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Johnny Morran by John Ireland is having its world premiere at the Hudson Avenue Theatre in Los Angeles. It is, the playwright told me, the first play in over two years to move from development at the Playwrights Kitchen Ensemble to full production. The author, son of the late Hollywood actor John Ireland, explained that the unforeseen cancellation of a Mamet play opened up the opportunity for Johnny Morran.
It is, of course, a wonderful thing to see one's work on its feet, and for this Mr. Ireland should feel rightly grateful. On the other hand, theater has little patience for premature births, and on this occasion I am afraid the audience is faced with a project still in the early stages of gestation. This is not to say that the production itself is underdeveloped. To the contrary, one suspects that a better production will be hard to come by. No, the problem here is with a script still in need of rewrites.
The play opens in a bar. The time is undetermined, although from the look and sound of things we can safely say it is vaguely the present. Certainly the younger characters sound like creatures of our time. But what is one to make of Johnny Morran? Looking more like a ghost from the 1930s, the character plays some kind of romantic lead in the minds of all who come before him, but who and what is he? Could he be a hoodlum running from the Mafia? Or perhaps even a gumshoe chasing down cheating husbands in sad motel rooms? Whatever he is, the character is played to perfection by Galen Schrick, who has bags under his eyes big enough to hide a dead body, and a wet smile the ladies want to punch as much as to kiss. Schrick embodies this anachronism, looking cool enough to be Robert Mitchum's younger brother and crazed enough to be Peter Lorre's son. We believe everything he says and does, but are not given enough to understand why.
Into the bar come an assortment of characters, the one most worth mentioning is Barbara Gruen, who plays an angry old tart who is perpetually drunk. She once had a fling with Johnny and can't get it out of her system. The author has denied Gruen and Schrick the scene they deserve, but we can almost imagine it, so persuasively do these actors inhabit their characters. Gruen practices a walk that communicates better than any words Mr. Ireland might have provided. She looks as though both love and the lack of it have almost killed her.
In the first act, we learn that Johnny was worth knowing, or so this assortment of bar flies would attest. In the second act, following Johnny's funeral we are treated to further testimony to Johnny's aura and mystery. Finally, in the third act, which moves back in time, we get to see Johnny and his friends at their last get-together. Although there are no less than seven additional characters, not one of them has a sufficiently meaningful relationship with Johnny to create dramatic conflict. Only one shows promise, and that is the most underwritten of all, namely The girl (played by Amanda-Lee Aday). A rewrite might begin with the elimination of at least two of these characters, and the creation of a more revealing confrontation between the principals. Next, the author would be well advised to consider merging his second and third acts, allowing the resurrected Johnny to move seamlessly from funeral to barroom.
Disappointing as it is, this production has much going for it. The stagecraft is fine. The venue is perfect. The actors are uniformly satisfying in their respective roles. Mr. Ireland, the director can be proud of his production. Mr. Ireland, the author, now has to deliver the goods.
Written and directed by John Ireland
Cast: Amanda-Lee Aday, John Cragen, Robert Ditillio, David Farkas, Barbara Gruen, Marti hale, Maria McCann, Galen Schrick, Steven Shaw.
Set Design: Edward Salas
Lighting Design: Steve Pope
Graphic Design: Strata Graphics
Running Time: 2 hours, including two 5-minute intermissions
Hudson Avenue Theatre, 6537 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, (323) 930-9304
From 01/19/2001- 02/24/01
Reviewed by David Lohrey based on performance of 02/02/01.