Arts In LA
Dream Catcher
Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Elizabeth Frances and Brian Tichnell
Photo by Ed Krieger

On a desolate stretch of the Mojave Desert, a gung-ho and ambitious solar power engineer is meeting with the homegrown “res chick” he’s been bedding on a regular basis since meeting her in a local bar. Their lovemaking is as hot and steamy as the barren land beneath their feet, but their viewpoints could not be more divergent in Stephen Sachs’s high-intensity confrontation between progress and spirit, between technological advancement and respect for those who blazed the way before us.
   For Roy (Brian Tichnell), the project that brought him to the region—the building of a massive solar power plant that could solidify his career while potentially saving the planet—is at direct odds with the fervor of his resolutely passionate paramour Opal (Elizabeth Frances), who fiercely wants to preserve the final resting place of her indigenous ancestors. Without the creation of facilities such as this, Roy believes, we will all be doomed as the planet’s temperature is projected to rise seven degrees during our lifetime. Our planet has lived through five extinctions, he tells Opal, and this time he believes it’s our own fault entirely. “We are our own meteor.”
   Still, as uneasy as she was about his presence from the start, especially when she gets so sexually charged whenever she’s in Roy’s presence, her mission becomes clear when she discovers long buried fragments of ancient Native American remains in the sand below them, signaling to her that her “ancestors have reached up from their graves and handed me their bones.” She makes it the mission of her previously unremarkable journey through life to stop the multibillion-dollar plant before her tribe’s sacred land is desecrated and destroyed forever.

The prolific Sachs has written his most arresting play yet: a virtual theatrical rollercoaster ride performed in the round, the Fountain’s stage boldly reconfigured by designer Jeffrey McLaughlin, whose simple earthen set, accented by Luke Moyer’s harshly stark lighting, becomes like a third character in the drama. Under Cameron Watson’s kinetic and in-your-face direction, Tichnell and Frances hit the ground running, beginning the piece at a volatile place in the pair’s dangerously ill-timed relationship and not letting up on the conflict for a fraction of a millisecond.
   Whether the continuously combustible exchange between these two amazingly courageous actors is part of the playwright’s plan or whether the perpetual physical almost dance-like circling and continuously overlapping dialogue is part of Watson’s vision, the pair is a match made in theatrical heaven, made even more striking by the casting of Frances and Tichnell. There is an uncanny earthiness and fearlessness that dominates Frances’s work, her remarkably primal presence feeling as genuinely heartfelt and tenacious as her character’s obsessive need to halt Roy’s plans before they materialize any further. She crashes through the performance, leaving spectators a bit spent and genuinely concerned that there might be a disastrous conclusion to Opal’s journey. Although occasionally it seems as though Tichnell is working just a little too hard to compete with his co-star’s aggressively fiery and balls-out delivery, he still manages to hold his own—a task that could make lessor actors wither and recede.
   Still, it’s the collaboration of Sachs’s vibrant and evocative wordsmithery and his inspired director’s cinematic concept that makes Dream Catcher such a tremendous—if physically exhausting—experience. Watson demands something never before attempted so successfully on any stage: keeping his actors moving nonstop, like in one of those dizzying scenes in a Guy Ritchie movie where the cameras keep circling around 360 degrees as the performers fight or make love.

Whether Roy and Opal will suddenly pounce on each other and totally annihilate the opponent is always a nerve-wracking possibility, as is the thought that they will fall into a scorchingly unrestrained sex encounter, rolling in the dirt like coyotes in heat. It’s that anticipation of a clash, whether it be between technology and spirit or between man and woman, that leaves everyone involved, from performers to observers, so completely drained.

February 4, 2016
Jan. 30–Mar. 21. 5060 Fountain Ave. Secure, on-site parking, $5. Mon 8pm, Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm & 7pm. $15-34.95, Mondays are pay what you can. (323) 663-1525.


A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
Cabrillo Music Theatre at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz

Nick Santa Maria, Larry Raben, David Ruprecht, and Andrew Metzger
Photo by Ed Krieger

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum requires a strong lead actor for this delicate musical farce to work. Cabrillo Music Theatre’s rendition succeeds mostly due to Nick Santa Maria’s hilarious turn as Pseudolus, the conniving Roman slave always looking for an angle.
  The 1962 musical is a raucous send up of burlesque, operettas, and the Greek comedies of Aristophanes. Pseudolus cares for his master, the naive Hero (Tyler Miclean), son of dirty old man Senex (David Ruprecht) and harpy Domina (Elise Dewsberry). When Hero falls in love with a virgin courtesan, Philia (Claire Adams), Pseudolus finagles a deal with Hero to win his freedom. But Philia is promised to the mighty soldier Miles Gloriosus (Matt Merchant), and the warrior won’t leave town without his bride.
  Santa Maria spent the show’s first five minutes introducing himself to individual audience members. What seemed like a lark was churned for humor when he used each audience member as fodder throughout the evening. He would break character and ask Barbara in Seat A5 or Mickey in Seat A10 if they believed the falderal they were witnessing, or he’d blame audience members for his antics on the stage. Besides removing the fourth wall, it creates an intimacy and co-conspiracy with the audience. With all the gold Santa Maria spins, it is unnecessary for him to fall back on grimaces that Zero Mostel employed in the movie. Those faces take away from Santa Maria’s uniqueness in the role and become unfunny shtick.
   Larry Raben, who had played the sycophant slave for Reprise! theater company in 2010, has matured into the role and is a hysterical Hysterium. His timing in the reprise of “Lovely” endears the audience to his hapless predicament.
  Miclean and Adams are earnest as the young lovers, mocking the conventions of a Romberg operetta with his agape mouth and her dopey eyes. Ruprecht sing-speaks his way through “Everybody Ought to Have a Maid,” having issues with the higher notes, but his line deliveries are so impeccable that he brings delight to the role. Andrew Metzger plays the procurer Marcus Lycus too broadly, so his jokes are stale.

Larry Gelbart and Burt Shevelove’s libretto is a jamboree of pratfalls, double entendres, and Borscht Belt hilarity. But like a fine soufflé, one wrong move can bust everything. Lewis Wilkenfeld’s staging requires tightening of the timing. Too many jokes fall flat due to pacing. Wilkenfeld allows too many characters to mug, so they don’t earn the laugh. The opening number with Pseudolus and his three proteans starts the evening off leaden because the humorous bits are not sold well to the audience. The final chase through the streets drags the show to a halt.
  Santa Maria is the glue that keeps this production moving. He wouldn’t have to work so hard if all the other elements had come together. As it is, Forum is a showcase for a great talent, but it should be a riotous affair all around.

February 2, 2016
Jan. 29–Feb. 14. 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks. Thu 7:30pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $30–69. (800) 745-3000.


Long Beach Opera

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz

Todd Strange and Jamie Chamberlin
Photo by Keith Ian Polakoff

The concept framing Long Beach Opera’s Candide, of life as a first rehearsal, is apt. We’re given little stage direction and then blindly stumble through this world. So the title character—after discovering that life is tragic, cruel, and random—learns that the best one can do to survive is to find the simple joys in life. The execution of that concept by director David Schweizer gets lost in translation. However, an opera’s main focus is its sound. And even with a tiny cast of eight, Leonard Bernstein’s music sounds grand.
   Based on Voltaire’s 18th-century satirical novella, the operetta regales with the adventures of Candide, a innocent who is beaten, drowned, has lost his lady love to pillagers, yet remains insistent that this is the best of all possible worlds. His great love, Cunegonde, a royal lass who expected a cushy life full of riches, suffers indignity after indignity: rape, murder (though it doesn’t take), prostitution, and destitution. Only her love for Candide keeps her moving, along with her devotion to shiny jewels.
   Candide may be the most beloved flop in Broadway history. The original production, in 1956, lasted 73 performances, but the cast album lives on due to Bernstein’s glorious score. The sweeping melodies, the farcical elements of his comedy numbers, and the witty lyrics by Richard Wilbur (with additional tinkering over the decades by Stephen Sondheim, John Latouche, Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, and Bernstein) are entrancing. The overture, so wild and exciting, almost immediately became part of many an orchestra’s repertoires. Cunegonde’s aria “Glitter and Be Gay” is both a hilarious comedy number and a showcase for coloraturas because of its vast range and heady voice requirements. “Make Our Garden Grow” has become an anthem for self-reliance and hope.

The musical usually requires a cast of 50 to reach the score’s epic scope, but in this intimate space, the LBO cast, aided by a stirring orchestra, sounds splendid. Todd Strange as the title character captures Candide’s earnestness and unabashed optimism. Suzan Hanson is wickedly funny as the old lady with one buttock. As the naughty Paquette, Danielle Marcelle Bone is coquettish and yet guileless. In various roles, Roberto Perlas Gomez, Arnold Livingston Gels, and Zeffin Quinn Hollis build distinct and hilarious characterizations such as a valiant sidekick, a fey governor, and the stoned King of El Dorado. Robin Buck, though, as the Narrator and Candide’s philosopher friend Pangloss, brought out little of the laughs and had a thin voice. But, as the frivolous Cunegonde, Jamie Chamberlin’s “Glitter and Be Gay” is jaw-dropping. No matter what octave she’s in, she has the power of an ox. Her breath control is perfect, her comic timing sublime. She stops the show and keeps that energy going throughout the evening.
   Because director Schweizer chose such a fantastic cast and orchestra, under conductor Kristof Van Grysperre, it’s a shame his rehearsal format comes off as stale. First, the script—an amalgam of Hugh Wheeler’s book for the Hal Prince 1974 production and John Caird’s 1999 version, with some additional cutting—makes one wish they had dropped the book completely and just performed a concert version. The jokes seem more shticky and the characters less fleshed out than usual. The production uses shadow puppetry in the place of sets, but those images on the scrim appear chintzy instead of clever. The one time this effect works beautifully is for the haunting shadow of Cunegonde as the narrator describes her death. Chamberlin stands behind the light and the image on the curtain looks twisted and deformed.
   Most criminally, Schweizer has performers chit-chatting and noisily setting up chairs while the orchestra gallantly performs the overture. It feels irreverent and keeps the audience from hearing it at its best.
   For newcomers and enthusiasts of this classic operetta, this Candide showcases Bernstein’s supreme score. If only the direction had enhanced the attributes instead of inhibiting them.

January 25, 2016
Jan. 23 & Jan. 30, 2:30pm & 8pm. 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. $29–137.25.


Act 3
Laguna Playhouse

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

Rita Rudner and Charles  Shaughnessy
Photo by Ed Krieger

The U.S. premiering Act 3 is the story of a couple of a certain age who have been together for nearly 13 years without benefit of marriage. They have been married before, but not to each other. Things are getting monotonous and stale, so something needs to happen to liven up the action. That something is a correspondence by email between the principals. Playwrights David Ambrose and Claudia Nellens have chosen to eliminate names for the characters—calling them He and She—in an effort to make universal the age-old battle of the sexes. The dependable Charles Shaughnessy is the He of the story, and the She is comedian Rita Rudner.
   As is so often the case in theatrical comedies, the male is clueless. It seems that He thinks he is writing to a female fan of his work, and he becomes more and more intrigued with her adulation and glamorous repartee. We, the audience, know that She is playing a dual role as correspondent, which Rudner handles by adopting a Tallulah Bankhead, deep seductive voice as she writes. She is testing his loyalty to her and also trying to prove to him that she is his intellectual equal, a fact he doubts.
   Rudner, a frequent playhouse performer in plays and one-person shows, is a favorite, and she provides the role of naughty temptress and bickering partner with comfortable familiarity. Shaughnessy and Rudner have an easy rapport, and both are pros, making the very slight storyline as entertaining as possible. Unfortunately, the outcome is as predictable as the story itself.

The surprise of the opening night performance was the introduction of the playwrights sitting in the audience, who, as it turns out, based the play on events in their own lives, belying what appeared by the end of the second act to be an implausible series of events leading to that predictable ending.
   Director Martin Bergman, who is Rudner’s real-life husband, keeps the pace brisk and lighthearted. Jim Prodger’s scenic design is stylish and modern in keeping with the contemporary theme. Don Guy’s lighting also enhances the back-and-forth storyline. This show breaks no new ground, and the first act is slow. Things get better by Act 2, though, and the play has an upbeat ending that is an audience pleaser.

January 13, 2015
Jan. 9–Jan. 30. 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach. Wed–Fri 7:30, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 1pm (additional performances Thu Jan. 7, 21, & 28 at 2pm, and Sun Jan. 10 & 17 at 5:30pm). $48–61. (949) 497-2787.


Bullets Over Broadway
Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Bradley Allan Zarr and Jemma Jane
Photo by Matthew Murphy

There’s one valid reason to check out this musical adaptation of Woody Allen’s 1994 film comedy—and it’s 98 percent about the wondrous Susan Stroman. If you love the incredibly imaginative and energetic work of one of theater’s best choreographers, here she reigns in all her splendor. It’s almost worth sitting through the rest of this show.
   Let’s face it: Another tale about a blustery Manhattan crime boss financing a Broadway show to placate his incredibly dumb chorus-girl doxy, six months to the day since he first went to bed with her and she gave him a discount, is hardly a new concept, but you’d think someone as clever as Allen could make it fresh. Except for a few of his usual choice one-line zingers, he doesn’t—unless more-committed players, who don’t act as though they’ve been playing these roles eight times a week since the dinosaurs roamed 42nd Street, could make the difference.
   Of the leading roles, only two performances stand out: Jeff Brooks as the best all-singing, all-dancing 1920s gangster since Jimmy Cagney went searching for his Shanghai Lil, and Hannah Rose Del’Flumeri as the hapless hero’s steadfast hometown girl Ellen, whose spirited I’m-no-victim rendition of “I Found a New Baby” is the best nondancing showstopper of the evening.

The kind of broad, over-the-top humor that makes these Bullets fly is a hard thing to successfully assay. In the leading Woody-clone role of David Shayne, the neurotic and frustrated playwright who sells his soul to the Great White Way to get his manuscript mounted, Michael Williams definitely doesn’t get the humor, nor is his voice strong enough not to be overpowered by almost every one of his co-stars. Never does Jemma Jane as the Miss Adelaide-esque Olive rise beyond using a customary squeaky chippy voice to overcome her incredibly predictable material.
   Michael Corvino as her mobster mentor and Rick Grossman as the terminally eye-rolling Broadway producer trying to put the project together could almost call their performances in on videophone from their hotel rooms. Others—such as Bradley Allan Zarr as the resident outrageously effete leading man who eats his way into near-immobility by the time the show opens, Rachel Bahler in the typically thankless Martha Raye second-banana role, and Emma Stratton as the stereotypically overdramatic, oversexed, over-inebriated Broadway diva coerced to star in the venture—have moments, but not enough of them.

But then, there’s the ensemble. Inspired by Stroman’s unearthly success turning another funnyman’s classic movie into a huge Broadway musical (Mel Brooks’ far funnier and more clever The Producers), her direction and Tony-nominated choreography for Bullets, re-created for the national tour by Jeff Whiting and Clare Cook, respectively, couldn’t be better or more entertaining. Since Crazy for You in 1992, Stroman has accomplished amazing things in the realm of musical theater, particularly notable for her insistence on casting spirited, high-steppin’ performers who aren’t your standard cookie-cutter dancers to make up her ensemble. There are overweight and older mobsters tapping in a precision line here, as well as way-too-tall or otherwise uniquely unusual choices playing chorines, all dancing their little hearts out—and it’s a joy to see them kicking just as high as any uniformly perfect Rockette could ever manage.
   The score, culled by Glen Kelly from old standards and more-obscure songs from the Jazz Age many of us have never heard, is suitably clever, even audacious when the big finale turns out to be a confetti-spewing version of “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” Along the way, the production numbers rule and are greatly appreciated after watching the principals mug and double-take and labor so darn hard with so little to hang onto. The two grandest moments come from a hilariously suggestive “The Hot Dog Song” and the phenomenal Brooks leading an eclectic line of light-footed gangsters pitter-pattering away to “Tain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.”

Add in astonishingly flashy costuming by none other than William Ivey Long and some the finest production values and design aspects a Broadway blockbuster could possibly deliver, and one can almost overlook that between the sensational production numbers, there’s that surprisingly trite storyline and mostly uninspired performances in the principal roles. And oddly enough, that’s actually more than enough. If Bullets Over Broadway tends to miss its target, it’s okay because it’s still so gratifying when a musical’s often overlooked ensemble hits the ol’ proverbial bull’s-eye over and over again.

January 6, 2016
Jan. 5–Jan. 24. 6233 Hollywood Blvd. Tue-Thu 8pm, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission. $25-150. (800) 982-2787.


Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Torrance Theatre Company

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Jay Castle, Liliana Carrillo, and Rebecca Silberman
Photo by Alex Madrid

Three of the four names in the title of this Christopher Durang play sound familiar, right? The three are characters in classic Russian playwright Anton Chekhov’s plays. Spike? Not so much. But although this play may get nods and titters of recognition for its parallels to and references to Chekhov, it is far more than just a clever mash-up. By its end, at least in this production, the audience will care about these people and might even be inspired to rejigger our own lives.
   Here, Vanya, Sonia, and Masha are middle-aged siblings. Their story takes place at the family homestead in eastern Pennsylvania. Vanya (Jay Castle) and Sonia (Rebecca Silberman) have always lived here. Until recently, they had been caregivers for their age-ravaged parents. Masha (Jennifer Faneuff) is world-renowned actor, who left home but who has paid every family bill and then some. Now she returns to the house to drop a bomb. In need of constant adulation, she brings boy-toy Spike.
   Vanya seems to have accepted his role in life, though tucked away is a play he has written that voices his fears and frustrations. Sonia cannot accept her role, because, in her mind, every day takes her further away from a chance at a full life. The family is tended to by Cassandra. Don’t remember that name from Russian literature? The original Cassandra was memorialized in Greek mythology, blessed with a gift of prophecy but cursed to never be believed. This Cassandra (Liliana Carrillo) has the gift, but it’s a bit askew, and she can manipulate it.
   Outsiders who stir the status quo are Spike (Luke Barrow), eager to advance his career and to strip down to his tidy plaidies (more about Bradley Allen Lock’s excellent costuming later), and Nina, also a Chekhov character of course. This Nina (Carly Linehan) and the Russian one are the pretty, young, aspiring actors visiting from next door, nubile benchmarks that chafe the older women.

James Hormel stages the production gracefully and directs with a pleasing mix of sweetly comedic and wrenchingly poignant tones, never going for cheap laughs. On Cary Jordahl’s transportive set, with lighting by Streetlite that evokes Russian sunlight, the action spreads across the porchlike morning room and makes us believe we can see the orchard and lake (yes, Chekhov’s locales are here, too).
   Hormel seems to have found the child in all of the siblings, a characteristic that emerges often in real life when long-separated families reunite. In Silberman’s Sonia a touch of a tantrum lurks, waiting to be set off, though, by Act 2, events have given Sonia a minutely more vibrant carriage and slightly upturned chin. In Vanya, Castle swaths himself in a comforting brotherly aura. Faneuff, though fully exhibiting the glamour of Masha the star, finds the bruised heart of Masha the middle child, who had to make a role for herself in this family.
   Two monologues vent Vanya’s and Sonia’s thoughts and fears. Sonia’s happens as she takes a phone call, excellently executed by Silberman as Sonia’s, and our, heart cracks open. For Vanya, it comes in a release of long-repressed words as young Nina tries to read his play but modern life intrudes in the form of Spike’s obliviousness.
   Linehan’s Nina is indeed luminous, her youthful worship of and respect for the siblings never waning. Barrow’s Spike has his moments, particularly his “audition” scene, in which he creates without self-consciousness an actor totally into himself. Adding liveliness and a cheeky meta-theatricality, Carrillo’s Cassandra bursts in with prophecy that sounds like Euripides being delivered on a community theater stage.

Lock’s costuming includes a sequined gown for Sonia that leaves latitude for a comedic but apt visual joke. There’s also an appropriate amount of latitude in Spike’s briefs. And outfits for the neighbors’ costume party earn Lock sincere, spontaneous applause.
   On one level, this play is about family dynamics and how the healthy-at-their-core ones draw closer when threatened by toxic outsiders. Ultimately, though, it’s about escaping the roles others assign to us, the characters we cast ourselves as and then act out, without acknowledging our authentic selves. Chekhov would be smiling.

January 25, 2016
Jan. 17–Feb. 14. 1316 Cabrillo Ave, Torrance Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $25. (424) 242-6882.


Dirty Dancing
Pantages Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Christopher Tierney and Gillian Abbott
Photo by Matthew Murphy

In marketing this production, we’re told we’ll once again have the time of our lives; I, for one, would like my two-and-a-half hours back. Capitalizing on the lasting success of the classic 1987 movie of the same name is all this touring production is about, even evidenced by a life-size figure of the late Patrick Swayze placed in the lobby to get loyal fans in the mood even before the downbeat.
   And in the mood those diehard fans are. In all honesty, a great portion of Pantages opening-nighters appeared to be having the time of their lives reliving the moments from the original film obviously still indelible to them. There is a pervasive and bold reliance throughout the production on video projections, with scenes from the movie duplicated then combined with actors playing waiters and others endlessly tromping on stage and off, placing and removing trees, tables, and chairs, chairs, and more chairs.

Beginning with a panoramic vista of the Catskills in 1963, followed by the entrance to Kellerman’s resort, the visual nostalgia goes into high gear when Johnny Castle (Christopher Tierney) starts training Baby Houseman (Gillian Abbott) in the great outdoors, doing so behind a scrim with videos of a field of tall grass and the shimmering waters of the Hudson projected before them. Anyone who is not familiar with the movie would still have no trouble identifying these locations as directly copied from its predecessor, since members of the continuously swooning and gasping audience chockfull of fans laugh and cheer at first sight of each location as though recalling something that happened in their own personal past some 29 years ago, when the film debuted.
   There’s not much to praise in this production, which would probably be successful if one day it lands in one of the venues formerly hosting Menopause the Musical or Carrot Top in the lower-rent district of the Vegas Strip. The acting is uniformly unremarkable, while director James Powell’s staging meanders around the pivotal dance numbers as though someone was making it all up as he went along. The script—which makes brief and pandering references to the civil rights issues of the times going on elsewhere while these people concentrate on dance competitions, croquet lessons, and seemingly unprotected sex between the staff and the guests—duplicates scene after scene from the film without a lick of passion to help us care about these people or what’s happening to them.
   One would think, in a lavishly produced touring musical version of a story with Dancing as half of its title, the dancing—and the choreography, by Michele Lynch, re-creating the original inspiration of Kate Champion—would be far better. Even Tierney, as the Swayze-hunk housepainter making his seasonal living teaching dancing at the resort while reputedly bedding an impressive number of the womenfolk, appears more undirected than talentless. His movements overextend almost past the balance point, with arms suddenly thrust out so far they could clock anyone dancing around him who might one day get too close. There’s someone extremely capable in there somewhere, but without more guidance here, his performance is more grandstanding than graceful.

Perhaps the best work comes from Adrienne Walker and Doug Carpenter as the show’s resident singers, doing a dynamic job with some of the most enduring standards from the era, such as “This Magic Moment” and, of course, the show’s signature “(I’ve Had) the Time of My Life.” Oddly, throughout most of the production they are merely props, hanging out and singing their hearts out on either side of the stage as their fellow cast members dance—until very late in the game when a sketchy tacked-on love story between them is hinted at but never explored.
   The original film deserves a better stage treatment then this sketchy and sanitized tribute show; changing its name to Slightly Smudged Dancing would be far more accurate.

February 3, 2016
Feb. 2–Feb. 21. 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. Tue-Thu 8pm, Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time 2 hours and 35 minutes, including intermission. $29-150. (800) 982-2787.


The Eclectic Company Theatre

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Paul Messinger and Marbry Steward
Photo by Steve B. Green

For anyone ever enticed into attending a vacation-plan sales presentation with promises of some sort of “free” gift, playwright Steve B. Green’s occasionally humorous “dark comedy” on the subject may elicit either embarrassed chuckles or hangdog shame, depending on whether or not one wound up purchasing a membership. To those who have never experienced such a nerve-wracking, 90-minute hard sell, this play is, more often than not, right on the mark and may stop you from ever taking the bait.
   Still, Green’s script contains more than its fair share of dramaturgical holes. The many scenes introducing the show’s various characters and their backstories run the gamut from sharply written and sharply executed to seemingly mundane and momentum-leaching. Likewise, the dark turn toward the end of Act 1, which then becomes the entire foundation for Act 2, although based loosely on a true-life experience Green had while working for just such an organization, drags on far too long. Green winds up having to resort to the silly rather than the mentally stimulating just to stretch his play to its current two-act length.

Performances range from intriguing to shtick. On the night reviewed, Green stepped into the role of Frank, the ever-hustling office manager for this group of twisted travel advisors. Green does a marvelous job flipping, sometimes instantaneously, between comforting his underlings and attacking them with the ferocity of an almost Mafioso-like enforcer. Playing the newest member of this group is Tony Pauletto as Tom, the Bob Newhart in this world of liars and whack jobs. Pauletto is perfect as the everyman appalled by his co-workers’ cutthroat behavior yet determined to succeed without compromising his personal ethics.
   A trio of highly disparate characters, played with varying degrees of success, rounds out the remainder of the staff. Kerr Lordygan is wickedly funny as Jack, a jittery weasel masking his insecurities by constant trying to prove his superiority to Tom. As Christine, the company’s lone female employee who has topped off the sales chart by capitalizing on her sex appeal, Sarmarie Klein ably fills the role of femme fatale. As Mike, a self-important bully who has the hots for Christine, Travis Quentin is stuck with one of Green’s more one-dimensional characters. Only in a confrontation with Pauletto’s Tom, set in the men’s room, is Quentin given the level of material into which he can sink his teeth, resulting in one of the most gripping scenes in the production.
   Leading the pack of their prospective customers were Victoria Yvonne Martinez, who stepped into the role of Maria at this particular performance, and Zachary Reeve Davidson as her wannabe-rapper boyfriend, Bart. This pair’s bickering brought to life some of the best comic moments of the entire show with their New Jersey accents and attitudes in full swing. Marbry Steward and Paul Messinger capably portray an older couple who wind up serving as the catalyst for Act 2’s rather unsatisfying twists and turns and seemingly endless false endings.

Production values, with scenery by Marco De Leon and lighting by Yancey Dunham, are adequate, but the production’s running time could be shaved considerably with faster scene transitions.

January 19, 2016
Nov. 9–Jan. 31. 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village. Fri–Sat 8 pm, Sun. 2 pm. $18. (818) 508-3003.


Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Motown
Troubadour Theatre Company at Falcon Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Andy Lopez, Darrin Revitz, Rick Batalla, Suzanne Jolie Narbonne, and Tyler King
Photo by Jill Mamey

Matt Walker and his Troubadour Theater Company have no filter, and, luckily for their legion of rabid fans, they haven’t had one for the last 20 years. The Troubies are best known for their annual parodies of classic holiday stories, selling out Falcon Theatre every December for some 15 seasons. After the tremendous success of such artist-themed titles as Little Drummer Bowie, Frosty the Snow Manilow, A Christmas Carole King, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed ReinDOORS, the much-awarded company this year reprises its triumphant Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Motown, giving its performers the opportunity to widen their scope of who and what to spoof as they turn their attention to Detroit’s most richly prolific industry since Henry Ford invented the motorcar.
   Under Walker’s nothing-safe direction and Eric Heinly’s spirited musical direction, the Troubies pull out all the jams to jam on all the classic Motown hits, dancing in synchronization while wrapped in Sharon McGunigle’s splendiferous and outrageous holiday costuming. They journey to the “Land of Smokey Miracles and Supreme Temptations” to tell the tale of an orphaned infant named Claus (the rubber-faced, Ray Bolger–limbed Walker). He has been dumped on the doorstep of the Kringle family at their home in Sombertown, located somewhere near the dismal Alpine forests where, as actors drag on a mere pair of flimsy cardboard trees to represent it, it’s a “cold, creepy, and confusing place, kinda like a Donald Trump rally.”

Santa faces a crisis when the Burgermeister of the village (Mike Sulprizio channeling an all-singing, all-dancing Lionel Atwill) falls over a stuffed bunny and subsequently bans all toys from Sombertown. Santa seeks the help of the wood’s resident Winter Warlock, played by Beth Kennedy towering over the other players on cloud-piercing stilts and brandishing long white Edward Scissorhands fingernails that nearly keep her from picking up the Slinky that Santa gives her for Christmas—causing Walker to ask as she struggles with composure if she’s breaking a character she “barely had time to establish.”
   The quick-witted Rick Batalla hilariously guides the story along as STD, a festively adorned mailman who begins by getting the town’s children gathered ’round for the recounting, reassuring them they’re safe to join him since he’s not a pitchman for Subway. From the sidelines, the deadpanned Batalla throws out one rapid impromptu quip after another, beginning by commenting on the audience’s reaction to his first pun with, “If you start groaning now, it’s going to be a long night,” and noting, as fog effects seep from below the curtains, that there’s a Reggae festival going on backstage. Matching STD’s junior post office habitat on stage left is Leah Sprecher stationed at stage right as the troupe’s resident back-up lounge singer, touting her new CD “Doin’ It From Behind” and continuously downing her signature cocktail made with “gin, Tylenol PM, and tears.”
   Walker and his limitless band of crazies, despite all the freedom to play around and adlib at will, also work hard to keep the fast-paced production tight and all tied up with a glittery but neat metaphoric holiday bow. They honor Nadine Ellis’s original choreography (re-created under the guidance of cast member Suzanne Jolie Narbonne), having obviously rehearsed their best James Brown–inspired moves to perfection. Everything runs like clockwork here as the audience sits with mouths agape at the rampant silliness of it all, most of those gathered thrilled not to be that one woman sitting in the front row whose snorts of appreciative laughter became the brunt of myriad jokes throughout the evening.

It just wouldn’t seem like Christmas without the Troubie’s annual holiday spectaculars around these-here parts to kick off whatever festivities we’re still able to muster in this less-than festive world of ours—and boy, do we all need a good laugh right now.

December 13, 2015
Dec. 11–Jan. 17. 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 4 pm & and 7pm (check website for holiday schedule changes). Running time 80 minutes, no intermission. $29–44. (818) 955-8101.



Second City

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Amanda Blake Davis and Robyn Norris

Sometimes theater is about humankind’s greatest achievers. Sometimes it’s about supremely tragic figures. And sometimes, as with this show, it’s about the rest of us.
   A group of Second City’s fine performers went off piste and conducted a social experiment. After Robyn’s (Robyn Norris) friend posted a profile on a dating site and asked Robyn to check it over, Robyn set up an account to access the site. Robyn created the outlandish profile of an admittedly “crazy-insane person” she named TracyLovesCats. A shockingly large number of men—and women—responded, begging for various forms of contact with “Tracy.”
   Norris’s fellow troupe members Chris Alvarado, Rob Belushi, Amanda Blake Davis, Kate Duffy, and Bob Ladewig joined in, posting outrageous profiles no one could possibly think were anything other than a joke. These performers’ “sketch” show, Undateable, re-enacts verbatim the heartfelt responses by real, everyday people to these perverse personals.
   So, even though Rob (Belushi) pushed the intimacy-phobic envelope with DoorSlamEric, women think Eric is dateable. And although PioneerInABox (Kate Duffy) gets busted (she claims to function as if in the 1860s, yet she’s online), she manages to lure interest. Even Amanda’s (Blake Davis) age-questionable Old4U75 appeals to a prospective beau.
   The show, a fascinating concept, is well-structured and is imaginatively directed by Frank Caeti. It is also, of course, hilarious, though a strong strain of sympathy runs through it. And even though the show has been running for months, the performers have fresh energy. These performers are more interested in telling their story than in “being funny,” so the laughs come from the audience’s self-recognition and not from any obnoxious stage-hogging shenanigans.
   The troupe sings and dances—and not badly—to enhance several of their “scientific” points about romantic behavior. A few minutes of improv at the end of the show reflect the performers’ well-honed chops.
   Locational cautions: The venue is in Hollywood where street parking has a two-hour limit, metered until midnight on Fridays. The show is a mere one hour, but it undoubtedly will start a few minutes late. In addition, the theater is upstairs, and the site has no elevator. But if you’re swift and spry, head on up there for a dose of reality. It will probably provide you with more than several hearty belly laughs. It might also make you weep for mankind.

August 19, 2013

6560 Hollywood Blvd. Fri 9pm. $10.


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La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

Kevin Earley (at center)
Photo by Michael Lamont

On May 1, 1931, the Empire State Building was completed as the world’s tallest skyscraper, at 102 stories. That it was successfully done during the difficult days of the Depression was a testament to the vision of its creators and, more important, the hardworking builders who erected it. The world premiere musical Empire, at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, attempts to capture that buoyant spirit, but it relies on formulaic play creation at the expense of focusing on the heart of the achievement.
   With its eye on Broadway, the play follows a blueprint. It begins with a kicky production number filled with energetic choreography and a reminder that the ‘20s were the “Heyday.” Cocky architect Michael Shaw (Kevin Earley) meets equally confident gal Frankie Peterson (Stephanie Gibson), who is tapped by the financier John J. Raskob (Tony Sheldon) and ex-Governor Al Smith (Michael McCormick) to be their Can-Do project manager. Antagonistic sparks emerge from snappy banter, and we know that love will triumph by the end of the musical.
   The story takes shape with workers being hired. Another strong production number with the laborers and some Fifth Avenue ladies energizes the proceedings. Construction boss Abe Klayman is well played by Joe Hart. One laborer in particular, Ethan O’Dowd (Caleb Shaw), is singled out as a new father and leader of the riveters, who joins his wife in a tender “Castles in the Air.” Again, a potential outcome of their story by story’s end is telegraphed almost too easily.

Choreographer-director Marcia Milgrom Dodge has taken on a daunting task. Translating Caroline Sherman and Robert Hull’s book, music, and lyrics onto a stage with a hefty cast of singers, dancers, and character actors takes dexterity to begin with, but adding a monolithic building advances it to a different level. The result is mixed. Some of the production numbers are foot-stomping crowd pleasers with athleticism, acrobatics, and energy abounding. Other musical numbers are delivered at that same level, thus detracting from the vocals themselves. A huge plus is the addition of a pit orchestra, directed by Sariva Goetz, that gives the show its Broadway quality.
   As the first act unfolds, the stagecraft almost overwhelms the story. Scenic designer David Gallo has produced a stunning 1930s-era backdrop of New York streets and buildings as he and co-projection designer Brad Peterson have created projected images that advance and recede as the action takes place. The skyscraper’s girders and multilevel sets allow for the cast to achieve the height so necessary for the up-to-the-sky theme of the story. Characters enter and exit through images into offices, doors (one actually revolving), and exteriors that mirror the New York landscape. One particular scene in which riveters throw rivets from a steaming cart to a worker high atop the building via projection is particularly inventive.
   Earley is a likable lead with a strong voice and an easy manner, though his chemistry with Gibson lacks much sizzle. Vastly overdirected by Dodge, Gibson mugs and poses, directing much attention away from the lyrics of the songs she shares with Earley. Sheldon and McCormick provide the charm of old stage pros who provide humor and amiable characterizations.
   An interesting bit of skyscraper lore emerges with the inclusion of Mohawk Indian ironworkers who were instrumental in the building of many of the tallest buildings in America. They were the sky walkers, and “A Change of Worlds” and “Touch the Sky” are appealing numbers featuring these men. They lead a touching chant as tribute to a fallen fellow worker near the end that is very effectively delivered. A silly side plot including poorly disguised heiress Betty Raskob (Charlotte Maltby as one of these workers) is extraneous and should be excised.
   The ensemble does double and triple duty throughout the performance as workers, secretaries, showgirls, gangsters, and the like. Costumes by Leon Wiebers are effective and often involved in some very quick changes. Again, production values cannot be faulted in the entire show, including lighting design by Jared A. Sayeg and sound design by Philip G. Allen.

What begins as a promising endeavor to paint a picture of a time of optimism and history devolves into just another set of songs and dances, however well-executed. Obstacles in the construction process are solved with patent ease, and all ends are tied up too pleasantly at the end to satisfy what was a singular achievement. That aforementioned fallen worker even appears at the end to join in the final chorus. With much to recommend, the writers still need to dig deeper to find the soul of the play.

January 26, 2016
Jan. 22–Feb. 14. 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Wed-Thu 7:30, Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm (no 7pm perf April 13). $20-60. (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.


Ham: A Musical Memoir
Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Sam Harris
Photo by Ken Sawyer

At the height of Sam Harris’s meteoric success after the Sand Springs, Okla., homeboy was the supreme winner of the first season of Star Search, in 1983, a letter to the editor in a newspaper referred to him as a cross between a police siren, Ethel Merman, and Arnold the Pig. In his solo attempt at the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Renberg stage to turn his bestselling memoir Ham: Slices of a Life into musical form, Harris unremittingly lampoons himself and his well-documented performing persona, which always was, shall we say, a little bit grand?
   Beginning with his opening number, a self-penned warning of things to come, appropriately called “Open Book,” immediately followed by the self-deprecating “Ham,” which Harris co-wrote with his accompanist Todd Schroeder, Harris lets us know we aren’t attending a Michael Buble concert where they need to pass out amphetamines at the door. Harris is at first a tad over the top, squealing out his best Arnold sound effects while twirling, making jazz hands, and lifting one leg at the knee whenever going for the highest notes—which, of course, he accomplishes impressively. The lyrics of his title song express how aware and comfortable he is with his flamboyant style and a singing voice so loud he could probably be heard at Highland and Santa Monica.
   Under co-directors Billy Porter and Ken Sawyer, Harris crashes through the fourth wall like a male Liza Minnelli during the popper years, thundering through tales of growing up in Sand Springs. As a kid, he never fit in despite—or because of—his success in community theater and in all of his school’s theatrical extravaganzas, in which he contributed in “multiple categories” and won the first three prizes in one particular effort. His distant, disappointed father didn’t help much, except for one revelation spoken during a commercial break from Sunday sports-watching: “Son, life is a bowl of shit—and we just stir it up.”

Stir it up Harris did in his life, and we quickly realize we should be ready to duck. As he finishes his first song, he asks for a towel, adding “I’m going to need it.” By the time the show concludes, that towel could have been wrung out like a washcloth still pinned to a clothesline after a thunderstorm.
   Using familiar showstopping songs to punctuate his stories, including Bob Merrill and Jule Styne’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and Jerry Herman’s “If He Walked Into My Life,” it’s clear that in a less-traditional world, Harris would be quickly cast as all the great larger-than-life female legends from Fanny Brice to Mame Dennis and beyond; in his prepubescent years, he lobbied to be cast as Helen Keller in a local amateur production of The Miracle Worker.
   At first, Harris’s delivery is indeed off-putting, making it easy to see why, soon after he became a household name—a time when he “wanted to be so famous I would be hated by the people I admire the most”—he was not universally adored. Just as we might be thinking the first half-hour of this show might be quite enough, he starts to scratch below the sequined surface of his 15 minutes of fame, beginning with a thwarted suicide attempt after falling in love with his first chorus boy. “Love,” he observes, “is a mismatch between peril and promise.” Then as he enters the years when his initial high-shooting star started to dim, he again pokes fun at himself.

As the journey continues, his delivery, like his life, becomes less diva-centric and more grounded. Calmly, sweetly, he luxuriates in his contentment with his own identity after finding the love of his life 20 years ago. Here, Harris sings a hauntingly beautiful rendition of his Star Search signature “Over the Rainbow” as a lullaby to his and his husband Danny Jacobson’s 7-year-old adopted son, Cooper.
   Early on, Harris reveals that he fears that less is always just less, while more is never enough. What he discovers along the way is, as long as you’re true to yourself, less or more will be just right. He may be a tad mature now to ever be given the opportunity to play a Brice or a Mame, but if anyone ever finally wants to cast him in The Miracle Worker, forget Helen Keller; Sam Harris definitely has the cajones these days to assay a mean and relentlessly sturdy turn as Annie Sullivan.

January 24, 2015
Jan. 23–Feb. 7. 1125 N. McCadden Pl. Fri–Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $35. (323) 860-7300.


The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey
Kirk Douglas Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

James Lecesne
Photo by Matthew Murphy

The facts surrounding the disappearance of a flamboyant 14-year-old boy—who, as they used to say, marched to his own drummer—was the incident that put a nondescript Jersey Shore community on MapQuest, according to the hardboiled and obviously homegrown police detective assigned to the case. Chuck DeSantis seems to be the kind of guy who doesn’t have much to contribute to many after-shift conversations over Bud Lites at the local watering hole beyond, maybe, to weigh in on who’s doing better this season, the Jets or the Giants.
   That changes when DeSantis starts examining what became of Leonard Pelkey, the out-there kid who wore makeup and multicolored flip-flops he glued to the bottom of his sneakers to create wedges while working after school shampooing heads of the matronly customers of his foster mother’s beauty shop. Although Leonard was used to being beaten up and stuffed into school lockers, nothing appeared to make him want to stop being himself at any cost, even the ultimate one. “If you stop being yourself, the terrorists will win,” Leonard once told one of his ladies—the ladies he also advised to be sure they owned one little black dress in case of emergency, useful advice for many of them as they laid his battered body to rest after it’s found tied to an anchor at the bottom of a local lake.
   DeSantis investigates the details of Leonard’s life and his untimely demise as James Lecesne’s The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey unfolds. “I’m like an actor saying lines, like from a script,” he sheepishly admits to the audience, also assuring us he “lives in time” and knows how things go, something that surely comes with the territory in his line of work. “You know how people are,” he continues. “They don’t like differences—especially when they’re all the same.” He also philosophizes that some people bravely choose to embrace their differences, while Leonard, he learned, was simply “different from the inside out.”

In a kind of solo Equus meets Laura, the playwright also plays DeSantis, taking us along with him as he interviews the conflicted townspeople, eventually unravels the whodunit aspect of the case, and, in a way—a platonic way—falls a little bit in love with Leonard. As the detective interviews the once-ordinary and unaffected people in Leonard’s insular suburban world, Lecesne goes even farther than crafting crisp, Edgar Lee Masters–esque colloquial poetry smoothly and with an easy grace. He also proves himself to be a mighty actor as he assays all of the roles he created with a quick jerk of the head or spin around between characters during conversations with only himself to make it real.
   Lecesne is almost unnerving as he sinks into the skin of his creations, including the doomed kid’s “stylist-slash-control freak” foster mother; her initially less-than-understanding daughter, who notes that weird is good, but “when weird goes too far it just becomes bizarre”; a quiet European merchant the boy befriends while escaping into his store while running from his bullies; the fey British proprietor of the local arts and dance school for children; a suspicious videogame-obsessed teenager who habitually flips back surfer hair that isn’t there; the local mob widow who spots the boy’s floating sneaker through her ever-present binoculars; and one of the boy’s past-middle-age disciples who abandoned her 1985 hairstyle because of him.
   There’s nothing much new about the story, which again shows us how we are too often willing to judge others, especially others who march under their own rainbow-hued flags. “Is there anything in this world,” Lecesne’s hardnosed but soon transformed detective notes, “more unexpected then a human being?” No, nothing new is addressed here, at least thematically. Except for showcasing the wondrous talents of Lecesne, it’s sad to say much of the tale of the poor, absolutely bright Leonard Pelkey is more of the same old, same old. But hey, isn’t it an incredible anthropological tragedy that, in our contemporary and mostly more tolerant and accepting world, his story still needs to be addressed at all?

January 20, 2016
Jan. 13–Jan. 31. 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tue–Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Tickets “begin at $25.” (213) 982-4488.


Thom Pain (based on nothing)

Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Rainn Wilson
Photo by Michael Lamont

Things appear to be off to a rocky start when Rainn Wilson as Thom Pain tries to light a cigarette in the still-darkened theater. The light is snuffed out. “How wonderful to see you all,” he says without a hint of irony, with a notation here that the stage is still in pitch blackness. He tries another match. Then another. “I should quit,” he tells us. He gives up and next tries to perform an even tougher task in the dark, to read something from the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the definition of the word “fear.”
   Soon after, the lights finally rise in a blinding flash on Wilson’s rumpled, nondescript Everyman, who squints into the glaring brightness before he proceeds to clean his eyeglasses as the lights are adjusted to a less painful level. He stares out at the audience, glancing from one person to another, a bird of prey on a hunt trying not to give away his intentions. Silence. Then, finally, dryly, “I’ll wait for the laughter to die down.” There is none.
   A few minutes later, a patron in the middle of the fourth row gets up and plods to the aisle, leaving abruptly. Mr. Pain—or is it Mr. Wilson?—calls out as the auditorium door closes behind the man, “Goodbye. Au revoir, cunt, if you’ll pardon my French.” Is it Wilson who’s just been challenged here or is the guy’s departure scripted? Considering the mind of this work’s author, Will Eno, the question is unanswered, although there’s a hint when Wilson stops midsentence a few lines later, glares back at the door, and reveals, “I’m like him. I strike people like the person who just left. You know, you might have been better off if you’d gone like our friend, who just left with his heart and the rest of his organs. I don’t know. This was an aside. Pretend I didn’t say that.”
   This 65-minute basically monochromatic screed of a monologue is the antithesis of a Shakespearean address, yet, oddly, comparing it to one of the elaborate soliloquies of the Bard is somehow fitting, if only in its searing indelibility. The fictional Mr. Pain is aptly named. He recounts a horrendous story of a little boy in a cowboy suit who watches as his beloved dog is electrocuted lapping water from a puddle compromised by a downed power line. “This can be an example of how days can go,” Thom concludes in a toneless sort of apology. “Does it scare you, being face to face with the modern mind?” he wonders, followed by the declarative, “It should.”

One could say Thom Pain (based on nothing) is a metaphysical experiment. But although it seems to consist of a rambling, entirely random torrent of words and disconnected ideas, by its end it’s anything but. Eno’s stream-of-consciousness tirade follows no rules of dramatic literature: no conventional theatrical character arc, no clearly stated conflict, no concrete resolution obvious to pigeonhole it and easily define the piece’s genre. Still, it is an arrestingly moving experience, as the audience lives through the character’s agony and discomfort with him and comes out the other side haunted by the darkness of his tortured, Bukowski-esque existence.
   This production is a quintessential example of artistic collaboration at its most important. There’s not even a remote possibility that Eno’s topic-jumping ontological diatribe—interrupted by promises of raffles, dogs barking and banging from the wings, and areas of the stage where Daniel Ionazzi’s lighting plot does not illuminate our hero if he wanders there—could possibly succeed without the talents of artists such as director Oliver Butler and his incredibly moldable tool: the unearthly, transcendent Wilson. The simplicity of this actor’s work—unembellished except for a moment or two when a lone tear falls shining down his weakly quivering cheek or he suddenly screams, “Boo!” with the chilling bearing of a serial killer—could truly be unmatchable. On Ionazzi’s basically blank stage, only adorned by the corner of a theatrical poster on one side peeking through the curtains, as well as costumer Candice Cain’s perfectly nebbish-y and somewhat unfitted suit, Wilson reigns supreme, successfully tackling a major challenge akin to if Samuel Beckett melded Richard II and Richard III into one tortured character.
   Oddly, no matter how abstract Thom Pain might at first appear, it is the opposite. It is the personification of each of our own realities surviving the daily assaults of a troubled world, easily identifiable to those of us, like him, who feel our “childhood running out” as we become foreigners to our upbringing and to the place where we were born, searching desperately for windmills like modern day Quixotes for what Eno calls “un-aloneness at last.”

January 14, 2016
Jan. 13–Feb. 14. 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. Wed–Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm. $76–99. (310) 208-5454.


Need to Know
Rogue Machine Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Corryn Cummins, Tim Cummings, Ron, Gary, and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe
Photo by John Perrin Flynn

Most everyone has had the experience of being pursued by an obsessive and needy admirer, be it a nosy neighbor, a far-too-friendly co-worker, or even a romantic partner who won’t go away once the bloom is off the rose. In Jonathan Caren’s cleverly suspenseful new gothic comedy, what at first appears to be a relatively benign instance of having to deal with a harmless kind of mini-stalker progresses rapidly to Play Misty for Me status.
   For Lilly and Steven (Corryn Cummins and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe)—a young couple relocating to Manhattan after trying to make a home together in Los Angeles—that initial apprehension is exacerbated by something many of us are still in the process of comprehending in its full-frontal glory: social media. It’s bad enough that Caren’s classic millennials quickly discover that the living room wall of their new apartment is so thin that their neighbor appears to be able to hear their conversations—not to mention their rather noisy lovemaking. But the creepy guy on the other side is a needy, obnoxiously overfriendly loser with terminal halitosis, named Mark (Tim Cummings). And when they realize Mark knows everything about them and their lives from trolling Facebook and Twitter, the threat becomes even more unsettling, if not bordering on truly scary.
   On Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s exceptional set, which is the best use of a small playing space seen in this town in a long time, both apartments, divided by a cutaway wall, are visible to the audience. As Lilly and Steven unpack and try to get over the fact that they cannot seem to shake Mark’s advances, Mark is indeed leaning over his desk with his ear glued to their shared wall. And after they realize that he probably heard them talking about what a sad weirdo he appeared to be when he walked into their apartment to introduce himself as they emerged from their showers in less-than-appropriate host and hostess wear, they are a little unnerved when he again shows up at their door, offering a plate of home-baked cookies as a housewarming gift. Of course, considering that he jokes he’d added his own excrement to the cookie dough, their reaction is understandable.

Despite a script that features fascinating character studies but doesn’t really go anyplace as unpredictable as it could and then ties things up way too neatly, Bart DeLorenzo directs his trio of knockout performers with a near-Hitchcockian ability to create tension and dread from everyday situations that don’t usually foster suspicion. Cummins and Near-Verbrugghe are excellent as the cornered couple, subtly mining the unspoken problems lurking just below the picture perfect image of their relationship they’ve cultivated to present to the outside world—and to dupe each other. Near-Verbrugghe is especially impressive as his character’s emotionally fragile past is revealed, beginning the play like the world’s most charming boyfriend but ending, especially after a final nerve-shattering scene shared with Cummings, eerily exposing his own deep-seated secrets.
   Still, this is Cummings’s show. As Mark, he is incredibly unnerving, an urban apartment dweller’s worst nightmare, yet he makes Mark oddly endearing, so you’d like to scratch him behind the ears and reassure him that he’s a good boy. All of Mark’s quirks and tics are completely realistic. Cummings amazingly finds something in his character that makes one wonder if the majority of the red flags that go up as Lilly and Steven try to discourage a connection with their ever-smiling, often charmingly funny, and self-deprecating pursuer are mostly products of their own imaginations. His performance in this role, written so intrinsically filled with traps that could swallow up lesser actors, is the stuff that made Peter Lorre in M or Tony Perkins in Psycho keep viewers up at night.
   If Caren’s promising and potentially disturbing play were as polished as its performers or DeLorenzo’s subtly suspenseful direction, it would be nearly perfect. As is, it’s almost there—and the people who are currently breathing life into it for Rogue Machine elevate it far beyond where it travels on its own.

November 19, 2015
Oct. 25–Jan. 24. 5041 W. Pico Blvd. Fri 5pm, Sun 7pm, Mon 8pm. $30–35. (855) 585-5185.


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