The strokes of inspiration that made last year’s Private Eyes one of Morgan-Wixson Theatre’s best are occasionally evident in Colin Higgins’ Harold And Maud, but this time around director Brandon Baer is hampered by casting missteps, pacing problems, and a stage too cavernous for the inventive look he and his design team have conceived.

Film buffs are surely aware of the Hal Ashby-directed cult movie classic that scored its stars Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort Golden Globe nominations, and even those like this reviewer who’ve somehow managed to miss it probably know its basic plotline. (Suicide-obsessed teenager falls for geriatric free spirit.)

Mrs. Helen Chasen (Louise Martin at the Morgan-Wixson) may have accustomed herself to her nineteen-year-old son Harold’s (Scott Cullen) now fifteen fake suicides, but that doesn’t mean she has abandoned her maternal duties, and that includes enrolling her boy in a computer dating service.

Harold, meanwhile, has met, if not the girl of his dreams, then at least a woman to perk up his life in the person of Countess Mathilda Chardin, aka Maude (Anne Gillis Cooper), a seventy-nine-year-old nymph with whom he shares a love of funeral-crashing if not her love of life.

And so an improbable friendship is struck up, one that has Maude teaching Harold to strum a banjo, steal a tree (the better to replant it in a friendlier environment), and simply learn to make the most of his time on this planet, and before you can say “May-December romance,” Harold has fallen head over heels in love with a woman sixty years his senior.

To director Baer’s credit, Cullen and Cooper give Harold and Maud a sweetness and sincerity that makes us buy into their unconventional romance.

What his two leads are less successful at is in building characters that hold our interest.

Cooper gives us Maude’s sweetness and her quirks, but what’s missing is her crackle and pop. Maude may not be “all there,” but the actress playing her needs to keep the pace snappy, and Cooper’s hesitant delivery just slows things down.

Cullen gives Harold an open-faced cuteness, but that’s about all. We should sense something intriguing lurking inside the laconic teen and there’s just a blankness not helped by one-note line readings.

Martin’s divinely Upper East Side Mrs. Chasen and Salome Mergia’s deliciously pretentious “actress” Sunshine Dore do the evening’s most memorable work, the latter earning a justified spontaneous burst of applause for her hilariously over-the-top reaction to Harold’s “Romeo” demise.

Rebecca Goldstein (Sylvie Gazel), Ken Ivy (Sergeant Doppel, Gardener), Tim Misuradze (Dr. Matthews, Inspector Bernard, Boss, Chief Gardener), Rosey Murah (Nancy Mersh), Kali Racquel (Marie), and Bobby Williiams (Father Finnegan) provide adequate if unexceptional support.

More importantly, for a movie that ran a mere ninety minutes (including opening titles) to turn into a two-hour play (not counting late start and twenty-minute intermission), something needs to be done to get things moving ahead lickety-split as they should.

Not at fault are cleverly choreographed scene changes that have cast members moving set pieces with razor-sharp precision and pizzazz. (I especially relished seeing a funeral home materialize before my eyes.)

Baer and scenic designer Hyrum Judkins’ give Harold And Maude a surreal look and feel that is both smart and stylish (fireplace, staircase, sofa, tables, and chairs against a plain black backdrop), and their eleventh-hour birthday party transformation is a dazzler.

Unfortunately what might work to perfection on a smaller stage seems lost inside the great big Morgan-Wixson proscenium as do most cast members’ voices, especially in scenes performed far upstage.

Lighting designer Derek Jones scores high marks, particularly for a tree-climbing sequence that is also one of Baer’s most inspired, Daniel Kruger’s costumes evoke the swinging ‘60s with nostalgia and flair, and sound designer Ellen Taurich punctuates scene changes with some nifty jazz fiddling.

Ellen Taurich is stage manager and Amy Witikowski is assistant stage manager. Louis Baglio is production coordinator.

Following last year’s pitch-perfect Private Eyes, Harold And Maude comes as a letdown. With more impressive leads and in a smaller space, it might well have worked as well as Baer’s Morgan-Wixson debut.

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Morgan-Wixson Theatre, 2627 Pico Boulevard, Santa Monica.

–Steven Stanley
April 29, 2017


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