Not That Jewish
Jewish Women’s Theater
Reviewed by Bob Verini
Photo by Jan Burns
In Not That Jewish we encounter something distinctly unexpected: a first-person memoir by a former standup comic that actually feels like a real play. Even more of a surprise, it’s pegged to a particular demographic (i.e. Jewish women; note name of theater company) while possessing enormous crossover appeal. A fast-paced scrapbook, funny and heartwarming by turns, Monica Piper’s life story proves an unqualified delight in the Jewish Women’s Theater’s spacious yet intimate white-box space known as The Braid.
Piper’s broadest thesis is that identity is determined by the qualities of one’s heart, not by one’s success or failure at following the rituals and rules of whichever culture a person happens to be born into. In the course of her journey (with stops for standup comedy, a failed marriage, sitcom writing, adopting a son from a Christian single mom, and breast cancer), Piper discovers that the characteristics most needed for a soulful life—compassion, caring, respect, humor—are available to anyone who chooses to tap into them.
Oy vey! I reread that paragraph and think, gevalt, the reader is going to think Not That Jewish is some kind of sermon or self-help tract. Not at all: You don’t win writing Emmys, work on Roseanne Barr’s staff, or secure recognition as a Showtime Comedy All-Star if you’re a tub-thumping spiritual healer. Rest assured that Piper’s take on life (hers and everyone else’s) is infused with laughter, much of it of the belly variety. It’s just that she’s seen enough tsuris, and learned from it, that she can’t help passing along what she knows. And it all happens to be of the sympathetic, healing variety.
Quick glimpse: Oncologist sits her down to give her “good news, we found it early. And it’s small.” “How small?” “Um…it’s small.” “Is it small enough that I don’t have to do all those 10K runs?”
I cannot imagine anyone’s not enjoying being in Piper’s company for 90 minutes. And if there are any such, I wouldn’t want to know them.
May 11, 2015
9–May 31. The Braid, 2912 Colorado Ave. #102, Santa Monica. Thu &
Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7:30pm. Running time 90 minutes. $35. (310)
Mark Taper Forum
Reviewed by Bob Verini
Cynda Williams, Bryan Terrell Clark, and Kamal Angelo Bolden
Photo by Craig Schwartz
If you didn’t know, going in, that the director of Immediate Family had a background in TV sitcoms, you’d get the hint in the first 10 minutes. The opening dialogue is that forced, the bickering banter that aggressive, the pace that frantic. Some of it might’ve been opening night jitters, because the cast at the Mark Taper Forum settles down midway. But The Cosby Show veteran Phylicia Rashad did far better by A Raisin in the Sun, in her exquisite 2011 local revival for Ebony Rep, than by Paul Oakley Stovall’s well-intentioned, but lumpy and ideologically strained play.
It’s ostensibly a heartwarming ensemble piece in which the Bryants, a semi-estranged set of African-American siblings and friends, return to the old homestead in suburban Chicago to air old grievances on the eve of a family wedding. Yet Immediate Family quickly reveals its real agenda in focusing laser-like disapproval on Evy (Shanésia Davis), a domineering Type A homemaker of deep religious faith and deeper prejudice. Evy sets the house rules and stage manages the whole shebang, and in almost a textbook definition of situation comedy, each of the other characters seems to have been shaped primarily to provide a different means by which they may incur her wrath.
Jesse (Bryan Terrell Clark), the middle son and aspiring writer, was Evy’s soulmate throughout their youth, but he has disappointed her by not following a glorious career path, not living at home, and, as she sees it, choosing to be gay. Tony (Kamal Angelo Bolden), the baby of the family and the impending groom, razzes her constantly and harbors his own secret that will turn her pride into fury before long.
Nina (J. Nicole Brooks), Jesse’s outspokenly lesbian gal pal, can always be depended upon to get Evy’s goat, but not so much as Ronnie (Cynda Williams), revealed years before as the issue of their proud pastor father and his white mistress. (To make Ronnie even more annoying in Evy’s eyes, she’s a hard drinker and abstract painter who lives in Europe.) Finally, Jesse’s white boyfriend, Kristian (Mark Jude Sullivan), arrives to set the match to Stovall’s crudely arranged stack of powder kegs.
There are still more contrived clashes stuffed into 90 minutes, including Jesse and Kristian’s differing ideas on their own possible nuptials. But the real problem with Immediate Family isn’t its plot. At least there’s always something going on and holding one’s interest, and when attention turns to the family’s traditional card game “bid whist,” the action fairly crackles with excitement. (It’s no surprise to learn that the game was a favorite in the real-life Stovall home, so richly does he lay out its details and dynamics, and the cast grabs onto it as if it were Act Two’s dinner scene in August: Osage County.)
Nor is the author’s unfortunate treatment of Evy the biggest drawback—though it’s telling about Stovall as a playwright that while everyone (except saintly Kristian) gangs up on her unceasingly, she is not once permitted to score any points on any of them. Everything she does is bigoted, misguided, or vain, yet you have to give her some credit for her ability to withstand all the judgments from the pack of bullies she’s saddled with.
What’s most regrettable about Immediate Family is its insistence on wrapping all of its conflicts in a sentimental wash. There are serious issues at work here—issues of faith, sexuality, legacy, marriage, and personal honor—that are currently pulling families, and indeed an entire nation, apart. Yet virtually everything plaguing the battling Bryants comes to resolution, and in less than 48 hours to boot.
Life doesn’t work out its tensions quite so neatly. A play that ought to discomfit us, by virtue of its troubling subject matter, is content to reassure and flatter. That’s what sitcoms routinely do, but in a stageplay context it’s a missed opportunity and a shame.
May 5, 2015
3–June 7. 135 N. Grand Ave., LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm and 6:30pm.
Running time 95 minutes, no
intermission. $25–85. (213) 628-2772.
Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann
Afton Quast and Jeanette Dawson
Photo by Isaac James
Though the original production of Side Show on Broadway closed after only 91 performances in 1997, in subsequent years it has been revived and modified from its original form. The original book and lyrics were created by Bill Russell with music by Henry Krieger. As a dramatic project, it falls far from traditional musicals in topic and execution. In program notes, director T. J. Dawson writes, “It is a big risk but also holds the possibility of moving people in a way they didn’t expect.”
This musical tells the story of the real-life conjoined Hilton twins, Daisy (Afton Quast) and Violet (Jeanette Dawson). They began their careers in a freak show, entered vaudeville, and eventually starred in two Hollywood movies: Freaks and Chained for Life.
Here, they are initially befriended by two men—Terry Connor (Gregg Hammer) and Buddy Foster (Gary Brintz)—who later become romantically attached to the sisters. It is unclear at the outset whether the men’s ardor is financially driven, fueled by pity, or physically motivated.
Two dozen or so characters appear on bleachers, delivering the opening number, “Come Look at the Freaks.” The opening sets the stage for the appearance of various characters: the Bearded Lady (Matthew Ballestero), Geek (Dustin Ceithamer), Strong Man (Adam Dingeman), Fakir (Jonah Ho’okano), Sheik (Chris Holly), 1/2 Man 1/2 Woman (Tracy Lore), Reptile Man (Dino Nicandros), Three-Legged Man (Aaron Scheff), Dolly Dimples (Deonne Sones), Snake Girl (Momoko Sugai), Tattooed Human Pin Cushion (Emily King Brown), and 6th Exhibit (Tracy Rowe Mutz). Along with these oddities are Harem Girls (Kat Borrelli, April Jo Henry, Natalie Iskovich), Roustabouts (Bren Thor Johnson, Brandon Pohl, Justin Matthew Segura, Josh Wise) and Fortune Teller (Christanna Rowader). The ensemble actors are uniformly excellent and memorable, as they do double- and triple-duty as characters in the evolution of the lives of the sisters.
In a menacing performance, the Boss (Nathan Holland) shows the cruelty dealt to Violet and Daisy as they are literally kept circus captives and coerced into performing. His number “Crazy, Deaf and Blind,” in concert with the circus performers, is electrifying.
As Terry and Buddy aid the sisters in escape from servitude and move on to vaudeville, the girls are coached in singing and dancing, and their careers escalate. “Rare Songbirds on Display” highlights the glamour they achieve thanks to their mentors. Underpinning their performing lives is their desire to be normal and have the opportunity for love, marriage, and a life free from constant scrutiny. Their numbers “Like Everyone Else” and “Who Will Love Me As I Am?” are poignant reminders of their plight.
With lovely voices, Dawson and Quast acquit themselves well as the sisters. The inherent difficulty of moving as conjoined twins eludes them from time to time, and it is a distraction that could be solved with wardrobe adjustments, but having them appear separately in major scenes is an interesting choice. Hammer and Brintz are solid as the two men in their lives.
Jay Donnell delivers a notable performance as Jake, a gofer who has fallen in love with Violet. His rendering of “You Should Be Loved” is touching, and he is compelling as the lead of powerful production number ‘“The Devil You Know.”
Strong technical support adds to the excellent execution of this troubling and difficult play. A 20-piece orchestra (Los Angeles Musicians Collective) led by Allen Everman enhances the Broadway feel of the show (orchestrated by Harold Wheeler). Lighting by Jean-Yves Tessier is key to spotlighting characters as the story focuses on their dilemmas.
Costumes by Kate Bergh are superlative, especially for the circus characters and big production numbers throughout the show. Stephen Gifford’s set design is simple, with only bleachers at some points and more-elaborate backdrops as the story escalates. Choreography, by Leslie Stevens, is well-executed and varied. Julie Ferrin’s sound design is also well done in a theater that has some acoustic problems.
Not a perfect musical, it still provides an edgy, colorful look at a seldom viewed world.
25–May 10. 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Added
performance Sat, May 9 at 2pm.$20–70, plus $3 handling per ticket. (714)
589-2770, ext. 1.
Never Givin’ Up
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.
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.
28–May 3. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm.
Running time 2 hours. $25-30. (323)
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
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
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.
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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