Aaron Sorkin's first stage play, Hidden in This Picture, is reviewed by Amy Nicholson; Neal Weaver was taken with the collection of theater-celeb-scribed gay-themed plays, Standing on Ceremony: The Gay Marriage Plays, that just transferred to the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center; I was taken with the production of Brit playwright Fin Kennedy's dystopic dreamscape of our marketing age, How to Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, staged by Nancy Keystone for Theater @ Boston Court, though found the play overstated and single-toned. The photo above is from Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class, presented by Open Fist Theatre Company and reviewed by Bill Raden. For All NEW THEATER REVIEWS, press the More tab directly below.
From our DEG department (Department of Errant Gossip), we've learned that Edward L. Rada, president of the Music Center Foundation, has been tapped to replace Charles Dillingham as Managing Director of Center Theatre Group. Both Mr. Rada and the CTG press department would neither confirm nor deny this tip. Dillingham announced his resignation earlier this year.
NEW THEATER REVIEWS: scheduled for publication May 5, 2011
NEW REVIEW CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS
Photo by Maia Madison
Director Scott Paulin poorly serves Sam Shepard's 1978, semi-autobiographical fantasy about a Southern California nuclear family caught up in the throes of spiritual and financial implosion. A certain ungainliness is understandable. Coming just before the Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child, the play uneasily straddles the dazzling free-form experiments of Shepard's Off Off Broadway work and the mastery of traditional narrative form that would characterize his "mature" period. The titular curse is of the existential kind -- a starvation of the soul afflicting a family all but abandoned by their dissolute, alcoholic rancher/patriarch, Weston (Kevin McCorkle). His flighty wife, Ella (Laura Richardson), plots with a corrupt speculator (John Lacy) to sell the ranch from under him. Their mercurially hormone-addled, pubescent daughter, Emma (Juliette Goglia), merely wants to "get out." It is left to their embittered son, Wesley (Ian Nelson), to save the family farm by literally putting on his father's clothes and trying to piece the shattered household back together. Unfortunately, salvaging the dramatic gold lurking in the text's surreal collision of incompatible styles would take far more than Paulin's careless, clumsily literal staging. Jason Mullen's mundane lights and Victoria Profitt's disappointing, slapdash set illuminate none of the play's allegorical riches. And the ensemble's exasperatingly ham-handed approach to the language only succeeds in suffocating the screwball comedy while shredding the breathtaking lyricism of Shepard's poetry. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m.; thru June 4. (323) 882-6912. openfist.org. (Bill Raden)
NEW REVIEW HIDDEN IN THIS PICTURE Twenty-three years before Aaron Sorkin won an Oscar, he was a floundering New York actor (read: bartender) graced by a career miracle: He scratched out a one-act Hollywood satire good enough to get him an agent and the attention of people who would later transplant him to Hollywood, proving that his comedy was hilariously accurate. Hidden in This Picture is a preternatural calling card for a 27-year-old who was still so stuck on acting, he cast himself in the play's first production alongside a young Nathan Lane. On a farm in Schenectady, N.Y., first-time film director Robert (Robert Krisst) is three weeks behind schedule and $6.5 million over budget on his Guam war picture -- a long-winded and overly ambitious wedge of "Yale Drama crap," snipes the producer (Pantelis Kodogiannis). In 1988, Sorkin was already a storyteller obsessed with exactitude: Below Robert, we learn, is a 12,000-acre field where 694 extras dressed as Marines in the tropics are marching along a 4,560-foot diagonal for a single-take/11.5-minute closing shot, timed for sunset. And as the cameras roll on this last day of shooting, and Robert blathers on to his writer (Patrick Tiller) and P.A. (Chadbourne Hamblin) about his certain Academy Award, three cows photobomb the frame. "Cows!" shrieks the wanna-be auteur, who spends the rest of the play veering between prayer and panic. The 45-minute short piece is a smart pick for the youthful Renegade Theatre -- it's fleet and funny and perfectly Los Angeles. But director Allen Williams needs to scale back his actors, who shout their lines and stomp on their own jokes. The production starts at a bellow and never allows itself to build, plus the cast can't agree on a consistent comic tone. It's interesting only to see Sorkin at the dawn of his career warning himself that the movie business means soul-crushing concessions -- unless, of course, you grow up to be Aaron Sorkin. Renegade Theatre (formerly the Actor's Playpen), 1514 N. Gardner St., W. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru May 15. (323) 874-1733. plays411.com/hidden (Amy Nicholson)
NEW REVIEW HOW TO DISAPPEAR AND NEVER BE FOUND
Photo by Ed Krieger
There's much to admire in Fin Kennedy's sharp-witted, poetical drama about valid causes of subterranean rage and despondency in our hyper-marketed age. Charlie (Brad Culver) is a London-based marketing exec plunging into madness from a supercharged, jet-propelled pace of living that keeps authentic feelings and reflection at bay. It's the life-defining smartphones and the sales pitches, and people around him starting to move too slowly for his increasingly lunatic comfort zone. Until he, or his soul, starts to unravel through dreams of his own death. With a gentle-natured physician (Carolyn Ratterray) examining his "corpse" -- even while he remains mobile -- Charlie envisions himself not only separated from the culture but floating above himself. These fissures lead him to outcast Mike (Tim Winters), an expert in the minutiae of how the government (and corporations) track our birth and our buying habits in order to keep us on a string. Mike also is expert in how to unplug oneself from the roller-coaster surveillance, how to erase one's former self and start again: new birth certificate, new passport, new life. The play is a shriek of despair with our commercial values, like an early poem by Bertolt Brecht via Sarah Kane, sleekly directed by Nancy Keystone on her own stark set wherein an office and a morgue are much the same place. It overstates its case viscerally, fully revealing its philosophy in a mocking scene where Charlie (who has morphed into his new identity as "Adam") rolls his eyes when somebody tries to explain how life's value lies in small, simple pleasures -- which actually happens to be true. The ridicule isn't an argument but an attitude, marking the play as a somewhat juvenile exercise, despite this marvelous production. Even jaded Samuel Beckett, like Brecht before him, found currents of romanticism in his nihilistic vision. Minus this paradox, we're just left with a poetically articulated, teenager's schrei. Theater@Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru May 29. (626) 683-6883. bostoncourt.org. (Steven Leigh Morris)
NEW REVIEW THE PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE Though the material feels a bit dated, Neil Simon's 1971 play about a man whose life nearly crumbles after he loses his lifelong job in the midst of an economic downturn rings a few timely bells about the average American's struggle to survive a recession. Mel (Mark Belnick) lashes out at his wife, Edna (Kimberly Lewis), when he and more than 40 of his co-workers are laid off. Shuffling around his New York City apartment in pajamas while Edna pounds the pavement and gets back to work, Mel lets millions of minute discomforts -- from the smell of trash in the street to the noisy neighbor upstairs -- invade his mind, until nervous breakdown ensues. Lamenting over the crumbling middle class and eventually spiraling into paranoid rage, Mel ends up medicated and mooned over by his meddling siblings until Mel and Edna begin to find their way back to an imperfect but stable life. Belnick gives Mel a rage that's infused with an overabundance of camp, but that's perhaps more a byproduct of Simon's writing than a reflection of Belnick's talent. Lewis is skilled at playing both spirited and dispirited, but she likewise comes off as a Simon relic, unflinchingly willing to sacrifice herself on the altar of her husband's neurosis. GTC Burbank, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru May 29. (323) 960-7862. plays411.com/prisoner. (Amy Lyons)
NEW REVIEW THE POOL OF BETHESDA The proverb from Luke, "Physician, heal thyself," is apt for the situation faced by Dr. Daniel Pearce (John Prosky) in Allan Cubitt's treatise on medicine, religion and art. I say treatise because Cubitt tends merely to splash the surface of the issues he explores. His dialogue, in which Pearce keeps reminding us that he's a doctor (a repetition that just steers clear of Star Trek parody), suffers from bouts of obvious exposition. Further muddying the waters is a first act that plays out largely in Pearce's time-bending hallucinations caused by his brain tumor. He travels from modern-day London to 18th-century England, conversing with artist William Hogarth (Josh Nathan), who is painting the biblically inspired titular work, and observing the treatment of the poor under the healthcare administration at the time. While the period costumes are authentically crafted and the "disease makeup" convincing, the basic story and themes aren't clarified until Act 2, in which we observe Pearce slowly decaying, much to the dismay of his wife, Jane (Anna Steers), his sister Ruth (Sarah Underwood), and his doctor and colleague, Kate (Cecily Overman). Director Joanne Gordon and Prosky deliver some touchingly tender moments between Pearce and the women in his life, as well as some funny ones with Simon (Nathan), a Polish orderly who brings him flavored vodka. In those moments, the themes from Act 1 flicker into fruition, but like Pearce's brain tumor, it's a bit too late. Cal Rep in the Royal Theater at the Queen Mary, 1126 Queen's Highway, Long Beach; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru May 14. (562) 985-5526. calrep.org. (Mayank Keshaviah)
NEW REVIEW GO STANDING ON CEREMONY
Photo by Scott Appel
This highly acclaimed evening of short plays by award-winning playwrights, dealing with the subject of marriage equality, was first presented as a one-time benefit to support gay marriage. Now it's scheduled for a special series of Monday night performances, to benefit the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's efforts to promote marriage equality, with a different celebrity cast each week. All nine plays are winners -- funny, clever, stylish and compassionate -- and none is allowed to devolve into mere propaganda. This Marriage Is Saved, by Joe Keenan, concerns a Christian evangelist, caught in flagrante delicto with a gay hustler, who attempts to salvage his conservative credentials by writing a book called Now I Only Kneel to Pray. In Strange Fruit, writer Neil LaBute looks at a happy gay couple who plan to marry till grim reality intervenes. In On Facebook, Doug Wright adapts a real online exchange in which fur flies as six people, of widely differing views, tangle violently on the subject of gay marriage. Moisés Kaufman sets his moving London Mosquitos at a Jewish funeral, in which a man mourns the loss of his longtime lover to vicious gay-bashers. And Paul Rudnick's The Gay Agenda provides a funny and surprisingly sympathetic portrait of a hysterical member of Focus on the Family, who feels her whole existence is under siege by gays and lesbians. The other plays, by Wendy McLeod, Jenny Lynn Bader, Jordan Harrison and Jose Rivera, are equally sharp. If director Brian Schnipper can assemble celebrity casts as skillful as the one reviewed (Amy Aquino, John Getz, Harriet Harris, Peter Paige, Tom Everett Scott and Cynthia Stevenson), this production is a luxury item. The Renberg Theatre, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hlywd.; Mon., 8 p.m.; thru June 27. (323) 860-7300. StandingOnCeremony.net. (Neal Weaver)
NEW REVIEW SUPER SUNDAY
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Photo courtesy of The Moth Theatre
Stephen Collins' middling drama assays the familiar terrain of the troubled marriage in need of intensive couch time. Tom (Ross McCall) is a Vietnam vet whose ostensibly happy life is disrupted when he returns to his New York City apartment after watching the 1988 Super Bowl and sees wife Sandra (Alice Fulks) being a mite too cozy with her acting coach, Paul (Wes Chatham). Enraged, Tom breaks Paul's nose, goes on a jealous rant, destroys property, brandishes a gun -- which he always carries and is more than willing to use -- and subsequently throws the lives of all concerned into upheaval. Things don't get any better when he learns that his fiery temper and erratic behavior have led to a lawsuit, and Sandra walks out in a desperate search for answers. Most of what's dramatically appealing here occurs in the early stages of Act 1. For the most part, the characters are well sketched and hold interest, but the sometimes waggish upsurges of Paul's dark side, which include boozing it up, frequent outbursts of coarse language and hitting on his close friend's (Alex Desert) curvaceous wife (Jen Dede), grow wearisome in the absence of a more engrossing narrative and because of the play's tortuous length. There are hints that Paul's tour in Vietnam may be the cause of his irrational conduct, but at play's end, when a much-needed moment of revelation seems afoot, the curtain falls, leaving only questions. In spite of these inadequacies, Jamie Wollrab provides respectable direction and elicits consistently good performances from his cast. Moth Theatre, 4359 Melrose Ave. L.A.; Fri.- Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m., thru May 15. (323) 666-6684. (Lovell Estell III)
NEW REVIEW RIDING THE MIDNIGHT EXPRESS WITH BILLY HAYES The author of the autobiographical novel The Midnight Express -- the basis for Alan Parker's 1978 movie, with screenplay by Oliver Stone -- arrives on the local stage to retell his story in a one-man show. In 1970, Hayes, barely in his 20s, taped bricks of hashish to his body under his clothes, got nabbed for it in the Istanbul airport and was sentenced to five years in a Turkish prison -- a sentence that, near its end, was hiked by an Ankara court to 30 years -- despite efforts by the U.S. State Department to get Hayes some clemency. Act 1 consists of the sundry absurdities of looking danger in the face by routinely smuggling the greatest hash to be found out of Istanbul. On one occasion, feigning a broken leg, Hayes hid it in a homemade cast, which started to unravel as he went through customs, leaving small piles of white powder behind him. But even that wasn't the incident where his luck ran out. His larger point is about the Alice in Wonderland-esque capriciousness of laws. One day something is legal; the next day it's not. One day the law is ignored; the next day it's not. Act 2 consists of retelling his great escape, through Turkey into Greece and back to the U.S., where he arrived as a celebrity of sorts. It's a great adventure story, told with wit and with a rip-roaring pace under Gary Blumseck's direction. Yet even pace and wit can't compensate for the over-emoting style, frequently broadcasting through body language and tone what the words already suggest. The story is a powerful, worldly melodrama about a naïve American abroad, undone by overacting. Among the motives of creation is to correct inaccuracies in the movie, which Hayes says he was generally pleased with -- particularly the villainous depiction of the Turks. And the monologue indeed presents nuanced portraits that resist the melodramatic temptation to place people into camps, even when they're in prison. Hayworth Theatre, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Thurs., 8 p.m.; thru May 12. (323) 960-4442. plays411.net/midnightexpress. (Steven Leigh Morris)
NEW REVIEW THE UNREQUITED (BETWEEN TWO WORLDS) Love (especially the young, wild strain) thwarted by well-meaning parents never ends well. Apparently, fictional characters heed George Santayana's famous saying, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," as well as those in the real world do. In this world premiere, playwright Lynn Manning takes on S. Ansky's 1914 play, The Dybbuk. In Manning's version, Isela (Lisa Jai) and poor, spiritually possessed Cris (Marcenus "MC" Earl) have an otherworldly attraction to each other. But Isela's father, Hector (Juan E. Carrillo), promises her to the man he believes can better provide for the girl, who's been crippled by polio. The racial backdrop Manning has hung (in Depression-era Watts, no less) is especially interesting -- Hector and Isela are Mexican, a Japanese woman runs their household, a black woman is Isela's best friend, but Hector will not abide Cris, a black man, as his daughter's husband, and deeper racism still is revealed when reckoning is rained down on Hector. Spiritual contention is woven throughout the script as Catholicism, born-again Christianity and Hoodoo butt heads, colliding into "The sins of the father will be visited upon the son." The realities of economic strife play out in contrast to snippets of FDR's New Deal speeches. Social prejudice remains despite the Great Depression, as Deacon (George Gant) huffs, "I'd rather be a half-naked jiggaboo in King Kong than a bum on skid row." Yes, chunks of fat need to be trimmed from the script, but obviously, the play inspires contemplation. Nice performances from Carrillo, Earl, Gant and Jai, and special nods to Meghan E. Healey's costumes and Cricket S. Myers' effectively eerie sound design. Cornerstone Theater Company and Watts Village Theater Company at Youth Opportunities High School, 1827 E. 103rd St.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru May 22. cornerstonetheater.org. (Rebecca Haithcoat)