Awake and Sing!
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
James Morosini and Marilyn Fox
Photo by Ron Sossi
When Awake and Sing! was produced in 1935, it was a transformative experience for theatergoers. Playwright Clifford Odets was an early member of the Group Theatre in New York, a lab for Stanislavski’s system of acting with a shared commitment among the collective for social change through theater. Among the most prominent members were Sanford Meisner, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, and Elia Kazan.
The youthful Odets wrote Waiting for Lefty, acclaimed for its call for progressive remedies for workers, including unionization. Its success led to Awake and Sing! in 1935, less fiery but still espousing reform for economic injustice in the aftermath of the Depression.
In Awake and Sing!, the modest Bronx apartment of the Jewish Berger family is the setting for the unfolding story of the sometimes contentious clan. Bessie (Marilyn Fox); her father, Jacob (Allan Miller); her ineffectual but optimistic husband, Myron (Robert Lesser); Bessie and Myron’s edgy grown daughter, Hennie (Melissa Paladino); and their 22-year-old son, Ralph (James Morosini), co-exist in the small but well-kept lodging (nicely articulated living space by Pete Hickok).
In the mix are Bessie’s affluent brother, Morty (Richard Fancy), and Moe Axelrod (David Agranov), a cynical family friend whose pugnacious and brash manner adds spice to the dialogue and underscores a simmering tension between Hennie and him. It has just been learned that Hennie is pregnant. To satisfy Bessie’s desires for respectability, she wields her considerable influence and forces Hennie to marry Sam (Gary Patent), a Russian man she doesn’t love who is courting her.
Odets chose an often utilized three-act format, and once the scene is set, the second act a year later contains the dolorous elements of the story. Ralph falls in love, but Bessie is contemptuous of the penniless orphan girl he has chosen. Jacob, in spite of being bullied by his daughter, encourages Ralph to break free and find a fulfilling life. He counsels, “Awake and sing, ye that dwell in the dust, and the earth shall cast out the dead.” For a brief time, Odets was a member of the Communist Party, and some of Jacob’s Marxist imprecations are left-leaning and express a strong social conscience.
Fox’s austere characterization reflects bitter disappointment in her marriage and a seeming disregard for the happiness of any of her family members. She seems a slightly darker character than Odets envisioned, and the only affection she shows is for her brother, but it is obvious in her manner that his wealth is the contributing factor. Fancy is spot-on as the self-satisfied and arrogant merchant, touting his superiority over the group and clashing with Jacob over political ideology. Miller is appealing as the gentle and frustrated idealist.
Odets envisioned the play with comedic touches, somewhat lost in this grim portrayal of dreams and romance lost. Agranov comes closest to capturing lighter moments as he snipes away at the family. Paladino delivers a despondent Hennie, but some of her spunk returns as she and Moe decide to abandon convention and leave to seek happiness.
The ensemble is well-cast and directed by Elina de Santos, reprising an earlier production she helmed 20 years ago at the Odyssey. Notable in this cast are Patent, who manages to wring all the anguish out of his hopeless marriage, and Morosini, whose youth is seemingly crushed by circumstance. He makes the transition from helplessness to optimism believable. Lesser makes a sympathetic foil for Fox’s harsh iron will. The ensemble creates a cohesive whole and delivers skilled characterizations.
Costumes by Kim DeShazo are effective, and Leigh Allen’s lighting design sets the appropriate mood. Sound designer Christopher Moscatiello achieves a 1930s flavor with Caruso recordings and radio broadcasts.
Odets’s choice to conclude the events with an illusory happy ending for all is probably less realistic than the exposition suggests, but it ties up all the ends satisfactorily for the audience. At least Ralph finds strength within himself and hope for the future.
A revival of Odets’s play seems fitting as some of the same uncertainties exist in today’s political and economic climate. The dialogue is certainly dated and solutions to their problems would be handled much differently today, but as a glimpse into America’s theatrical past, it is thought-provoking.
September 28, 2015
26–Nov. 29. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. Fri–Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm (Thu
8pm in Oct. and Nov.). $15–34. (310) 477-2055 ext. 2.
One Slight Hitch
Torrance Theatre Company
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Shirley Hatton, David McGee, and Makenzie Browning
Photo by Michelle Browning
Lewis Black is the standup comedian who delivers prodding rants punctuated by his crooked and wriggling index fingers. He’s rather genius, assuming one agrees with his views.
He has written handfuls of plays, too, and his One Slight Hitch is in production at Torrance Theatre Company through Oct. 11. “If my name weren’t on it, nobody would know that I wrote this play,” he is quoted as saying.
But not for the reasons he seems to be implying. He’s a bright man, he reportedly fell in love with theater at age 12, he holds an MFA from Yale School of Drama. One couldn’t prove any of this by his play.
It takes place in 1981 on the wedding day of Courtney Coleman (Kay Capasso). She’s scheduled to marry Harper, her straitlaced boyfriend of only a short while. But somehow she and her parents keep referring to Harper as Ryan.
We learn some of this, and more, from Courtney’s sister, P.B. (Makenzie Browning), who narrates via voiceover because she’s looking back on this day from the present and because her 16-year-old, onstage self is made oblivious by massive headphones that blast the hits of 1981. Courtney’s other sister, Melanie (Collette Rutherford), ought to be made oblivious by the massive amount of booze she drinks.
As Courtney’s family gets ready for the wedding, cracks appear in the nuptial joy. Driving the dramaturgical wedge into that joy is the unexpected arrival of Ryan (Johan Badh), Courtney’s recently dumped boyfriend.
Ryan wants to be the Jack Kerouac of the 1980s, including all that entails. He’s the antithesis of the steady Harper (Ryan Shapiro), who, once he’s clued in on the hitch, takes the lunacy with noble good nature.
It’s pretty standard farcical fare, as Ryan gets shoved out of the way into either the living-room closet or the puzzlingly right-off-the-living-room shower—this odd architecture a fault of the script, not of the direction.
But director Glenn Kelman’s casting may have contributed to one of the most troubling misfires here. David McGee and Shirley Hatton play Dr. and Mrs. Coleman, Courtney’s parents. Whatever the political leanings of these fine actors may be, onstage here they don’t look like the Reaganites of the script. In a play like this, the audience judges characters by their looks, and these two look like hippies. It doesn’t help that McGee’s Doc wanders around the house in an unbuttoned short-sleeved shirt, his undershirt on proud display.
Harper’s parents show up at the house, but Black keeps them out of sight, and McGee’s aptitude for comedy shines in Doc’s monologue delivered out the front door as he unhospitably struggles to prevent the travelers from entering or otherwise discovering the goings-on inside.
Rutherford, a highly skilled actor, must have wrestled mightily with her underwritten character, a nurse who cares deeply about healing, yet who drinks astonishing quantities of liquor after an all-nighter and on the morning of her sister’s wedding. Does Melanie love Courtney? Does she lust after Ryan or does she want Ryan to marry Courtney? Can Melanie walk into the backyard on this summer afternoon, wearing a satin full-length bridesmaid’s dress and all that big hair, and not be toppling over from inebriation?
Rutherford is also saddled with a nurse’s outfit that’s too short and too tight, apparently scripted thusly. But the highlight of Diana Mann’s costuming may be Ryan’s “Star Wars” boxers, which, for those who live in either hope or fear when Ryan emerges from the shower, wrapped in a towel, get revealed by the teasing Melanie.
Black hints early on about the play’s denouement. “Can I have a real life and still write?” Courtney muses. “Courtney will have the wedding that we never had,” her mother notes. In between, his dialogue takes ungainly turns to move the plot, but at least the plot suits the characters and their personal histories.
And at least here, Kelman and the cast approach this production with such commitment and conviviality that it’s hard to totally dislike the play. One other aspect draws our admiration. Mrs. Coleman has enough self-awareness to know why she wants this wedding so desperately: Her generation was shredded by war, and now wants to see her children’s oblivious generation come back to life.
September 14, 2015
Republished with kind permission of Daily Breeze
The Princes of Kings Road
Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA at Neutra Institute and Museum of Silverlake
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Ray Xifo and John Nielsen
In the first site-specific production from EST/LA, performed in Silverlake’s Neutra Institute Museum and Gallery—designed in 1950 by Richard Neutra along with his son Dion, who here co-produces—Tom Lazarus’s play, developed in EST/LA’s Playwright Unit workshop, offers a fascinating look at our metropolis’ greatest architect and the contentious relationship he shared with his onetime mentor, business partner, and later bitter adversary Rudolph Schindler.
After 23 years of personal and professional disaffection, estranged groundbreaking modernist designers Neutra and Schindler (Raymond Xifo and John Nielsen) find themselves suddenly forced back together again, serendipitously assigned to adjoining beds at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital. Although the details of their reunion are here only fictionalized, one might hope this is something like how it really went down, beginning with the former colleagues and family-like friends—Schindler sponsored Neutra to come to the United States from their native Austria, where they’d met as students at Vienna’s Technical College—shouting to their poor beleaguered duty nurse (Heather Robinson) that one of them has to immediately be moved to another room.
As the insults (“Sycophant!” screams Schindler; “Narcissist!” yells Neutra) slowly begin to die down, one major thing Lazarus has captured is the pair’s enormous respect for each other’s work and talent. The vitriol between them tames down as they start to reminisce about the days when they designed together, Schindler as the world-class futurist he was, Neutra as the genius engineer who could make his partner’s otherworldly plans functional. “We were bolder, simpler than anyone,” Schindler laments, “and architects today imitate our designs!”
With the inclusion of simple staging by Lazarus on a stationary set consisting mainly of two hospital beds, the never-before explored personal relationship shared by these two great men, whose cultural legacy changed not only the landscape of Southern California but influenced all of mid-century design across the globe, is a fascinating journey. Schindler had opened his famous Kings Road home to Neutra and his family when he arrived in LA in 1925 after working for two years in Chicago under Frank Lloyd Wright (whom Schindler refers to here as more a publicist than an architect). But Schindler is resentful over a major contract he believed his friend stole from him all those years before.
Still, as the men’s forced time together continues and as Schindler’s cancer makes him increasingly frail, their former love for each other resurfaces. As played by Xifo and Nielsen, these illustrious men’s individual virtuosity, as well as their flawed and fragile humanity, emerge. Xifo is especially impressive, able to effortlessly overcome Lazarus’s flowery and often overwritten speeches. Nielsen’s humorous take on Schindler’s former Bacchanalian lifestyle is a perfect foil for Neutra. Robinson also handles her rather underwritten role as the ping pong ball literally bouncing between the men’s fiercely played game but without much of a substantial character arc of her own.
The writing could be less theatrical and more real, but Lazarus’s play should have a life well beyond this first mounting, albeit with pruning of the characters’ sometimes stilted dialogue. It is also a tremendous treat to see it performed where it is, in this austerely angled, authentically Neutra-envisioned space featuring the designer’s original exposed strip neon lighting and signature louvered windows.
Driving home from the opening weekend matinee along the winding Silverlake reservoir, with its many Neutra houses looming along the east side of the boulevard reflecting the sunset in their majestic walls of windows (which Neutra tells us in the play was his intention), all directly facing Schindler’s magnificent sprawling flying saucer of a house peeking through the overgrown foliage at the tippy-top of the hill on the other shore of the lake, one might have a new respect for the accomplishments of two of Los Angeles’s most-enduring 20th-century visionaries.
“We were reinventing the world, Rudolph,” Neutra proclaims to his unlikely roommate. “We were re-creating our Vienna!” And, in the process, they were also reinventing Los Angeles and solidifying its position as one of the major design capitals of the world.
September 20, 2015
Sept. 12–Oct. 4. 2379 Glendale Blvd., Silverlake. See theater website for schedule, but in general Fri–Sun. $25. (323) 641-7747.
When Stars Align
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
Veryle Rupp and Jason Woods
Photo by Ed Krieger
When Stars Align is a novel by Carole Eglash-Kosoff, chronicling conflicts between advantaged whites and black slaves in the Civil War–era South. Now adapted into a play (by the author, with co-writer and director John Henry Davis) spanning many years, it blends history with the story of young black Thaddeus (Jason Woods) and the daughter of a plantation owner, Amy (Haley McHugh), who form a friendship in a time when to do so would be death to Thaddeus. Beyond these pivotal characters are the stories of the son of the house, Henry (Nick Ballard); his wife, Elizabeth (Sarah Lyddan); and Henry’s father, Jedidiah (Veryle Rupp).
Adding to the running narrative is the tragedy of the slaves and others integral to the changes occurring despite Southern opposition to the politics of the day and the abolition movement. But, from the archetypal mammy, Sarah (Tamiyka White), to assorted slaves who rail against mistreatment, the characters waver into caricature, and the story’s predictability is telegraphed from the play’s beginning. Having said that, the cast is uniformly well-directed and strives to create passionate portrayals.
The villain of the piece is Henry: a vitriolic, bigoted, and thoroughly reprehensible character in the hands of Eglash-Kosoff and Davis. Young Henry has raped a field slave, Rose (Allison Reeves), leading to Thaddeus’s birth. Much to Henry’s dismay, his father favors the boy, teaching him to read and employing him as a house slave. Henry’s dissolute character is further demonstrated by womanizing with prostitutes and a loveless marriage to Elizabeth, whom he chooses only to sire his children.
Through many events of war and retribution, the story highlights the actual Colfax massacre that took place in Louisiana in 1873. The play portrays the slaughter of many of the black characters who have finally found a semblance of freedom after the war. Historically interesting, it might have been more effective as a greater plot focus in this episodic production.
Ballard’s Henry is easy to hate, and he carries a lot of the show on his shoulders. Woods is also notable as the young naive boy who must cope with his personal history and ambitions. Lyddan plays a fragile Southern belle whose tragic fate is played out against her feelings of entitlement and white privilege.
McHugh is earnest as the rebellious daughter who loves unwisely, and Rupp portrays a complex father. White, too, is good, straddling her role as mediator.
JR Bruce’s utilitarian set works well, establishing the plantation, cotton fields, a riverbank, and a battlefield. Leigh Allen’s lighting is mood appropriate, and Michael Mullen’s costumes lend verisimilitude to the period.
Adapting a play from a novel is tricky, especially one that traverses time and place. Eglash-Kosoff has attempted to include much of her novel’s plot. Some of the dramatic effect is lost in taking on too many events, and multiple characterizations get lost in the telling. Fiddle and guitar music at the beginning and post-intermission are mood-setting, but they slow the momentum of the story. Kudos to the cast, though, for heartfelt performances.
September 6, 2015
Sept. 5–Oct. 4. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. Fri–Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm (also Thu 8pm Sept. 24 and Oct. 1). $25-30. (323) 960-7738.
DOMA Theatre Company at MET Theatre
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
Jess Ford and Andrew Diego
Photo by Michael Lamont
Fifteen years ago, when superpower band Green Day decided to produce a rock opera paying homage to The Who, frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, who is credited for writing 98 percent of the Green Day’s most celebrated music, created the dynamically screwed up anti-hero Jesus of Suburbia. When the effort catapulted into the band’s 2004 album American Idiot, it was a worldwide success and won the Grammy for Best Rock Album in 2005.
In 2009, Armstrong collaborated with Green Day fan and Broadway director Michael Mayer (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Tony winner for Spring Awakening) to turn the band’s Tommy-like concept into a stage musical. First mounted at Berkeley Rep, the theatrical version of American Idiot went on to New York, rocking out the venerable St. James Theatre for more than a year.
LA’s decade-old DOMA Theatre Company, which has been turning out some surprisingly massive and well-appointed productions for almost a decade, is a perfect match for Green Day’s loud and irreverent musical, which follows Johnny (Jess Ford), the Jesus of this show’s particular suburbia, who, with his two buddies Will (Wesley Moran) and Tunny (Chris Kerrigan), dreams in song of leaving the restrictive environment in which they grew up, ready to rebel by singing and rocking their way into the big city.
Things don’t work out so well for Will, whose wife leaves him with their infant son because he never seems to get off his couch, rise from his smoky haze, and put down his ever-present bong. Tunny, too, ends up in an unexpected state, whisked into the army and returning from one of America’s horrifying desert wars in a wheelchair.
Still, we follow Johnny the most closely, as his initiation into disenchanted youthful urban existence brings him into contact with Whatshername (Renee Cohen), who introduces him to her politically active and rebellious lifestyle, and St. Jimmy (Andrew Diego), who gets him high on a series of increasingly more debilitating street drugs.
After the perils of our disintegrating society and the bitterness of life in the real world nearly kill all three heroes, each returns to his hometown. Although it would be more satisfying if the guys discovered how to conquer their demons rather than retreat back to the place that shaped them, hopefully along the way their eyes have been opened to things none of them would have understood without their bellyflop into contemporary chaos.
But that’s fodder for American Idiot II, which in a perfect world should include a palpable sense of the era just past the one when the original album was released, a time when our country’s young’uns were forced to come of age through 9/11, as well as during the Iraqi War and conflicts in Afghanistan and across the globe.
Director Marco Gomez and his design team, especially Michael Mullen, who presumably on a shoestring created some the flashiest, most whimsical and creative costuming seen on any LA stage this year, join to lift this production way beyond the usual limitations of typical 99-Seat theater productions of large-scale musicals.
Musical director Chris Raymond and his excellent band add immensely to the mix, as do the generally balls-out performances by the principal players. One small criticism: Although the denizens of American Idiot are all purdy much continuously in pain, it would be a better character choice if every song and every spoken line were not delivered with a tortured expression and the appearance of emanating from a dying beast.
Especially when assaying Angela Todaro’s energetic and highly athletic choreography, the wildly fearless and spirited chorus of 17 knockout young triple-threats collectively liquefy together, wondrously becoming like one more principal character in the story, reminiscent of the townspeople in Evita who also often moved across the stage as one communal mass of humanity.
Of the talented ranks, it would be remiss not to mention the Joplin-esque vocal calisthenics of Sandra Diana Cantu, as well as the überanimated, appropriately over-bleached Kevin Corsini, one of the tallest ensemble members whose unruly crown of straw glows brightly under Jean-Yves Tessier’s exquisitely atmospheric lighting.
Green Day’s most popular tunes re-created in the musical—including “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” which became a message against governmental avarice and ineptitude after the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the title song and “Holiday,” both part of the Green Day’s in-your-face score and Armstrong’s literate and often depressing book and lyrics—clearly express an entire generation’s dissent over the actions initiated by our government in our own country and across the globe.
Underlying the musical’s sometimes simplistic plotline is a conscious message shouting out against corporate greed and unnecessary war, something that overpowers any minor clumsiness. Add in a cast this charismatic and such knockout production values, and this is a miraculous mounting of the musical not to be overlooked.
June 11, 2015
Oct. 2–18. 1089 N. Oxford Ave., LA. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm (dark July 4).
General admission $30; VIP admission (includes reserved seating and a
complimentary snack and beverage), $34.99; seniors and students with ID
$20. (323) 802-9181.
Reviewed by Dany Margolies
Amanda Blake Davis and Robyn Norris
Sometimes theater is about humankind’s greatest achievers. Sometimes it’s about supremely tragic figures. And sometimes, as with this show, it’s about the rest of us.
A group of Second City’s fine performers went off piste and conducted a social experiment. After Robyn’s (Robyn Norris) friend posted a profile on a dating site and asked Robyn to check it over, Robyn set up an account to access the site. Robyn created the outlandish profile of an admittedly “crazy-insane person” she named TracyLovesCats. A shockingly large number of men—and women—responded, begging for various forms of contact with “Tracy.”
Norris’s fellow troupe members Chris Alvarado, Rob Belushi, Amanda Blake Davis, Kate Duffy, and Bob Ladewig joined in, posting outrageous profiles no one could possibly think were anything other than a joke. These performers’ “sketch” show, Undateable, re-enacts verbatim the heartfelt responses by real, everyday people to these perverse personals.
So, even though Rob (Belushi) pushed the intimacy-phobic envelope with DoorSlamEric, women think Eric is dateable. And although PioneerInABox (Kate Duffy) gets busted (she claims to function as if in the 1860s, yet she’s online), she manages to lure interest. Even Amanda’s (Blake Davis) age-questionable Old4U75 appeals to a prospective beau.
The show, a fascinating concept, is well-structured and is imaginatively directed by Frank Caeti. It is also, of course, hilarious, though a strong strain of sympathy runs through it. And even though the show has been running for months, the performers have fresh energy. These performers are more interested in telling their story than in “being funny,” so the laughs come from the audience’s self-recognition and not from any obnoxious stage-hogging shenanigans.
The troupe sings and dances—and not badly—to enhance several of their “scientific” points about romantic behavior. A few minutes of improv at the end of the show reflect the performers’ well-honed chops.
Locational cautions: The venue is in Hollywood where street parking has a two-hour limit, metered until midnight on Fridays. The show is a mere one hour, but it undoubtedly will start a few minutes late. In addition, the theater is upstairs, and the site has no elevator. But if you’re swift and spry, head on up there for a dose of reality. It will probably provide you with more than several hearty belly laughs. It might also make you weep for mankind.
August 19, 2013
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