The acting always feels a little forced, a little too self-aware, but once you get past that part, the material can win you over. “Cactus Flower” at Live Theatre Workshop blossoms into a joyful nostalgia piece complete with miniskirts and those LP recordings with big square album covers. The Beatles are singing away on the theater sound system. The actors talk about clattering typewriters and the Italian movies of Marcello Mastroianni.
Program notes place the setting as “Springtime in the 1970s,” although the movie version that made Goldie Hawn a movie star came out in 1969. The Broadway farce by Abe Burrows (based on the French farce “Fleur de Cactus”) lit up marquees in the middle 1960s. Moving the play a little bit into the future doesn’t change anything very much. The message is still a reminder to marry someone your own age and always tell the truth.
As a look at the 1960s culture clash of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll pounding on those good ol’ middle-class American values, “Cactus Flower” isn’t it. These are all nice people trying to do the right thing, even if the good-hearted dentist Dr. Julian Winston (Roger Owen) is a little too fond of his promiscuous bachelorhood.
The opening scene has Toni (Elizabeth Leadon) hoping to commit suicide because she is in love with Julian and he’s married. At least, that’s what Julian told her. But that’s what he tells all the girls – especially the cute ones. Julian figures if the women believe he’s married, they won’t be falling in love.
“Cactus Flower” is really about Stephanie Dickinson (Maxine Gillespie), Julian’s receptionist in a nurse’s uniform. No less than Ingrid Bergman had that part in the movie. She is the repressed spinster whose life begins to bloom once she opens up to the possibility Julian might love her one day.
Occupying a prominent place on Stephanie’s desk is a big fat barrel cactus that begins to sprout flowers right on cue. Gillespie does a nice job projecting both sides of Stephanie’s personality. The play requires her to bounce back and forth from being uptight and proper to being the glowing beauty in love with life.
Playing the ditzy Toni can be a challenge because much of her dialogue sounds just like the Goldie Hawn we remember from TV’s “Laugh-In.” Leadon is determined to do it her way. Using big eyes and angular gestures, the actor gets her laughs with a more open, less kittenish, kind of goofiness.
Cliff Madison the director gives everybody room to fill his own space. As the LTW run continues, the show should pick up speed and become even funnier. All the jokes are easy to follow, often setting up situations where the person who is talking accidentally tells the truth.
Unlike those quippy Neil Simon plays, the comedy of Burrows is more Old School, more like old network radio shows that find humor in their shades of meaning rather than with noisier schtick. Toni becomes so concerned with the well-being of Julian’s wife, who doesn’t even exist, she gets people chuckling without saying anything. This is a lot of fun to watch.
There are some hints of the coming pop culture superstorm, such as several scenes with a mink stole as it becomes a marker for the generation gap. And there is Julian’s fondness for recreational sex, which everyone seems to accept as perfectly normal.
IF YOU GO
What: Live Theatre Workshop presents “Cactus Flower” by Abe Burrows
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 25
Where: Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd.
Price: $14-$17, with discounts for cash