McLure's 'Wild Oats' - funny, but not quite fulfilling his potential

Virtually everyone who has seen one of James McLure's one-acts has been waiting for a full-length play from his hand that would deliver on his promise. ''Lone Star,'' ''Private Wars'' and especially ''Laundry and Bourbon'' rank easily with the best one-act plays that have appeared in a generation. ''Laundry and Bourbon,'' written when the author was well under 30, is a short masterwork, full of understanding and compassion for human hope, strength, and sorrow; universal in its melancholy and raucously American at the same time.

McLure has now delivered a major work, playing in its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. ''Wild Oats'' is both a delight and a disappointment.

Rather than rely on his acute perception of American human nature, McLure has borrowed the theatrical artifice of an earlier stage tradition. Nothing wrong with that: Shakespeare and Moliere swiped material right and left, and they didn't give credit as McLure does to his predecessor. But McLure doesn't simply borrow an idea or a plot from that earlier ''Wild Oats'' by Irish playwright John O'Keeffe. In effect, McLure's ''Wild Oats'' is a translation; he has followed the 1790s version scene by scene and character by character, reworking the dialogue and sense to fit a wild West setting.

The original ''Wild Oats'' is one of the joys of 18th-century comedy, and yet it isn't truly a farce. Farce requires an objective and usually sardonic viewpoint, its tone a shrug at human foibles. O'Keeffe's unforced faith in human goodness suffuses his work, making it more richly comic. It is full of self-referential cracks that include the audience with a wink, making us feel above the action rather than involved in it.

McLure's ''Wild Oats'' is indeed a farce. As a consequence, we don't take it seriously at any level. Where O'Keeffe has loving fun with stagestruck actors everywhere and twits his fellow playwrights, especially Shakespeare, McLure mocks western movies, which no one ever took seriously anyway.

But that isn't to say that McLure doesn't succeed on his own terms. ''Wild Oats,'' this time around, may be no more than a farce, but it's a thoroughly funny farce. The playgoer who doesn't laugh heartily and frequently at the shenanigans on the Taper stage must have had his sense of humor removed.

Director Tom Moore and his cast give McLure almost everything he could have asked for by way of a production. The pace is fast and the playing stylish. If the production has a weakness, it is that in the execution the physical comedy at times isn't quite physical enough - some of the actors seem a bit too cool, too L.A., for this kind of antic nonsense.

The young lovers around whom the plot inevitably turns are played winsomely by Mark Harelik and Deborah May. Both have the requisite ingenue-ish charm, and May in particular throws herself into the clowning with gusto; Harelik is acceptable in this department, but doesn't let his hair get mussed enough, so to speak.

Ken Ruta as a crusty old cavalryman, Howland Chamberlin as a ludicrously ersatz Indian scout, and Mark Blum as a foppish fellow all have their sparkling moments. There are in addition a dozen fine cameos scattered through the supporting cast.

A sterling performance is also given by Ralph Funicello's set, which looks a good deal like one of those pop-up greeting cards. Funicello has things flying in and out and trundling every which way, so that the set is part of the act and garners a few laughs on its own.

The premiere of a new full-length work by a playwright as talented as James McLure, especially one that succeeds hilariously as farce, is an event. The play could certainly succeed anywhere, and just might serve to illuminate McLure's name on Broadway.

No one complained that Shakespeare wasn't stretching himself when he regaled the multitudes with ''Comedy of Errors.'' But here is one appreciative audience member who hopes that, now that he has a popular success under his belt, McLure will return to the more difficult task of holding the mirror up to American nature as it is now.

''Wild Oats'' will run as part of the Taper's summer repertory through Aug. 19 in tandem with Arthur Miller's new play, ''The American Clock,'' directed by Gordon Davidson. These two will be joined more briefly after Aug. 3 by Edward Payson Call's production of Orson Welles's ''Moby Dick - Rehearsed.''

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