THEATER PICK BEVERLY WINWOOD PRESENTS THE ACTORS SHOWCASE With her chrome-plated red bob, manicured nails and chiseled, toothy smile, private acting coach Beverly Winwood (Susan Yeagly) checks in industry guests for the second annual showcase of her students’ best scenes. Thad Ripple (Nat Faxon) sits beside her in a torso-revealing floral shirt and bushy Afro, circa 1972. “Are you with the industry?” he asks. “Cool, bro, enjoy the show,” he adds, with cringe-inducing familiarity. Before and after the showcase, the actors distribute their résumés in the lobby. (One cites a YouTube clip as an example of his experience. Other credits: “Film TV & Radio: Squirrel Season, Hunter; and Back Massage Techniques, Charles.” Entering the theater, the audience is offered free potato chips from a large bowl wielded by an actor/waiter, posted in the threshold. Danger and Lewis J. Poole (Jordan Black and Phil Lamarr) — who met while incarcerated in a “Scared Straight” program — eviscerate a Happy/Biff scene from Death of a Salesman with sudden bursts of inexplicable melodrama, bereft of all emotional sense and gilded with hollow posturing. Tim N. Gunn (Patrick Bristow) suffers a curse-laden and violent mental breakdown during his performance of the Abbot and Costello sketch, “Who’s on First?” when his scene partner, Pu Ping Chow (Karen Maruyama), bludgeons rhythm and sense with her halting, ill-timed delivery, which is distinguished by her meaningless grin — an attempt to mask both her terror and confusion. The 20 actors are uniformly brilliant lampoonists, and Tony Sepulveda’s staging rises above last year’s mere mockery of the individuals and their pointless ambition. In one of the evening’s highlights, The Captain (Tim Bagley) — a recent stroke victim confined to a wheelchair — recites with a nasal twang Tom’s play-closing monologue from The Glass Menagerie
while attempting to light three candles from a candelabra placed in front of his wheelchair at a distance requiring him to wince in pain through his recitation of Tennessee Williams poetical homage, while straining with every fiber of his being to plant a lighted match upon the candles. “Blow out your candles, Laura,” he intones, having finally accomplished his first task of lighting them. He blows, and blows and blows, approaching hyperventilation. The woman next to me almost asphyxiated herself from laughter. This is more than a cheap shot at talentless actors and the system that exploits them, which is certainly part of its charm; this is a physical comedy about reaching for the unreachable, one long, almost metaphysical, joke about failure. It has no respect, little dignity and does not redeem the human spirit in any way, whatsoever. It’s one of the funniest shows around. Groundling Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Mon., 8 p.m.; thru Aug. 25. (323) 934-4747. (Steven Leigh Morris)
BODY POLITIC Jessica Goldberg's thought-provoking drama explores the ugly cost of our war in Iraq, opening with a short but haunting scene at Walter Reed Hospital, where a crippled, blindfolded soldier (Jeremy Maxwell) is feebly trying to rap about his battlefield experiences as a means of catharsis. We then meet Wendy (Kristina Lear), an idealistic, antiwar screenwriter whose trip to the hospital to gather research about wounded soldiers is blocked by Capt. Gray Whitrock (Michael James Reed). The captain, a spit-and-polish military man, is a staunch conservative with a palpable disdain for "Hollywood liberals" and a battlefield injury (a prosthetic foot) he proudly boasts of. The pair engage in a spirited debate about the war, bringing the passions and commitments — as well as their frailties — these characters possess into sharp relief. Eventually, Wendy’s persistence is rewarded but not before she uncovers a painful-to-observe fault line in the relationship between Whitrock and his doting, pregnant wife, Lydia (Samantha Shelton). Goldberg’s characters possess a poignant simplicity and honesty that are skillfully blended with haunting psychological complexity. This makes judging them difficult, regardless of one’s feeling about the war. Chris Field directs with intelligence and draws fine performances from this cast, which includes Jeremy Maxwell as a bottom-line movie exec. Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Ave.; W. Hlywd.; Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., thru. Aug. 24. (800) 413-8669 An Echo Theatre Company production. (Lovell Estell III)
GO FREEDOM OF SPEECH In her solo show, actor Eliza Jane Schneider explains that she had to leave her student life at UCLA so that she could learn something. And leave she did, on a “grant from the LAPD” (she sued for a broken wrist incurred during a student protest of the first Gulf War; Schneider evidently won a settlement). In a decommissioned ambulance, Schneider roamed the U.S.A and just plain talked to just plain folks, rich and poor, all ethnicities, in order to capture their voices — from the Bible Belt to New York’s Lower East Side. She recorded them in order to impersonate them. (Schneider has built a career as a voice-over artist.). She performs in as though in the echoes of performance artist Heather Woodbury and actor Alex Lyras (whose one man protrayal of six characters around an airport played in Hollywood earlier this year). Schneider’s aim is to summon voices, which offer aural glimpses onto the human landscape of our nation. That landscape comes with veils of humor over chasm of religiosity and despair. One young man in the Bible Belt is chastised by his date for assaulting her with a peck on the cheek after he spent $150 on her, on meals and gifts. There’s something inextricably endearing about his clutch on his own wallet, a clutch he loosens for the sake of pleasing her, and his own dignity. When she snaps at him for his presumption, that innocent peck perhaps laden with deeper desires, he bears an expression of bewilderment that says more than any of his words. That much is a testament to Schneider’s performance, her ability to conjure a character through sounds and snippets of words. By design, the piece roams as much as Schneider did on her sojourn. It’s forever on the move. Like Schneider’s intepretations, it’s more eager to move on, as though from some fear of intimacy, than to settle in. This renders the performance a facile tour de force, the celebration of an actor’s technique in a show still distilling its larger meaning. Sometimes to gain a deeper understanding of a person or a place, you need to stick around a while. Sal Romeo directs. Sidewalk Studio Theatre, 4150 Riverside Dr., Burbank; Sat.-Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Sept. 7. (818) 754-4264. (Steven Leigh Morris)GO JUST LIKE WHITE PEOPLE This world premiere from 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors, the curiously named but well-established Asian-American improv troupe, is an eclectic collection satirizing stereotypes, with Eastern twists on Western paradigms, and some plain old zany antics. Most sketches are written by founding member Michael Chih Ming Hornbuckle, with a few contributed by long-standing members Peter J. Wong and Greg Watanabe, who are joined by guest stars Junko Goda, Kennedy Kabasares and Jully Lee. Highlights include “Louie’s American-Style Chinese Restaurant,” which skewers Chinese restaurants that sell out to American clientele; “21: The Movie,” a clever and necessary satire of Hollywood’s whitewashed casting practices; and “Asian-Pacific Heritage Month,” a mockumentary that pulls no punches in labeling the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Filipinos as, respectively, the “Jews, Germans, Irish and Blacks of the East.” Other sketches, like “Sammo Hung Pitch” and “Letter To A Friend,” rely on base humor but produced some of the biggest laughs of the evening. The troupe weaves in music and dance with “Jabbawabbee,” “Korean BBQ” and “Tech Support Musical.” These topical and creative sketches are, at times, uneven, but when they find their target, they are incisive and hilarious. The talented cast deftly executes numerous quick changes and even throws in a couple of barbs directed at the L.A. Weekly, making this reviewer wonder if his presence in the audience was acknowledged in true improv style. The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Aug. 24. (818) 754-4500. http://www.18mmw.com (Mayank Keshaviah)
GO LOST IN YONKERS Thirty years and 25 hits after his first comedy opened on Broadway, Neil Simon won his first Pulitzer prize in 1991 for this darkest of his plays. Set against the financial hardships of World War II, six family members must depend on help from one of the most frightening figures of that era — the bitter, immigrant grandmother. Grandma Kurnitz (Nan Tepper) holds her progeny fiscally and emotionally hostage to her rage against life. Most vulnerable are her minimally retarded daughter, Bella (Maria Spassoff), who lives only to take care of her mother; and grandsons, Jay (Zav Hershfield) and Art (Bridger Sadina), who are stuck in the house while their father travels to pay off a mob debt. While Simon's signature jokes find there way into this serious situation (mostly through the mouths of the boys), the tone is far from his usual fare. Fortunately for this production, the two youngsters are remarkably fine in their roles — none of the old jokes about working with children rings true with these disciplined performers: Both display bright senses of humor and heartbreakingly convincing characterizations. Director Howard Teichman fares just as well with the rest of the perfectly cast ensemble, who all commit fully to the world they have created. Teichman is also to be lauded for an extremely crisp and well-paced production that honors Simon’s comic moments without losing the intensity of the family melodrama. Jeff G. Rack's simple set and Christine Cover-Ferro's well-reserached costumes serve the production beautifully without calling undue attention to themselves. Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theater, 241 Moreno Dr. Beverly Hills ; in rep, call theatre for schedule; thru Aug. 28. (310) 364-0535. (Tom Provenzano)
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PLASTIC CRYSTAL In his new drama, playwright-actor Jason Greenfield plays Michael, an affable young man, who, though fully functional, is challenged with a form of obsessive compulsive disorder. This means that while he can hold down a good job working for his short-tempered dad (Steven Robert Wollenberg), he also nervously washes his hands every couple of minutes with Purell and needs to have his shoes laid out by the bed at a perpendicular angle. However, Michael’s coping mechanisms turn out to be useless when a chance meeting with Rachel (Courtney DeCosky), a sexy, unhappily married woman, tempts him into a chaotic affair — a mess that no amount of hand washing will be able to tidy up. Greenfield’s play suffers from narrative flaws, suggesting a promising writer whose occasional, excessively sincere writing style needs to mature. Many situations are resolved too simplistically, while some patches of the script devolve into soap opera shmaltz. Yet director Abby Craden’s psychologically nuanced staging nicely balances the characters’ darker traits with likable personality qualities. And while Greenfield is clearly meant to be the show’s lead, our focus inevitably shifts to DeCosky’s unexpectedly inscrutable Rachel, who comes across as sweet and sympathetic, even as she uses and almost destroys Michael for her own ends. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd, Hlywd.; Wed.-Thur., 8 p.m. (added perf Sat, Aug. 23, 2 p.m.); thru Aug. 28. (323) 882-6912. (Paul Birchall)SUFFER THE LONG NIGHT Writer Mary Ruth Clarke and writer-director-actor-producer Greg Glienna tell the dizzy tale of an inept community theater. The company’s attempting to produce a melodrama about an all-American family held hostage on Christmas Eve by escaped convicts (Jeffrey Markle and Glienna), but they’re in the middle of an avian flu epidemic, which has felled most of the cast, so actors are forced to play multiple roles; vital props go missing, blackouts fail to come, onstage doors refuse to open, sound cues are scrambled or missing, and someone unwisely uses a bottle of real booze for a prop, with predictable results. The flu-ridden ingénue (Stephanie Manglaras) throws up in the middle of her love scene, and Glienna’s novice crook is a prototypical wooden actor who can’t move and talk at the same time. As police detective Beck, Eric Porzadek gets beaned by a falling lighting instrument and wanders about in a daze, convinced he’s playing Stanley Kowalski. Meanwhile, the fatalistic stage manager (Mandi Smith) tries vainly to cope. There’s plenty of hilarious stuff here and some engaging performances (including Brandon Alexander as an addled high school athlete), but the piece desperately needs sharper editing, pruning and timing. Meta Theatre, 7801 Melrose Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m., thru Sept. 14. (323) 960-7745; www.Plays411.com/suffer. (Neal Weaver)WINTER Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse’s two-person study of isolation has been translated into English by Ann Henning Jocelyn and Lene Pedersen, only to star two Norwegian-born actors, Pedersen and Terja Skonseng Naudeer, who struggle to give Fosse’s already chilly script some emotional connections. In a snowy park, a married businessman (Naudeer) is pestered by a beautiful drunk who seems too frail to handle the world: Her heels teeter on the ice, and she’s desperate for human acknowledgement. The man takes her back to his hotel with no scheme of seduction, and after a series of repetitive and irritating negotiations, he tries to clothe her while she continually asserts her sex appeal. He permits and later begs her to upend his life. All of this makes for a contrived fable, undermined further by directors John Swanbeck and Janne Halleskov Kindberg’s inability to ground these two vacant souls. Pedersen is a former Miss Norway with the face of Suzy Parker; even so, we struggle to see the destructive pull she has on Naudeer — especially when he hardly seems to be feeling it himself. Set designer Justin Corrigan’s stark landscape of stone benches and dead trees is an apt backdrop over which looms Gabrial McNair’s imposing video footage of snowfall and city lights. Culver Studios, Stage 7, 9336 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Aug. 17. www.wintertheplay.com. (Amy Nicholson)