Arts In LA

Archives 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
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

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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