Arts In LA
Theater Reviews
 
Clybourne Park
Laguna Playhouse

Reviewed by Melinda Schupmann


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

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

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

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

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


 

 
Belleville
Pasadena Playhouse

Reviewed by Harker Jones


Anna Camp and Thomas Sadoski
Photo courtesy Pasadena Playhouse

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

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

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

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The Madres
Skylight Theatre

Reviewed by Harker Jones

Arianna Ortiz, Natalie LLerena, Margarita Lamas, and Alexander Pimentel
Photo by Ed Krieger

Stephanie Alison Walker’s The Madres is a searing, devastating look at a movement that swept Argentina in the 1970s. Set in 1978, the play focuses on Josefina (Margarita Lamas, who trades off with Denise Blasor), a housewife who buries her head in the sand at the political upheaval surrounding her; and her daughter, Carolina (Arianna Ortiz), who is a dissident, rising up against the patriarchy. Carolina’s daughter, Belén (Natalie Llerena), is pregnant in Paris with her boyfriend, or so they tell neighborhood priest Padre Juan (Gabriel Romero), who has turned traitor, and the boy next door, Diego (Alexander Pimentel), who has grown into an immature soldier, both of whom come sniffing around trying to find out Belén’s whereabouts. At the same time, Carolina is aware of a woman always sitting in a car outside, ostensibly watching their every move.
   The story is harrowing, not least because it is based on true events. The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo was a movement of women who marched through Buenos Aires as they searched for their children who had disappeared right off the streets.
   Originally wearing white cloth diapers with their missing children’s names stitched into them on their heads (the white being in defiance of the color black, which would symbolize that they were mourning their lost children), the scarves came to represent their movement for human rights.
   It’s a simple setup with just the five characters but it’s heartbreaking. The writing isn’t in-your-face pushing issues at us, thankfully. It’s sensitive and thought-provoking, and our entrée into their world is as comfortable as Josefina’s apartment (courtesy Christopher Scott Murillo) and the costumes (courtesy Jojo Siu), both of which are bright and warm and inviting. You feel both at home but also on edge. There’s clearly something in the air.

Director Sara Guerrero brings Walker’s words to vivid life and elicits fantastic performances from all five actors. The three generations of women (with a fourth on the way) are wildly diverse in character and performance. Lamas is sympathetic and understandably frightened. One can understand why she wants to just pretend everything is fine. By upending things, she could make things even worse. Ortiz’s Carolina is spiky, vulnerable, fierce, and protective, and one understands why she marches. By remaining silent, no change will come and more children will disappear. And Llerena’s Belén is terrified, enraging, sad, and desperate. She gives a knockout performance with depth and grace.
   Romero’s Padre Juan is a perfect coward still trying to skate by on a former sheen of benevolence. And Pimentel’s Diego is a quivering mass of insolence, condescension, and insecurity. He’s become a mini dictator because the military has instilled a sense of entitlement in him, and you can see, as he throws his weight around, the awkwardness and insecurity of a boy pretending to be a man.
   The Madres is not just a solid and moving reminder of Argentina in the ’70s. It puts a human face on political tragedies without being preachy, which isn’t always an easy balance. And it’s particularly timely with the oppression happening in this country these days. It should inspire us all to put on a white headscarf and march in front of the capitol under our own oppressive political regime.

March 20, 2018

March 3–April 29. 1816-½ N. Vermont Ave., L.A. Fri-Sat 8:30pm, Sun 2pm, Mon 8pm. Running time: 108 minutes, including intermission. $15–$41. (213) 761-7061.

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What Happened When
Echo Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Harker Jones


Ellen Neary and Chris Stack
Photo by Darrett Sanders

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

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

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

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Hostage
Skylight Theatre

Reviewed by Harker Jones


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

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

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

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

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Sell/Buy/Date
Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed by Harker Jones


Sarah Jones
Photo by Chris Whitaker

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

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

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

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

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The Chosen
Fountain Theatre

Reviewed by Harker Jones


Sam Mandel and Alan Blumenfeld
Photo by Ed Krieger

Based on Chaim Potok’s classic novel of the same name, The Chosen is an intimate four-character play about two Jewish boys coming of age through the backdrop of World War II. Our hero and narrator, Reuven (Sam Mandel), fatefully meets his BFF Danny Saunders (Dor Gvirtsman) through a heated street baseball game in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1944. At first adversaries, the two boys, who couldn’t be more different despite growing up only five blocks from each other, realize they have more in common than they would have ever thought.
   Reuven is a smart-aleck Orthodox math whiz. Danny, wildly smart with a photographic memory, is a Hasid on track to replace his father as rabbi and tzaddik, a religious leader and spiritual master, even though Danny wants to study psychology. Reuven’s father (Jonathan Arkin) is kind, open-minded, and generous, while Danny’s (Alan Blumenfeld) is pious, closed off, and cold. But times are changing, and none of the men swept up in them are able to resist change.
   Marking the 50th anniversary of the novel’s publication, the play (adapted into a well-received film in 1981) is a story we’ve seen countless times before, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t merit in it. The themes of religion versus science, fathers versus sons, tradition versus progress are always relevant. Potok’s play, which he and Aaron Posner adapted from his novel, paints deft portraits of the characters without falling into melodrama.

Director Simon Levy gets sensitive performances from his ensemble. Gvirtsman’s Danny is open, soulful, and tortured between his obligations and his yearnings. Gvirtsman is a good listener, too. Blumenfeld, as his father, is pitch-perfect as a man guided by God to lead his people and struggling to understand how not just the world but also his son are changing.
   Levy stages much action and many locations—two homes, a hospital, a softball game, and a college campus among others—with one backdrop. It’s a beautiful, sumptuous set of a wooden library with countless books, showing off how learned both of the boys’ families are. And that’s one of the things that creates such friction between the boys and their fathers, and between the families: Both are intellectual and have been steeped in education. Lack of knowledge is not an issue. Finding compromise is. And who isn’t that true for?

January 30, 2018
 
Jan 20-June 10. 5060 Fountain Ave, Los Angeles. Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm, Mon 8pm. Running time 2 hours, including intermission. $20-$40. (323) 663-1525.

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