Hippie Masquerade

'Cactus Flower' offers some insubstantial, amusing moments at LTW, but that's about it

When I was a child, my parents threw a hippie party, and all their friends showed up in tie-dyed shirts, bell-bottom jeans, paisley headbands and love beads. The time was the late 1960s, when hippie culture had become tame enough to infiltrate mainstream suburbia but was still viewed as sufficiently "other" to be parodied through the use of a simple costume.

Like that party, Abe Burrows' 1965 play Cactus Flower proves how square it is by vainly trying so hard to be hip. The romantic comedy wears the so-called loose sexual mores of the '60s as if they were a costume, gallops around in a broad burlesque and then embraces wholesome old-fashioned values.

On stage now at Live Theatre Workshop, a less-than-challenging interpretation of the play constitutes a fond nod to an era when "Incense and Peppermints" was considered a counterculture anthem, and grabbing someone's butt was considered racy.

As directed by Cliff Madison, this Cactus Flower underplays the feminist blossoming of starched and shy nurse Stephanie Dickinson in favor of a kooky romp in which the most prominent beats are saved for the one-liners. Lines that might otherwise signal human emotion get underemphasized, as if they were the poor relations we invite to Thanksgiving dinner, then promptly ignore.

Anyway, Stephanie works for Park Avenue dentist Julian Winston, a confirmed bachelor and swinging ladies' man who remains single by telling his girlfriends that he's married. Until, that is, he falls for vivacious 21-year-old Toni Simmons and asks her to marry him, and therefore must produce a soon-to-be-ex-wife. A painfully glib situation comedy that is more situation than comedy, this plot is merely a series of labored setups for endless single-entendre jokes.

Julian convinces Stephanie to pretend to be his on-the-way-out wife, but things go awry when she and Toni strike up a friendship. More lies are generated, necessitating still more wacky situations.

As Julian, Roger Owen exercises a confident, clear voice and authoritative presence, but his bulky profile and stiff stage movements make him seem ill at ease and self-conscious. And it feels as if he's a little more concerned with delivering his lines than with feeling them.

With her kewpie-doll face, chirping voice and a slim dancer's body, Elizabeth Leadon is excellent as a blessed-out, flitting-about flower child. She also capably handles scenes during which her character displays the play's few moments of conscience. Hers is perhaps the most convincing performance in the show, even as her character seems the most lightweight.

The premise of the play hinges on the fact that Stephanie is supposed to be a pitiable wallflower in all aspects of her life. But embodied by Maxine Gillespie, it's obvious to anyone that she's every bit the sultry cougar. Even in a crisp uniform, glasses and sensible shoes, she's miles sexier and smarter than the waifish Toni. When Stephanie poses as Julian's wife, the wily Gillespie proves the assertive character is more than his match in wit, intelligence and nerve.

It's unfortunate, then, that by Cactus Flower's finish, the character of Stephanie has been subordinated to the role of just another professional man's conquest. That makes sense, though, coming from a breezy play that opens by making light of a suicide attempt.

Eric Anson contributes bouncy energy as Toni's bright-eyed, trust-fund neighbor, an unproduced playwright with more enthusiasm than talent. His pleasant performance shows how comfortable he is on stage.

Perhaps the most unapologetic--and, as a result, funniest--comedy in the production comes courtesy of Steve McKee, who plays the horndog hipster Harvey Greenfield, a ne'er-do-well pal of Julian's who is always angling for free dental work and secondhand stories of his friend's romantic exploits.

Playing Harvey like a lascivious cross between Lyle Waggoner and Dick Shawn, plucking at his collar and preening like a runty peacock, McKee captures the lascivious manchild who yearns to be a smoothie, but is pretty much a dork. Even from behind, he is funny.

And sometimes we must watch him and the other actors from behind, as the play is staged in the round. This poses occasional blocking challenges that might have been mitigated by a roaring, madcap pace. Unfortunately, the momentum of the play never really picks up until the final third, when the audience is really too worn out to care.

The interstitial snippets of '60s tunes--played during scene changes, which are smoothly handled by cast and crew in the shadows--make for a canny combination of the serious and lightweight, from Dylan and the Stones to Donovan and the Monkees.

However, the inclusion of the theme song from the Austin Powers movies during a critical nightclub scene is annoyingly anachronistic; that music was written 30 years after the action takes place. It's an example of how this production of Cactus Flower is as credible as a masquerade party.

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