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Genial Comedy Evokes Simon Dynamics Through February 19

INCIDENT AT OUR LADY OF PERPETUAL HELP feels like the type of play that Neil Simon might have written had he been both Irish Catholic and not as good a playwright as he was.

We've got a memory play about big, sprawling multi-generational family of a certain religion (in this case Irish Catholic) living right on top of each other; a precocious narrator; a gust of nostalgia for an era gone by masquerading as cynicism; crises big and small and important heartfelt life lessons. This isn't Brighton Beach and playwright Katie Forgette isn't Neil Simon. Still, Ann Hearn Toblowsky's staging of INCIDENT for Theatre Forty makes for a diverting enough outing. After spending 90 minutes with the O'Shea family, we can thank whatever gods we pray to that we A. did not grow up in the early 1970s, B. that we do have the Internet and C. this loving but dysfunctional family is not our own.

Our narrator, Linda O'Shea, (played by Ivy Khan) recounts a couple of days in her life when a bunch of things went rather dramatically off the rails. Because she's directly addressing the audience in the act of telling/constructing her story, other members of her family chime in looking to augment the tale, give their spin, score a juicy monologue, etc. She's supposed to be sympathetic, but there are, trutfully, more congenial people than Linda. When you consider that the action she takes that launches this mayhem is a rather unkind one, it's probably a good thing that Khan comes across as a more likeable persona than the person she is playing.

But before we get to the incident in question, a bit more about the O'Sheas. We have Linda's mother, Jo (Alison Blanchard), a pillar of the neighborhood who is overworked both inside her home and out. Jo's sister Terri (Milda Dacys) is smarter and less long-suffering than Jo and the two sisters take turns ministering to Jo's mother-in-law, Grandmother O'Shea, an invalid whose recorded voice barks orders from upstairs. Linda's father (Jo's husband) Mike (Patrick Skelton) works in a garage, is accustomed to being waited on and occasionally fixes things around the house. Linda's kid sister Becky (Danika Hughey), age 13, is going through a detective phase, which means she dresses like Humphrey Bogart and totes around a cumbersome - but still concealable - tape recorder. This item will be important.

It's 1973 and the O'Sheas live in a parish under the watchful eye of Father Lovett (Skelton again). On the day in question, Mike injures himself and is confined to a bed next to his mother. Linda's boyfriend - the same boyfriend she plans to run off with to go to Stanford - has stopped returning her calls which is problematic since she has some important information to share with him. When Jo instructs Linda to give Becky "the talk" about menstruation and how babies are made, a resentful Linda does so with all the sisterly sensitivity of a wildebeest stampede. Not only does a horrified Becky record this talk, she ends up playing the speech for a hugely disapproving Father Lovett who threatens to reveal all to Mike. It falls to Terri to set things right. There's also an obnoxious busybody of neighbor, Mrs. Heckenbach (Skelton, yet again) who overheard Father Lovett going apoplectic over the tape and is trying to get to the bottom of things. Since the resolution of the Father Lovett brouhaha doesn't involve her, Linda actually drops out of her own story for a bit. But she returns to talk about a fateful visit to the doctor with her mother and to sum up and let us know how everybody turned out in the future.

Under Tobolowsky's direction, Forgette's blend of sitcom-y hijinks and family pathos tilts more heavily toward the laughs. The playwright may have been angling to write a more heartfelt work, but it doesn't help matters that, with the possible exception of Linda, most of the characters of PERPETUAL HELP exist here either to set the titular incident in motion, to perpetuate it or to solve it. Playing both the most entertaining character and the savior or everyone's bacon, Dacys cunningly steals every scene in which she appears. Skelton's triple duty work is good for several laughs (who can't get behind a loathsome snoop, played in drag?) Hughey works some nice insights with Becky, but her character doesn't have enough to do. How interesting - and, sure, Simon-esque - might things have turned out if Becky, not Linda, had been the play's central figure.

In their creation of the O'Shay's household, scenic designer Jeff Rack, costume designer Michele Young and prop master Ernest McDaniel effectively take us back to a time that was aesthetically rather frightful. You'd think this household might have a crucifix larger and more prominently displayed than the size of a fabric swatch. And on the nitpicking front, although we never see one on stage, I'm not entirely sure what the Rubik's Cube is doing on the program graphics since that toy didn't get to America until 1980.

All that aside, Tobolwsky and the cast make it such that we care enough about the O'Shays to hope they turn out okay. And god bless those clandestine recordings. Where would all manner of sitcoms and political thrillers be without them!

INCIDENT AT OIR LADY OF PERPETUAL HELP plays through February 19 at the Mary Levin Cutler Theatre, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.

Photo of (L-R) Danika Hughey, Milda Dacys and Ivy Khan by Michele Young.

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