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Theater Reviews: In a Garden, Through the Night, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum 

Also, Playing Jordan Goldman, The Diviners and more

Thursday, Mar 25 2010
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ABOVE THE LINE Hollywood stereotypes are so La-Z-Boy lived-in, a newcomer to L.A. can giggle at them right along with industry insiders. In this world premiere, playwright Susan Rubin has gotten the whole gang together again for our theater-armchair gawking. There's the screen-star-mama's-boy producer, Jeremy (Jason Stuart); the seemingly Zen Earth mother executive with silver-ring brass knuckles (Denise Dowse); the ladder-climbing Silver Lake punk composer, Christian (Stewart W. Calhoun); the triple-threat writer/bourbon drinker/asshole lady-killer, John (Nick Menell); and his triple-threat feminist lit professor/New Yorker/desperate prey, Lucy (Heather Marie Marsden). Now watch them try to make Tea, a movie musical based on a family-heirloom journal kept circa the Boston Tea Party. Rubin knows all their soft spots and pokes judiciously: When Lucy mentions Samuel Adams, Jeremy casually tosses off, "Oh, the beer guy." Yet the entire play resembles a 15-year-old learning to drive on a stick shift. The lines, pace and relationships jerk to life and then stall; the brakes are slammed. As Lucy leaves John, all fury and fangs, and he halfheartedly stops her, you wonder for what these two are fighting. Jeremy and Christian's affair is likewise hastily erected, and both couplings suffer from either a lack of chemistry or a lack of rehearsal. Director Mark Bringelson and cinematographer Adam Soch created a neat device merging film and theater, but it's so underused — and in the dinner-scene instance, extraneous — they should've scrapped it and focused that energy on the play. Hmmm ... art imitates Hollywood. Bootleg Theatre, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through April 24. (213) 389-3856. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

AN AMERICAN TRACT Barbara White Morgan's irksome drama about a struggling single mom comes weighted down with hackneyed dialogue, superficial characters and gratuitous subplots. In the mid-1980s, nurse's assistant Ann (Darlene Bel Grayson) had lived in the 'hood with her two sons until a dying patient bequeathed her a house in a pretentious white suburb. Euphoric when she first moves in, Ann is soon being visited by well-meaning and hostile neighbors, who complain about her unlandscaped lawn and her son Rodney's boom box — and demand all sorts of ownership levies she doesn't have. Meanwhile the listless Rodney (Larry "Bam" Hall) yearns to return to the projects — even though his father was murdered there — while Ann's boyfriend, Earl (Carl Crudup), makes it plain he too feels out of place. Her spirit unbowed, Ann soldiers on, skillfully handling the patronizing white lady next door (Jennifer Lamar), fending off her journalist husband (Darrell Philip), who keeps giving Ann hankering looks, and vanquishing the nasty patrician president of the homeowner's association (Maurice Weiss). Whatever truthful elements the story embraces are torpedoed by the typically one-note performances, under Richard Elkins' direction. Though Ann is always well groomed, her living room (designer David Mauer's set) inexplicably resembles a squatters' den, with blank, dirty walls and sheet-draped, torn upholstery. (The place finally gets spiffed up in Act 2.) Among the ensemble, Miriam Korn is the most convincing as a likable teen who penetrates Rodney's sullen defenses. Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 25. brownpapertickets.com/event/100569. (800) 838-3006. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  AWAKE AND SING Clifford Odets painted a loving portrait of the Berger family in the darkest days of the Great Depression. Three generations live together in their Bronx apartment. Matriarch Bessie (Deborah Strang) is a feisty, loyal woman who's capable of terrible things if she believes they're in her family's best interests. Her husband, Myron (Joel Swetow), is "a born follower"; her daughter Hennie (Molly Leland) is pregnant by a man who has dumped her; and son Ralph (Adam Silver) is in love with a girl he can't afford to marry. But it's the grandfather, Jake (the wonderful Len Lesser), who is the household's soul, and delivers the play's message of hope and desperate optimism: "... take the world in your two hands and make it like new. Go out and fight so life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills." Jake is an old Marxist who loves his Caruso records and his grandson, Ralph. Director Andrew J. Traister captures the play's potent blend of love, longing and frustration, along with its lyricism and zest for language. The cast includes Daniel Reichert as Moe, the man Hennie loves; David Lengel as the sad-sack immigrant she marries; and Alan Blumenfeld as plutocratic Uncle Morty. They are all terrific. A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Boulevard, Glendale; in rep, call for schedule. (818) 240-0910, ext. 1. ANoiseWithin.org. (Neal Weaver)

click to enlarge PHOTO BY JOHN GANUN - A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
  • PHOTO BY JOHN GANUN
  • A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

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THE CHARM OF MAKING Playwright Timothy McNeil's drama is one of those deep, Southern-baked ham fests in which the characters baste themselves with family guilt and grief while downing endless glasses of bourbon (which seems to have been flavored with a dash of Tennessee Williams and a soupçon of Osage County). Elvin (Thor Edgell) is a middle-aged gay virgin who sublimates his despair over his family's troubled pedigree by secretly dressing in a sequined gown and getting drunk in the privacy of his own Mississippi family manor. Yet, he's not the most eccentric denizen of his clan: That honor could go either to his sister Morgan (Bonnie McNeil), who wanders around the woods irrelevantly chanting a magical spell; or to his equally unhinged Aunt Lottie (May Quigley Goodman), who is so desperate for validation she throws herself at a random 18-year-old Bible student after church. The main problem with director Milton Justice's flat, Monopoly-board staging is that it's heavier than Mississippi humidity, an issue that is exacerbated by leaden pacing, which even spills over to the perfunctory attempts at Southern backbiting and spiteful repartee. The mistakes of storytelling are legion, from the torpid, cement-thick monologues and overwrought line readings to the endless discussion of characters' pointless dreams. If it weren't for the show's execution being so ponderously serious, the piece would actually come across as unintentionally funny — particularly when Edgell's "good ole boy" Elvin shows up in his gown, or during his halting, oddly tepid first romance. Instead, even with game attempts by McNeil's unstable turn as Morgan and by Goodman's venomous Lottie, the results are ultimately an uninvolving trudge through Southern culture. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 25. (323) 960-7735. Stella Adler Los Angeles Theatre Collective. (Paul Birchall)

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