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Lynda Barry’s ‘The Good Times Are Killing Me’ Opens Off-Broadway

August 9, 1991 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ Don’t look to playwright Lynda Barry for any misty-eyed memories of childhood.

″The Good Times Are Killing Me,″ which opened Thursday at off-Broadway’s Minetta Lane Theater, is a quirky, unsentimental yet often hilarious look at one young girl’s rite of passage - from innocent child to unsure teen-ager.

It’s a story of friendship between two girls - one white, the other black - and how racism pulls them apart. The time is the mid to late 1960s; the setting a working-class neighborhood in an unnamed city, and the mood, despite an unsettling finale, one of sassy, satiric humor.

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Barry, best known as a cartoonist whose work appears in The Village Voice and other publications, is a skillful writer. She has distilled the essence of being young - specifically, how children deal with fantasy and reality, good and evil, boredom and just plain fun - and put it into ″The Good Times Are Killing Me.″ The result is positively rejuvenating.

The playwright, now in her early 30s, really remembers how children act and talk. There’s not a false step here, particularly in her deft portraits of most adults as boobs of the highest order.

Barry tells her tale through the white girl, Edna Arkins, played to perfection by Angela Goethals. Edna’s life is detailed in a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes that miraculously tie together by the final curtain. They deliver a genuinely dramatic payoff.

Her friendship with Bonna, the black youngster, develops gradually.

The defiant Bonna (a strong performance by Chandra Wilson) is, at first, suspicious of Edna. Their bond requires some nurturing, and the medium that cements this friendship is music.

In fact, most of Edna’s memories, just like our own, are rooted in music. Songs of all sorts - pop, rock, show tunes, easy listening, soul and even a little gospel - punctuate the evening. Even desiger Rusty Smith’s impressionistic backyard setting is polka-dotted with 45 rpm records.

Music defines Edna’s life, helping the girl remember her family as well as her friends. From her philandering father’s comical rendition of ″Volare″ to her younger sister’s dreamy waltz as Paul Anka sings ″Put Your Head on My Shoulder,″ to Edna’s own fantasies of herself as a Julie Andrews clone in ″The Sound of Music,″ songs are what brings back the past.

Goethals’ contribution to the play can’t be overestimated. It’s a marathon role, and the young actress goes the distance like a real pro. Many of the performers play two or more roles in the large cast. Best among the supporting players are Ruth Williamson as pinch-mouthed Aunt Margaret, Edna’s relative from hell who will do good if it kills her; the cherubic Lauren Gaffney, as Edna’s solemn little sister, and Brandon Mayo as Bonna’s bratty brother.

Despite the play’s episodic nature, director Mark Brokaw doesn’t let the seams show. The scenes move quickly, building to that potent climax. ″The Good Times Are Killing Me″ aches at the end, but it has been a fast, funny ride with a comic-strip writer who has a lot to say about real life.