Arts In LA

Archives 2018

Pasadena Playhouse

In Amy Herzog’s Belleville, two American ex-pats living in the titular Paris neighborhood slowly reveal their secrets and lies as their marriage dissolves over the course of 24 hours. Unfortunately, what is promised to be a breathless Hitchcockian thrill ride is more of a slow burn of diminishing returns.
   It’s just before Christmas, and Abby (Anna Camp) is determinedly, awkwardly upbeat, her cheerfulness clearly masking something darker. She wishes to be home with her family for the holidays, but she’s supportive of her husband, Zack (Thomas Sadoski), whose job with Doctors Without Borders has taken them to the French capital. Because of visa issues, they’re being forced to remain in the city.
   One afternoon, when Abby comes back to their flat to find Zack unexpectedly home early from work, tensions mount, their true monstrous natures are revealed, and things take dark and violent turns. All of which sounds like it would make for riveting drama, but with the show being touted as a thriller, there’s nothing particularly thrilling. The dialogue, which is fairly realistic, needs to be in service of a stronger story. There’s little narrative thrust, which is necessary even for a psychological, character-driven story. Despite the histrionics, the energy never hits like it should. Director Jenna Worsham can’t seem to get the pacing right to make it tight and effective. It becomes bleak and dour and is too long even at just one hour and 45 minutes.
   Abby and Zack are both unstable, unlikable people suffering from marital, financial, and emotional issues, but despite Herzog’s script starting off with relatable relationship strife, it ends up being an unbelievable series of character choices, revelations, and admissions. It wants to be raw and harrowing, when really it’s just tedious: two awful people being awful to each other, neither willing to take responsibility for their own selves, let alone their fractious marriage.

Sadoski and Camp are serviceable, but there’s nothing special about their performances. Sharon Pierre-Louis, as the couple’s suspicious and tenacious landlady, is compelling, especially considering she isn’t given much to do. She creates a fully realized character on whom you might wish the story had focused instead.
   The set of Abby and Zack’s flat is fantastic. Scenic designer David Meyer created an apartment that accommodates several rooms, stairs, a balcony, a hallway and windows overlooking a 3-D backdrop of Paris that is so on point, you can practically smell the Seine. Working in tandem with Meyer is lighting designer Zach Blane, who displays the incremental passage of time from late afternoon to dusk to twilight to night as we watch the drama unfold. It’s astonishing.
   The conclusion, which reads as tacked-on versus an organic part of the story, is just the landlord and landlady conversing in French, which zaps any power the actual conclusion might have had. Unless you’re fluent in French, it means nothing. It’s realistic, because why would the French speak English to each other, but it comes across as either pretentious or misguided, which, unfortunately, is the overall problem with this production.

Reviewed by Harker Jones
May 7, 2018
Daddy Long Legs
International City Theatre

In the early 1900s and beyond, a series of coming-of-age books were written for girls that portrayed spunky, independent characters. With appellations like The College Girl Series or The Outdoor Girls, they generally included romance, as well as some light social commentary.
   Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs fits into this category, and because the writing is witty and appealing, it has endured over the years in many variations. In 2007, John Caird (book) and Paul Gordon (music and lyrics) adapted the story at Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, Calif., and it has become a popular two-person epistolary production.
   Jerusha Abbott (Ashley Ruth Jones) has grown up in an orphanage with no knowledge of her origins. Her name was selected by Miss Lippett from the phone book and a gravestone. At play’s opening, Jerusha bemoans her fate, “The Oldest Orphan in the John Grier Home,” when she is summoned to learn that she has a benefactor who will pay for her to go to college based on her teachers’ opinions that she is a fine writer and should be further educated. She catches a glimpse of his shadow, and his tall lanky image causes her to dub him Daddy Long Legs. She is instructed to write him a letter each month detailing her progress, but she is cautioned that he will never respond to her in return.
   Her letters are lively and intrigue her benefactor, Jervis Pendleton (Dino Nicandros). Against his better judgment he arranges to meet her through his niece, classmate Julia, but he remains incognito. Over the course of her college life, he sees Jerusha and falls in love. The dilemma is how to reveal himself.

In International City Theatre’s adaptation by director Mary Jo DuPrey, the musical exchanges take place as Jervis and Jerusha reveal her letters with both actors delivering the dialogue. On the same stage and often in close proximity, their evolving relationship is presented with the letters but also as a young couple learning to know each other face-to-face.
   From the rear of the stage, musical director Bill Wolfe (piano), accompanied by Blake Baldwin (guitar) and Daniel Smith (cello), enhances the storyline in the nearly sung-through play. The music and often humorous lyrics enliven the predictable story as each character matures intellectually and personally.
   Jones is delightful vocally as she portrays the naive young woman’s budding interest in learning and frustration as she pours out her heart to the graying old man of her imagination. Jones’s spirited transformation from unsophisticated miss to confident young woman gives the story resonance.
   Though Nicandros belies the physical image of Daddy Long Legs and is far from old, he more than makes up for that deficiency with a strong voice. As directed, both characterizations are largely effective because of the talent of the principals. The poignant “Like Other Girls” effectively showcases Jerusha’s orphan status and sets the scene for her growth. Also lively is Jervis’s “She Thinks I’m Old.” “The Secret of Happiness” weaves throughout both acts as the two characters explore their growth and maturation.
   Ellen Lenberg’s simple scenic design consists of a bed (orphanage and college) and a desk (office of Jervis). Both serve to center the characters as their stories unfold. Donna Ruzika’s lighting design and Dave Mickey’s sound are effective.
This production is an idyll in the canon of musical theater. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it follows Webster’s book much more carefully than several other adaptations, including the 1955 movie starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. Touches of humor and the right amount of romantic tension make this production a durable choice for ICT’s 33rd season of Hope, Humor, and Heart.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
February 26, 2018
The Manor
Greystone Mansion

To the plaintive strains of orchestral underscoring and an expository welcome delivered by the family butler, a collection of ghostly figures enters the hall-like living room of the Tudor Revival-style Greystone Mansion. Over the next two hours, the audience is treated to the 16th-annual incarnation of playwright Katherine Bates’s extraordinarily engaging “environmental” production. Moving throughout five separate locations in this 55-room, 47,000-square-foot monument to architectural excess, we witnesses, split into three apportioned groups, follow a storyline that must have been an astonishing challenge to commit to paper.
   This semi-biographical adaptation is cleverly constructed. It draws upon the 1929 true-life tragedy, ruled a murder suicide, that befell Edward “Ned” Doheny Jr., who was given Greystone as a gift by his father, oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny, and Ned’s secretary, Hugh Plunket. It weaves in the elder Doheny’s involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal, which stained the administration of President Warren G. Harding. Bates’s mythical family, the MacAlisters, suffers no less a calamitous outcome.
   Director Martin Thompson handles this intertwined set of multilayered plot points and his cast of 12 with seemingly relative ease. The season-opening performance felt a bit measured throughout the first act as though the cast and various technical personnel involved, led by stage manager Don Solosan, hungered for an actual audience to get a true feel for the timing of so many scenes playing out simultaneously. By the second act, however, the downward spiral of the MacAlisters and all within their sphere of influence graduated from merely intriguing to downright captivating.

Heading up this fictitious family is Darby Hinton, as Charles MacAlister, and Carol Potter, as his second wife, Marion. Hinton and Potter have a lovely chemistry that hinges on the love and support each of their characters offers the other particularly in the play’s darkest moments. As their son, Sean, and new daughter-in-law, Abby, whose wedding day kicks off the play, Sol Mason and Annalee Scott bring vibrancy to the proceedings.
   Abby’s father, Frank Parsons, sharply essayed by director Thompson, is the MacAlister family’s lawyer. As the plot thickens, Parsons has his work cut out for him defending his clients against federal prosecutions, which parallel those faced by the Doheny dynasty. The crimes surround a bribe required by MacAlister’s former partner, Alfred Winston, now an influential U.S. senator, in exchange for gold mining rights. Brought to life with evocative sliminess by Daniel Leslie, Winston’s good-old-boy persona provides cover for the machinations of a razor-sharp tactician. His wife, Cora, given a beautifully sympathetic turn by Melanie MacQueen, is caught up in the increasing circle of victimhood due to her husband’s criminal dealings.
   Adding more fuel to the fire are Mikel Parraga-Wills and Kira Brannlund as Gregory Pugh, the Parsons’ handyman, and his Cockney-accented wife, Henrietta Havesham Pugh, a former music hall chorine. As the tale progresses and the stakes are upped, Parraga-Wills does a yeoman’s job of portraying his character’s ever-increasing mental deterioration. Meanwhile Brannlund humorously brings to life her alter ego’s gold-digging fixations.
   Finally, special kudos to perhaps the three most instrumental members of this talented ensemble: Daniel Lench as James, the Butler; Katherine Henryk as Ursula, the Housekeeper; and Esther Richman, Ellie, the mute Maid. This trio serves as the production’s tour guides, handing off and ushering the three groups of audience members to and from each location. Their duties require constant vigilance concerning the synchronization of the various scenes, which, by the nature of this show, are performed three times so as to be seen by the entire audience.

To preserve the denouement, suffice it to say that Lench’s closing address accompanying what plays out before the audience, once again reconvened in the living room, induces goosebumps and serves as the perfect capper to this Shakespearean drama.

Reviewed by Dink O'Neal
January 18, 2018

Disney’s Aladdin
Pantages Theatre

The stage production of Disney’s Aladdin, now playing at the Pantages, is charismatic family programming that highlights the 1992 film’s score by Alan Menken, Tim Rice, and the late Howard Ashman, with additional lyrics by Chad Beguelin. But the evening cannot compete with the grandeur and limitless nature of animation, nor can it reincarnate the film’s greatest special effect, the gargantuan portrayal of the Genie by the late Robin Williams.
   In fictional Agrabah, a fanciful Middle Eastern city, a street hustler (Adam Jacobs) finds a genie (Michael James Scott) in a magic lamp who grants him three wishes that he uses to charm his true love, the princess Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla). If only he can thwart the evil Jafar (Jonathan Weir) and his sidekick Iago (Reggie De Leon) from exposing him for their own nefarious machinations.
   The score features all the great songs from the film: “A Whole New World,” “Prince Ali,” and the showstopping Act 1 finale, “Friend Like Me.” The new songs, some written specifically for the stage show, fit the original style and are welcome additions. “Proud of Your Boy,” which had been written for the movie by Menken and Ashman before being cut, ranks with the beloved princess who long songs like “Part Of Your World” from The Little Mermaid and “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast.
   Chad Beguelin’s book is problematic, mostly because the added characters add no dimension. Aladdin’s friends Babkak, Omar, and Kassim have several fun numbers (two, like “Proud of Your Boy,” had been written by Ashman during the film’s genesis), but their characterizations are of thin architypes. They are given too much stage time not to be fully fleshed people. The villains have been rewritten to be bland and feckless. Though much of their dialogue comes from the movie script, here Beguelin (book and lyrics) keeps the conversations between Aladdin and Jasmine charming and heartfelt. Weir projects zero menace as Jafar, and De Leon is so wishy-washy one wishes for Gilbert Godfrey to reprise his film role.

Jacobs is winning as the title character, a role he originated on Broadway. With a grin wide enough upon which to project a Cinerama movie, Jacobs balances the boy’s coyness, desperation, and good-heartedness. McCalla is empowered as the princess who follows her heart and mind, not the laws written to imprison her. Scott is as suave as a gambler from Guys and Dolls, doing his best to shatter the image of Robin Williams, but he feels earthbound, particularly when repeating lines Williams launched into outer space. Not the fault of his performance, but the Genie doesn’t carry the show as he does in the movie.
   Casey Nicholaw’s choreography is inventive and rollicking, borrowing from Middle Eastern, Bollywood, and Broadway techniques. His direction keeps the musical moving to a jazzy beat. But he doesn’t go grand enough. The show needs more razzle-dazzle, more magic. The ensemble is too small, particularly in the “Prince Ali” number as well as other crowd scenes. Even with the same size cast, Nicholaw could have found innovative ways to simulate a cast of thousands as Harold Prince did in the Masquerade number of Phantom of the Opera or even in a goofy way like Tommy Tune had with his football players/cheerleaders in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Though the director has the ensemble change clothes and run back into the procession, once everyone gathers on stage, the number feels too intimate.
   Gregg Barnes’s costumes are stylish and colorful. He utilizes the breakaway effect well. Bob Crowley’s sets are ordinary and seem like 1950s painted backdrops, except for the Genie’s lair for the Act 1 finale, which evokes depth and splendor. Illusionist Jim Steinmeyer has one ace up his sleeve, and it’s a doozy. It’s impossible to comprehend how he made that carpet fly, but neither beams nor cables were visible to the audience for keeping that traveling rug up in the air. The effect is not even shrouded in darkness. The rug floats in front of a large, bright moon where even a keen observer must admit that only the supernatural could invoke that contraption to defy gravity. The show needs more spectacle like that.

A polished return to the old-fashioned musicals of the 1950s and ’60s, Aladdin will delight children and keep adults tapping their toes. Though the creators were unable to vanquish the ghosts of the movie, the cast drags the audience into this fantastical world.

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz
January 13, 2018
What Happened When
Echo Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Daniel Talbott’s What Happened When is a claustrophobic, intense, and harrowing familial drama in the guise of a horror story. Set in a bedroom with red-paint (or blood-) spattered walls, three siblings huddle on a bed in an old farmhouse. Elder brother Will (Chris Stack) spins yarns about the fantastic life they’ll have in the hazy future, while sister Sam (Ellen Neary) lies essentially comatose at his feet and younger brother Jimi (Randall Clute) trains a flashlight on the walls and ceiling. What are they hiding from? What are they afraid of? Ghosts? Goblins? Ghouls?
   Turns out to be something far worse. And far more real.
   Beginning in 2009 and unspooling every three years until 2015, the siblings’ secrets and tragedies are revealed through Talbott’s natural and fluid script, with conversations of hopes and memories moving the story ahead with a sense of dread and doom hanging over every word. The dialogue is mostly oblique, so the audience is obligated to pay attention and piece the mystery together. There are no expository interchanges to act as guideposts as free-wheeling dreamer Will, sensible Sam, and sad, vulnerable Jimi see their dreams slip out of sight and find comfort in diverse ways, Will turning to alcohol and sex, Jimi disappearing inside himself, and Sam…well, you’ll see.

Director Chris Fields allows the stage to breathe and the actors to take their time with the dialogue, to sit with their emotions, while some directors would make the misstep of allowing them to spiral into melodrama. Stack gives a mesmerizing and powerful performance, naked in many ways. He commands attention with the slightest flicker across his brow. Clute’s Jimi carries the weight of his world, and he gives a very internal performance. He allows us to see the emotional and psychological scars without drawing attention to them. He’s the light and the emotional center of the story.
   The show is immersive in the sense that some of the seats are practically on the stage. That said, it’s such an intimate theater that, no matter where you sit, it feels like you’re interacting with the characters, which imbues an uncomfortable feeling of being complicit in their tragedies. It’s effective staging, especially for such a hushed and raw piece, and one with such mature material and adult themes.
   Scenic designer Amanda Knehans nails the feel of a rural farmhouse and the poor people who live there; sound designer John Zalewski keeps a background roar of sound constant throughout, adding a sense of existential unease, especially considering there is no score, just pop songs played through transitions to show the passage of time; and lighting designer Rose Malone casts the stage in stark angles and shadows with a reddish glow, creating a horror-movie sensation, all of which engender a wholly chilling experience of isolation and suspense.
   The show is short, but you’ll come out of it dazed from the emotional roller coaster ride its riveting ghost story of loss, dysfunction, and devastation takes you on.

Reviewed by Harker Jones
April 19, 2018
Native Son
Antaeus Theatre Company at Kiki & David Gindler Performing Arts Center

Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son is an undisputed classic that changed African-American fiction upon publication and sent such tremors through the literary world that it’s still being taught in high school and college classes. Its searing story told through the eyes of a desperate black man is timelier than ever as social media daily, sometimes multiple times daily, captures the racial inequality that is a great part of the reason our nation is so divided.
   And yet, while Antaeus Theatre Company’s adaptation tries to catch lightning in a bottle, it ends up being only heat lightning.
   Kicking off at the end of the story, and taking a page from Ambrose Bierce’s 1890 short story “An Occurrence at Owl Bridge,” the entire play takes place over a couple of of days in Chicago as a blizzard descends. It’s December 1939, and 20-year-old Bigger Thomas (Jon Chaffin) is trying to escape his life as a criminal by going straight. He has only an eighth-grade education and literal sky-high dreams: He wants to be a pilot. But he needs to provide for his mother and younger siblings, who live with him in their tenement on the South Side, so he takes a position as a chauffeur for the wealthy, white Dalton family. Blind Mrs. Dalton (Gigi Bermingham) is well-meaning, but her attempts to connect to Bigger are misguided: For instance, she presumes to have a history similar to his. Her daughter, Mary (Ellis Greer), is a wild child, who, along with her douchey, communist boyfriend, Jan (Matthew Grondin), wants to engage in black culture.

Bigger’s not even settled into the job when disaster strikes. Problematically, he doesn’t just panic; he makes terrible decision after terrible decision, worsening his plight exponentially. While this follows the meat of the novel, Nambi E. Kelley’s adaptation has streamlined the story by excising some events and characters, and director Andi Chapman moves things at a frenetic pace, so the actors hardly have time to catch their breaths. This also doesn’t give the audience time to catch its breath, so there’s no time to absorb the harrowing impact of Bigger’s quandary. The frenzied pace of the show mutes its message: Is Bigger the beast society makes him out to be? Or has society turned him into that beast?
   The symbolism of white versus black—not to mention the paranoia of being a black man in a white world—is a bit obvious. The snowstorm is making the world literally white, and Mrs. Dalton has a white cat named Whitey, who actively dislikes Bigger. But Jeff Gardner’s sound design is on point, and the spare, warehouse-like set and minimal props act as statements on the starkness of Bigger’s life. He’s trapped like a rat in his station and can’t seem to find a way out.
   Speaking of rats, Noel Arthur plays a character called the Black Rat, who depicts Bigger’s conscience and acts as narrator to help fill in blanks that would have been part of Bigger’s inner dialogue in the novel. He often mirrors Chaffin physically and vocally on stage, a stately, dapper presence in a vest, hat, and tie, the polar opposite of Bigger’s feverish and manic paranoia. Mildred Marie Langford—playing both Bigger’s younger sister, Vera, and his alcoholic, demanding girlfriend, Bessie—is perfectly steely, vulnerable, and tragic.
   There’s a lot of talent involved in this Native Son. It’s just unfortunate that, despite the themes being more relevant than ever, they’re marred by a frantic production.

Reviewed by Harker Jones
May 24, 2018

Guys and Dolls
Musical Theatre West at Carpenter Center

Based on Damon Runyon’s short stories “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure,” Guys and Dolls has enjoyed nearly continuous revivals worldwide since its Broadway production in 1950. With music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and a book co-written by Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling, the universal appeal of couples working out their romantic problems amid Runyon’s colorful New York denizens makes it nearly timeless.
Nathan Detroit (Matthew Henerson) is looking for a place to hold his famous “oldest established permanent floating crap game,” and frustrated cop Lt. Brannigan (Kenny Landmon) is hot on his trail. Aside from his crap-game dilemma, his 14-year fiancée Miss Adelaide (Bree Murphy) is pressing him for a marriage date.
Along comes Miss Sarah Brown (Madison Claire Parks) and her missionary co-workers who hope to provide salvation for the gamblers, showgirls, and street folk who populate Broadway. Because of a bet Nathan makes with gambler Sky Masterson (Jeremiah James) that Sky can’t take Miss Sarah to Havana, Guys and Dolls has two sets of leads who can deliver Loesser’s impressive collection of songs. While their stories might be enough to carry the show, Runyon’s penchant for creative names and outsized personalities adds an irresistible charm to the supporting characters. Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Andrew Metzger), Benny Southstreet (Blake Joseph), Rusty Charlie (Bobby Underwood), Harry the Horse (Ted Barton), Angie the Ox (Michael Stumfig), and Big Julie from Chicago (Phil Nieto) all distinguish themselves as prototypical gamblers. Director Mark Martino has a skilled comic touch, and he balances romance and burlesque successfully.

Loesser created sure-fire standouts among the songs. Murphy’s “Adelaide’s Lament” over her recurring illnesses, Henerson’s “Sue Me” as he tries to win back Adelaide, Parks’s carefree “If I Were a Bell,” and James’s ardent” Luck Be a Lady” are notable and enjoyable moments in the show. Loesser’s “Fugue for Tinhorns” also makes a winning opener with its colorful and lively choreography by Daniel Smith.
Of course, “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” is always a highlight, led here by Metzger, and in this production another appealing number is provided by Sarah’s grandfather, Arvide Abernathy (Fred Bishop), whose wise “More I Cannot Wish You” is warm and sentimental. Though Parks has a beautiful classically trained soprano, in “I’ll Know” her power overwhelms James, taking away from the appeal of the back and forth of this budding attraction. Martino might have downplayed this to greater effect. They are better balanced in “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.”
From the Hot Box Girls (Judy Fernandez, Veronica Gutierrez, Katie Marshall, Veronica Musselman, Isabella Olivas, Alissa Wilsey) to the Crap Shooters (Joven Calloway, Danil Chernyy, Brandon Taylor Jones, Joe Komara, Tanner Hampton, Darren Shin), Smith includes impressive acrobatics in his production numbers. When combined with music director Benet Braun’s fine orchestral accompaniments, the show is big, bold, and delightful. Colorful costumes by Tamara Becker, fine sound by Audio Production Geeks LLC, and key lighting by Paul Black round out the noteworthy elements of the production.

This is Musical Theatre West’s 65th season, which by any standard is an impressive accomplishment. Its consistent quality and artful choices keep audiences and supporters faithful. In Guys and Dolls, humor, great music, and well-cast characters combine to produce a highly entertaining revival.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
February 20, 2018

Barefoot in the Park
Glendale Centre Theatre

Often considered one of Broadway’s “Golden Boys” of the 1960s and ’70s, Neil Simon created a prodigious catalogue that spans far more than merely those two decades. This particular chestnut of his, premiering in 1963 with a film version following in 1967, is given a loving revisit here under the sure-handed guidance of director George Stratton.
   Newlyweds Paul and Corie Bratter, fresh off what seems a whirlwind romance and a six-day honeymoon holed up in one of Manhattan’s ritziest hotels, are now facing the realities of daily married life. Corie, played with energetic verve by Stephanie Skewes, has located the Bratters’ first permanent residence. That it is a relatively tiny fifth-floor walk-up, six if you count the front stoop, devoid of a bathtub or enough bedroom space to accommodate anything larger than a single-sized mattress, is a constant source of comic commentary throughout Simon’s piece.
   Corie’s counterpart Paul, played by Skewes’s real-life husband, Joshua Evans, is an anxiously conventional young lawyer who has recently secured his first post-graduate job. It quickly becomes evident that this is a somewhat mismatched union as Corie’s joie de vivre begins to clash with Paul’s realism. Skewes and Evans, by nature of their offstage relationship, bring a smart believability to their onstage alter egos. Stratton capitalizes on this fortuitous blessing throughout the couple’s scene work, especially during a rather feisty argument sequence in Act 2.

Supporting roles in Simon’s tale range from the anachronistically absurd to hilarious cameos. Ted Wells pulls out all the stops as the Bratters’ rooftop-dwelling neighbor, Victor Velasco, a Bohemian artiste-cum-playboy with a heart of gold. Almost instantly, Velasco clues in on Corie’s need for adventure, which leads to hilarious shenanigans, particularly when he woos her unmarried mother who stops by to visit the young couple’s new digs.
   As Corie’s mother, Caron Strong provides a funny albeit occasionally inconsistent performance. Strong’s delivery, heavily reminiscent of the recently passed Ann Wedgeworth, is difficult to understand at times in this approximately 400-seat venue. The result is that Strong’s character comes off as slightly tipsy when she’s not and almost pedantically slow when she is under the influence after a night out with Victor and the kids. Not hers alone, pacing issues hamper a few instances that should otherwise highlight Simon’s patter-like repartee.
   Rounding out the company are Rick Steele and Mark Gates as separate visitors to the Bratters’ new abode. Steele portrays a deliveryman whose single entrance, gasping and wheezing from the Everest-like ascent to drop off some belated wedding gifts from Corie’s mother, is cutely amusing. Gates’s performance as Harry Pepper, a telephone company installer/repairman, is one of the show’s highlights. Proving that the most can be made of a secondary character, Gates steals both of his scenes with a relaxed delivery that honors the dry wit for which Simon’s works are known.

Production values are certainly up to snuff in this arena-styled theatre. The multileveled set, credited to Stratton and Nathan Milisavljevich, offers a surprisingly welcome set of playing spaces. Paul Reid’s lighting covers all the bases, and Angela Manke’s costuming captures the period with charm.

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal
January 28, 2018

Geffen Playhouse

Sarah Jones is a fluid, smart and wickedly incisive performer. After tackling the complexity of immigrant lives outside Manhattan in Bridge and Tunnel, playing every character in a series of monologues (Meryl Streep even produced the Off-Broadway production), she’s now taking on sex: again playing a litany of roles in her self-penned Sell/Buy/Date.
   Staging her work as a college seminar with the audience as the students, Jones starts by playing posh British professor Dr. Serene Campbell, lecturing on the plight of sex workers in the 2010s from the vantage of some unspecified time in the future, prostitution having long been legalized. Having hooked her pupils up to B.E.R.T. (Bio-Empathetic Resonant Technology) modules, she explains they will be able to truly experience the thoughts and feelings of sex workers who were interviewed long ago about the quandaries of their lives. A framing device concerning Campbell’s personal life—including her mother, an impending promotion, and a secret she fears will derail her career—are a little jarring, but it gives depth and humanity to the professor, who otherwise might be just a one-dimensional mouthpiece for the other characters Jones spotlights.

And she spotlights many: a middle-aged Jewish-American homemaker; a Bay Area, Valley Girl–talking, feminist, sex work–studies major; a pimp-turned–motivational speaker named Cookie Chris; a Trinidadian prostitute who claims she’s Jamaican because it’s more marketable; a bro dude at his bachelor party who doesn’t understand his casual sexism; an Irish woman who was sent to a convent after an affair with an older man and who was forced to give up her baby when she was just a teenager.
   Jones’s extensive research and interviews with women from all walks of life who ended up in the sex-work industry have yielded characters—men and women, straight and gay, old and young, black, Asian, white—who are fleshed out, complex, and unique. Jones slips into each seamlessly (sometimes even as they interact with each other), her timing and energy and rhythm and posture and timbre and body language informing them with almost no props and the only costume change being a pair of glasses. It’s astonishing.
   The show and its themes of the commodification of sex and the exploitation of women would have always been timely—and certainly was when it premiered in 2016—but it is particularly and painfully so right now in the age of the #metoo and Time’s Up movements and the assault scandals rocking Hollywood and Washington. As it was prescient and provocative at the time, its trenchant observations about today’s politics and mores are almost painful now as it’s difficult to imagine that our sexual puritanism regarding women will ever lead to an eventual liberation.

Director Carolyn Cantor helps Jones breeze through an 85-minute running time, and with so few props and only one actor, the lighting design by Elizabeth Harper, sound design by Jonathan A. Burke, and original sound design and score by Bray Poor play integral roles in setting the stage. They hit all the right marks, creating a striking and sharp atmosphere of unease.
   Like in an episode of Black Mirror, by setting the show in the future, Jones helps us look back at our current troubled times with perspective. For a show with such dark themes—sex trafficking, prostitution, economic and gender disparity—Sell/Buy/Date isn’t as stark or horrifying as it might sound. Jones uses a spoonful-of-sugar approach: There’s a fair amount of levity, and each character brings an entirely new energy to the stage. Surprisingly, because it doesn’t get quite as dark as it might, the point is muted, but just a bit. Considering the horrors going on in the world, though, probing too painfully might have ended up as simply painful and not have the resonance that this production does.

Reviewed by Harker Jones
April 4, 2018
The Madres
Skylight Theatre

Stephanie Alison Walker’s The Madres is a searing, devastating look at a movement that swept Argentina in the 1970s. Set in 1978, the play focuses on Josefina (Margarita Lamas, who trades off with Denise Blasor), a housewife who buries her head in the sand at the political upheaval surrounding her; and her daughter, Carolina (Arianna Ortiz), who is a dissident, rising up against the patriarchy. Carolina’s daughter, Belén (Natalie Llerena), is pregnant in Paris with her boyfriend, or so they tell neighborhood priest Padre Juan (Gabriel Romero), who has turned traitor, and the boy next door, Diego (Alexander Pimentel), who has grown into an immature soldier, both of whom come sniffing around trying to find out Belén’s whereabouts. At the same time, Carolina is aware of a woman always sitting in a car outside, ostensibly watching their every move.
   The story is harrowing, not least because it is based on true events. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo was a movement of women who marched through Buenos Aires as they searched for their children who had disappeared right off the streets.
   Originally wearing white cloth diapers with their missing children’s names stitched into them on their heads (the white being in defiance of the color black, which would symbolize that they were mourning their lost children), the scarves came to represent their movement for human rights.
   It’s a simple setup with just the five characters but it’s heartbreaking. The writing isn’t in-your-face pushing issues at us, thankfully. It’s sensitive and thought-provoking, and our entrée into their world is as comfortable as Josefina’s apartment (courtesy Christopher Scott Murillo) and the costumes (courtesy Jojo Siu), both of which are bright and warm and inviting. You feel both at home but also on edge. There’s clearly something in the air.

Director Sara Guerrero brings Walker’s words to vivid life and elicits fantastic performances from all five actors. The three generations of women (with a fourth on the way) are wildly diverse in character and performance. Lamas is sympathetic and understandably frightened. One can understand why she wants to just pretend everything is fine. By upending things, she could make things even worse. Ortiz’s Carolina is spiky, vulnerable, fierce, and protective, and one understands why she marches. By remaining silent, no change will come and more children will disappear. And Llerena’s Belén is terrified, enraging, sad, and desperate. She gives a knockout performance with depth and grace.
   Romero’s Padre Juan is a perfect coward still trying to skate by on a former sheen of benevolence. And Pimentel’s Diego is a quivering mass of insolence, condescension, and insecurity. He’s become a mini dictator because the military has instilled a sense of entitlement in him, and you can see, as he throws his weight around, the awkwardness and insecurity of a boy pretending to be a man.
   The Madres is not just a solid and moving reminder of Argentina in the ’70s. It puts a human face on political tragedies without being preachy, which isn’t always an easy balance. And it’s particularly timely with the oppression happening in this country these days. It should inspire us all to put on a white headscarf and march in front of the capitol under our own oppressive political regime.

Reviewed by Harker Jones
March 20, 2018
Pizza Man
Pop Up Theater at an undisclosed location

Misogyny, mania, mayhem, oh my! All are on full display in playwright Darlene Craviotto’s cleverly crafted snapshot of the mental states of two women, each at the ends of their individual ropes. In keeping with this company’s unique choice of venues, the piece is presented in an oversized, loft-like apartment located deep in the heart of Hollywood. Amid the complete trappings of this actual living space, director Jamie Lou and a more-than-capable cast of three pull off a uniquely engaging production.
   Julie and Alice, played by Emma Chandler and Raleigh West, are a seemingly mismatched pair of roommates. Julie has lost her job as the result of having spurned her boss’s crude romantic advances. Though she is normally the levelheaded member of this unlikely duo, the result is a series of reactions that skyrocket from depression to destructively violent behavior. To her credit, Chandler pulls it off with admirable aplomb even when Craviotto’s script requires near uncontrollable rage.
   Balancing the tale is Alice, dumped by a married man who, after a 13-month tryst, has decided to return to his wife. The perfect foil to her roommate’s unpredictable displays, Alice is at times wisely sympathetic, almost maternal in nature, and at the very next moment hilariously obtuse. West’s top-notch comedic sensibility and timing offer countless moments of respite from what could have been merely a melodramatic tale of wallowing self-pity.

As the two come together to support, cajole, even harass each other over the depths to which their lives have disintegrated, it becomes obvious that the male gender is the root of all evil, or so they opine. What’s the answer? Why, revenge, of course! And who better to take out their frustrations on, with Julie dragging Alice along compliantly, than the title character who arrives bearing culinary sustenance.
   As Eddie, the soon-to-be hapless target of Julie’s rage, Freddy Giorlando holds his own in the face of this tidal wave of estrogen-fueled malevolence. Just as with his two female counterparts, Eddie ricochets between excitement over his good fortune in being “taken advantage” by two attractive women and unbridled fear when the situation start to go south. Giorlando is consistently believable in this occasionally farce-like set of circumstances, which lends great credibility to the play’s climax and resolution.
   Given the true-to-life setting, production values are, in a word, “realistic.” Lou does a fine job of allowing her cast to utilize numerous spaces around this locale, all of which are within eyesight of her audience. It’s an intriguing way to experience a play that is anchored by a trio of very fine performances.

Reviewed by Dink O'Neal
February 8, 2018

The Chosen
Fountain Theatre

Based on Chaim Potok’s classic novel of the same name, The Chosen is an intimate four-character play about two Jewish boys coming of age through the backdrop of World War II. Our hero and narrator, Reuven (Sam Mandel), fatefully meets his BFF Danny Saunders (Dor Gvirtsman) through a heated street baseball game in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1944. At first adversaries, the two boys, who couldn’t be more different despite growing up only five blocks from each other, realize they have more in common than they would have ever thought.
   Reuven is a smart-aleck Orthodox math whiz. Danny, wildly smart with a photographic memory, is a Hasid on track to replace his father as rabbi and tzaddik, a religious leader and spiritual master, even though Danny wants to study psychology. Reuven’s father (Jonathan Arkin) is kind, open-minded, and generous, while Danny’s (Alan Blumenfeld) is pious, closed off, and cold. But times are changing, and none of the men swept up in them are able to resist change.
   Marking the 50th anniversary of the novel’s publication, the play (adapted into a well-received film in 1981) is a story we’ve seen countless times before, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t merit in it. The themes of religion versus science, fathers versus sons, tradition versus progress are always relevant. Potok’s play, which he and Aaron Posner adapted from his novel, paints deft portraits of the characters without falling into melodrama.

Director Simon Levy gets sensitive performances from his ensemble. Gvirtsman’s Danny is open, soulful, and tortured between his obligations and his yearnings. Gvirtsman is a good listener, too. Blumenfeld, as his father, is pitch-perfect as a man guided by God to lead his people and struggling to understand how not just the world but also his son are changing.
   Levy stages much action and many locations—two homes, a hospital, a softball game, and a college campus among others—with one backdrop. It’s a beautiful, sumptuous set of a wooden library with countless books, showing off how learned both of the boys’ families are. And that’s one of the things that creates such friction between the boys and their fathers, and between the families: Both are intellectual and have been steeped in education. Lack of knowledge is not an issue. Finding compromise is. And who isn’t that true for?

Harker Jones
January 30, 2018

I Am My Own Wife
Laguna Playhouse

Doug Wright’s intriguing biographical play about German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf stars John Tufts, who morphs seamlessly into 30-plus characters as he narrates the tale set in wartime Berlin in the 1940s. Described as a “one-woman show performed by a man,” it is provocative and delivers a nuanced portrayal of a complex character with mystery surrounding the reality of her story.
Born Lothar Berfelde in 1928, von Mahlsdorf was attracted to female clothing even as a child, and through the evolution of his sexuality he transforms into Charlotte over the years. Passionate about antiques, she sets about rescuing furniture and artifacts from the Nazis by creating the Gründerzeit Museum, a place that also served for a time as a safe haven for gays. Being gay in Hitler’s Germany was dangerous, but we learn she survived though a set of circumstances we are asked to examine as the story unfolds.

Tufts is a chameleon dressed in a simple black dress, a bandana, and sensible vintage oxfords. With no change of costume, he slides seamlessly from Mahlsdorf to Wright to soldiers and citizens whose lives connected with Charlotte over the years. Tufts’s Charlotte is shy, coquettish, and poignant. Is she a hero saving priceless artifacts from the Nazis by creating the museum, or is she a traitor who sells out even a fellow antiques collector when the Nazis come calling?
Wright’s conflicted feelings about Charlotte evolve throughout his interviews with her; and, as the inconsistencies grow, he is faced with deciding what to believe. Wright incorporates a fascinating array of people into his characterizations, effectively providing context for the storyline.
Keith Mitchell’s set design is cleverly omnipresent as a museum facade with multiple hanging relics suspended over the stage. Pablo Santiago’s lighting design helps create the stark landscape of Charlotte’s gray world. Sound design by Christopher Moscatiello also brings wartime Berlin to life.

Director Jenny Sullivan relies on Tufts’s unique transformations to create the drama, choosing subtlety over histrionics. That choice makes the story more evocative and memorable. Watching a master actor at work makes waiting two years for Tufts’s schedule to allow for the production to come to Laguna pay off for artistic directors Ellen Richard and Ann E. Wareham. It is a quiet but very satisfying character study worth seeing.

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann January 24, 2018
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