Arts In LA
Theater Reviews
 
Cabaret
Celebration Theatre

Reviewed by Harker Jones


Christopher Maikish and Talisa Friedman
Photo by Matthew Brian Denman

Based on the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten (itself based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel The Berlin Stories/Goodbye to Berlin), Cabaret is a legendary musical: both the eight-time Tony-winning 1966 Broadway production and the eight-time Oscar-winning 1972 film adaptation.
   Those are big shoes to fill. But the Celebration Theatre in Hollywood is ace at taking huge, splashy shows and doing them justice in the tiniest of spaces — case in point, the recent production of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. And this theater does it again with Cabaret.
   Taking place in 1931 as the Nazis are beginning to take over Berlin on the eve of World War II, the show is set in and around the seedy, sexy, sleazy Kit Kat Klub, a nightclub where just about any desire is fulfilled, no matter one’s sexuality.
   Here we meet the mesmerizing Emcee (Alex Nee), who’s the Puck of the club, mischievous, canny, and artful, moving the characters along their trajectories and acting as a sort of Greek chorus; and the impetuous and flighty Sally Bowles (Talisa Friedman), a British ex-pat and the star of the club, who has lost her way even if she isn’t willing to accept it yet. They and the rest of the club’s denizens party their days and nights away, burying their heads in the sand to avoid the oncoming political events for as long as they can before they’re eventually swept along by the winds of change.

Director Michael Matthews gets energetic and layered performances from his cast. Nee, in particular, is outstanding as the Emcee. He is magnetic and has an effortless carnality. He channels a darkness that’s both titillating and terrifying. He’s reminiscent of John Cameron Mitchell circa Hedwig and the Angry Inch. He owns every scene he is in and is a worthy successor to Joel Grey and Alan Cumming who originated and made this role his own, respectively, and both of whom won Tonys for their efforts.
   Friedman is a hoot as Sally, though she may be playing her just a little more talented than she’s supposed to be. June Carryl as Fraulein Schneider, a landlady who falls in love with a Jewish fruit vendor, brings down the house with every number (her “So What” solo stops the show). She has an earthiness and warmth that grounds her while decadence swirls around her.
   Choreographer Janet Roston gets a stunning amount of action on such a small stage. The energy never flags as the ensemble uses every inch available to them. The scenic design by Stephen Gifford brings to life the Kit Kat Klub in all its opulence and also has it stand in for the foyer of a boarding house, a train, and a bedroom, among other things. Michael Mullen’s costumes evoke all the gaudy grandeur of the time, and the house band is a fantastic ensemble.

Sadly, the main thrust of the narrative—the last heady days before war—is still relevant in today’s America. It’s all happening again, which gives a chilling veneer to the usually bittersweet proceedings. That said, it’s still a fantastic way to go out, loving and singing and living.
July 3, 2018
    
May 25–Aug, 5. 6760 Lexington Ave., LA. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $40–60. (323) 957-1884.


 

 
Clybourne Park
Laguna Playhouse

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Bryan Porter, Jay Donnell, Heather Ayers, and Jennifer Shelton
Photo by Ed Krieger

Though it’s not necessary to be familiar with Lorraine Hansberry’s seminal A Raisin in the Sun, it provides a subliminal backdrop for Bruce Norris’s sharply satiric view of the machinations surrounding a house in a segregated neighborhood in the 1950s that allows for the examination of racism in America. Hansberry’s profoundly hopeful story chronicles the tale of the Younger family who have just received a life insurance check after the death of the family patriarch. Their decision to leave their apartment in the South Side of Chicago and move into Clybourne Park, an entirely white neighborhood, hints of possibilities, even though a neighborhood association has offered the Youngers a sizable amount of money to stay away.
   At the play’s opening, Norris takes us into that house, where Russ (JD Cullum) and Bev (Heather Ayers) are packing after the sale for their move to a new home to be closer to Russ’s new job. Their son has committed suicide there, and the memories are too much to bear. A frenzied Karl Lindner (Christian Pedersen), the one character common to both plays, has arrived to try to persuade Russ to negate the sale, because common wisdom of the time was that if African-Americans moved into a neighborhood, property values would diminish and might even precipitate white flight. Russ refuses.
   Karl is accompanied by his very pregnant and deaf wife, Betsy (Jennifer Cannon). Her inclusion allows for some bewildering and funny exchanges. Also on hand are Francine (Jennifer Shelton), the family maid; her husband, Albert (Jay Donnell), who has come to pick her up; and Jim (Bryan Porter), a well-meaning but largely clueless pastor who offers platitudes in place of wisdom. The dynamic among the group allows for varying viewpoints on the subject of race, which are almost eerily timely in this political year.

Act 2 is set in the same house 50 years later. Lindsey and Steve (Cannon and Pederson) have bought the house in what is now a largely troubled black neighborhood and plan to tear it down and rebuild. Lena and Tom (Shelton and Donnell), residents of the Park, are less than thrilled about the specter of gentrification and the loss of the history it destroys. In Act 2, political correctness is thrown to the wind, and the characters engage in often hilarious but unnerving verbal sparring that lays bare prejudice in its many forms.
   It is easy to see why this well-crafted play won so many awards, including the Tony, Pulitzer, and Olivier. It is sharp, funny, and clever, and it explores a plethora of issues surrounding prejudice. That 2018 has brought so many changes to our national debate about equity and fairness, it is a stimulating choice for Laguna to end its 97th season with.

The ensemble tackles the characterizations zealously, and Norris’s long, slow curve eases us into the diverging issues as we discover the anxieties and dilemmas facing this diverse group. Director Matt August handles both the wit and drama of the story with a fine touch, allowing each character to shine. Cullum is remarkable as the grieving father who has bottled up his torment, and Ayers skillfully delivers the slightly dim but well-meaning wife whose simplistic viewpoints make a nice foil for the ratcheting tension developing as the first act builds to a boiling point.
   Lindner is a pivotal character in both time periods. He is suitably smarmy as he tries to lead the Clybourne Neighborhood Improvement Association, and his outrageous attempts later in the play at blasting social norms are cringe-worthy.
   Shelton is a standout in both time periods, especially as she tackles Lindner’s moronic protestations of modern racial sophistication. Donnell and Porter are excellent in understated roles that allow them to be observers and wry participants when called for.

D Martyn Bookwalter’s dual sets in both time periods add to the mood of the story. His graffiti-charged contemporary house helps show passage of time. Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes and Chris Rynne’s lighting also are effective.
   This is a play that is exhilarating in its execution and allows for post-play reflection. It functions as an exercise in how we perceive all hot-button issues of race and gender. The varying viewpoints delivered will keep this play relevant for a long time.
June 13, 2018
 
June 10–June 24. Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Tue-Wed 7:30pm, Thu 2pm & 7:30pm, Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 1pm (additional perf Sun, June 17, 5:30pm). $45–75. (949) 497-2787.


 

 
Belleville
Pasadena Playhouse

Reviewed by Harker Jones


Anna Camp and Thomas Sadoski
Photo courtesy Pasadena Playhouse

In Amy Herzog’s Belleville, two American ex-pats living in the titular Paris neighborhood slowly reveal their secrets and lies as their marriage dissolves over the course of 24 hours. Unfortunately, what is promised to be a breathless Hitchcockian thrill ride is more of a slow burn of diminishing returns.
   It’s just before Christmas, and Abby (Anna Camp) is determinedly, awkwardly upbeat, her cheerfulness clearly masking something darker. She wishes to be home with her family for the holidays, but she’s supportive of her husband, Zack (Thomas Sadoski), whose job with Doctors Without Borders has taken them to the French capital. Because of visa issues, they’re being forced to remain in the city.
   One afternoon, when Abby comes back to their flat to find Zack unexpectedly home early from work, tensions mount, their true monstrous natures are revealed, and things take dark and violent turns. All of which sounds like it would make for riveting drama, but with the show being touted as a thriller, there’s nothing particularly thrilling. The dialogue, which is fairly realistic, needs to be in service of a stronger story. There’s little narrative thrust, which is necessary even for a psychological, character-driven story. Despite the histrionics, the energy never hits like it should. Director Jenna Worsham can’t seem to get the pacing right to make it tight and effective. It becomes bleak and dour and is too long even at just one hour and 45 minutes.
   Abby and Zack are both unstable, unlikable people suffering from marital, financial, and emotional issues, but despite Herzog’s script starting off with relatable relationship strife, it ends up being an unbelievable series of character choices, revelations, and admissions. It wants to be raw and harrowing, when really it’s just tedious: two awful people being awful to each other, neither willing to take responsibility for their own selves, let alone their fractious marriage.

Sadoski and Camp are serviceable, but there’s nothing special about their performances. Sharon Pierre-Louis, as the couple’s suspicious and tenacious landlady, is compelling, especially considering she isn’t given much to do. She creates a fully realized character on whom you might wish the story had focused instead.
   The set of Abby and Zack’s flat is fantastic. Scenic designer David Meyer created an apartment that accommodates several rooms, stairs, a balcony, a hallway and windows overlooking a 3-D backdrop of Paris that is so on point, you can practically smell the Seine. Working in tandem with Meyer is lighting designer Zach Blane, who displays the incremental passage of time from late afternoon to dusk to twilight to night as we watch the drama unfold. It’s astonishing.
   The conclusion, which reads as tacked-on versus an organic part of the story, is just the landlord and landlady conversing in French, which zaps any power the actual conclusion might have had. Unless you’re fluent in French, it means nothing. It’s realistic, because why would the French speak English to each other, but it comes across as either pretentious or misguided, which, unfortunately, is the overall problem with this production.

May 7, 2018
 
April 18–May 13. 39 S Molino Ave, Pasadena. Tue–Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 105 minutes, no intermission. $49-$89. (626) 356-7529.

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You in Midair: Elegy for a Daughter
Hollywood Fringe Festival [show closed]

Reviewed by Harker Jones


Danna Schaeffer
Photo by Owen Carey

Rebecca Schaeffer was a 21-year-old rising star in the late ’80s. She had starred for two years on the sitcom My Sister Sam and had nabbed roles in Paul Bartel’s independent comedy Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills and Woody Allen’s nostalgic classic Radio Days (though her role was eventually edited out). She had graced the cover of Seventeen magazine, was a spokesperson for the Thursday’s Child charity, was dating up-and-coming writer-director Brad Silberling, and had garnered an audition for Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part III. Her career was so hot that she had two callbacks for Pretty Woman. She could have been Julia Roberts.
   Then, in 1989, as she was awaiting delivery of the Godfather III script at her apartment in West Hollywood, she was shot and killed on her front step by the mentally ill Robert John Bardo. It was soon revealed that Bardo had been stalking Schaeffer for up to three years. Her murder shook Hollywood and the public at large. It was such a game-changing event that her death spawned California’s first anti-stalking law.
   Her mother, playwright Danna Schaeffer, pays tribute to the life and death of her daughter in the one-woman show You in Midair, in which she starts her story by recounting charming anecdotes, like how she was jealous of a random extra when she visited Rebecca in Italy on the set of a TV-movie. Her memories are vivid and vividly brought to life—the happy ones and those that came in the aftermath of Rebecca’s murder.

How to process the death of a child? Especially one so senseless and unexpected? Rebecca’s acting career was blossoming, and she had aspirations to direct. Danna was writing a play. Husband and father Benson was going to have his textbook published in Spain. All systems were go.
   And then Bardo, who had also stalked pop singers Tiffany and Debbie Gibson, arrived in Los Angeles from Tucson, rending their lives into a Before and an After.
   With a sparse stage of just three chairs, a red rotary phone, and the issue of Seventeen magazine with Rebecca’s visage on the cover, Danna gives a vibrant performance with more heartfelt humor than one might expect considering the narrative revolves around a murder. But there is pathos in her levity. And there’s a steeliness in her maternal instincts. She’s a likable performer with a breezy style. She’s someone you’d like to know, which magnifies the tragedy that befalls her.
   Her grief and rage are visceral (her recollection of identifying “the body” with open eyes and protruding tongue due to intubation is harrowing), yet she eventually finds a sort of peace. With Bardo sentenced to life in prison thanks to soon-to-be-world-famous prosecutor Marcia Clark, not much more can be done. You disintegrate or you march on. Rebecca’s boyfriend at the time, Silberling, exorcised his own demons by writing and directing the Jake Gyllenhaal drama Moonlight Mile, a loose retelling of how he dealt with Schaeffer’s murder.

Sadly, Danna’s story is still timely. While Rebecca’s murder helped establish stalking laws, we’re still struggling with implementing laws keeping the mentally ill from legally purchasing firearms. Schaeffer’s death may have shocked Hollywood, but we still have a long way to go.
June 27, 2018
 
You in Midair was part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival. Running time 80 minutes, no intermission.

 
What Happened When
Echo Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Harker Jones


Ellen Neary and Chris Stack
Photo by Darrett Sanders

Daniel Talbott’s What Happened When is a claustrophobic, intense, and harrowing familial drama in the guise of a horror story. Set in a bedroom with red-paint (or blood-) spattered walls, three siblings huddle on a bed in an old farmhouse. Elder brother Will (Chris Stack) spins yarns about the fantastic life they’ll have in the hazy future, while sister Sam (Ellen Neary) lies essentially comatose at his feet and younger brother Jimi (Randall Clute) trains a flashlight on the walls and ceiling. What are they hiding from? What are they afraid of? Ghosts? Goblins? Ghouls?
   Turns out to be something far worse. And far more real.
   Beginning in 2009 and unspooling every three years until 2015, the siblings’ secrets and tragedies are revealed through Talbott’s natural and fluid script, with conversations of hopes and memories moving the story ahead with a sense of dread and doom hanging over every word. The dialogue is mostly oblique, so the audience is obligated to pay attention and piece the mystery together. There are no expository interchanges to act as guideposts as free-wheeling dreamer Will, sensible Sam, and sad, vulnerable Jimi see their dreams slip out of sight and find comfort in diverse ways, Will turning to alcohol and sex, Jimi disappearing inside himself, and Sam…well, you’ll see.

Director Chris Fields allows the stage to breathe and the actors to take their time with the dialogue, to sit with their emotions, while some directors would make the misstep of allowing them to spiral into melodrama. Stack gives a mesmerizing and powerful performance, naked in many ways. He commands attention with the slightest flicker across his brow. Clute’s Jimi carries the weight of his world, and he gives a very internal performance. He allows us to see the emotional and psychological scars without drawing attention to them. He’s the light and the emotional center of the story.
   The show is immersive in the sense that some of the seats are practically on the stage. That said, it’s such an intimate theater that, no matter where you sit, it feels like you’re interacting with the characters, which imbues an uncomfortable feeling of being complicit in their tragedies. It’s effective staging, especially for such a hushed and raw piece, and one with such mature material and adult themes.
   Scenic designer Amanda Knehans nails the feel of a rural farmhouse and the poor people who live there; sound designer John Zalewski keeps a background roar of sound constant throughout, adding a sense of existential unease, especially considering there is no score, just pop songs played through transitions to show the passage of time; and lighting designer Rose Malone casts the stage in stark angles and shadows with a reddish glow, creating a horror-movie sensation, all of which engender a wholly chilling experience of isolation and suspense.
   The show is short, but you’ll come out of it dazed from the emotional roller coaster ride its riveting ghost story of loss, dysfunction, and devastation takes you on.
  

April 19, 2018
 
April 12–26, July 25–Aug. 23, and Sept. 26–Oct. 18. 3269 Casitas Ave, LA. Tue-Thu 8pm. Running time 65 minutes, no intermission. $34.

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Three Days in the Country
Antaeus Theatre Company

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz


Jeanne Syquia and Nike Doukas
Geoffrey Wade Photography

Three Days in the Country, Patrick Marber’s adaptation of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, makes its West Coast premiere at Antaeus Theatre Company in Glendale. A comedy of sexual compulsion, the play should explode. The gunpowder has been poured, but due to miscasting of a vital character, the director forgot to light the fuse.
   At Natalya and Arkady’s estate, Natalya (Nike Doukas) lusts for her son’s tutor, Belyaev (Peter Mendoza). The boy has a busy dance card, since Natalya’s ward Vera (Jeanne Syquia) has fallen in love with the young teacher, and servant girl Katya (Lila Dupree) has already been carnally knowledgeable of Belyaev’s body parts. Visiting the estate is Rakitin (Leo Marks), the boyhood friend of Arkady (Antonio Jaramillo). Rakitin (Leo Marks) adores his friend but is desperately in love with Natalya. She treats this infatuation as a lark, one over which she taunts Rakitin mercilessly. Like a square dance, the participants switch partners and do-si-dos until everyone is winded and exasperated.
   Marber’s play fits with the author’s themes often found his works, like Closer and Notes on a Scandal, where lovers jump into affairs with no sense of abandon and no preparation for consequences. Like the mismatched combinations shuffled in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, these mortals act like damned fools.

Doukas plays Natalya like a cat in heat, hungry for a man to quench her fire. She runs on instinct, never thinking through her actions, while remaining cunning at the same time. Marks takes the foppish role, played in 1940s films by Clifton Webb or George Sanders, and infuses him with pathos. He allows himself to be a plaything to the house mistress, but when he bleeds, he blazes with fury. Either Syquia has all the funniest lines or she has taken straight dialogue and, with pitch perfect timing, shifted all her dialogue into hilarity. Whimsical and childlike, she ups the energy every time she skips on stage.
   As a duplicitous doctor, Armin Shimerman is delightfully shifty, trying to marry off Vera for his own gain, and yet earnest when attempting to woo piano teacher Lizaveta (the always wonderful Lily Knight). Sadly, it’s the object of desire that extinguishes the sexual thirst. Mendoza lacks a beguiling presence to act as a catalyst for so much pain and passion. As the husband terrified of losing his love, Jaramillo is also underwhelming. His performance never clarifies that he still loves Natalya, so his devastation lacks audience support.

Director Andrew Paul allows the stagecraft to paint a portrait of summer whims. Scenic designer Se Hyun Oh and costumer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg use a palette of muted colors, whites, and browns, while lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg adds lighted leaves to the bare trees painted on Oh’s sets. Schoenberg’s frilly dresses are haute couture.
   An enjoyable comedy about unadvisable love, Three Days in the Country is a well-crafted production. Doukas and Marks, who brought the production to Antaeus from its US premiere at the Kinetic Theatre Company in Pittsburgh, are exquisite. With a more bewitching Belyaev, the play could have matched their performances.

Note: Antaeus double-casts its productions. The Blunderers cast is reviewed here.
July 17, 2018

July 12–Aug 26. 110 E. Broadway,
Glendale. Thu-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $30-34. (818) 506-1983.


 

 
The 39 Steps
International City Theatre

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


Bo Foxworth, Ashley Morton, Eric Wentz, and Louis Lotorto
Photo by Tracey Roman

When it comes to suspense, Alfred Hitchcock is the acknowledged master. In 1935 he directed The 39 Steps, an adaptation of John Buchan’s popular British spy novel. The hero of the book is Richard Hannay, an ordinary man on the run from the authorities because he is a suspect in a murder. The film arguably marks the beginning of Hitchcock’s commercial successes, and its popularity led to his eventual migration to Hollywood.
   In 2005, comedic actor Patrick Barlow took a 1990s four-person version of the story by Nobby Dimon and Simon Corbie and adapted it, leading to countless award nominations, including the Tony. It is a masterful piece of derring-do with all the requisite mystery elements.
   The story begins when Hannay (Eric Wentz) goes to the theater to see a demonstration by a man called Mr. Memory. A woman who claims to be a spy convinces him to take her to his London flat. After telling him a tale of an upcoming assassination plot, she is murdered, and Hannay’s dilemma is how to prove his innocence. His flight from capture is convoluted, providing opportunities for Barlow to slip in scenes from other Hitchcock films like North by Northwest, Psycho, and Strangers on a Train. He even slips in a sighting of Mr. Hitchcock himself.

Louis Lotorto, Bo Foxworth, and Ashley Morton play the many characters Hannay encounters in his flight. Their rapid-fire switches from character to character, often onstage, are fascinating to watch and should delight even the most jaded audience member. Director Jamie Torcellini speeds the pace along, which leaves no time for an analysis of the absurdities piling up in the storyline. It is played for laughs, but it takes the story seriously, adding to the fun.
   Lotorto and Foxworth play off each other in often devastatingly funny cameos. They play lingerie salesmen, a sinister spymaster, a Scottish farmer, and assorted policemen, among others. They easily manage the British-style comedy so beautifully perfected by Monty Python and in Benny Hill sketches.
   From a seductively glamorous spy to an innocent bystander, Morton is a perfect foil for the shenanigans surrounding the events. Costumes by Kim DeShazo take her from femme fatale to Scottish housewife to the blonde heroine shackled to Hannay as the story progresses. Wentz makes the perfect handsome hero, managing humor and peril equally well.
   DeShazo also creates a series of clever costumes for the clowning Lotorto and Foxworth. By design, Fred Kinney’s set is bare bones, including a ladder, a few chairs, tables, and some moveable props like an empty picture frame. It is the combined skill of the actors and the collective audience willingness to believe what is happening onstage that makes the show a delight.

Summer is a perfect time for light comedy, and ICT delivers a delightful homage to Hitchcock and the mystery genre. It’s a familiar tale, but as played by the four actors, it becomes fresh and entertaining.
June 27, 2018
 
June 20–July 8. 330 E Seaside Way, Long Beach. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $35-$49. (562) 436-4610.


 

 
Hostage
Skylight Theatre

Reviewed by Harker Jones


Satiar Pourvasei, Zachary Grant, Tracie Lockwood, and Vaneh Assadourian
Photo by Ed Krieger

Playwright Michelle Kholos Brooks’s new familial-political drama fits in with many of Skylight Theatre productions. It’s political, it’s topical (no matter when it takes place), and it’s intimate. But unlike Skylight’s recent presentations Rotterdam and The Madres, Hostage never quite lands.
   Taking place in the spring of 1980, it’s a true story about a Wisconsin woman, Barbara Timm (Tracie Lockwood), and her current husband, Kenny (Jack Clinton), who visit her son, Kevin (Zachary Grant), who has been kidnapped and is being held hostage at the US embassy in Tehran by Iranian radicals. She’s a simple, salt-of-the-earth, devout Christian whose life is thrown onto the world stage and whose beliefs are expanded as she interacts with Tehran Mary (a soulful and matter-of-fact Vaneh Assadourian) and Ebrahim (Satiar Pourvasei), who are responsible for Kevin’s abduction. Barbara doesn’t anticipate the uproar when she returns to the States: People call her a traitor and a terrorist for visiting the Middle Eastern country, despite that she’s imploring the kidnappers to release her child.
   Brooks’s script is good at showing both sides of the conflict. Ebrahim and especially Tehran Mary are presented as fully fleshed, with legit reasons for trying to make a statement (though abducting someone is quite a statement—they refer to Kevin as a guest). Both sides are human (Tehran Mary even wants Ali MacGraw to play her in the movie version of their international drama), showing that there truly are no easy answers, but the dialogue is a little too on-the-nose to be as effective as it needs to be.

With only a brisk intermissionless 80-minute run time, it might have worked better to expand the script so that we get to know the characters more, perhaps their lives before this incident brings their lives to this intersection. We spend time with Barb back home as her life unravels; and Christopher Hoffman is very good as her ex-husband, Richie, who gives insight into her past and character. They quarrel because her mind has been opened by her trip to Iran and he, essentially having never left the county he was born in, can’t get his head around how she could possibly have an understanding of the abductors.
   Director Elina de Santos doesn’t create the tension necessary or elicit strong enough performances (an anomaly for Skylight) to give the show enough thrust. Lockwood’s Barb never hits the emotional punch to make her character grounded and complex. It’s a quiet show, with almost no score, which is admirable as some shows with a lesser director might rely on histrionics to create drama. But despite its good intentions, Hostage falls a little flat.

June 8, 2018
 
May 26–June 24. 1816-½ N. Vermont Ave., LA. Fri-Sat 8:30pm, Sun 2pm, Mon 8pm. Running time 80 minutes, no intermission. $15–$39.99. (213) 761-7061.

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Sell/Buy/Date
Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Harker Jones


Sarah Jones
Photo by Chris Whitaker

Sarah Jones is a fluid, smart and wickedly incisive performer. After tackling the complexity of immigrant lives outside Manhattan in Bridge and Tunnel, playing every character in a series of monologues (Meryl Streep even produced the Off-Broadway production), she’s now taking on sex: again playing a litany of roles in her self-penned Sell/Buy/Date.
   Staging her work as a college seminar with the audience as the students, Jones starts by playing posh British professor Dr. Serene Campbell, lecturing on the plight of sex workers in the 2010s from the vantage of some unspecified time in the future, prostitution having long been legalized. Having hooked her pupils up to B.E.R.T. (Bio-Empathetic Resonant Technology) modules, she explains they will be able to truly experience the thoughts and feelings of sex workers who were interviewed long ago about the quandaries of their lives. A framing device concerning Campbell’s personal life—including her mother, an impending promotion, and a secret she fears will derail her career—are a little jarring, but it gives depth and humanity to the professor, who otherwise might be just a one-dimensional mouthpiece for the other characters Jones spotlights.

And she spotlights many: a middle-aged Jewish-American homemaker; a Bay Area, Valley Girl–talking, feminist, sex work–studies major; a pimp-turned–motivational speaker named Cookie Chris; a Trinidadian prostitute who claims she’s Jamaican because it’s more marketable; a bro dude at his bachelor party who doesn’t understand his casual sexism; an Irish woman who was sent to a convent after an affair with an older man and who was forced to give up her baby when she was just a teenager.
   Jones’s extensive research and interviews with women from all walks of life who ended up in the sex-work industry have yielded characters—men and women, straight and gay, old and young, black, Asian, white—who are fleshed out, complex, and unique. Jones slips into each seamlessly (sometimes even as they interact with each other), her timing and energy and rhythm and posture and timbre and body language informing them with almost no props and the only costume change being a pair of glasses. It’s astonishing.
   The show and its themes of the commodification of sex and the exploitation of women would have always been timely—and certainly was when it premiered in 2016—but it is particularly and painfully so right now in the age of the #metoo and Time’s Up movements and the assault scandals rocking Hollywood and Washington. As it was prescient and provocative at the time, its trenchant observations about today’s politics and mores are almost painful now as it’s difficult to imagine that our sexual puritanism regarding women will ever lead to an eventual liberation.

Director Carolyn Cantor helps Jones breeze through an 85-minute running time, and with so few props and only one actor, the lighting design by Elizabeth Harper, sound design by Jonathan A. Burke, and original sound design and score by Bray Poor play integral roles in setting the stage. They hit all the right marks, creating a striking and sharp atmosphere of unease.
   Like in an episode of Black Mirror, by setting the show in the future, Jones helps us look back at our current troubled times with perspective. For a show with such dark themes—sex trafficking, prostitution, economic and gender disparity—Sell/Buy/Date isn’t as stark or horrifying as it might sound. Jones uses a spoonful-of-sugar approach: There’s a fair amount of levity, and each character brings an entirely new energy to the stage. Surprisingly, because it doesn’t get quite as dark as it might, the point is muted, but just a bit. Considering the horrors going on in the world, though, probing too painfully might have ended up as simply painful and not have the resonance that this production does.

April 4, 2018
 
Feb 27–April 15, 2018. 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 85 minutes, no intermission. $65-$85. (310) 208-2028.

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