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Theater review: 'A Dram of Drummhicit' at La Jolla Playhouse

May 23, 2011 |  5:36 pm

Dram 2 

 

From San Diego — “A Dram of Drummhicit,” the new play by Arthur Kopit and Anton Dudley, had its world premiere Sunday at La Jolla Playhouse, and before I say another word about it, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Worst Title Ever!

I nearly drowned in Google trying to find the meaning of “Drummhicit,” a word that rightfully provokes scorn from my computer’s spell-check. Apparently, it’s a made-up name for an almost undrinkable malt whiskey that’s produced on a fictionalized version of the island of Muckle Skerry in the Southern Hebrides where the play is set. Not that this information justifies a choice so maddeningly tone deaf that no amount of alliteration could possibly redeem it.

But one shouldn’t judge a play by its title. Kopit, the author of such divergent work as “Indians,” “Wings” and the book for the musical “Nine,” isn’t to be underestimated, and even though he would appear to be out of his cultural element here, he’s collaborating with a former student from Northern England, who is himself a playwright to watch. I went in wondering whether their joint effort could do for Scotland what Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” running riot on a similarly backward island, did for Ireland — in other words, make it seem like the freshest place imaginable for a contemporary comedy.

 

Dram 2ndThe answer is a resounding no. You know something is amiss when every time Alan Mandell (who plays a slippery Muckle Skerry businessman) appears onstage in a tartan tam you ask yourself, “What’s Alan Mandell doing in that ridiculous get-up?” (Thank heavens they didn’t throw a heavy set of bagpipes on this much-admired octogenarian trouper, who’d probably teach himself to play if required.)

The play is a hard one to peg. It was inspired by a British newspaper headline that declared “Faeries Stop Developers’ Bulldozers in Their Tracks,” and the plot has elements of a satirical farce in which Scottish rustics overcome an American magnate’s plan to turn their pristine land into golf courses. (Media reports of Donald Trump’s battle to build a luxury resort in a similar locale spurred the idea.) The common folk may not have the money to wage a legal battle, but they are aided by the presence of preserved ancient corpses in the bog and fairies (or at least rumors of their existence) up in the hills.

Kopit and Dudley, however, weren’t content with this story line. They seem to be reaching for Shakespearean romance, with its innumerable close scrapes culminating in an identity-sorting reunion of parent and child. This hybrid genre mixing dark tones with ludicrous coincidences is more whimsical than funny, which is an apt description of “Drummhicit,” a comedy with a rather flaccid sense of humor.

Christopher Ashley, La Jolla Playhouse’s artistic director who’s best known for his productions of splashy Broadway musicals (“Xanadu,” “Memphis”), stages the play as though it were a libretto on the market for a marriageable score. Characters crowd around the local pub like a chorus waiting for orchestra cues. The only way to get intimately acquainted with this gallery of eccentrics, defined either by their function in the story or some exaggerated trait, would be if someone would write each of them a song.

At the center of this crackpot tale is Charles Pearse (Lucas Hall), a “fixer” for a powerful American real estate mogul (Murphy Guyer) whose dream is to turn Muckle Skerry into the future home of the British Open. Pearse (as he is known) is chained to his briefcase, but he’s fascinated by the island’s lingering paganism (Ashley turns the Celtic rituals into tiny movement-theater pantomimes) and oddly intrigued by a community that’s completely oblivious to the 24/7 workaholic grind.

The parade of oddballs includes an ineffectual clergyman (Larry Paulsen), an anthropologist working both sides of the fence (Kathryn Meisle), an irrepressible pub proprietor (Kelly AuCoin), a conflicted Edinburgh businessman (Joseph Culliton) and a fey love-interest (Polly Lee) who claims that she and Pearse are really both fairies in human form. Motivations are often fuzzy, but one thing is crystal clear: Pearse is slowly but surely going native.

Nothing could be simpler (as Bill Forsyth’s 1983 movie “Local Hero” demonstrates), yet Kopit and Dudley bungle the execution by blending an assortment of dramatic traditions without mastering any of them. There’s something inherently charming about fictional works set in faraway worlds that are at once picturesquely unfamiliar and strangely recognizable. But a play can’t exist on charm alone. It needs evocative characterizations, tonal clarity and a touch more comic credibility. A better title wouldn’t hurt, either.

 
--Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends June 12. $41-$85 (858) 550-1010. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

Photos: Top: Polly Lee and Lucas Hall. Bottom: Murphy Guyer and Kathryn Meisle. Credit: Kevin Berne

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