Cosmic symbolism is seldom as obvious as it was on Dec. 8, 1980: Ronald Reagan had been elected president a month before; the Republican Party had gained a majority in the Senate for the first time in 30 years; and much of the world anxiously awaited the dawn of a decade of greed, arrogance and excess that seemed sure to follow. What more grimly appropriate way to mark the death of American altruism and the hopeful promise of the '60s than the assassination of John Lennon, that generation's most eloquent and complicated spokesman, on the sidewalk outside the Dakota on New York's Central Park West?

Like many of us, the New Yorkers in James McClure's The Day They Shot John Lennon are so cut-off from the world around them that they instinctively gravitate to the site of Lennon's murder in hopes of connecting to something greater than themselves. For some—like high school students Mikey (Michael Skinner), Kevin (Charles Pasternak) and Sally (Rebecca Fields)—it is a vigil; for others, like the dyspeptic old man Morris (Bill Glassman), it's an excuse to talk to someone, anyone, in this case the stoner wannabe-standup Larry (Andrew William Lewis). For Fran (Elsa Llevat) and Brian (K.C. Mercer), it's an opportunity to reconnect with the passion and idealism they abandoned on their way to middle-class complacency. All struggle mightily to reach out to the people around them; ironically, it takes an act of thievery by Vietnam vets turned petty criminals Silvio (Cazimir Milostan) and Gatley (Elliot Hill) to bring them all together.

It seems the governing metaphor for the past 25 years isn't sleep, as it was for much of the 20th century, but impotence: we see what's going on around us, but we're helpless to do anything about it; no wonder Viagra is so popular. Director Steve Mayeda's cast captures this frustration, but I don't think they were ready for an audience on this night. The lines were all over the place; there were whole scenes in which the cast seemed to be making it up in a desperate effort to get back on track; and the second act went so far off the rails that it took 10-15 minutes to get the light cues right again. The whole show felt so much like a bad tech rehearsal that it was really hard to say whether I liked what they were trying to do.

In the face of this, I turned to the text itself. It's an especially interesting work since these ritual vigil/memorials/consciousness-raisings have become so commonplace that an entrepreneur might reasonably load an ice cream truck full of teddy bears and mylar balloons with remembrance messages stamped all over them in anticipation of the next tragedy.

There's definitely something in this. Smoother ensemble work, cleaner staging and simplified lighting design would go a long way toward tightening up the rhythms of the intertwining scenes. In the words of E.M. Forrester, “Only connect.” It's our only hope.

The Day They Shot John Lennon at Stages Theatre, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Through May 10. $12-$15.

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