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Agnes (act one)/

Hildegarde ….. Kate Burton

Andrew (act one)/

George….. Adam Grupper

Flo/Mrs. Hasselbach ….. Amy Wright

Randolph/Wally Patoni ….. Joshua Harto

Mrs. Larry/

Mrs. Garcia ….. Pamela Nyberg

Uncle Ambrose ….. Alan North

Agnes (act two) ….. Betty Wright

Mr. Ede/Vinnie ….. Doc Dougherty

Monica ….. Nathalie Paulding

Andrew (act two) ….. Ralph Waite

Lake Hollywood,” a new play that closes the Signature Theater Co.’s John Guare season, is a disappointingly discombobulated piece of work. There are passages in the play that reveal this idiosyncratic writer at the top of his form, still magically marrying absurdity and despair with the aid of his own, strange brand of verbal facility, but the surreal menage that Guare depicts in the first act seems self-consciously and somewhat pointlessly eccentric, and the absurdist tone he strives unsuccessfully to establish is abandoned completely in the more straightforward, contemporary second act. Watching the play is like sorting through the debris of a thrift shop. There are plenty of oddly amusing little gewgaws around, but none of it really goes together.

The play opens in 1940, as New Yorkers Agnes (Kate Burton) and her would-be beau Andrew (Adam Grupper) take a weekend getaway at her family’s lakeside New Hampshire home. It is Aug. 15, the day of the Feast of the Assumption for Catholics, and Agnes insists on immersing herself in the lake’s waters because she believes the blessed mother has on this day invested them with the power to heal.

All is not well at the homestead: The pair find the family — Agnes’ sister Flo (Amy Wright), her preposterously young husband, Randolph (Joshua Harto), and his mother, Mrs. Larry (Pamela Nyberg) — camped out in the front yard, playing bridge. Fires in the neighborhood have them ready to jump in the lake for more pressing reasons than its putative miraculous qualities.

Flo greets Agnes with sisterly disaffection, soon pouncing on Andrew as a potential spouse for Larry, who she suspects may not be Randy’s mother. Larry is a B movie Marlene Dietrich given to mysterious pronouncements that Nyberg drawls out with an arch Germanic accent: “Do you ever think perhaps the whole world is on fire?” (Flo later reveals Larry’s Euro-vamp act is a put-on: She’s really from Berlin, N.H.)

Guare’s dialogue ricochets with his familiar, disarming deadpan quirkiness, but the oddball relationships seem somewhat synthetic and not a little precious, until the strange encounter between Andrew and Agnes’ Uncle Ambrose (Alan North) that spins out a variation on a favorite Guare theme: America’s obsession with the ennobling glamour of celebrity. This exchange — in which Ambrose tells of a potentially life-changing meeting with Spencer Tracy — is a classic Guare set piece about the depths of melancholy life holds for all, and it’s beautifully acted by North and Grupper.

Also well done is the conclusion of the first act, as Agnes, optimistic in the face of humiliation, and Andrew, himself facing a life of uncertainty and failure (he’s recently lost his job at the Velvet Soap Co.: “I’m dead in the world of soap”), agree to marry. Their gradual accommodation to the less-than-romantic nature of their alliance is funny, sad and affecting.

Although Guare has said one of the themes in “Lake Hollywood” is the idea that we remain very much the products of our past — the obsessions that haunt our youth are the same ones that dog us to our graves — the markedly different style of the play’s second act seems to contradict that notion.

It’s hard to recognize in Betty Miller’s wan Agnes the perky, hoping-against-hope woman of 50-some years prior. Indeed the whole, strange world of the first act seems to have disappeared into thin air; the characters who populate the Manhattan-set second act are distinctly more mundane creatures, who would not be out of place in a Neil Simon comedy.

Agnes and Andrew’s kvetching daughter Hildegarde (played by Burton) and her harried husband, George (played by Grupper), have come to Manhattan from New Jersey along withtheir teen daughter Monica (Nathalie Paulding) to accompany Agnes to the hospital, where she is having exploratory surgery.

With Hildegarde bemoaning a potential move to Spokane while browbeating her mother for not having an appropriate suitcase, the play begins to sound like one of Simon’s more sour productions. And Guare’s lightning changes in tone are not always artfully navigated in Doug Hughes and Itamar Kubovy’s production (the play’s stylistic uncertainties may have been abetted by having two directors).

From nowhere comes a rant from Hildegarde about her miserable childhood spent listening to her parents’ arguments (strangely belied by Miller and Waite’s becalmed rapport).

Central to the second act is Agnes’ eventual revelation to Andrew of a terrifying experience from her past — a disturbing assault that left her ever fearful the assailant would somehow find her again. But previous references to this event apparently have been excised from the production (they appear in the script), so the play’s emotional climax — Agnes’ deliverance from this fear — isn’t particularly moving, despite honest, unadorned performances from Waite and Miller.

Indeed there is fine work from most of the cast, but it’s in the service of a play that never seems to decide where exactly it’s going. There are too many disparate themes, jokes, characters and styles swimming around in the murky depths of “Lake Hollywood” for the play as a whole to make a strong impression.

Lake Hollywood

(COMEDY-DRAMA; SIGNATURE THEATER; 148 SEATS; $ 45)

  • Production: A Signature Theater Co. presentation of a play in two acts by John Guare. Directed by Doug Hughes & Itamar Kubovy.
  • Crew: Sets, E. David Cosier; costumes, Teresa Snider-Stein; lighting, Michael Chybowski & Joe Saint; sound, Red Ramona; production stage manager, Amanda W. Sloan. Artistic director, James Houghton. Opened April 29, 1999. Reviewed April 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 20 MIN.
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