Putting Stock in 'Crimes of the Heart'

Crystal Bernard photo

From: Los Angeles Times 10/22/1999
By: Michael Phillips

Along with buggy whips, vaudeville and eight-track tapes, old-fashioned star-driven summer stock is a thing of decades past. Isn't it?

Why no, it isn't. It's somewhat alive and generally middling in 1999 Los Angeles.

Director Garry Marshall's production of "Crimes of the Heart" features Faith Ford, best known for "Murphy Brown"; Crystal Bernard of "Wings"; and Morgan Fairchild, lately on "Friends" and the odd Old Navy ad. The production inaugurates the first full season of Marshall's own Falcon Theatre in Burbank. Marshall's resume includes such two-word gold mines as "Happy Days," "Pretty Woman" and "Runaway Bride," along with a smattering of theater.

Thing is, I like summer stock, star-driven or otherwise. Unto itself it's a grand 20th century tradition of breathless, under-rehearsed, escapist theater, trading in well-worn titles and game performers laboring hard.

Here, they're laboring too hard.

Marshall's production also feels a bit like a taping of a TV series based on "Crimes of the Heart." The performances, some pretty good, some pretty lame, tend to divide Beth Henley's 20-year-old comedy into the theatrical equivalent of close-ups and reaction shots. It's every seriocomic Southern kook for herself up there.

Henley's play won the Pulitzer Prize and became her most profitable work to date. (It also became the overcooked 1986 film of the same name.) The material remains rock-solid yet disarmingly relaxed. It depicts a family reunion under duress in a small Mississippi town. Babe (Bernard) has shot her abusive husband. One sister, Lenny (Ford), is about to crack, having taken care of their grandfather for a too-long a spell without much help. The other sister, Meg (Stephanie Niznik, in an arch, check-these-out poseur's performance), has returned from L.A. to rally 'round the McGrath clan. Cousin Chick (Fairchild, passable but indistinct) provides plenty of insensitivity and moral rigidity for contrast. And, as coiffed for this production, Fairchild's helmet hair provides something akin to the San Onofre nuclear power plant. Without the nob on top.

Ford fares best. She repeats certain small-scale physical bits--the sudden, ineffectual arm-flailing chief among them--but there's a core of comic honesty in her playing. Bernard gets by on charm and easygoing timing, though too often, she takes such sweet time with her cue pickups it's as if she isn't sure who has what line next.

The prime over-actor is Jake Wall, playing Babe's defense attorney Barnette Lloyd (the role originated by Peter MacNicol). Playwright Henley called for an "intelligent young man with an almost fanatical intensity." Wall's small-town lawyer is a preadolescent dork, period. Cast straight out of Hunk Central, Paul Satterfield fares well enough as Doc Porter, Meg's old flame--although the second-act reunion scene, as acted by Satterfield and Niznik, is a classic illustration of how externals and overeagerness and "playing one thing while feeling another" can clutter up a scene but good.

The production is more uninspired than cluttered, in the main. Marshall obviously knows his comedy, and though everyone in this production seems to be in little productions of their own, there's considerable comic talent on view. But the Falcon can do better.