Uncertain Angels

The warm fuzzies of the holiday season have arrived a week early with Main Street Theater's newest production, My Three Angels, by Sam and Bella Spewak.

Back in the feel-good fifties, when the play was first produced under the direction of Jose Ferrer, it became quite popular. (Humphrey Bogart starred in the 1955 film version, We're No Angels.) Nowadays though, the happy, bizarre little story creaks a bit with age.

The plot focuses on a financially ruined family who've been relocated to French Guiana by Henri, a dastardly, penny-pinching, rich relative by marriage. In the nether reaches of civilization, Felix (Carl Masterson), Emilie (Theo Moffett) and their daughter, Marie Louise (Hilary Haag), run Henri's quaint dry goods storefront business. It was the least Henri (Ted Pfister) could do after conning Felix out of his gallery.

Trouble is, Felix is just too darned honest to be any good at selling. The dear, old-fashioned father has absolutely no head for business. Credit's been extended to nearly everyone in town; the books are a mess of disorganized, fly-about paper, and the family is so poor they can't even buy a chicken for Christmas dinner. Even worse, Henri is due on the scene any minute, and he's gunning for trouble. He wants to know just how badly Felix is getting on with the business.

To complicate matters further, pretty Marie Louise -- a girl who lives and embroiders for her man, Paul (Mark Pickell) -- is about to get her sweet heart tromped. Pasty-faced, weasely Paul does what ever his Uncle Henri bids him to do, including marrying Marie Louise's girlfriend for money.

This family is in a real pickle. What they need is a miracle. Down from the rafters climb three convicts. (Remember, we're in French Guiana.) They've been up there mending the roof all along; angels always come from above. And even though they are murderers and thieves, borrowed workers from the prison, they are friendly and compassionate underneath that white, strangely angelic prison garb. Sure, inmate Jules (Joe Hudson) killed his wife, but she was fooling around on him. Besides, he feels real bad about it now. The fact that young Alfred (Maurice Tuttle) beat his stepfather to death with a poker shouldn't alarm anyone. And Joseph (Charles Charpiot) wouldn't harm a fly. He's only in for embezzlement; and honest Felix really could use a good embezzler about now.

Clearly, this story is from another era. In this world, Mom and Dad aren't terrified of convicted murderers. Indeed, they feel somehow reassured by the men who really do want to help, which would seem perfectly plausible to a fifties audience, but one that sorely taxes contemporary imagination.

When the jailbirds spend Christmas Eve with the family -- how they get out of jail for the night is never explained -- the mother Emilie even falls into a little bit of love with Jules (the wife-killer). And he tells her he wouldn't be in prison if he'd married a good woman like her. Gallant Alfred, who killed his stepfather, is put in charge of Marie Louise's broken heart. While Joseph is the obvious choice to fix the family's financial woes, honest Felix does a good deal of hand-wringing when Joseph offers to cook the books.

This turnabout, with the convicts as the good guys and the rich relatives as the villains, is somehow meant to show the audience that people aren't always what they seem. And hope burns forever in the good heart. But the plot is ultimately too thin, the characters too flat, and the family's problems fixed in too odd a fashion to make this play satisfying, even as a "holiday gift," as the program bills it. The weak cautionary script is not helped by director Steve Garfinkel's production either.

Though the pacing is brisk, many of the performances are stilted. The actors who play the family have the unenviable task of bringing energy to this group of forever goodhearted ninnies. It takes a considerable energy from the actors to make these goofballs likable. Unfortunately, the family members are the weakest performers in the production.

Haag's Marie Louise is especially stiff as she walks about with her hands held prettily together out in front of her, never seeming to feel much at all. Moffett's Emilie is a warm and buttery-soft mother, but the dripping sweetness of her character is all there is. And Masterson's Felix is so resigned to his fate as to seem almost bored by the whole situation.

It isn't until the convicts come on stage that the production comes alive. Charpiot's Joseph, the embezzler, is wonderfully funny. He fills up the stage with the kind of effervescent joy this sort of fluff play needs to get it going. Also fun to watch are Joe Hudson and Maurice Tuttle as the murderers with hearts of gold (Tuttle's set design is also one of the best Main Street has put together in the last year and a half). And though Henri is nothing more than a cartoon villain, Pfister has enough physical presence to make the guy fearsome.

Though My Three Angels qualifies as family entertainment, its strange plot -- created when Americans believed that most everybody deserved a second chance -- might be hard to explain to any child who's paid even the slightest bit of attention to the news.

My Three Angels runs through December 20 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, 524-6706. $13-$18.


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