Anna Christie & The Day I Stood Still

Hosted by
Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie," now at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice, is the kind of theatre that, well, sneaks up on you. This 1922, Pulitzer prize-winning drama is your basic "hooker with the heart of gold" tale, not the first nor the last to be told. And since we've all been around the block with O'Neill, and everyone on the planet but me has seen the 1930s Garbo flick, you might be tempted to say, "Why bother?" Don't.

Because this "Anna Christie" - in the hands of director Gar Campbell, some excellent actors and the top notch design crew at PRT - is something you owe yourself.

Sure, it starts slow: longshoremen downing shots in a waterfront saloon; a pedestrian slice o' life at sea. Nothing happens to knock your socks off as we meet the old Dutch sailor Christopher Christopherson. And even when his long-estranged daughter Anna comes into the bar - she of the title - it's all too real and salty and soused with whisky for many sparks to fly. Partly because Chris, with his heavy Swedish accent and old-world ways, only sees what he wants to in Anna - a frail young girl, not the frayed , cynical prostitute she's become. And at this point, Anna's admittedly "tired to death," just out of the hospital and turning to her father for help. She hates men more than she hates herself, but she "didn't go wrong all in one jump," she says, and is willing to reinvent herself, to wash herself clean out at sea.

Right. We're hooked. The entire cast of "Anna Christie" is easy and thorough, chewing on O'Neill's language - lines like "I got your number the minute you stepped in the door" - as if they were peanuts. The lead roles in Campbell's ship-shape production are double cast, but in the performance I saw, Lesley Fera's Anna was every bit as hard-edged and heart-breaking as she ought to be, a strong presence who subtly guides the course of the play. Bruce French is delightful as her father, a decent man afraid of the truth, and as the irrepressible Irish sailor they literally pull from the ocean, Matt McKenzie manages to balance bravado and vulnerability, molding his Mat Burke into an often comic romantic hero worthy of any heroine . . . especially one with a past. So by the time Anna feels compelled to make a clean breast of it, own up to everything and risk driving away both men after she discovers she loves them, we're all on board with her, pulling for her and her chance of a new life. But not forgetting her father's warnings about "that old devil sea."

"Anna Christie" plays at Pacific Resident Theatre through March 10. Across town, at Hollywood's Elephant Theatre, is a somewhat new play about love and delayed self-discovery. Premiered in 1998, British playwright Kevin Elyot's "The Day I Stood Still" is getting its US debut by some very talented people. Question: with all that talent, why this play?

In "The Day I Stood Still," time supposedly stopped at 17 for one London schoolboy, when he found out the boy he was in love with didn't feel the same way. The play starts when we meet Horace some years later, approaching middle age as a staid homosexual, not doing much besides being a befuddled guy when an old friend and her new beaux stop by unexpectedly at a really bad time. The friend happens to be the free-spirited ex-wife of his boyhood love, who happened to have died a year ago, but before this untimely death (which by an odd twist of fate Horace feels responsible for) happened to have asked Horace to be the godfather of their son. Who happens to be gay, and . . . Okay. Let's just say that the coincidences don't stop there.

Actor Timothy McNeil is terrific as Horace - funny and absolutely adorable - and surrounded by a more than decent cast, who handle some nifty, clever, clever dialogue quite well, and Milton Justice directs with a smooth touch. But "The Day I Stood Still" is an overly-long, thin play constructed with so many promissory notes . . . there's just no way to pay them all off. And even if by some miracle this talented bunch, I don't see that the return would be anything new or particularly valuable.

At the Elephant Theatre through February 17.

This Jennie Webb with Theatre Talk for KCRW.