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THEATER REVIEW:'Poppa' is better on the stage

March 14, 2007

The Falcon Theatre has expertly transformed "Where's Poppa" from a bleak black-comedy cult film into a warm and winning production worthy enough to be headed off to Off-Broadway. Gone is the film's self-absorbed atmosphere of cruelty about a man willing to murder his mother rather than place her in a nursing home.

Also gone is the idea that all you have to do to be funny is to flee from the police wearing a gorilla costume.

In its place is an emotionally truthful, extremely funny story. It's about a loyal son dealing (not too well) with loss — the loss of his once-sane and loving mother, the loss of his independence and the loss of his own dreams of a normal life.

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After their father dies, Gordon (sweetly and wonderfully played by Jeff Marlow) takes up his brother Sidney's challenge to temporarily care for their Alzheimer's stricken Momma. Seven years later, Gordon finds himself still living at home, and only able to cope with Momma's childish, bizarre, destructive behavior by barring her bedroom door.

As Momma, a woman who can't or won't deal with her husband's death and her son's increasing mania, Marylouise Burke is simply fabulous. It's Burke's ability to be delightful and humiliating at the same time that makes Gordon's conflicting feelings of love and anguish so totally understandable.

As Sidney, Gordon's rascally and never dependable brother, Barry Pearl is hilariously sincere in his insincerity. Sidney's empty promises of help echo back into real life, where the burdens of caring for an elderly parent are often unfairly shared. Into the middle of this dysfunctional family floats the lovely, daffy, emotionally unstable Louise, Gordon's only hope for happiness, played with finely tuned irrationality by the lovely Katie MacNichol.

Director Gordon Hunt, knowing that 90% of great directing is getting the right cast, has hired two great supporting players (Rob Nagle and Ellen Ratner) to round out the ensemble. But he's also found an outstanding technical team lead by set designer Keith Mitchell, lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick, costume designer Denitsa Bliznakova and casting director Amy Lieberman.

And first, but never least, director Hunt had a terrific script to work with, no less amazing because the play was written by Robert Klane, author of "Where's Poppa?", the book that started it all. Not only has Klane injected a living heart into his classic tale, he has said it all, very well, in 90 minutes.

When, not if, this production moves eastward, will any of these solid local professionals be replaced by bigger names?

Hopefully, no.


  • MARY BURKIN is an actress, a playwright, and a lawyer living in Burbank and working in Glendale.

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