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Decline and Fall

This stage adaptation by the Shop Theatre Co. has the dubious distinction of making the visceral language of America's gutter laureate Charles Bukowski (1920-94) actually seem antiseptic. Marty Parker and James Penner have created a passable scenario, intertwining five of Bukowski's works. But under the tentative, rhythmless staging of Todd Fraser, a woefully uneven 17-member ensemble manages to sanitize and neutralize the grimy power of one of L.A.'s homegrown literary giants. The problems begin with the recurring on-stage narration of Jack Shearer's Lone Drinker, whose precise but ponderous voicing of the poet's vernacular-driven verse is better suited to "Our Town" than the seedy back streets of Bukowski's L.A. With Shearer serving as scene-changer, the production utilizes Bukowski's short vignettes to chronicle a day in the misshapen lives of the denizens of a lowlife bar somewhere in L.A. Unfortunately, Fraser's static direction creates a self-conscious rather than flowing interplay among the bar's habitues, performed by a cast that ranges from brilliant to embarrassing.

Jack Shearer (the Lone Drinker), John McKay (Carl), Clement Blake (Al), Darin Cooper (Kenny), Lyle Kanouse (Ted), Grant Cahill (Harold), Betty Porter (Victoria), Ruben Pia (Bob), Dyanne DiRosario (Carmen), David B. Gardner (Tony), Edward Blanchard (Mike), Marty Parker (Monty), Dalene Young (Donna), Todd Fraser (Mel), Kristopher Logan (Harry), Charlotte Booker (Erica).

At the high end of the performance spectrum are the two mainstays of this haven for human refuse, bartender Carl —performed with economical, rawboned intensity by John McKay — and semi-catatonic resident drunk Al (Clement Blake), whose booze-driven remembrance of his childhood friend Lila’s panties is a true highlight of the production. Also praiseworthy is the vignette “Beer at the Corner Bar,” featuring a dead-on performance by Edward Blanchard as Mike, a world-weary loner who refuses to relinquish his dignity and his concept of truth, despite the dangerous hostility he is creating among the bar regulars who surround him.

As the dynamics within the bar ebb and flow, a parade of Bukowski characters take center stage but fail to come to life. “The Writers,” featuring Nelson (Lyle Kanouse) and Harold (Grant Cahill), offers community theater-level portrayals of two effete would-be poets who have come to the bar to soak up the bohemian atmosphere.

Suffering the same fate are “Fooling Marie,” wherein accomplished gambler Ted (Michael Leopard) loses his pants to enterprising track hustler Victoria (Betty Porter); and “Bad Night,” highlighting a lonely evening in the life of Monty (Marty Parker), whose adventurous perusal of the pages of L.A. X-Press leads to a less than satisfying session with an enthusiastic but inept telephone sex operator (Dalene Young) and a potentially dangerous outing with a hostile call girl (Dyanne DiRosario) and her surly pimp (David B. Gardner).

The title piece, “Decline and Fall,” does illustrate Bukowski’s unique ability to make plausible the most grotesque human behavior as merely colorful character traits of otherwise sane and sensible people. Mel (Fraser) relates to Carl his afternoon of TV watching with happily married Harry (Kristopher Logan) and Erica (Charlotte), who nonchalantly serve roasted leg of transient for dinner (the rest of their cannibal fare is in the freezer) and top the evening off with an enthusiastic invitation to indulge in a bit of menage a trois.

Despite the inadequacies of the production, the set and lighting designs of Alex Grayman and Peter Edwards, respectively, create a proper environment for this journey through the mind of Charles Bukowski, as does the atmospheric sound design of Peter Stenshoel and the costumes of Mas Kondo.

Decline and Fall

Tamarind Theatre; 70 seats; $17 top; Opened and reviewed June 13

Production: The Shop Theatre Co. presents a play in one act based on the writings of Charles Bukowski, adapted for the stage by Marty Parker and James Penner, directed by Todd Fraser. Producer, David B. Gardner, associate producer, A.P. Gonzalez

Creative: Set design, Alex Grayman; lighting design, Peter Edwards; sound design, Peter Stenshoel; costume design, Mas Kondo. Opened and reviewed June 13; runs until July 27. Running time: 95 minutes.

Cast: Jack Shearer (the Lone Drinker), John McKay (Carl), Clement Blake (Al), Darin Cooper (Kenny), Lyle Kanouse (Ted), Grant Cahill (Harold), Betty Porter (Victoria), Ruben Pia (Bob), Dyanne DiRosario (Carmen), David B. Gardner (Tony), Edward Blanchard (Mike), Marty Parker (Monty), Dalene Young (Donna), Todd Fraser (Mel), Kristopher Logan (Harry), Charlotte Booker (Erica).

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