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Wanna-bee Albee

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

A few week's back, this show referred to Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf as Edward Albee's &quotfirst; play," an unfortunate slip of the tongue that neglected the playwright's five earlier works--including one of this host's favorite Albee plays, a short masterpiece called The Sandbox.

Incidentally, the following week, a new revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf opened on Broadway staring Kathleen Turner in the role of Martha. This revival has garnered excellent reviews, which along with a profile about the playwright in The New Yorker, and the production of The Goat here at the Taper, has meant that Edward Albee is right now very much in season.

Against this backdrop, South Coast Repertory has staged the world premiere of a prominent new play, which sadly can only be described as a desperate attempt to emulate the style and manners of Mr. Albee.

A Naked Girl on the Appian Way is the unfortunate title of an even more unfortunate work by Richard Greenberg, a playwright who is considered one of the rising stars in American theater. His play Take Me Out (seen earlier this season at the Geffen) won him both the Tony Award and the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best play--which seemed to confirm the talent he showed with his work Three Days of Rain (which also received its world premiere at SCR and went on to be short-listed for a Pulitzer.)

Do not expect similar honors for A Naked Girl on the Appian Way, as it does not posses any of the drama, insight, or emotion that Three Days of Rain showed--nor does it even have the efficient competency of most of Greenberg's other work.

All this new play offers is a shallow look at wealthy Long Islanders and a cheap attempt to earn laughs by glibly addressing an uncomfortable social topic.

Like his earlier (and better) play Eastern Standard, Greenberg takes a collection of kooky personalities and puts them together in the Hamptons--and then he starts adding elements of Albee: arguments over grammar, repressed marital problems, and of course, a big shocking sexual taboo ala The Goat.

But whereas Albee used bestiality as a means to investigate tragedy, Greenberg merely exploits the gag potential of incest--in this case a brother marrying his sister--to try and give weight to what might be generously called a light comedy.

What's most shocking about A Naked Girl... is not that it fails to be profound; but rather, that it fails even on a basic &quotPlaywrighting; 101" level. The exposition is so clunky in the opening scenes, that it's hard to imagine Greenberg has ever written for the stage, let alone that he wrote the famous &quotMarz; Monologue" from Take Me Out.

In A Naked Girl... the audience witnesses a mother and father describe to each other the names of their children, their ages, and then later, this same couple tells each other their respective professions--for a while one might think the problem wasn't Greenberg's writing, but rather that the characters suffered from amnesia. But once the whole family is reunited, it becomes clear that Greenberg's pen--and not the characters' memory--is at fault. None of the people in the play talk as if they are speaking to family relations; instead they all talk at each other as if giving highbrow talks at the Sag Harbor Cultural Center.

Perhaps this is Greenberg's point, that people who live under the same roof for twenty years, really don't know each other--but the problem with Greenberg's Hamptons clan is not that they're dysfunctional; the problem is that it feels as if they all met for the first time on stage.

Director Mark Rucker and his actors don't help matters much--though one has to pity them given the flimsy material. The only solid element to the production is the spacious set design by Tony Fanning. The kitchen and living room are the very model of a posh, but casual Hamptons manse.

Given Greenberg's disappointing text, perhaps a more probing point about materialism could have been made by having the curtain go up and down with only silence in between, letting the sub-zero fridge and other the other accoutrements of upper-class living speak for themselves.

A Naked Girl on the Appian Way runs through May 8 at South Coast Repertory.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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