Paul Rubenstein / City Garage

PENNY-WISE: Cynthia Mance, Troy Dunn (foreground) and Mariko Oka (background) perform in Mac Wellman's "Bad Penny" at City Garage Theatre in Santa Monica. (Paul Rubenstein / City Garage)

"A bad penny always turns up" is a platitude that packs an unexpected existential punch, at least in the sardonic world of New York playwright Mac Wellman. In Wellman's Obie Award-winning short play, the titular "Bad Penny" opens a portal to the metaphysical abyss that yawns beneath the banality of a summer's day in Central Park -- and, by extension, beneath a society shaped by clichéd thought.

Staged with an austere pitch to the intellect by Frederíque Michel at Santa Monica's City Garage, the play's obsession with poetically fractured logic is sounded in the opening meditations of a recovering mental patient named Kat (Cynthia Mance), who wonders whether even the sky above is simply "a fake image of the true image of the sky."

Having just found a penny by a nearby fountain, Kat is plagued with superstitious misgivings about bad luck coming to those who touch it: They could suffer the pharaoh's curse, be eaten by trolls or be taken by the Boatman of Bow Bridge -- a latter-day Charon ferrying lost souls across the Central Park pond, in one of Wellman's sly juxtapositions of classical mythology.

Ducking fate, Kat gives the cursed penny to Ray (Troy Dunn), a toxic waste dump worker from Montana in search of a fix for the flat tire he's hauling, Sisyphus-like, through the park. Skeptic to the end, Ray ignores Kat's warning, oblivious to the ominous Boatman gliding up behind them.

Juggling illusions of normality, acquiescence to authority, paranoid conspiracy theories and toxic cheese, Wellman's witty, abstract use of language is consistently challenging. The presence of other characters does little to bridge the sense of isolation that permeates this monologue-heavy piece. The ensemble delivery is clear and capable, though some of the outlandishly petty bickering cries out for the humorous inflections of New York accents. When the entire ensemble comes together to sing a few verses of "You're Out of the Woods" from "The Wizard of Oz," the effect is pure irony -- no one gets off the hook here.

Though originally written for a site-specific staging at Central Park's Bow Bridge, Charles Duncombe's stylish production design effectively uses projected images and lighting to ease the translation to an enclosed space.


Philip Brandes

"Bad Penny," City Garage, 1340 1/2 4th St. (alley), Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 7. $20. (310) 319-9939. Running time: 55 minutes. City Garage

Going back to 'Last Summer'

Even Tennessee Williams' most outré plays carry unparalleled richness of language, which makes "Suddenly Last Summer" at GTC Burbank both worthy and frustrating. Lodestone Theatre Ensemble's spare Asian American take on Williams' purple 1958 one-act honors the text without unloosing its demons.

There is much to admire, starting with Kim Miyori and Elaine Kao in the principal roles. Miyori, gimlet-eyed and apt of accent, plays Violet Venable, a rich matron and smother mother. For decades, Mrs. Venable and son Sebastian had vacationed together, he her virtual spouse, she his magnet for handsome youths.

Until last summer, when, after ill health dimmed Mother's charms, Sebastian turned to nubile cousin Catherine Holly (Kao). He wound up dead, and Cathy returned a shattered soul telling a horrific story nobody believes.

Mrs. Venable dangles financial gain before Cathy's impoverished mother (Saachiko Magwili) and brother (Feodor Chin) and young Dr. Cukrowicz (Leonard Wu) to bring her niece's babbling to a lobotomized halt. This threat drives Williams' plum-toned study of homosexuality, incest and the perils of predatory tourism. The metaphor-laden narrative clashes multiple symbols en route to Cathy's climactic recollection of events at Cabeza de Lobo, an epic monologue Kao delivers with impressive control.

Barring his obscured upstage placement of Mrs. Venable during this, director Chil Kong's staging is competent, with austerely effective designs and unforced humor. Yet the aura of subliminal depravity that this heavily encoded tale requires to unsettle -- a quality that fuels Joseph L. Mankiewicz's much-revised 1959 film and Richard Eyre's 1993 BBC TV adaptation -- is ephemeral.

There's something grotesque about "Summer's" corrosive curlicues, and that's what gives it dramatic punch. By scanting the lurid underbelly, this respectable but prim reading inadvertently devours itself.


David C. Nichols

"Suddenly Last Summer," GTC Burbank, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 24. $16. (323) 993-7245. Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.