John Irving (“The Cider House Rules”) penned “The Pension Grillparzer” as an example of the literary output of the fictional title character of his 1978 novel “The World According to Garp.” Adapter-helmer Mollie Boice has lifted this quirky little tale (including its narrative descriptions) word for word from the page and planted it on the stage of North Hollywood-based the Company Rep. Utilizing the self-narrative “story theater” techniques of Second City founder Paul Sills, Boice choreographs an impressively committed 13-member ensemble through this meandering coming-of-age tale, pounding out every syllable of the text. The unfortunate end result is a dominance of technique over content, overpowering the slight literary merits of Irving’s work.
The author has seen his work given similar treatment but on a much larger scale. In 1998 the Mark Taper Forum produced a sumptuous 6½-hour staging (in two parts) of his novel “The Cider House Rules,” with the actors voicing the author’s narrative portions of the novel as illumination for the dialogue. The sprawling complexity of the novel demanded this type of clarification. The underwhelming machinations of “Grillparzer” don’t.
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The storyline follows the childhood memories of the Narrator (Brandon Ford Green), looking back on his life as the son of a hotel critic (John Edwin Shaw), surreptitiously traveling the European countryside to judge the merits of mid-level commercial accommodations while never allowing the various innkeepers to know the true purpose of the visits. As the narrator recalls, it was a full family enterprise, including his imperious grandmother Johanna (Leslie Simms), always-accommodating Mother (Karen Reed) and his adventurous pre-teen brother Robo (Chase Morgan).
Boice cleverly moves the family about the limited Company rep stage area, highlighting the family dynamic as they utilize their luggage as set pieces and incorporate synchronized body movement to re-create their car journey. At first, their ongoing Greek chorus-like “he said” and “she responded” interjections come off as well-executed narrative illumination. But as the action moves forward, it’s quite apparent there is nothing being said or explained that requires this intrusive device. The second act becomes texturally more interesting as the hotel critic and family find themselves in temporary residence at the near-squalid Pension Grillparzer, run by constantly overwhelmed innkeeper Herr Theobald (Tony Burton).
Irving’s talent for inventing memorably offbeat characters is realized by the hotel’s inhabitants, the tattered remnants of a Hungarian circus troupe. Entangling themselves within the lives of the hotel critic’s family are the mysterious Dream Man (Tony Edwards), a slatternly Gypsy woman (Bobbi Stamm), an aging lothario known as the Singer (Philip McKeown), the life-challenged Man Who Walks on His Hands (Steve Show) and that icon of almost every John Irving work, an emotionally unstable unicycle-riding bear (Jon Bastian).
Though often intriguing, there is nothing thematically complex about the sad shenanigans experienced by the Pension’s inhabitants that need to be highlighted by the narrative overlay. In fact, the action would carry a lot more dramatic tension if the dialogue were allowed to stand on its own.
Among the generally capable perfs, Leslie Simms is memorable as Johanna, a haughty grand dame who has her emotional stability crushed by the all-too-perceptive musings of the Dream man.
Giving this work added veracity are the evocative production designs of Luke Moyer (sets and lights) and Hope Alexander (costumes), as well the mood-enhancing original score of Max Kinberg.