Pat Launer, Center Stage" is provided in part by the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation.
Losers are on the loose. Settled or not, straight or gay. There are foursomes in two plays that are not particularly likable, certainly not enviable, and all are on a decidedly downhill slope – either in their employment, their relationship, or both. As Sharon puts it in the Pulitzer Prize finalist, “Detroit,” “”When you’re at zero, anything can happen.” In “Detroit” and “Boys and Girls,” all four protagonists end up at zero. And it’s not clear that something, or anything, will happen. That’s the intriguing part of both these plays; nothing is wrapped up neatly at the end. It leaves a lot to audience imagination.
But I cannot for the life of me understand how Lisa D’Amour’s “Detroit” got to be a Pulitzer finalist, or an Off Broadway Obie Award winner for Best New Play of 2011. It’s sophomoric and shallow, while thinking it’s thinking big.
The characters, especially as played at the San Diego Repertory Theatre, are cartoonish. That’s not to say the performances aren’t compelling. But under the direction of Sam Woodhouse, they’re ridiculously extreme. So when the over-amped junkie, Sharon, engagingly but hyperactively played by Summer Spiro, actually spews some words of wisdom (and she might be the only character who does), it’s nearly impossible to pay attention to her. As her mate, fellow addict Kenny, Jeffrey Jones gives little indication of how he feels about anything – his release from rehab, his lack of possessions, his future, or his interactions with their seemingly solid, middle-class neighbors. Steve Gunderson’s Ben is a credibly lost soul, laid off and rudderless. As his wife, Lisell Gorell-Getz is a melodramatically neurotic alcoholic. Can we care when everything is lost at the end? There have got to be more interesting takes on the state of our republic.
One of them is “Boys and Girls,” at Diversionary Theatre. Here we meet two gay couples, one male, one female. The women share a child. The men share conflict and extreme ambivalence. As the title suggests, all are terminally immature and generally irresponsible. But they keep talking about doing “adult” things. They’re not capable, but they’re striving. And each of the relationships is captivating, in its own dysfunctional way.
The gals,desperate for a father-figure for their young son,ask Reed to move in, but he’s busy obsessing about his alcoholic ex, and OCD Shelly is paranoid, and jealous of Bev’s relationship with Reed. It’s a pretty delicious, if disheartening, portrait of the next stage in gay rights and liberation. Shana Wride nimbly directs an excellent cast, who master Tom Donaghy’s halting, overlapping dialogue, an authentic representation of a near-total breakdown in communication. The design elements are noteworthy, and the evening overall is dramatically satisfying.
Some pictures of the present are more sharply focused than others.
“Detroit” runs through March 16,at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.
“Boys and Girls” continues through March 23 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.
© 2014 Pat Launer
Now on local stages: a world premiere by a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the San Diego premiere of an adaptation by a man listed among the “100 smartest New Yorkers.” Actually, they’re both pretty smart guys, but their plays couldn’t be more different. You might say,one is deep and thought-provoking; the other is deeply shallow and supremely silly, by design.
Ayad Akhtar has the heart and soul of a poet. He also has the life experiences of a Muslim American. And in his writings, he’s something of a provocateur. He speaks in a voice that’s too rarely heard, and he boldly confronts inflammatory issues: Muslims vs. Christians and Jews, tradition vs. modernity. “The Who and The What,” his new, intimate-but-expansive family drama,focuses onlove, cultural expectations and inviolable mores.
Zarina is a feminist in a conservative Pakistani family. She’s working on a novel of‘gender politics,’ specifically, women and Islam, women and the veil. She hasn’t got time for marriage, though her tradition-bound father won’t allow her younger sister to wed until Zarina does. He put an end to Zarina’s earlier relationship; now he’s searching for a more suitable mate, by posing as his daughter on a Muslim dating site. And he comes up with a pretty good catch: Eli is a white convert to Islam, who runs a mosque cum soup kitchen. Conflict ensues in all directions, often in the name of love. Only the last-minute button is troubling; motherhood is offered as a pat solution to all ills, just like it was in Wendy Wasserstein’s “Heidi Chronicles.” More than her father can, this turn of events seems to put an end to – or at least put on long hiatus – Zarina’s potentially incendiary writings.
The La Jolla Playhouse production is superb, set against a backdrop of blue and white Islamic mosaic. Chicago-based director Kimberly Senior, who helmed Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winner, “Disgraced,” has a flawless feel for his rhythms and wit, and she’s marshaled an outstanding cast to inhabit these intriguing characters. There are layers of meaning and significance. And there’s universality in the particular. The issues raised will resonate with any orthodox religion or immigrant family.
Moving from the sublime to the ridiculous, we come to North Coast Repertory Theatre, and “The School for Lies,”David Ives’ adaptation of Molière’s 1666 comedy, “The Misanthrope.” Ives’ 2011 version, a hopped-up mélange of hip talk and rap, is completely spoken in rhymed couplets. Just as the French farceur was skewering the wealthy hypocrites of his society, this new incarnation, with all its inspired, over-the-top absurdity, comments on the duplicity, lust and greed of our own. Helmed by guest director Andrew Paul, a riotously comical ensemble, outrageously attired and bewigged, impeccably captures the verse,hilarity and heart of this wild and wacky satire.
One play celebrates inanity; the other, profundity. But there are laughs to be had in both.
“The Who and the What” runs through March 9,at the La Jolla Playhouse.
“The School for Lies” continues through March 23 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
© 2014 Pat Launer
A jealous husband with an explosive temper causes catastrophic consequences in two plays separated by style and centuries. In Sam Shepard’s 1985 “A Lie of the Mind,” the violence begets brain damage. In Shakespeare’s penultimate work, “The Winter’s Tale,” rage gives rise to banishment, incarceration and death. The false accusations come close on the heels of a romantic spousal liaison. The abuser spends the rest of his stage-time atoning. At the end, there’s a hope of reconciliation.
Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein is making his local directing debut with his favorite Shakespeare work. Tonally, “The Winter’s Tale” fluctuates wildly; it’s a royal tragedy at the outset, a bucolic comedy in the middle acts, culminating in marriage, forgiveness and contrition. Time is a palpable presence. A statue of the Queen comes magically to life. But nothing can bring back her young son, or the loyal courtier who exited, pursued by a bear.
Edelstein’s modern-dress production is a technical feast. There are some striking stage pictures, but overall, the effort feels fussy and overdone. Scenic elements rise from the trap or float down from the flyspace. Daffodils spring up from the ground. Three bears, not one, pursue the hapless victim, lumbering hairy presences we view in half-light, with clawed paws the size of snowshoes. There are onstage pianos, grand and miniature, the larger featuring the original music of Michael Torke, which ranges from starkly beautiful to angular, dissonant and percussively melodramatic, punctuating emotional moments in the acoustic equivalent of yellow highlighting and multiple exclamation points.
TV’s Billy Campbell is excellent as the volatile king, and Natacha Roi is regal as his besieged wife. Angel Desai is a small but mighty presence as the Queen’s first defender, Paulina. The younger generation is less effective, and the rustic scenes are often hayseed-silly. One inspired choice is the chorus of metronomes that represents the passage of Time. The cast, the music, the production, the performers – all as grandly inconsistent as the play itself.
The converse is true of Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind,” which coheres with the rest of his work: a bleak, darkly comic exploration of disaffected Americans, dysfunctional families, physical and emotional brutality, and the elusiveness of truth, love and genuine communication. Under the direction of faculty member Charlie Oates, the UC San Diego production is intermittently successful. The design is spectacular, the set a marvelous hodgepodge of suspended suitcases and furnishings, symbolizing these unmoored lives. The black humor comes through best in the parents played by Walker Hare and Zakiya Iman Markland. As the damaged lovers that link these two ravaged families, Gerard Joseph is outstanding as the volatile Jake and Chaz Hodges is heartbreaking as poor, mistreated Beth.
In both plays, winter will eventually turn to spring, and second chances may bloom.
“A Lie of the Mind” plays through February 23 in the Shank Theatre at UCSD.
“The Winter’s Tale” continues through March 16 at The Old Globe in Balboa Park.
© 2014 Pat Launer
What happens when circumstances force you to tap into deep wells within you… and something wholly unexpected emerges? In very different ways, two Obie Award-winning plays -- a beloved 1984 farce and a quirky 2009 comedy -- take their characters on an unpredictable journey to self-knowledge and genuine communication.
Lamb’s Players Theatre has hit paydirt twice before with Larry Shue’s wildly popular creation, “The Foreigner.” In the latest incarnation, director Kerry Meads shepherds an excellent ensemble, backed by the usual strong design work. At the center is funnyman Geno Carr as a self-effacing, pathologically taciturn Englishman left for three days at a lodge in rural Georgia. To calm Charlie’s terror of conversation, his buddy tells everyone that Charlie doesn’t speak any English.
Inventing a language and feigning lack of understanding, Charlie helps develop the self-esteem of dim bulb Ellard, wonderfully portrayed by Kevin Hafso-Koppman. He becomes privy to all kinds of secrets, including a nefarious plot concocted by a scary Klansman convincingly played, for the third time, by Stacey Allen. The nearly nonstop hijinks are punctuated by racist and xenophobic comments that remain all too familiar today. But most of the time it’s a laugh-fest, watching Charlie begin to relish his role as raconteur and confidant, developing a new sociability and personality. He and everyone else is changed by the experience.
Changes are taking place onstage at New Village Arts, too, in the offbeat, non-narrative “Circle Mirror Transformation,” written by Annie Baker, whom the New York Times recently called “one of the freshest and most talented dramatists to emerge Off Broadway in the past decade.”
Her play is episodic and somewhat non-linear. It’s rife with repetition and unfilled pauses. There isn’t a traditional plot. And yet, by the end of nearly two intermissionless hours, we feel a deep knowledge of these five characters -- their weaknesses, pain and failed relationships. Backstories, emotional wounds and private longings are revealed.
In a shabby community room in small-town Vermont, a six-week ‘Creative Acting’ class is being held. The loopy leader is a newbie at teaching this course. Her sometimes silly-seeming theater games are imaginatively used by the playwright to reveal character and history, inner turmoil and tentative efforts at bonding. Though the intention is to build perception, trust and listening skills, these exercises can be downright dangerous, especially in the hands of an inexperienced facilitator. The anonymous “Tell a secret you’ve never told anyone” radically alters the characters – and audience perception.
Under the skillful direction of Annie Hinton, the pitch-perfect casting inspires impressive authenticity. These damaged, floundering souls are richly inhabited by Dana Case, Tom Stephenson, Rhianna Basore, Eddie Yaroch and Sophia Richards.
There are dark recesses in both these comedies. And also intriguing insights.
“Circle Mirror Transformation” plays through March 2 at New Village Arts in Carlsbad.
“The Foreigner” continues through March 9 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
© 2014 Pat Launer
Just about anything goes in staging “Anything Goes.” The last-minute re-work of the 1934 musical boasted four high-profile writers, not necessarily working together, with another two added for the 1987 revival. All of which results in a hodgepodge storyline that’s nothing short of ridiculous. But the inanity is redeemed by the mind-blowing score of standards by Cole Porter, he of the catchy melody and whip-smart lyrics.
Given the mishmash of the show, a director has many options. He can play it kind of straight, and let the moldy laugh-lines thud where they will. He can amp it up it like a screwball comedy. He can take it to the meta level, with performers winking at the audience, doing triple-sized double-takes and groaning along with the onlookers. He can let the acting fall by the wayside and just focus on fabulous singing. Or go for phenomenal dancing, with tap taking the lead.
At some point during his high-octane, colorfully-costumed production at the Welk Theatre, director/choreographer Ray Limon does all of the above. Those double-takes and rim-shots get a little old in the first act. But things settle down as the singing and dancing take over. And they do steal the show. But given such a tonally varied approach, with character taking a backseat to shtick and some performances outlandishly over the top, the production underscores the weaknesses of the show itself: the fact that so few of the songs are sufficiently motivated either by character or plot.
Don’t try to make sense of the absurd number of mistaken identities; the cluelessness of the crew of the S.S. American, London-bound from New York; the decidedly un-PC, stereotyped representation of Asians; the timely hero-worship that makes having a Public Enemy or two onboard an exciting addition for the passengers; or the fact that the main character, the deliciously devilish Reno Sweeney, is an evangelist turned nightclub singer. What’s the diff? She gets the greatest songs, from the title tune to “You’re the Top,” “Friendship,” “Blow Gabriel, Blow” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.”
So did I get a kick out of it? Most of the time. “Anything Goes” is a classic, endearing in all its flawed zaniness. The writers associated with it are classics, too: P.G. Wodehouse & Guy Bolton; Howard Lindsay & Russel Crouse; Timothy Crouse & John Wideman.
At the Welk, the cast of 17 is skillful in its singing, bouncy and ebullient in its dancing, especially the tap numbers. The acting is a lot more variable. They all look great in their multi-change costumes, though the wigs are kinda cheesy. The five-piece band, under the musical direction of Justin Gray, provides buoyant backup.
If you go in with the title in mind, you’re bound to have a good time. Just remember, Anything Goes.
“Anything Goes” runs through March 23 at the Welk Theatre in Escondido.
© 2014 Pat Launer
For an archive of all of Pat's reviews, going back to 1990, use the 'search' function at www.PatteProductions.com.
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