April 7, 2004





Family: It works as a team


Love and frustration run for home as a baseball-mad family faces challenges in the warm but sometimes contrived 'Johnny Boy.'


By Rob Kendt

Special to The Times


Dodger blue is the team spirit but sepia is the color of Jeff Mandels' affecting if unfinished new memory play, "Johnny Boy," at the Falcon Theatre.


And we're not talking the borrowed blue of the bums who moved West and pitched their tent in Chavez Ravine, but the original Brooklyn ball team whose devout fans took their abandonment hard and never forgot or forgave.


"Baseball wasn't a business, it was a religion," says our sweet, dimpled protagonist, Paul (Rami Malek), in hindsight, by way of explanation for the borough's deep sense of betrayal.


Indeed, for Paul's family at its brief, shining height, sports literally trumps Jewishness as an object of faith: When the Brooklyn Dodgers win their first and only World Series, in 1955, Paul's father, Lee (J. David Krassner), breaks out the Passover wine to celebrate.


Mandels' play has many apt moments, recollective flourishes both warm and witty. He captures the free-flowing badinage of a middle-class Queens family chafing a bit in close quarters, as well as the sobering chill of many of its weightier showdowns.


In one way or another, most of these skirmishes center around the dilemma presented by the title character, John (Richard Alan Brown), a teen confined to a wheelchair, apparently by muscular dystrophy (his affliction is never named). He's doted on by loved ones, awakening Paul's envy; he's made fun of, pricking Paul's pride and Lee's anger; he's incurable, inviting Lee's despair and the steely denial of his sturdy mom, Dotty (Stephanie Venditto).


Ultimately all this high-stakes tension finds release in contrived if harrowing bouts of physical violence, followed by soppy exchanges of forgiveness and good will. These take place among the play's male triangle--Johnny, Paul and Lee--while Mandels' otherwise sharp, sympathetic female characters recede. More's the pity, because Dotty and her maiden aunt, a world-class kvetcher named Pearl (Barbara Gruen), are drawn with fine, loving strokes. And Fern (Tania Raymonde), a young love interest for Paul, is a priceless portrait of an authentic teen paradox: both shameless and shy, forward and awkward.


In the hands of director Arnold Margolin, the play's potential gets a rich demonstration. Keith Mitchell's exquisitely outfitted set, topped by a black-and-white cityscape, Jeremy Pivnick's evocative lighting, and Denitsa Bliznakova's perfect period costumes all contribute to an admirable versimilitude.


But the performances are what put it over: Malek's tentative sensitivity, Brown's heartrending earnestness, Krassner's damaged decency, Raymonde's startling gumption, and above all Venditto's strength and Gruen's expertly underplayed pathos.


Hands down it's one of the best casts I've seen in a small-theater world premiere. One would hope these actors might stay with the material as it's inevitably, and necessarily, rewritten.


This team at least should stick together.


"Johnny Boy," Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 4 p.m. Ends May 9. $25-37.50. (818) 955-8004. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.