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Arts and Entertainment

"A House Not Made to Stand" Suffers From a Weak Foundation

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Sandy Martin and Daniel Billet in "A House Not Meant to Stand." (Photo by Ed Krieger)


Sandy Martin and Daniel Billet in "A House Not Meant to Stand." (Photo by Ed Krieger)
This is the centenary of Tennessee Williams' birth year, and as a result theatres all over the nation are honoring his plays, from the famous to the obscure. To this end, the Fountain Theatre has mounted a revival of A House Not Meant to Stand, his last produced work. Unfortunately, the script is a mess, combining warmed-over Williams greatest hits--mental illness, a roaring Big Daddy-like character, troubled gay son--and cartoonishly broad humor into an uneasy gumbo. The Fountain production, a West Coast premiere, is a professional rendering, although a couple of the performances fail to connect.

Cornelius (Alan Blumenfeld) and Bella (Sandy Martin) McCorkle have returned home late at night from the funeral of one of their sons, who died from alcoholism. Bella is tired and stunned from the tragedy, but Cornelius is full of bellicose energy, and notices amorous noises from upstairs. It turns out their surviving son, Charlie (Daniel Billet), has returned to the homestead with new girlfriend Stacey (Virginia Newcomb) in tow. Charlie is solicitous of Bella, but all Cornelius cares about is finding a stash of his in-laws' money he believes Bella has hidden, so he can fund a run for political office. Before the evening is over, neighbors and the police will visit, secrets will be revealed, and another tragedy will occur.

Martin is the best thing about the show, her Bella numbed by grief and a hard life and medicine but refusing to give up hope. Martin's performance is an oasis of subtlety amidst a sea of clamor, at times dryly funny but mainly a sad delineation of a woman coming to the end of her road. The final scene, wherein Bella sits at her dining room table as the images of her children play on the scrim before her, is elegiac and moving in a way the rest of the play doesn't even approach. Blumenfeld's role is essentially Big Daddy writ small, and although he brings humor and unflagging energy, the one-note character grows irksome after a while. Billet has even less to work with as Charlie, who seems to exist only to yell back and forth with Cornelius, and as a result never really registers.

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Williams apparently had a bee in his bonnet about born-again Christians when he wrote House, and this shows up in Stacey's character, who exists essentially so the playwright can mock them. That being said, Newcomb makes it work anyway with adroit comic skills, and turns the grotesquerie of Stacey's speaking in tongues scene as written into something a bit more interesting by playing it with dramatic conviction, not condescension. Lisa Richards captures the damaged damsel Williams vibe as the greedy Jessie, but Robert Craighead seems to be using too wide a brush as businessman Emerson, which he might improve by toning down the bluster.

Simon Levy's staging is proficient, but the quality of the acting is uneven, which doesn't help when you're putting up a work as flawed as this one. It feels like there's a good play in here somewhere, specifically in Bella's story, but Williams was unable to extricate it sufficiently. Jeff McLaughlin's decaying home set, complete with actual dripping water and green wallpaper that evokes rot, creates a rich ambience, but the scrim in front of the dining room section is so thick you often can't adequately make out scenes happening behind it. Peter Bayne's sound design effectively evokes a stormy night in the South.

A House Not Meant to Stand
The Fountain Theatre
5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood
Runs Th.-Sat. 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm, thru April 17
Tickets $18-30
(323) 663-1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com