Jan 31, 2005

Quote for Today

Whom is your art intended for?

I think I do my work for some sadder version of myself, a woman who would be sitting in Row K. I am trying to make her laugh.

—Laurie Anderson, in the NY Times Magazine

Happier Returns: Review of Reviews, Vol. 2

Things are looking up after last week's brutal Review of Reviews. Without further ado, here's all the notices that were fit to print (I've made one update, adding a summary of reviews for Ethel Merman's Broadway):

Critics were very happy about HAPPY END, at Pacific Resident Theatre through Mar. 27. The Times' David C. Nichols' hailed director Dan Bonnell's production of this Brecht/Weill semi-classic as often "fantastic, beyond belief" (a well-applied quote from the show's "Bilbao-Song"), the cast nailing the show's "social satire and music-hall moxie." Back Stage West's Les Spindle wrote that the show "triumphs on all levels," leading off his review with an illuminating comparison: "Not since David Schweizer's inspired 1999 Actors' Gang revival of the chestnut Broadway have we seen such a flawless re-creation of 1920s-era musical-comedy stylization." The Weekly's Lovell Estell III agreed that Bonnell's "stylized touch is "a delight from start to finish," though he also makes the dubious claim that the piece represents "a delightful departure from Brecht's otherwise gloomy theatrical vision." So much so, in fact, that Brecht disowned it and put a pseudonym (the non-existent "Dorothy Lane") on the libretto. Whatever—I've sat through some pretty two-bit (or threepenny) stagings of this gangster drama just to hear the Weill score. How nice to hear that at last there's a production with something to relish between the musical numbers.

Corroborating the raves for the Chance Theatre's Maltby/Shire revue CLOSER THAN EVER was the Orange County Register's Eric Marchese, who wrote that the troupe beautifully rises to the challenge of the show's mix of "sophistication, cynicism and raw emotional vulnerability."

Receiving all-around critical hallelujahs is Tom Jacobson's THE ORANGE GROVE, at Westwood's Lutheran Church of the Master through Feb. 20. Grafting the valedicory framework of Chekhov's Cherry Orchard onto the sad tale of a disintegrating Lutheran congregation to my mind takes "special leap of imagination—a leap of faith, even," as I wrote in the Times, but I found Jacobson's deft writing and director Jessica Kubzansky's powerhouse cast up to the challenge of this "vivid, despairing portrait of a community in decline." Back Stage West's Travis Michael Holder was even more ecstatic, calling Jacobson's play "sweetly simple yet richly complex" and hailing the result of Kubzansky's work with a "remarkable cast" as "theatrical ambrosia." For my part, I desperately wish I'd had more space to parse and reflect on this extraordinary play and its many resonances—space that the Weekly's Steven Leigh Morris will almost certainly devote to the play, if there's any justice in this fallen world.

Audiences can't seem to get enough of funny nuns, and a new edition of Dan Goggin's NUNSENSE, at Hollywood's Theatre West Mar. 6, has been greeted warmly by critics, as well. "Unapologetically silly as ever," wrote the Times Philip Brandes of the production, singling out the "amusingly dotty" Betty Garrett, in the newly added role of Sister Julia, Child of God, and Barbara Malloy as Sister Mary of Amnesia. Back Stage West's Dink O'Neal noted that the show "may have seen crisper productions" than this, but it's a "must-see" solely for the opportunity to witness the "octogenarian powerhouse" Garrett strut her stuff. And the Weekly's Neal Weaver concluded that "the humor ranges from the outrageous to the primitive, but it’s undeniably funny."

"A rip-roaring exercise in devoted replication," as the Times' David C. Nichols put it, pretty much sums how critics feel about Rita McKenzie's ETHEL MERMAN'S BROADWAY, which reopens (after a run at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse) this week at the El Portal Theatre—excuse, me the "San Fernando Valley Playhouse," through Feb. 13. "McKenzie inhabits the gestures, expressions and bombastic energy of her subject as easily as she displays costumer Eric Winterling's glitzy get-ups," Nichols continued. Back Stage West's Les Spindle similarly raved that McKenzie "convincingly channels the famous belter, tapping into her humorous, egocentric, and notoriously brassy persona." Craving a bit less devotion and a bit more sass was Variety's Joel Hirschhorn, who wrote that the show's "uneven script… too often settles for reverence instead of the savage insight this legendary performer requires," though he related that the second act "wisely drops attempts to make Merman lovable."

Receiving strong notices was a children's entertainment that reportedly transcends the usual kiddie fare, FRACTURED FAIRY TALES FROM THE EAST, at the NoHo Arts Center through Feb. 26. Evan Henerson found writer/director Robert Kuhlman's adaptations of several Asian folk tales "quite delightful" and the cast "individually and collectively charming." Back Stage West's Terri Roberts hailed the show's "sense of sophistication mixed in with the goofiness, and nary a trace of condescending attitude." For her part, the Times' Lynne Heffley wrote that while the show "could be tighter," the "exotic tale-spinning is well-fueled with sly humor, varied, multilevel staging and skilled performances by an adult cast."

Critics welcomed Reprise!'s revival of the 1970s pop-musical sensation PIPPIN, at the Freud Playhouse through Feb. 6. The Times' Daryl Miller wrote that while the "Summer of Love vibe and Renaissance faire trappings freeze the show in time," it's still "fairly exhilarating," with director Gordon Hunt and choreographer evoking the "Fosse style" of the original " even as they personalize the production." The Daily News' Evan Henerson, who amusingly informs us that "Stephen Schwartz's score kicks serious tail," finds it "in fine mettle" under music director Gerald Sternbach, and while he admired lead actor Michael Arden and an ensemble that's "one of the most solid a Reprise! production has assembled," he quibbled with the casting of Sam Harris in the Ben Vereen-created role of Lead Player, whom he found "unpleasant more often than… seductive." We breathlessly await the pronouncements of Back Stage West's musical theatre maven Les Spindle, and—if he got the assignment—the Weekly's equivalent, Tom Provenzano.

Pasadena's Furious Theatre returns to form with Neil Labute's THE SHAPE OF THINGS, at its new Balcony Theatre Upstairs space (over the Pasadena Playhouse) through Feb. 20. The Times' David C. Nichols called it "icily effective," though he quibbled that "the sharp players sculpt the abrasive idiom with clinical precision, which causes some lapses in tempo." Back Stage West's Jeff Favre admired what he called director Damaso Rodriguez's "steady but appropriately deliberate pace," while pointing out that this may not be the misanthropic LaBute's best work. Frankly, his description of the play's overblown climax—"like someone stepping on an ant 20 or 30 times"—describes more or less my feeling about the majority of LaBute's rotely cynical exercises in bleaker-than-thou playmaking.

Big-name authors Penn Jillette and Steven Banks (of SpongeBob fame) drew critics to LOVE TAPES, at the Sacred Fools Theatre through Feb. 20, with high expectations. The Times' Philip Brandes found that despite its "edgy, outrageous" trappings, it's a "surprisingly sweet, old-fashioned love story" marred by a distracting audience-participation gimmick and a "disappointingly facile resolution." Back Stage West's Jeff Favre agreed, big-time, about the inadequate ending, but praised "fearless, multifaceted performances that are funny and heartwarming" and "Jessie Marion's loose, free-floating direction."

Writer/performer Charlayne Woodard's slave-narrative drama FLIGHT, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through Feb. 13, got respectfully mixed reviews, with the Daily News' Evan Henerson registering the most enthusiasm. He wrote that director Robert Egan's production "isn't just a good yarn; it's seamlessly performed and, on more than one occasion, rather heartbreaking." The Times' Lynne Heffley was a little less ecstatic, missing Woodard's presence in the cast and lamenting a "pedantic emphasis" in the writing, though she did describe some of the folk tales as being "salty, soulful and alive with wit. Back Stage West's Dany Margolies opined that Flight is "stitched together with the hand of a fine seamstress" but wrote that Egan's "static, cramped, and unimaginative staging" keeps the show "earthbound."

The Weekly's Deborah Klugman joined the consensus on Emily Mann's ANNULLA, at the Eclectic Company Theatre through Feb. 26. She wrote that the "warm, engaging presence" of lead actress Eileen De Felitta overcame Mann's writing, which "unfortunately comes laminated with schmaltz and a youthful writer’s adulation."

Steven Dietz's riff on The Seagull, THE NINA VARIATIONS at Company Rep in NoHo through Feb. 19, received kind but mixed reviews, with the Weekly's excellent Amy Nicholson admiring the show the most, calling it an "audacious experiment" that "sorta re-imagines, but more precisely re-fractures" The Seagull's final Nina/Treplev encounter. She thought that director Hope Alexander's extra-textual concept of splitting Nina among three actresses "is a gamble" but that the director makes it "pay off." In my Times review, I noted that while "Dietz's irreverent wit comes through in spades," particularly in the "fretfully funny" performance of Alan Altshuld as Treplev, the triple-Nina idea "proves more distracting than revealing," particularly because in the young Khamara Pettus, we have all the Nina we need. Back Stage West's Terri Roberts had no problem with the triplicate Nina and very much enjoyed Dietz's play, even though she felt that the competent actors "never quite rise to the remarkable height of his writing."

Two critics were split on the effectiveness of Reza de Wet's AFRICAN GOTHIC, at the Elephant Theatre through Feb. 20. While the Weekly's Erin Aubry Kaplan recognized the "real possibilities" of this mysterious play about incestuous siblings on an isolated South African homestead, she wrote that "midway through you hear the strain of all the muscle attempting to move this thing, physically and emotionally." Meanwhile, Back Stage West's Madeleine Shaner, while conceding that the characters' "weirdly disturbing relationship keeps the first act on its mystified toes," found the play, under Tamsin Rothschild's direction, "a stunning experience."

I feel even more alone on the topic of ANNA IN THE TROPICS, at Pasadena Playhouse through Feb. 13. I still stand by my qualified rave of the production, but the Weekly's Tom Provenzano shared my colleagues' distaste for it, writing that director "Richard Hamburger’s heavy-handed production rings hollow."

Joining his colleagues in praising the messenger but not the message of THE BLACKER THE BERRY THE SWEETER THE JUICE, at the Zephyr Theatre through Feb. 13, was Variety's Joel Hirschhorn, who agreed that while writer/performer Mario Burrell is "a triple-threat talent," his "unfocused, episodic" solo show "does him a disservice."

Agreeing with his colleagues that LYSISTRATA, D.C., at the Stella Adler Theatre through Feb. 5, is "short on talent," the Weekly's Martín Hernandez nevertheless found more forgiving words for this anti-war romp, concluding memorably: "Like a fuzzy kitten, it is cute, fluffy and very immature, so if you’re allergic to such things, it might be best to stay away."

The menu AT THE BROADWAY CAFÉ WITH SUBERB & FINE, at the Odyssey Theatre through Feb. 20, was found to be a bit lean by most critics. While the Weekly's Lovell Estell III admitted that John Cristy Ewing's drama about two old friends reminiscing "is not without charm," and that occasionally the dialogue is "cracking with humor," the show amounts to "a wispy sojourn." Back Stage West's Jenell Rae (a brand-new critic, as far as I can tell) was less forgiving, writing that while "the acting is at times noteworthy," the play's "fragmented scenes, contrived characters, and overused clichés about L.A. make the show seem to drag out over a short period."

Jan 30, 2005

Rockin' in the Small-Theatre World

I've got a confession to make: I've kinda taken the tireless Troubadour Theatre Company for granted. I saw their Midsummer Saturday Night's Fever Dream back in 2000 and found it a sloppy, hilarious romp, and then later their Twelfth Dog Night at the Falcon Theatre, admittedly with a pretty dead matinee audience, and found it... well, mostly just sloppy—still genial good fun but a little tired, shticky. As much as I loved hearing their actual and proposed titles—I once heard Troubie impresario Matt Walker rattle off a tantalizing roster of possibilities, including The Merry Wives of Earth, Windsor and Fire; Queen Lear; As U2 Like It; Pericles, the Artist Formerly Known as Prince of Tyre; Much a Doobie About Nothing; Little Richard III, and the holiday-show titles Smokey and the Miracles on 34th Street and Rudolf the Red Hot Chili Peppers Reindeer—I wondered if there was really much more to be milked from the classic-meets-classic-rock gimmick.

On the evidence of The Comedy of Aerosmith, which closes its sold-out run at the Falcon tomorrow, I shouldn't have doubted the depth of this troupe's multifarious talents, or the delightful depths to which they'll sink for a laugh. The Troubies, it seems abundantly clear, are the sort of homegrown local treasure that we should call to mind whenever we hear people say (as we still do) that the L.A. theatre scene is unoriginal or second-rate, or that there's no audience for live theatre here.

But what I loved above all in this hair-metal hoedown was how well this sort of groundlings-geared rock'n'roll clowning works in a small theatre format. The show was built for the Roxy nightclub, where it performed last summer, but even with a graying Falcon audience it rocked the house. Forget Rent—this, it seems, is the way rock music can work in the theatre. I've often wondered why more shows in L.A.'s small-theatre realm don't take advantage of the capacities of non-musical-theatre genres—folk, country, blues, rock'n'roll—to fill a space and entertain these venues' nightclub-sized crowds. Shows like Hedwig or Smoke on the Mountain, or the excellent folk-themed backstager Three Songs—even, if I may be so bold, the Appalachian Twelfth Night I music-directed in 2002—could be the models for a whole genre of music-theatre that takes full advantage of the immediacy and intimacy of small venues and the parlance of popular music.

And the Troubies shall lead us.

Jan 26, 2005

Cranks and Claques

Very funny piece by Wenzel Jones in the new Back Stage West about critics' pet peeves—and I'm not just saying that because he quoted me (not a very original complaint: that I'm sick of shows starting late). According to Jones, the No. 1 pet peeve of critics is the opening-night claque of hooting-and-hollering friends and family:

Melinda Schupmann (Showmag.com, Back Stage West), one of the gentlest souls to ever assay a theatrical production, admits, "I loathe the audience plant who chortles, hee-haws, guffaws, titters, or brays in my ear, often slightly ahead of the joke, which gives one pause."

House-paperers, you've been put on notice. I was also amused by the tiny things that bother critics—Trader Joe's shopping bags turning up in a play ostensibly set in Kansas, for instance, or this one:

Critic Sharon Perlmutter (Talkinbroadway.com) recently went to one of the area's more reputable, and larger, theatres only to become fixated on the timepiece that remained obdurately fixed. "The distraction value of the non-functioning clock ruined what was otherwise an excellent set," she said. God, or your personal understanding of a higher power, is in the details.

Jones gives a helpful explanation of how to make phone-ringing effects more, well, effective (and he even offers a link to a site that explains how to hook up stage phones to ring). But I must hold my head in shame—the shame of recognition—at these unminced words:
Chances are that, if a critic is able to dig up a date at all, they will most likely not have three dollars between them. Critics attend the theatre as a simulacrum of a social life, as the real thing involves purchased tickets and, sometimes, purchased food. The program practically counts as the shared reading in a very small book club.

What a cutting bitch that Wenzel can be—but he's our cutting bitch.

Jan 25, 2005

Ehn at the Helm

I'm not sure where or if this has been reported—I for one haven't seen it in print yet—but it's been buzzing around the circles I travel in: Playwright Erik Ehn has been named dean of Cal Arts' School of Theater, after serving for just six months as head of the Writing for Performance program.

To put Ehn, as much a theorist of theatre as a playwright, at the helm of a venerable if forward-looking institution strikes me as a radical step. He's probably as well known for his birthing of the RAT Conference, and for penning most of its manifestoes (like this call to arms) as he is for his dense, language-based plays (the most recent being Fireflow—Two Tales From Andersen). I've been roughly 50/50 on his work—I've found it dazzling and maddening in roughly equal portions, with my favorite being his jagged, moving Chokecherry and my least favorite being his prodigiously effrontive Erotic Curtsies, both produced by Bottom's Dream at the Ivy Substation.

And the RAT Conference I attended in 1999 proved to be a fascinating introduction to America's tinier alternative regional theatres, though I recall Ehn on a panel digressing into a long analogy about globalized "targeted marketing" and regional theatre—it sounded like he was making critique of capitalism, but it was a little too abstruse to connect with. But I also remember him movingly talking about the "immanence" of theatre (that may be my word, not his—I'm not sure), how it addresses bodies in space, with all their frailties and pain and needs. I'm mangling his point, but it's stuck with me as a kind of moral criterion for good theatre, both aesthetically and practically—how well does it take care of its bodies in space?

Leslie Tamaribuchi, the Cal Arts producing teacher who will work closely with Ehn in his new position, told me he's a "great systems thinker," which will no doubt make him an interesting dean. And lest it sound like the revolutionaries have stormed the barricades, I recall an interview with Ehn in which he was markedly circumspect about his pedagogic responsibilities. At the time he was teaching playwriting in Iowa, and he told me:

My aim is to get my students to write passionately and authentically... I try to discover for myself and the class what their idea of a play is, to clarify that and then expand on that. It could be that the next Neil Simon is in my class, and I'm not out to pervert what he may do best—I don't want to turn a natural Simon into a phony Kreutz.

And so, the Cal Arts mafia has a new made man. It will be interesting to see what Ehn, who now lives in Newhall, not far from Cal Arts' Valencia, does with his new post, particularly in terms of Cal Arts' rapport with L.A.'s theatre scene, in which so many Cal Arts grads are working, and from which so many current Cal Arts staffers and teachers have been recruited.

UPDATE: Good one, Ravi.

Jan 24, 2005

Royal Nonesuch

Whoever you are, wherever you've been
You've come this far
Well, come on in
See the nonesuch

—From "The Royal Nonesuch," Big River

What's a nonesuch? It's not a word you hear much these days, except in the context of the ultra-classy Nonesuch Records. And yet there it was, in today's Times, in a review of Ethel Merman's Broadway:

From her legendary 1930 debut in the Gershwins' "Girl Crazy," throughout her remarkable career, the singing stenographer born Ethel Agnes Zimmermann was a nonesuch.

And there it was in December, in a review of Peace Squad Goes '99:

The annual discount-minded holiday revelry by subversive nonesuch Ken Roht and his Orphean Circus zanies has the joyous abandon of an MTV love-in from Oz.

And in a review last March of A Night With Dame Edna:

That the actual existence (and femininity) of this nonesuch is never in doubt bespeaks the seamless mastery of the man behind the maven, Barry Humphries.

Oh, and in an August, 2003 review of Ennio:

The late Martha Graham once said, "The unique must be fulfilled," which may well make Ennio Marchetto the most satisfied nonesuch on the planet.

I think you'll gather from the context that a "nonesuch" is a one-of-a-kind, sui generis, without-equal thing or person. And you may also have guessed that these reviews are all the work of one tireless critic—in this case, David C. Nichols.

In the interest of fairness, I've done a little snooping around my own theatre reviews for similar tics—it turns out that I tend to overuse the words "disarming," "convincing," and "persuasive," which I find telling about the defenses I must bring with me into the theatre. Nevertheless, apart from the considered use of the word "epistemological" (in a review of Miss Margarida's Way, in which the word "persuasive" also reared its head) and one employment of the term "atavistic" (for Among the Thugs—I think "convincing" is in that one), I haven't had quite the vocabulary-expanding zeal of Nichols' densely packed and often sparkling reviews.

Indeed, apart from Back Stage West's laconic Wenzel Jones, Nichols is the only critic in town whose reviews I can recognize from the first sentence as his, without checking the byline. Honing a distinctive critical voice is not an achievement to sneeze at—it's enough, in fact, to make Nichols himself something of a local critical nonesuch.

Jan 21, 2005

Call Me a Patsy: 2005's First Review of Reviews

"It's only theatre—it's only rows of people sitting in the dark facing in the same direction not enjoying themselves, darling."

Patsy, on "Absolutely Fabulous"

Ever feel like that, fellow theatregoer? 2005 has barely begun, and already we've seen some of the worst reviews in memory. January is typically the cruelest month for new film releases, but a look at local stages shows similarly slim pickin's.

I've more or less ranked the following best to worst, and I think you'll agree—it's a pretty steep decline after you get past the obvious winners.

Improbably retaining its special glow after expanding to Broadway size is Deaf West's BIG RIVER, at the Ahmanson Theatre only through this weekend. The Weekly's Neal Weaver attributes it to the nature of the source material, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: "Huck," he wrote, "is exuberant and anarchic enough to resist musical-comedy homogenization." In my Times review, I raved that "somehow the touring version now at the 1,600 -seat Ahmanson Theatre, though inarguably bigger than its previous incarnations, is also better." And though I can't seem to locate it online anymore, Daily News' Evan Henerson had a positive review calling it a "high-water mark" or something like that. Miss this genuine homegrown hit at your own peril.

Receiving another delighted rave was the Tolkien parody FELLOWSHIP! at NoHo’s El Portal Theatre, only through this weekend; the Weekly's Martín Hernandez joined his colleagues in hoping that writers Kelly Holden and Joel McCrary will spoof the entire Ring trilogy.

Two gushingly positive reviews have come in for CLOSER THAN EVER, a production of Maltby/Shire musical review at Anaheim's Chance Theatre through Feb. 20. The Times' David C. Nichols preferred it to the 1989 New York production, writing that director Oanh Nguyen "finds specific stakes in a previously amorphous scenario," and that the cast, which creates a "breathtaking harmonic blend," ensures that the show "sneaks inside your head and stays there." Back Stage West's Melinda Schupmann went further, writing that "the cast pulls out all the stops to illuminate the revelatory nature of Maltby's lyrics," and singling out the tiny Chance Theatre as one to watch.

Critics are hailing the return engagement of the Troubadour Theatre's raunchy THE COMEDY OF AEROSMITH, at the Falcon Theatre through Jan. 30. The Daily News' Evan Henerson, though pointing out that the Roxy, where the Troubies mounted the show last summer, "is probably a better fit," still found the show "screamingly funny… a 'Big Ten Inch' worth of laughs." And the Times' F. Kathleen Foley marvelled that these "protean parodists" only seem to get "better all the time," hailing the show's "impressive blend of the finely tuned and the freewheeling."

Naomi Iizuka is a nationally recognized L.A. playwright whose work has seldom been produced in Southern California, particularly on a large scale. Laguna Playhouse has corrected that oversight with its of 36 VIEWS, running through Jan. 30. The result has gotten positive but qualified reviews, with the Times' Don Shirley praising it as "a tantalizing examination of shifting perspectives in art and in life," while noting some glitches in the plot, about intrigue and fakery in the art world. The Daily News' Evan Henerson was likewise happy to see a major local production of Iizuka at last; but while he found it a satisfyingly "multilayered canvas" with "plenty of shades and layers," he had a mixed reaction to director Chay Yew's distancing theatrical effects. The Weekly's Steven Mikulan took the play's issues seriously, and wrote that the play's "strength lies in its tart portrayal of art-world hustles and in the depth of its appreciation of Asian art," but finally wished that it had "more content and less form… more action and less elegance." Variety's Julio Martinez responded to the play's design and its themes but felt that "Iizuka ties up loose ends too rapidly." Back Stage West's Terry Morgan essentially shrugged that while "there are so many delightful ingredients in this production… the soufflé never rises." He blamed it on Iizuka's "uneven" writing, not Yew's "terrific" direction or "the fine cast." The only critic with unreserved praise, the Orange County Register's Eric Marchese, wrote that the show "sidestep[s] the purely linear, Western mode of storytelling in favor of something infinitely more subtle and variegated," and that it is emerges less as "a meditation on the question 'what is the truth' " than as "a set of interlocking character studies." Just about every critic singled out Lydia Tanji's multi-period costume design.

Receiving admiring reviews is Emily Mann's ANNULLA at the Eclectic Company Theatre through Feb. 26. The Times' F. Kathleen Foley praised especially Eileen De Felitta's "tour de force" lead performance as an old Polish aunt of Mann's who recounts her experience under the Third Reich, writing that the actress "captures the ebullience of her eponymous character in a whirlwind performance that never flags." She did concede that the play's "chatter seems sometimes raw and unsynthesized," and Back Stage West's Madeleine Shaner agreed, but wrote that "what we don't get in coherence we get in an unexpected lift from a tale exuberantly told." Shaner also had an amusingly specific criticism: Annulla makes a soup throughout the play, and Shaner helpfully points out that "sometimes the ingredients are added in the wrong order; onions are the first thing that would go into the pot, not the last." The first shall be last, or something like that.

One of the more peculiarly titled of recent offerings, ME, MY GUITAR & DON HENLEY, at 2100 Square Feet through Feb. 12, has received mixed-positive reviews, with the Weekly's Steven Mikulan detecting in Krista Vernoff's play, about women gathered at the deathbed of a dying hippie rake, "a muted debate about the selfish insularity of California hedonism." Back Stage West's Les Spindle didn't see much in the show, comparing it to "a protracted standup routine" whose characters "might be more at home on Dr. Phil's or Jerry Springer's TV shows than in a would-be satire." While the Times' David C. Nichols also happened to invoke Oprah in his review, he was much more taken with this "promising dramedy," hailing Vernoff for aiming "beyond laughs" to include "telling Pirandello riffs, one character spontaneously revising another's remembrances," which "outstrip the tickling chick-flick quips."

Getting decidedly mixed reviews is the L.A. premiere of Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning ANNA IN THE TROPICS at the Pasadena Playhouse through Feb. 13. Indeed, I seem to be among the few critics who liked it, hailing it in my Times review as a "robust and silkily assured" production by Richard Hamburger of Cruz's "lusty, lyrical, yet oddly courtly play." If I quibbled, it was that the intimacy and clarity of the one-on-one scenes wasn't matched in quality in the group scenes. Still, I simply couldn't understand the dismissive tone of Paul Hodgins' review in the Orange County Register, in which he praised the "visually stunning" design but deplored the "excess" of the actors, calling the result "as cheap, shrill and insincere as a telenovela." Back Stage West's Terri Roberts concurred, writing that Hamburger "takes the passion of Cruz's work and elevates it to an unflattering level," but she felt that even the design highlighted the show's "tendency toward exaggeration of both emotion and action, which ultimately reduces critical scenes to near buffoonery." Strangely, the Daily News' Evan Henerson seemed to have the opposite problem, writing that Cruz's play is "sweaty, aromatic and textured… but rarely electrifying, much less engaging." To each his own cigar, I suppose.

Critics gave faint praise to Adam Rapp's FINER NOBLE GASES, in its L.A. premiere at Sacred Fools through Feb. 19, lauding the direction and performances but not loving the play—a rambling real-time narrative about two couch-potato druggies and the assorted nuts and flakes who enter their scummy walkup apartment. In my Times review, I identified this as another in the genre of so-called "rock 'n' roll theatre" but compared its bathetic last half unfavorably to "good rock 'n' roll," which "should be short, fierce, and unaccountable." (Like the old Justin Tanner classics at the Cast Theatre, for instance, which buzzed along like screwball comedies despite their often dark themes and were over in an hour.) Steven Mikulan's brief, gnomic review in the Weekly is officially listed as a "Recommended," and he does call it a "sweet, melancholy one-act," but he doesn't seem to muster much enthusiasm. Back Stage West's Dany Margolies filed a predictably holding-her-nose review, praising the commitment of director and actors to the playwright's vision but concluding with the priceless, "Somehow some of us are left humming, 'What's the matter with kids today?' "

Rousing little interest from critics is THE BLACKER THE BERRY, THE SWEETER THE JUICE, Mario Burrell's autobiographical solo show about growing up black in Woodland Hills. The Weekly's Deborah Klugman turned in a review that's nearly all summary—a sure sign, if not of critical laziness, then at least a lack of enthusiasm—while Back Stage West's Madeleine Shaner called the show a "difficult mix of gentle but sometimes cloying sentimentality with racially oriented standup." She praised Burrell's "good ear and… huge amount of charm," but wondered if his experience of discrimination in Hollywood's casting offices is "special enough… Is there an artist of any shape, color, or ethnicity who has not met with similar discriminatory judgments at the hands of those with the power over numberless candidates for limited opportunities?"

Critics got out their daggers for a new production of OTHELLO at the Lillian Theater in Hollywood. The Weekly's Steven Mikulan knocked it for its rushed pace, calling it an Othello "with changes in volume but not tonality," and offering the damningly faint praise that "the actors at least know their lines well enough." Back Stage West's Dave De Pino likewise called director Marc Antonio Pritchett's rendition "much-less-than-stellar," a case of "a large cast with varied skills and knowledge of the metered lilt of classic language attempting to perform a major work."

Evoking head-scratching all around is an adaptation of Marguerite Duras' DESTROY SHE SAID at Theatre/Theater through Feb. 13. Director Matthew Wilder and his "committed" cast got some props, but the Times' Philip Brandes wrote of this sanitorium-set piece that its relationships are "charged with suggestiveness that never achieves significance," and that the performances's "blankness evokes tedium rather than mystery." Back Stage West's Paul Birchall agreed about the "bubbling subtext that never really comes to a roiling boil," but he ended up frustrated that the "massive amount of attention to comprehend what's going on" is "far out of proportion to the depth of the content." He did praise the "powerful" performances of Walter Murray, Paul Higgins, and Amanda Decker. Only the Weekly's Erin Aubry Kaplan—who seems to understand that the play is set in a hotel—consistently praised the show's "tone of emotional suspense, even poignancy, despite also being formless and thoroughly over the top at the same time," a feat she credited to Wilder and his "strong, assured cast."

With a title like A GOOD STORY SOMEDAY, at the Hudson Guild Theatre through Feb. 9, a playwright is just asking for clever critical one-liners. Writer/perfomer Breifne Scott got them: Though the Weekly's Neal Weaver was unfailingly kind in his review, calling Scott "an attractive and earnest performer," he wrote that her "material may indeed coalesce into a good story someday, but it's not there yet." Back Stage West's Dink O'Neal wrote that this "halting hodgepodge of first-person narration" feels suspiciously "like an expanded acting class assignment," and closed his review, "Well, maybe someday."

Closing out Derek Charles' Livingston's illustrious leadership of the Celebration Theatre is the ambitious but unfortunate mini-opera GAVESTON, FAVOURITE OF THE KING, at the Celebration through Feb. 20. In his Weekly review, Neal Weaver called it less an opera than a "bloodless oratorio" that over-simplifies the tale of "gay king" Edward II and his lover Gaveston into "gay-lib propaganda." Echoing Weaver's view, I wrote in the Times that Livingston's setting of the action in modern times doesn't "highlight the struggle of same-sex couples for basic civil rights" but instead " makes us wonder what might happen to a contemporary world leader who paraded with a lover of any gender, to whom he'd deeded large, contested swaths of land." I did find some "unexpectedly hummable anthems" in Christopher Winslow's "Britten-esque score," while Back Stage West's musical-theatre specialist, Les Spindle, only called it a "droning recitative" that even Livingston's "exciting staging techniques" can't enliven.

"Less than Sublime" could sum up the reviews for Jeremy Lipps' BADFISH: STORY OF A PUNK at the Matrix Theatre through Jan. 30. Based on the life of Bradley Nowell, the late lead singer for the Long Beach punk/ska band Sublime, the play was trashed by Back Stage West's Jeff Favre as "an amateurish, disjointed production from start to finish, loaded with pointless repetition and a seemingly endless string of swear words." The Weekly's Amy Nicholson called the play "a death march" headlined by a Nowell who's "disablingly loaded in every scene save three… Sprawled out across car seats, couches and toilets, he’s at best anti-charismatic and at worst maddeningly dull."

A production of Brecht's MOTHER COURAGE by the S.O.B. theatre company at Theatre/Theater through Feb. 5 has the brilliant idea to set this indictment of war profiteering in—guess where?—modern Iraq. Critics were unpersuaded by this overlay, with the Times' Philip Brandes writing that "the conceit undermines rather than strengthens Brecht's biting allegory," and that the performers seem to have mistaken "Brecht's signature goal of emotional detachment for a ban on subtlety," summing up the effort with the unfailingly polite but devastating: "The gap between concept and execution is consistently apparent throughout." The Weekly's Martín Hernandez was less decorous, writing that the show's concept "falls as flat as an unexploded depleted-uranium shell," deploring the show's "overwrought comic performances, weak singing and anachronistic references that bludgeon rather than persuade us with the piece’s universal message." Back Stage West's Les Spindle tried to be kind, calling director Jeffrey Weinckowski's approach "audacious" and pointing to some genuine "goose-pimple" moments but agreeing that the tone, which he described as "the Marx Brothers meet Apocalypse Now," is "a jarring directorial misstep."

"If oatmeal were a play, it would look like this," quipped Back Stage West's Wenzel Jones of Christopher Shinn's ON THE MOUNTAIN, at South Coast Rep through this weekend. This tale of a thirtysomething former grunge-rocker whose Cobain-like lover is dead, Jones wrote, features "four characters that are not only dull but also remarkably undeveloped," with a director, Mark Rucker, who "seems loath to interfere with anything resembling pacing." The Times' Don Shirley was kinder but unimpressed by the play's "muted and unfinished" tone, and its many unanswered questions, though he was impressed by lead Susannah Schulman's "faded glamor."

The title of Feilding Edlow's one-woman show is provocative: COKE-FREE J.A.P., at the McCadden Place Theater through Feb. 5. Critics were only provoked to scorn, though: Back Stage West's Dave De Pino wrote that the show "doesn't work on several levels," with Edlow letting loose the show's profane rant at "a mile-a-minute in a shrieking mono-level." The Weekly's Tom Provenzano speculated acidly that "straight men who frequent 'Barely Legal' Web sites seem the target audience" for the show, owing to its self-conscious "sexual blatancy" and "nubile vulgarity." The result, he wrote, "is more eye-rollingly dull than exciting."

"No one should be asked to sit through these two equally dreadful short plays," wrote Back Stage West's Travis Michael Holder of CHAMBER MUSIC and DADDY'S LI'L GIRL at the Coleman & Smith Artistic Company through Feb. 10. Of Chamber Music, an early Arthur Kopit trifle about eight women in a nuthouse, Holder speculated that those involved "must have a subconscious artistic death wish." He called the solo show Daddy's Li'l Girl "torturous for an audience to experience." The Weekly's Amy Nicholson somehow avoided the latter torture and weighed in only on Chamber Music, opening with this indelible image: "As discordant as a kindergarten death-metal band,
the eight lunaticesses in Arthur Kopit’s asylum-set one-act screech, holler and, well, continue to screech until the curtain mercifully drops." Ouch!

Rivalling the above for sheer vituperation are the notices for Joanna Bloem's LYSISTRATA D.C at the Stella Adler Theatre through Feb. 5. "It's rare that a performance has no redeeming attributes; this comes close," wrote Back Stage West's Jeff Favre, who tallied up its offenses as "atonal singing, wooden acting, shoddy direction and sloppy piano accompaniment." He also generously supplied some song titles: "Sex, Sex, Sex," "In My Hydrogen Car," "My God's Greater Than Your God," "Male Supremacy." If anything, the Times' F. Kathleen Foley was even harsher, marshalling negative superlatives you don't see very often in print: "A construction of mind-boggling ineptitude in every particular," she called the show, and then got specific about the performers: "All are obdurately off-key, few can dance a lick, and despite all the nudge-nudge, wink-wink wannabe naughtiness, there's not a spark of genuine sexual chemistry to be found in this mix." The opening word of Foley's review is a nice closer for this dispiriting edition of my Review of Reviews: Oof.

Jan 11, 2005

Late Out of the Gate

Whew. I'm still lagging about a week behind in this New Year. Not a lot of theatre on the brain lately, I'm afraid--though at the periphery, certainly. I'm excited to see that this coming August the Blank Theatre Company will do the West Coast premiere of The Wild Party, Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe's adaptation of the saucy 1920s poem, which starred Toni Collette and Mandy Patinkin on Broadway and will star Valarie Pettiford here--the sultry Julie of the Ahmanson's Show Boat. This is producer/director Daniel Henning's third LaChiusa local premiere, following Hello Again and First Lady Suite. Is it too much to hope for Marie Christine starring Jennifer Leigh Warren? Just asking...

I'm intrigued by the subject, director, cast, and location of Tom Jacobson's new The Orange Grove, coming up in a few weeks. To wit: It will be performed at Lutheran Church of the Master in Westwood, it's directed by Jessica Kubzansky, features such actors as Tom Beyer, Joshua Wolf Coleman, Bonita Friedericy, Don Oscar Smith (and others whose names sound familiar but whose work I don't know as well), and--oh--the subject: a Lutheran church in Los Angeles whose congregation dwindles from hundreds to a handful. It's produced by Playwrights Arena and is apparently adapated from Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard. Would it be un-Lutheran of me to worry that my faith tradition will sustain a few bruises in the process? No matter--with this pedigree, I can't stay away...

Exits and Entrances, one of last year's most world-beating productions, will have its first out-of-town production, at the Ensemble Theatre Company of Santa Barbara, Feb. 4-20. Now what about Off-Broadway?...

There's a reassuring if tentative interview in the new LA Stage with Michael Ritchie, incoming artistic director of Center Theatre Group. Most encouraging is his apparent awareness that L.A.'s theatre scene extends beyond Bunker Hill, and has nothing to be ashamed of...

I didn't catch up with many movies in theatres, though my new DVD player got a workout. The documentary Hell House let me in on more of the background of last year's semi-hit Hollywood Hell House, which lifted various elements from the Texas Assemblies of God church's annual scare-fest, as seen in the movie. The Hollywood version was intended as a straight-faced parody, but I still don't know if this stuff is funny or not...

And I finally caught up with the HBO film of Angels in America, which I realized I had to see after reading John Lahr's recent New Yorker profile of Tony Kushner. The piece promised to discuss the playwright's unique brand of political theatre but ended up giving instead a vivid portrait of his stubborn idiosyncrasies. It circumstantially confirmed what I feared about why, despite several rewrites and restagings, Homebody/Kabul has remained a rambling, torturous slog--clearly no one could persuade Kushner to cut it, or to radically re-think it. I'm gratified, though, for Caroline, or Change, and happy to know that Kushner considers it his best work.

Particularly since the TV miniseries of Angels proves to be such a disappointment--not primarily because of any inherent weaknesses in the original material, which manages to glimmer through despite the film's epic missteps. It's more a matter of casting and tone: Director Mike Nichols had everyone underplay so coolly that most of the play's ebullient, unseemly humor is leached out, and most damagingly from the two characters whose sense of humor in desparate times is their central charm. These would be Roy Cohn, played by Al Pacino as a cackling gargoyle with his own private stash of evil glee he's not sharing with anyone, least of all the inexplicably adoring young Mormon lawyer Joe (the extraordinary Patrick Wilson, in the series' most revelatory performance), and Prior Walter, the play's gayest and fiercest survivor, in which part the strapping, glaringly straight Justin Kirk struggles nobly and entirely in vain. I think Angels will survive as a play, if future productions--like the one I caught on Broadway years ago--can reconnect with the paradoxically serious laughter of the maddening, inspiring figure of Kushner himself.

Jan 6, 2005

Hawking Local Theatre

Among the more exotic celebrity sightings I've had in my years of attending Los Angeles theatre, probably the most double-take-inducing was none other than Stephen Hawking, whom I glimpsed under the awning outside the Taper at intermission for The Kentucky Cycle back in--what was it, 1991? So I guess I wasn't too surprised to learn that he remains an avid concert- and theatregoer, and that he's clued in that there actually are such things happening in L.A.--but I was flattered to be asked, through a friend of a friend, to recommend a few shows to the cosmologist with the cool computer voice. Of course it's not the best time of year to make recommendations, except in anticipation of new openings, but I did muster the titles School for Scandal at the Taper and Julia Sweeney's Letting Go of God, which I thought would entertain a man who titles a lecture on black holes "Does God play dice?" Too bad there's nothing by Glen Berger playing at the moment.

Jan 5, 2005

Talkin' 'Bout My Generation

It's a slow time for theatre around the holidays, so I often do a bit of catching up on films, though I'm not in any rush to the cineplex this year.

A viewing of Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou confirmed something I've noticed for some time now: that the films of such wunderkinds as Wes and Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, even David O. Russell, feel a lot like student films writ large. I don't mean to disparage the artistry of these auteurs—PT Anderson in particular seems to have a keen eye and an interesting point of view. But too often their films feel like arbitrary exercises in wouldn't-it-be-cool-if filmmaking—i.e., wouldn't it be cool if this scene all played in one take, or if we made up our own brand-name products, or if all these guys walked down the street in slo-mo while this bitchin' song was on the soundtrack, or if this one guy had a taste for really obscure foreign movies, etc. I've found that this aesthetic can actually be rather inviting, or at least a pleasantly inconsequential way to spend a few air-conditioned hours—after all, very often the things that these guys find cool I happen to enjoy, too: the formalist romanticism of Anderson's Punchdrunk Love, for instance, or even the agreeably pointless comedy of Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin's "existential detectives" in Russell's I Heart Huckabees.

Or, for that matter, Anderson's fascination with seafaring arcana, and the inarguably cool Portuguese guitar renditions of Bowie songs throughout Aquatic, adapted and performed by actor/signer Seu Jorge. I had fun playing the game of identifying each of his selections (the most obscure being the very early "When I Live My Dream"), though I can't say this had much to do with the film's ostensible central story. What these filmmakers seem to share is a delight in creating the "world" of their films—constructing pop-fantasy simulacra that are an end in themselves (the Canadian Guy Maddin shares this trait to an almost monomaniacal degree that puts him in his own class of artist). I think I first noticed this in such films as Pulp Fiction and Boogie Nights, which took an inordinate amount of pleasure in their production design and soundtrack.

I would contrast this approach with that of another auteur of their (and my) generation, Richard Linklater, whose first film, Slacker, had a baldly film-schoolish conceit but whose subsequent films have been marked less by their baroque or willfully quirky production design than by their leisurely, generous storytelling and character touches. Dazed and Confused, for instance, is among my favorite films, and not for its soundtrack or design (matter-of-factly right-on) but for its warmly witty take on adolescent life—the best on film, in my opinion. I haven't seen his recent Before Sunset but I was charmed by its predecessor, Before Sunrise, which took a simple conceit—two characters, one 24-hour-period, lots of talk—and made an authentically youthful and yet circumspect romantic comedy of it. There wasn't an extraneous shot in that film, and its often bold long takes weren't formal experiments but natural byproducts of the film's conversational, almost improvisational feel.

I was a film student once, too, and while I can envy the budget and imagination of the Andersons, Tarantino, et al, for my money a filmmaker like Linklater is the kind I admire, and once would have aspired to emulate, before journalism and theatre (more or less) happily hijacked my career.

.5 Shows and Other 2004 Stats

One thing I learned from my colleague Julio Martinez last week was that an average of 27.5 shows opened every week last year. Read another way, that was 1,430 shows total. His source, if I recall, was Lynne Heffley of The Times, who edits the theatre listings. No word on the geographical boundaries under consideration, or how many of those shows included short-run special presentations. Still, that's a nice fat number.

My colleague Dany Margolies, upon hearing that number, ventured that on average she sees about "2.5 shows a week." I'd love to catch one of those .5 shows with her some time.

CORRECTION: Lynne Heffley reached me to say that she wasn't the source for Julio's numbers; she stopped being listings editor at The Times midway through last year. I did reach Julio to confirm the numbers, however, and his source was someone at the "Thursday Calendar" desk.