Arts In LA
The Power of Duff
Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Josh Stamberg
Photo by Michael Lamont

The inciting incident of The Power of Duff, Stephen Belber’s new play at the Geffen, occurs early. Local Rochester, N.Y. news anchor Charlie Duff (Josh Stamberg)—having lost his wife to divorce, his son to resentment, and now his long-estranged dad to death—closes a broadcast with a spontaneous, brief “rest-in-peace” prayer. It feels good, somehow, so against friends’ advice and management’s directives, Charlie keeps praying, only to discover that he gets what he prays for: a kidnapped girl returned to her home; a comatose man revived. A national firestorm is ignited. With the world in such a miserable mess, could a mere Duff possess the heaven-sent power to start cleaning it up?
   So rare is it for a play to take up any issues of faith, religion, and the global community’s current crisis—let alone the journalistic ethics of using the airwaves to offer spiritual solace—that The Power of Duff might be seen as heartening in its subject matter alone. But it’s also a sad occasion, because the play isn’t very good. It’s tepid and, in key respects, shockingly retrograde.
   It’s impossible not to see Duff as the white angel to Paddy Chayefsky’s apocalyptic Howard Beale, who in Network (1976) got the world roaring its anger out the windows and convinced himself he was the Messiah. Duff is much more benign—he’s as glad as hell, and he just can’t keep it to himself anymore—but he’s also a cipher, inadequate to holding dramatic interest for two and a half hours. I’m not sure what the likable Stamberg could have done differently to make us care about his troubles, but as directed by Peter DuBois he practically fades into Clint Ramos’s white-brick-walled set in every scene.

Maybe Belber and DuBois should’ve analyzed Network more closely. Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet wisely keep the mysterious Beale on the sidelines, while ratcheting up the intensity of his worldwide impact and constantly returning to the professional and sexual clashes of the William Holden and Faye Dunaway characters. Yet nothing ever intensifies the power of The Power of Duff. Despite some ambitious, amusing video-wall peeks at the newsman’s supporters and critics (take a deep bow, projection designer Aaron Rhyne), the play devolves into an endless series of pause-laden, gab-filled two- and three-person scenes that develop no momentum. The text may insist that the world is being thrown for a loop by Duff’s so-called miracles, but the emotional temperature on the Geffen stage remains exclusively midday soap opera.
   At that, most of the other characters are barely serviceable as types when their behavior isn’t downright offensive. There are exceptions. As a prison lifer in whom Duff takes a healer’s interest, Maurice Williams brings believable rhythms and the breath of life to every scene. Joe Paulik’s video appearances perfectly capture the fatuous/sincere air of the classic remote TV reporter with just the wittiest hint of self-satire.
   But Duff’s sportscaster buddy (Brendan Griffin) is too obviously included as comedy relief and, later, sacrificial victim. Charlie’s son Ricky (Tanner Buchanan) is mere, sheer obnoxious adolescent. Station boss Scott (a fine, focused Eric Ladin), a crusty skeptic in the Lou Grant tradition, chews happily on the play’s most potent counterarguments to Duff’s divinity, only to turn on a dime into a believer: “I have the impulse to hug you….You did it, Charlie.” (Emphasis, Belber’s; disheartenedness, mine.)

Most egregiously, the redoubtable Elizabeth Rodriguez, one of the fiercest actors on our and New York’s stages, is assigned the corny role of a cranky co-anchor who ends up sleeping with the main character (yes! In 2015!) to bring him succor. The character of Sue Raspell has an autistic son and troubled marriage, but God forbid Belber should seriously explore her spiritual dark nights of the soul. He’s too busy worrying about whether mumbling, shuffling, vacant Charlie will remember to attend his kid’s band’s gig as a means of reforging a connection.
   The thinness of The Power of Duff’s answers—reach out and touch somebody’s hand; be content to make a little difference—is predictable, but more than that, it stands in stark contrast to the awesomeness of the play’s questions.

April 16, 2015
 
April 15–May 17. 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. $39–79. (310) 208-5454.

www.geffenplayhouse.com

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Sight Unseen
Wasatch Theatrical Ventures at Lounge Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, Jason Weiss, and Mark Belnick
Photo by Photo by Ed Krieger

When Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist classic No Exit debuted in 1944, clever critics could note the philosopher’s first mistake was the title—one that left them the overture to say that the trouble with No Exit was that there wasn’t one. Donald Margulies might have considered the same invitation for snarky criticism when he penned Sight Unseen, which leaves the journalistic door open for reviewers to say they wish his play had remained so.
   Then again, Sight Unseen might indeed be a good play; everything else written by Margulies has grabbed a generally appreciative critical response, and this particular effort garnered him an Obie Award and a Pulitzer nomination in 1992. Considering as reference only this incredibly awful revival, however, it would be difficult to tell. From Adam Haas Hunter’s clumsy and unwieldy set accentuated by equally clumsy and unwieldy set changes, to the 16-minute-late start time with a restless audience forced to sit through old Elton John and Beatles tunes turned into excruciating elevator music fed through a synthesizer, nearly everything about this production is insufferable.

The biggest problems and, oddly, also greatest assets here are in the casting choices. Jason Weiss as Jonathan, a newly successful New York painter traveling to an English hideaway to visit his ex while in London for an exhibit of his work, appears to be capable of better. But here, he is in desperate need of a directorial eye sharper and more adept than that provided by Nicole Dominguez.
   He shouts his lines in the intimate Lounge Theatre space as though he were giving out the football score on ESPN, offering in this angst-ridden role all the depth of Willie Aames in a Bibleman video. He prances and flails his arms and indicates emotions rather than expressing anything authentic, something desperately necessary in the role of someone struggling with his place in both the art world and on earth. By the point in the second act when the weighty and important themes of the play begin to surface, Weiss’s performance has sapped the notion of caring what happens to his character right out of consideration.

As Nick, the quirky British husband of Jonathan’s ex, Mark Belnick is nearly unwatchable. Not only is he way too long in the tooth to play this character, his British accent wavers between nothing recognizable and nearly nonexistent, and he offers not one color to the character besides sarcasm and dumbly blank expressions. As he enters the scene at breakfast time, to show his possibly hungover early morning state, he yawns grandly and shakes his head to indicate he needs to snap into wakefulness, then later wrings his hands like a dastardly villain in a Perils of Pauline episodic as he sneers through lines such as, “Leave it to me…I’ll take care of everything.” It would not be surprising if, at the play’s end, the actor didn’t improvise a quick “Curses! Foiled again!” accompanied by an evil cackle.
   As a German reporter appearing occasionally to interview Jonathan for an arts magazine, Casey McKinnon is suitably subdued. Yet, even though there are comments made about how well Grete speaks English, which she explains by proclaiming she spent a year studying at NYU, the actors’ perfectly modulated Judi Dench-ian RP British accent is, once again, something directorially overlooked that should have been either mastered or addressed. Also needing addressing, several times two actors stare at the same painting hung on the imaginary fourth wall, and neither is focusing individual gazes in the same place.

However, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, in her LA theatrical debut, is absolutely breathtakingly good—especially as she has to work opposite Weiss and Belnick and keep her intentions so flawlessly real. She plays Patricia, the miserably unhappy ex-pat American former artists’ model Never does Luqmaan-Harris present a false moment; her Patricia would be riveting even if it weren’t a major relief to watch someone in this production act without chewing the proverbial—and here rather flimsy—scenery.

March 28, 2015
 
March 14–April 26. 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $25. (323) 960-4412.

www.plays411.com/unseen

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The Other Place
Road Theatre Company

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Sam Anderson and Taylor Gilbert
Photo by Michele Young

There’s a lot about this arresting and intelligent play by rising playwright Sharr White (Annapurna) that is similar to Peter Shaffer’s enduring 1973 classic Equus . Like that drama’s central character, Dr. Martin Dysart, White’s protagonist Juliana (Taylor Gilbert) never leaves the stage, offering this audience a privileged view of the degeneration of an initially self-assured, uber-driven medical professional totally swallowed up in her own uncertainties and in doubt of everything she has ever known.
   The Other Place begins as Juliana, a biophysicist researcher¬–turned–drug company corporate spokesperson, addresses a gathering of students in the Virgin Islands. Pointing to the huge graphic projected behind her, she starts out with a pointed jab: “For those of you only accepted to a medical school in St. Thomas, this is a chromosome.” If Juliana wants to successfully promote the new product she believes could be a breakthrough in the battle against dementia and Alzheimer’s, of course, it might have been better to have started with something more positive. But things are crashing in on Juliana in her life and mind, further evidenced by her obsession with a young woman seated in the audience wearing a yellow bikini.
   “Who is this girl?” she wonders aloud to the theater audience. “Some drug company-funded model or hooker supposed to provide the doctors relief?” Juliana makes a few rude cracks aimed directly at the girl, then realizes she has possibly evoked tears from her. “I start to feel guilty for insulting her, which as you may have surmised by now happens quite often to me,” Juliana admits. “Why do I see something beautiful, then scratch it and scratch it until there’s nothing left?”

This is only the beginning of Juliana’s downward spiral. What’s real and what’s not creeps slowly into Juliana’s nearly nonstop narration, but then suddenly she tumbles headfirst down the rabbit hole—and takes us right along with her.
   Under the guidance of director Andre Barron, Gilbert gives a magnificent, intricately nuanced performance in White’s demanding leading role, seamlessly weaving from sarcasm to rage to heartbreaking vulnerability—and without losing us along the way as the often unlikable Juliana whines and screams in her effort to get everyone around her to understand her plight.
   Danielle Stephens is a perfect choice to play a variety of characters, including an extremely patient therapist trying to diagnose Juliana’s challenges. With a straight face, the therapist asks Juliana if she’s “flirting with suicidal thoughts” and tries valiantly not to be unnerved by Juliana response, “I’m dating them, actually—but they won’t put out.” Stephens also appears as Juliana’s long-estranged daughter and, in her finest moments, as an outsider who arrives at the 11th hour, an innocent current resident of Juliana’s actual “other place,” to quickly become an important piece of the puzzle. Dirk Etchison also appears in several smaller and less-memorable roles, yet he does so with enough passion to make one wish he had more stage time on his own.

In the final analysis, however, the great wonder of this riveting production is the relationship between Juliana and her long-suffering, physically and emotionally traumatized husband, Ian (Sam Anderson). In a pivotal scene between Gilbert and Stephens, Anderson’s Ian stands watching his wife and this stranger in their lives embrace clumsily, but it is the pain and exhaustion on his face that is the most indelible image of the evening, made even more memorable when Ian abandons care for what the onlooker thinks in an effort to hold the wife he’s loved for so many years safe and close to him once again.
   Simply put, Gilbert and Anderson share onstage moments together in The Other Place that are nothing short of magic, a testament to what can be achieved when two such exceptional artists bring this selfless kind of commitment and collaboration to the telling of a story. Gilbert and Anderson could be poster-children for how important it is for actors to spontaneously bounce off each other with total trust.

March 10, 2015
 
Feb. 20–April 26. 10747 Magnolia Blvd. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $17.50–34. ( 818) 761-8838.

www.RoadTheatre.org

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Sons of the Prophet
Blank Theatre at 2nd Stage

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Mychal Thompson, Braxton Molinaro, Adam Silver, and Jack Laufer
Photo by Anne McGrath

Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran told us we were “far, far greater than you know and all is well.” Right. No wonder a character in Stephen Karam’s play—a 2012 New York Drama Critics Circle winner for best play and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama—thinks differently. “Never before,” the character notes in the LA premiere of Karam’s truly contemporary masterpiece, “has bad writing been so richly rewarded.”
   Joseph Douaihy (Adam Silver) is the son of Lebanese immigrants who have pounded that quote into his head his entire life. Raised by his recently departed devout Maronite Christian father and his aged, quickly failing uncle (Jack Laufer), Joseph has listened patiently to the persistent family legend that the Douaihys are directly descended from Gibran, leading them to expect a lot from him and his teenage brother Charles (Braxton Molinaro). The fact that both brothers are gay is a bit of an issue in their household, especially when Uncle Bill moves in with them after their father’s death—something he sees as watching over them, while the brothers believe they are watching over him as his health quickly deteriorates.

Karam’s arrestingly on-target tale careens recklessly from high comedy to intense melodrama, heightened by director Michael Matthews’s expert, finely nuanced balancing act, as well as a supremely game and gifted cast able to maneuver the twists and turns along the way with consummate ease. Despite Uncle Bill’s continuous demands that the boys live up to the ideals set forth by their illustrious possible ancestor, if there is a god, he certainly does not seem to want to reward them for their efforts to remain pure. As the family’s woes accumulate like trash in a dumpster behind a high-rise, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Joseph giving up and giving in, but he is buoyed by one irrepressible trait: his undeniable sense of humor and unearthly ability to take on life’s continuously daunting daily trials as best he can.
   Silver is the superglue that holds the entire production together, giving his Joseph a tremendous sense of patience and adaptability as he deals with his mysterious debilitating illness and the fact that he has not fully come to terms with his anti-Maronite sexuality—evident, as his far more flamboyant younger brother observes, since he dresses like a lumberjack. When Joseph meets a sweetly engaging young reporter (Erik Odom), there’s a glimmer of hope, but even that is not meant to be. Instead, Joseph must patiently endure the continuous taunts of his often obnoxious brother, and the whines and incessant pontificating of his cranky old uncle, all the while dealing with his crazed benefactor (Tamara Zook), an uber-needy book merchant who sees the Douaihy’s story as fodder for acting as agent for a bestseller based on their ordeals.
   Zook is manically hilarious, bringing well-needed levity to the proceedings while still making her audience want to throw her under a bus at the earliest opportunity—as does the family of her character’s late husband, people she also dogs ruthlessly. “I don’t want the fact that we’re estranged to keep us from seeing each other,” Gloria observes, indicating just how out of touch she is. And when she disrupts the school board hearing deciding the future of a young and promising athlete (Mychal Thompson) indirectly responsible for the death of Joseph’s father, who swerved his car to avoid the deer decoy placed in the middle of the road as a prank against a rival team, Zook is at her wild, no-holds-barred best.

The cast is completed by the addition of durable stage veterans Ellen Karsten and Irene Roseen, who appear as a variety of nurses, ticket clerks, and school board members, each character a fresh joy to observe. And when, at the play’s end, Roseen assays a brand new character, a former teacher of Joseph’s who is also trying to heal in a physical therapy office, the real message of Karam’s bittersweet masterwork emerges: the resiliency of the human spirit no matter what this often surprisingly cruel life might toss in our paths. The good die young, they say, but that’s surely not always true. Sometimes they just go on despite the odds stacking up before them, something to be celebrated with all the charm and wonder Karam and this production honors admirably.

February 16, 2015
 
Jan. 31–April 26. 6500 Santa Monica Blvd. (Valet parking available for evening performances.) Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Ticket prices not announced. (323) 661-9827.

www.TheBlank.com

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Never Givin’ Up
Broad Stage

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


Anna Deavere Smith
Photo by Maury Phillips / Getty Images for The Broad Stage

Anna Deavere Smith is an American treasure. She is a vivid storyteller who has mastered building monologues from interviews with those affected by her subject matter. She captures the cadence and moods of the real people she impersonates and finds the most penetrating details to flesh out. Her 1994 play, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, reflects the LA Riots from many perspectives. Now, Never Givin’ Up uncovers race relations, using as its centerpiece Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous letter written on a newspaper as he sat in a Birmingham, Ala., jail cell.
   Smith reads the entire King letter, and though she does not impersonate the reverend, she captures his passion and his clarity. Her other monologues here focus on victims of American racism—from Charlayne Hunter Gault, a student in the early 1960s who broke the University of Georgia’s segregation history, to Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who had been beaten by police in the 1960s, only to have one of the perpetrators regretfully apologize in 2009. Smith’s soliloquies are so rich, one can see the hostile girls with flowing white sheets staring down young Gault her first night in the desegregated dorm, and the upscale house, car, and coat with which future school principal Linda Wayman’s mother motivated her to be the first in her family to enroll at college.

Director Stephen Wadsworth makes curious choices that dilute Smith’s powerful speeches. The two-piece chamber (violin and piano) interludes feel unnecessary. Smith’s monologues sing all on their own, making the music superfluous. It sets no mood and only slows the evening. More troubling, violinist Robert McDuffie and pianist Anne Epperson loudly underscore Smith’s gripping interpretation of the King letter. She must fight them to be heard, which strips the sting from his great words.
   Those words are still so timely. Race relations are only scraping the surface of healing, and other hatred continues as people attack the LGBT community on “religious grounds.” Smith and her muse, Dr. King, remind audiences that the road to equality still is a long journey.

April 17, 2015
 
April 15–26. 1310 11th St. See Broad Stage website for schedule. $29–55 (310) 434-3200.

thebroadstage.com

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Corktown ’57
Odyssey Theater

Reviewed by Bob Verini


Nick Tate, Belen Greene, Jonah Beres, John Ruby, Natalie Britton, Josh Clark, and Kevin P. Kearns.
Photo by Ed Krieger

Though this John Fazakerley’s Irishmen-transplanted-to-America play runs slightly less than two hours, it lines up enough characters and story elements to populate an entire 13-episode season’s worth of TV melodrama. This is only intended as a recommendation if you are the type of theatergoer who gets kicks from a nonstop cavalcade of revelation after revelation and crisis upon crisis. But since the inevitable first casualty of shoving 15 pounds of incident into a 5-pound bag is nuance, those who prefer their naturalism leavened by fully rounded people rather than by stereotypes may become exhausted as the Keating family dredges up old grudges, spells out thematic points, and keeps rushing to the basement bar for endless swigs of whiskey.
   Of course, Fazakerley set himself on an overcomplicated path when he decided boozy, pugnacious paterfamilias Mike (Nick Tate) should have emigrated from the Ould Sod to this Philadelphia suburb having sired eight, count ‘em eight, children. (Four appear on stage and one more is for sure mentioned, leaving three unaccounted for, by my off-the-cuff reckoning. Maybe they’re being saved up for a sequel?) Anyway, populating the stage with so many sibs almost necessitates none will have much stage time in which to juggle all their troubles.

And what troubles they juggle! The 1950s were an especially fraught period for England and Ireland, as no end to centuries-old conflicts was remotely in sight, and no one could agree on what peacemaking strategies would work, or even whether any should be considered. Evoked in Fazakerly’s play are Sinn Fein power struggles mediated by local bigshot Tim Flynn (Josh Clark); passionate disagreements over resistance strategy; the fundraising efforts of sister Kate (Rebecca Tilney) to buy IRA guns; a spy in the organization; 200 freedom-fighting prisoners rotting in a London jail; and, most urgently, the return of eldest son John (Andrew Connolly), who stayed behind to be drafted into the British Army and rise to the rank of general while, on top of everything else, hiding a record of service with the hated Brit paramilitary Black & Tans.
   Any one or two of those issues would be enough to animate a full, rich Sean O’Casey or Martin McDonagh yarn, but Fazakerley is only getting started. He also tosses in the specter of a mother killed by her husband’s syphilis; a long-ago romantic triangle involving Kate, sister Marie (Belen Greene); and a local IRA operative (Kevin P. Kearns); the recently deceased child of youngest brother Frank (John Ruby); Frank’s desire to go west to make a new start; and the culture shock suffered by his American wife (Natalie Britton), who won’t sleep with him anymore.

So much is going on that a street fight between their young son (Jonah Beres) and a neighborhood boy, with which the play kicks off, just dribbles away unresolved. And we never get much of a chance to learn just what kind of neighborhood Corktown is, which you’d think would be a basic requirement for a play titled Corktown. (Biggest unanswered question: How does hand-to-mouth shopkeeper Frank find the scratch to stock the liquor cabinet for all his hard-drinking relatives?)
   Director Wilson Milam, who so memorably staged The Lieutenant of Inishmore on Broadway and at the Mark Taper Forum five years ago, is powerless to encourage much verisimilitude in the overstuffed, speechifying text with its many Big Moments but few small ones. Also, while Joel Daavid’s basement setting is vast and detailed, Milam keeps most of the action far left and far right so the space never really feels believably lived-in. Of the cast, Connolly, Clark, and Greene come off best in their skillful, shaded underplaying.

April 12, 2015
 
March 28–May 3. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours. $25-30. (323) 960-5770.

www.odysseytheatre.com

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Trevor
Circle X Theatre Co. at Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Jimmi Simpson and Laurie Metcalf
Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging for Circle X Theatre Co.

They say theater in Los Angeles is really going to the dogs, and that the current battle between the West Coast office of Actors’ Equity Association and its many disgruntled members is truly for the birds. Still, gratefully, the stalwartly and inexhaustibly creative barebones-transforming Circle X Theatre Company is not monkeying around. In the LA premiere of Orange Is the New Black’s writer and co-producer Nick Jones’s brightly modern countercultural comedy, no animal hero has been more notably rendered since the last time Lassie saved Timmy.
   Trevor (formidable physical comedian Jimmi Simpson) returns home to his trailerpark-y domicile, upset that his attempt to get a job at a local fast-food franchise didn’t work out. His surrogate mother, Sandra (the equally formidable Laurie Metcalf), is definitely not happy he went out without her permission, especially because Trevor chose to grab her keys from their most recent hiding place and drive her car several miles to Dunkin’ Donuts to offer his services. As he whines about his lot in life since leaving behind his Hollywood career for their current domestic sub-suburban existence, Sandra talks carefully and slowly to him, slapping the back of her hand repeatedly as she intones, “No, Trevor! No, no!”

Trevor, you see, is more than your typically discouraged and relocated Hollywood performer living on his past glories. He appeared in a reality-based straight-to-DVD release with some of LA’s best-trained performers and even did a commercial with Morgan Fairchild (Brenda Strong in a series of fantasized visits to the household), creating such a special bond with his co-star that he even feels comfortable calling her a peer. “And her hair is the color of pee,” Trevor tells us in one of his many monologues where the audience—unlike Sandra and other inhabitants in the play—can understand. “That’s why she’s so popular.”
   As his actor friend Oliver (Bob Clendenin), with a career so successful he wears a different outfit every day, explains to Trevor in one of his several hallucinated visits, “Behave and the whole world opens up to you.” That’s good advice for our hero, who has a problem accepting authority not only from Sandra but also from anyone, including the local sheriff (Jim Ortlieb) sent to check on him (“One phone call and you’ll never wear that cop costume again,” Trevor warns him. “I know Morgan Fairchild!”) or the animal control officer sent to follow up to help decide if Trevor has become a risky and dangerous member of the community.
  
Should Trevor be allowed to (a) roam free as he once did, becoming so much a local attraction that his photo is even pictured in the area’s tourism brochure, (b) be restricted to his crate in Sandra’s backyard, or (c) be sent to a facility able to handle his increasingly scary antics?
   The future of Trevor as a free agent is the issue here, something the title character is having a difficult time understanding. When the authorities start showing up at Sandra’s door after their frightened neighbor Ashley (Mary Elizabeth Ellis) reports him as a menace to the ’hood and possibly to her newborn child, since Trevor doesn’t speak the same language as anyone else “real” in the play, he is instead sure their presence means he and Sandra are returning to Hollywood and a great new acting job.
   This uniquely quirky contemporary play explores the frustrations we share while trying to communicate with and understand one another. But here the quest is ingeniously seen from a uniquely simian perspective. Life is hard in the ’burbs for Trevor, whom we begin to realize is a 200-pound chimpanzee trying to exist in a people-dominated world, not to mention while navigating the rollercoaster ride of a showbiz career. As Oliver, also a chimp by the way (albeit a more successful one, having starred in the Ringling Bros. all-chimpanzee production of Hamlet), reminds him in one of his dream visits, “Sometimes you groom, sometimes you get groomed…. It’s just the nature of the business.”
   Jones has created an absolutely hilarious contemporary comedy, made more flawless by its dynamic cast and the snappy, visually nonstop direction of Stella Powell-Jones. Simpson and Metcalf possess incredible comedic timing. But when playing together, they make their roles sing with pitch-perfect skill, creating an amazing sense of communication between two members of different species that will make anyone seeing Trevor go home, look their alternate-species family members in the eye, and wonder if they really know what’s on their pets’ minds after all.
  

March 24, 2015
 
March 14–April 26. 3269 Casitas Ave. Free onsite and street parking. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $28.

www.circlextheatre.org

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The English Bride
The Road on Magnolia

Reviewed by Julio Martinez


Elizabeth Knowelden and Steven Schub
Photo by John A. Lorenz

Playwright Lucile Lichtblau bases her West Coast premiere one-act three-hander, The English Bride , on the real-life 1986 aborted attempt to place a bomb—unwittingly carried in the luggage of a pregnant Irish lass—onto an El Al flight headed for the Middle East. She believed she was flying off to marry her Jordanian fiancé. He was attempting to blow her up midflight. Lichtblau utilizes these facts to construct an intricate yet thematically flimsy house of lies.
   Dov (Allan Wasserman), a deceptively soft-spoken Israeli Mossad agent, relentlessly peels off the layers of factual inconsistencies being thrust at him by Eileen (Elizabeth Knowelden), a plain-Jane barmaid from Leeds, and Ali (Steven Schub), a charismatic but emotionally fragile young man, here an Arab Israeli. Director Marya Mazor elicits capable performances from the cast but cannot instill compelling substance into a work that has none.
   Set in mid-1990s London, the action moves forward in a series of alternating interrogations, punctuated by flashbacks into the relationship of Eileen and Ali, played out on Kaitlyn Pietras’s adaptable modular setting. From the outset, Dov has a single agenda: to uncover the Syrian agent who was the mastermind of the bombing plot. It quickly becomes evident that he is going to get the information he wants, which reduces the ill-fated couple to the level of irrelevant. The fact that Eileen and Ali have colorful—if not often viable—tales to tell is not enough to sustain the drama; the unseen but much talked about Syrian should be onstage.

Wasserman’s Dov projects a grandfatherly gentleness and good humor when dealing with his two charges, except for the few times he doles out quick but effective corporal punishment when he senses Ali’s prevarications are wasting his time. What’s missing is any sense of urgency or doubt that he will eventually get what he wants. Schubb presents an impressive portrait of a strutting peacock who at heart is a scared little boy who would rather commit the ultimate evil than confront his parents with the truth of how he has been living.
   Knowelden is memorable as this thoroughly mediocre small-town girl who glows with self-satisfaction and humor as she relates the tawdry flimflams that have punctuated her life, including the thievery that got her out of Leeds and her willingness to go to any lengths, including blackmail, to secure her upcoming nuptials.
   As a writer, Lichtblau proves she can create vivid characters and entertaining dialogue. She just needs to place them in a more tangibly realized stage work.

March 12, 2015
 
March 5–April 26. 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu 8pm, Sat 3pm, Sun 7pm. Running time 1 hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission. $17.50–34. (866) 506-1248.

www.RoadTheatre.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

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Mud Blue Sky
Road Theatre Company

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder


Adam Farabee, Carlyle King, and Whitney Dylan
Photo by John Lorenz

Aging beyond one’s comfort zone in any job is a bitch, but for 50-something veteran airline stewardess Beth (Carlyle King), the steady stream of dragging her bags into characterless C-grade hotel rooms and bending over to hand people pillows have taken their toll on her lower back. As she considers taking her company’s most recent insufficient retirement package before being unceremoniously laid off, only one thing besides a purse full of those cute little miniature inflight bottles of Jim Beam helps ease the pain. And in Illinois, where she is on layover in the “goiter of the city”—the screamingly unappealing suburban community surrounding O’Hare Airport—her most efficient panacea has not yet being legalized, even for medicinal purposes.
   Serendipitously, Beth met Jonathan (Adam Farabee) on a flight the year before. Whenever she’s in town, he stops by her hotel with a dimebag of weed to ease her pain, both physical and psychological. A little toke, and Beth is feeling far better, somewhat able to ignore the lack of luxuries offered in the kind of typical Comfort Inn-ish stopover where one must go to the front desk to get a clean pillow and the cable offers little more than pay-per-view porn—although, the remote control is so sticky with some unidentifiable goo that it’s best left on the floor where Beth flings it.

Traveling for a living always seems like a dream job for those who don’t have to nap in airports and deal with a plethora of screaming babies kicking seats and soiling diapers, but the daily grind these glorified flying waitresses endure are at the core of Marisa Wegrzyn’s dryly contemporary comedy Mud Blue Sky. Perhaps if Beth had not become so world-weary of her life, or had not almost outgrown the Led Zeppelin T-shirt she changes into from her work uniform, she might not have considered Jonathan an acceptable business associate—especially since her dealer isn’t the kind of role perfect for Bill Macy or William Defoe. Jonathan, you see, is still in high school.
   Beth does her best to get rid of her adrenaline-rushing cohort Sam (Whitney Dylan) before Jonathan shows up with his backpack filled with happy little packages. But her friend catches sight of him waiting in the parking lot outside Beth’s window, wearing sneakers with the tuxedo he rented for his prom. Sam thinks the kid is as cute as a puppy dog (“It’s like seeing a dog dressed in a Halloween costume,” she coos), until she returns to Beth’s room later and finds the teenybopper teen in a tux, hiding in the bathroom. Yet as shocked as she initially is to find Beth buying drugs from a kid the age of her own slacker son, Sam’s raging hormones take over, especially after Jonathan recounts his woebegone story of how his prom date dumped him to go off with her friends. A little tongue in his ear and he’s ready to party, soon off to Sam’s room to experience a new chapter of his education that goes way beyond coffee, tea, or, in this case, her.
   King is hilariously droll as Beth, tired of her rut and her aching back yet somewhat horrified by her own ability to possibly contribute to the corruption of the squeaky clean Jonathan. Dylan’s Sam is a great foil for King, fighting in her own way to keep as young and vital as her day-to-day life sucks the youth out of her. Both actors, however, suffer somewhat from the nowhere-to-go aspects of Wegrzyn’s script which, though witty as heck and brightly clever in its dialogue, still has the air of a TV episodic. This is something only exacerbated by the direction of Mary Lou Belli, who lets these two actors waver from their perfectly genuine delivery to moments of working just a bit too hard to land the laughs.
   As Jonathan, Farabee is a breath of fresh air, completely believable as the sadly overlooked teenager still reeling from the unexpected death of his mother. Never does he descend into sitcom styling, always spartan and effectively real in his simple choices. This is also true of the durable Amy Tolsky, who steals the show as Angie, the obviously discouraged visiting former stewardess who quit flying to take care of her ailing mother. Entering late in the story, Tolsky stays just long enough to tell a disturbing tale of how an incident with an elderly passenger she befriended seemed to lead her to leaving her job—something she seems to regret on many levels as she stagnates in the nearby bluecollar community of LaGrange.

There’s nothing terribly thought-provoking or cathartic or even memorable about the world Wegrzyn creates here, but, hey, it sure is funny, and the gifted troupers in this cast are mostly impressive, besides enduring Belli’s efficient but occasionally somnambulant direction. Beth’s identifiably discouraging but often hilarious lot in life, as she suffers through yet another musty nondescript hotel room in another musty nondescript city is definitely worth a quick layover.

April 18, 2015
 
April 10–May 30. 10747 Magnolia Blvd. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $17.50–34. (818) 761-8838.

www.RoadTheatre.org

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Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Andy Huntington Jones and Paige Faure
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Timeless fairytale magic is right here, right now, in Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. This production is musically exquisite, visually gorgeous, narratively entrancing, and fun.
   It seems to have turned for its source material to the Charles Perrault 17th-century Cendrillon. So the musical’s book writer, Douglas Carter Beane, has put back the second ball at the prince’s palace and taken away the wickedness of one of the two stepsisters.
   That’s all to the good of the storytelling and the music here. Two big dance parties means twice the chance to hear Richard Rodgers’s sweeping melodies and Oscar Hammerstein II’s evergreen lyrics. One confidingly sympathetic stepsister means one more chance for a romantic pairing in the story—this one with her own prince of a guy. Now, that prince (David Andino) is not much in the looks department, but he’s a community organizer and he really likes the nice stepsister, Gabrielle (Kaitlyn Davidson). And he’s not shy about helping a royal prince in need of political advice.

Yes, this is still Cinderella. Among the many magical aspects of this show are its storytelling surprises, introducing long-forgotten and brand-new elements. Even the real prince is a delightful surprise here. He’s self-aware, he wants to be doing something with his life besides slaying monsters, he’s willing to listen to advice, and he knows a good woman when he sees one.
   As portrayed by Andy Huntington Jones, he even sings and dances like a dream, while charmingly managing the book’s self-deprecating humor. Jones is perfectly paired with Paige Faure, who makes a generous, intelligent, and of course glowing Cinderella. Their chemistry is enchanting. Cinderella’s stepmother is of course still vile. But she is not detestable, because the hilarious Fran Drescher plays her—albeit apparently with a badly damaged voice. The prince, here an orphan, is likewise manipulated by a parent figure: his advisor Sebastian. As played by Branch Woodman, Sebastian snags so many of the good laughs that his comeuppance feels joyous rather than retributive.

Mark Brokaw directs with a clear, uniform vision, infusing the musical with a remarkable balance of earnestness and humor. His stars sing in classic musical theater style rather than in pop style. His ensemble performs with purpose and individual characterizations. He also has gathered designers whose combined artistry makes this one of the most visually exciting shows around. The ballroom dances are worthy of a dance company’s, including the unusual lifts of Josh Rhodes’s choreography, which is well-suited to the balletically trained dancers.
   Designed by Anna Louizos, the scenery flies fleetly into place. Yet it serves evocatively as a rocky glen, cottage garden, cottage interior, throne room, ballroom, and the obligatory palace staircase, which gets a literal day in the sun in the last scene. That daytime, crafted by lighting designer Kenneth Posner, could be the most gorgeous sunlight ever created for the stage.
   And yet, William Ivey Long’s costumes make the biggest splash here. Cinderella is in her fireplace-cleaning garb, singing “Impossible,” when her fairy godmother (Kecia Lewis) waves that famous magic wand. In an instant, onstage in full view of the audience, Cinderella’s brown rags become a filmy white ball gown, and her kerchiefed head becomes coiffed with tidy curls and a sparkly tiara.
   Lewis instantaneously gets a new outfit too, a vast purple affair, which gives her the chance to spout one of the show’s funniest lines. And then she and Faure switch the mood with a vocally wonderful, thoroughly inspiring, “It’s Possible.” Indeed, this show proves things are possible with intelligence, hard work, and open-mindedness.

Politics and romance make the third couple here, as much destined for “happily ever after” as the two other couples seem to be. With its melding of 1950s songs and 2013 wit, this addition to the American musical theater canon is sure to seem equally fresh in another 50 years.

March 23, 2015
 
March 18–April 26. 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown LA. Running time 2 and a half hours, including intermission. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. (No 6:30 p.m. performance April 26. Additional performance 2 p.m. Thursday, April 23.) $25–130. (213) 972-4400.

www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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