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'VOICES' BROUGHT TO LIFE AT FALCON.

Byline: Evan Henerson Staff Writer

Maybe A.R. Gurney needs to insert children in all of his plays.

Yeah, it sounds basic. Children. Not girls pretending to be dogs (Remember ``Sylvia''?) or servants, but kids' characters - the ones who will have some perspective on and distance from the WASP-ified, ascot-filled country clubs that so many of Gurney's characters inhabit. Children such as Eddie, the narrator of his latest play, ``Ancestral Voices.''

Then again, maybe writing kids isn't the key. Maybe the playwright just needs the kind of dependable cast that director Gordon Hunt has assembled for the West Coast premiere of ``Voices'' at Burbank's Falcon Theatre.

``Voices,'' Gurney's 25th full-length play, is essentially reader's theater - five actors sitting at orchestra podiums reading from scripts. In format, it resembles the playwright's ``Love Letters,'' the rotating two-character phenomenon of several years back that still gets trotted out whenever a minor celebrity is looking to raise money for a cause.

But ``Ancestral Voices'' is weightier, meatier - and at the Falcon, very satisfying. Even without trappings like movement and scenery, you feel that you're in a specific place at a specific time. And when you're sharing that space with Fred Savage, Robert Foxworth, Katherine Helmond, Mariette Hartley and Rene Auberjonois, you're in very good hands. So what if they don't move? These performers sit with a kind of patrician dignity.

Well, Savage doesn't, but he's hardly supposed to. Best-known as the cute kid from ``The Wonder Years,'' he's now all grown up and once again playing, yup, an adolescent. Through 12-year-old Eddie's eyes, we witness the break-up of his favorite grandparents (Helmond and Auberjonois). While Eddie's parents (Foxworth and Hartley) seem to handle Gram's remarriage and Gramp's decline with fairly rigid spines, Eddie finds his world more than a little bit shaken. Savage shows us that this youngster is most naive and savvy. Eddie thinks he has options.

The divorce forces Eddie's loyalties to become, if not divided, certainly expanded. While trying to figure a way to get the two back together, Eddie goes on a fishing trip with Gramp and a country club luncheon and movie with Gram. Along the way, he learns that in an incestuously upper-crust little burg like Buffalo in the 1930s, a woman doesn't simply divorce a popular man like Gramp (to marry his childhood friend, no less) without repercussions.

Never the most nuanced of playwrights, Gurney hangs his themes out like a freshly starched Izod. This one's about the importance of family, but at the same time the playwright also manages to teach us a thing or two about this culture's tribal customs.

Dispensed in an intermission-free 90 minutes, ``Ancestral Voices'' is a funny and bittersweet evening that seems to celebrate freedom over confinement. Foxworth, playing a ``children should be neither seen nor heard'' kind of father, again proves himself one of the most skilled of stage actors, and Auberjonois does nifty double duty with Gramp and Gram's gruff second husband, Uncle Roger.

For the record, Gurney has pulled off a story from a child's perspective before, with a lesser-known work called ``What I Did Last Summer'' (no, it never starred Jennifer Love Hewitt). Like that earlier work, ``Ancestral Voices'' demonstrates that the playwright knows how to make an audience bask in the glow of a warm memory. The cast at the Falcon simply completes the process.

``ANCESTRAL VOICES''

Where: Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3:30 p.m. Sunday; through Nov. 26.

Tickets: $25 to $35. Call (818) 955-8101.

Our rating: Three and one half stars

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Photo:

Rene Auberjonois, left, Fred Savage and Katherine Helmond co-star in A.R. Gurney's rich ``Ancestral Voices'' at Burbank's Falcon Theatre.
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Title Annotation:Review; L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 27, 2000
Words:621
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