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Peter Falk gives the performance of a lifetime in the world premiere of Lee Kalcheim's Defiled, an issue comedy with an explosive heart currently premiering at the Geffen Playhouse before prospective runs in Boston and New York. Falk's
partner in the two-character play is Jason Alexander whose blend of terrifying passion and vulnerability quickly erases the aura of his familiar TV persona George in Seinfeld.
Kalcheim could have called his play Unibomber Meets Columbo but with Defiledhe has come up with something both clever and concise. It is a double entendre that hands you the play in a nutshell.
Here, in that nutshell, is what it's about. A 30-something librarian, Harry Mendelssohn (Jason Alexander), is so obsessed with preserving the catalogue card files which generations of librarians have annotated from being pared down to computer bytes that he threatens to blow up the library -- unless police negotiator Brian Dickey (Peter Falk) can talk him down.
As it turns out, what Defiled is about isn't really what it's about and that leads to the solution as well as the problem with this well-paced funny play. Harry feels defiled by the dumbing down of humanity in an age that surfs over his values. There comes a moment when he declares, even if he can preserve the current cards, there'll always be new ones which he'll never get to preserve and it's all useless without the understanding and cooperation of society. That's when this play begins to be about more than card catalogues which have come to symbolize the diminishing world that never had much time for Harry and on which he yearns to establish a pyre of glory.
Harry is a sad loner. His sole relationship has been with Melinda who used him to write her college thesis and then dumped him to be her own woman. Now he lives with his collie Dennis who will never leave him to be his own dog. Melinda re-enters his life via a long phone conversation (Nancy Mette as the voice of Melinda) during which she tries to lure him out of the dynamite-strapped library. Unfortunately, the projection from the speaker phone was so authentically fuzzy that not all of the words reached my ears.
Our antihero's manifesto that he has to be Thomas More or Joan of Arc and make a statement by martyrdom is unfortunately weakened by the picture of his crazed and lonely life. His values and the wonderful long love of books he describes when holding Henry James' annotated copy of Washington Square are attenuated by the stereotypical characterization of an insecure nerd with an inferiority complex who becomes a Unibomber. It's as if what he says is not true because he goes crazy and what should be the chilling force of the play is dissipated. Dickey tries desperately to reel him in with the down-to-earth everyday ease of an old fisher king but Harry eludes the net, despite the tempting wistful fantasy of going to Italy with Dickey and his motherly Italian wife.
The character of Dickey could have been written for Peter Falk and, if it wasn't, he's made it his own (with apologies to Melinda and Dennis). When Falk first ambles down the aisle, you think Detective Dickey is going to be an easy reflex to Lt. Columbo. But, like Alexander's George, his TV persona dissolves before the strength, presence and canniness of this actor's work. Falk makes the most of Kalcheim's lines, settling into the character comfortably but with the fierce indefatigable bite of an old dog who won't give up worrying the bone of his dangerous profession.
D. Martyn Bookwalter has done an amazing thing with the set, blending the Geffen Theatre's brick walls with the brick walled set he's designed for the library.
The actors are aided immensely by director Barnet Kelman's flair for pacing, comic timing and character nuances.
This team is so good you don't much miss what the play isn't, the occasional lapses into slickness and the one-liners that have recently gotten a bad name. The dramatic structure is strong and the climax devastating on several levels.
The 1957 Spencer Tracy-Katherine Hepburn movie Desk Set dealt with the same anxious theme of human contribution vs. increasing automation. As Stephen Sondheim's song puts it, we're still here.
Kalcheim's play is a reminder that passion, vigilance, and Joan of Arc can't be done too often -- especially in the comic style he's mastered so well, and with performances as unforgettable as those of Jason Alexander and Peter Falk.
By Lee Kalcheim
Directed by Barnet Kellman
Starring Jason Alexander, Peter Falk
Set Design: D. Martyn Bookwalter
Costume Design: Tom McKinley
Lighting Design: Daniel Ionazzi
Sound Design: Jon Gottlieb
Running time: 100 minutes without intermission
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, LA, CA
Ticket Office: (310) 208-5454, FAX: (310) 208-0341
From May 23 to July 2, 2000. Official opening: May 31.
5/23/2000-7/0212000; opened 5/31/2000
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock based on 5/31 performance