All is not what it seems in 'The Amazing Brenda Strider'

The Amazing Brenda Strider,' CoHo Productions' season opener, is equal parts soap opera and mystery.

On the surface, this play by Los Angeles playwright Alex Austin is as bubbly and vapid as daytime TV. But just when you're ready to dismiss the show as fluff, it hits its stride with dark, intriguing scenes about a scheming femme fatale.

This is the Pacific Northwest premiere of 'The Amazing Brenda Strider,' which first opened in 2000 in Los Angeles. Under Steve Smith's direction, the two-act piece goes by quickly, save for a long, sentimental finale that could use some trimming.

As the play opens, a cynical screenwriter named Gene checks into a hospital to have a tumor removed. Except for brief visits from his ex-wife and nurse, his only companion is his drunken writing partner, Jerry.

Nicholas Burilini-Price Ñ who returns to the CoHo stage after performing in last spring's excellent 'Mall America' Ñ is both icy and fragile in the role of Gene. He spits out calculated, mean-spirited barbs until his declining health wears him down and brings out his humane side.

Jerry, an older and less talented screenwriter than Gene, has seen better days. At first, veteran Portland actor Gary Brickner-Schulz uses hangdog expressions to elicit sympathy for this bumbling character. When Jerry becomes enmeshed in a sexy mystery, Brickner-Schulz injects more charisma into the character.

The stories Jerry tells Gene are mysteries unto themselves. Is Jerry really involved in a dangerous love triangle, or is he just dreaming up material for his next screenplay?

Brenda Strider, a voluptuous bottle blonde, is the pivotal character in Jerry's tales. Jerry flirts with her, falls for her and finds that he's become a pawn in a deadly game between Brenda and her corrupt husband. This plot line is entertaining, but it doesn't win any points for originality. It borrows from 'Vertigo,' 'Double Indemnity' and other classic suspense films at every turn.

The entire cast turns in solid performances, but Val Landrum stands out with her gutsy portrayal of Brenda Strider. As a trashy trailer dweller in Artists Repertory Theatre's 'Killer Joe' last season, Landrum was so good it was scary. 'The Amazing Brenda Strider' further proves that she's not afraid to let her emotions explode onstage. She can turn down the volume, too, lending Brenda a vulnerable, wounded quality in some scenes.

The stage lights are bright and sterile during the hospital scenes, going dim when Jerry's sordid stories come to life. The set is minimalist, decorated with a hospital bed and other antiseptic furniture. Adding to the institutional feel, a drab linoleum floor covers the set. The props are simple, like the occasional wineglass or cigarette. This bare-bones approach allows viewers to flesh out the scenes in their imagination.

Though it's sappy and predictable at times, 'The Amazing Brenda Strider' is an engrossing melodrama with some clever plot twists up its sleeve. Just watch out for the smart and sultry title character. She's trouble in a tight dress.

Contact Stephen Blair at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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