Mama's boy

Jean Cocteau, who died in 1963 at the age of 74, was the kind of artist almost nobody takes seriously anymore. Which is to say he was a man driven by the pure urge to create, rather than possessing a command of one particular medium. He wrote poetry, novels, and plays; illustrated and painted portraits and other studies; choreographed dance and live theater; created libretti for operas; and directed films.

He was certainly not equally talented in each discipline--his illustrations were fauvist by default, his poetry usually trite. But as a prose writer and filmmaker, he triumphed again and again with passionate, brilliant personal essays rephrasing relationships as mythological conflict. He was the breathing essence of that earthy inspirational phrase "If you throw enough mud at the wall, some of it's gotta stick."

Were he emerging today, Cocteau would be dismissed as passe in another, more problematic way--his personal demons fueled his art, which is a grand way to say he was a certified neurotic whose fears and obsessions defined his vision. Nowadays, in a pop psych-saturated world where flawless emotional balance is sold as a possibility, those works evolving from deficiency are condemned as vengeful, repressed, stunted examples of some dysfunctional agenda.

One literary giant after another has been critically wounded because of the bias he displays--Eugene O'Neill is a racist; August Strindberg is a sexist; Paddy Chayefsky is a homophobe, etc. While there's ample evidence to support each of these charges, the question becomes, Can we sacrifice their overall contributions to the cause of vanquishing prejudice?

There has been no concerted effort to topple Cocteau as a misogynist, perhaps because he'd already offered himself to the world as an openly gay artist before such concepts as "open" and "gay" had taken root. And yet, one of the overriding themes of his career was the cunning female force which must be defeated. Can Cocteau's best work be accepted as indispensable if indeed his scripts were working out some passive aggression toward his real-life mother, a devoutly Catholic woman who gave him money and orders well into his adult years?

The Dallas Theater Center has revived exhibit number one in the feminist case against Cocteau with Indiscretions (Le Parents Terrible), a vaudevillian, melodramatic, comic look (or so the author has characterized it) at one middle-class French family's implosion during the late 1930s.

Indiscretions, as translated from French by British writer Jeremy Sams, was a big hit two years ago on Broadway. One assumes, based on the reviews, that the New York production sprang from a rather broad, bedroom-farce interpretation.

Dallas Theater Center, ever eager and able to attract top national theater actors, isn't quite as interested in forging new paths when it comes to interpreting material already anointed by America's theater capitals. DTC's Indiscretions is amusing, occasionally funny in a laugh-out-loud way. But Jonathan Moscone's direction suggests a dumbing down of subtle, controversial material. He's probably not the first to do this since the recent reintroduction of Cocteau to American theater audiences.

DTC sumptuously stages Indiscretions as a campy comedy, even though the Cocteau scholar who contributes a terrific essay to this production's program effectively defuses that carnival attitude. Cocteau himself was never less than serious about portraying family relationships as dangerous, potentially poisonous, and rife with the kind of hypocrisy that's the natural consequence of individuals pledging their allegiance based solely on bloodlines.

The scarlet specter, the bloody queen of Indiscretions, appears in the form of Yvonne (Caitlin Clarke), a diabetic whose monstrous emotional appetites are focused on her beloved son Michael (Jonthan Brent). She loves him almost exclusively, but is terribly dependent on the love of others to survive. She courts the indulgence of her bitter, old-maid sister, Leo (Sybil Lines), and demands that her addle-brained inventor husband George (Peter Davies) not trespass into sacred mother-son territory.

This delicate balance is disrupted when a love-starved Michael and his equally horny father George accidentally fall for the same young woman, an ultra-efficient bookbinder named Madeline (Liz Piazza Kelley). Both men are hell-bent on pleasing mama, but at the same time, both are desperate to escape her clutches.

As you can imagine, Indiscretions is dramatized in the broadest terms here, with actors throwing themselves on and off the exquisite set design by Neil Patel in a perpetual huff of seriocomic impatience. All the characters toil in total ignorance of their own true feelings, until an interloper steps in to define the terms--auntie Leo loves George, who loves his tidy mistress Madeline, who loves the impetuous youth Michael, who is chronically entangled in a semi-kinky relationship with Yvonne, the tragicomic virago who is the centerpiece of Indiscretions.

No doubt about it, incestuous love between mother and son is the Godzillaesque destroyer in this play, the subject that's at once verboten and constantly approached by the other characters. Everyone portrayed in DTC's production must ultimately confront, and either ignore or rationalize, the central closeness between mother and son. As the overindulged Yvonne, Caitlin Clarke offers an inexhaustible comic wellspring of animosity, defending a questionable relationship with her son even as she's threatened by death. Jonthan Brent is a spritely manipulator, especially during the first act when he pursues his mother's approval like a rejected, coquettish lover.

Gray-haired, easily flustered Peter Davies makes us believe that his mind can wander so far away from his Parisian apartment that he will allow his wife and son to inappropriately console each other. The catalyst of the evening is short-haired, money-conscious, self-deprecating Aunt Leo, played with superbly sour, left-at-the-altar conviction by Sybil Lines. Her desire for revenge is as desperate as her hope for family unity, and thanks to her, the action of the play careens like an anxious bumper car between those two goals.

The problem is that this version of Cocteau's oedipal dramedy, promptly banned in Paris upon its premiere 60 years ago, is so afraid of its own subject matter that it must render every relationship lampoonish so the central romance between mother and son is consumed by the other conflicts. Once upon a time, camp was a useful prism from which to view gender hypocrisy. In a world which staunchly monitors stories about conflict between the sexes, Indiscretions has been co-opted as vampy escapist comedy. You can't help but believe that Cocteau proposed a more radical mix of laughter and analysis than this souped-up vaudevillian treatment offers.

Indiscretions (Les Parents Terrible) runs through February 2. Call 522-

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Jimmy Fowler