Oct 23, 2004

Starting at the Top

Believe it or not but I’m usually flummoxed, nonplusssed, and otherwise stupid when people ask me, “So what should I see?” A recommendation is always, or should be, a personal thing; there are some shows I would recommend to one and all, regardless of genre or ticket price, and others I would recommend on a case-by-case basis (like, say, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, which is a must-see extravaganza for a certain kind of had-to-be-there culture vulture who can swing a comp ticket—namely, folks like me--but is to be avoided like a plague of frogs by most everyone else).

But now, after sputtering a few titles, I can point these on-the-spot questioners to this weblog, where they can sift for themselves (and follow the links for more info) and not take my word for it.

At the Times I have three categories by which I can rank shows: Critic’s Choice, Recommended, and Not Recommended. These rankings determine where in the Thursday and Sunday listings the shows appear (thankfully the “Not Recommended” shows are never stamped with that opprobium; you have to infer it by their not being included in the “Choice” or “Recommended” column). My informal guidepost for these three rough categories is: A “Critic’s Choice” is one of those shows everyone should see, a “Recommended” is for those who like that sort of thing (and one hopes at least a critic’s description of the show, apart from his opinion of it, will clue in like-minded readers), and “Not Recommended” is for family, friends, and other unlucky house-paperers.

As I get caught up with what will be my weekly Review of Reviews feature, I’ve started by summing up currently running shows that have received unanimous accolades in every venue I can find (again, the reviews in Variety still elude me, and I’ll redress that oversight in the future). These are shows which, if you haven’t seen already you should (and, in all too many cases, I must confess, so should I.)

For months running it’s been the must-see show of the year; it opened in May and is running through Dec. 18. Athol Fugard’s EXITS AND ENTRANCES at the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood--a sort of two-person memoir/tribute to a late, great white South African actor who inspired him as a young man—is a Critic’s Choice in The Times, an LA Weekly Pick, and, though the review is no longer available online, a Critic’s Pick in Back Stage West (I know because I was that lucky critic’s non-reviewing “plus one” on opening night).
I was unclear, then, how Morlan Higgins, who gives in E&E the performance of a lifetime, could also appear in DEALING WITH CLAIR last weekend, and through December, at the Matrix. It’s double-cast, certainly, but don’t some of the performances overlap? I asked Fountain publicist Kim Garfield, who reported that Higgins must be appearing in DWC on Sun.-Tues. and in E&E Fri., Sat., and Sun. (a matinee). I’m still confused, since I saw Higgins in DWC on a Saturday night.
I bring all this up only because the Fugard play is not one in which to see an understudy; before you go to the Fountain, make sure that Morlan has not left the building. The play is beautiful but Higgins’ performance is the show here.

Two positive verdicts have come in on HEART OF A DOG at the Lillian Theatre. The Times' Daryl H. Miller pretty much loved Michael Franco's adaptation of Bulgakov's 1925 novella, about a dog with human characteristics, calling it "as funny as it is provocative" and lauding particularly Joe Fria's lead turn as a canine "so eager and feisty that you want to reach out scratch its ears." Back Stage West’s Les Spindle was also impressed, if more reserved, lauding Franco’s ambition and calling the “complex material absorbing” but probably best suited to “those well-versed in Russian culture and political history.”

The tiny Black Dahlia Theatre in midtown L.A. has bloomed into a reliable desination for the sort of plays you’d expect to see at South Coast’s old Second Stage or Off-Broadway. The Dahlia’s newest, the L.A. premiere of David Schulner’s affecting AN INFINITE ACHE, details the rise and fall and gentle denouement of a marriage with deceptively simple stagecraft, and the performances of Steven Klein and Suzy Nakamura are dead-on. The Times’ David C. Nichols called it "a deft populist construct with wisdom at its core”; the LA Weekly’s Lovell Estell III labeled it “a richly dimensional portrait of love in all its emotional, psychological and spiritual layers,” and Back Stage West’s Dink O’Neal praised the actor’s “unhurried choices and some of the best technical wizardry I've ever seen in a venue this intimate,” referring to Christopher Siebels’ extraordinarily versatile set. It may not be a first-date play, but it’s a surefire take-someone-you-love thing.

Believers and non-believers alike should rush to Julia Sweeney’s new one-woman show LETTING GO OF GOD at the Hudson Backstage in Hollywood, in which she recounts her journey from a comfortable Catholic faith to a less comfortable but more honest state of disbelief. I called it "brave, hilarious, and ultimately moving" in my Times review, while Back Stage West's Wenzel Jones pleaded that his "vocabulary is deficient in superlatives" (well, he was able to come up with "the funniest, most insightful show to have played the area in quite some time"). The Weekly's Steven Mikulan, always a cool customer, described the show as "at times... gruesomely funny" (which he means as a compliment, don't you know), and though he found it overstuffed with information, he allowed it this negative virtue: it "avoids the stagy, existential-lite moping associated with such public quests." Well, thank God--or whatever--for that.

The impish Leslie Jordan’s solo show, the colorfully titled LIKE A DOG ON LINOLEUM at the Elephant Asylum Theatre in Hollywood, recounts his growing up gay in the Deep South. Back Stage West’s Paul Birchall, no pushover he, gushed that Jordan “has the audience eating out of his hand from the first to last, and his assured script engrossingly balances revelation with the ability to entertain.” The Weekly's Martín Hernández riffed on Jordan’s title, comparing his “endearing and boundless energy” to a that of a chihauhua. And The Time’s David C. Nichols raved that “this compact dynamo pulls us into his confidence with house-shaking hilarity and heart-tugging candor.”

Glendale’s A Noise Within has apparently found fresh life in Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, according to Back Stage West’s Travis Michael Holder, who praised the production’s “remarkable starkness and a muscular simplicity,” and the Weekly’s Sandra Ross, who called it a "sumptuous, visually arresting production," noting that "Angela Balogh Calin’s whimsical, inventive sprite costumes explode in a riot of Day-Glo colors." Cool.

Among the most intensely discusssed offerings in town is Tom Jacobson’s OUROBOROS at North Hollywood’s Road Theatre. It’s a play about the spiritual quest of two American couples in Italy that runs its scenes in reverse order on alternate weekends to create two separate evenings under the titles, “A Nun’s Tale” and “A Priest’s Tale.” The Times’ erudite Philip Brandes wrote that director Michael Michetti’s “impeccable staging makes it easy to appreciate this new work in all its dazzling ingenuity.” The Weekly’s equally thoughtful Steven Leigh Morris called the play(s) an “enchanting metaphysical etude… a highbrow Twilight Zone and a comedy of opposites ever so carefully and symmetrically balanced.” Back Stage West has it listed as a Critic’s Pick but the review is no longer available online.

Likewise, THE TANGLED SNARL & MURDER ME ONCE, a double bill of film noir spoofs, has unanimous picks and raves but only one review is still available online, the Weekly’s, by Martín Hernández, who calls its “uproarious,” mixing “Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Mel Brooks” under James Reynolds’ direction.

Finally, the high-concept satire A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT at Santa Monica’s Powerhouse Theatre has critics buzzing with barely contained glee, as if to say: Someone finally got away with this! The Times’ David C. Nichols pulled out his Roget’s to praise this “mix of pastorale, Dianetics demo and Bill Melendez Peanuts special,” while Back Stage West’s Paul Birchall came up with his own list of comparisons in calling it a “provocative mix of Christmas-pageant sincerity, Christopher Durang-like irony, and unexpected rage.” The LA Weekly’s Steven Mikulan offered his own literary analogy: “The evening plays out like a comedy about mind control as written by Nathanael West.” All the critics raved about the young grade-school troupers who put across the show’s irony with straight faces.

Next update: Such critical “split decisions” as DORIAN, HOLLYWOOD HELL HOUSE, and THE HOMECOMING.

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