Nov 23, 2004

Review of Reviews, pre-Turkey Edition Finale

I’m on the home stretch of recent reviews, summed up for your delectation:

Back Stage West’s Paul Birchall added another critical bouquet to THE LESSON at Santa Monica’s City Garage, writing that this production of Ionesco’s power play “boasts unusually focused timing… with blocking that's choreographed to the slightest gesture and nuanced glance” under director Frederique Michel. He did find Michel’s climactic substitution of a Republican party armband (is there such a thing?) for the play’s usual Nazi swastika to be “a jarring, clumsy note,” but he concluded with the recommendation: “If you've never seen any Ionesco, this serves as a great introduction.”

The young Vs. Theatre Company, whose inaugural production of The Credeaux Canvas last year promised great things from the troupe, is back with another premiere, this of Londoner Sarah Phelps' sex comedy MODERN DANCE FOR BEGINNERS at the Little Victory in Burbank. The Times’ F. Kathleen Foley enjoyed it, dubbing it “an abbreviated La Ronde, with more laughs.” For all its “sparkling wit,” she did peg some of its “belabored turns” as rather TV-like, but wrote that “in his finely tuned staging, [director] Ross Kramer keeps the action meticulously realistic.” The Weekly’s Amy Nicholson was even more impressed, reading Phelps as “more passionate about psychological power plays than sweet passion… Her snapshot trysts spark with a tension that’s more animus than amorous.” Both critics praised leads Johnny Clark and Robyn Cohen, who play all the parts.

Garnering enthusiastic notices for its acting, writing, and direction is Brett C. Leonard’s ROGER AND VANESSA, in a rental production at the Actors’ Gang El Centro space in Hollywood. In her LA Weekly review, Sandra Ross wrote that the one-act about a bickering New York couple “crackles with bleak humor… made persuasive by [Silas Weir] Mitchell’s swift direction.” She also praised leads Jack Conley and Elizabeth Rodriguez, and Back Stage West’s Brad Schreiber went further, calling the actors “nothing less than electrifying.” He conceded that “Leonard's long one-act takes a predictable arc” but that the actors and director Mitchell are up for this “exciting theatrical challenge.”

Critics were taken with Patricia Cotter’s new relationship comedy, THREE at Venice’s (solar-powered) Electric Lodge. The Weekly’s Tom Provenzano praised the “uniformly excellent acting” and Michael Angel Stuno’s “agile directing,” but above all found that this look at three couples’ attempts to make the long-term thing last revealed a “remarkable new voice” in Cotter, whose “ear for contemporary dialogue combines with a keen understanding of her generation’s foibles and a sharp sense of humor to create a fresh and tender comedy.” (Apparently he didn’t see The Break-Up Notebook.) Back Stage West’s Paul Birchall agreed, writing that while some of Cotter’s writing “is founded on stereotype,” it nevertheless “displays a penetrating wisdom about human emotion.” In all he found director Stuno’s production “a tight and crisply timed balance of humor and pathos.”

Jerry Mayer’s romantic comedy 2 ACROSS at the Santa Monica Playhouse received kind if unenthusiastic reviews, with the Times’ F. Kathleen Foley calling it a “charming, character-driven comedy” with the benefit of director Deborah Harmon’s “comically well-timed staging and two undemonstrative yet heartfelt performances.” Back Stage West’s Paul Birchall agreed about the performers—but only in the sense that, as he wrote, their “appealing chemistry together [goes] a long way to ameliorating” the show’s “disappointingly empty” plot and its overall “routine TV sitcom” feel.

I came across two more reviews for the much-talked-about A VERY MERRY UNAUTHORIZED CHILDREN’S SCIENTOLOGY PAGEANT at the Powerhouse Theatre in Santa Monica, and they were a study in contrasts. The Daily News’ Evan Henerson gave the show the only diss I’ve seen in print and Variety’s Julio Martinez praised it even more highly than his colleagues. Henerson’s point: that Scientology and L. Ron are “easy targets” and the production’s self-conscious “shabbiness and cheer” do not a play make. Martinez, for his part, thought that “provocatively juxtaposing innocent revelry and weighty content” was the whole point, opining that the “perceived lack of artifice makes the production's indictment… that much more devastating.”

“Self-consciously wacky” and “unmemorably slight are two of the phrases critics used to describe Amy Freed’s FREEDOMLAND, and they weren’t much more impressed by the new production of the Pulitzer Prize-finalist play at Burbank’s Sidewalk Studio Theatre. In Back Stage West, Terry Morgan thought that “director David Barry does a creditable job” but couldn’t get past “the wildly variable quality of the play and a few slightly unsteady performances.” I was a little harsher in my LA Times review; to me it looked like “the kind of actor-showcase production typically reserved for routine desecrations of the works of Shepard or Shanley.”

And that’s all she wrote—this week, at least.

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