By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
We can put our children on wheels to see the world, but we cannot give them the kind of home that any town provided in the ‘90s, not at any price.
--Henry Seidel Canby, The Age of Confidence
I found the above line completely by accident the other day while cribbing -- I mean, verifying -- a quote from Bartlett’s. Author-critic Canby was referring to the 1890s, of course, but I‘m sure we’ll be hearing more or less these same words again very soon, as people begin bemoaning the heartless, violent 21st century. We‘ll give our new historical home a try, but in our hearts we already faintly disapprove of it. No matter how much we want to belong to tomorrow, we will always be part of a century that smelled of bacon and tasted of Coca-Cola; we will never cease to cry at the end of King Kong or to shudder at the sight of a swastika. And, shortly enough, we will be identified as those cranky old people in theaters who turn around and frown whenever a cell phone rings. Or a gunfight erupts.
It’s fitting, then, when we tote our 10-best lists for 1999 to choose those plays that captured the spirit of their times. For the best plays are those that soon become “dated” in the very narrow definition of setting and agenda. Those are the works of theater that the future respects, the works that make no attempt to be “timeless” but whose circumstances become instant metaphors for tomorrow‘s ills and vanity. Below, alphabetically listed by theater, are my own personal Big 10 for last year, based on a woefully incomplete sampling of shows in 1999. My picks are listed here solely to brace me for Century 21 and are not to be confused with the L.A. Weekly’s annual theater awards, whose nominees will be announced in these pages on January 27.
Culture Clash in Bordertown, Actors‘ Gang Theater
The Clash has always been loud yet never shrill, alarmed but not paranoid in its rollicking examinations of Latinos and their place in a rapidly changing America. Written and performed by Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza, this installment focused on life in San Diego, both as melting pot and iron curtain, where Anglo, black and Latino characters traded history and resentments. While not as fully realized or textured as Radio Mambo, their look at Miami, the show nevertheless demonstrated that Culture Clash continues to be a formidable and refreshing force of comedy and commentary.
bash, Cañon Theater
Neil LaBute’s three chamber pieces, bound by Greek tragedy and Mormonism, were directed with precision and sympathy by Joe Mantello. Calista Flockhart portrayed a deadpan, white-trash Medea confessing, in a police station, the events that led her to infanticide; Flockhart would later return with Paul Rudd in a riveting piece about two college sweethearts recounting a weekend of shopping and hate crimes in New York City. But it was Rod Eldard‘s performance as a guilt-ridden traveling business exec, holed up in a Vegas hotel, that provided the show’s most nuanced and moving statement about pride, fate and the male psyche.
Collected Stories, Geffen Playhouse
Donald Margulies‘ two-character play about a cranky, middle-aged academic and the comely grad student she hires as an assistant played like a melodrama from the Family Channel when it ran two years ago at South Coast Repertory. Under Gilbert Cates’ assured direction, however, and powered by Linda Lavin‘s quietly virtuoso performance as the writer whose intimate memories are parlayed by her aide into a book deal, the show became a meditation on spiritual property, loneliness and the opportunism of youth.
Oxblood at Glaxa Studios
Depending on your mood, the plays of the Oxblood theater group that appear at Richard Kay’s Glaxa space will seem like either haunting examinations of alienation or second-generation John Steppling. No one can doubt Oxblood‘s commitment, however, to producing challenging theater that requires a thinking audience. Plays like Wesley Walker’s The Conception, Sharon Yablon‘s The First Good Day, Murray Mednick’s Tirade for Three, Sarah Koskoff‘s Debt and Sissy Boyd’s The Definite Child carry on the legacy of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival without the nightmare logistics that event often entailed.
Rebeck Revisited, Theater Neo at the Hudson Avenue Theater
Twenty-five actors had a ball impersonating the daters, exes and cocktail-lounge habitues populating eight Theresa Rebeck playlets. Mostly urban, always urbane, Rebeck‘s stories will serve as a Rosetta stone for decoding the mores and manners of late-20th-century life. It’s true that after a while Rebeck Revisited assumed a cultural sameness, dealing with mostly white, mostly professional women -- sort of Ally McBeal meets Ally McBeal -- but the stories were never predictable, and were always funny.
Medea: The Musical, Hudson Theater
Benefiting from a stage much smaller than the one on which it premiered in San Francisco a few years back, writer-director John Fisher‘s boisterously funny Medea provided nonstop laughter while questioning the misogynist undertow of much gender-bent comedy -- presenting a gay actor who plays Jason in a campy musical version of the tragedy, and who falls in and out of love with his female co-star.