolm is uncomfortably stuck somewhere between John Osborn's Jimmy Porter and the Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten. Porter was the anti-hero of Osborn's Look Back in Anger,the anti-establishment play that in 1956 helped spark literary England's Angry Young Man movement and showed theater audiences you didn't need nice people onstage to identify with. Rotten, of course, was a foul-mouthed cad who, 20 years after Osborn, articulated the rage and anger of an entirely different generation.
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Malcolm entices two dissatisfied art students—hapless Ingham (a suitably sheepish Jeff Lappin) and eager Wick (a perfect Michael Hyland)—and frustrated writer Nipple (a very funny and poignant Graham Sibley) to start a new political party: the Dynamic Erectionists. No red hand of Ulster here —the symbol for the new party is a swollen penis. The party's first political "statement"? Steal a piece of art from a local museum and blackmail the art school's headmaster to destroy the painting.
So far, so good, and had Halliwell stuck to the politics —and to his keen satire on how extremists from the Right and the Left always seem to meet in totalitarianism—Little Malcolmmight have made an even bigger splash. But he seeks to explain Malcom's rebellious nature through some soft-boiled Freud: it's Malcolm's inability to connect emotionally with women that turns him into such a bully by play's end.
But even with the obvious armchair psychoanalysis, Little Malcolmremains vibrant some 35 years after it was written. Sure, director Leigh would do everyone a favor by nipping the bloated script, but the talented cast generates enough fireworks to make Little Malcolmone of the most unexpected—and most welcome—surprises of 2001.
Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs at the Long Beach Playhouse's Studio Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach, (562) 494-1014. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; May 27, 2 p.m. Through June 2. $15.