If a critic's role is to assess how well a piece of work fulfills its intention, that neat formula is upset by Alison Carey's "For Here or to Go." It is exuberant, occasionally rousing and too good-natured to let its agit-prop sermonizing turn to lead. It's also a mess. That may be beside the point, however. The Cornerstone Theater Co., which is staging the play, is a community activist group whose mission is to reach out to people in all walks of life -- mostly minorities and the disenfranchised -- and put them to work in the theater in adaptations that reflect their experiences. Thus the emphasis shifts, as the group's intention is more civic than theatrical. That may make it as unfair to carp about 35 Cornerstone amateurs onstage as it would be to complain that Luis Valdez's early El Teatro Campesino farmworkers lacked classical theater training.

Alison Carey’s “For Here or to Go?” is exuberant, occasionally rousing and too good-natured to let its agit-prop sermonizing turn to lead. It’s also very uneven.

That may be beside the point, however. The Cornerstone Theater Co., which is staging the play, is a community activist group whose mission is to reach out to people in all walks of life — mostly minorities and the disenfranchised — and put them to work in the theater in adaptations that reflect their experiences.

Thus the emphasis shifts, as the group’s intention is more civic than theatrical. That may make it as unfair to carp about 35 Cornerstone amateurs onstage as it would be to complain that Luis Valdez’s early El Teatro Campesino farmworkers lacked classical theater training.

Besides, where else will you get to see real LAPD officers form a chorus line with fast-food servers to sing “The Impossible Dream?”

Still, playing the Mark Taper Forum does raise the ante.

African-Americans Mr. and Mrs. Merchant (Larry Dozier, Theodora Hardie) own the Food for the Soul restaurant. Unfortunately, the Burger King has taken nearly all their business — and they’re about to be evicted by villainous white landlord Mr. Humphrey (Peter Howard).

It’s all well and good that very different people touch their lives, and that no less than 15 cast members pretend to be part of the audience offering comment and protest. But there has to be some central premise, not a series of vignettes designed to honor people of all sexes, ages, races and creeds and rocket them to various sites on the flimsiest of pretexts.

The script has more problems. The Merchants won’t let their daughter date the young Islamic waiter Nabil (Ahmad Enani), but they do entrust her — some might say sell her — to Mr. Humphrey in exchange for a stay of eviction.

Ironically, most of the performances are competent, sometimes even better than that (Omar Gomez grows heroically as an employee of the month turned firebrand activist, and Rob Kendt, a real-life drama critic, joins the show as a fine musician).

What’s more, the quartet of musicians, Michael Abels, Dave Brown, Kerry Morris and Ryo Okumoto, are skilled in a variety of musical genres.

Unfortunately, the writing and conception — what a company works on first before putting on a show — turn out to incoherent.

“For Here or to Go?” does have the season’s rambunctious spirit, and at least someone’s trying to do something beside “A Christmas Carol.” If only spirit were all it took.

For Here or to Go?

Mark Taper Forum; 750 seats; $24

Production

A Center Theater Group/Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County/Mark Taper Forum presentation, in association with the Cornerstone Theater Co., of a musical in two acts, based on Francis Beaumont's "The Knight of the Burning Pestle." Directed by Bill Rauch. Book, Alison Carey. Music and lyrics, Michael Abels and Shishir Kurup.

Creative

Choreography, Jessica Wallenfels. Sets, Lynn Jeffries; costumes, Christopher Acebo; lighting, Geoff Korf; sound, Paul James; music direction, Michael Abels; fight direction, Randy Kovitz; stage manager, Paula Donnelly. Opened, reviewed, Dec. 17, 19, 2000. Running time: 145 MIN.

Cast

With: Ahmad Enani, Omar Gomez, Peter Howard, Shishir Kurup, Page Leong, Armando Molina.
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