Oct 25, 2004

Doing the Splits

There’s no accounting for tastes, it’s said, but that doesn’t stop us ink-stained wretches from tallying up the pluses and minuses of the lively arts. What Taper director once called “healthy disagreement” among critics—the occasion for his comment was Back Stage West presenting him with Garland Awards two years running for shows that had received poor reviews in Back Stage West—is alive and well among the critical brother- and sisterhood and L.A. And that’s what makes horse races (so they say—I wouldn’t know.)

The following “split decisions” (the newest update in my first catching-up edition of my Review of Reviews) are divided into two categories you should recognize if you’ve done any review-reading at all.


James J. Mellon’s musicalization of Oscar Wilde’s classic The Picture of Dorian Gray resets the action in contemporary New Orleans, and the result, DORIAN at NoHo Arts Center, has most critics raving. Back Stage West’s Les Spindle could barely contain himself, calling the show "highly original, intelligent, tuneful, provocative, and [packing] a powerful emotional punch. Even the persnickety Wilde would have approved of this Oscar-worthy adaptation." Meanwhile the Weekly's Tom rovenzano was excited by the sow's " fresh jazz-blues score paired with sensual and literate lyrics," and wrote that the show feels "like a huge Broadway production trying to burst out of the confines of this small theater." Well, to say that I dissented from this praise (scroll down) in my Times review would be an understatement. "Alternately turgid and bland" were some of the nicer words I used, though I did agree with my colleagues that the ultra-talented Armelia McQueen is "the show's secret weapon" as a waterfront madam.


The ironic fundamentalist-mocking chill-fest HOLLYWOOD HELL HOUSE at Center For Inquiry West in Hollywood (running, appropriately, through Halloween night) was described in pretty much similar terms by critics—it was just a question of whether they liked what they saw. The Times’ David C. Nichols was swept up in this “scant, vivid trek” through “Grand Guignol gore,” summing it up as a “hot-button cultural touchstone for the polarized present.” The Weekly’s Lovell Estell III didn’t particularly warm to what he called “a hokey, haunted-house serving of blood, guts, demons, gargoyle-like specimens, and fallen men and women,” while Back Stage West’s Terry Morgan split the difference, diplomatically calling it "an amusing, if not outstanding, experience."

BSW’s Morgan was also the dissenting voice on a revival of Pinter’s THE HOMECOMING at Glendale’s A Noise Within, on which The Times’ Lynne Heffley bestowed a glowing review (no longer available online) and the Weekly’s Steven Leigh Morris raved that director “[Sabin] Epstein’s stylization is perfect,” that “[Ben] Livingston’s Lenny is particulary fine—an English Conan O’Brien,” and that “he meets his match in [Abby] Craden’s razor-hearted Ruth, who looks a bit like Liza Minnelli and carries a crate of subtext in her transformation from Madonna to whore.” In his review, Morgan acknowledged some “terrific performances” but thought that director Epstein let the Pinter-esque pauses “swamp the pacing, which dissipates the necessary tension.”

An Irish twist on mustache-twirling melodrama, Theatre Banshee’s THE HUNT FOR RED WILLIE at the Gene Bua Theatre in Burbank attempted to delight and mostly exhausted the critics. The Times’s F. Kathleen Foley found it “light-hearted, fluffy—and just a tad belabored,” while the LA Weekly’s Amy Nicholson wrote that playwright Ken Bourke has “packed the stage with unlikable pests who irritate rather than entertain.” For her part, Back Stage West’s Terri Roberts seemed quite un-irritated: She particularly enjoyed the performance of “the hilarious and hugely talented” Matt Foyer, in a variety of roles. Indeed, she wrote that “he should be teaching a class on playing multiple characters.”

Neatly dividing a pair of scribes was MONSTER, Neal Bell’s riff on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica. Both Back Stage West’s Paul Birchall and the Weekly’s Neal Weaver admired what Birchall called director Andy Mitton’s “glitteringly imaginative staging full of organic acting,” but while he felt that the “enjoyable stagecraft… serves only to point up” the shortcomings of the Bell’s “dreary and overwritten text,” Weaver enjoyed Bell’s “sexual spin” on the tale and wrote that Mitton “turns the piece into delectable Halloween fare.”

Critics adored Nicole Blaine, the co-author and star of the solo show PIPE DREAMS at the Hudson Guild in Hollywood, but they were less taken with the show she penned with her director/husband Michael Blaine. The Weekly’s Tom Provenzano called Nicole “a remarkable young actor with brains, beauty, and rich comic delivery,” but summed up her piece—about Blaine’s struggle with her mother’s crack addiction—as “90 percent standup and 10 percent bathos.” Back Stage West’s Madeleine Shaner agreed that the show’s “stream-of-consciousness writing does not lend itself to a perceptible dramatic arc” and constructively offered that “it needs tighter structuring.” Still, Shaner felt that “the truth shines out” of Blaine’s “heartfelt… pleasantly familiar tale.”

Shaner was also the odd one out on TAKE ME OUT at the Geffen Playhouse. Richard Greenberg’s Tony winner about a pro baseball player coming out as gay was met with a Times Critic’s Choice (Don Shirley’s review is no longer available online) and with approval of the Weekly’s Steven Leigh Morris, who wrote that director Randall Arney had forged a “gentle, eloquent production that snags the characters’ contradictions with tender humor.” BSW’s <Shaner conceded many of the the production’s charms but quibbled that the Greenberg shouldn’t assume that “baseball-ese is everyone's first language,” and she wrote this his “dialogue has little to do with the way jocks, or anyone without a script, talk, but it's poetry for the literary senses, and when it gets real in Act Two, it's as stirring as a winning homer.” She cagily closed with the caveat “what might be considered a surfeit of in-your-face male nudity, extreme wordiness, and flawed dramaturgy--which consists mainly of narration--lessen the play's effect.” For his part, the Weekly’s Morris admitted that “the author’s intellectual voice is perhaps too pronounced in a play about jocks… but a play is a play, after all.”

Now there’s a suitably uncontroversial closer.

NEXT: The "mixed positives."


Paul Birchall said...

Ahhh, my review of MONSTER was really much more negative than you suggest here. Perhaps a better pull quote might have been, "Many scenes are so listlessly full of verbiage, you almost start calling out for the monster to leap onto the stage and grab a victim just so he or she will shut up." Or perhaps, "This monster is an unwieldy, lumbering beast, bloated and torpid, slow-moving even when it’s suffused with immeasurable rage. Oh, wait – that’s not the monster, it’s the play itself." Those would be more descriptive of my opinion, I think.

Hank Bunker said...

Greenberg: Gay Abner Doubleday?

hey, Rob. cool blog. I feel Madeleine Shaner's pain. The performances aside, which were all strong, "Take Me Out" was the dramaturgical equivalent of the hidden ball trick. (apart from those shower scenes.) a meretricious bunch of malarkey.