March 5, 2004





'Passing' veers into melodrama


Harlem Renaissance writer Nella Larsen is justly credited with creating some of the first complex African American women in fiction.


But in the Towne Street Theatre's version of her 1929 novel "Passing" may be a bit more complicated than she intended: Playwright Sheri Bailey takes Larsen's subtly shaded story of interracial intrigue and adds an explosive layer of thwarted sexual obsession worthy of Patricia Highsmith.


While in Larsen's novel the enigmatic, light-skinned Clare Kendry is both feline and forlorn--thrilled by the ruse of passing as a white man's wife, but sincere in her lonely pining for the Negro world she abandoned--Bailey's Clare (Nancy Cheryll Davis) is a Machiavellian schemer who's not only passing for white but for straight, with dubious designs on her friend Irene (Lira Angel).


This tilts Larsen's nuanced drama of manners into lesbian-pulp melodrama. The evening's only flashes of humor come from outsiders who are onto Clare's bluff, from a waggish society wit (Darrell Phillip) to a sassy neighborhood pal (played at different ages by Steve Henry and Mack Miles).


The rest of the actors struggle gamely through the prim, earnest paces of Bailey's adaptation, which alternates brief expositional exchanges with party scenes full of extras in period clothes.


Indeed, there's a dress-up feel to the whole endeavor; costumer Joan Francis and production designer Nathaniel Bellamy have a field day, and co-directors Nancy Renee and Sy Richardson direct the traffic efficiently.


Any telling subtexts this "Passing" may have unearthed from Larsen's original are lost in this shuffle of wigs and wiles.

--Rob Kendt


"Passing," Towne Street Theatre at the Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Mar. 28. $25. (213) 624-4796. Running time: 2 hours.