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FROM THIS EPISODE

Dublin in the Desert

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

A staging of The Gary Plays, the first three works in a tetrology by Murray Mednick, is one of the most engaging and ambitious local theater events of the past few seasons. Unfortunately, it-s also one of the most frustrating.

This production marks another return or reincarnation of the legendary Los Angeles theater group, the Padua Playwrights. Once located in the hills above Pomona, the Padua operation, founded by Mednick, has landed for a short time in Venice. Given the settings of The Gary Plays--and Padua-s history of environmental stagings--the new venue is quite appropriate.

The Gary Plays investigate the life of man named, not surprisingly, Gary. Gary is a struggling actor who inhabits the West Side and embarks on a personal odyssey of sorts after the death of his son.

This simple but heroic story is spread out over three plays--which allows Mednick to use the stage as a place for long meditations on ideas such as identity, acting, artifice, reality and of course, Los Angeles itself.

The acting is of a high quality throughout, and the sparse production overseen by Mednick and Guy Zimmerman, is both efficient and evocative. The only quibble with the performances is the music, which is often sonically interesting, but rarely effective in underscoring the drama.

What-s frustrating about The Gary Plays are the texts themselves. The writing is couched in the language of Los Angeles: things are described as if in a screenplay and clich-s abound. These and other aspects of lazy L.A. lingo are used self-consciously; but unclear language on stage--even when appropriate to the setting--can be problematic.

What emerges over the four hours of The Gary Plays is a sprawling, unfocused, but extremely honest attempt to plum the soul of this city--and render it on stage. It-s not a stretch to say that Mednick-s Gary is a sort of L.A. Leopold Bloom.

Comparisons to Ulysses are always dangerous, but Mednick-s style and ambition are indeed Joycean . The Los Angeles River may be a mere trickle compared to the River Liffey, but The Gary Plays surge with a desire to find--in the seemingly mundane wanderings of one man--the very soul of a city.

Since we-re on the subject of James Joyce, it seems appropriate to mention a new musical about Joyce and his wife, Nora Barnacle, that-s currently running in San Diego.

It would be great to report that Joyce-s daring, modernist use of language has been set to equally innovative music; but sadly that-s not the case with Himself and Nora, a show by Sheila Walsh and Jonathan Brielle that will leave serious fans of Joyce--or musical theater--needing a stiff infusion of Guinness to forget what they-ve seen.

The show could be called -Disney-s Dublin- as it takes the complex narrative of Joyce and his much-maligned muse and turns it into a simplistic story of an underdog artist and his true love. Because of this, Himself and Nora adds about as much to Joycean literature as the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland does to the study of ornithology.

The show is faithful to the spirit of Joyce-s life in one way, as the musical doesn-t shy away from the great writer-s passion for bawdiness and bodily functions. But rather than treat Joyce-s less polite aspects directly, the creators have chosen to simply pepper their conventional musical with a lot of vulgar jokes and choreography.

This might not have been so bad if the music reflected Joyce-s knotty poetry, but when scored to bland songs that seem ripped from an FM adult-contemporary station, the result is that watching Himself and Nora is a bit like hearing your grandparents rapping along to a 2 Live Crew or 50-Cent song. You have to commend them for trying, but it sure is uncomfortable to experience.

Himself and Nora continues through April 24 at the Old Globe Theatre; The Gary Plays run in repertory through May 8 at the Electric Lodge.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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