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Bleak House

'Indiscretions' delves into sticky secrets of a dysfunctional family

By Patrick Sullivan

"I KNOW WE all have our flaws, but that goes beyond human decency," complains one outraged character to another in Indiscretions. But it's hard to know why she's so surprised: decency is a very rare commodity in Jean Cocteau's 1938 play about the sticky secrets of a deeply dysfunctional middle-class family.

Most plays content themselves with one love triangle. Indiscretions (Les Parents Terribles), now on stage in a Marin Theater Company production directed by Amy Glazer, offers four--all anchored in one very twisted household.

Warren David Keith plays George, the father of the family, an eccentric inventor perfecting his weird plans for an underwater submachine gun. His wife, Yvonne (Deborah Offner), is a semi-permanent invalid who lies around in her darkened bedroom all day playing Patience in her dressing gown. Their son, Michael (David Agranov), is a 22-year-old child whose relationship with his doting mother has more incestuous overtones than a month's worth of Jerry Springer episodes.

This bizarre household--nicknamed "the Gypsy Camp" by its occupants--is ruled by Yvonne's sister, Leonie (Frances Lee McCain). Blessed with brains and control of the family fortune, Leonie is determined to save her family from "chaos, collapse, and cholera." She was once engaged to George, before he broke it off to chase her sister.

Such dysfunctional arrangements often prove surprisingly durable. But life at the Gypsy Camp is thrown into upheaval when Michael falls for a beautiful young woman. Madeline (Jenny Lord) is tidy and ambitious, and her love for Michael could be his ticket to a normal life.

The only problem? Madeline has also been conducting an affair with George, though she doesn't know he's Michael's father. Oh, and the other problem is that Yvonne sees her son's new romance as a threat to her own "special" relationship with her boy. Oops--and the third problem is that Leonie is working frantically behind the scenes, pulling strings in pursuit of an agenda of her own.

Unfortunately, this complicated tragicomedy gets off to a bit of a slow start at the Marin Theater Company. Cocteau's plot offers actors ample ingredients for onstage chemistry--the dangerous kind that blows up college laboratories. But this production's cast offers a strange paradox. The individual performances are excellent, and Offner and McCain are especially strong as the twisted sisters whose ruthless hunger for love lies at the heart of the plot. But in Act 1, the interactions between characters lack the spark that would set this material on fire.

The pace picks up, though, and the cast begins to mine the play for both its dramatic and its comic potential. Especially noteworthy is Offner, an accomplished physical comedian who is also quite good at playing a mother. In the middle of a jealous tantrum over her son's new love, she suddenly stops to deliver a note-perfect version of a line all children have heard: "Michael, for the umpteenth time, are you trying to break that chair?"

Most of these events unfold in Yvonne's bedroom, which set designer Peter Crompton has filled with slanted doorways and strange colors, lending an Alice in Wonderland quality to the play. Both the bedroom setting and the off-kilter set are deeply appropriate. At heart, Indiscretions is a Freudian dreamscape--until it descends into a nightmare.

'Indiscretions' runs through Feb. 4 at the Marin Theater Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $24-$40. For details, call 415/388-5200.

From the January 25-31, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

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