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.

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