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Theater Review:

"THE SECRET DIARY OF ADRIAN MOLE, AGED 13 3/4," Rivendell Theatre Ensemble at the Athenaeum Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

British author-playwright Sue Townsend pulls the wry wisdom out of the mouths of babes, spices it with fiery irony and lets her hapless but very centered adolescent swirl it around his braces before spitting it out in boldly literate doses. "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4," Townsend’s adaptation of her popular series of books featuring the precocious title journal keeper, pokes holes in society’s moral fiber of decency while tossing out some devilishly hilarious observations of adults’ rampant self-absorption.

Rivendell Theatre Company presents this zany comedy -- with family appeal despite its racy undertones -- at the Athenaeum Theatre as part of "Europe Plays," a series of contemporary European works staged across the city’s north side by the Cultural Committee of the European Union in Chicago.

Set in Thatcherized 1980’s England, this play written with savvy and self-satiric sophistication centers on the beleaguered Adrian who seeks intellectual respect. An intensely perceptive pre-teen with a gift for seeing the ridiculousness in various adult situations, he must keep his crumbling household together. His newly assertive mother, Pauline, is having an affair with the caddish next-door neighbor, Mr. Lucas, and his despondent, Jim Reeves-loving father, George, embarks on a silly romantic fling of his own.

But these are no hackneyed soap-opera antics. The story is set against the backdrop of a country suffering from unemployment and plummeting morale. The play also touches on the dire state of care for the elderly, and criticizes an oppressive and conformist education system. Yet Townsend (via Adrian) can expose societal hypocrisy with a swift, riotously crafted one-liner.

In fact, while there are some self-consciously goofy moments in this show and Ken Howard’s and Alan Blaikley’s songs are gratingly unoriginal, "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole" offers some hysterical moments. I cried tears of laughter at the most unexpected moments.

When Adrian, playing the good Samaritan to get out of math class, agrees to assist a curmudgeonly pensioner named Bert Baxter, the old man talks about how he turned Communist after a female visitor to his farm fed chocolate eclairs to his horse. After Mr. Lucas’ wife declares to Pauline that she is leaving her husband for another woman, the clueless Pauline blurts out that one doesn’t expect such behavior to happen "in a cul de sac." Adrian’s ultra-accomplished girlfriend, Pandora, prefers to be called "Box." And, when Adrian tells his father that he would like to become a veterinarian, George discourages him by saying veterinarians spend their lives with their "hands stuck up a cow’s bum."

There’s plenty of social and overall human commentary amid the Benny Hill-style mayhem. And Adrian maintains his winning sense of security and self-assurance even when the school bully beats him up for lunch money or his punk-inspired best friend Nigel takes him to a disco or his father gets the dog drunk on cherry brandy. His main goal is to have one of his poems read on the BBC and, on a larger scale, he wants to inject civility into an increasingly callous world.

Be warned that, although the hero is about to turn 14 and Mark Reynolds’ lop-sided powder-blue cardboard houses suggest a children’s show, "The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole" would probably go over most very young kids’ heads. It’s more suitable for ages 12 and above.

Cindy Gold directs an effervescent cast that doesn’t confuse broad caricatures with believable but slightly off-kilter characters. Fourteen-year-old Bryan Hart, an eighth grader at Deer Path Middle School, approaches the role of Adrian with a winning combination of wit and humility. He’s smart and comfortable with himself but never smug or cocky.

Marssie Mencotti delivers a quietly riotous star turn as Adrian’s tidy and loony grandmother and as the libido-crazed nursing-home resident, Queenie. Joseph Tuttle can be both delightfully dim and outlandish as punk fan Nigel.

Other highlights include George Lugg’s grandiosely snarling Bert Baxter; Amy J. Carle’s vain but charming Pauline; Keith Kupferer’s belching, lovesick George; Jane Baxter Miller’s caustically direct Mrs. Lucas; and Michael Nowak’s delusional, past-his-prime womanizer, Mr. Lucas. Only Rebecca Rubenstein could loosen up as Pandora and get beyond her character’s contrived snippy persona.

This is a lovely summer comedic confection that also manages to stir the brain cells and remind adults to rekindle their keen childhood insights.•

"The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4" runs through June 23 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets: $15. Call 773-472-1169.

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