Magic Flowers

There's plenty to criticize with Bill Sterritt's one-act dramedy—which is saying something, given that it clocks in at 30 minutes. A decent, sweet idea is twisted until it's convoluted and uninteresting, in particular because the characters are poorly defined and lack honest motivation. The director could be blamed for not understanding the author's intentions, but Sterritt is directing his own work. It's difficult to blame the actors, who seem miscast and look lost while trying to salvage the weak material.

The concept is sound. It's Christmas Eve, and a lonely, supposedly plain-looking Ethel (Amanda Niles), who hates the holiday season, buys a bunch of "magic flowers" from a strange homeless man (Jonny Kahleyn). He says they will bring her love. And, sure enough, Ralph (John Gorman), a co-worker, arrives and seems compelled to fall in love with her. It sounds like a sweet fairy tale, but instead it's merely an excuse for two characters to share a series of forced confessions and to go through the motions that have been seen on plenty of basic-cable movies. A typical example: Ralph kisses Ethel, she slaps him, he kisses her again even harder, and her struggles turn to passion.

Sterritt's problems are equally divided among writing and direction. His characters waffle wildly, as though they have personality disorders. Ethel hates Christmas, and two minutes later she loves it. Ralph is a playboy, but he keeps acting like a nerd. On phone calls, the actor doesn't wait one second before responding to what she hears on the other end of the line. Sterritt cast Niles, who has the face of a model, as the supposedly unattractive Ethel, but he does nothing to alter her appearance. And Gorman isn't enough of the leading-man type to carry off the part of Ralph. Neither Niles nor Gorman elevates the material, but they don't make matters worse, either. At least with a running time of 30 minutes, it's over before things get really ugly.

Presented by SPQR Stage Company at Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Hollywood. Tue.-Wed. 8 p.m. Nov. 22-Dec. 16. (323) 463-3900.