Why are they here? I wonder, every time I notice a theatergoer scrolling down his messages on a cell phone during a performance, his face ablaze from the glow of a Blackberry or Treo. I shouldn’t complain, though, because overall the theater remains the best sanctuary from the intrusions of the digital age, even if some audience members do use their phone screens to illuminate programs during shows. (At least it’s the programs they’re reading and not Variety.) What’s onstage is another matter, however. It usually takes 10 minutes for us to figure out whether we’re in for something rare and original, or two hours of leftover turkey. Then I have to ask myself, Why am I here?
The answer reliably comes in the form of the one to two dozen shows that truly stand out every year. In 2007, L.A. saw solid local premieres of Rebecca Gilman’s The Glory of Living at the Victory Theatre Center, Culture Clash’s Zorro in Hell at the Ricardo Montalban Theater, Tracy Letts’ Bug at the Matrix Theater, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ In Arabia We’d All Be Kings at the Elephant Theater and Gary Mitchell’s Loyal Women at Theatre Banshee. For this year’s honor roll, I’ve included only shows that premiered in Los Angeles.
1.?The Catskill Sonata, Hayworth Theater. The Blacklist. The collapse of the American Left. The lazy grasp for suburban comfort. Brisket, bagels and lox. These are the ingredients that improbably mix at a Catskills retreat in the late 1950s in Michael Elias’ 90-minute one-act. The story focused on a boozy, skirt-chasing former fellow-traveler who now lives a cozy life as a TV comedy writer. His patron friend is about to lose the resort he stays at for free and another pal — a talented pianist and member of the Communist Party — has had the door to a Hollywood career slammed in her face. The show was powered by Kip Gilman’s deceptively effortless performance as the TV writer, Dave Vaughn, but also had help from an extremely committed cast — and a dream sequence in which Joseph Stalin visits the Catskills and chats with Dave about art and politics.
2.?Gulliver’s Travels, Actors Gang. Joshua Zeller’s compact summation of Jonathan Swift’s Augustan satire received a visually extravagant yet politically restrained production from director P. Adam Walsh. (But did the show really have to include that history-of-the-world video ending with George W. Bush?) The capable Keythe Farley essayed the lead role of the errant voyager who encounters familiar human misbehavior in unfamiliar forms, and was aided by John Burton’s shadow puppetry, along with Shannon A. Kennedy’s imaginative costume design.
3.?Evel Knievel, The Rock Opera, Bootleg Theater. Jef Bek’s biomusical did for the late car-jumping motorcyclist what Andy Prieboy’s White Trash Wins Lotto did for Axl Rose, if without the latter show’s impeccable irony. Bek’s story traced Knievel’s rise from the protean ooze of Montana bars to a the pedestal of American stunt entertainment. Everything about the tale suggested a Heartland Faustian fable, one in which a Mephistophelean deal maker dressed in a black-leather jacket offers our jump-suited hero a world of flesh and fame — while he remains a crash away from being dragged down to the underworld. Ann Closs-Farley’s outlandish 1970s costume design was a show unto itself.
4.?Food for Fish, Theatre of NOTE. The Three Sisters in Manhattan. Sort of. Adam Szymkowicz’s whimsical, semi-poetic play revolved around a young, suicidal writer who patiently sends off his novel’s newest chapters — not to his publisher or agent, but into wine bottles that he launches into the Hudson River. At the same time, the writer’s creations (three siblings who keep their father’s encoffined remains in their living room) begin to interact and fall in love with him, all the while dreaming of returning to New Jersey. Races and genders got seriously bent in director Heather Holloway’s production, which rose above cuteness to deliver a refreshingly perceptive work about how love, work and interior narratives act to both blind and free the individual.
5.?Monster of Happiness, 24th Street Theater. Tina Kronis and Richard Alger, and members of their Theatre Movement Bazaar company, created this exhaustingly intricate movement-and-media fable about the search for happiness — employing an unlikely assemblage of interactive video, choreographed gestures and philosophical and film noir quotes. When Alger looked out a window to gaze upon a projection of a leaf-cluttered lawn, Kronis would step outside their home with a rake and appear on the lawn.) Their Happy Man and Happy Woman characters chatted and expressed thoughts in voice-overs, with the woman’s optimistic façade beginning to crack ever so slightly over time.
6.?Butterflies of Uganda, Greenway Court Theatre. Let’s face it, audiences typically avoid theater about contemporary news events — and usually with good reason. However, Darin Dahms and Soenke C. Weiss shook up expectations with their engrossing chronicle of how the children of one Ugandan family get press-ganged into the insurgent Lord’s Resistance Army, led by the millennialist madman Joseph Kony (played with calm menace by Anthony Salas). The story was no diatribe, but a lament for a dying continent and its lost children. Dahms directed the work more as a child’s fearful odyssey than a call to action, and was helped by a dedicated ensemble. James Eric and Victoria Bellocq’s spare scenic design was augmented by Cricket Myers’ crisp sound and Fritz Davis’ dusky lighting plot.
7.?Distracted, Mark Taper Forum. Rita Wilson delivered a superlative comic performance as an Everymom beset with a brayingly loud — and ominously inattentive — child, not to mention know-it-all friends and an indifferent husband. Her real adversary, though, was the wired world and the irresistible distractions of its electronic toy chest. Set designer Elaine J. McCarthy’s multiscreen projections of rapid-fire visuals artfully carried the show’s theme, and director Leonard Foglia mounted an equally rapid-fire volley of performances from his ensemble.
8.?An Impending Rupture of the Belly, Furious Theater Company. Suburban paranoia suddenly got a whole lot weirder with Matt Pelfrey’s play. Clay and his pregnant wife Terri live in Pasadena but, goaded by the circle-the-wagons rhetoric of an office colleague, Clay begins to view their home as a fortified bunker nestled in a kind of California Green Zone. When a bullying neighbor allows his dog to crap like clockwork on the couple’s lawn, that rhetoric buzzing in Clay’s head activates the Road Warrior — or is it the caveman? — within. The results were terrifying. Who knew that an apocalypse could be brought on by some dog-do and a 9-iron?
9.?Walk’n Thru the Fire, Hayworth Theater. Seemingly forever cursed to be known only as “the Tracers guy,” playwright-actor John DiFusco not only revisited moments from his experience with the Public Theater’s hit production of that Vietnam War memoir, but also of the war itself, along with entertaining and tragic tales about DiFusco’s large Italian-American family. The DiFuscos lived in working class New England and their zest for fun was marked by an unusually high number of early deaths. DiFusco and a talented ensemble relied on movement, music and Kerouacian poetry to bring his stories to life. The show was directed by Che’Rae Adams and Janet Roston.
10.?The Elvis Test, Elephant Theater. Julian Stone’s Graceland potboiler imagined what it must’ve been like, that historic Christmas-season night in 1965, when Elvis Presley dropped acid with girlfriend Priscilla Beaulieu and some Memphis Mafia cronies. Although the script suffered from long moments of exposition and Stone’s reluctance to succumb to the narrative anarchy offered by LSD, Faran Fonté’s impersonation of the King, along with a fine supporting turn by Andrew McGinnis as his tailor-turned-guru, Carl, made the show very watchable. Also helping the eye were Summer Ramsey’s spot-on costumes and a Johnny Cash Meets Shag set design by Davis Campbell and Danny Cistone.