Oct 25, 2004

Mixing It Up

The following shows didn’t receive faint praise, exactly, but overall got the kind of notices that fell short of outright raves—illustrating, I'd say, the difference between “Critic’s Choice” and “Recommended”.

I call these the ”Mixed Positives” (and in case you’re wondering, I put them alphabetical order), and the general idea is: If you like this sort of thing, it's for you.

A revival of Joseph Heller’s own stage version of his classic novel CATCH-22 at West Coast Ensemble in Hollywood has received respectful reviews particularly noting its relevance to our current war. In my Times review, I wrote that the “U.S. Army Reserve soldiers who refused a delivery mission in Iraq [recently] might have been channeling the spirit of Capt. Yossarian,” and while I qualified that director Claudia Jaffee’s production “noticeably strains, particularly in its second half, to keep up with Heller's overpopulated adaptation, there's heft and bite in its timeless portrait of a man at war with war.” Back Stage West’s Brad Schreiber had similar reservations, agreeing that “it is a tall order making this sprawling, hilarious, and devastating book work onstage,” but that “when it works, it’s a delight.” And the Weekly's Miriam Jacobson found Jaffee's direciton "seamless" but concurred that "there’s no overcoming the sameness of Heller’s amped-up quirky characters, who all follow the same mad Alice in Wonderland logic." On the night I went, there seemed to be a number of fans of the book, including my plus-one. He, and they, seemed to find the evening worthwhile, if not a knockout punch.

The Matrix Theatre returns to the scene with the U.S. premiere of Martin Crimp’s DEALING WITH CLAIR, a Pinteresque play about a brisk real-estate agent brokering a house sale, with unexpected personal complications. The Weekly’s Steven Leigh Morris, in a Weekly Pick review, was taken with the show’s “craft and polish,” with its study of “high-toned hypocrisy,” and with Gregory Itzin’s “nuance-laced performance.” I also invoked “nuance” in my review for the Times (scroll down)—in my case, I referred admiringly to the play’s “nuanced suspense”—though I quibbled slightly with director Andrew J. Robinson’s occasionally over-emphatic direction. Back Stage West’s Dany Margolies went to see both casts of this double-cast show, two nights in a row, a luxury I couldn’t afford; we can expect her review next week.

Sacred Fools is back on the anti-Bush campaign trail with DUBYA 2004, which pleased like-minded critics in varying degrees. The Times’ David C. Nichols enjoyed its “unbridled provocation” and “scabrous tabloid vulgarity” but took its “valid core questions” quite seriously, summing it up as a “dark cautionary in cartoon camouflage,” even “an electoral wake-up call” (for whom, exactly, I don’t know). The Weekly’s Erin Aubry Kaplan, comparing this installment with the “2000” rendition, said the new edition “has all the bite of the original, if a bit less focus.” Still, she agreed “Dubya is a real satire, as sobering and frightening as it is savagely funny.” Back Stage West’s Dave De Pino wrote that writer/director Joe Jordan “tinges this multi-styled, cluttered, and somewhat clumsy piece with dark melodrama, sheer buffoonery, college camp, gross-out shtick, and even touches of some pleasantly surprising profundity.”

The conclusion of playwright Levy Lee Simon’s trilogy about the Haitian revolution and its aftermath, despite the rather ungainly title FOR THE LOVE OF FREEDOM, PART III: CHRISTOPHE (THE SPIRIT) PASSION AND GLORY, has received plaudits from critics, who seem impressed above all that he and the Robey Theatre Company followed through with all 13 years of the epic story (1806-1820). The Times’ F. Kathleen Foley wrote that director Ben Guillory “again fills the space with military efficiency in a rich staging full of sound, fury and fitting ferocity,” and that whereas Parts I and II were “occasionally overstated and factually blurry,” the conclusion is “far more dramatically taut, a gripping ending to… a formidable theatrical achievement.” The Weekly’s Steven Mikulan found the piece overlong but conceded that it “has an undeniable power, thanks to Karl Calhoun’s strong performance in the title role and to Ben Guillory’s flawless direction of a committed ensemble.”

A slightly more tightly focused view of the past is provided in THE HISTORY OF FAIRFAX ACCORDING TO A SANDWICH, Leon Martell’s play about L.A.’s mid-town walking district, predomoninantly known as a Jewish haven, which is running at the Greenway Court Theatre in the heart of said district. The Times’ Don Shirley called it ”an excellent model for other neighborhood-themed plays,” covering Fairfax’s evolution from roughly 1814 to the present with a “chamelonic cast.” Shirley admitted that “this inherently episodic play isn't consistently terrific, but it's lively and funny enough to warrant a visit by anyone interested in L.A. history.” The Weekly’s always circumspect Steven Leigh Morris especially noted the fortuitous location, writing that “when you walk out onto Fairfax after the play, you can feel how Martell has enriched our appreciation of it with his ghost stories.” Back Stage West’s Madeleine Shaner, whose other gig is writing for Park La Brea News, was less impressed, saying this “potentially worthy play” needs trimming “to become more of a theatrical event and less of a rather dry history lesson.”

The Taper’s presentation of John Kani’s NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH received more praise for its noble intentions and Kani’s own stirring performance than for the play itself. The Times’ Daryl H. Miller compared some of its family revelations to “an overheated soap opera” but called the performances “always fresh and real.” The Weekly’s Steven Mikulan likewise wrote that “although Kani is flawless as the aggrieved Sipho… Nothing But the Truth remains a static piece of oratory that sounds more like a radio play than a story of decisions and consequences.” Back Stage West gave it a Critic’s Pick but the review isn’t available online; neither is my review for the Downtown News, though I can cull this quote from my own archives: I called it an “an impassioned if negligibly dramatic Socratic dialogue inspired by the complicated legacy” of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “There is more than just truth-telling in Nothing But the Truth, but not very much more.”

The Times’ always-blurbable David C. Nichols loved Patricia Kane’s spoof of barely repressed 1950s lesbian paperbacks, PULP at the Celebration Theatre in Hollywood, writing that it “takes a walk on the wild side of lipstick-smeared laughter, and its pert players score a comic bull's-eye.” Back Stage West’s Hoyt Hilsman called it only “half-silly,” with “solid performances” but “a shaky script and muted direction by Pamela Forrest." And the Weekly's Tom Provenzano quibbled with the decision to include musical numbers, which he said "stop the action cold"; luckily, he wrote, "Kane’s homage... has other strengths, namely the subject matter and the hard-boiled dialogue."

NEXT: If I have time I’ll give a quick summary of last week’s “one-offs”—reviews of plays taken on by only one publication, with no consensus to report. Or I might just wait for this coming week’s reviews and hope that more consensus emerges.

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