March 19, 2004





Bar scene adds to the atmosphere


Heard of pub theater? Charlie Terrell's "Tougher Than Grace" is club theater, staged in the high-ceilinged, bare-bricked environs of King King, a Hollywood bar with a studied red-light decadence that feels inherently theatrical.


And in some of the show's best moments, director Steve Ferguson uses the space in ways that feel novel. As Terrell and his taut, serious-as-a-stroke band rips through a bluesy number, we're left to hang out and scan the faces of actors mingling around and behind the bar; an appealing mix is struck between nightlife people-watching and a multimedia rock show.


Sometimes, though, we're just left hanging, watching a sort of live music video, all archetypes and broad strokes. The play follows the perils of young Tina (Jackie Page), voluptuous daughter of an abusive, fire-breathing Pentecostal preacher (Michael Childers) with a boozy, blonde-wigged wife (Irene Muzzy).


The feverish, hypnotic Childers makes a convincing link between rock abandon and evangelical fervor, speaking in tongues and flailing epileptically, handkerchief aloft like a spiritual antenna. And Donny Persons, as a sweet, shaggy dreamer, and Sarah Colonna, as a skeptical barmaid, share an effective, elliptical over-the-counter exchange.


As murky and silly as the story gets (there are some stripper catfights worthy of "Showgirls"), the stagecraft is often marvelous, with Paul Stula's projections, Leonardo Ramos' lights and Terrell's artful underscoring conjuring a tasty Southern Gothic atmosphere.


Indeed, "Tougher Than Grace" isn't such a bad place to have a drink and a laugh. Terrell may have intended something more portentous than that, but thankfully he's too much of a rock-club showman to give us a bad time.

--Rob Kendt


"Tougher Than Grace," King King Club, 6555 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Indefinitely. $15. (323) 960-5765. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes.