'Better' is good look at woman's attempt at great happiness

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic
Review: 'Better' has moments of lively loopiness from the Echo Theater Company about a woman's midlife crisis

The old conundrums about happiness — who's entitled and whether it can be lastingly achieved — are at the heart of Jessica Goldberg's "Better," which is having its world premiere courtesy of the Echo Theater Company.

This domestic drama, about an attractive New York restaurateur who returns home to Ohio to be there for her father who's dying of cancer, proceeds for the most part along predictable lines. But there are moments in which the author's signature loopiness — her gift for catching her characters at embarrassingly oblique angles — enlivens what might be described as made-for-TV Chekhov.

Annie (Meredith Bishop), pushing 40 though still able to squeeze into slim jeans, is in the throes of a midlife crisis. In addition to the confrontation with parental mortality and the issue of who will take over her father's gourmet food store once he dies, she's grappling with marital troubles that are compounded by her husband's profession.

Cal (Johnathan McClain), a bestselling self-help guru, carries his book's banal New Age message home. Whether Annie is mad, sad, confused or guilt-ridden, he wants her to breathe and stay in the moment.

No wonder she finds her old high school flame, Frank (Malcolm Madera), a carpenter who also still looks good in jeans, so irresistible again. He doesn't will his feelings away with meditative mumbo jumbo, but is she willing to trade one old dream of happiness for an even older one?

The play, directed by Jennifer Chambers on an effectively bare-bones set by Stephen Gifford, makes the case that provisional contentment is probably a more realistic goal than bliss.

Bishop's Annie and Madera's Frank winningly enact their romantic fumble. Joe Spano is softly wonderful as Annie's dying dad and Andrea Grano as Frank's former wife is a pleasure-seeking missile with an errant GPS system. If only the play were as springily original as her character.

Twitter: @CharlesMcNulty

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'Better'

Where: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village

When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. End Nov. 16.

Tickets: $25

Info: (310) 307-3753, http://www.EchoTheaterCompany.com

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

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