Arts In LA
The Threepenny Opera
Garage Theater and Alive Theater

Reviewed by Bob Verini

The ensemble

Productions of this difficult but essential classic are rare enough that any chance to see it performed is a reason for celebration, even a version that’s as spotty and problematic as the one currently at the Garage Theater “in collision with” Alive Theater.
   Two things they get very right. The scale of the piece, as marshalled by director Eric Hamme, is everything Brecht could have wished for. As the title suggests, this opera was intended for the masses, who in Weimar Republic days could just about scrape up three pennies to go in and find out, in song and story, how the System was designed to screw them. The Garage mise en scene really looks like it was assembled in a garage—with dirty, oily blankets on the walls and a profound sense of depressing cheap everywhere.
   The musical accompaniment is also spot-on, with Ellen Warkentine at the keyboard directing a little band perfectly suited to Weill’s wily, insidious melodies of corruption and decay. The familiar sounds are all there—trumpet, trombone, banjo, percussion—and not so much blended together as clashing together, exactly as one suspects the composer intended.

I wish the voicing of the lyrics had gotten the same thoughtful attention, but, even in this tiny house with no more than 30 seats, the singing is muddy from beginning to end. This, Brecht would consider, is not an aesthetic but an ideological flaw, as the commentaries on barbarity and the human condition are largely contained in the songs. When they can’t be made out, you’re left with the equivalent of a Hasty Pudding Show, which makes it way too easy for any spectator to tune out the politics.
   It’s not even about sloppy diction. Well, it is about sloppy diction, but more than that, the stagings serve to subvert the intent. Solo numbers are way too overstaged: Ashley Elizabeth Allen’s rendition of “Pirate Jenny,” for instance, is preciously acted out line by line, rendering the great satirical ballad unwatchable. The group numbers, for their part, are far too mechanical and echt-Broadway, instead of trying for a pickup style paralleling the musicians’ offhand manner (Angela Lopez is credited with choreography).

This Threepenny retreats too readily and too often to the banality of traditional musical staging. The most troublesome aspect is that the play is played with a veritable absence of feeling. It’s a profound misunderstanding, not to say betrayal, of Brecht to banish sincerity and emotional reality from the stage. Indeed, it’s the counterpoint between the deepest feelings of truly invested characters and the sociopolitical critique offered by the actors inhabiting those characters that makes for a stimulating experience that is uniquely Brechtian.
   Take Mr. Peachum (Mark Piatelli), London’s master organizer of beggars and calamity. He certainly has the capitalist system all figured out in his instructional musical numbers. But when he’s not singing, he must be ruthless in attempting to protect the encroachment on his criminal affairs by his new son-in-law, the notorious Macheath, aka Mack the Knife (Robert Edward). Peachum has thousands of pounds at stake, and the plot confirms that his house of cards could fall at any moment. Yet in the book scenes, Piatelli is as sanguine and unconcerned as a song-and-dance smoothie. If he’s not threatened by anything, why should we get involved?
   And he’s not the only one. Allen’s Polly Peachum has evidently been directed to ape Miley Cyrus from beginning to end. She twirks and preens and stamps her feet, and never for a moment makes us accept her supposed passion for Mackie. Ditto Sarah Chaffin as her rival Lucy, putting air quotes around every line. Ditto Thomas Amerman as Tiger Brown and Jason Bowe as Matthew, professing feelings for their old pal Mack that their casual, “whatever” manner belies. There’s barely a believable moment among these five; all play smug cynicism on the top, with nothing beneath.

Three exceptions stand out, and they’re so strong they—along with the ambience and music—make this production worth a trip to Long Beach. All of the gals are garishly painted up like the glum whores of Cabaret, but only the mascara of Dana Benedict as Low-Dive Jenny looks like it’s been running because of genuine tears. Benedict’s Jenny is clearly moved by the events of the play. So is—in a different vein—musical director Warkentine, popping in for double duty as a benighted, blinking, half-conscious Mrs. Peachum. Her emotional reality is a comical one, garnered at the bottom of an absinthe bottle, but it’s palpable nonetheless.
   Best of all is Edward’s Macheath, who with his tiny mustache, slicked-back hair, and blazing eyes looks like he just stepped out of a George Grosz caricature. Roaring of the world’s betrayals, he’s both philosophical and hurt to the quick, thus capturing the blend of personal commitment and political consciousness that The Threepenny Opera demands. (He also looks and sounds uncannily reminiscent of Raul Julia, the strongest Mack of my lifetime.) That Mack is offstage for much of the second and third acts is unfortunate, but all of Edward’s appearances are to be relished and remind us how this material could work.
   A final cavil, minor but expanding in annoyance over the course of three and a half hours. How come no one, not even Edward, can properly pronounce the two mighty syllables of the lead character’s name? The guy isn’t nicknamed “Mick the Knife,” after all, and to insist on making him sound like a sandwich sold at the Golden Arches up the street is ridiculous. What’s next for the Garage? A revival of “McBeth”?

August 26, 2014
Aug. 1–30. 251 E. 7th St., Long Beach. Fri-Sat 8pm. $15–20. (562) 433-8337.

Motorcity Magic
Laguna Playhouse

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

Photo courtesy Motorcity Magic

Over the years, the trademarked Motown Sound has generated millions of dollars in hit records for a largely African-American stable of stars. Names like Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin, and Diana Ross come to mind, as well as groups like The Temptations, The Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and even the Jackson 5. Founder Berry Gordy Jr. was instrumental in developing their careers, as well as providing a fertile field for the evolution of musical orchestrations and creating a unique sub-genre in the music world.
   Motorcity Magic taps into the current success and appeal of tribute performances and delivers a solid evening of nostalgia and admiration for mighty fine singing. The show opens with the four principals—Arthur Jefferson, Donald McCall, Denny Mendes, and Steven Wood—in glam gold jackets, delivering Smokey Robinson’s tune “Get Ready” to a very enthusiastic audience. From that moment on, the foursome traverses a familiar path of decades of hits. From “Dancing in the Street” to “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” they re-create the timeless, indelible music of Motown
   They are joined by Evelyn Dillion, whose renditions of “Respect,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and “Neither One of Us (Wants to Be the First To Say Goodbye,” are showstoppers. She adds the important inclusion of the female stars to this tribute.
   Accompanying them is The Motorcity Magic Band, directed by drummer Richard “The Power Station” Marshall: on Trumpet, Don Chilton; bass, Rudi Weeks; keyboards/piano, Pat Jennings; saxophone/flute, Rodney Caron; and guitar, David Boudah. A standout is a saxophone jazz solo by Caron. Boudah provides much of the special sound effects that accompany Motown music. Adding to the atmosphere is a huge photo collage wrapping around the proscenium that represents the musical greats who performed for the Motown label. Also an uncredited large screen video behind the band helps to anchor the music as it is performed.

The entire show is directed by Michael Yorkell, and he makes the 90-minute performance smooth and entertaining. There is so much history in the ’60s and ’70s music scene that it might further enhance the production if a little more background was incorporated into the concert. Each performer earns solo time while the others perform the backup choreography. With countless years performing this music, the guys make it look very easy, but they are in constant motion without a break for the whole time.
   As a testament to the likability of the performers and the durability of the music, at the well received encore, audience members moved down front to dance to the energetic number. All in all, it was a pleasant reminiscence, and after the show the performers joined the appreciative audience in the lobby for post-show conversations.

August 20, 2014

Aug. 13–24. 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna. Wed-Fri 7:30pm, Sat 2pm & 7:30pm, Sun 1pm. $46–66. (949) 497-2787.

6 Rms Riv Vu
Sierra Madre Playhouse

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Craig McEldowney, Lena Bouton, Kristin Towers-Rowles, Jeremy Guskin.
Photo by Gina Long

In truth, playwright Bob Randall’s piece feels a bit dated with its references to 1970s-era authors, events and societal issues that now seem antiquated. But, for the most part, director Sherrie Lofton and her company tender an often quaint look back to a time of surprisingly affordable New York City rental properties and more than a fair share of polyester double-knit.
   As the title suggests, a seemingly spacious six-room apartment, complete with an offstage kitchen, maid’s quarters, and service entrance is on the market for what, even in the play’s 1972 setting, is the ridiculously bargain price of $325 a month. Arriving separately at the behest of a listing agent are Anne Miller, a mother of two, and Paul Friedman, an advertising copywriter. Oh, and that “river view?” Well, according to one character’s observations, a glimpse of the Hudson can be had if you crane your neck out one of the bathroom windows at just the right angle. Accidentally locked in the apartment due to a faulty front door knob, these two begin what quickly develops into a relationship based on their desires for something a little more exciting than their respective marriages.
   The chemistry that performers Lena Bouton and Jeremy Guskin bring to these roles is engaging, although the sometimes breakneck pace at which their extended scenes have been directed runs roughshod over punch lines and transitional moments. Guskin, in particular, rolls equal parts boyish bounciness and comic mania into his portrayal of Paul. His delivery of a long monologue detailing a one-time flirtation with a young lady on a New York subway car is enthralling. Bouton, too, is button cute but tends to go for broader, more rushed, deliveries when perhaps subtlety would be more effective. And given the script’s emphasis on the need for surreptitiousness during their clandestine meetings, the characters’ volume levels would easily alert any surrounding residents other than those suffering from total deafness.
   Supporting cast members range from fair to excellent. On the positive end of that range are Kristin Towers-Rowles and Craig McEldowney as, respectively, Paul’s wife, Janet, and Anne’s spouse, Richard, who arrive in Act 2 to check out the apartment. Towers-Rowles brings a wonderful joie de vivre to Janet, the somewhat stereotypical Jewish housewife whose dalliances with the Women’s Liberation Movement and her sense of sexual freedom are hilarious. As Richard, McEldowney excellently portrays this straitlaced architect, whose interest in redesigning their potential new abode overshadows Anne’s obvious discomfort. And as the Lady in 4A who reluctantly comes to the leading couple’s rescue, Lynndi Scott steals every scene she visits. Her acceptance of various pieces of fruit from a picnic Anne and Paul are holding in the empty living room is pricelessly funny in its simplicity.
   Lofton’s creative team does a bang-up job transporting the audience back in time. Scenic designer Jon Vertrees works magic, given that the entire set contains not one stick of furniture. Out-of-style wallpaper, marked with gritty outlines depicting where the previous occupant’s framed items hung, reveal Vertrees’s exquisite attention to detail. Naila Aladdin Sanders’s period-perfect costume designs include go-go boots, caftans, and, of course, America’s contribution to clothing disasters, the leisure suit.

August 7, 2014
Aug. 1–Sept. 6. 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd., Sierra Madre. Ample free parking behind the theater. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2:30pm, with additional performances (see theater’s website). Dark Aug. 16. $12–25. (626) 355-4318.

Coeurage Theatre Company at the Lyric-Hyperion Theatre & Cafe

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Anthony Mark Barrow, Nardeep Khurmi, Kaitlyn Gault, Christopher Salazar, and Zach Kanner
Photo by Robert Campbell

It takes some mighty big cajones to attempt a modern aerodynamic adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s least heralded works—his bloody, body-strewn, and rarely performedThe Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus—and present it with a cast of 16 in the dead of summer in a tiny un-air-conditioned Silverlake theater space seating 35.
   But if there’s one thing Coeurage Theatre Company’s founder and artistic director Jeremy Lelliott doesn’t lack, it’s that aforementioned set of mighty big ones. His gritty, often darkly humorous, totally Paul Morrissey–esque take on ol’ Will’s most difficult play, a tale even Anthony Hopkins and Julie Taymor couldn’t make work on film with a $20 million budget, is a remarkable effort indeed. With the title streamlined along with the play, Lelliott directs with ferocity and passion, though he’s considerably hampered this time out, not only by the material but by the size of the stage versus the size of his cast.
   There are plenty of intentionally whimsical blood effects, a large selection of severed tongues and wrapped stumps from missing hands, and a stageful of dirt-smeared, testosterone-challenged shirtless actors ardently endeavoring to energize the Bard’s answer to his contemporaries’ numerous “revenge” plays of the era.

During the latter days of the doomed Roman Empire, Titus (Ted Barton), a general in the Roman Army, is engaged in an offspring offing “eye for an eye” cycle of Hatfield and McCoy–style murders with the lusty Tamora, Queen of the Goths (Rebekah Tripp). As the body count escalates, Titus’s mind begins to deteriorate, leading him finally to offer a tasty feast of Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies to Tamora, waiting until dessert to tell her the delicacy she has just consumed was made from the heads and ground bones of her own sons. Spoiler alert: Most everybody dies by the end of the play. What might be surprising to hear, though, is that apparently they all tasted like chicken.
   It’s difficult to successfully mount any Shakespearean epic in an intimate space where non-period zippers and plastic buttons—not to mention weaponry that looks and clinks together like props culled from Hollywood Toy & Costume—continuously spoil the mood. Here Lelliott has taken on an even more difficult task, with assorted soldiers and spear-carriers forced to stand in queues in the theater’s cramped aisles, with audience members looking up at them from either side, for lack of enough playing space to be positioned anywhere else.
   Most of the design elements are clever, though, from the graffiti-splashed blacklit backdrop to Kara Mcleod’s game try at imbuing her contemporary grunge-ish costuming with handstitched hints of Elizabethan finery.

Much of this Andronicus is remarkably crafty, and these Coeurage-ous players act with impressive fervency. Barton, Tripp, Anthony Mark Barrow as Tamora’s secret lover Aaron, and T. J. Marchbank as Titus’s son Lucius, who surprisingly actually survives the bloodbath through final curtain, are standouts. Still, what Lelliott struggles to create and rework here also sometimes does this production in—along with many of its characters. Some of his actors emote with contemporary ease and tongues placed firmly in cheek.
   Others, while surely honoring the Bard’s millennium-enduring stateliness and iambic pentameter, seem to be playing grandly to the very back nosebleed seats at the Stratford Festival. As the run progresses, hopefully this wide divide between the company members’ acting styles will narrow; if everyone involved were on the same page, this nicely updated Andronicus could indeed be the bold and imaginative interpretation that was probably originally envisioned.

July 30, 2014
July 12–Aug. 17. 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silverlake. Street parking is available. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm All seats are available on a Pay What You Want basis. (323) 944-2165.

The Inkwell Theater at VS Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

The cast of Luigi
Photo by Lew Abramson

A sullen 13-year-old sets in motion this world premiere, by Louise Munson. That’s the playwright’s first mistake. Uninteresting and unlikeable, young Anna doesn’t anchor the audience’s interest. Munson introduces her in the midst of the American teen’s visit to her great-uncle Luigi at his villa in Italy. At the top of the play, sitting at an outdoor dining table, Anna and Luigi attempt to chat—he in Italian, she trying to speak Italian. This leaves audience members who don’t speak Italian hoping the rest of the play won’t continue this way.
   But it does. Large chunks of it are in Italian, including a conversation in which the only intelligible words are “FOX-a news” and “Georg-a Bush.” Those portions of the play in English reveal Anna’s desire to “know about love” and her attempts to write poems. No wonder Munson can provide no resolution. Instead, Anna and the audience find out about this family’s history and intersecting lives.
   The slim material is then padded with such wastage as a long rendition of “The House of the Rising Sun.” In point of fact, that’s an entire scene. Another scene includes the family’s rendition of “Good Night, Irene.” Some scenes run a mere several sentences and then power down. Some encompass how various couples met. Some reveal how unhappy the characters are. There are references to Odysseus and to Anaeus.

With one exception, all of the scenes take place on the villa’s outdoor eating area, cleverly depicted by set designer David Mauer. That one scene takes place indoors but can’t be seen by audience members sitting on the aisle. Seven actors entering and exiting through a single door provide this play’s main activity—and prompt a hope in the audience that they won’t collide. One other bit of suspense is whether Luigi will die over the course of the play, as we learn he has cancer of the lymph nodes.
   For one scene, the actors bring out bowls and baskets of appetizers, wish each other “buon appetito”—then turn around and take all the food backstage. Frankly, it’s difficult to get involved with characters if that’s the extent of a scene.
   Those characters include Anna’s disappointed-in-life mother; Anna’s aunt, who does embarrassingly bad yoga and modern dance; Anna’s good-natured brother Max, who develops the warmies for the aunt; the aunt’s carefree boyfriend; and of course Luigi and his patient wife.

One scene seems to repeat itself, with slightly varying dialogue. Anna is reading, presumably a book of poetry or perhaps her own work, and speaking into a recording device. She’s dressed in a white nightgown, a wreath encircling her head. Presumably this recurring scene represents memory, or the fluid nature of poetry, or the like. The idea needs fleshing.
   Maybe Anna learned something during her visit, but this reviewer has no idea what that might be. Even Max’s stuttering, hemming summation at the play’s end didn’t help.

July 27, 2014
July 18–Aug. 16. 5453 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time 2 and a half hours, including intermission. $10-20. (323) 417-2170.

Lay Me Down Softly
Theatre Banshee

Reviewed by Neal Weaver

Kevin Stidham, Andrew Graves, and Patrick Quinlan
Photo by Erin Noble

Billy Roche’s play is set in Delaney’s Traveling Roadshow, a down-market boxing show that’s touring the Irish midlands, circa 1960. Theo Delaney (Andrew Graves) is the show’s proprietor, who has a love ’em and leave ’em approach to women. He makes his profit from admission tickets, concessions, and a raffle, but his chief gimmick is advertising that his fighters will take on all comers. This seems to be a fine plan until a pro fighter—whom we never see—turns up to challenge Theo’s principal boxer, Dean (Kevin Stidham), and defeat him in the ring. The pro must then be paid the advertised purse for winning the match, radically cutting into the profits. And now the pro is threatening to come back every week and carry off the prize.
   Dean, a feisty guy with lots of bark and very little bite, is not thrilled by the prospect of being beaten up by the pro every week. Three others are also in the mix. Peadar (John McKenna), an old sidekick of Theo’s, now serves as handyman and de facto fight manager. Junior (Patrick Quinlan) is another handyman, and a former boxer until he injured his foot in the ring. And Lily (Kacey Camp), Theo’s tough-talking current lady-friend, is along to work the box office and concessions, and to sell the raffle tickets. The plot gets under way when Theo’s daughter Emer (Kirsten Kollender) appears on the scene. He abandoned her mother before she was born, but now he seems to have taken a shine to Emer. Lily tells him Emer is up to no good, but because she regards Emer as a sexual rival, Theo and the audience tend to disbelieve her warnings.
   Emer takes a shine to Junior and persuades him to get back in the ring, despite his injury. She’s hell-bent on getting out of the Midlands and attempts to convince Junior to run away with her, but Lily offers stiff competition.

Director Sean Branney provides a sterling production, despite flaws in the script. It’s primarily a genre piece, with more flavor and atmosphere than plot. And there are a few too many offstage characters, though Roche’s knack for Irish storytelling makes them colorful and intriguing. But when the offstage characters threaten to become more appealing than the ones onstage, it’s a sign of trouble. The scenes are always interesting, but the piece seldom generates the kind of dramatic heat one expects from a boxing drama. The presence of a full-scale boxing ring onstage (courtesy of set designer Arthur McBride) encourages us to expect to see boxing, but all the significant matches occur between the scenes.
   Graves’s Theo likes to play the tough manager, but he’s a soft touch at heart. Stidham’s Dean is a big talker but short on delivery. Quinlan’s Junior is honest and stolid, but no match for the wiles of Emer. Camp’s Lily is sassy and competitive, and Kollender’s Emer conceals her iron determination and larcenous heart beneath a sweet exterior. But the soul of the piece is McKenna Peadar, Theo’s sweetly smiling boon companion and henchman, with a taste for poetry and playing his accordion.

July 23, 2014
July 12–Aug. 23. 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Approximately 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission. $16–20. (818) 846-5323.

We Will Rock You
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre

Reviewed by Neal Weaver

The national tour cast
Photo by Paul Kolnki

This show is an exuberant, enthusiastic, unabashed homage to the rock group Queen and its lead singer, the late Freddie Mercury. It is also splashy, a little bit silly, and loud enough to rattle your ribcage, with a rock-concert-style light show that is occasionally blinding. If those things appeal to you, then you should love this show. If not, you should probably stay home—or, like at least one member of the opening night audience, come equipped with earplugs.
   The tale is set on an imaginary planet (a surrogate for Earth) in the future. Killer Queen (Jacqueline B. Arnold) is the head of Globalsoft Industries, which has devoted itself to stamping out rock ’n’ roll. She’s a symbol of all the commercial interests that have exploited artists and musicians. The hero of the piece, Galileo (Brian Justin Crum), is the poet whose mission is to save rock and, by extension, the world. It’s not entirely clear just why Killer Queen is so afraid of rock, and in the real world she’d have been more likely to co-opt it than destroy it.
   But, whatever: There’s an underground group called the Bohemians, dedicated to rediscovering the lost world—or lost religion—of rock, and hanging out in an ancient and dilapidated Hard Rock Café. They have preserved some artifacts of the rock world—a Harley-Davidson, a TV set, and a videocassette whose message they don’t know how to unlock. They also remember the names of the rock gods, even if they don’t know what they mean, and misapply them wildly. Thus you have a gal who calls herself Oz (Erica Peck), for Ozzy Osborne, and her male partner Brit (Jared Zirilli), for Britney Spears.

The opening-night audience was delighted by every cockeyed pop culture reference. When a black Bohemian named Aretha gives Galileo’s sidekick Scaramouche (Ruby Lewis) a new outfit, she says, “Put it on, and don’t come back ’til you look like a natural woman.” The leader of the Bohemians is Buddy (Ryan Knowles), a long and lanky guy with a vocal range that extends from deep gravel voice to high falsetto. And presiding over the Bohemian enclave is the bronze statue of Mercury, whom they regard as their spiritual ancestor, even if they aren’t sure who or what he really was. When the Bohemians are captured and mind-zapped by the Killer Queen’s minions, only Galileo and Scaramouche escape to try and save the day.
   The almost hagiographic treatment of Freddie Mercury and Queen obviously pleases the hard-core fans, but non-devotees may find it a bit excessive. And the fans, perhaps reliving their own glory days, are hell-bent on keeping the celebration going, and waving their light sticks in time to “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions.”
   The music is, of course, by Queen. Writer-director Ben Elton gives us a ramshackle script and a production that is flashy, relentless, and chock full of video special effects. All the performers acquit themselves well, when they’re not called upon to be so loud we can’t hear them. Among the machine-made sturm und drang, Crum and Lewis, as Galileo and Scaramouche, add a much-needed touch of humanity along with their considerable vocal skills. As Killer Queen, Arnold can belt out a song along with the best, and Peck and Zirilli provide high energy performances as Oz and Brit. Knowles, as Buddy, makes the most of his zanily subversive patter and vocal tricks.
   The approach is insistently hip, and slightly tongue-and-check. But it almost seems like cheating when they refuse to give us “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which everyone seemed to be waiting for, until a final encore.
July 17, 2014
July 16–Aug. 24. 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. (Added 2pm performance Thu, Aug. 14 and 21; no 6:30 pm performance Sun, Aug. 17 and 24.) $25–120. (213) 972-4400.

The Sexual Life of Savages
Skylight Theatre Company at Beverly Hills Playhouse

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Melissa Paladino and Luke Cook
Photo by Ed Krieger

Ian MacAllister-McDonald’s world premiere script broaches several slices of life not usually seen onstage. The topic, as his play’s title responsibly hints, is the sexuality of his five characters. The dialogue is exceedingly explicit, and we’re not talking an occasional F-bomb. But the situations his characters put themselves in and the conversations the play will undoubtedly provoke in its audiences are unique.
   The characters range from the presumably untouched to the sexually gluttonous. Hal and Jean have been a couple for two years. We meet them moments after Hal has demanded to know her “number”—how many sexual partners she has had. Her total has stunned and disgusted him. The fallout from that conversation causes them to break up.
   In the next scene, Clark and Hal are discussing this and other sexual matters in the teachers’ lounge of a high school. (The appropriateness of this conversation in this locale is, of course, questionable.) Clark brings three-ways into his marriage, advertising for female participants through his supposedly private website. Simultaneously in this scene, Jean is in a hospital break room, discussing with her colleague Naomi her version of her breakup with Hal.
   The new art teacher, Alice, enters the teachers’ lounge, and Hal becomes attracted to her. Meanwhile, Naomi, we learn or observe from the start, is a lesbian, who breaks up with her partner and, over the course of the play, finds her way into Clark’s marital bed.

Elina de Santos directs a stunningly skilled cast. Luke Cook masterfully creates the uncomfortable Hal, but Melissa Paladino is so good as the feisty Jean that she’s almost at that “is she always like this or is she acting?” state.
   As Coach Clark, Burt Grinstead is a touch cartoonish in the teachers’ lounge—though perhaps anyone that secure would seem so—but we get to see Clark when he’s alone, and Grinstead lets us glimpse a bit of insecurity. T. Lynn Mikeska plays Naomi as part brusque, part vulnerable.
   However, an astonishing acting moment happens here, thanks to Melanie Lyons as Alice. This character begins as a prim but hopeful young woman with an English accent. As Hal discovers, she changes, and the transformation and descent, seen on her face, are startling.

De Santos ensures ample subtext, painting in subtlety and swirling currents. She creates various playing areas here, but the bed takes centerstage. Pacing is snappy, except near the play’s end, when de Santos allows a lingering exchange of thoughts—the characters’ and the audience’s—time to develop.
   But problematically, form overwhelms substance in the script, disrupting the audience’s concentration on the moments MacAllister-McDonald has otherwise carefully crafted. No sooner do we suspend disbelief then the playwright introduces a conceit. Sometimes it’s cross-conversations, in which two pairs of actors carry on their dialogue simultaneously. Sometimes it’s through the direct-address monologue each characters delivers. The information imparted may be interesting and relevant, but the contrived method of delivery takes its audience out of the story and back into the theater seats.
   This play is not for “sensitive” audiences. But those fascinated by behavior might find this an intriguing glimpse into, as promised, the sexual lives of the race.

July 15, 2014
July 6–Aug. 16. 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. Running time 1 hour 40 minutes, no intermission. $30-34. (213) 761-7061.
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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.

Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

Ellen Geer and Dane Oliver
Photo by Ian Flanders

Shakespeare’s King Lear has its potencies. Simply described, it follows the downfall of a once-
powerful leader and the dysfunction of his family. Pondering his retirement, the monarch asks his three daughters to avow their love. The elder two, Goneril and Regan, lavish empty words on papa. The youngest, Cordelia, refuses to play that game, believing her actions of loyalty and respect will trump her sisters’ verbiage.
   The role of Lear is also a noted goal of male actors who are, shall we say, no longer castable as Romeo. Audiences expect to see an aged Lear, whose two eldest daughters are married, who is ready to divide his kingdom among the three heirs. Age and apparent frailty aside, Lear commands the stage, the role requiring vocal and emotional range and calling for masses of memorization. Who among our great actors can fit the bill?
   And, can a woman take on the role?

After more than 40 years of filling theatergoers’ summer schedules with various productions of Shakespeare plays and starring in probably every leading female role in those plays, Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum artistic director Ellen Geer takes on Lear. Completing the gender swap, this Lear’s three children are sons. Will the audience feel more protective of a female Lear? Do the two sons’ actions now feel like elder abuse? Alas, it seems disrespect, hunger for power, and plain ol’ cruelty know no gender.
   It’s possible audiences quite familiar with King Lear will find that the intellectual exercise trumps much of the text’s emotional impact. Quite easily, the word father become mother, he becomes she, and so forth, and for the most part the meter still scans as Shakespeare wrote it. But the acting and the picturesque and effective staging in this production, co-directed by Geer and Melora Marshall, thrill where it matters most.

At the play’s top, Geer’s Lear is a bloated bag of ego. The flattery of elder sons Goneril (Aaron Hendry) and Regan (Christopher W. Jones) sits well with her. When she hears the simple “no more, nor less” from her youngest son, Cordelian (Dane Oliver), Geer’s Lear evidences a recognition that he may be speaking accurately and from a deeper love; but she’s embarrassed and rejects him out of pride.
   Lear takes a fall, despite the best efforts of her loyal advisors and companions. The Fool, more often seen in gender-blind casting than the other characters are, is here played by Marshall. Although the character is still referred to as “boy” and “sirrah,” Marshall gives the Fool deep sisterly devotion and care, while maintaining the verbal comedy the role allows. Kent is played by Gerald C. Rivers in a Caribbean accent when face-to-face with the sane Lear, in standard English elsewhere. Lear, Fool, and Kent ride out the storm on the roof of Theatricum Botanicum’s permanent two-story structure, the outdoor stage providing perfect ambience for the play’s outdoor scenes.
   Less easy to see, Edgar’s main scene is enacted far house right. Edgar, though, is here called Eden, played with sturdy sincerity and a notably expressive voice by Willow Geer. Eden’s sibling, Edmund in the original, is here Igraine, played with head-to-toe resentful ire by Abby Craden.
   Other acting standouts are Alan Blumenfeld as the eye-gouged Gloucester and Frank Weidner as Goneril’s henchman Oswald. But the night’s biggest surprise is young Oliver, who plays Cordelian with classic delivery and physicality, and who will undoubtedly shore up the company’s needs in the up-and-coming-actor department. It’s a thrill to watch him go a round with Geer.

Lines get rewritten to suit the gender shift. “Put’st down thine own breeches” becomes “lift’d up thine own skirt.” Puzzlingly, however, here Lear says, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/To have a shameful child!”
   One of theater’s great stage directions, “Re-enter Lear, with Cordelia dead in his arms,” is staged by the Geer family with due respect to the text, as well as to the gender swap. After Lear has found Cordelian’s body, hanged in prison, Ellen Geer emerges from a trap door in the stage, seeming to hoist Oliver up the stairs. In this version, at play’s end, Edgar and Albany will share the throne.
   Marshall McDaniel provides evocative original music, and Ian Flanders and McDaniel contribute scene-setting sound design. Speaking of even more of the Geer family, in grand Theatricum tradition the family dog gets a cameo, showing stage presence and not reacting to the awws of the audience.

June 10, 2014
June 7–Sept 28. 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. The theater is outdoors, bring a jacket, cushion, and a flashlight for the walk back to the car. Repertory schedule. $10–37, children 6 and under free. (310) 455-3723.

The Brothers Size
The Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Gilbert Glenn Brown, Matthew Hancock, and Theodore Perkins
Photo by Ed Krieger

It would be surprising if the emergent notoriety of playwright Terell Alvin McCraney didn’t lead to a career compared to that of his former mentor, the late August Wilson. The Brothers Size, one play in McCraney’s epic Brothers/Sisters Trilogy, is an emotional slap of a drama. At the Fountain Theatre, it succeeds last year’s In the Red and Brown Water to disprove the old adage that lightning never strikes twice in the same place.
   As with Red and Brown Water, The Brothers Size is set in San Pere: a steamy-hot, hole-in-the-wall town near a bayou somewhere in the rugged and disaster-prone backwaters of rural Louisiana. Here Ogun Size (played by Gilbert Glenn Brown with salient ferocity and a deep well of understanding for the still-inequitable nature of human oppression) has agreed to share his home and auto repair business with his troubled kid brother, Oshoosi (a remarkable Matthew Hancock), after the younger Size is released from prison.
   The story is based on the mythology of West Africa’s Yoruba culture, tales passed down from generation to generation, utilizing roughhewn poetry and pulsating rhythms to explore and identify the roots of familial love and devotion when faced with the reality of loss and the ever-present gleam of temptation.
   Try as he will to get Oshoosi out of his bed and focusing on the future, Ogun’s patient efforts are thwarted by the recurring appearance of Elegba (an engaging Theodore Perkins), his younger brother’s former cellmate with whom lust had obviously blossomed into something more substantial than physical desire as they paid their debt to society. Elegba is the slithering snake offering a ripe red apple, and soon all of Ogun’s plans for the rehabilitation of Oshoosi give way to Elegba’s dangerously questionable plotting.

The Brothers Size is about love—unconditional and otherwise—but it is also about the intangible quest for freedom in a society still racist at its core, a world that all too often drags the weak and vulnerable into a tangled web of bad decisions and inherited misfortune from which many will never escape.
   Director Shirley Jo Finney understands the nature of these men and the complexities of this material from somewhere deep in her core, expertly weaving in strikingly discordant staging and musicality to achieve a dreamlike, unreal ambience that at first hearkens back to the story’s ancient roots then melds seamlessly into the cacophonous pulse of our contemporary Southern climes. Utilizing modern hip-hop tempos and clanking hubcaps struck against Hana S. Kim’s austerely Dada-like metal beam–dominated set, Finney and her team exotically interpret McCraney’s vision as well as the original source material.
   With the aid of choreographer Ameenah Kaplan and the gifts of these outstanding performers, who go directly to the top of the list as this year’s most exceptional ensemble cast in Los Angeles as they exquisitely embrace the poetry and theatricality of the piece, once again the team of Finney and Fountain proves a match made in dramaturgical heaven.

June 14, 2014
June 7–Sept. 14. 5060 Fountain Ave., Hollywood. Secure, on-site parking, $5. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm (dark June 19-22 and July 4). Running time 80 minutes. $25-34. (323) 663-1525.

Dixie’s Tupperware Party
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Dixie Longate
Photo by Bradford Rogne

The good graces of the Geffen Playhouse are responsible for Los Angeles’ introduction to one Dixie Longate: Alabama native, single mom, social critic, and, above all, housewares entrepreneuse in the unveiling of Dixie’s Tupperware Party. This 100-minute interactive theatrical experience—having already cut a successful swath through New York City and numerous other venues—encompasses audience participation and liberal doses of Dixie’s unique brand of Southern-fried personal reminiscence.
   Oh my baby Jesus, does she talk, as the taffeta-clad, bouffant-haired lady herself might put it: yarns about how her parole officer got her started in the Tupperware dodge, her three deceased exes, and the thrill of going to an annual salesladies’ corporate jubilee to celebrate the past year’s biggest earners.
   Make no mistake, by the way: This is a for-real sales event, no foolin’. The chairs of the Geffen’s intimate Audrey space are preset with catalogues, order forms, and complimentary pens (thanks, Dixie!). Before you’re granted exit, you will have seen a couple dozen items paraded before your eyes, stock numbers and all, and just try to get past Dixie and her beaming minions as they pounce to take your order before you can make it out onto LeConte Avenue again. A lot of “the crap,” as Dixie is fond of referring to her wares, needs to be shipped from Tupperware Central, though on opening night there was quite a run on all sorts of bowls, canisters, and gadgets available cash and carry. The lady is, without a doubt, persuasive.
   The provenance of the merchandise is assuredly official Tupperware, but that of the show is couched in some mystery. Director Patrick Richwood makes his presence known through a beaming photo in the program, but the writing is credited to some guy named Kris Andersson, who appears to have something of the same relationship to Dixie that that Australian fellow Barry Humphries has to the celebrated (and frequent visitor to our county) Dame Edna Everage.

In both cases, you don’t want to sniff around too closely; just sit back and wallow in the situation. And there’s plenty to wallow in.
   Dame Edna and Miss Dixie share a good deal more than a certain ambiguity beneath the pantyhose. Both greet their audience members with tender condescension, and both are rampant narcissists exuding self-love at every conceivable opportunity. “Where are you from, darlin’?” Dixie will ask a flustered patron. “London.” “Oh!” the star exclaims, “Hola!”—clearly indicating that in her eyes one furriner is jes’ lak t’other, and, never mind that, can I interest you in this container for marinating meat?
   Speaking of meat, while Edna is no slouch in the naughtiness department, Dixie has her beat by a country mile, with allusions to sexuality that go so far beyond double entendres, they’re just entendres. It starts with the pronunciation of her name (when you say it out loud slowly, the only possible response is, “Why, yes, they certainly do”); followed by rapid-fire references to private parts and demonstrations to boot.
   Prudes will be made uncomfortable by her verbal and visual antics even as they’re drawn to the deep-dish salad crisper, though Dixie clearly couldn’t care less about any ol’ stick-in-the-muds who are bothered. Indeed, one senses she has a wicked evil eye for anyone squirming; bless their hearts, they better watch out.
   Most important, divas Edna and Dixie share an ability to perfectly play their spectators like a musical instrument in order to extract the maximum amount of embarrassed hilarity. When four audience members are placed on stage, one is immediately identified as “lesbian” simply to be the butt of Doc Martens humor, while a young man down front is chosen to stand in for everyone of the male gender who dismisses Tupperware as all about mere bowls. “Ain’t that right, Patrick? Just bow-els, bow-els,” she drawls with frosty hostility.

And say this for Dixie, she picks her targets extremely well: The putative lesbian took it all with good humor, and when poor Patrick took the stage to show how easily the Tupperware can opener works, his 10-minute display of ineptitude justified every bit of skepticism about male competence our hostess had already raised.
   You could quibble and say that while Dame Edna sticks to her guns without ever backing off her nastiness, Dixie takes the time, before her party ends, to lower the lights and get all sincere, the way Don Rickles does when he wants to take some of the heat off his insults. On the other hand, Dixie’s dazzling improv ability is something Edna could well envy, and her brief foray into sentimentality only serves to endear her to us even more.
   I do hope you’ve gotten enough of a taste of the show to know whether it will grab you where you live. I for one thought it was wonderful. And I really love my new can opener.

July 11, 2014
July 10–Aug. 31. 10886 Le Conte Ave. (parking around the block adjacent to Trader Joe’s). Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 7pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time 100 minutes, no intermission. $55–60. (310) 208-5454.

Sage Awards
for theater in 2013

   Who says critics don’t like anything? Our theater critics chose their tops of 2013, from best production through best fight choreography, and the crossover among our choices gave rise to a surprisingly large list.
   And so we have decided to inaugurate our Sage Awards—named for the obvious reference to the wisdom we hope for, but also for the plant that covers the Los Angeles area, as we do.
   Congratulations to the Sage Award winners, and we hope to share more great theater in 2014.


Ah, Wilderness!, Actors Co-op

El Grande de Coca Cola, Ruskin Group Theatre

Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine

Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre  

Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre

The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre


Jennifer Haley, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Bruce Norris, A Parallelogram, Mark Taper Forum

Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine

Christopher Shinn, Dying City, Rogue Machine

Jackie Sibblies Drury, We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre


David Ives, The Liar, Antaeus Company

Nancy Keystone, Alcestis, The Theatre @ Boston Court

Jessica Kubzansky, R II, The Theatre @ Boston Court


Joe Iconis, The Black Suits, Kirk Douglas Theatre

John Kander and Fred Ebb, The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre


Matthew McCray, Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre

Michael Peretzian, Dying City, Rogue Machine

Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Ken Sawyer, The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre


Dennis Castellano, The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory

Eric Heinly, A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream, Troubadour Theater Company at Falcon Theatre

Ross Seligman, One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Robyn Wallace, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Chance Theater  


Rob Ashford, Evita, Pantages Theatre

Matthew Bourne, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Lee Martino, Nuttin’ but Hutton, NoHo Arts Center

Arlene Phillips, The Wizard of Oz, Pantages Theatre

Susan Stroman, The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre

Kelly Todd, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Chance Theater


Ken Merckx, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within


Adrian W. Jones, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Keith Mitchell, Billy & Ray, Falcon Theatre

Allen Moyer, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Jeanine A. Ringer, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Thomas A. Walsh, Annapurna, Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Evidence Room, at Odyssey Theatre


Ken Booth, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Paule Constable, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Christopher Kuhl, The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

David Lander, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Justin Townsend, One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse


Angela Balogh Calin, Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Lez Brotherston, Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Ahmanson Theatre

Michael Krass, Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts


Jonathan Snipes, Wait Until Dark, Geffen Playhouse


Mark Bramhall (grandfather), Walking the Tightrope, 24th STreet Theatre

Phil Crowley (Nat Miller, father), Ah, Wilderness!, Actors Co-Op

Jason Dechert (young Pericles and pandar), Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Arye Gross (Mr. Sipos), Parfumerie, Wallis Annenberg Center

Robert Lesser (lawyer/Greek chorus), A View From the Bridge, Pacific Resident Theater

Dakin Matthews (Doyle), The Nether, Kirk Douglas Theatre

Seth Numrich (Eli), Slipping, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater at Lillian Theatre

Deborah Strang (narrator), Pericles, Prince of Tyre, A Noise Within

Paige Lindsey White (Esme the granddaughter), Walking the Tightrope, 24th STreet Theatre


Sabrina Elayne Carten (Blues Singer), One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Nate Dendy (The Mute), The Fantasticks, South Coast Repertory

Mary Bridget Davies (Janis), One Night With Janis Joplin, Pasadena Playhouse

Jamie McKnight (Scarecrow), The Wizard of Oz, Pantages Theatre

Josh Young (Che), Evita, Pantages Theatre


Lorenzo Pisoni, Humor Abuse, Mark Taper Forum


The Katrina Comedy Fest, Bayou Playhouse and Flambeaux Productions at Lounge Theatre: Peggy Blow, Deidrie Henry, Travis Michael Holder***, Judy Jean Berns, L. Trey Wilson, and Jan Munroe

One Night in Miami…, Rogue Machine: Giovanni Adams, Kevin Daniels, Jason Delane, Matt Jones, Ty Jones, Jason E. Kelley, Burl Moseley, and Jah Shams

Our Class, Son of Semele Ensemble at Atwater Village Theatre: Melina Bielefelt, Sharyn Gabriel, Matt Kirkwood, Michael Nehring, Gary Patent, Gavin Peretti, Sarah Roseberg, Kiff Scholl, Dan Via, and Alexander Wells

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Davidson/Valentini Theatre: Johanna Chase, Paul Haitkin, Michael Hanson, Elizabeth Herron, Carl J. Johnson, Che Landon, Ed F. Martin, Ann Noble, Dylan Seaton, Christine Sloane, and Paul Witten

The Scottsboro Boys, Ahmanson Theatre: Gilbert L. Bailey II, David Bazemore, Ayanna Berkshire, Shavey Brown, Christopher James Culberson, Joshua Henry, Trent Armand Kendall, Max Kumangai, Hal Linden, JC Montgomery, Justin Prescott, Clinton Roane, Cedric Sanders, Deandre Sevon, Christian Dante White, and C. Kelly Wright

We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884–1915, Matrix Theatre: Daniel Bess, Julanne Chidi Hill, Joe Holt, Phil LaMarr, Rebecca Mozo, and John Sloan

***Travis Michael Holder reviews for He did not nominate himself, nor did he nominate his show.

The voting theater critics of Travis Michael Holder, Dany Margolies, Julio Martinez, Dink O’Neal, Melinda Schupmann, and Bob Verini

January 5, 2014

International City Theatre

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann

Paige Lindsey White and Tony Abatemarco
Photo by Suzanne Mapes

A theatrical reminiscence by Joanna McClelland Glass about a time when she served as secretary to Judge Francis Biddle gets a standout production at International City Theatre. Its casting choices—Tony Abatemarco playing Biddle, Paige Lindsey White as his assistant Sarah “with an h”—make the very literate and demanding script a thoughtful and intimate view of two people whose lives are changing.
   Biddle, a judge at the Nuremberg trials and former attorney general of the United States under Franklin Roosevelt during World War II, is 82 and declares that this will be the last year of his life. He claims, “The exit sign is flashing over the door.” Sarah is one in a long string of women who have worked for him, mostly unsuccessfully, and she has been urged by Biddle’s wife to try to work with him in spite of his curmudgeonly ways.
   Sarah is from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and credits her Canadian prairie roots for her ability to prevail over Biddle’s dictatorial pronouncements. She admires his record and wants to make this part-time job work.
   Abatemarco inhabits Biddle most convincingly; his transformation into a cantankerous octogenarian with increasing lapses of memory and physical ailments is commanding. White has her work cut out for her to hold her own against Abatemarco’s rich characterization and dialogue, but she gives her character subtle nuances and agreeable charm.

Glass packs a heap of history and literature into her script. Biddle’s ancestor, Virginian Edmund Randolph, was the country’s first attorney general. Most of his siblings had notable careers. Some melancholy days at Groton and then Harvard come into focus, though he is definitely a proponent of an Ivy League education. At least it looks that way to Sarah, a fact that comes up early in her employment.
   Glass credits Biddle with deep regret over his part in America’s internment of Japanese-American citizens during the war. He interjects much of his past into moments with Sarah as he relies more and more on her. He is delighted to learn that she likes poetry, as his wife is poet Katherine Chapin. They share a fondness for e. e. cummings, and throughout the production Biddle quotes from respected writers. He is particularly distressed by grammatical errors, and chides Sarah for her use of split infinitives.
   Director John Henry Davis keeps the action lively in spite of the erudite nature of the play. He finds ways to shine a light on White in the midst of Abatemarco’s imposing presence. Over time, as Sarah becomes more important to Biddle’s welfare, he adjusts the mood accordingly.
   JR Bruce’s inventive set with books stacked sky high sets the tone for the scholarly discourse. The set of stairs stage right leading from Biddle’s home to his office plays a role in watching him grow more and more frail.
   Dave Mickey’s sound design uses Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, and other popular groups of the 1960s to help anchor the audience in the time period. Also, radio clips of significant events like Martin Luther King’s assassination keeps that going as scenes change. Donna Ruzika’s lighting design works well with the overall mood.

Though audiences in Los Angeles tend to stand in appreciation at the end of plays, the instantaneous and universal acclamation on the night attended speaks volumes for the recognition that this is a special play. It is passionate, humorous, and intelligent throughout. By play’s end, the “trying,” by all involved, to make the relationship work proves a success.

August 24, 2014

Aug. 22–Sept. 14. 300 East Ocean Blvd., Long BeachFri-Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. $42-47. (562) 436-4610.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand
Theatre of NOTE

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Phil Ward, Kirsten Vangsness, Keston John, and Alina Phelan
Photo by Ido Bernstein

Erik Patterson is a master wordsmith, and anytime his impressive skills descend upon the LA theatrical community, they’re worth a look. His debuting I Wanna Hold Your Hand might be his most personal effort yet.
   The play was inspired by the real-life battle with a brain aneurysm and subsequent stroke that nearly killed Patterson’s best friend, Uma Nithipalan, a nightmare that forever changed the lives of the well-loved local theater actor and her steadfast husband, composer John Ballinger. While camped out for an agonizing week in a sterile hospital waiting room praying for Uma to wake from a coma, the playwright was offhandedly challenged to one day write a play about her ordeal—and Patterson is a guy who doesn’t take challenges lightly.
   I Wanna Hold Your Hand begins in one of those antiseptic hospital waiting rooms where brother and sister Paul and Julia (understudy Jonathon Lamer and the play’s co-producer Alina Phelan), are holding vigil for their mother (Judith Ann Levitt) lying in the adjoining ICU, felled in the same manner as Nithipalan. They are joined by Julia’s actor husband (Keston John) and a sleeping, blanket-covered father we never meet, whose vigil ended early on when news his teenage son’s fight for his own life ended tragically. Before long, another watcher joins the group: a terrified young woman named Ada (Kirsten Vangsness) who has been summoned there after her fiancé of only a few hours is admitted in the same dire circumstances.

The play chronicles the bittersweet connections that are often sparked between strangers at the time of unimaginable tragedy and the fragility of that condition that can also lead to frustrating missed connections. Patterson has created a touching and often humorous journey through the struggles that befall—and mostly strengthen—the lives of those afflicted, made all the better by a dynamic, gifted, and committed ensemble cast. Phelan and Vangsness are especially compelling to watch, particularly in one later scene together when what might be a relationship-shattering talk is thwarted in favor of maintaining their friendship, something both women at this point desperately need to hold onto.
   Still, the most memorable performance of the evening is turned in by Phil Ward as Ada’s intended, the only partially recovered Frank, a character we are privileged to watch try courageously to regain his speech and his dignity, and fight to get his life back.   Although Patterson has created a most promising new play, it is still somewhat a work in progress. Something is missing in the text, which aims to confront a subject near and dear to the writer yet surprisingly never goes as far off-center as his plays usually do. Part of this palpable sense of incompletion lingers in those missed connections, often suggested but not tackled as completely as they could be, and part of it is the Beatles-instigated theme that never materializes quite as successfully as it could. Even though Paul prays to the group’s dead members instead of the god he has lost belief in, and considering the fact that Levitt’s feisty mother was a diehard Beatles fan who named her children after one of the boys and the dead mother immortalized in one of their most beautiful ballads, the correlation never goes beyond the insinuation of more to come.

The other problems lie in the venue itself and the staging by director McKerrin Kelly. Theatre of N.O.T.E.’s deep but somewhat cramped restructured storefront playing space works like gangbusters with more abstract or unstructured works, but the kitchen-sink nature of this play somewhat backfires there, especially as voices in the more intimate scenes are made reedy and small, swallowed up into the room’s acoustically inadequate high ceiling. Kelly does a masterful job extracting fine performances from her cast, but the intervals between the play’s many short filmic scenes are cluttered by lengthy and elaborate scene changes, all made with fabric-covered cubes reminiscent of every actors’ workshop anyone ever attended, which in the frequency and clunkiness of their blue-lit rearrangement pull the viewer right out of the storyline. Lighting effects highlighting a bed in one corner, benches in the waiting room elsewhere, living room gatherings placed somewhere else on the deep stage, would have sped up the action and kept the throughline of the line of the play unhampered and unfettered.
   Then there’s the ending, which suddenly switches to focus on an elaborate Rube Goldberg­–y machine designed by William Moore Jr. that covers the entire three walls of the stage, an ingenious contraption Phelan’s character sets in motion. Although the apparatus, with its self-turning wheels, model trains on a mission, and collapsing oversized dominos is amazing to behold, sadly it shows that Patterson’s well-meaning desire to explore connections needs more time to find them.

August 20, 2014
Aug. 1–30. 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd. Thu-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. Running time 90 minutes. $20-25. (323) 856-8611.

Torrance Theatre Company at James Armstrong Theatre

Reviewed by Dany Margolies

At front, Eric Ferguson, Cindy Shields, and Christine Tucker
Photo by Alex Madrid

Oh, what a beautiful show. From curtain rise to curtain call, this production looks and sounds like a national tour. First produced on Broadway in 1943—with music by Richard Rodgers, and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II—Oklahoma! ushered in the Golden Age of American musicals. Its lush melodies and somewhat serious psychological study make this musical a timeless classic.
   In Torrance, the thrills begin when music director–conductor Rick Heckman strikes up the 19-member orchestra for the overture, which sounds like a recording by a 1940s philharmonic. Then, when the curtain goes up on the show’s first number, “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” the audience gets its first eyeful of the panoramic, sturdy set with its expansive Plains sky that changes mood and time of day (lighting design by Steve Giltner).
   And then we hear the performers’ heavenly singing voices—the antitheses of today’s pop belts—and watch those performers create believable characters. And when we thrill to the spectacular group dances, we know the Golden Age of American musicals is alive and thriving here and now.

Director-choreographer K.C. Gussler doesn’t shy from this musical’s darker themes. Here, pretty young Laurey (Christine Tucker), who lives on her Aunt Eller’s farm, is clad in overalls, her hair in pigtails. In Gussler’s view, she is too immature and too tomboyish to be thinking of marriage—despite the attention of the handsome, optimistic cowboy Curly (Eric Ferguson) and the dark, violent farmhand Jud (Jeffrey Black). This sets up the musical’s themes of growth and change: Laurey must manage adult emotions, while around her the territory of Oklahoma is moving into statehood.
   Clearly, this is not a musical for kids. Where many musicals rely on innuendo for their spice, this one delves into the young female psyche, most notably in the “Dream Ballet.” Here the program credits “inspiration” by the musical’s original choreographer, Agnes de Mille. With its brutalization of romantic love, with its inclusion of “harlots” that dance across Laurey’s vision, it’s a tough-to-watch but memorable physicalization of the storyline. According to de Mille, she fought to keep the ballet from being merely a pretty diversion, and, coming at the end of Act 1, it stunned many in this opening-night audience.
   The “Dream Ballet” also had this audience agape at yet another talent of the performers. Though the ballet is customarily danced by stunt doubles, here it stars the three leads. Gussler and co-choreographer Virginia Siegler play to the strengths of the two men, while Tucker’s ballet training gets put to beautiful use.

But not all is dark and serious in Oklahoma!. Ado Annie (Sara Hone), the girl who “Caint Say No,” is obligated to say yes to either the Persian peddler Ali Hakim (Perry Shields) or her hometown cowboy Will (Ryan Chlanda). Tough choice for the adorable Hone, because Shields has the comedic chops and Chlanda has the loose-limbed hoofing skills—including a difficult “stair” routine up and down wooden boxes. No worries: One or the other of the men will end up with the giggling Gertie (Karin Bryeans).
   De Mille thought Hammerstein was the best Aunt Eller she ever saw. She never saw Cindy Shields in the role, though. Above her singing and dancing skills, Shields is sturdy and comforting—for the characters and, on opening night, for the chorus, holding the group’s tempo and pitch.
   Speaking of musicality, Heckman takes the show’s many familiar tunes at pleasingly speedy but still manageable tempi. He also ensures the remarkable clarity of every lyric.
   Near the story’s end, Laurey tells her Aunt Eller she can’t take the toughness of life. You can and you will take it, says Eller. That’s the American spirit and the lesson here. Laurey, now married to Curly, heads off in the shiny little surrey he promised her at the top of the show. This one’s motorized, and the newlyweds hop in and drive offstage—an emblem of progress and hope for a better future.

August 11, 2014
Aug. 9–23. 3330 Civic Center Dr., Torrance. Fri 8pm (Aug. 22 only), Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm. Running time two hours and 50 minutes, including intermission. $25–33. (310) 781-7171.

One in the Chamber
Lounge Theatre

Reviewed by Bob Verini

Robert Bella, Emily Peck, and Heidi Sulzman
Photo by Chelsea Coleman Photography

For committed theatergoers, there's no happier occasion than stumbling upon a mature, polished work of dramatic art where you never expected to find one. In the little hole-in-the-wall Lounge on Santa Monica Boulevard, 6140 Productions is putting up the world premiere of Marja-Lewis Ryan's One in the Chamber, and you will not encounter a more stimulating evening of theater this year, nor one harder to shake off.
   A strong sense of something special is conveyed the moment you enter the theater space and scope out Michael Fitzgerald’s precisely detailed re-creation of a Colorado farming-home kitchen. Dozens of family photos attest to strong ties, and there’s evidence of activity everywhere: kids’ artwork proudly displayed; sports equipment leaning against the walls; cereal boxes and bread loaves attesting to meals eaten on the fly; laundry piled up for the folding.
   And yet something’s not quite right. Could it be the sense of incompletion, as if all the frantic busy-ness seems to have ceased in place? Or is it that not a single square inch of the spacious kitchen is given over to a family’s settling-in as a group? Whatever the cause of our unease, the set most definitely kicks off speculation on the psychology of the kitchen’s inhabitants, in a stimulating overture to the 75-minute gem that follows.

Ryan’s theme is psychic chaos in the wake of catastrophe, explored through a painfully plausible premise. Six years ago, a 10-year-old accidentally killed his younger brother with a handgun in this very room. Today, a state social worker (Emily Peck) has arrived to interview each of the survivors—father, mother, two sister, and the perp—to decide whether Adam (Alec Frasier) can be taken off probation to live a normal life.
   Normal? What can be normal under these circumstances? Ryan sidesteps all the traps of her given situation. She never falls into Movie-of-the-Week sentimentality or cliché, nor does she take a tendentious, preachy stance on the Second Amendment. All she’s after is a slice of life, albeit lives that have been sliced worse than any family should ever have to cope with. And she achieves it through emotion and behavior that are, from beginning to end, precisely observed and rendered.
   The production is seamlessly paced and cast. Heidi Sulzman, as bipolar mom Helen, has perhaps the most torturous arc to follow, and she’s magnificent, but so is every performance: Robert Bella, easygoing dad desperate to keep peace; Kelli Anderson as elder daughter Kaylee, angsty as any rebellious teen but with an extra air of sadness; Fenix Isabella, all gangly and screechie as little Ruthie, a breath of life in a house that needs it. Frasier is left until the end and lives up to the buildup, a sweet, walking wound. All of the interrogations are masterfully managed by Peck.

If this is, as Ryan admits, the work of a novice director, I cannot wait to see what she produces after more seasoning. But there is no need to wait, as One in the Chamber runs into September. You won’t soon forget it.

August 11, 2014
July 12–Sept. 7. 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 7pm. $25. (323) 960-7724.

Reasons to Be Pretty
Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Neal Weaver

Nick Gehlfuss and Shawn Hatosy
Photo by Michael Lamont

Playwright Neil LaBute is so prolific, and has created in so many different and varied media, that it’s virtually impossible to generalize about his work. (His program bio is downright intimidating.) But in many of the scripts for which he is best known—Fat Pig, In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things, and Your Friends and Neighbors—he seems to be convicting his characters of succumbing to other people’s values, cruelty, callousness, indifference, and moral cowardice.
   In Reasons to Be Pretty, he takes a more genial look at the world. His hero, Greg (Shawn Hatosy), is a blue-collar worker on the graveyard shift in a warehouse, where it always seems to be 3am. He may not be precisely a victim, but certainly he is not a victimizer.

When we first see Greg, he’s cowering from an onslaught of rage from his girlfriend, Steph (Amber Tamblyn), and utterly at a loss as to why she’s so angry. He made what he thought was an innocuous remark about Steph to their mutual friend Carly (Alicia Witt), acknowledging that Steph is not quite perfect. Carly has repeated his remark to Steph—a remark Steph deems demeaning, unappreciative, and designed to undermine her sense of self-worth. She’s not interested in explanations or apologies, and declares that all is over between them. She then storms off (in Greg’s car) and goes running home to Mama.
   We next see Greg at work, during his 3am break in the company lunchroom. And here we meet his friend Kent (Nick Gehlfuss), and Kent’s wife, Carly, who’s a company security guard. (In their circumscribed world, they don’t seem to know anyone who doesn’t work for the company.) Kent is unsympathetic to Greg’s plight as a ditched lover, and Kent is also a bossy, cynical bully, who treats Greg like an incompetent underling, though Kent needs Greg as a member of the company baseball team. And he insists on telling Greg about his clandestine affair with a gorgeous dish named Crystal, who works in another department. Eventually, he’ll pressure Greg into colluding with him to conceal his affair from Carly.

At this point, an objective observer might feel that if Greg had any sense, he’d shed both friend and girlfriend, but Greg doesn’t see it that way. Not yet, anyway. This play is about growing up—becoming a responsible adult. But, for Greg, the process is slow and painful. He’s still carrying a torch for Steph (though the torch dims a bit when she smacks him during a chance meeting), and he’s feeling guilty about helping Kent to deceive Carly. But, finally, the worm turns: Fed up with Kent’s bullying and manipulation, Greg decks him—and finds the act exuberantly, exultantly, and hilariously liberating. By the end, Greg is learning to cut his losses and take control of his own life. It’s not a blissfully happy ending, but it has real promise.
   LaBute has always shown a knack for capturing the lurking treacheries and manipulations that underlie our everyday lives, and he makes the offenders sufficiently funny and charming that we, like Greg, don’t immediately realize how dangerous they are.

Director Randall Arney deftly captures every nuance in the relationships and their unfolding. He keeps the comedy flowing, the realizations only gradually emerging. And he has assembled a terrific cast, knowing and expert. Hatosy brings a rare charm to Greg, rivaling Jimmy Stewart at playing the tongue-tied aw-shucks moments, but sketching the arc of his character with precision and conviction. Tamblyn’s Steph is so self-righteous and self-centered that one wants to smack her, but she never entirely loses our sympathy. Gehlfuss makes Kent enough of a slimeball that one can heartily enjoy his well-deserved comeuppance. And Witt is a winning presence as the deceived wife who knows in her heart that she has married a heel, though it takes a nudge from Greg to drive the point home.
   Takeshi Kata’s clever sets manage the frequent shifts of locale with unobtrusive speed and efficiency, and David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes seem right and apt.

August 9, 2014
Aug. 6–31. 10886 Le Conte Ave. (parking around the block adjacent to Trader Joe’s). Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 3pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm. Running time just under 3 hours, including one intermission. $37–77. (310) 208-5454.

The Taming of the Shrew
Independent Shakespeare Co. at The Old Zoo in Griffith Park

Reviewed by Dink O’Neal

Melissa Chalsma and Luis Galindo
Photo by Grettel Cortes

“A jug of wine, a loaf of bread—and thou” is the phrase made famous in English poet Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. With that in mind, it’s hard to conjure what might beat an evening of free Shakespearean verse and antics on the gently sloping grassy section of the Old Los Angeles Zoo at Griffith Park. Well, okay, it’s a city property, so you can’t bring the jug of wine, but a picnic dinner on a blanket or collapsible chairs followed by this first-rate production is a must-do for anyone whose summer activity list includes the arts.
   Director David Melville and a rollicking cast of zanies revive this now-familiar tale with such zest that even a mid¬–Act 2 sprinkle-turned–steady summer rainfall on the night reviewed didn’t detour this company or its audience from enjoying the entire show. Resetting Padua as a provincial Italian coastal town in the 1950s, complete with some really nifty costuming by designer Jenny Foldenaur, brings an embraceable accessibility to the story. And from the lowliest of servant roles to the titular character, this is an ensemble whose knowledge of its craft and the Bard’s works is abundantly evident at every turn.

Leading the pack are Melissa Chalsma and Luis Galindo as Katherine/Katerina/Kate and her stalwartly swaggering paramour Petruchio. So often, this particular pairing relies almost exclusively on a rough-and-tumble physicality that, at face value, produces the requisite comedy through base slapstick. Not so here. Chalsma and Galindo, presumably with Melville’s skillful direction, give us a glimpse of their brawn but with a more prominent nod to the brains that each character possesses as they thrust and parry toward a romantic conclusion. Chalsma and Galindo bring a refreshing honor to the script’s beautifully structured verbal one-upmanship. And hats off, or some other costume piece as it turns out, to Galindo for a bit of onstage bravery that will not be divulged here lest it ruin the effect.
   Sean Pritchett and Erika Soto as, respectively, Lucentio and Kate’s younger sister, Bianca, are the perfect set of lovebirds whose blossoming relationship is beset by disguises and the affections of other suitors. Thomas Ehas and Erwin Tuazon throw hilariously well-aimed wrenches into the works—left, right and center—as said suitors Gremio and Hortensio. Joseph Culliton expertly picks up on the world weariness of Baptista, Kate and Bianca’s forlorn father, whose prime mission is to marry off his daughters so he can enjoy a good rest.

Clear audience favorites were Andre Martin as the manservant Tranio, who assumes his master Lucentio’s identity in an effort to help his sire win Bianca’s love. Traipsing and mincing about the stage with the capriciousness of a butterfly, Martin is a hands-down master at revealing Shakespeare’s comic potential through words and actions. For almost the exact opposite reasons, Ashley Nguyen brings an exquisite sense of grounded strength to her scenes as the Widow who runs the town’s local café.
   Throughout the production, Nguyen, along with pianist Dave Beukers, provide a series of musical segues—songs she composed with, Melville, Chalsma, Jim Lang, and Mary Guilliams Goodchild—that perfectly set the 1950s tone. And hearkening back to that oddball visitation of rain, Nguyen nearly stole the show as, on the spot, she rewrote the lyrics to the final song, “Snow in Georgia” as—you guessed it—“Rain in Georgia.” It was the perfect capper for a wonderful night of theater—under the clouds.

August 7, 2014
Aug. 2–29. Griffith Park, near 4730 Crystal Spring Dr. Thu-Sun 7pm. (818) 710-6306.

Broadway Bound
Odyssey Theatre

Reviewed by Jonas Schwartz

Michael Mantell, Noah James, Betsy Zajko, Ian Alda, Allan Miller, and Gina Hecht
Photo by Enci

Jason Alexander, co-star of the original Broadway cast of Broadway Bound, directs this nostalgic piece with enough pathos and humor to stir audiences’ hearts. Led by the sensitive actor Gina Hecht, the top-caliber cast mines Neil Simon’s jokes for all their potency, while remaining grounded in this touching memoir of a family collapsing.
   The final play of Simon’s “Brighton Beach” trilogy, Broadway Bound is more dramatic and less jovial than Brighton Beach Memoirsand Biloxi Blues. In winter 1949, the Jerome family is at a crossroads as some members are climbing the capitalist ladder and others are tied to the pre–World War II world, have lost their way.
   The narrator Eugene (Ian Alda) is no longer the naive child of the first play. He and his brother, Stanley (Noah James), have begun an exciting writing career. Their Aunt Blanche (Betsy Zajko), who in Brighton Beach Memoirs is a lonely widow struggling with two daughters, has married a wealthy man and now lives comfortably on Park Avenue.
   Heartbreakingly, the marriage of parents Kate (Hecht) and Jack (Michael Mantell) is disintegrating. The noble, kind spirit that led the household in Brighton Beach Memoirs is gone. Jack has lost the integrity that Eugene idolized in that first play. Weak and sometimes cruel, Jack treats his family like strangers. Kate, who lives to serve her family, finds her boys growing up and her husband sneaking away, so her purpose is dwindling. Grandfather Ben (Allan Miller) ignores his ill wife and lives separately from her in the Jerome house, ranting Socialist rhetoric about how the country has fallen apart.

Dealing with the tragedy of growing old and growing apart, author Simon, who won a Tony for the play in 1986, still manages to be hilariously astute. Punch lines about the generation gap, familial bonds, and life in the lower middle class never mock the characters but shine a light on experiences many share.
   Alexander, who played Stanley in the original production, displays a special affinity with these people, and that filters through to the cast. Miller, as the cantankerous but wise grandfather, plays the role with insight into Ben’s values and into his selfishness. Zajko brings tenderness to Blanche, a central character from the first play, now on the sidelines in the family, too wealthy to fit in anymore and too representative of everything her father hates to connect with him. Zajko makes it clear how much Blanche cares and how frustrating it must be to drift away when she can financially support the people who saved her and her children during the first play.
   James is a firecracker as Stanley, filled with anxiety, hope, and combustive energy of someone on the brink of success. He flops around like a yippy dog, endearing his character to the audience. Mantell has a tougher role, and, due to either brave or unwise choices, his performance didn’t ingratiate his character to the audience. It would take finesse to draw the audience to Jack despite his unlikable actions, and Mantell does not show the consternation in Jack’s current soul. He comes off as merely a cad.
   Eugene Morris Jerome has always represented the youthful exuberance, naiveté, and perceptiveness of Simon as a young man. It’s a great service to Simon’s voice that Ian Alda’s performance is so winning. Marveling at the family his character would eventually write about, Alda’s Eugene is observant, sensitive, and prescient.

But, Hecht holds the play together. Obstinate as a bull but protective and loving, her Kate is the Jewish mother audiences either cherish or wish they had. The play’s pièce de résistance, a monologue about Kate’s youthful dalliance with movie star George Raft, reveals a rebellious and passionate woman who may have been able to achieve more in a different world. Her foxtrot with Alda is graceful and touching.
   Set designer Bruce Goodrich and prop designer Katherine S. Hunt have turned the stage into a lived-in Brighton Beach Jewish home of the late ’40s with ironed doilies, hanging designer plates, sconces, and faded family photos. The costumes, by Kate Bergh, are appropriate for the period and this family’s financial lot.
   A special play, Broadway Bound is poetic in its interpretation of a family’s struggles. Unlike Eugene O’Neill’s, Tennessee Williams’s, or Edward Albee’s literary families, Simon’s famous family rallies together under adversity, with comedy and love. Alexander’s witty version is a valentine to families everywhere.

August 6, 2014
Aug. 2–Sept. 21. 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. There is wheelchair access. Fri-Sat 8pm, with selected Wed and Thu perfs, Sun matinee times vary. $30. (323) 960-4412.

Buyer & Cellar
Mark Taper Forum

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

Michael Urie
Photo by Joan Marcus

The premise is so implausible it could be real, although Michael Urie, the sole performer in Buyer & Cellar, makes sure in the opening beats that his audience knows Jonathan Tolins’s sprightly little comedy is a work of fiction. Still, there is that slight head jerk and the rapidfire batting of his expressive eyelashes as Urie suggests that Barbra Striesand, who features prominently in the imagined storyline, is known to be a tad litigious. Is there a bit of a subtle wink-wink-nudge-nudge added here to suggest there is more to consider as we’re taken on an E-ticket ride through an eccentric superstar’s personal at-home Oz?
   The story centers on Alex Moore, a young Hollywood acting wannabe who loses his job at Disneyland as the Mayor of Toontown, leaving him plenty of time to do LA theater (which, he observes, “is just about as tragic as it sounds”). Soon, however Alex is referred to a position as the sole proprietor of Streisand’s personal shopping mall, set up in grand style in the basement of a barn on her Malibu estate. As Alex describes it, “it’s as if your grandmother designed an Apple Store,” featuring an antique shop, a vintage doll store, a soda fountain complete with sprinkles to be liberally offered in Streisand’s very own frozen yogurt bar, and a clothing store filled with the diva’s personal wardrobe resembling “a dress shop in Gigi stocked with costumes from Funny Girl.” Why, there’s even a mink hat on display—one that’s perfect for tugboat travel.
   At first Alex wonders how he can keep from going bonkers, dusting Streisand’s massive assemblage of just about anything and everything Americana from the 18th through the 20th centuries, a collection culled over the decades never inhibited by any budgetary restrictions, making it something akin to Hoarders on a higher plane. One day, however, things change as the lady of the house enters the doll shop and immediately plays a bizarre game with the wide-eyed Alex, playing unknown customer to his clerk in her own world, suggesting Alex call her Sadie as she browses the store’s crowded shelves. As she dickers on the price of a doll that’s already hers, her uncomfortable, starstruck employee is only too glad for all those improv classes he took with The Groundlings.

It’s hard to imagine the farfetched nature of this piece working without the many-octave range and endearingly cuddly nature of Urie, who takes about five minutes to make everyone in the audience fall in love with him. His Alex is clearly someone you just want to hug and protect, but when Urie launches at breakneck speed into one of the play’s other characters, from Alex’s bitchy boyfriend Barry to the star’s husband James Brolin to the manor’s Gestapo-esque housekeeper to Babs herself, it becomes apparent this talented lad could play just about anyone. As Streisand, he’s not in any way the tired traditional drag-queen Barbra, instead giving his subject a sweet delicacy and the lost essence of a mysterious, reclusive public figure somewhat tormented by the nature of great fame and all the criticism someone in that unique position must try to ignore. Only one standard Streisand-y mannerism survives and is surely recognizable to just about everyone in attendance, as Urie runs his nonexistent stiletto fingernails through his subject’s imaginary blow-dried frosted bangs.
   Buyer & Cellar is extremely slick and, running just under two intermissionless hours, diabolically quick, filled with so many nonstop Friends of Dorothy–inspired references that it begins to feel like Tolins’s roots might just have been as a camp follower of the Jewel Box Revue. Ordinarily, this technique can cause massive eye-rolling in an audience, but again, in Urie’s capable hands, it all works like gangbusters. And as Alex and his famous boss teeter more and more on the verge of becoming reluctant friends, something that eventually costs him his obviously jealous boyfriend, it also becomes a little bittersweet, eventually emerging as a knowing statement about the loneliness and insecurities of superstardom.
   At one point Alex tells us that, unlike Barry, he doesn’t want to spend his life being a less-talented person making fun of more-talented people—a concept Urie and Tolins, along with their director Stephen Brackett, adhere to with classy finesse. Never is the legendary supernova the butt of an easy joke, nor are her eccentricities presented as anything but understandable under the weight of decades of massive worldwide scrutiny. This just might be the reason the awkwardly exposed, often pitiably cloistered megastar with a penchant for litigious conduct has left Buyer & Cellar alone in silence and without comment.

July 15, 2014
July 13–Aug. 17. 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown LA. Tue-Fri 8pm, Sat 2:30pm & 8pm, Sun 1pm & 6:30pm. Running time just under 2 hours, no intermission. $25-70. (213) 628-2772.
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