Arts In LA
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Letters From a Nut
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Barry Marder
Photo courtesy Geffen Playhouse

Ted L. Nancy (not his real name) has written enough prank letters, and received enough replies, to fill several books. He, or an authorized agent, proudly proclaims that his books have even been translated into Japanese and Portuguese. High praise, indeed—or is that one of his comedy bits?
   Ted’s real name is Barry Marder, and Marder has funneled the correspondence into a variety of media including an animated web series, as well as an evening of live entertainment titled Letters From a Nut.
   At the Geffen, where it makes its debut, some of us in his audience might feel that our legs are being pulled out of their sockets. That feeling starts with the playbill. Credited with direction is Pierre Balloón, whose bio is clearly a gag. So, no director? Or no one willing to slap his or her name on it?
   The show credits a dramaturge, however. Considering the lack of a throughline, indeed any shape to the show, that’s equally perplexing.

The show begins as Ted introduces himself to the audience, rather awkwardly. Marder has written for Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, Bill Maher, David Letterman, and George Carlin. What Marder didn’t pick up from working with these legends is their ability to stand in front of a crowd and deliver material.
   Ted says his compulsion to prank via correspondence began when he read the fine print on a bag of Fritos and noticed an invitation to write to the company with any questions or comments.
   Among the letters he subsequently wrote are the ones he reads aloud here, addressed to corporations and a few political leaders. If you laughed at letters like these when you were in fifth grade, you’ll probably still laugh here. However, are we laughing at Ted’s audacity or at the failure of the recipients to recognize how ludicrous the missives are?
   There’s one to the then-president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, expressing admiration and asking him to become an officer in Ted’s Vacuum Club. It earned a reply and a signed photo.
   There’s another to Topps Baseball Card Company, offering a complete set of Mickey Mantle’s toenail clippings. The National Baseball Hall of Fame ultimately responded.
   What should the audience make of the customer service reps and the aides de camp who write back to Nancy? Should we pity their gullibility? Admire their politesse and restraint? Cut them considerable slack for corresponding in other than their native languages?
   Further to the leg-pulling, the production includes projections of the letters above the stage that don’t match the versions read aloud, made even more troubling because Ted keeps telling us these letters are “real.”

Joining Marder onstage, two performers add to the puzzlement, for different reasons.
   Beth Kennedy embodies the recipients of Ted’s letters. She does this behind a vast collection of wigs and moustaches, an even vaster skills set of accents and speech impediments, quirky stances and funny walks.
   But at this point in its development, the show is more about her astonishing talents than about the correspondence.
   The other presence onstage is Sam Kwasman, who appears as Pagliacci (the character from the opera). His task is to bring out a few props and roll his eyes in disgust. The kindest thing to be said here is that this bit doesn’t work.
   Give the show this: It includes a segment featuring retribution for letters that seek prize-winning submissions—along with an entry fee. That’s the kind of satisfaction theatergoers seek in a work like this, along with a few laughs.
   Meantime, for now, Letters From a Nut should be returned to sender for serious rethinking.

June 30, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

June 28–July 30. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 70 minutes. Tickets “start at $65, fees may apply,” rush tickets available. (310) 208-5454.

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The Good Doctor
Little Fish Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies  


Maire-Rose Pike, Sam Gasch, and Daniel Gallai
Photo by Mickey Elliott

Playwright Neil Simon is nothing if not charming and clever. He has also, in nearly all of his many plays, astutely observed the human condition. In The Good Doctor, a series of sketches, however, he aims more for amusement and less for elucidation.
   Of course, there’s no harm in sheer entertainment, and perhaps in these tense days it’s even more needed. At Little Fish Theatre in San Pedro, director James Rice balances the humor with the work’s Russian roots.
   Simon based the 11 pieces here (some productions include additional ones) on short stories and plays by Anton Chekhov, Russia’s great (some say greatest) playwright of the last century.   All the stories are introduced by, and sometimes include, The Writer (Daniel Gallai). He’s part Simon and part Chekhov, and he lets us in on his creative process and a bit of his life.
   In “The Sneeze,” hapless civil servant Ivan (Sam Gasch) treats himself and his wife (Maire-Rose Pike) to seats in the expensive section of a theater, where the pair is seated behind Ivan’s Respected Superior the General (Dan Adams) and the General’s wife (Amanda Karr). Ivan sneezes, loudly and wetly, on the neck of his boss, then spends much of the rest of their time at the theater apologizing clumsily.
   In “The Drowned Man,” The Writer is strolling dockside when The Tramp (Gasch) appears and offers to drown in front of him for a mere three rubles. In “The Governess,” the cruel mistress (Karr) surprises the weak-willed servant (Pike).

What did these five actors do at their auditions to win these roles? Did Gallai come with 16 bars of a ballad? Did he show off a bit of stage combat? Was Pike asked to prepare monologues from Chekhov’s The Three Sisters? Was director Rice looking for an actor with the looks of Dick Van Patten and the slapstick chops of Dick Van Dyke when Adams happened by?
   These skills are fully on display here. Gallai, along with Karr, sings a delicate song of ruefulness in “Too Late for Happiness,” in which the older folk ponder fresh romance. Playing a banker in “A Defenseless Creature,” Adams grins and grimaces and wields that even-older-than-Chekhov massive swathing around his gouty foot, while he’s about to be hornswoggled by a wily customer (Karr).
   The Writer also shows us tender scenes, including the one about his visit to a brothel when he was a lad (Gasch), frog-marched there by his father (Gallai). Another lovely scene shows the playwright auditioning a young woman (Pike) who’s his number one fan—and who can perform each of Chekhov’s Prozorov sisters from The Three Sisters exquisitely.

To quote The Writer, this evening is “charming, but a far cry from Tolstoy.” Though, as our lore tells us, laughter is the best medicine, and there are many healthful moments here.

June 19, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze.
 
June 16–July 15. 777 S. Centre St., San Pedro. Fri-Sat 8pm. Running time 2 hours and 20 minutes, including intermission. $27, $25 for seniors. (310) 512-6030.

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The Cake
Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Debra Jo Rupp and Carolyn Ratteray
Photo by Darrett Sanders

North Carolina bakery owner Della (Debra Jo Rupp) announces at Cake’s beginning that nothing is as gratifying as baking a perfect cake. It is the ultimate satisfaction. Frostings, fillings, she loves them all, and her enthusiasm for her craft has landed her a gig on one of those reality television bake-off shows. Her imagination can hardly fathom the honor it might be to win, and her warm and friendly manner might just add the magic element to make that happen.
   However, there’s always a cat among the pigeons, and into her shop comes Macy (Carolyn Ratteray), a politically active, rather smug and condescending young woman with notebook in hand who starts querying Della about her opinions on a multitude of topics, including the evils of sugar. As their conversation becomes more uncomfortable, it’s clear that Della isn’t going to win Macy over with her brand of small-town charm.
   Things look up, though, when Jen (Shannon Lucio), a young woman Della helped raise, arrives with the news that she is engaged to be married. Della’s initial joy quickly turns to distress when she learns that Macy is Jen’s intended. Her personal and religious values won’t let her celebrate by making the wedding cake.

Playwright Bekah Brunstetter’s simple story packs a punch, thanks to Rupp and Lucio’s sensitive portrayals of very human characters for whom there are no glib or easy solutions. No matter your personal or political persuasions, Brunstetter challenges ideology by looking at the conflict each character faces on a very personal and believable level. That she adds considerable humor helps mitigate the nature of a play that tackles an issue that is currently in the courts and has passionate people on both sides concerned about the resolution.
   Brunstetter’s Macy is the most problematic character in the play. As the spokesperson for a host of social ills, she is more contrived than the other characters and has a greater challenge to garner sympathy. Ratteray gives it her best, but her character shows mostly superficial growth from beginning to end. Rupp shines as the conflicted woman who has to confront this painful issue and others in her life that she has ignored. In a nuanced performance by Joe Hart, Della’s husband Tim has to face an issue of his own that adds texture to this story of personal and societal changes.
   Lucio, too, portrays the small-town girl whose desire for the wedding of her childhood dreams clashes with her partner’s idealistic Weltanschauung. Director Jennifer Chambers doesn’t overly sentimentalize Jen’s struggles, which gives more heft to the characterization. Chambers manages a studied yet sympathetic take on all sides of the issue, and though there is a pleasant resolution at the end of the play, it isn’t the kumbaya so often neatly wrapped up in pink ribbon.

Set designer Pete Hickok’s bakery makes a fine backdrop for the unfolding story, giving Rupp a counter to retreat behind when things heat up. Pablo Santiago produces inventive lighting in scenes where the spectral voice of George (Morrison Keddie), the MC of the baking show, interrupts the action to challenge Della with stentorian overtones. Jeff Gardner’s sound design is effectively dramatic.
   This is primarily a comedy with drama thrown in to give the treatment of gay marriage and conservatism a lighter touch than is often the case. There’s no doubt that Brunstetter has a point of view, liberal to be sure, but it isn’t hammered home, and there are some universal understandings that can be gleaned after peering into the lives of these perfectly normal people in conflict.

July 7, 2017
 
July 1–Aug 6. 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village. Free street and lot parking. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 4pm, Mon 8pm. $34, $20 on Mondays. (310) 307-3753.

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Other Desert Cities
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Rafael Goldstein and Melora Marshall
Photo by Miriam Geer

What happens in other people’s homes behind closed doors? That’s the stuff of so much Great American Theater. Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities will likely join the pantheon of those works, despite a few already dated references. But family dynamics, political clashes, addictions and depression will always be with us—and are exquisitely rendered for the stage here.
   And what happens when a family member wants to very publicly disclose very private family secrets? Here, daughter Brooke writes a memoir about her politically radical elder brother, a topic her parents have buried along with their son.
   Brooke’s parents, Polly and Lyman Wyeth, have settled into a comfortable retirement of early morning tennis games, quickly followed by nonstop unabashed alcohol consumption yet a cigarette habit they hide from each other. They have also settled into a Palm Springs lifestyle with their Reaganite circle of friends—including Nancy, whom Polly has modeled herself on.
   Now it’s Christmas, and the grown children are back in the fold. Brooke has come in from Sag Harbor for the first time in years, having been hospitalized for a “breakdown.” Her younger brother, Trip, is here on a holiday break from producing television schlock. Polly’s sister, Silda, is fresh from rehab.

Director Mary Jo DuPrey, to her artistic credit, tones down the comedy—though the script offers plenty at its start, as the Wyeths rib one another over politics and lifestyle. DuPrey instead heads straight for the souls of these characters, each of whom is utterly human.
   Her cast is stupendous, in their individual characterizations and working together as an ensemble to create a feeling of a family that knows itself and yet doesn’t.
   Mark Bramhall plays Lyman, a former movie star and now a stately but loving patriarch. Ellen Geer plays Polly, a former Hollywood writer who hasn’t lost her quick wit but who has given up that life to take care of a family that might not want her care.
   Willow Geer takes on Brooke, who has been through life’s worst and survived but still fears her parents. Rafael Goldstein is the delightful Trip, always the baby of the family yet who wisely fends off a caregiving role.
   Melora Marshall, an actor who has made herself court jester in decades of Theatricum productions, at last plays it straight here in what may be her best performance yet. She gives a magnificent portrayal of the tenuously recovering alcoholic Silda, childlike and yet a former successful writer in the unwelcoming world of movies, holding fast to leftist ideals amid her right-wing hosts.
   Most notable among the design elements are costumes by Vicki Conrad. Lyman wears classics, Trip wears Hollywood comfy, Silda and Brooke wear loose-waisted clothing to accommodate the anti-depressant weight gain, and Polly gets a ladies-who-lunch kaftan that’s a gem.

This play tells a very specific story about this particular family. And yet the entire opening-night audience was noticeably gripped by it as the Wyeths’ long-kept secret was recounted. How many families have kept truths like these to themselves? How many have been torn apart by politics and war, in America and perhaps in those “other desert cities” halfway across the world?

July 10, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

July 8–Oct 1. 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Repertory schedule, but in general evenings at 7:30pm, matinees at 3:30pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. The theater is outdoors, cushions available for rent. $10–$38.50. (310) 455-3723.

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Heisenberg
Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker
Photo by Craig Schwartz

Playwright Simon Stephens puts two characters onstage, captures them in conversation, and leaves us knowing no more about themselves our ourselves than we knew at the start of this 80-minute work.
   In its run at Mark Taper Forum, it stars Denis Arndt as septuagenarian recluse Alex, and Mary-Louise Parker as eccentric middle-ager Georgie.
   It starts after Georgie has kissed Alex’s neck, unbidden, in a train station. She next appears in his butcher shop, claiming she isn’t stalking him but not there to buy meat.
   She’s unfiltered, which makes her interesting. She also seems to be a pathological liar, which makes her an unreliable recounter of any facts the audience may be trying to glean.
   He’s a long-shuttered man living an orderly life. Her presence in his life shakes him. Or is he dreaming all of this?
   He’s Irish, she’s (probably) American, the play takes place mostly in London. Dropping names of London locales sounds incongruous in their accents. How much is this meant to shake the audience?

This production played Broadway, earning Arndt a Tony nomination. Arndt is wonderful here. His characterization is realistic and clear, and he doesn’t dare push for laughs.
   But director Mark Brokaw, who did such good work on Cinderella, has let Parker wander into distracting character choices. First and most problematic among these is her voice. It’s flat here, and she seems to have chosen a speech impediment that drops consonants.
   Brokaw, having set the action in the round, even in the vast Taper, then lets her shout her lines. That doesn’t help her audibility.
   Then, she has turned her body into the letter S, as she slouches, chest caved and pelvis pushed forward, like a cranky child. Yes, the character refers to herself as unappealing, but the distraction of her physicality makes Parker’s acting unappealing.
   Designer Mark Wendland would undoubtedly say that a black stage with two black chairs and two tables indeed constitutes scenic design, but even with those four pieces of furniture, we wonder how many of them are necessary.

If you’re so inclined, feel free to try to place the work in the context of Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, loosely describable as the difficulty of “knowing” and “observing.” That’s one way of describing the frustration of piecing together Stephens’s work.

July 10, 2017
 
July 6–Aug. 6. 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 80 minutes, including intermission. $25–99. (213) 972-4400.

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Animal Farm
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum,

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Lea Madda, Holly Hawk, Thad Geer, and Jacquelin Schofield
Photo by Liam Flanders

While Big Brother watches over Broadway as George Orwell’s 1984 plays there through this summer, our own Topanga Canyon is putting the neigh in neighbors with Orwell’s Animal Farm. The legendary author’s decades-old writing remains horrifyingly pertinent.
   Orwell’s 1945 novel about tyranny and corruption, adapted for the stage in 1984 by British director Peter Hall, still shines through, despite being told in a mildly musical theater form with lyrics by Adrian Mitchell and music by Richard Peaslee.
   It follows the politically satiric novel most Americans read in school days gone by, and perhaps still do, in which Orwell posits a farm that symbolizes a nation, likely pre-revolutionary Russia, the various animals standing in for groups and classes of humans.
   Though, if the audience on the evening reviewed is any indication, too many readers have forgotten the climactic point in the fable at which the animals’ set of ethics is changed by leaders whose absolute power corrupts absolutely.

On Mr. Jones’s farm, the animals that have served humans so faithfully rebel, at first under the righteous principles set forth by the aged boar Old Major (Thad Geer) after Mr. Jones (Steve Fisher) falls victim to alcohol.
   The pigs take charge, led by a troika. And we know how well it goes when three people in political power share leadership “equally.” Here, we have the idealist Snowball (Christopher Yarrow), the power-hungry Napoleon (Mark Lewis) and Squealer (Melora Marshall), who serves as press secretary with an ever-ready set of alternative facts to feed the masses.
   Minimus (Holly Hawk), a pig and writer by trade, turns her talents to propaganda and national anthems, inspiring the sheep (Maya Brattkus, Bridgette Campbell, Jessica Gillette, and Matthew Pardue) to follow the leaders docilely.
   The horses show more independence. Mollie (Lea Madda) prefers capitalist comforts and her pretty possessions. Boxer (Max Lawrence) on the other hand, thoroughly buys into the propaganda. Clover (Katherine Griffith) seems to play by the rules but listens carefully.
   The hens (perpetually twitching Bethany Koulias, Jordann Zbylski, and Lauren Zbylski, with Cameron Rose as their rooster) demand a better future for their chicks. Few, however, heed the raven Moses (Clayton Cook), who speaks of a better afterlife.
   The wisest among the animals are of course the literate ones: skeptical old donkey Benjamin (Rodrick Jean-Charles) and collegial goat Muriel (Jackie Nicole).

Animals “disappear,” some in purges and some in trucks that back up onto the farm and ominously entice creatures onboard (one of the many clever, sardonic set and prop items from designer Ernest McDaniel).
   The story is framed by two young narrators, reading from the novel. Sierra Rose Friday and Shane McDermott do spot-on work, particularly Friday’s marvelously clear enunciation.
   Several other actors give beautifully crafted physical and vocal portrayals. Among them are Madda as the delightfully chipper prancing horse Mollie, Jacquelin Schofield as a girlishly excitable piglet, and Lawrence as the too devoted cart horse Boxer. They might not even need Vicki Conrad’s spectacular costuming to create their characters, though those costumes add to the visual marvels of seeing a show in this outdoor setting.
   Once again over the theater’s long history, this time headed by lighting designer Zach Moore, the tech crew conquers the challenge of lighting a show from daylight through sunset to darkness, the times and angles of which change daily throughout the theater’s season.
   Unfortunately, the weedy songs add nothing, except a few skilled musicians, to the proceedings. The songs have no emotional heft, add nothing narratively. Fortunately, the show zips along around them.

So the sum total impresses, under Ellen Geer’s picturesque yet purposeful direction. That Orwell’s tale still resonates powerfully is inspiring and dismaying. That the history of the venue permeates the production is likewise remarkable (Will Geer and his family built the space in the 1950s as a refuge for fellow McCarthy-Blacklisted artists). The venue is as sturdy a reminder as Orwell’s writings are that we usually recognize our clear and present dangers. Now, what to do about them?

June 26, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 
June 24–Oct 1. 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Repertory schedule, but in general evenings at 7:30pm, matinees at 3:30pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. The theater is outdoors, cushions available for rent. $10–$38.50. (310) 455-3723.

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The Pride
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Dany Margolies


Augustus Prew and Jessica Collins

Whether or not you’re struggling with the current political configuration, one thing is clear: Most homosexuals are more widely accepted today than in the 1950s. The secrecy and repression of previous centuries, the unhappy marriages for “show,” the lives lived less than truthfully are no longer a universal way of life—at least for now.
   Alexi Kaye Campbell makes this point beautifully in The Pride, his 2008 play currently at the Wallis in Beverly Hills. He’s aided here by the remarkably subtle, refined, and emotionally astute direction of Michael Arden and a flawless cast.
   Campbell unfolds two tales: one set in 1958 and the other in 2008, both in London. In 1958, married couple Philip (Neal Bledsoe) and Sylvia (Jessica Collins) have invited Oliver (Augustus Prew) to their home. Oliver is authoring the book Sylvia is illustrating. Philip and Oliver connect in a way Philip cannot tolerate in himself. Sylvia may or may not be attuned to what’s about to happen.
   Thanks to Arden’s scenic design of clear plastic furniture in timeless styles, as well as quick-change costuming by Danae Iris McQueen that separates and yet blends both periods, the scene morphs to 2008 and the home of a different Oliver (still Prew). Having recently been devastated by the departure of his boyfriend, a different Philip (Bledsoe), Oliver brings in a rent boy (Matthew Wilkas).

The play returns to Sylvia and Philip’s prim marriage, then to the wilder times of the new millennium. In his detailed though somewhat repetitive and padded script, Campbell lays bare the hearts of his characters. True love knows no gender, no sexuality, and all the aversion therapy in the world won’t change that, he reminds us. And though these days may be rough, they’re not as rough as they were in earlier times.
   Speaking of laying bare, the work includes a very graphic rape. With the audience seated in the round in the Wallis’s black-box space, there’s nowhere for the actors to hide, and nowhere for the audience’s eyes to escape to. Bravery abounds.
   The characterizations are clear, the characters’ intentions are clear. The play is staged intriguingly but naturally.
   Accents, some assumed and some native, are superb. Collins goes from Received Pronunciation to an Essex accent. Wilkas goes all over the map, and were the play not so serious and heartbreaking, he’d be the comedic highlight.
   But the way the actors have layered feelings onto the bones of their characters is staggering. Feet away from us, they’re real people with real struggles. Even Oliver’s ability to “hear” voices, from an oracle or from the ether, strikes us as the character’s skill and not symbolic.

“I want an easier life,” says 1950s Philip as he visits a starchy doctor (Wilkas). It’s what so many parents wish for their gay children. It’s what most people wish for themselves and the world. We’ll see if that happens in our lifetime.

June 19, 2017

Republished courtesy of Daily Breeze
 

The run has ended for this show.
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