Arts In LA
Revival
Lucid Dramatics at Acting Artists Theatre

Reviewed by Julio Martinez


Victor Gurevich and Ben Moroski
Photo by Andrew Oxenham

Written, directed, and produced by Carla Neuss, Revival attempts to chronicle the loneliness and despair of the disparate habitués of a small, hideaway cocktail bar. The bar is located in a downscale section of Los Angeles and is owned and operated by spiritual healer–cocktail guru Crispin (Ben Moroski). The bar’s regulars include socially jaundiced Tyler (Victor Gurevich), burnt-out pastor Fred (James Svatko), and jaded college student–turned–gentleman’s escort Jo (Adrienne Whitney). They seek refuge from reality by weaving a personal story that will inspire Crispin to concoct a special cocktail for each that captures the palate, assuages all fears, and promotes tranquility. Despite the earnest efforts of the ensemble, nothing else of any dramatic value is accomplished in this shortsighted stage work.
   Neuss indicates that Crispin is on an odyssey of his own, in search of the long-lost holy grail of liqueur that will somehow transform his own life. The playwright takes her woebegone losers-in-life through myriad storytellings, personal revelations, and confrontations. But, by play’s end, no one has been transformed. Everyone simply moves on. Neuss does not offer enough information about these lost souls for the audience to care what happens to them.

Moroski certainly projects the somber intensity of a man who is on a journey of discovery; but his Crispin remains a thematically unsatisfying enigma throughout. Whitney’s Jo is much more forthcoming, handling each of her three “dates”—all performed by a decidedly uncomfortable Joe Mortone—with efficiency and dispatch, while indicating she might want to achieve some level of personal commitment with Crispin. Yet, her eventual meltdown is arbitrary, having been set off by some activity offstage to which the audience isn’t privy.
   Gurevich’s Tyler is believable as a raw-nerved convert to the mandate of Crispin’s alcohol oasis—tell a sweet little story but leave the real world outside. He gives ample evidence that if it weren’t for the bar, his psyche would disintegrate. Svatko is endearing as the life-conflicted cleric. Unfortunately, he has trouble with his delivery, occasionally rendering himself inaudible.

Scenic designer Yuti Okaham creates a quirky-looking bar-lounge setting that evokes the aura of a secret hideaway. But the placement of the bar dead center at the rear of the stage results in awkward blocking. And Gieselle Blair’s wig designs do more damage than good as Martone struggles through his three date personas.
   Revival is in its premiere outing, affirming that Neuss has an original voice. With a running time of around 100 minutes, no intermission, it could stand a rewrite to flesh out the necessary storytelling elements that need amplification.

January 22, 2015
     
Jan. 18–Feb 7. 7313 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Sat 3pm & 8pm. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission. $25. (949) 616-9726.

www.luciddramatics.com

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The Whipping Man
South Coast Repertory

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Adam Haas Hunter, Charlie Robinson, and Jarrod M. Smith

Matthew Lopez’s evocative Civil War story opens in near darkness as a Jewish Confederate captain, Caleb (Adam Haas Hunter), drags himself into his severely damaged home near Richmond, Va., a few days after the recent cessation of the war. Seriously wounded, he is met by former slave Simon (Charlie Robinson), who has stayed behind to look after things after the family fled. When Simon recognizes Caleb, he offers Hebrew blessings for his return. The family and its slaves shared Judaism as their spiritual ethic.
   They are soon joined by John (Jarrod M. Smith), another slave who has grown up with Caleb but whose personal history is a mix of thievery, rebellion, and drunkenness. He brings with him liquor and household items he has “liberated” from the area’s stores and homes. Simon immediately presses him into service, as Caleb’s gangrenous leg needs to be amputated, and Caleb refuses to go to the military hospital. The home becomes a sanctuary of sorts for the three. Caleb is also reminded that John and Simon are now free men, and their attentiveness is doing what is right rather than what they are bound to perform.

Lopez’s play mixes historical racial narrative with melodrama, and though it has many inconsistencies, the production overcomes some of its problems. Director Martin Benson focuses on the human side of the conflict by developing rich characterizations.
   Robinson’s quiet dignity and humor keep Simon from devolving into caricature. The portrayal is believable as Simon celebrates his faith and takes pride in his worth to the family. He anchors reality as the story unfolds.
   Hunter is also excellent as the privileged Southerner who has returned home with secrets and sees his future as bleak. He embodies weakness and regret. His amputation scene is a cringeworthy masterpiece, and his subsequent suffering never falters.
   Smith is also notable as the angry recipient of the “whipping man’s” administration of Southern justice. As John taunts Caleb with accusations, he projects pent-up rage. He is brash yet embraces his Judaism faithfully with all of its traditions. One of the most interesting scenes in the play is a Seder dinner planned by Simon that the three share.

Tom Buderwitz’s set design is elegant, showing vestiges of what once was a grand home with well-appointed design. Tattered curtains hang from the tall windows, and holes in the walls and roof attest to war’s destructive nature. Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz’s muted lighting adds to the melancholy mood and enhances the bleak sadness of the storyline.
   Michael Roth’s original music/soundscape ratchets up the underlying atmosphere, giving the production enhanced presence. Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes also add to the poignancy of Southern failure.
   Lopez’s play suffers from a plethora of story threads that bog down the central theme of freedom and racial equality. Still, its message prompts discussion and examination of the human condition, especially in light of our daily dose of societal inequities.

January 16, 2014
 
Jan. 9–25. 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa Schedule and ticket prices are on SCR’s site. (714) 708-5555.

www.scr.org

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Viral
Moving Arts and Bootleg Theatre, at Bootleg Theatre

Reviewed by Neal Weaver


Alicia Adams and Daniel Dorr
Photo by Justin Zsebe

Playwright Mac Rogers has written an oddball comedy about suicide. But his thinking is so muddled, it’s sometimes hard to tell if he’s for it or against it. Scatterbrained Geena (Mariel Higuera), her bullying boyfriend Colin (Daniel Dorr), and her onanistic brother Jarvis (Oscar Camacho) are sexually aroused by witnessing death. But they’re not interested in plain, garden-variety snuff films. They want the death to be peaceful, beautiful, and self-willed by the dying. They’ve come up with the unlikely notion that if they make a death movie of their own, they can make a fortune by selling it to people who share their interests and proclivities.
   To make their film, they must find a star/victim who wants to die and will consent to do so under their auspices. So they create a bogus assisted-suicide website, and then they wait for applicants. One soon appears, in the person of practical, laconic Meredith (Alicia Adams). She’s no fool and soon tumbles to the fact that the three are not quite what they pretend to be. But she wants to die, and she has no money, so if they provide the place and the drugs, why not go along?
   But it’s not so simple: Eager Reena wants to create a handsome set for the shoot, Colin wants a dress rehearsal using tic-tacs to represent the lethal pills, and Jarvis is so turned on he keeps retreating to his room to masturbate. And when their prospective producer Mr. Snow (Mark Kinsey Stephenson) appears, he wants Meredith to die in the nude to make the film more commercially viable, but this offends Colin and Reena, so they decide to become their own distributors.

Just what point Rogers is trying to make is never very clear. He makes a last-minute effort to introduce human content, by having Meredith inspire Reena to rebel against the bossy, hypercritical Colin. But at least the piece is sometimes funny, and director Darin Anthony keeps things lively enough to make us almost forget that it goes on at least 20 minutes too long. And the actors make the most of their roles. Higuera finds considerable charm in Reena’s eager-beaver scattiness, Dorr’s Colin is properly officious, and Camacho derives a measure of comedy from Jarvis’s eternal horniness. The most impressive performance, however, is Adams’s. Her Meredith may be loony, but she has common sense, and at least she knows what she wants.
   Curiously, the show has a very odd starting time of 7:17pm. The number gets a brief mention during the play.

January 12, 2015
 
Jan. 10–31. 2220 Beverly Blvd., downtown LA. Thu-Sat 7:17pm (note early curtain). Running time approx. 90 minutes with no intermission. $15–25. (213) 389-3856.

www.bootlegtheater.org

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Blithe Spirit
Ahmanson Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Susan Louise O’Connor (standing), Sandra Shipley, Charles Edwards, Angela Lansbury, Charlotte Parry, and Simon Jones
Photo by Joan Marcus

Well, of course it’s an enormous privilege to see the super-legendary Angela Lansbury reprise her 2009 Broadway turn as the infamous Madame Arcati in Noël Coward’s enduringly popular 1941 drawing room comedy. It’s also a great treat to experience such a grand homage to Coward, directed by the venerable Michael Blakemore and featuring an exquisite design team in every category. Also a given, the mounting’s ensemble cast could not be populated by better or more worthy veteran performers—although surprisingly, under Blakemore’s otherwise sturdy direction, it’s disappointing how little most of the supporting players understand the style that makes Blithe Spirit …well… spirited.
   With the exception of each welcome entrance of Lansbury’s outlandishly quirky Arcati, which immediately fills the stage with a presence so rich one can almost smell her perfume way back in the cavernous Ahmanson’s row P, and also excepting the delightful performance of Susan Louise O’Connor as the Condomines’s nightmare of a maid Edith, everyone else is too dry and way too serious. The scenes between Charles Edwards as poor haunted Charles Condomine and Charlotte Parry as his terminally British second wife, Ruth, are technically proficient but deadly dull.
   Only on two occasions does Edwards unearth the endearingly stuffy over-the-top idiosyncrasies of Charles, necessary to make his character lovable, and never does Parry do anything to bring Ruth to life in all her overly dramatic excess. Jemima Rooper does better as the ghost of Charles’s unwelcome first wife, Elvira, but as a whole, the scenes featuring these three leading characters are a disappointment, causing the nearly three-hour running time to seem agonizingly brittle and even longer than it needs to be.

Lansbury totally breathes life into the broad farcical elements of the play that, when it opened, took Londoners out of their wartime mindset. This is particularly true in the juicy séance segment, where Lansbury does a bizarre little Isadora Duncan–esque dance that looks like one of the Marx Brothers attempting to play Cleopatra in a musical comedy. Arcati is always the most talked about character, but, in this production, Lansbury is without a doubt purposely the center of attention, Blakemore’s staging focusing on her instead of any of the other performers.
   The design of this revival is truly magnificent, from Simon Higlett’s sweeping set, faultless right down to the Jean Miro toss pillows (which Charles and Parry toss more than they need to for something to do) and featuring “fresh” floral arrangements that change with each new scene. Higlett’s costumes are also perfection, as are the incredible sparkly outfits designed by Martin Pakledinaz and worn by Lansbury. Mark Johnson’s lovely lighting, which easily evokes the changes of time and season at the Condomines’s country estate in Kent, and the sound design by Ben and Max Ringham, with seemingly different species of British birds chirping in every corner of the Ahmanson, are fine additions to this most respectful tribute to Coward—who created characters who believe anyone can write a book but it takes a real artist to make a dry martini.

There’s no doubt the major reason to journey back into the familiar world of Blithe Spirit is seeing the illustrious 89-year-old Lansbury onstage, reprising the role that won her an unprecedented fifth Tony Award, capping her 70 years as one of the planet’s most beloved and prolific actors. Whatever role she takes on next, it will surely nab her a sixth Tony sometime in the near future.

December 17, 2014
 
Dec. 14–Jan. 18. 135 N. Grand Ave. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm (but see theater website for holiday changes). Running time 2 hours and 50 minutes, including intermission. $25–140. (213) 972-4400.

www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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Possum Carcass
Theatre of NOTE

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Alana Dietz, Lauren Letherer, Travis York, and Jonathon Lamer


Just as in The Seagull, friends and family members gather to be the first to see the artistically challenged Conrad’s attempt to create a work of counterculture art. A character wonders aloud if it’s going to be one of those plays with a sticky start. “No, no,” she’s told, “this is a professional play.” Soon after, Conrad (Kjai Block) reminds his typically skittish star, Nina (Nadia Marina), that their debuting effort is a performance, not a play. In other words, there are many familiar references to Chekhov’s masterpiece in David Bucci’s wily adaptation of the great 1896 classic, once again pointing out how enduring the work of the great Russian dramatist has remained.
   In Bucci’s contemporary update, Conrad’s famous actress mother, here called Mona (Lauren Letherer), had her former husband build her her own black box theater on their New York City rooftop instead of maintaining a makeshift outdoor stage on the shore of her lakefront estate. Bucci’s tongue-in-cheek nods to the original story are consistently clever, and his dialogue beautifully recalls and honors the original. Masha has become Lydia (Alana Dietze), arriving to see Conrad’s not-play performed, still dressed in her waitress uniform on a break from work, and Mona has brought along Boris (Jonathon Lamer), a successful screenwriter she has taken as her latest lover.
   All this is viewed and commented upon by Mona’s former brother-in-law Angus, who lives in her brownstone but tries valiantly to convince her to let him come live in her LA beach house despite how much he hates her. Of course, Conrad shoots a possum rather than a seagull, but most of Bucci’s scenes mirror ol’ Anton’s original scene by scene. Lydia still hates Nina (“Dead dogs move faster than that chick”); and Mona supports her favorite charity, although here the recipient of her dubious caring is an organization called Artists Anonymous, a group intent on rehabilitating poor souls suffering from Amateur Syndrome.

As gifted as director Alina Phelan is, and as inspiring as Bucci’s shrewd and irreverent adaptation seems to be, Possum Carcass is not entirely successful. There are odd glitches in the staging, clearly distracting when characters talk about going downstairs and then climb stairs leading upward and visa-versa. And when Conrad’s preserved dead possum (extra kudos to propmaster Misty Carlisle for coming up with such a thing) is tossed unceremoniously onto a table, no one reacts very much—nor does anyone later entering the scene, even Conrad, seem to notice its presence once it’s lying there in the middle of all subsequent action, all four tiny clawed feet facing hopefully skyward.
   The most obvious problem, however, is the glaringly uneven performance style of the ensemble cast. Theatre of NOTE stalwarts Letherer and Dietze are wonderful, and Travis York is lovable as poor lovelorn Angus, but the other performances appear to be assayed by actors who rehearsed to appear in another far more broadly played production. This is especially true of Block’s annoying take on Conrad. This is not to say the actor doesn’t intellectually understand the character, only that he should be more trusting that his audience may be smart enough to understand Conrad too without him working so hard—or delivering every line so loudly in this intimate Hollywood black box that it leaves those on the other side of the fourth wall with a raging headache by final curtain.

December 15, 2014
 
Dec. 4–Jan. 10. 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $20-25. (323) 856-8611.

www.theatreofnote.com

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She Loves Me
Chance Theater

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Beach Vickers and Daniel Jared Hersh
Photo by Doug Catiller
True Image Studio


Ill-advised, intrusive direction plagues the Chance Theater’s She Loves Me, and the casualty is the easy, unforced enjoyment traditionally associated with this jewel box of a musical, adapted from the 1940 Lubitsch classic The Shop Around the Corner.
   This is the one about feuding shop clerks, who are longtime lonely-hearts correspondents unbeknownst to each other. It’s had many incarnations, from the MGM’s frothy In the Good Old Summertime to the somewhat shopworn modernization You’ve Got Mail, but the key to every one has been: Keep it light on its feet and emotionally real.
   In the infrequent instances when director Sarah Figoten Wilson respects both criteria, this She Loves Me charms. There’s nice rapport between blustery proprietor Maraczek (Beach Vickers) and youthful delivery boy Arpad (Daniel Jared Hersh). Our leading man, Stanton Kane Morales, finds a good balance between chief clerk Georg’s professional stiffness and the champagne brio his “Dear Friend” pen pal is destined to uncork. The source of that bubbly, Erika C. Miller as Amalia, has a dear way with ballads like “Will He Like Me?” Indeed, the entire cast does justice to the delicate melodies—even the big numbers are delicate—as penned by Bock and Harnick, who bounced back from this 1963 Broadway succès d’estime to unveil Fiddler on the Roof a year later.

But again and again, this production falls victim to undercooked ideas that subvert the material. Bruce Goodrich’s set, for instance, is a giant wooden box on wheels, which opens up to reveal the parfumerie. Our first view of the shop floor is pleasant, but the set piece soon becomes the elephant in the room, killing the rhythm with long waits as it opens and closes and swings around, sometimes getting pushed aside altogether. Its literalness is matched by that of a two-sided wall representing Amalia’s flat. Does Wilson credit us with insufficient imagination to conjure up a simple interior? The heart sinks every time an actor grabs a wall and prepares to push or pull, because we know the froth is about to dry up.
   The musical staging (choreography credited to Christopher M. Albrecht) is mostly a mess of irrelevant business and uncertain focus. “Tango Tragique,” a usually foolproof counterpoint to the “Romantic Atmosphere” created in a Budapest café, becomes virtually unwatchable as the headwaiter (Matt Takahashi) mugs and preens and practically throws himself against the proscenium to beg for laughs, which don’t come. The priceless “A Day at the Library”—in which a flirtatious cocotte (Camryn Zelinger) describes her transformation at the hands of a studious optometrist—comes to naught as she’s directed to toy with a colleague’s bald head and handle Christmas garlands, thus suggesting she’s an unredeemed coquette after all.

There is no prop too irrelevant and no bit of burlesque too low for Wilson to banish. Miller is directed to engage in enough takes and mugging for a full season of Carol Burnett sketches. An opening customer sequence is so frantically busy it kills the plot-required impression that the shop is in deep financial trouble—not to mention the impact of Act Two’s “12 Days to Christmas,” when things are really supposed to pop.
   Then there are the gimmicks, or “doodles” as Wilson condescendingly refers to them in her director’s notes, but she should confine her doodling to her own sketch pad. Set aside the obvious ones: the cross-dressing lady customers—never has drag been so colorlessly or uselessly employed—or the lady violinist (Tina Nguyen) who magically keeps appearing to intrude on the title song and generally throw us knowing winks. (A fiddler at the shop? Sounds crazy, no?)
   But disrupting the musical’s emotional center is another thing altogether. That feat is pulled off by having Elizabeth Adabale, as a café chanteuse, stand next to the leads while crooning Gershwin classics. Regardless of how the Bock or Gershwin estates, or the licensors of She Loves Me, would take to such interpolations, all they do is distract from the exquisite scene Miller and Morales are trying to play. The romance of Georg and Amalia is at cross-purposes enough, without having to battle “Someone to Watch Over Me.”

December 14, 2014
 
Nov. 28–Dec. 28, 5522 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills. (Free parking in front of the theater.) Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $45 (general admission). (714) 777-3033.

www.chancetheater.com

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Love,Noël:
The Letters and Songs of Noël Coward

Lovelace Studio Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz



Harry Groener and Sharon Lawrence
Photo by Kevin Parry

Noël Coward’s songs should be standards, heard often, like those of his contemporaries Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart and Irving Berlin.  Coward’s cabaret tunes and show numbers are just as witty, his melodies just as harmonious. But other than “Mad About the Boy,” few of his songs are heard these days. Perhaps that’s because he’s more cherished for his classic plays, such as Blithe Spirit or Private Lives, than for his musicals, such as Sail Away and The Girl Who Came to Supper.
   Coward’s music deserves the spotlight, and
Love, Noël, a combination of his songs and his correspondences with his famous friends, gives his songs the respect they deserve. The show has returned to the Wallis, after a run in February, again directed by Jeanie Hackett, with a new winning cast of two: Sharon Lawrence and Harry Groener.

C
oward was the bon vivant of the 20th century. He dined with Winston Churchill and the Queen Mother; wrote plays for his friends The Lunts, Gertrude Lawrence, Elaine Stritch, and Bea Lillie; and was the confidant for Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. His letters were pithy but illustrated a dear love he had for all the people in his life.
   Coward expert Barry Day forms an evening around the letters he published in
The Letters of Noël Coward. The music, played on piano by musical director Gerald Sternbach, captures a blend of Coward genres: from the comical “Nina” and “Why Do the Wrong People Travel” to the operatic “I’ll See You Again” to the reflective “If Love Were All” to the paean of war-torn 1940s Europe “London Pride.” Coward fans will delight in the presentation of Coward’s lovely tunes while newcomers will marvel they haven’t heard some of these numbers before.

G
roener, who made a splash on Broadway in Crazy for You, Cats and the ’79 revival of Oklahoma!, captures Coward’s snarky turn of phrase, as well as his empathy for the pain felt by those for whom his heart breaks. Lawrence plays an array of famous women, from Gertie L to Stritchy, Queen Mum to Edna Ferber. Lawrence invests in each role, not only converting her voice to each lady’s cadence but also contorting her face to capture each’s flavor. Lawrence doesn’t have the belt for some songs and her upper register is light, but she still enhances each tune with a lovely alto voice and acts each song with gusto. 
   The cabaret act plays in the Wallis’s smaller space, arranged like a supper club, giving the evening the class found in New York’s famous Café Carlyle. The evening is as elegant as the setting.

December 8, 2014
  
Dec. 5–28. 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills. Wed-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 4pm & 8:30pm, Sun 2:30pm. Running time 1 hour and 45 minutes, including intermission. $75 (general admission), seating at nightclub tables. (310) 746-4000.

www.thewallis.org

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Time Stands Still
Secret Rose Theatre

Reviewed by Julio Martinez


Nik Isbelle, Aidan Bristow, Presciliana Esparolini, and Troy Ruptash
Photo by Dan Warner Photography

Donald Margolies’s sojourn within the lives of two conflicted battlefield journalists, who are attempting to readjust their lives and relationship now that they are separated from the foreign conflicts that originally drew them together, is given a deeply involving up-close-and-intimate outing at Secret Rose Theatre in NoHo.
   The play’s title aptly applies to the emotion-rending events that battered the body of photographer Sarah (Presciliana Esparolini) and crippled the psyche of her journalist lover James (Aidan Bristow). Sensitively guided by helmer Vicky Jenson, Esparolini and Bristow offer a finely detailed, emotionally compelling pas de deux as Sarah and James attempt to achieve a level of post-war-zone compatibility as a “normal” couple living in a Brooklyn flat.
   Margolies doesn’t supply any feel-good resolutions to the conflicts he sets up. He supplies only struggles, leading to arbitrary decisions. This is a good thing because Sarah and James eventually come at each other with raw nerve-endings and naked souls. Esparolini’s Sarah is combative, fighting the limitations of her bomb-blasted limbs, the sometimes claustrophobic needs of the man she loves, and her own sense that she is not appreciated professionally. Yet she projects a loving soul who truly wants to please James and keep him safe.
   Bristow offers an effective portrait of a much more emotionally closeted writer who finally hit a wall of battlefield horror that he could not get past. Now he is slowly coming to terms with a changing agenda about how he wants to live the rest of his life. Bristow’s James seems to bloom as he only too gladly settles into the insignificant everyday pleasures of civilian life.

Supplying well-timed point and counterpoint to this saga are the journalists’ middle-aged editor and longtime friend Richard (Troy Ruptash) and his much younger girlfriend Mandy (Nik Isbelle). This is not an infusion of equals. There is no free-flowing intellectual/aesthetic discourse amongst this quartet. Helmer Jenson admirably achieves a balance among competing agendas and blatant contentiousness, smoothly moving the action forward, solidifying the reality that these four are deeply committed to one another.
   Ruptash’s Richard, who at one time had a relationship with Sarah, projects a believable amalgam of heartfelt concern for and editorial detachment from the often demanding Sarah/James duo. Isbelle’s comedically gifted outing as Mandy provides welcome relief, as she undercuts Sarah’s and James’s journalistic highhandedness, telling them people don’t want to read all their “bummer” pieces.
   Complementing the proceedings is the original music underscoring of music director Craig Richey. Tim Paclado’s setting certainly realizes the space limitations of an average Brooklyn apartment, but also causes occasional awkward stage movement.

January 21, 2015
 
Jan. 17–Feb 8.11246 Magnolia Blvd. Handicap accessible; street parking available. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 1 hour and 50 minutes, including intermission. $30. (323) 960-7788.

www.TimeStandsStillLA.com

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Jack Lemmon Returns
Broad Stage

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


Chris Lemmon

Two-time Oscar winner Jack Lemmon has always been at the top echelon of acting talent. A gifted comedian (he represented Billy Wilder’s personification of the everyman in The Apartment and Irma La Douce) and modern tragedian (his alcoholic characters in Days of Wine and Roses and Save the Tiger are Shakespearean in scope) demonstrate a tremendous range. His son Chris Lemmon’s one-man show toasts his father’s accomplishments and delves into their complicated relationship.
   Utilizing conversations with Chris Lemmon as well as Chris’s memoir, A Twist of Lemmon: A Tribute to My Father, author-director Hershey Felder follows Jack’s early life with a stern father and flamboyant mother (she was the model for Daphne in Some Like It Hot), his first amateur performances, college life at Harvard, and his career. Lemmon shares his father’s good moments and low points, which sometimes occurred at the same time: The night Lemmon won his first Oscar for Mister Roberts in 1956, he abandoned his first wife at the ceremony to leave for after-parties, signaling the end of their marriage. Jacks’ alcoholism and personal parallels to his characters in Days of Wine and Roses and Save the Tiger are disclosed.

The best reason to recommend Jack Lemmon Returns is Chris’s winning personality. He imitates his father’s voice adroitly and changes his normal expressions to evolve into Jack. He captures Jack’s cadence, humor, and nervous tics. Chris stares directly into audience members’ eyes, creating a sense of intimacy. He plays piano with style, a skill he learned from his father. Director Felder should have relied on footage of Jack’s best scenes instead of having Chris enact them. Because these moments and Jack’s talent are ingrained in the audience’s memory, it comes off as a peculiar choice.
   Felder’s script doesn’t delve as deeply as it should have done. The timelines are unclear, leaving the audience confused. Chris mentions Jack’s alcoholism while discussing the death of Jack’s best friend Walter Matthau, but it’s uncertain if Jack admitted and treated his alcoholism at that time only (12 months before Jack died) or if he came to grips with the disease earlier in life and Felder chose to draw the parallels at that point in the script. The relationship between Chris and Jack also could have used fleshing out. The show tells good stories of Chris’s youth and Jack’s abortive attempts to spend time with him; but then nothing mentioned about their interactions during many years.
   Also, because the crux of the story involves their relationship, it would have been intriguing to hear from Chris how the addition of a half-sister positively or negatively affected him. Did he see his father be more attentive to her than he had been to Chris, or did he repeat patterns? As Felder has done in his own works, he focuses on Jack’s films and peppers those times with anecdotes instead of painting a full picture of the man.

Despite script issues, Jack Lemmon Returns is a loving but complicated portrait of a revered man told by the son who obviously adored him. Chris Lemmon not only exposes new dimensions of an American legend but also reveals himself to be a charismatic stage presence.

January 12, 2015
 
Jan. 7–25. 1310 11th St.See Broad Stage website for schedule. Running time 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission. $54-175. (310) 434-3200.

thebroadstage.com

goo.gl/maps/65za2
 

 
Bob’s Holiday Office Party
Pico Playhouse

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Rob Elk and Pat O’Brien
Photo by Ed Krieger

Every December for the past 19 years, producer-playwright-actors Joe Keyes and Rob Elk have untangled their strings of walnut-sized Christmas lights of our younger days; dragged their plastic snowmen, cardboard “Season’s Greetings” signs, and Ann Randolph’s tattered pantyhose out of storage; and included a truckload or so of Coors Light and a heaping supply of Cheez Whiz on their annual list of preshow needs. With all this familiar gear in tow and surely including an intrepid band of courageous elves to clean up the destroyed stage after each performance, they have mounted their incredibly popular Bob’s Holiday Office Party at some lucky theater each year, a feat that remains one of the true highlights of the holiday season in Los Angeles.
   You’ve gotta feel the pain of poor Bob Finhead (played all 19 years by Elk), who is trying to adorn his tiny insurance office in downtown Neuterburg, Iowa—known by residents as the “Gateway to the rest of the Midwest”—for his regionally acclaimed holiday bash, thrown each year for clients, friends, and the mayor’s wife Margie Mincer (Andrea Hutchman, alternating with Dawn Brodey in the role), with whom he shares hanky-panky in the backroom at her Knick Knack Knook every Tuesday afternoon at 4pm. Bob has filled the downstage-center aluminum tub with copious amounts of beer and brought out decorations that would make the seasonal kitsch sold at 99-Cents Only Stores look like treasures from Cartier.

Somehow this year, however, Bob’s heart is not with it. Instead, he’s thinking of getting out of town and heading for urban climes: Des Moines. There, his dream is to become an inventor, perhaps starting with his newest creation, the Crapper Clapper (no explanations necessary or offered here). When the town’s former resident bullying victim Elwin Bewee (Nelson Ascencio, alternating this year with Bewee veteran Pat O’Brien) returns with a proposition to buy out his insurance business, Bob is torn between his existence in Neuterburg and the magic lure of the big city. Once again, just as a reminder, that big city would be: Des Moines.
   His decision becomes more and more unfettered by reluctance to run from his life, especially when exacerbated by the arrival of the town’s opinionated sheriff Joe Walker (Elk’s co-conspirator Keyes), whose immediate action, centered on the office’s doorless bathroom, provides a chance for Bob to test out his Crapper Clapper on the spot. Joe nixes the offer for a beer since he has recently joined AA (although the Anonymous part is rather a joke in a town the size of Neuterburg), opting instead to swallow huge gulps from his ever-present Jack Daniels bottle.

Then there are the Johnson twins, LaDonna and LaVoris (Johanna McKay and Maile Flanagan), the richest farmers in the tri-city area who are so committed to their Tea Party ways they have Fox News tweets on in the milking barn. The arrival of the Johnsons, dressed in identical wear that could win top prize at any Ugly Sweater Day party on the planet, gives Elk and Keyes a perfect opportunity to update their hilariously inappropriate script each season, this time out giving the sisters a chance to spout out about Obamacare, Super Pacs, global warming, and missing George Bush.
   Add in such rich characters as local alcoholic druggie, community theater star (you should see his Rum Tum Tugger), and Jeff Spicoli clone Marty (Cody Chappel, alternating with Mark Fite), who comes to the party not only for the beer but also to put in his 16th accident report for the year after totaling Margie’s parked car on the way to the party. Then there’s Margie’s husband, Ray Mincer (David Bauman, alternating with Pat Towne), whose relationship with his best friend Derek is as much a well-kept town secret as is his wife and Bob’s Tuesday afternoon dalliances in the back of the Knick Knack.
   And just when you think all the over-the-top revelers are gathered to start spraying Coors and throwing Cheez-Its at one another, the friends are joined by the production’s two most delightfully off-center Neuterburg legends, both played by Bob’s legend Ann Randolph, alternating with Sirena Irwin). The first is the town’s resident cuckoo, Carol, who brings along her guitar and entertains the partygoers with an increasingly agitated folk song about her cheating husband. She is followed by Brandy, Neuterburg’s most available free pump, who joins the gathering when she realizes all the usual customers at her home away from home, the Tip Top Lounge, have left for Bob’s annual gala.

Under the direction this year of Craig Anton, Elk and Keyes’s raucous holiday treat has lost none of its outrageous humor—nor has it become any easier for the aforementioned clean-up crew, who each night must return the Pico Playhouse stage back to a place that would not be condemned by the Health Department. Without a doubt, this production has become a vital part of every Christmas season in our fair city—at least for anyone who enjoys delightfully tasteless nonstop laughs generated by a world-class ensemble of comedians unafraid of going beyond the usual holiday celebrating, assaying antics that fall somewhere between the Three Stooges and a Ron Jeremy movie. Beyond the traditional eggnog and the tired old carols about mangers and flying reindeer, Bob’s Holiday Office Party should be heralded as the quintessential ambassador of Christmas in LA.

December 14, 2014
 
Dec. 6–21. 10508 W. Pico Blvd., West LA. Thu-Sat 8pm Sun 7pm. $20-25. (323) 821-2449.

www.plays411.com/bobs14

Map
 

 
Luna Gale
Goodman Theatre at Kirk Douglas Theatre

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Mary Beth Fisher, Colin Sphar and Reyna de Courcy
Photo by Craig Schwartz

What makes playwright Rebecca Gilman so great is not that she writes plays on hot-button issues: racial discrimination accusations on campus (Spinning Into Butter), child disappearances (The Joy of Living), sexual stalkers (Boy Gets Girl), or the problems of child custody and bureaucratic maneuvering, as in her newest work, Luna Gale. (The Kirk Douglas is hosting the original Goodman Theater of Chicago production.) It’s that instead of exploiting any of those issues in the manner of a knockoff TV movie, she uses them as a jumping-off point for something much more robust and stinging. Each play goes far beyond its fundamental conceit, and her work always surprises.
   One of Gilman’s pet themes is action in the face of uncertainty. Her protagonists are trying desperately to find out the truth about this accusation or that new acquaintance. But when they think they’ve got it all figured out and take steps accordingly, the result tends to be a total cock-up. “The truth,” after all, is rarely clear-cut and almost always in the eye of the beholder.

A
ll of which makes for absorbing drama, not to mention serving as a rich metaphor for America in the 21st century. Our social and political (and even personal) crises, today, seem so much more confusing and complicated than in bygone days, don’t they? Gilman has her finger squarely on the pulse of modern absurdity.
   Few of her protagonists battle personal and official absurdity quite so feverishly as Caroline Cox (Mary Beth Fisher), the child welfare case officer at the heart of Luna Gale. In her 50s, Caroline remains passionate about protecting kids and making their lives right, but the obstacles are starting to mount up. Her ambitious, narrow-minded supervisor (Erik Hellman) clashes with her in style and substance. She can’t figure out whether two unwed parents hooked on meth (Reyna de Courcy and Colin Sphar) are redeemable or a threat to their infant daughter. Nor can she be sure the baby’s grandmother (Jordan Baker) is a more fit guardian.

I
n the “recent success” department, a young woman (Melissa DuPrey) newly “emancipated” from foster care, and seemingly successfully launched in college, may not be quite as stable as she appears. Most of all, Caroline is confounded by The System— a morass of rules and forms and procedures that offers too few resources, and presents too many contradictory choices, for anyone’s comfort.
   Still, a precious, vulnerable child is at stake, and the fate of baby Luna will hinge on how effectively Caroline can navigate the difficult waters in which playwright Gilman has placed her.
  The plot gets into the clashes of devout belief and atheism, as well as accusations of past sexual abuse and standards of professional conduct. So much is thrown into the hopper that occasionally you sense Gilman deliberately stacking the deck, rather than letting the plot developments evolve naturally. But director Robert Falls’s firm command of pacing, and Fisher’s extraordinary depth of intellect and feeling, keep the theatrical event compelling and focused.

December 7, 2014
 
Dec. 2­–21. 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Free parking underneath City Hall, immediately south of the theater. Wed-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30 pm. $25–55. (213) 628-2772.

www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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Undateable
Second City

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Amanda Blake Davis and Robyn Norris

Sometimes theater is about humankind’s greatest achievers. Sometimes it’s about supremely tragic figures. And sometimes, as with this show, it’s about the rest of us.
   A group of Second City’s fine performers went off piste and conducted a social experiment. After Robyn’s (Robyn Norris) friend posted a profile on a dating site and asked Robyn to check it over, Robyn set up an account to access the site. Robyn created the outlandish profile of an admittedly “crazy-insane person” she named TracyLovesCats. A shockingly large number of men—and women—responded, begging for various forms of contact with “Tracy.”
   Norris’s fellow troupe members Chris Alvarado, Rob Belushi, Amanda Blake Davis, Kate Duffy, and Bob Ladewig joined in, posting outrageous profiles no one could possibly think were anything other than a joke. These performers’ “sketch” show, Undateable, re-enacts verbatim the heartfelt responses by real, everyday people to these perverse personals.
   So, even though Rob (Belushi) pushed the intimacy-phobic envelope with DoorSlamEric, women think Eric is dateable. And although PioneerInABox (Kate Duffy) gets busted (she claims to function as if in the 1860s, yet she’s online), she manages to lure interest. Even Amanda’s (Blake Davis) age-questionable Old4U75 appeals to a prospective beau.
   The show, a fascinating concept, is well-structured and is imaginatively directed by Frank Caeti. It is also, of course, hilarious, though a strong strain of sympathy runs through it. And even though the show has been running for months, the performers have fresh energy. These performers are more interested in telling their story than in “being funny,” so the laughs come from the audience’s self-recognition and not from any obnoxious stage-hogging shenanigans.
   The troupe sings and dances—and not badly—to enhance several of their “scientific” points about romantic behavior. A few minutes of improv at the end of the show reflect the performers’ well-honed chops.
   Locational cautions: The venue is in Hollywood where street parking has a two-hour limit, metered until midnight on Fridays. The show is a mere one hour, but it undoubtedly will start a few minutes late. In addition, the theater is upstairs, and the site has no elevator. But if you’re swift and spry, head on up there for a dose of reality. It will probably provide you with more than several hearty belly laughs. It might also make you weep for mankind.

August 19, 2013

6560 Hollywood Blvd. Fri 9pm. $10.

www.secondcityhollywoodshows.com

goo.gl/maps/kGBj
 

 

 
Sage Awards 2014


PRODUCTION

Buyer & Cellar, Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum

Everything You Touch, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at The Theatre @ Boston Court

Henry V, Pacific Resident Theatre

Stupid Fucking Bird, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Circle X Theatre Company at The Theatre @ Boston Court

The Curse of Oedipus, The Antaeus Company

PLAYWRIGHTING

Mickey Birnbaum, Backyard, The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Sheila Callaghan, Everything You Touch, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at The Theatre @ Boston Court

Scott Carter, The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, NoHo Arts Center and Geffen Playhouse

Kenneth Cavander, The Curse of Oedipus, The Antaeus Company

Greg Pierce, Slowgirl, Geffen Playhouse

Marja-Lewis Ryan, One in the Chamber, 6140 Productions & Lounge Theatre at Lounge Theatre

Tommy Smith, Firemen, The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

ADAPTATION

Aaron Posner, Stupid Fucking Bird, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Circle X Theatre Company at The Theatre @ Boston Court

Troubadour Theater Company, Abbamemnon, Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

MUSICAL SCORE

Matt Almos, Brendan Milburn and Burglars of Hamm, The Behavior of Broadus, Sacred Fools Theater Company and Burglars of Hamm at Sacred Fools Theater

DIRECTION

Guillermo Cienfuegos, Henry V, Pacific Resident Theater

Jessica Kubzansky, Everything You Touch, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Circle X Theatre Company at The Theatre @ Boston Court

Robin Larsen, A Delicate Balance, Odyssey Theatre

Michael Michetti, Stupid Fucking Bird, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Circle X Theatre Company at The Theatre @ Boston Court

CHOREOGRAPHY

Marcus Choi, Beijing Spring, East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theater

Julie Hall, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Actors Co-op at the Crossley Theatre

Spencer Liff, Spring Awakening, Deaf West Theatre in association with The Forest of Arden, at Inner City Arts

MUSIC DIRECTION

Jake Anthony, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Actors Co-op at the Crossley Theatre

Eric Heinly, The Snow QUEEN, Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

David O, Floyd Collins, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

John O’Neill, Harmony, Center Theatre Group, Ahmanson Theatre

Jared Stein, Spring Awakening, Deaf West Theatre in association with The Forest of Arden, at Inner City Arts

SCENIC DESIGN

Tom Buderwitz, A Delicate Balance, Odyssey Theatre

Melissa Ficociello, The Last Act of Lilka Kadison, Falcon Theatre, Abbie Phillips and Jan Kallish in association with Lookingglass Theatre Company, at the Falcon Theatre

Stephen Gifford, Backyard, The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Andrew Hammer, Broomstick, Fountain Theatre

Jeff McLaughlin, Pray to Ball, Skylight Theatre

LIGHTING DESIGN

Leigh Allen, A Delicate Balance, Odyssey Theatre

Francois-Pierre Couture, The Curse of Oedipus, The Antaeus Company

Guido Girardi, Beijing Spring, East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theater

Lisa D. Katz, Floyd Collins, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

Luke Moyer, The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens and Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord, NoHo Arts Center and Geffen Playhouse

COSTUME DESIGN

Gregg Barnes, Kinky Boots, Pantages Theatre

Jenny Foldenauer, Everything You Touch, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at The Theatre @ Boston Court

Sharon McGunigle, The Snow QUEEN, Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

SOUND DESIGN

Peter Bayne, Broomstick, Fountain Theatre

Richard Woodbury, Slowgirl, Geffen Playhouse

PERFORMANCE IN A PLAY

Brooke Adams, Happy Days, The Theatre @ Boston Court

Hugo Armstrong, Backyard, The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Rae Gray, Slowgirl, Geffen Playhouse

O-Lan Jones, A Delicate Balance, Odyssey Theatre

Eric Lange, The Country House, Geffen Playhouse

Abigail Marks, Top Girls, Antaeus Theatre Company

Kristine Nielsen, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum

Ann Noble, The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, Los Angeles LGBT Center at The Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza

Jaimi Paige, Venus in Fur, South Coast Repertory

William Petersen, Slowgirl, Geffen Playhouse

David Selby, A Delicate Balance, Odyssey Theatre

Susan Sullivan, A Delicate Balance, Odyssey Theatre

Kirsten Vangsness, Everything You Touch, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at The Theatre @ Boston Court

Paul Witten, The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?, Los Angeles LGBT Center at The Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza

Jacqueline Wright, Backyard, The Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

PERFORMANCE IN A MUSICAL

Carter Calvert, Always…Patsy Cline, El Portal Theater

Larry Raben, The Drowsy Chaperone, Norris Center for the Performing Arts/Palos Verdes Performing Arts at Norris Theatre

Jeff Skowron, The Producers, 3-D Theatricals, Plummer Auditorium and Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center

Kyle Taylor Parker, Kinky Boots, Pantages Theatre

Peter Allen Vogt, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Actors Co-op at the Crossley Theatre

Stuart Ward, Once, Pantages Theatre and Segerstrom Stage

Mark Whitten, Floyd Collins, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

SOLO PERFORMANCE

Kris Andersson, Dixie’s Tupperware Party, Geffen Playhouse

Annette Bening, Ruth Draper’s Monologues, Geffen Playhouse

Barry McGovern, I’ll Go On, Center Theatre Group at Kirk Douglas Theatre

Christopher Plummer, A Word or Two, Center Theatre Group at Ahmanson Theatre

Michael Urie, Buyer & Cellar, Center Theatre Group at Mark Taper Forum

ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE

One in the Chamber, 6140 Productions & Lounge Theatre at Lounge Theatre: Kelli Anderson, Robert Bella, Alec Frasier, Fenix Isabella, Emily Peck, and Heidi Sulzman

Stupid Fucking Bird, The Theatre @ Boston Court and Circle X Theatre Company at The Theatre @ Boston Court: Will Bradley, Arye Gross, Charlotte Gulezian, Zarah Mahler, Matthew Floyd Miller, Amy Pietz, and Adam Silver


The voting critics of ArtsInLA.com: Travis Michael Holder, Dany Margolies, Julio Martinez, Dink O’Neal, Jonas Schwartz, Bob Verini, and Neal Weaver

January 5, 2015

 

 
Sage Awards
for theater in 2013


   Who says critics don’t like anything? Our theater critics chose their tops of 2013, from best production through best fight choreography, and the crossover among our choices gave rise to a surprisingly large list.
   And so we have decided to inaugurate our Sage Awards—named for the obvious reference to the wisdom we hope for, but also for the plant that covers the Los Angeles area, as we do.
   Congratulations to the Sage Award winners, and we hope to share more great theater in 2014.


PRODUCTION

Ah, Wilderness!, Actors Co-op

El Grande de Coca Cola, Ruskin Group Theatre

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine

Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre  

Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre

The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre

PLAYWRITING

Jennifer Haley, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Bruce Norris, A Parallelogram, Mark Taper Forum

Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine

Christopher Shinn, Dying City, Rogue Machine

Jackie Sibblies Drury, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre

ADAPTATION

David Ives, The Liar, Antaeus Company

Nancy Keystone, Alcestis, The Theatre @ Boston Court

Jessica Kubzansky, R II, The Theatre @ Boston Court

MUSICAL SCORE

Joe Iconis, The Black Suits, Kirk Douglas Theatre

John Kander and Fred Ebb, The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre

DIRECTION

Matthew McCray, Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre

Michael Peretzian, Dying City, Rogue Machine

Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Ken Sawyer, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre

MUSIC DIRECTION

Dennis Castellano, The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory

Eric Heinly, A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream, Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

Ross Seligman, One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Robyn Wallace, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Chance Theater  

CHOREOGRAPHY

Rob Ashford, Evita, Pantages Theatre

Matthew Bourne, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Lee Martino, Nuttin’ but Hutton, NoHo Arts Center

Arlene Phillips, The Wizard of Oz, Pantages Theatre

Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre

Kelly Todd, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Chance Theater

FIGHT CHOREOGRAPHY

Ken Merckx, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

SCENIC DESIGN

Adrian W. Jones, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Keith Mitchell, Billy & Ray, Falcon Theatre

Allen Moyer, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Jeanine A. Ringer, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Thomas A. Walsh, Annapurna, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Evidence Room, at Odyssey Theatre

LIGHTING DESIGN

Ken Booth, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Paule Constable, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Christopher Kuhl, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

David Lander, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Justin Townsend, One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

COSTUME DESIGN

Angela Balogh Calin, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Lez Brotherston, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Michael Krass, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

SOUND DESIGN

Jonathan Snipes, Wait Until Dark, Geffen Playhouse

PERFORMANCE IN A (PRIMARILY) STRAIGHT PLAY

Mark Bramhall (grandfather), Walking the Tightrope, 24th STreet Theatre

Phil Crowley (Nat Miller, father), Ah, Wilderness!, Actors Co-Op

Jason Dechert (young Pericles and pandar), Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Arye Gross (Mr. Sipos), Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center

Robert Lesser (lawyer/Greek chorus), A View From the Bridge, Pacific Resident Theater

Dakin Matthews (Doyle), The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Seth Numrich (Eli), Slipping, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at Lillian Theatre

Deborah Strang (narrator), Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Paige Lindsey White (Esme the granddaughter), Walking the Tightrope, 24th STreet Theatre

PERFORMANCE IN A (PRIMARILY) MUSICAL PRODUCTION

Sabrina Elayne Carten (Blues Singer), One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Nate Dendy (The Mute), The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory

Mary Bridget Davies (Janis), One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Jamie McKnight (Scarecrow), The Wizard of Oz, Pantages Theatre

Josh Young (Che), Evita, Pantages Theatre

SOLO PERFORMANCE

Lorenzo Pisoni, Humor Abuse, Mark Taper Forum


ENSEMBLE PERFORMANCE

The Katrina Comedy Fest, Bayou Playhouse and Flambeaux Productions at Lounge Theatre: Peggy Blow, Deidrie Henry, Travis Michael Holder***, Judy Jean Berns, L. Trey Wilson, and Jan Munroe

One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine: Giovanni Adams, Kevin Daniels, Jason Delane, Matt Jones, Ty Jones, Jason E. Kelley, Burl Moseley, and Jah Shams

Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre: Melina Bielefelt, Sharyn Gabriel, Matt Kirkwood, Michael Nehring, Gary Patent, Gavin Peretti, Sarah Roseberg, Kiff Scholl, Dan Via, and Alexander Wells

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre: Johanna Chase, Paul Haitkin, Michael Hanson, Elizabeth Herron, Carl J. Johnson, Che Landon, Ed F. Martin, Ann Noble, Dylan Seaton, Christine Sloane, and Paul Witten

The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre: Gilbert L. Bailey II, David Bazemore, Ayanna Berkshire, Shavey Brown, Christopher James Culberson, Joshua Henry, Trent Armand Kendall, Max Kumangai, Hal Linden, JC Montgomery, Justin Prescott, Clinton Roane, Cedric Sanders, Deandre Sevon, Christian Dante White, and C. Kelly Wright

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre: Daniel Bess, Julanne Chidi Hill, Joe Holt, Phil LaMarr, Rebecca Mozo, and John Sloan


***Travis Michael Holder reviews for ArtsInLA.com. He did not nominate himself, nor did he nominate his show.


The voting theater critics of ArtsInLA.com: Travis Michael Holder, Dany Margolies, Julio Martinez, Dink O’Neal, Melinda Schupmann, and Bob Verini

January 5, 2014
 

 
Reborning
Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Kristen Carey and Joanna Strapp
Photo by Ed Krieger

Roger Ebert once opined, “It’s not what a movie is about but how it is about it,” and the notion holds for plays as well. It’d be silly and unfair to reduce Fiddler on the Roof to “a musical about Russian Jews,” or Long Day’s Journey Into Night to “a play about a New England family with a substance abuse problem.” The writers’ particular treatment of their material is what matters: the ways in which artistry transcends topic.
   In one recent, provocative local example, the genius of Tommy Smith’s Firemen, a 2014 offering by Echo Theater Company, is that it refused to be pinned down as “a play about a middle-school teacher who sleeps with a student.” Yes, that plot element was in there, but the handling was sensitive and brilliantly indirect verging on the Pinteresque. Moreover, Smith was concerned with much more in his play than just a Lifetime movie topic: He had a lot on his mind about frightened people’s connections with other frightened people. So much so that he included characters with no direct involvement in the central, taboo love affair, but who had their own loneliness fish to fry.

Of course, a corollary is that when a film or play is nothing more than “about” a topic, that’s a sure sign of trouble, which brings us to Reborning, a work by Zayd Dohrn having its L.A. premiere at Fountain Theatre after a world premiere in San Francisco. This is a play “about” the true-life reborning phenomenon, in which artists create ultrarealistic dolls meant to be indistinguishable from the living, breathing variety. Sounds like a decent enough jumping-off point, opening the door to a whole variety of interesting considerations, including: Why would someone take up such a practice, as opposed to other types of art? How might the art form mess with the artist’s head? And what’s up with a person who’d want to collect such a doppleganger: mania, or aesthetic appreciation, or something darker?
   The Fountain spectator expecting any of that investigation will be disappointed, because the way Reborning proves to “be about reborning” is hokey, melodramatic, and lacking in believable dialogue or behavior. It’s as if Dohrn, having heard tell of this phenomenon, decided to just toss it up onto the stage with a modicum of research under his belt, in hopes that something would resonate. It does not, nor does it convince.

Take the central boy-girl relationship Dohrn establishes. Reborning artist Kelly (Joanna Strapp), feverishly poking a needle into a doll’s eye, is clearly nervous and maybe at a breaking point, pulling at a joint. Her longtime lover¬ and fellow artist Daizy (Ryan Doucette) crafts commissioned rubber dildos, one of which is proudly, lewdly sticking out of his pants when he bursts in, to a customer’s bemusement. When the customer leaves, he starts messing with Kelly’s materials and rudely grabbing at her doll displays, calling them “Chuckie.” “They’re starting to creep me out,” he announces, scoffing at the weirdos who would pay through the nose for a lifelike infant doppelgänger. This from the 10-inch-dildo seller. They banter Freudian theory until the truth comes out: Lately their sex life sucks.
   Almost all of this comes across as phony. Daizy and Kelly have been together for years, and clearly she’s been making these vinyl surrogates for a while now. Why would he, out of the blue, raise naïve questions about the fundamentals and commercial appeal of the art she’s been making, and making money at? Answer: because he is eliciting exposition. He must know how touchy she is about her work, so why would he thoughtlessly manhandle and deride it while she’s clearly in the throes of endeavor? For that matter, why doesn’t he notice her emotional state, or at least give us a Scene 1 hint as to whether this is her normal frame of mind or something noteworthy?
   Why does he parade the protruding dildo as if she’d never seen it before? That one’s easy: It’s meant to get a cheap laugh. And if you think the play ever gets into the contrast between their respective crafts, forget it; Daizy’s crass props carry no other plot or thematic function.
   Meanwhile there’s Kelly, who seems to take no pleasure or pride in her work. “It calms me” she exclaims, not at all calmly. If it brings her no solace, as it seems not to, why does she continue to do it? Out of compulsion, or neurosis, or hope that it will eventually take her to some pleasanter emotional space? Or shall we take the cynical view, that the playwright has predigested the act of making “fake babies,” and decided that anyone who chooses that calling must ipso facto be a basket case?

It’s so easy—far too easy—to use reborning as a metaphor for a tortured soul who can’t accept intimacy. More than that, it seems wrong to pen a play about a craft, only to arbitrarily hang a cornucopia of neuroses on it. Wrong as a dramaturgical choice, and unfair to the craftspersons themselves. (For the record, the real-life reborners quoted in the press materials sound like perfectly rational, normal people.)
   Would matters be improved if Strapp weren’t allowed, by the playwright and director Simon Levy, to play all her neurasthenic cards in the first scene, so that she has nowhere to go but just get crazier? Or if Doucette were given an opportunity to reveal some relaxed charm that might hint at what Kelly is holding onto in their relationship? Possibly so. Certainly Kristin Carey, as the customer whose commission brings events to a head, is by far the strongest element, simply because she possesses stillness and control and isn’t Acting all over the place.
   There’s a mystery woven in, too: something about Kelly’s past. But the real mystery is how this script was accepted for production by the estimable and usually reliable Fountain. If this is what this theater greenlights, what must its reject pile look like?

January 27, 2015
 
Jan. 24–March 15 5060 Fountain Ave. Secure, on-site parking, $5.Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 80 minutes. $15-34. (323) 663-1525.

www.FountainTheatre.com

Map
 

 
Blonde Poison
Theatre 40 in the Reuben Cordoba Theatre

Reviewed by Neal Weaver


Salome Jens
Photo by Ed Krieger

Stella Goldschlag (1922–1994) seems a wildly unlikely protagonist for Jewish playwright Gail Louw. Goldschlag was a notorious “Jew catcher” for Hitler’s Gestapo, and it has been estimated that her activities sent 600 to 3,000 Jews to their deaths. She was so efficient at her job that the Gestapo called her “Blonde Poison.” Louw is certainly no apologist for Goldschlag. The playwright makes no attempt to exonerate or whitewash the woman, but she does seek to understand what could have driven Goldschlag to such monstrous behavior. And, in the end, the portrait is not an unsympathetic one.
   Stella was just coming of age when the Nazis came to power. At first, she and her parents didn’t perceive the danger that was coming. They were convinced the German people were too civilized to tolerate for long Hitler’s barbarous policies. While other Jews were fleeing the country, the Goldschlags could not believe they were really in danger. By the time they realized their peril, it was too late. Because Stella was blonde and beautiful, she was able to pass for an Aryan, at least for a time, but her parents were not so lucky. They were taken into custody and slated for deportation to the death camps. It was then she agreed to work for the Nazis, in exchange for the lives of her parents and herself. And her career as a Greifer for the Gestapo began. She was repeatedly assured that the Gestapo never separated families. But they were lying, and her mother and father were sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt and executed there.

Louw has cast her play in the form of a solo drama and set it in the more recent past: 1994, shortly before Stella (Salome Jens) died. She has been asked for an interview by a journalist she had known in their student days, when he professed his love for her. But now, as she waits for the journalist to arrive, she is terrified. And it becomes clear how much she is haunted by her past and terrified at the prospect of being asked hard questions about it. The most unanswerable question is why she continued to work for the Gestapo after the death of her parents. She can’t answer it, even to herself. She keeps repeating, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
   As the play unfolds, the details of her life since the war emerge. When the conflict ended, she found herself pregnant, the result of an ill-fated love affair. When the Russian troops entered Berlin, she escaped rape by going into hiding. But when her child was born, she was deemed an unfit mother because of her wartime activities, the child was taken from her, and she was sentenced to 10 years in prison as a collaborator. When she later attempted to meet her child, she was rejected with fear and loathing. And, perhaps in order to achieve some sort of absolution, she converted to Christianity.

It’s a harrowing tale, told and acted with both passion and restraint. The solo drama is essentially an artificial format: a single woman talking to herself at length about her past sorrow and malefactions. But Louw is a skillful writer, and Jens acts the role with such profound conviction that we never question her reality. Her attempts at understanding and rationalizing her horrendous past actions seem both credible and moving. Her guilt may be profound, but so is her suffering.
   Director Jules Aaron frames the action with tact and sensitivity, and a finely invisible hand. Designer Jeff G. Rack has created the handsome set—though one wonders how Goldschlag could afford such a fine apartment after all her travails.

January 12, 2015
 
Jan. 8–26. 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills (in the parking structure at the back of the campus of Beverly Hills High School, enter at north end of campus, free parking). Mon 8pm, Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, Running time 95 minutes, with no intermission. $26. (310) 364-0535.

www.Theatre40.org

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The Snow QUEEN
Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Joseph Keane, Lisa Valenzuela, and Misty Cotton
Photo by Jill Mamey

As surely as the Rockettes annually turn out to Occupy Radio City, Troubadour Theater Company uses December to command Burbank’s Falcon Theatre for a celebratory holiday mash-up of some sort of Christmas tale and a particular pop songbook. The Snow QUEEN, the sixth such expression of wassail I’ve encountered, is one of the company’s very finest: clever and vulgar and warm by turns, always funny and marked by superior theatricality.
   Troubie extravaganzas work best when the narrative and catalog tossed into director–head writer Matt Walker’s Cuisinart come out tasting better than they did separately. Here, the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen isn’t quite as robust as other material the Troubies have pilfered. Young Gerda (an amazing Misty Cotton) and Kai (Joseph Keane, delightful) live together in a home where, as HCA puts it, “they were not brother and sister, but they cared for each other as much as if they were.” (To which narrator Walker responds edgily, “Annnnnnddddd…that’s not creepy at all.”)
   As is their wont, the troupe sticks closely to the story’s characters and incidents, as a brainwashed Kai is separated from Gerda, whose quest is to find and restore him. But with the title character basically remaining on the sidelines until needed at the 11th hour, a lot of rewriting was needed to keep some momentum going, as was the case with Disney’s Frozen, inspired by the same yarn. (Walker contributes a droll cameo as an officious exec who sees to it that as far as Disney’s intellectual property is concerned, the Troubies Let It Go.)
   Dramaturgical efforts pay off, preserving priceless analogues to Andersen’s Raven (a hilarious Rick Batalla manipulating a horny puppet head while his skin-tight black leotard rides up in back) and Old Woman (Beth Kennedy brilliant as a snaggle-toothed crone).

Most important, the beefed-up storytelling jibes nicely with the score, executed impeccably by musical director Eric Heinly and his mates. The music of Queen, for all its superficial glitz and hints of sexual subversion, has always struck me as warmhearted and sweet, even a little quaint with all that “Galileo” and “Mamma mia” and “Scaramouche/fandango” fey stuff. (It was no clash when they scored the campy Flash Gordon back in the day.) So when “Killer Queen” becomes “Chiller Queen,” or “We Will Rock You” turns into the more polite “We will/We will/Ask you politely to leave the premises,” it simultaneously satirizes and celebrates.
   And the unveiling of the Snow Queen turns into a triumphant 11th-hour turn when John Quale trots out as a frosty-freeze version of Freddie Mercury, with deeply mascara’d eyes peeping out of blue- and whiteface, a glittering blue/white jumpsuit (congrats, designer Sharon McGunigle), and a white upswept hairdo that looks as if Marge Simpson walked into her hairdresser’s and demanded, “Dye it white, and make it look like Carvel.” Quale’s amazing singing and singular presence honor his inspiration. Annnnnnddddd…I bet Freddie would feel it wasn’t creepy at all.

December 15, 2014
 
Dec. 12–Jan. 18. 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 4 pm & and 7pm (check website for holiday schedule changes). Running time 80 minutes, no intermission. $36.50–44 (discounts available). (818) 955-8101.

falcontheatre.secure.force.com/ticket

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Into the Woods
Oregon Shakespeare Festival at Wallis Center for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


John Tufts and Jeremy Peter Johnson
Photo by Kevin Parry

“I wish.” So begins this Stephen Sondheim–James Lapine musical. Fairy-tale characters express their most-fervent desires. Cinderella wants to stop cleaning out the fireplace and instead go to the king’s festival. Jack wants his ultra-beloved cow to give milk so his mother won’t make him sell this pet. The Baker and the Baker’s Wife want a real-life bun in the oven. And so each wishes aloud.
   These characters and more make occasionally humorous, always intelligent commentaries about their lives and ours, revealed in Sondheim’s lyrics—perhaps the best in the musical theater canon. Those lyrics are sung to Sondheim’s music, consisting of oddly appealing atonalities and challenging rhythms, sometimes as simple as a children’s rhyme, sometimes evoking rap, sometimes operatic.
   I wish. I wish I weren’t so judgmental about a show before it even begins. I wish I could relax and let a director do her magic. As for what follows in this review, I wish you would stop reading here if you don’t want to know spoilers about Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production at the Wallis. Buy a ticket and see it with fresh eyes.

Amanda Dehnert directs this version, giving us a deconstructed musical. There is no curtain dividing the stage from the audience before the show. The actors putter, wearing what appear to be street clothes, and the orchestra is seated in upstage scaffolding, also in street clothes. The actors are glancing at their scripts, which rest on music stands haphazardly placed across the stage. What? We’re seeing a concert version? Where are the storybook sets? Where are the whimsical costumes? How can the witch’s spell be broken if she’s not an ugly hag? Is it a waste of time to have come out on a rain-soaked weeknight?
   Well, the performers’ “street clothes” seem to be in a palate of putty and beige. They could be considered costumes, right? And then those performers start to sing. And that young lad playing Jack (Miles Fletcher) sure has a good singing voice. Oh, look, the witch (Miriam A. Laube), in fabulous makeup, is in a wheelchair, being tended to by a put-upon assistant (Royer Bockus) who’s good enough to have a bigger role.
   Oh, my. Cinderella’s stepsisters have gone backstage and are re-entering in rather whimsical costumes (yes, more to come, in ever-increasing visual pageantry, designed by Linda Roethke).

The mixing of characters and audience, characters and orchestra, story and metatheater, wears thin after Dehnert introduces and reintroduces her concept. On the other hand, she has fun with the Wallis. The beanstalk is evoked by green lights glowing behind the slats of the side walls (lighting design by Jane Cox), and the giantess appears via giant video screens (a commentary on the media?).
   Rapunzel's Prince (John Tufts) and Cinderella's Prince (Jeremy Peter Johnson) get to ride around the stage, not on handsome steeds but on tricycles, befitting their emotional ages, as they sing the hilarious “Agony.” On the other hand, the Wolf is played by a singer (Johnson) and a performer (Howie Seago) who uses American Sign Language—a puzzling bit of theatricality.
   The passion of Dehnert’s performers is undeniable, though, and Denhnert particularly illuminates the musical’s themes of parent-child relations. Kjerstine Rose Anderson’s Little Red Ridinghood is a grunge but perky example of parental absence, while Bockus’s Rapunzel (yes, that performer gets a bigger role) is an example of emotional and physical abuse. Near the evening’s end, Laube’s Witch rises above her curse to pleadingly deliver “Children Will Listen.”
   The second-to-last chorus is given over to the entire cast, which sings a capella, each voice seemingly getting its own harmony, creating a stunning sound. And then, in an even more stunning moment, Dehnert gives the last chorus to the Baker (the sensational Jeff Skowron) as a solo, which he sings to his baby as a pianissimo lullaby. After all, the Narrator (an endlessly fascinating John Vickery) tells us, someone has to pass our story along. And someone has to break the cycle of parental use, abuse, and abandonment of their children. I wish.

December 8, 2014
 
Dec. 2–21. $29–110. 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $49–129. (310) 746-4000.

www.thewallis.org

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Northanger Abbey
Box Tale Soup at the Edye at Broad Stage

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Noel Byrne and Antonia Christophers

The six novels of the great 19th century author Jane Austen lend themselves to updates and adaptations, viz. wit Bridget Jones’s Diary and Clueless. In the, ahem, hands of Box Tale Soup, Austen’s first-published novel is entrancingly recounted by two fabulous actors and seven smoochable puppets.
   Austen’s Northanger Abbey follows young Catherine Morland. The sturdy child grows into teenhood with a love of reading—but she reads the potboilers of her days, which Austen points out might not be the most educational and inspiring literature for young women.
   So when Catherine is taken on holiday by family friends (as heroines always are in Austen novels), and they go to the charming English town of Bath (as heroines frequently do in Austen novels), Catherine meets people of noble ethics (as always appear) and ignoble ones (as her readers expect).
   Antonia Christophers plays Catherine and Noel Byrne plays Henry Tilney, the gentleman who accepts and enlightens Catherine’s spirited mind. But each also plays the various other characters, using puppets. Those puppets are about 3 feet tall, and each looks basically alike, fortunately with bright eyes and engaged eyebrows. Only wooden hairstyles (curls and comb-overs) and bits of fabrics distinguish each character. So, the Tilneys wear touches of purple, Catherine’s hosts green, the reprehensible Thorpes red, and Catherine and her brother blue.
   But the actors—their voices and physicalities—help let the audience know at every moment which character is speaking. Byrne in particular has a childlike immersion in his puppetry, so his whole body, and that of his puppets, engage in the storytelling. Christophers, on the other hand, realistically limns the youthful naïveté of her young character. Both actors charmingly evoke the manners and deportment of Regency England.
   Directed by Robert Soulsby-Smith, the physical production emerges from a rugged, antique-looking suitcase. Clothing, books, bedclothes, candelabras, gardens, and whatever other scene-setting items are needed are tenderly unpacked as the show gets underway. Left as a surprise is the towering figure of Henry Tilney’s father, whom Catherine believes in her febrile state to be a Gothic figure with nefarious purposes.
   Soon the audience is immersed in the story of Catherine; the opportunistic Isabella Thorpe and her boundary-pushing brother, James; the society-conscious hosts; and the gentle, amiable Eleanor Tilney and her wise and handsome brother, Henry.
   Catherine learns her lesson—not to stop reading but to read with intelligence and think about what she reads. The audience will likely learn its lessons—to forthwith read or reread Austen, and of the delights of great storytelling.

December 8, 2014
 
Dec. 5–14. 1310 11th St. See Broad Stage website for schedule. Running time 85 minutes, no intermission. $50-85. (310) 434-3200.

thebroadstage.com

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What the Butler Saw
Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Frances Barber, Angus McEwan, and Paxton Whitehead
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Perhaps the most overwhelmingly bittersweet thing about Joe Orton’s final play is to imagine where his boundless and insightful comedic genius might have taken him if his life hadn’t been prematurely snuffed out in 1967, halfway through his 34th year and only weeks after he had completed this wildly off-kilter farce. Orton’s star was at the height of its brightest luminosity, his soaring career the talk of the town after the success of his earlier and equally controversial comedies Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloane—both of which are, a half-century after his untimely demise, presented more frequently than this one. Perhaps this is because, unlike his other works, Orton died before he could embark on the myriad rewrites for which he was famous, his obsession with detail cut short when he was found dead in his tiny bedsitter at 25 Noel Road, Islington, bludgeoned to death with a hammer by Kenneth Halliwell, his lover and mentor for 16 years.
   No one was more notoriously audacious than Orton, skewering upper-class rigidity and political foibles with more comic precision than anyone since Molière. With an outrageous disregard for the hypocritical morality and social taboos unspoken in polite society since Queen Victoria’s repressive reign, he took on topics that scandalized and enraged the more-conservative drama critics of the era, one of whom declared about this particular swansong that it was a “wholly unacceptable exploitation of sexual perversion.” Audiences ran from the theater in droves, quickly replaced by other patrons eager to be simultaneously appalled and surreptitiously titillated beyond their acceptably reserved reactions.

By today’s standards, however, even the sea of conservative white heads populating a typical Mark Taper Forum audience is way beyond being shocked by the antics of doctors Rance and Prentice, proprietors of the private psychiatric clinic that is such a perfect setting for the master’s last gasp of absurdist creativity. Even when everything wraps up at the end as intricately and cleverly as in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, or when a huge brass phallus missing from a statue of the venerable Winston Churchill is held high for all to see, no one seems nearly as scandalized as Londoners professed to be in spring 1969.
   There are no servants, let alone butlers, in this hilarious Chaucerian romp filled with slamming doors and naked civil servants. This leaves its audience to assume the POV of the domestic help eagerly peeking through the clinic’s many keyholes as its proprietor Dr. Prentice (Charles Shaugnessy) pulls back the bed curtains to provide a suitable nest in which to seduce poor put-upon Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton), the innocent waif from the employment agency come to interview for a position as his secretary despite her inability to grasp the intricacies of the typewriter keyboard. Prentice was once on a mission, dedicated to teach others about the rampant lunacy lurking just below societal mores. But because he has proven himself to be “unable to achieve madness himself” and finds himself beyond caring much about his harpy of a wife’s amorous nymphomania, he decides to join the habits of the great unwashed he treats—with disastrous but hilarious results.
   Along the way, poor Geraldine is pushed and pulled, stripped and coerced until she appears— shoulder-length red locks clipped to the scalp, in a Standard Hotel bellboy’s uniform—to pass herself off as a boy. Meanwhile, her counterpart—randy blackmailing bellboy Nicholas Beckett (Angus McEwan)—romps through the action in women’s clothes when he’s not running across the stage in his birthday suit with a strategically placed policemen’s helmet covering his private parts, albeit a little late. Only Dr. Prentice and his superior, Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead), stay fully clothed before the play’s crashing rollercoaster of a culminating chase sequence, Geraldine and Nicholas joined by the good doctor’s scotch-swigging, hotel worker–boffing wife (Frances Barber) and a compromised London bobby (Rod McLachlan), characters also compelled to lose their clothing by the end—or, in Sgt. March’s case, trading his uniform for a most chic leopard-print dress belonging to the mistress of the house.

No one understands directing Orton better than John Tillinger does. He has previously helmed Loot and Entertaining Mr. Sloane on this stage and is a virtuoso at bringing to life the playwright’s mantra that, as Dr. Rance notes, “Just when one least expects it, the unexpected always happens.” Tillinger’s cast does a remarkable job finding the delightfully silly tone and playing it right to the bone, without the physical and vocal exaggeration that usually accompanies such a performance. Barber is particularly successful as Mrs. Prentice, getting away with extravagant full-body reactions to most everything she encounters on each entrance and dropping continuous dry British witticisms with a vocal delivery landing somewhere between Tallulah Bankhead and Carrie Nye. Whitehead is also an expert at dryly dropping Orton’s continuous pronouncements, about the state of the world and the mental health community of the time, with well-polished ease.
   The wide Taper stage might be the biggest problem, making the quickness of the characters’ rapid entrances and exits a tad difficult to assay. The sound system, which can’t seem to allow for the actors to keep up the timing while still being heard over the laughter lingering from the previous line, also detracts, especially when it’s so important to hear everything the soft-spoken septuagenarian Whitehead has to propose. Still, this is a worthy denizen of an era when everything changed in British comedy, signaling the even braver future days of farceurs Caryl Churchill, Alan Ayckbourn, and Michael Frayn, not to mention the unstoppable comedic outlandishness of Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python. As Dr. Rance observes, “Radical thought comes easy to the lunatic.” Thank Lord God Terpsichore for the brief stay on this planet of the lunatic Joe Orton, who uproariously and courageously opened—and slammed—so many secret doors and private closets.

November 28, 2014
 
Nov. 23–Dec. 21. 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission. $25–70. (213) 628-2772.

www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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Dirty
Zephyr Theatre

First things first: Dirty is by no means dirty, at least insofar as habitues of Melrose Avenue’s Zephyr Theatre might expect. That particular venue has hosted more than its share of full-frontal nudity and simulated sex acts over the years.
   No, what playwright Andrew Hinderaker finds dirty, in this work transplanted from Chicago, are the machinations, betrayals, and moral blind spots of those who would set out to make a really big score. In short, Dirty joins Other People’s Money and Glengarry Glen Ross on the short list of indignant dramatic indictments of the American way of doing business. Choir members will already be well familiar with the ideas and the melodies. Others may be less-readily persuaded by the author’s heavily stacked deck.
   Our virtue-challenged protagonists are investment banker Matt (Max Lesser) and pregnant wife Katie (Anna Konkle), one-percenters who crave a greater share of that 1 percent. Matt clearly lacks the rapacious gene of his boss Terry (Lea Coco) while wanting the good life for his family, while Katie seeks the wherewithal for her various philanthropic enterprises, mostly of a feminist variety.
   Matt and Katie, as it happens, are porn aficionados, but not the dirty fantasy-filled stuff. They like the down-to-earth scenes featuring women who are accomplished and smart. Such high-toned X-rated vids are understandably tough to come by, so Max conceives of a sure-fire venture: a porn studio that will hire no talent under 25 and that will devote a significant part of the proceeds to Katie’s pet projects. What a swell idea, a sex film enterprise supporting the causes of the liberal elite. Maybe Hinderaker has Ben and Jerry’s in mind? Though, dishing out scrumptious ice cream would hardly seem analogous to cranking out digital sex.

Setting aside the dubious underlying ideology, Hinderecker seems to think that setting up shop as an X-rated filmmaker is about as difficult as running a lemonade stand in the front yard, once one makes the commitment to it, that is. So he devotes the entire first act to tedious conversations with Katie about the venture’s morality, and tedious confrontations with Terry about providing the financial backing. How so, tedious? Because if Katie doesn’t agree to the scheme, and if Terry doesn’t put up the cash, there’s no play. The act ends exactly as it must—Katie will reluctantly participate, and Terry will put in the cash with huge conditions—and we’re left with the sole dramatic question: Will all concerned be able to keep their hands clean as they embark on their quixotic adventures in the skin trade?
   Can there be any doubt? As Act Two begins, somehow they’ve gotten the equipment and talent and marketing and distribution in place and are chugging profitably along, even though Matt seems no more capable of running that aforementioned lemonade stand. Golly, if it’s this easy, why doesn’t everyone do it? But that old devil Greed enters and begins to prey on our hapless heroes. Along comes a dazzlingly beautiful, multicultural, articulate law student (Zuleyka Silver) with an unaccountable interest in having sex on camera. So what if she’s not yet 25, Matt and Terry reason; she’ll be a sensation. You’re pushing the line, Katie complains, and if you continue I’m not sure I’ll be here when you get back. Or words to that effect. Dirty features more clichés per scene than many another play of the season, despite its ostensibly fresh and frank milieu.

There are a couple of twists one can see coming a mile away. But even more clear in the distance, from the first scene on, are the phony moral dilemmas the playwright insists on setting up, in order to cast a baleful eye on anyone who’s trying to produce something and create jobs. There are crackerjack dramatic possibilities in a critique of American enterprise, but they await a more plausible human construct than the text of Dirty offers. The cast and director Shannon Cochran do their best under the irritating circumstances.

Reviewed by Bob Verini
November 24, 2014
 
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