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The Crumple Zone

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Buddy Thomas' 2000 Off-Broadway hit is a superior example of the gay comedy genre. It starts as a hysterically raucous romp, then takes a surprising turn midway, becoming an incisive and poignant portrait of fickle gay romance--a refreshing change from the common run of featherweight camp. Director Steven Benson's L.A. premiere mounting has several good things going, but a mastery of the script's tricky tonal shifts is not among them.

This might be described as Boys in the Band Lite in its blend of frenetic comedy and bona-fide angst. The romantic entanglements of a group of gay friends on Staten Island go topsy-turvy during an eventful Christmas. Terry (Greg Wolfson), a histrionic waiter/wannabe actor, is in love with his good friend Buck (Joe Regelbrugge). But Buck's heart belongs to his reluctant new amour Alex (Lane Janger), who's facing a romantic dilemma. Alex is cheating on his longtime lover, Matt (Matt Huffman), who's been away for a year performing in a touring production of Salem's Lot: The Musical. Guess who's (quite unexpectedly) coming to Christmas dinner?

The actors tackle the bittersweet material with mixed results. Wolfson scores huge laughs in the focal role of the bitchy Terry, yet he'd do himself--and us--a favor by bringing things down a notch or two. This character has more dimension than immediately meets the eye, with loneliness and pain lurking beneath Terry's flippant barbs. Wolfson's unrelenting shrillness elicits more stridency than empathy. He also needs to temper his rapid-fire delivery, which sometimes glosses over nuances in Thomas' ironic dialogue. And his campy lip-sync to an Olivia Newton-John ballad, though presumably in the script, disrupts the narrative flow.

There's a similar sense of the superfluous in Alex's amusing but overlong speech about losing his job as a department store Santa; Janger's erratic timing doesn't help. The appealing Regelbrugge is appropriately subdued and quite funny as the adulterous "other man." Huffman likewise excels, capturing the poignancy of the jilted Matt. Steve Mateo (of the Off-Broadway cast) is gleefully amusing as Terry's so-called "psycho-slut" trick, a clueless stud harboring a big secret.

On the technical front, blocking problems hamper the actors. The cramped furniture layout in Donna Glennon's attractive apartment set seems partially to blame, but one also wonders if anyone ever checked the show from the left section of the house. The backs of actors' heads are frustratingly on view during too many key moments.

Thomas' seriocomic glimpse at the infernal, eternal search for Mr. Right makes trenchant points about the downside of the gay mating/waiting game, yet it ends on a note of hope. To that sentiment, we add our hope that this enjoyable but imperfect production fixes the glitches and hits its stride.

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