Aug. 13 2003 12:00 AM

The Country's solid dialogue begs for support


    Mind you, Richard and Corinne's sham of a marriage isn't just any sham of a marriage. It's a smarmy little forum for intellectual one-upmanship, a festival of cerebral thrusts and parries, a war between two miserable human beings who never quite face the adversities in the life they've built.

    Corinne is major SOL if she expects to score so much as a smooch from her emotionally bankrupt husband. For his part, Richard's up to his skinny little ass with Corinne's nit-picking on his choice of vocabulary and her obsession with things as innocuous as the taste of the tap water at their English countryside home.

    Even as the characters jockey for position, The Country beckons us into their realm. They're bright, young, attractive, inquisitive folk whose nagging often seems more like sport than confrontation. Like all good absurdist theater, this play relies chiefly on language to create that effect, and British playwright Martin Crimp has contrived a richly staccato dialogue to great advantage. But while this La Jolla Playhouse American premiere is a worthwhile entry, it's also swindled by some logistical pressures and unremarkable casting to type. Too frequently, it prohibits the eye from absorbing what the ear has advanced.

    The couple's marital despond will deepen with the arrival of Rebecca (Emily Bergl), a young woman supposedly found unconscious on the side of a road. Richard (Gary Cole), a doctor, has taken her in, ostensibly to see to her welfare. But soon, it's apparent that this gal knows a lot more about crazy ol' Richard and his practice than she's telling. The cat-and-mouse exchanges among the trio slowly yield her true identity, further testing Richard and Corinne's shaky marital resolve. Despite the screws that firebrand Rebecca so deftly and forcefully turns, the union endures.

    Crimp has been compared with Harold Pinter, the renowned fellow Briton whose plays feature equally dark entanglements, purposely underdeveloped subplots and an almost predatory tone. Pinter's The Dumb Waiter contains a hilarious scene where two men gravely mull the propriety of the phrase "light the gas" versus "light the kettle," not unlike Corinne's preoccupation with the word "solicitous." The Room, Pinter's first work, is full of anticlimactic declarations like the ones Richard makes ("The opposite of fucking the maid," he expounds to the provocatively posed Rebecca, "is not fucking the maid!"). Both Crimp and Printer are grounded in their gift for the absurd-they dwell and dwell some more on the commonplace, blowing it out of all proportion until fiction transcends fact.

    Such language seeks equally ornate casting. And for its many merits, that's where The Playhouse's production falls quite short, starting with a far too pretty Catherine Dent as Corinne. Dent's quiet good looks and comely figure completely undermine the character's dread over the state of her marriage, especially given her fixated, singsong dialogue. Corinne would be much more believable as a less attractive basket case, someone in the mold of a young Eileen Heckart or a Jennifer Jason Leigh at her most chubby. Such stature would further suggest the couple's emotional distance, especially against Cole's chiseled frame and lithe gait.

    Cole comes the closest to explaining Richard's reason for being. Richard is a self-absorbed bastard who likely has no use for his offstage colleague Morris beyond professional correctness. Cole's farsighted glower and cavalier demeanor work well accordingly. But again, this is absurdist fare. Too-frequent costume changes, more severity to the makeup, even a greater use of overhead lighting: some or all would have lent that absurdist edge to Richard's over-the-top intent.

    Bergl's excellent performance is exemplified in one outstanding scene, in which Rebecca berates Richard unto his emasculation. She briskly paces the floor and climbs a chair to make her point, and it's there we come to appreciate her wheedling voice and her quirky homages to the Roman poet-philosopher, Virgil. But the actor's appearance is ever so slightly off-center. Her pixilated features clash with Richard's motives for bringing her home in the first place-surely, someone as callous and unhappily married as Richard wouldn't dream of sharing his home with anything less than a trophy stranger.

    Director Lisa Peterson has engineered the action well, coaxing the appropriate range of speeches and blocking the performers with pinpoint precision along the stage's wide-open spaces. And designer Rachel Hauck has produced an excellent set, its oversize spiral staircase and shuffleboard-size table swallowing the players into the melee. Yet such distortion of the space never applies to the actors themselves. Watching this production of The Country is a little like imagining President Bush in a recitation of the Gettysburg Address: as the messenger lacks a certain credibility, so too does the otherwise inspiring message.

    This review is based on the opening night performance of Aug. 3. The Country runs through Aug. 31 at the La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Forum. $35-$49.

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