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WHATEVER YOUR HEART DESIRES

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ime doesn't pay, as two dimwitted lowlifes learn in Christine Rosensteel-Savalla's dark comedy. The same goes for its criminally laborious dramaturgy. It's a shame that Rosensteel-Savalla so admirably sidesteps the clichés of MOW-crime melodrama, only to fall victim to another common playwriting pitfall: She's well on her way to pulling off a funny and touching morality tale about elder abuse and greed and how the twain shall meet, but, midway through, her intriguing narrative starts to meander, with repetitive, questionably relevant dialogue and an excessively episodic structure sapping the play's energy and focus. Economy of language isn't a hallmark of this near-three-hour opus. Thankfully some marvelous performances add spark to Rosensteel-Savalla's long night's journey into overkill. The everyday concerns of a kindly elderly couple, Issy (Pat Crawford Brown) and Daniel (King Stuart), seldom advance beyond changing the kitchen light bulb. That situation quickly changes when Daniel has a stroke and two young drifters from West Virginia connive their way into the old couple's Hollywood home as caretakers. Harley Davidson Smith (Lancer Dean Shull) is a pushover for his controlling mate, Candy (Antonia Jones), who doesn't have a compassionate bone in her body. Fancying herself as heir-apparent to Julia Roberts' fame, Candy expresses a sense of entitlement to the couple's possessions and home, while Harley feels that ailing elderly people are "from another planet" and "stupid to hang on." The question of impending violence shifts from "if" to "when" as the duplicitous opportunists gain the trust of the frail Issy and Daniel. The cast is at its best when delivering some ironically hilarious lines, mostly centered on the old couple's unexpected moments of feistiness and the young couple's clueless outlook on life. The wonderful Shull is the heart and soul of this production. He superbly captures this character's struggle between an innate sense of goodness and his weak yet inexcusable deference to his girlfriend's evil manipulations. Jones is appropriately detestable as the shallow villainess, and Brown and Stuart excel as the lovable older couple, though the geriatric slowness of their portrayals becomes a bit too authentic at times. The weak link in the cast is John Newman as Harley's smarmy older brother; his unconvincing characterization slows the proceedings every time he enters. In addition to pacing problems, director Lewis Hauser doesn't do enough to mitigate the script's verbosity, particularly in the second act. During the frequent scene changes, a lot of fiddling with props by a stagehand and awkward light shifts also drag things down, though Gary Wissman's apartment set is noteworthy for its astute details. This premiere production falls short of the title's promise, yet there's a salvageable sharp seriocomedy buried beneath the excess. "Whatever Your Heart Desires," presented by Tea Party Productions at the Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., S. Pasadena. Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Aug. 9-31. $16-18. (626) 398-979

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