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"High Priest of California"
David Morgentale and Carol Sirugo in "High Priest of California"

"High Priest of California"
Directed by Leo Farley
29th Street Rep
212 West 29th Street (between 7th and 8th avenues)
Mon-Sat at 8 p.m.$29/TDF; Box Office (212) 206-1515 or smarttix.com
Opened Feb. 10, plays through March 29
Reviewed by Paulanne Simmons

Alyce is a virtuous, somewhat repressed young lady who brings flowers to her mother's grave every Sunday and lives with her cousin Ruthie, a fiery and flirtatious redhead; and a mysterious, brutish man named Blackie. Russell is a fast-talking used car salesman, strangely attracted to this woman who seems to live in another world while residing in an apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay.

Charles Willeford's "High Priest of California," on stage at 29th Street Rep until March 29, has many of the elements that make bite-your-nails drama. But the action sometimes moves so slowly that many in the audience may find themselves trying not to fall asleep in their seats rather than sitting on the edge of their seats.

Fortunately the play is saved by the excellent direction of 29th Street Rep co-founder Leo Farley, as well as fine performances by both principal and supporting actors.

David Mogentale is Russell Haxby, the young man who meets Alyce (Carol Sirugo) at a dance, takes her back to her apartment and begins to manage her life with the same calculating skill one imagines he sells cars. Sirugo endures his advances as stoically as someone about to have blood drawn. At the same time she clings to him with the desperation of a woman not too proud to admit she hasn't had a date in five years.

James E. Smith plays the brain-damaged ex-middleweight boxer Blackie Victor Although Blackie's language is limited to one or two sentence whines and demands and a few grunts, Smith's sparse dialogue and eloquent body language speak volumes. Smith is at once angry and submissive, violent and childlike.

In many ways Ruthie (Paula Ewin, another 29th Street Rep founding member) is the female counterpart to Haxby. Streetwise, pugnacious and wheedling, she is a nurse who is having an affair with the Stanley Sinkiewicz (Jerry Lewkowitz) the husband of one of her patients. Stanley and Ruthie borrow Alyce's car for weekend outings and patiently wait for Mrs. Sinkiewicz to drop dead. And Ewin and Lewkowitz are so likeable and funny the audience hopes it will happen soon.

Charles Willeford is the author of many crime novels, including his best known "Miami Blues," which was made into the 1990 film starring Alex Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh; and the hard-boiled detective Hokey Mosley novels. High Priest of California (1953) is his first published novel and the only novel he adopted into a play. One can see why.

Even the excellent acting of this company, Mark Symczak's nostalgic 1950s set, and Tim Cramer's evocative sound mix of 1950s TV shows and commercials cannot hide the play's tendency to over-explain and over-dramatize what the audience understands perfectly through the actors' body language. Willeford sets up an intriguing situation, then explains away the mystery all at once in a monologue even the skillful Sirugo cannot make entirely convincing. And once the suspense is gone - the conclusion is neither unexpected nor very interesting. Unfortunately the script never fulfills this promise.

Let's hope in the future 29th Street Rep lavishes its impressive talents on something with a bit more merit. [Simmons]

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