Atwater Village Theatre
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Jacqueline Wright and Albert Dayan
Photo by Darrett Sanders
It’s a lovely sunny Sunday morning in the quintessential color-saturated suburban kitchen of Walt and Barb, who reside contentedly, it seems, in a welcoming bird-tweety neighborhood the couple acknowledges is heaven for Christians, Jews (“After all, they are the chosen people,” notes Barb), and maybe even a handful of conservative Unitarians. As Walt (Albert Dayan) reads his morning paper at their squeaky-clean, blindingly white kitchen table, Barb (Jacqueline Wright) straps on her freshly ironed apron to start preparing her hubby’s breakfast.
Despite Walt’s insistence that he isn’t hungry, his impeccably Stepford-y little wifey won’t let it go. “You look ran-vuss, dear!” she insists. When Walt realizes Barb won’t give up, evidenced by her standing behind him whimpering like a badly wounded cat, he finally agrees to be served breakfast, something she finds to be, in her sweetly ordered everyday world, to be just plain wonderful. Anything he wants to eat, she tells him, will be his. Anything his “little teeny tiny heart” desires. A towering plate of blueberry toast is Walt’s eventual request—as well as the title of Mary Laws’s outrageous and wickedly funny world premiere black comedy.
Unfortunately, it seems what Walt meant to request was blueberry pancakes, but Barb has worked hard to fabricate her new culinary creation, adding honey and smooshing lemon into the blueberries to make her concoction more special. Walt does not want her blueberry toast, regardless of how many times Barb remakes and tosses out the same dish with escalating frustration. And even as their adolescent children (played to Pee-wee’s Playhouse precision by adult actors Alexandra Freeman and Michael Sturgis) enter occasionally to perform chapters of their new play, each section featuring titles such as “The Dark and Humble Joys of Mankind,” things quickly unravel in the picture-perfect world of Walt and Barb.
Director Dustin Wills has no filter, fortunately, because nothing should be held back in Laws’s frantic romp devolving from Beaver Cleaver-land to Mad Max-dom, and no one could find the primal monster within the verbally abused and obviously cheated upon Barb than LA’s own counterculture theatrical heroine Wright. Only a handful of people in her unique category could so totally embrace this role and abandon the thin veneer of civilized behavior as successfully as she does. As Walt, Dayan gleefully goes along for the ride of his life, shouldering the task of becoming a physical punching bag of a Bud Abbott to Wright’s delightfully terrifying Lou Costello from hell.
Amanda Knehans’s incredibly cheery primary color–washed set, whimsically adorned with the children’s Rorschach test–inspired art, random Quaker Oats boxes, Lawry’s Seasoned Salt containers, and an ADT Security Service Sticker slapped inconspicuously on the patio’s sliding glass door, becomes a fifth character in the story, particularly as her work is systematically destroyed during the play’s jaw-dropping 90-minutes of uproarious bad behavior. From the time Barb hurls her first real egg, in what appears to be aimed directly into the front row of the audience, to the final survival-of-the-fittest blood-spurting battle on the slippery tile floor, splendidly devised by fight choreographer Ahmed Best, Blueberry Toast is an E-ticket ride worthy of an interactive Halloween haunted house. Just to realize it takes three workers another 90 minutes each night to restore the stage to its sparkling bright glory tells it all.
So many playwrights would be lost without the dysfunctional nuclear family to shred, but if—and only if—it’s lampooned as flawlessly as Laws manages and it’s as beautifully produced, directed, and acted as by this stellar ensemble of courageously uninhibited artists, the overkilled genre can skirt getting too terribly old. Fighting off the anxieties of growing up banging against the ruthlessly demanding façade lurking just behind the pastoral tree-lined streets and acceptably closeted domestic lifestyles of suburban middle America can be a bear, which is what makes experiencing Blueberry Toast so satisfying. It’s oddly gratifying to see Walt and Barb crawling around their destroyed kitchen floor covered in blood and thrown food while growling like mortally wounded woodland creatures; now if only they passed out rain slickers and a few dozen eggs to the members of their audience, the experience might be just about perfect.
September 25, 2016
17–Oct. 24. 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm,
plus select Mon and Thu perfs. $30. (310) 307-3753.
All the Way
South Coast Repertory
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
Hugo Armstrong and JD Cullum
Photo courtesy South Coast Rep
In a tableau framed by a Greek colonnade with the US seal prominently placed centerstage, Robert Schenkkan’s political rouser revisits the moments following John Kennedy’s assassination as Lyndon Johnson (Hugo Armstrong) seizes the reins of power and steps into the presidency. Atop the columns on a raised stage stands a cast of characters who will both ally themselves with Johnson and oppose him, and that is the stuff of his ardent pursuit of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Towering over these key players in stature and temperament, Johnson at his desk centerstage keeps the focus on his Oval Office machinations. In spotlighted vignettes, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Larry Bates), Stokely Carmichael (Christian Henley), Rev. Ralph Abernathy (Rosney Mauger), and the like strategize their political opportunities for the long-awaited legislation that would give Negroes, as they were called then, more equality in society.
At Johnson’s right side, Hubert Humphrey (JD Cullum) plays surrogate for a promised vice-presidency to Johnson’s ambition. Herbert Hoover (Robert Curtis Brown), equally covetous of power with wiretapped evidence and investigative secrets, serves the president. Other towering figures of the time—Sen. Everett Dirkson and Strom Thurmond (Hal Landon Jr.), the powerful conservative Democrat Howard “Judge” Smith (William Francis McGuire), Gov. George Wallace (Jeff Marlow), and Robert McNamara (Bo Foxworth)—have telling exchanges as Johnson tries to manipulate the events prior to his re-election the following year.
Also notable are Larry John Meyers as Sen. Richard Russell and Emanuel Celler, Gregg Daniel as Roy Wilkins, and Jordan Bellow as Bob Moses and Dave Dennis in the civil rights camp.
The women of the play are secondary characters, even though we know wealthy Lady Bird Johnson (Nike Doukas) wielded her own power in Texas. Others were Lurleen Wallace and Muriel Humphrey (Lynn Gallagher) and Coretta Scott King and the civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer (Tracey A. Leigh).
Darin Singleton plays a pivotal role as Walter Jenkins, Johnson’s right-hand aide, largely instrumental in achieving many of the president’s goals. His arrest and resignation on a morals charge showed the ruthless nature of politics in Johnson’s world.
This cast is a who’s who of fine contemporary actors who manage to make the nearly three-hour play mesmerizing. Armstrong brings LBJ’s intrigue, intimidation, and sheer force of will to life and delivers a remarkable look at the underbelly of the politics that we now see played out in 24-hour media coverage. It is hard to imagine how the Civil Rights Act might be handled today.
Ralph Funicello’s austere but nicely contrived set allows for multiple exchanges among characters, building suspense. Holly Poe Durban’s costumes are time appropriate, including LBJ’s signature cowboy boots. Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting and Charles Coes and Nathan A. Roberts’s sound design and original music also amp up the tension. Shawn Sagady’s original projection design executed by Kristin Ellert takes one back to the 1960s effectively.
Director Marc Masterson skillfully manipulates his large cast playing so many multiple roles that no change of persona takes away from the unfolding saga. The foibles and strengths of each character are subtle or audacious as required by the part but never undercut the storyline. It is masterful work by playwright and director. But, if there is one reason to see the play, it is for the performance by Armstrong. It is a theatrical knockout.
September 23, 2016
9–Oct. 2. 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Repertory schedule. Prices
start at $22. (714) 708-5555.
And Then They Fell
Brimmer Street Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Lily Nicksay and Kacie Rogers
Photo by Michelle Risucci
The plight of dispossessed children is always harrowing. Tina Palmquist has captured the disheartening struggle of one abused young girl with harsh and no-holds-barred realism. With no income of her own and her mother in detox soon heading from there to jail, Jordan Matthews (Kacie Rogers, alternating in this double-cast play with Chelsea Boyd) is desperately trying to study for her high school algebra final and prepare for a speech in another class as she dozes in the park, safely—she thinks—away from the unwanted sexual demands of her mother’s slimy on-again-off-again alcoholic boyfriend Dwayne (Tim Venable, alternating with Ian Madeira Sollenberger).
Jordan has few viable options, even rejected in her request for help from the school janitor, who at least lets her into the locker room before hours to shower, until she breaks through the tough exterior of her transgendered homeless classmate Cal (Lily Nicksay, alternating with JJ Hawkins), who was locked out of his house after he told his father he no longer wanted to be called Calista and was looking into gender reassignment therapy. “The next day, I came home from school and there it was,” Cal tearfully tells Jordan. “My life was on the porch.”
The pitiless journey of Jordan and Cal could break your heart, especially in the hands of Rogers and Nicksay who, under director Amy K. Harmon, slip headfirst into the troubled skins of these tragically adrift adolescents who deserve so much more in their rocky journey through life. Venable is exceptional, as well, as Jordan’s slick but uber-creepy predator guardian. Jaquita Ta’le and Ben Fuller (alternating with Faith Imafidon and Brad Harris) do a knockout job playing all the other characters the pair encounters.
Palmquist’s play has lovely moments as an analogy is drawn between Jordan’s situation and the mass death in the south of thousands of migrant birds dropping from the sky for no apparent reason. Her dialogue is gritty and genuine, and her situations are believably shocking. Yet her play suffers from a lack of resolution. It chronicles the world of way too many tossed-aside young people, but it does so as though reporting a true story on 60 Minutes or some TV news segment. Jordan’s story crashes to its inevitable horrific conclusion but never, oddly reminiscent of our current repellent presidential race, offers even a soupçon of hope for the future. And when Jordan breaks the fourth wall to deliver a poetic passage about the demise of those delicate lost birds, it becomes more of a distraction than a viable addendum to the script—as does the frequent robotically regimented scene changes performed by the cast disguised in hoodies.
There are two reasons not to overlook and support this world premiere of Palmquist’s interesting but often too-precious and predictably dismal play: the dynamic performances, especially of Rogers, Nicksay, and Venable; and to make more of a difference in the plight of our town’s steadily swelling displaced youth population. Every dime of proceeds from the ticket sales of this production will be donated to My Friend’s Place, a crucial wellness and educational resource facility struggling against all odds to better the harsh and dangerous existence to which Hollywood’s lost teenage homeless population is subjected every day. As their story is written, we can do nothing to soften the fall of poor Jordan and Cal, but at least we can leave the theater hopeful that our attendance benefitted other kids in a similar position in some small way.
September 11, 2016
10–Oct. 2. 3269 Casitas Ave. Free onsite and street parking. Thu-Fri
8pm, Sat-Sun 2pm & 8pm. $25-30. (617) 953-8544.
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