Kentwood Players at Westchester Playhouse
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Michelle Rosen and Dan Fagan
Photo by Shari Barrett
Most who analyze theater agree that conflict drives great plays. Strong conflict roils the audience’s collective gut. In scripts such as Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, however, the audience is instead left with a gentle nudge.
In Kentwood Players’ rendition, a perceptive director and a skillful cast at least make this a pleasant evening, spent in a roomy Greenwich Village apartment, beautifully designed by Jim Crawford, sturdily constructed and sweetly appointed.
In theater, conflict occurs when characters want something the others don’t want. What do the characters want here? Leo, having bicycled across the country, arrives at his grandmother Vera’s apartment in the early morning. He apparently wants to stay the night. What else? Does he just want free coffee and a washer-dryer? Does he want her to comfort him? Does he even know what he wants?
Vera wouldn’t mind if he stayed longer. But why? Is she feeling familial obligation? Does this widow miss companionship? Does she love this child of her youngest daughter, who moved to Minnesota for reasons never revealed to the audience?
It’s not clear at the outset how well Vera and Leo know each other. We begin to empathize with them because they’ve lived with or watched or perhaps caused the troubles in their lives. But what these two must learn here is not clear, so we can’t discern what they have learned by the play’s end.
Is Vera ravaged by memory loss, or is she being coy? Either way, she tells Leo she can’t remember words and she can’t remember much of her apparently colorful past that includes Marxist politics. Leo wants to forget his past. Two life-changing things happened to him before the play begins: one he didn’t cause but tried to clean up, and one he caused and may now be trying to clean up.
Over the course of the play—somewhere, not hammered home by Herzog—Vera offers Leo bits of advice. She reminds him to help others, share experiences, forgive and forget.
Director Gail Bernardi clearly elicited the souls of these characters. Even Herzog’s jarring comedic lines that end earnest scenes have heft and leave the audience thinking about the conversation and not the joke. Vera is no cartoonish old lady in the hands of actor Michelle Rosen; Vera is a real woman who experienced a very full life. Leo is no mere slacker as Dan Fagan plays him; Leo is cheerful and energetic and may have the potential for a productive life.
So we don’t mind watching as grandma and grandson hold genial chats over coffee or a bong. But the stuff of dramatic conflict has been occurring offstage: The characters from whom Vera and Leo need something don’t talk to these two or are now deceased. The most damaged relationship may be that between Leo and his adopted sister, whom he kissed in a peyote-befuddled incident much previously.
His “best friend” Micah—no one reveals the extent of that relationship—was killed in an accident that could be the stuff of comedy. After Leo pours the tale out to his grandmother, she says her hearing aid isn’t turned on.
Here and throughout, Herzog offers metaphor aplenty about broken lines of communication. Vera and her elderly neighbor check in daily by phone but never see each other. Leo refuses to phone his parents. His session with his sister over Skype ends uncomfortably.
Herzog brings two other characters onstage. Leo’s soon-to-be-ex girlfriend (Alexandra Johnston) stops by, bitter at first, then enlightened. In between, Leo brings home a pickup (Zoe Kim), whom he treats with mild respect if not confusion.
In sum, Leo arrived at Vera’s, gentle and footloose. When the play ends, he remains gentle and footloose. Grief, guilt, mourning, recollection, forgiveness—these waft by, presumably meant to be tied up at the play’s end. Leo had deliberately avoided Micah’s funeral. Now, he and Vera are leaving for the funeral of a woman he never met. Herzog ends the character arc with his banally penned eulogy.
The distance across America is under 3000 miles. Herzog’s characters still have a long way to go.
May 18, 2015
15–June 20. 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running
time 1 hour and 45 minutes, no intermission. $20 ($2 discount for
seniors, students, servicemen, and Metro riders). (310) 645-5156.
Not That Jewish
Jewish Women’s Theater
Reviewed by Bob Verini
Photo by Jan Burns
In Not That Jewish we encounter something distinctly unexpected: a first-person memoir by a former standup comic that actually feels like a real play. Even more of a surprise, it’s pegged to a particular demographic (i.e. Jewish women; note name of theater company) while possessing enormous crossover appeal. A fast-paced scrapbook, funny and heartwarming by turns, Monica Piper’s life story proves an unqualified delight in the Jewish Women’s Theater’s spacious yet intimate white-box space known as The Braid.
Piper’s broadest thesis is that identity is determined by the qualities of one’s heart, not by one’s success or failure at following the rituals and rules of whichever culture a person happens to be born into. In the course of her journey (with stops for standup comedy, a failed marriage, sitcom writing, adopting a son from a Christian single mom, and breast cancer), Piper discovers that the characteristics most needed for a soulful life—compassion, caring, respect, humor—are available to anyone who chooses to tap into them.
Oy vey! I reread that paragraph and think, gevalt, the reader is going to think Not That Jewish is some kind of sermon or self-help tract. Not at all: You don’t win writing Emmys, work on Roseanne Barr’s staff, or secure recognition as a Showtime Comedy All-Star if you’re a tub-thumping spiritual healer. Rest assured that Piper’s take on life (hers and everyone else’s) is infused with laughter, much of it of the belly variety. It’s just that she’s seen enough tsuris, and learned from it, that she can’t help passing along what she knows. And it all happens to be of the sympathetic, healing variety.
Quick glimpse: Oncologist sits her down to give her “good news, we found it early. And it’s small.” “How small?” “Um…it’s small.” “Is it small enough that I don’t have to do all those 10K runs?”
I cannot imagine anyone’s not enjoying being in Piper’s company for 90 minutes. And if there are any such, I wouldn’t want to know them.
May 11, 2015
9–May 31. The Braid, 2912 Colorado Ave. #102, Santa Monica. Thu &
Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Running time 90 minutes. $35. (310)
Mark Taper Forum
Reviewed by Bob Verini
Cynda Williams, Bryan Terrell Clark, and Kamal Angelo Bolden
Photo by Craig Schwartz
If you didn’t know, going in, that the director of Immediate Family had a background in TV sitcoms, you’d get the hint in the first 10 minutes. The opening dialogue is that forced, the bickering banter that aggressive, the pace that frantic. Some of it might’ve been opening night jitters, because the cast at the Mark Taper Forum settles down midway. But The Cosby Show veteran Phylicia Rashad did far better by A Raisin in the Sun, in her exquisite 2011 local revival for Ebony Rep, than by Paul Oakley Stovall’s well-intentioned, but lumpy and ideologically strained play.
It’s ostensibly a heartwarming ensemble piece in which the Bryants, a semi-estranged set of African-American siblings and friends, return to the old homestead in suburban Chicago to air old grievances on the eve of a family wedding. Yet Immediate Family quickly reveals its real agenda in focusing laser-like disapproval on Evy (Shanésia Davis), a domineering Type A homemaker of deep religious faith and deeper prejudice. Evy sets the house rules and stage manages the whole shebang, and in almost a textbook definition of situation comedy, each of the other characters seems to have been shaped primarily to provide a different means by which they may incur her wrath.
Jesse (Bryan Terrell Clark), the middle son and aspiring writer, was Evy’s soulmate throughout their youth, but he has disappointed her by not following a glorious career path, not living at home, and, as she sees it, choosing to be gay. Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden), the baby of the family and the impending groom, razzes her constantly and harbors his own secret that will turn her pride into fury before long.
Nina (J. Nicole Brooks), Jesse’s outspokenly lesbian gal pal, can always be depended upon to get Evy’s goat, but not so much as Ronnie (Cynda Williams), revealed years before as the issue of their proud pastor father and his white mistress. (To make Ronnie even more annoying in Evy’s eyes, she’s a hard drinker and abstract painter who lives in Europe.) Finally, Jesse’s white boyfriend, Kristian (Mark Jude Sullivan), arrives to set the match to Stovall’s crudely arranged stack of powder kegs.
There are still more contrived clashes stuffed into 90 minutes, including Jesse and Kristian’s differing ideas on their own possible nuptials. But the real problem with Immediate Family isn’t its plot. At least there’s always something going on and holding one’s interest, and when attention turns to the family’s traditional card game “bid whist,” the action fairly crackles with excitement. (It’s no surprise to learn that the game was a favorite in the real-life Stovall home, so richly does he lay out its details and dynamics, and the cast grabs onto it as if it were Act Two’s dinner scene in August: Osage County.)
Nor is the author’s unfortunate treatment of Evy the biggest drawback—though it’s telling about Stovall as a playwright that while everyone (except saintly Kristian) gangs up on her unceasingly, she is not once permitted to score any points on any of them. Everything she does is bigoted, misguided, or vain, yet you have to give her some credit for her ability to withstand all the judgments from the pack of bullies she’s saddled with.
What’s most regrettable about Immediate Family is its insistence on wrapping all of its conflicts in a sentimental wash. There are serious issues at work here—issues of faith, sexuality, legacy, marriage, and personal honor—that are currently pulling families, and indeed an entire nation, apart. Yet virtually everything plaguing the battling Bryants comes to resolution, and in less than 48 hours to boot.
Life doesn’t work out its tensions quite so neatly. A play that ought to discomfit us, by virtue of its troubling subject matter, is content to reassure and flatter. That’s what sitcoms routinely do, but in a stageplay context it’s a missed opportunity and a shame.
May 5, 2015
3–June 7. 135 N. Grand Ave., LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm and 6:30pm.
Running time 95 minutes, no
intermission. $25–85. (213) 628-2772.
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
Afton Quast and Jeanette Dawson
Photo by Isaac James
Though the original production of Side Show on Broadway closed after only 91 performances in 1997, in subsequent years it has been revived and modified from its original form. The original book and lyrics were created by Bill Russell with music by Henry Krieger. As a dramatic project, it falls far from traditional musicals in topic and execution. In program notes, director T. J. Dawson writes, “It is a big risk but also holds the possibility of moving people in a way they didn’t expect.”
This musical tells the story of the real-life conjoined Hilton twins, Daisy (Afton Quast) and Violet (Jeanette Dawson). They began their careers in a freak show, entered vaudeville, and eventually starred in two Hollywood movies: Freaks and Chained for Life.
Here, they are initially befriended by two men—Terry Connor (Gregg Hammer) and Buddy Foster (Gary Brintz)—who later become romantically attached to the sisters. It is unclear at the outset whether the men’s ardor is financially driven, fueled by pity, or physically motivated.
Two dozen or so characters appear on bleachers, delivering the opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks.” The opening sets the stage for the appearance of various characters: the Bearded Lady (Matthew Ballestero), Geek (Dustin Ceithamer), Strong Man (Adam Dingeman), Fakir (Jonah Ho’okano), Sheik (Chris Holly), 1/2 Man 1/2 Woman (Tracy Lore), Reptile Man (Dino Nicandros), Three-Legged Man (Aaron Scheff), Dolly Dimples (Deonne Sones), Snake Girl (Momoko Sugai), Tattooed Human Pin Cushion (Emily King Brown), and 6th Exhibit (Tracy Rowe Mutz). Along with these oddities are Harem Girls (Kat Borrelli, April Jo Henry, Natalie Iskovich), Roustabouts (Bren Thor Johnson, Brandon Pohl, Justin Matthew Segura, Josh Wise) and Fortune Teller (Christanna Rowader). The ensemble actors are uniformly excellent and memorable, as they do double- and triple-duty as characters in the evolution of the lives of the sisters.
In a menacing performance, the Boss (Nathan Holland) shows the cruelty dealt to Violet and Daisy as they are literally kept circus captives and coerced into performing. His number “Crazy, Deaf and Blind,” in concert with the circus performers, is electrifying.
As Terry and Buddy aid the sisters in escape from servitude and move on to vaudeville, the girls are coached in singing and dancing, and their careers escalate. “Rare Songbirds on Display” highlights the glamour they achieve thanks to their mentors. Underpinning their performing lives is their desire to be normal and have the opportunity for love, marriage, and a life free from constant scrutiny. Their numbers “Like Everyone Else” and “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” are poignant reminders of their plight.
With lovely voices, Dawson and Quast acquit themselves well as the sisters. The inherent difficulty of moving as conjoined twins eludes them from time to time, and it is a distraction that could be solved with wardrobe adjustments, but having them appear separately in major scenes is an interesting choice. Hammer and Brintz are solid as the two men in their lives.
Jay Donnell delivers a notable performance as Jake, a gofer who has fallen in love with Violet. His rendering of “You Should Be Loved” is touching, and he is compelling as the lead of powerful production number ‘“The Devil You Know.”
Strong technical support adds to the excellent execution of this troubling and difficult play. A 20-piece orchestra (Los Angeles Musicians Collective) led by Allen Everman enhances the Broadway feel of the show (orchestrated by Harold Wheeler). Lighting by Jean-Yves Tessier is key to spotlighting characters as the story focuses on their dilemmas.
Costumes by Kate Bergh are superlative, especially for the circus characters and big production numbers throughout the show. Stephen Gifford’s set design is simple, with only bleachers at some points and more-elaborate backdrops as the story escalates. Choreography, by Leslie Stevens, is well-executed and varied. Julie Ferrin’s sound design is also well done in a theater that has some acoustic problems.
Not a perfect musical, it still provides an edgy, colorful look at a seldom viewed world.
25–May 10. 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Added
performance Sat, May 9 at 2pm.$20–70, plus $3 handling per ticket. (714)
589-2770, ext. 1.
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
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