In launching its "inaugural" season with Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Crimes of the Heart," Garry Marshall's Falcon Theater has opted for safe and respectable material. Marshall's production of the play is safe and respectable, too, casting a bevy of female TV stars, some shown off to better effect than others.

In launching its “inaugural” season with Beth Henley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Crimes of the Heart,” Garry Marshall’s Falcon Theater has opted for safe and respectable material. Marshall’s production of the play is safe and respectable, too, casting a bevy of female TV stars, some shown off to better effect than others.

Like so many other Pulitzer winners, Henley’s play seems a bit light these days. Its comedy is well-crafted but utterly predictable, its fey Southern Gothic sensibility a bit too familiar at this point. Indeed, were it not for its length, “Crimes” could be a sitcom. Perhaps it’s precisely that quality that appeals to Marshall, who made his name with such tube successes as “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Mork & Mindy.”

The story of three discontented sisters (shades of Chekhov) reunited by crisis, “Crimes” examines in fairly straightforward fashion how life rarely turns out as we expect. Lenny McGrath (Faith Ford) is a tightly wound, if sympathetic, spinster. Her sister Meg (Stephanie Niznik), also unmarried, fled to California to pursue a singing career, but she has returned to the small Mississippi town of her youth because sister Babe (Crystal Bernard) has shot her husband under mysterious circumstances. Though the action takes place over only two days, a host of conflicts get resolved by play’s end (shades of Neil Simon).

To Marshall’s credit, Henley’s play does not drag, though it easily might–at two hours and 45 minutes.

Faith Ford’s commanding turn as Lenny most holds our interest. In a refreshingly unself-conscious perf, Ford (“Murphy Brown”) demonstrates that she has the stuff for the stage. Her tears seem real, her laughter unforced. But it’s her earnest, goofy manner, complete with shy smiles, that really beguiles. Legit producers should take note.

No one else in the cast is quite that good, though Jake Wall is delightful in his zealous portrayal of Babe’s aw-shucks lawyer, Barnette Lloyd. Morgan Fairchild’s efficient energy is also welcome; she’s a good choice for Chick Boyle, the McGrath sisters’ annoying, cheapskate cousin. Niznik seems too mature to play the wayward Meg, and Bernard (from the cast of “Wings”) needs to tone down the cute factor in her portrayal of Babe. The strapping Paul Satterfield proves fine as Doc Porter, the object of much McGrath lust.

Akeime Mitterlehner’s set, a middle-class kitchen, serves its function well, if not memorably. But Karyl Newman’s costumes seem unflattering in the extreme, save for Chick’s tight dresses. Dan Weingarten’s lighting is standard-issue.

Crimes of the Heart

Falcon Theater, Burbank; 99 seats; $30 top

Production

A Falcon Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Beth Henley. Directed by Garry Marshall.

Creative

Sets, Akeime Mitterlehner; costumes, Karyl Newman; lighting, Dan Weingarten; sound, Steve Goodie; stage manager, Kevin Larkin. Opened and reviewed Oct. 20, 1999. Closes Nov. 28. Running time: 2 HOURS, 45 MIN.

Cast

Lenny McGrath - Faith Ford Chick Boyle - Morgan Fairchild Doc Porter - Paul Satterfield Meg McGrath - Stephanie Niznik Babe Botrelle - Crystal Bernard Barnette Lloyd - Jake Wall
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