By Dany Margolies


    Stage Reviews

    By Dany Margolies/Associate Editor

    Almost Perfect (at Santa Monica Playhouse); Arsenic and Old Lace (at Westchester Playhouse)

    Buddy Apple is married to a nagging wife. All he wants is to live life as if it were a Gershwin song. If only he could finish his screenplay. If only his wife understood him.

    But his marriage and his position with his family’s business keep him trapped — in adulthood, poor boy. No wonder his wife seems like a mother figure and his father treats him like a child. How refreshed he feels as he embarks on an affair with an exciting, ambitious young woman.

    The Santa Monica Playhouse production of playwright Jerry Mayer’s “Almost Perfect” is satisfying for many reasons.

    Because of the play’s simple plot and subplot, the audience can focus on the complexities of the characters and their relationships. And Mayer’s depiction of those relationships is as real as it gets; the story is reportedly autobiographical.

    Director Chris DeCarlo keeps the humor flowing while ensuring the characters grow. At the opening night performance, not unusually, every line got a laugh. In this instance, however, every laugh was deserved.

    The play is wisely cast. The actors playing the Apple men resemble one another, particularly Bishop and Ackerman. The women in Buddy’s life also vaguely resemble each other — and are taller, leggier versions of his mother.

    Albie Selznick makes Buddy simultaneously funny and pathetic. He is an energetic actor with a revealing face and pleasing timing. Wendy Michaels gives a crushingly honest performance as the sourpuss wife.

    Bill Ackerman gives a warm, wisecracking side to Buddy’s seemingly carefree, nonintellectual brother. Heidi Anderson wisely garners empathy as the other woman.

    Don Bishop is terrific throughout as Dad; Susan Davis as Mom comes into her own as she makes a move for her independence.

    Best may be the transcendent scene between Dad and Buddy when Dad tells his son, in essence, to grow up.

    The set, designed by Chris Beyries and James Cooper, consists of metal piping backed by black cloth, which allows for quick, simple scene changes. The structure serves as a metaphor for the family’s building business, as well as an insider’s view of familial relationships, stripped bare.

    “Almost Perfect” runs through Jan. 9, Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m., and Sundays at 6:30 p.m. at Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 4th Street, Santa Monica. Tel. 310.394.9779.

    Today’s politically correct norm is to excuse criminals for being compelled by unspeakably evil childhoods to relive or relieve their misery.

    How ahead of his time was 1940s playwright Joseph Kesselring? His classic, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” is a comedy bound to bring to mind the nature-or-nurture argument of human behavior, as well as the joys of that era’s theater.

    It may be the 1940s, but aunts Abby and Martha Brewster remain very Victorian, in looks and spirit. They feel pity for “forlorn and unhappy” gentlemen who outlive their families. So they help them along in finding “peace” — with a poisoned glass of elderberry wine. Besides, it reminds them of their youth, when Grandfather always used to have a cadaver or two around the house.

    At Westchester Playhouse, directed by Sheridan Cole, the production stays close to the original. Costume design by Maria Cohen and Phil Massi ranges from Victorian mourning to ’40s evening wear. Designer Michael Cohen takes direction from the script and provides a charming set.

    Elizabeth Ash is a perky Abby, Norma Northcott-Binmore a serene Martha. Brian Mulvey is their “normal” nephew Mortimer, who takes it in the notepad for being a theater critic. His brothers have inherited the family lunacy: Teddy has “political” aspirations (Frederick N. Bald in a particularly “bully” performance), and Jonathan has taken the talents to professional levels (Tom Hyer, in the role written for Boris Karloff, eschews the Karloff imitation but makes his own creepiness). For obvious, and other, reasons, Mortimer can’t commit to Elaine, the parson’s daughter (Alison Mattiza).

    In another of the playwright’s previews of the ’90s, Jonathan travels with his own plastic surgeon, Einstein (Larry Jones in a superbly twitchy portrayal).

    Dave Parke evokes a ’40s detective in the chatty Officer O’Hara.

    Ken Wishard, John Heninger Jr., Frank J. Olivadoti, Andy Kallok and Paul Mazerov round out the cast.

    Bits of upstaging stage business keep the action visual.

    Lighting by William Goldyn is realistic and effective. A portion of the action occurs in “darkness,” so Goldyn provides ambient illumination coming from the “outdoors.”

    All but Mortimer are happy in their insanity, making their world a pleasant two-hour stop.

    “Arsenic and Old Lace” plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., through Dec. 18, at Westchester Playhouse, 8301 Hindry Ave., 310.645.5156.