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The Death of Frank

Stephen Belber is best-known for his hair-raising psychological drama Tape and as a member of the writing team on Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project. Themes of emotional and physical violence appear to be his stock-in-trade. The West Coast premiere of Belber's 2002 Off-Broadway play (written in 1997) demonstrates that even the best writers have stinkers in their closets. It's a brooding, ersatz-Shepard tale of incest, girlfriend-beating, and assorted pathologies, a diffuse amalgam of dark humor and pseudo-lyrical language. Belber's segues between monologues to the audience and semi-realistic scenes are fluid, but the parts never add up to a meaningful whole.

The climax is tipped by the title, but the focal character is Peter (Jeff Daurey), a sensitive young horticulturist exploring his sexual identity, which includes obsessive lust for his sibling Natalie (Kate Connor), a fling with a self-described "cunning linguist" (Joan Lauckner), and a foray to Africa, where he learns of his hankering for young men. His sassy sis meanwhile hooks up with a cocky, controlling lout, Frank (Tim Ryan), an older man who has danger emanating from every pore. It's not so much that Natalie is the only one who can't see this; it's more that she knows what she's getting, and it's exactly what she wants. The script wallows in emotional malaise, without offering insight into cause and effect. We need more than fleeting references to puritanical parents to explain children who are this screwed up.

Director Anthony Barnao and a valiant cast struggle to elicit pearls of wisdom and depth of feeling, but it's a futile quest. Daurey fares best as the green-thumbed underachiever, escaping his libidinous quagmire by fixating on plant life. Ryan is suitably smarmy while paradoxically charming as the man with a mysterious profession. Connor does all she can to make her self-destructive swinger credible, but Belber provides the character with scant dimension. Lauckner's portrayal of the least psychologically damaged character doesn't venture beyond one-note smugness. A repeated device has characters examining their own psyches, as they begin their speeches with, "I had a dream." So did Mamma Rose, and look where that got her.

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