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`SPACE' FLIES TOWARD LOVE.

Byline: Reed Johnson Theater Critic

Like other big-bang views of human existence, Tina Landau's ``Space'' at the Mark Taper Forum is a show that probably works better in theory than practice.

Breathtakingly ambitious and dazzlingly disappointing, ``Space'' is essentially a rather ordinary love story wrapped in a lot of portentous speculation about little green men and starry-eyed pronouncements about the beauty and enormity of All We Don't Know.

The story centers on Dr. Allan Saunders (Francis Guinan), a mentally stellar but emotionally infantile neurologist. He's an academic star at the Boston School of Medicine and an emerging talk-show celebrity who dazzles admirers with his hyper-speed sound bites.

But Dr. Saunders' smug, orderly universe is about to get turned inside out by three otherwise unrelated patients who seek him out for a condition seldom discussed in Psychology 101.

The three - Devin (Michael Reisz), a young gay man; Joan (Mary Pat Gleason), a middle-age married woman; and Taj Mahal (J. August Richards), a jivey hip-hopper - all believe they've been in contact with alien visitors. They also are exhibiting identical symptoms: nosebleeds, headaches, hearing voices and ``memories'' of being strapped down in operating rooms while being poked and prodded by alien implements.

At first, Saunders attempts to dismiss these stories as repressed childhood sexual abuse, premillennial angst and so on. But after visiting a university colleague, Dr. Bernadette Jump Cannon (Shannon Cochran), an astronomer who scans the skies for alien radio signals, Saunders reluctantly and with growing agitation begins to entertain the possibility that there are, in fact, superior life forms out there.

By this point, Landau's audience is already light years ahead of her. Most of these ideas - extraterrestrial contact, parallel universes, paranormal psychology, ``recovered memory syndrome'' - would probably be familiar to the average high school senior reared on ``Star Wars'' and ``Oprah.'' Landau seems strangely unaware how much we've all been saturated with this stuff lately. There's more otherworldly intrigue and suspense in a typical episode of ``Unsolved Mysteries'' than in the whole of ``Space.'' It doesn't help that most of the performances are adequate at best.

For a ``genius grant'' recipient, Dr. Saunders also seems oddly obtuse about mundane reality. When Bernadette takes him on a mind's-eye tour of scientific history (Jan Hartley supplies the back-screen projections of Galileo, Darwin and Freud), Landau's script calls for him to react almost as if he were hearing these names for the first time.

In lieu of offering new insights into some difficult and complex cosmic puzzles - no sin in itself - Landau makes room for repeated and not particularly apt references to ``Dante's Inferno,'' ``Alice in Wonderland,'' ``A Christmas Carol'' and, inevitably, ``The Wizard of Oz.'' Her tendency to spell out her metaphors results in a show that means to be thrillingly expansive but winds up feeling self-constricted.

One bright spot in this theatrical nebula is Landau's direction, which lends further evidence that she's one of America's most interesting visual choreographers of ideas and bodies in motion. Actors whirl on and off like electrons in an atom smasher. Chairs, see-through screens, mirror balls and other props fly across James Schuette's simple, abstracted set design, poetically lit by Scott Zielinski. A white-gowned soprano (Karen Fineman) prowls the stage like a figure from a Salvador Dali dream sequence, adding mystical musical commentary.

Midway through Act 2, ``Space'' largely abandons its cosmic quest in favor of the romantic ``contact'' developing between the two Ph.D's. By that time, you may be feeling that ``Space'' has exposed you to a thousand points of light, which you would have gladly traded for a single glimpse of heaven.

THE FACTS

What: ``Space.''

Where: Mark Taper Forum, Music Center of Los Angeles County, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays; through Nov. 14.

Tickets: $29 to $42. Call (213) 628-2772.

Our rating: Two stars.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

Photo: Neurologist Allan Saunders (Francis Guinan), left, is told stories of alien abduction by a trio of patients - Mary Pat Gleason, J. August Richards and Michael Reisz - in ``Space,'' at the Mark Taper Forum.

Evan Yee/Staff Photographer
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Title Annotation:L.A. Life
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Oct 8, 1999
Words:695
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