Nov. 12, 2004. 07:30 AM
Feng shui difficult to play


The Chinese Art Of Placement

By Stanley Rutherford. Directed by Rusty Owen. Until Nov. 27 at The Alley Theatre Workshop, 12 Ossington St. 416-703-9211.

The Alley Theatre Workshop is a new performance space that opened last night with the Canadian premiere of a play called The Chinese Art Of Placement.

Both the theatre and the play are promising concepts that still have a ways to go before they can earn an unequivocal round of applause.

The venue first. It's a simple 55-seat area at the back of the Lennox Art Gallery at Queen and Ossington, a rapidly developing area that could definitely use a performance spot.

However, as it now stands, the room features decidedly uncomfortable seating and a distinct lack of ventilation. Even with a 90-minute play like this one, it's not a very comfortable place to spend time.

The play that producer Michael Kash has chosen is also a prickly piece of work. The Chinese Art Of Placement refers to the ancient principles of feng shui, in which the arrangement of a single piece of furniture can change your life completely.

Stanley Rutherford's script is a monologue for one Sparky Litman, the son of "a Mexican Jewish grandfather and a Norwegian grandmother."

He lives in a single room, apparently bare except for a telephone and a solitary chair that he keeps trying to position in appropriate feng shui fashion.

Sparky, as we learn very quickly, is a very odd duck. He informs us that he was a poet until just last night, and his recent decision to abandon art has instantly made him a better person.

But the collection of twitching nerve endings that actor Stephen Najera presents to us is so unsettled, one fears for what the earlier incarnation of Sparky must have been like.

We quickly learn this man's obsessions. He likes to dwell on his neurotic (and probably fictional) past, he has an obsessive fondness for Tina Turner, he hates the ants that run roughshod over his apartment and he'd like to throw a big party to celebrate his new life.

At first, Najera captures the fey charm necessary to keep us interested in Sparky's weird babblings. But as the play loses focus and becomes repetitious, so does the actor.

There's one vividly surreal sequence about a mutual masturbation session with an alluring Russian female spy on the Trans-Siberian Express, but too much of the rest of the script plays itself out like a Rick Mercer rant without the edge.

Najera is certainly a committed performer, not afraid to hurl himself (or his chair) around with great abandon. But his bag of tricks winds up empty long before the final blackout.

After much hemming and hawing, it seems that all Rutherford has on his mind is the revelation that "it's only normal to be scared and isolated," and he's taken us on a terribly convoluted journey to communicate that very simple fact.

The major problem with The Chinese Art Of Placement is that an hour after seeing it, you're hungry for a real play.