Theater Reviews: Gulls, Mrs. Warren's Profession, Howlin' Blues and Dirty Dogs 

Also Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer and more

Tuesday, Aug 5 2008

BAD PENNY consists of speeches and dialogues by Mac Wellman that accrue into a theatrical poem/meditation on American life, while casting doubt on the reliability of any kind of knowledge, or judgment, about it. Thirteen characters (played by Cynthia Mance, Troy Dunn, Alisha Nichols, David E. Frank, Kenneth Rudnicki and Mariko Oka) in New York’s Central Park intersect. A painter meditates on the sky and the stars, and the vagaries of what can be known about them. A man from Montana tries to cross the park with the flat tire of his Ford Fairlane 500, because he can’t find a gas station on the East Side. A woman ruminates on a “bad penny” she picked up, and the curse it will bring. The underlying existential philosophy of the piece hovers somewhere between Camus, Sartre and Ionesco (Wellman devotes an entire chorale to a sequence of familiar clichés that pass for meaning in our culture, as Ionesco did in a number of his plays). One woman walks slowly across the back of the stage, in various attires, holding a punt as though she’s rafting. Production designer Charles Duncombe and director Frédérique Michel provide a beautiful scenic backdrop (lush hues of color, a city-park lamppost and slides of New York that slip through the seasons) and well-coordinated presentation style. They’re working with a largely young company that makes the language perfectly intelligible, but the interpretation fails to reach the depths of experience that give such meditations an emotional sense that corresponds to the philosophical one. City Garage, 1340½ Fourth Street (Alley entrance); Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Sept. 7. (310) 319-9939. (Steven Leigh Morris)

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Mrs. Warren’s Profession

DR. FAUSTUS goes to hell, and J. Paul Boehmer’s portrayal of the title character in a 90-minute version of Christopher Marlowe’s tragical history is so deliciously smug and grandiloquently preening, it’s a pleasure to wave him goodbye as he sails downstream. This is certainly fun for the family, but it largely drains the tragedy of import for the sake of a well-executed execution — a romp down death row. Faustus sold his soul to Mephistopheles (Bernadette Sullivan, with a pleasing blend of world-weariness and fury) in order to master the cruel delights of black magic. A scholar bored with the knowledge he had, Faustus just wanted to entertain himself by taunting a pope and kissing Helen of Troy. The cost be damned. The cost damned him. As the daylight fades around the outdoor stage, the countdown to Faustus’ doom grows increasingly magnetic, but even his last-minute terror can’t mitigate, or provide much nuance to, a production that’s more of a revenge melodrama than a tragical history. Antony Sandoval’s bare-bones staging is a stylish, macabre affair (both Faustus and Mephistopheles come adorned with dark feline streaks of makeup extending from their eyes) replete with puppets and masks. The supporting ensemble has a weak link or two, but mostly fires off the prose with clearly enunciated eloquence and a physical agility as large as the surrounding panorama of the city. Particularly strong work by the corpulent Danny Campbell as narrator, Wagner. Barnsdall Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; in rep, call for schedule; thru Aug. 24. Free. (323) 836-0288. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GROOVE AU GOGO Brilliant shards sparkle in what’s otherwise a broken plate-glass window — what creator Jason M. Solomon calls “an acid vaudeville/variety show.” Beat-poet “rants” against social contradictions of modern society (performed by Mike Estimé and Jonathan Kite) get mired in the wafer-thin lighting design that plagues the evening. Kiran Deol rises above that impediment, in a speech about an Indian-American defending her assimilation into this country to a relative. There’s also an amazing drum solo by the kimono-clad Nanami Iwasaki, and a tap routine by Charon Aldredge. Roger Kabler’s celeb impersonations are so fine, they transform the actor, as though even the structure of his face changes. Nice Pete Seeger–ish folk solo by Jeff Murray as well. There are also acts of aggressive mediocrity, but the shadows, echoes and lingering moments of an empty stage betray the abundant talent on the stage, under Kal Clarke’s lackadaisical direction. Theatre/Theater, 5041 West Pico Blvd., L.A.; Mon., 8 p.m.; indef. (323) 422-6331. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO GULLS Playwright Nick Salamone and composer Maurice McIntyre have loosely adapted Chekhov’s The Seagull to America of the 1950s, handily transforming the Russian classic about artistic idealism and despair into an American musical about commerce and repression. It’s a savvy move, translating the artistic tensions of late-19th-century Russia (doomed, high-minded symbolism versus commercial expedience) into artistic tensions of mid-20th-century America (doomed, high-minded symbolism versus commercial expedience). The American symbolism manifests itself in Beat poetry, embodied in frustrated playwright Conrad (John Keefe) and his love-hate relationship with his aging diva mother, Irenie Bennet (Rendé Rae Norman) — who’s fixated on philandering, successful screenwriter Gore Fitzwarren (Robert Mammana), a man painfully aware of his own mediocrity. The center of the storm is an African-American actress, Nina (Sabrina Sloan). After being toyed with by Gore, she flees Greenwich Village with pals Zelda (Grace Wall) and Conrad so the three can be free spirits in San Francisco. But the tug of Gore pulls her south to meet her spiritual decimation in L.A. (which is what L.A. does best). Salamone’s book comes packed with pithy lines and attitudes, such as Irenie’s contempt for the world being off its axis if the sun sets behind Hoboken rather than into the Pacific, where it should. Clinton Derricks-Carroll portrays a jive-poet narrator with links to both Nina and her parents (Marc Cardiff and Eileen T’Kaye) that are better left unrevealed here. McIntyre’s score has a subtly abstract, dissonant flow, with smidgens of gospel and ’40s swing, accentuated in Kitty McNamee’s buoyant choreography. Despite Jessica Kubzansky’s textured staging and wonderful performances, the event feels pro forma until it finds its emotional stride in Act 2, when it enters the Land of Disappointments. There’s a heart wrench for all seasons when Gore, isolated in Beachwood Canyon to write his next screenplay, is visited by his young former muse and has nothing to offer but politeness and platitudes. The play’s closing scene contains a hollow gush worthy of Gore, or Rent, but that’s not worth dwelling on when there’s so much good work on this stage. Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Aug. 24. (626) 683-6883. (Steven Leigh Morris)

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