Written by Dany Margolies. Back Stage West, September 5, 2002

 Going for realism in theatre has to be one of the more noble, albeit difficult, goals of theatremakers. Little absorbs an audience more than watching an actor go about daily life or surmount problems exactly as we would - or should. So why have the audacity to complain that an evening of theatre may be too real? It's because this George F. Walker script seems to call for a less cautious rendering, as this fable of conmen and ex-cons resembles no less than a millennial Damon Runyon tale.

Not that there aren't people just like the foursome holed up in this suburban motel room. Ex-user Denise and her ex-con husband, R.J., have brought Denise's mother, Carol, here to hide out from the gangster she's recently swindled. Carol, in need of "sharing an adult moment," brings the accommodating Michael to the room. The duplicitous Carol has everyone twisting in the wind, until Denise- the unlikely sensible one of the bunch- finally wrests control.

Under Jolene Adams' meticulous direction, the actors fully inhabit these characters. Christina Hart stuns as the tarnished Carol, as at home on this ragged set as we are in the privacy of our homes yet consistently vivid in her portrayal. As Denise, Kara Pacino likewise lives honestly onstage, a fine example of an actor who waits for events to befall her character before reacting. For example: Pacino tries forcing the door open before realizing it's locked and calling for someone to open it. Eddie Kehler laughs at Michael's predicaments-no matter whether out of his character's nervousness or the ludicrousness of the circumstances. And Brandon Keener has a powerful but relaxed voice- a welcome surprise in an actor of his generation.

But Pacino's Denise may be too sweet, too even-tempered, too polite, while Keener's R.J. may be too low-key, too relaxed. The script's quirkiness is ironed out, the heightened circumstances made everyday. Still, Adams' superb pacing keeps our attention as the actors interact on every line.

And speaking of reality, the motel-room set (Gary Richmond) caused more than one audience member to wonder aloud, "Is this a real room?" It makes us feel voyeuristic, down to the scorched lampshade and untouched Gideon's Bible. Likewise the makeup (uncredited) creates realistic punched eyes and choked necks that don't smear or sweat off over the evening.

"Suburban Motel: Risk Everything," presented by and at Actors Art Theatre, in repertory with "Problem Child," 6128 Wilshire Blvd., #110, L.A. Problem Child: Fri. 8 p.m., Sun. 5 p.m. Aug. 23-Oct. 11. Risk Everything: Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m. Aug. 24-Sept. 29. $15/both for $20. (323) 969-4953.