THEATRE / Round-Up: Half Marx only

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The Independent Culture
Imagine this: you take every Marx Brothers film and you extract all the musical interludes and Chico's idiot Italian fast-talk routines. Then you splice these together with a couple of the bits where Harpo coshes people and parps his horn. Got that? Good. Then you have a pretty fair picture of Paddy Cunneen's production of His Lordship's Fancy at the Gate.

There are sound reasons for giving Goldoni the straightforward knockabout treatment. Dominic McHale's lopsidedly charming Harlequin and Cunneen's own music are two; and this buffoonery at least has an air of authenticity - there's a widespread temptation to read more into Goldoni's comedies than is necessarily there. This pastoral jape (about a young nobleman whose eagerness to exercise his droit de seigneur, and then some, rouses the local peasantry) relies heavily on townie prejudices about simple bumpkins and the Northerner's patronising view of the South.

But the zaniness - not only in the acting but in the set and costumes - never lets up, and you start to wonder if the tone isn't a substitute for thinking about how to make the jokes work. Compared with the current production of The Impresario from Smyrna at the Old Red Lion, which ekes out the comedy by playing hard against it, this is thin stuff.

It's hard to think of a longer journey than the one from Goldoni's crackpot Neapolitan landscape to the down-at-heel, neurotic Los Angeles charted in John Steppling's The Dream Coast, as seen at the White Bear. This is, as the title implies, a shadowy location - judging by the terse, elliptical vernacular, situated somewhere between David Mamet's Chicago and Elmore Leonard's Miami (Steppling wrote the screenplay for Leonard's 52 Pick- Up, if that's a recommendation).

The play revolves around Weldon and Marliss, a couple of losers fresh off a Greyhound from Oklahoma City. They fall in with Wilson, an ageing, failed actor, and his associate Drew, a hard man with connections to organised crime. Weldon wants to get into movies, but Drew, with wholly ulterior motives, gets him a job as a security guard. Marliss gets into drugs and retreats into other kinds of dreams.

The hackneyed storyline - anomie and disillusionment at the end of the rainbow - wouldn't matter if it had a little more energy, or if the actors in Steppling's own production seemed to have the measure of his throwaway dialogue. As it is, you feel that there are depths in the play that haven't been properly plumbed.

Nobody expects depths from the Open Air Theatre's annual romp through A Midsummer Night's Dream - the need to shout the lines against the rustling of the trees guarantees that. All the same, Deborah Paige's version could afford to cut down a bit on the slapstick - you get the impression that a lot of the running around here is done to attract your attention rather than with any plausible dramatic motive.

It's also a problem that the fairies, in mirror shades and velvet tail coats, look like Pan's People's enactment of an acid trip. Under the tackiness, though, there are some performances worth seeing - particularly Cameron Blakely's satyric Puck and Rebecca Egan'sintelligent, straightforward Helena. Also, when it gets boring you can watch bats. Against the week's other dreams and fancies, this one comes off rather well.

'His Lordship's Fancy' continues till 2 July at the Gate, Notting Hill, London W6 (071-229 0706). 'The Dream Coast', to 19 June, White Bear, Kennington SE11 (071-793 9193). 'A Midsummer Night's Dream', in rep to September at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park (071-486 2431)

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