Nov 12, 2004

Review of Reviews Two-fer

I’m back… just barely. What a week it’s been, and it’s not over. The life of a freelance writer—a freelance anything—is very seasonal, and right now, I guess I’m happy to say, things are busy. I know that in a month they will start to grind down and the in-flow to the old Washington Mutual free checking account will slow to a trickle just as the obligatory holiday outflow begins. I think that famous quote about the only two things that are certain in life has been misstated, or misheard—I think it’s meant to be debt and taxes.

Anyway, right into the fray we go. But first, a note: Time doesn’t permit me talk about one-off reviews, I’m finding. Unless I can find some consensus—a minimum of two reviews of a given show—there’s not much for me to write.
Oh yes, and another note: This list is not complete. Also receiving strong reviews this week were MACHINAL at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Center in Hollywood and A CONSTANT STAR at the Laguna Playhouse. I will get to them—and some other less well-praised productions—as soon as time permits.

Critics are buzzing about A FLEA IN HER EAR at Glendale’s A Noise Within. The Times’ Daryl H. Miller wrote that this rendition of Feydeau’s farce “dense with details and zipping along at an ever-accelerating pace” and praised the “near-perfect calibration” of directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez Elliott. Back Stage West’s Wenzel Jones raved that it had the “zip and zing of the froth on a particularly strong brew,” singling out Louis Lotorto as “that sine qua non of successful farce.”

An intimate revival of the epic stage adaptation of John Irving’s THE CIDER HOUSE RULES at Long Beach’s Edison Theatre made a strong impression, leading the Times’ Don Shirley to rave that California Repertory Company’s production proved the play to be “eminently stageworthy, even more so than at the much larger Taper,” where it premiered in 2000. Director Joanne Gordon’s staging, he continued, “is remarkably precise and the casting excellent.” Back Stage West’s Shirle Gottlieb wrote that “a flawless ensemble makes Irving's penetrating words come to life.” (Though I can’t help noting her insipid closer: “From beginning to end, this poignant heart-rending saga explores how devastating ‘rules’ can be in various segments of society.” Hmm.)

City Garage in Santa Monica is garnering strong notices for its production of Ionesco’s THE LESSON. The Times’ Philip Brandes called it “a refreshingly unorthodox twist” to switch the genders of the professor and his pupil, saying “the risky tampering pays off in spades.” The Weekly’s Steven Leigh Morris, who has followed this avant-garde company with ardent if not uncritical devotion, was similarly impressed, writing that director Frederique Michel “never lets the rigidly choreographed Warner Bros. style slip for a moment” in this “arch cartoon” that helped usher in the Theater of the Absurd.

One of the gala theatre events of the year was the Center Theatre Group’s opening of the Kirk Douglas Theatre (which I still prefer to call the Spartacus Theatre—any takers?) in Culver City with Charles Mee’s A PERFECT WEDDING. It’s living up to the hype, more or less, according to critics. The Times Daryl H. Miller conceded that this “grandly emotional, gently philosophical play… becomes at times repetitious and unruly,” he called it “funny, fresh and heartfelt,” a “glittering kaleidoscope of points and counterpoints” on the vagaries of romantic love. Back Stage West’s Terry Morgan likewise found it “a big-hearted and inclusive examination of what connects us as humans,” though he didn’t much care for Act Two’s “long detour into dealing with mortality.”

A freewheeling anthology of creation myths, THE MYTHOLOGY PROJECT: IN THE BEGINNINGS at the NoHo Actors Studio impressed the Times’ Philip Brandes as “an inventive mix of dance, music and dramatic genres”… that “give stage-worthy shape to abstract narratives.” Likewise, Back Stage West’s Jeff Favre found the show’s tales “as fascinating as they are funny… It takes trust and teamwork for this style to be effective, and [writer/director Annie] Terry’s troupe is up to the task.” The Weekly’s Luis Reyes qualified his praise by saying “this is a project rather than a play,” but went on to write that the show’s “originality and humor” were such that you “almost… forget that you’re sitting above a pizza parlor.”

A rough consensus emerged about Garry Marshall’s revival of his dramedy WRONG TURN AT LUNGFISH. Back Stage West’s Wenzel Jones dished that it’s “very much like… a television taping mercifully filmed in two long shots.” He praised the “impeccable” comic timing between Hector Elizondo’s blinded academic and Ana Ortiz’s wise, witty nurse but said that Keith E. Mitchell's hospital room set is "the one three-dimensional aspect of the production." Likewise, the Weekly's Martín Hernández saw the show's "splendid performances" and "sharp one-liners" as "diversion from the predictability" of the script, though he appreciated that the leads' "culture clash" is "a witty and poignant matter that transmits socially conscience (sic) messages without blunting its wealth of humor." The Times' F. Kathleen Foley found the premise “a bit shopworn” but wrote that “a crack cast… manipulates what could have been a gelatinous confection to a pleasingly brittle consistency.” The Daily News’ Evan Henerson was taken not only with Elizondo’s “smartly subtle performance” but raved about Ortiz, saying “her name belongs on the Riverside Drive marquee right up there next to Elizondo’s.”

The Daily News’ Evan Henerson had more measured praise than his colleagues for A Noise Within’s new production of Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM. Henerson called it “fast and friendly… largely a romp” but found it a little too “hurried” and “all-business.”

“What a difference a rewrite makes” was the lede of Don Shirley’s Times review for DOGEATERS at SIPA Performance Space in Filipinotown. He recalled the play’s 1998 La Jolla premiere of Jessica Hagedorn’s own adaptation of her novel as “a mess,” but found director Jon Lawrence Rivera’s new staging “a much more coherent portrait of a society approaching a nervous breakdown.” Back Stage West’s Madeleine Shaner was likewise impressed with the play’s ambition and Rivera’s direction, though she qualified her praise by saying “with several incomprehensible accents to figure out, plus the frenzy of these actors circling the stage and the catwalks surrounding it, the result is a lively but often confusing mélange of fact and fiction that requires a history book for reference.” (Dialogue she can’t hear or understand is a peculiar pet peeve of Shaner’s.) And the Weekly’s Steven Mikulan wrote that it “isn’t merely presentational, it’s almost a historical circus of headlines, conversations and play-acted film clips, more Dos Passos than Brecht… delivered with the hectic pace and overheated brio of the soap-opera world.”

The Furious Theatre Company’s poorly reviewed Scenes From the Big Picture isn’t the only Belfast-set play in town. The Matrix Theatre in Hollywood recently opened Lisa James’ production of Rona Munro’s BOLD GIRLS (though the theatre has mistakenly billed it as the show’s West Coast premiere; I reviewed a credible production in 1997 at Glaxa Studios which received some LA Weekly award nominations). Reviews were generally complimentary: The Times’ F. Kathleen Foley wrote that Munro “artfully mingles the pedestrian and the profound in her slice-of-life drama, which is alternately wrenchingly funny and just plain wrenching,” and that a “stellar cast” overcomes the play’s “few transitional blips.” Back Stage West’s Jennie Webb was less taken with the play, writing that its “raw-edged style” made it feel “a bit unformed and predictable,” but she found the acting “moving, distinctive, and ultimately powerful.” The Weekly’s Erin Aubry Kaplan began with the ambitious observation that “to the American eye, Northern Ireland is a whirligig of longstanding cultural contradictions that parallel a significant few of our own — Western traditions of literacy and imagination flourishing alongside poverty, faith and ambition of all kinds routinely falling prey to urban violence.” Yeah, sure. Perhaps this affinity for the play’s worldview made her more forgiving than her colleagues; she called it a “wonderful, bitterly lyrical ensemble piece.” I’m a little baffled by this praise, though: “The fine-tuned banter — about things like laundry, kids, men and nights out on the town — is tough and funny, often recalling the inspired kvetching of The Honeymooners or even Seinfeld in its glory years.” Even Seinfeld? Bold words indeed.

John Guare’s talky but strangely involving period drama LYDIE BREEZE at Hollywood’s Open Fist Theatre received a mixed reception. Steven Leigh Morris found in the musings of its ex-utopian Nantucketans an abstract analogy to—what else?—our recent election. (I must digress to note that Morris has made a rather predictable trade of reading between the lines of plays for their relevance to the here and now, to a degree that I personally find a little obsessive; if he wants to be John Powers and write about politics through the prism of popular narratives, why doesn’t he just do that? Instead we have to read him stretch his politics to fit over plays as various as Tom Jacobson’s Sperm and Boris Vian’s The Empire Builders.) Guare’s play, he writes, is “about the left in crisis, and never has that crisis been more immediate or dire” (it never is more immediate than it is now, is it?), and “about how its characters pull themselves from the mire and proceed—a question facing anyone who holds, or held, humanistic ideals in an increasingly zealous society.” (Apparently zeal doesn’t agree with humanism.) He praised John Ross Clark’s performance as a broken-down patriarch and wrote that while the play’s “delicate, wobbly tones” are difficult to calibrate, director Dietrich Smith “for the most part… sustains a gripping harmony of majesty and sardonic wit.” Back Stage West’s Terry Morgan would have none of this, claiming that “despite some fine acting” the play “is an overwritten, overlong mess” done no favors by Smith’s allowing “several performers to overact during their frequent flights of poetical dialogue.” I guess I brought up the middle in my Times review, calling it a “quaintly disturbing, utterly unpredictable period drama” that “comes off like an unholy marriage of O'Neill and Albee—a thick New England chowder of determinism and dysfunction.”

THE TRANSPARENCY OF VAL at Hollywood’s West Coast Ensemble is playwright Stephen Belber’s “’90s spin on the Candide story,” according the Weekly’s Neal Weaver, who wrote that “so long as Belber keeps his eye on the satiric ball, his play is lively and funny, but it keeps veering into allegory, fantasy, absurdism and New Age truisms.” Back Stage West’s Dink O’Neal had a better time on Belber’s “philosophically comic roller coaster,” which he admitted was “absurdism to be sure, but Belber's sure hand and steady focus keeps [lead actor Guy] Busick's character on track despite the oddities surrounding him.” He particularly singled out Daniel Capp “in a series of laugh-out-loud supporting roles.” (I loved this off-the-record quip from a fellow critic: "Isn’t The Transparency of Val the new title for The Ten Commandments?")

Shem Bitterman’s anguished post-Columbine drama THE CIRCLE at the Stella Adler Theatre in West L.A. divided critics down the middle. The Weekly’s Steven Leigh Morris found it a ”remarkably probing and compassionate play” with “lean dialogue… of overlapping single-word questions, which really help it snap” and a lead performance by Jack Stehlin that “keeps us riveted through more distinctive layers of melancholy than anyone would have dreamed possible.” Back Stage West’s Madeleine Shaner was clearly impressed by what she called Bitterman’s “huge, almost unbearable concept, daring in execution, fierce in intention,” but felt that the characters were too much the playwrights “mouthpieces.” The Times’ F. Kathleen Foley had a different reaction to some of the same liabilities: She wrote that the play’s relentless hysteria “often inadvertently tickles the funny bone,” suspecting that “Bitterman has connected to his subject so deeply that he has jettisoned all salvaging objectivity, writing to the message rather than the plot.”

Theatre 40’s new production of Somerset Maugham’s THE CONSTANT WIFE got mixed reviews, with Back Stage West’s Melinda Schupmann calling it “deliciously droll and clearly from another, less strident time” and praising director Bruce Gray’s production as “skillfully paced.” (Though Schupmann, rivalling her Back Stage West colleague Shirle Gottlieb in the bland generalization department, closes with this gem: “Dialogues about affairs of the sexes still continue today, making this a markedly modern piece.”) For her part, the Weekly’s Deborah Klugman thought that the “epigrammatic script unfolds agreeably, but with minimal surprise or nuance.” She did, however, feel that “the comedy comes alive around the sparkling [Ann] Hearn.”

Back Stage West’s Dave De Pino added his two cents to the generally positive reviews for Michael Gianakos’ gently absurdist comedy THE ARCHITECT OF DESTINY at the Zephyr in Hollywood. He was less convinced that the show is “little more than a funny comedy sketch stretched into two acts.” He saw promise in Gianako’s writing but advised, in a rather original piece of constructive criticism: “Using the baby-bathwater theory, judicial clipping, and a lot of it, would be beneficial.” Physician, heal thyself.

Kahlil Ashanti’s one-man show about his career as a military entertainer, BASIC TRAINING at Hollywood’s 2nd Stage Theatre, got admiring if not estatic reviews. Back Stage West’s Travis Michael Holder wrote that while “occasionally his choices tend toward stereotype,” Ashanti “performs his redemptive tale with nonstop energy and world-class humor.” The Weekly’s Steven Mikulan agreed that Ashanti is an “energetic and likeable… performer,” but wrote that “there’s still plenty missing in this sketchy show because, outside of some military and road-tour anecdotes, no real drama builds on Ashanti’s stage.”

Another solo show, Laura Park’s PARK-N-RIDE at the Eclectic Company Theatre in North Hollywood, looked suspiciously to Back Stage West’s Wenzel Jones “like a bit of performer market positioning—wacky Midwestern redhead, I smell neighbor potential,” though he conceded that the play “has an honest appeal.” The Weekly’s Martín Hernández was unmoved, calling it “merely a series of banal vignettes lodged in a disjointed work in progress. Park is an engaging performer with a knack for witty characterization,” he wrote, but she “should park her one-woman show and give it a complete overhaul.”

The Times David A. Nichols added his mixed praise to the lukewarm reception of his colleagues for HYENAS, OR THE MONOLOGUE OF THEODORE-FREDERIC BENOIT at Stages Theatre Center, opining that the “cellblock monodrama is a fascinating existential showpiece, though not without some discrepancies.” (Discrepancies between… ?) He enjoyed lead Eric Szmanda’s “boyish charm and disturbing intensity” but felt that Paul Verdier’s staging “has yet to knit all the beats into nonstop ambiguity.” (“Nonstop ambiguity”? Nobody coins ’em like Nichols.)

Adding his vote to the mixed reviews for Larry Gelbart’s Hollywood-meets-militarism satire MASTERGATE at the Actors Circle Group Theatre in Universal City was Back Stage West’s Jeff Favre, who, despite his admiration for Gelbart’s mastery of what he called “triple-speak,” found that the play’s “one-note idea… loses most of its momentum halfway through.”

Critics didn’t love Actors’ Co-op’s production of ANGEL STREET, a thriller about a husband messing with his wife’s mind (it was the basis for the 1944 film Gaslight). The Times’ Lynne Heffley was irritated by lead actor Scott Damian’s choice to play the villain with “pouts and petulance” that convey “sheer camp” rather than “coldblooded malevolence.” The Weekly’s Tom Provenzano wrote that Damian’s “overwrought characterization of the snobby husband would fit much better as a fop in a Restoration comedy.” Back Stage West’s Madeleine Shaner was unperturbed; while she conceded that Patrick Hamilton’s play “doesn’t brake for subtleties,” she found Damian’s “a cruelly accurate performance” and saw director Marianne Savell’s approach as “allowing her actors to play it straight, without tongues in cheeks.”

“Persistently murky,” a ”cartoon… in big, broad strokes,” and ”a series of awkward, unfunny exchanges” were among the critical verdicts on Laura Shamas’ satire RE-SOURCING at the Noho Arts Center. Critics agreed that Shamas’ clever premise—about American workers impersonating East Indians to get back their outsourced phone job—is poorly realized, and that under director Jules Aaron, only actor Ravi Kapoor fared well.

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