Stage Raw: I Never Sang for My Father
Photo by Daniel G. Lam
If the aim of naturalism in theater is the pitch perfect rendering of reality, then Cameron Watson's urbane staging of Robert Anderson's 1968 drama scores. It revolves around an aging, ailing and cantankerous egotist named Tom (Philip Baker Hall) and Tom's beleaguered son, Gene (John Sloan). A widowed college professor, the soft-spoken Gene has always sought his father's love but has never received it. With Tom now battling dementia, Gene struggles between a mix of duty and a desperate need to bond, and his equally strong desire to establish a new life for himself in California, 3,000 miles away. Constructed as a memory play, Anderson's highly personal work sometimes teeters on the edge of melodrama but ultimately transcends its suburban WASP milieu and mid-20th century perspective with its themes involving fathers and sons, family and self. Hall, a performer whose intense dynamic can barely be contained within the production's small venue, dominates the stage, barking at those around him like the fierce and wounded human animal Tom has become. Sloan performs impeccably in the less flashier role of the tongue-biting adult that Gene is laboring to be; so does Anne Gee Byrd as Tom's gracious, long suffering wife. As sister Alice, banished from the family for marrying a Jew, the terrific Dee Ann Newkirk metamorphoses from a tight-lipped secondary character into the plot's fiery catalyst. The various shifts in time and place are effectively accommodated by designer John Iacovelli's spare set, with its transparent scrim elaborated on by projection designer Christopher M. Allison color-imbued drawings. The New American Theatre at the McCadden Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Pl., Hlywd.; Fri-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru May 22. (310) 701-0788. NewAmericanTheatre.com. (Deborah Klugman)
NEW REVIEW LUST 'N RUST These days, stories of plant closures as a result of corporate downsizing or outsourcing have become all too common in the news. Frank Haney, Carol Kimball and Dave Stratton choose to explore this economic phenomenon musically. In their piece, New Jersey executive Steve (Sal Cecere) is posted to Southern Illinois to manage a plant for Agribig. Believing the move to be temporary, Steve rents a trailer in the Redbud Mobile Estates, where he falls for Connie (Joyanna Crouse), who has just split up with husband Duane (Derek Long). Also populating the trailer park are the comic duo of Buzz (Josh Evans) and Junior (Scott Dean), Buzz's lascivious wife Tanya (Terra Taylor), social chair and gossip hub Red (Ward Edmondson), sassy beautician Latisha (Becky Birdsong), and general oddball Janette (Leann Donovan). Though the show's premise accurately reflects the zeitgeist, it suffers from one-dimensional characters, painfully presentational dialogue, and contrived turns of events that sap the story of genuine drama. The music is pleasant with some nice harmonies, but the lyrics are often undercut by off-kilter rhyme schemes and too many syllables per beat. Director Thomas Colby curiously lines up his actors to face the audience whenever a song is about to start, turning musical theatre into country cabaret. Allan Jensen's "wood and hinges" motif plays well on a sign-festooned set that's both versatile and authentically detailed, but overall the show is too broadly drawn to take seriously as drama and too obvious to be consistently entertaining as comedy. The Lyric Theater, 520 N. La Brea Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru April 30. (626) 695-8383. brownpapertickets.com/event/144372 (Mayank Keshaviah)
NEW REVIEW MAXWELL STREET
Photo by Jerry Katell
By virtue of its setting--Chicago's South Side during the postwar blues music boom --Willard Manus' new play should brim with second-to-none music. Instead, the entire show plays out like a giant missed opportunity, a sloppily penned love letter to an erstwhile blues scene that included Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Memphis Minnie. Everything from the simplistic script to botched lighting cues to under-rehearsed, unsure actors lacking strong singing skills makes the production feel painfully amateurish. Snooks Lawson (Tony Davis) is an aging bluesman who decides to give the business one last shot. Teaming up with a young, white harmonica player, Irwin Weisfeld (Greg Guardino), Snooks forms a band in which he is the only black member. Keeping his eye on the evil Lance Lennox (Jerry Katell), an A&R man who has burned Snooks in the past, Snooks makes great music but is accused of being a sellout to the white crowd. The predictable plot involves battles with drug addiction and alcohol abuse, race wars, and misunderstandings that threaten to break up the band. Though there are a host of one-note performances (Davis plays a full on caricature throughout, cackling and bemoaning life's cruelties without a genuine human emotion in sight), the show's most frustrating aspect stems from what remains unseen and unheard: great music. In its stead are clichéd lines about overcoming obstacles, compounded by the missed emotional connections between the characters. Immediately following the band's off-stage appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, Lennox congratulates them for blowing Bob Dylan out of the water. From the small bits of singing sans instruments we see on stage, this piece of praise seems preposterous. Cake Theatre at Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center, 4305 Degnan Blvd., Ste. 101, L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., noon; thru May 1. (310) 330-0178. (by Amy Lyons)
NEW REVIEW THE SPECTACULAR SUPERHERO VARIETY HOUR!
Photo by Greg Gorman
The term NHI was a code-word used by Los Angeles police in their case files in the 1950s. It stood for NO HUMANS INVOLVED, and referred to any cases involving homosexuals, African-Americans, Latinos, or other minorities the cops considered undesirable. In those days of virulent homophobia and institutionalized repression, gay activist Harry Hay (Dennis Christopher), designer and Viennese refugee Rudi Gernreich (Erich Bergen), and their friends, Chuck Rowland (Mark Shunock), and Bob Hull (John Tartaglia) organized the Mattachine Society, the first gay rights organization in the U.S. They referred to themselves as "Temperamentals"--a code-word for gays. They also embraced the cause of Dale Jennings (Patrick Scott Lewis), the defendant in the first legal case to successfully challenge the LAPD's entrapment policies. They were a colorful crew: Hay was married for 11 years, and fathered two children before coming out. As a former communist, he was summoned to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and in his later years he founded the Radical Faeries. Playwright Jon Marans employs theatrical short-hand and presentational style to tell a wide-ranging, complex tale, and director Michael Matthews gives it a lively staging, assisted by an able and engaging cast. Blank Theatre Company at The 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun, 2 p.m.; thru May 22. (323) 661-9827 or TheBlank.com (Neal Weaver)
VERONIKA DECIDE TO DIE
Photo by Chelsea Sutton
Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho has enjoyed inordinate success -- he sold 65 million copies of The Alchemist and set the Guinness Record for the most-translated book by a living author. But on stage and screen, his stories founder. Both Warner Bros. and Harvey Weinstein have struggled to adapt The Alchemist and a $9 million version of his 1998 novel Veronika Decides to Die, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, has languished unreleased in America. This is not surprising - especially after watching Taylor Ashbrook and Beth Ricketson's nearly three-hour attempt to wrangle his book into submission. Ricketson plays the titular Veronika, a pretty Slovenian librarian who swallows a should-be fatal dose of sleeping pills out of boredom. Every day is the same, she sighs to her two doctors, both so casual and unprofessional, they should be disbarred. When they tell Veronika that her suicide attempt destroyed her heart and has left her with just five days to live, she spends days one and two trying to die faster, trolling for more pills when she could just do jumping jacks. Coelho is like Ken Kesey crossed with Deepak Chopra. Every line is a proclamation on sanity and civilization; the adaptors have been intimidated into thinking they need a 12-person ensemble and dozens of speeches about clocks and sexual deviants and the Book of Genesis to make a single point: Conformity is nuts. When Veronika has an emotional breakthrough, masturbating in front of a hunky schizophrenic (Jonathan Trent), she tells three characters about it in three separate, but equally pointless conversations. And at the end, there are flashbacks to lines people said just 15 minutes before. If Ashbrook's cast were stronger, the length would be less arduous, but the on-the-nose performances are exemplified in a scene where Ricketson bangs on a piano and screams, "I couldn't be what you wanted!" Ecclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru May 15. (818) 508-3003 eclecticcompanytheatre.org (Amy Nicholson)
NEW REVIEW WAIT UNTIL DARK When measured beside the sensational, blood-spattered exploits of today's infamous offenders, Frank Knott's 1966 crime fable about drugs and a home invasion seems terribly sedate That, in a word, also sums up director David Colwell's revival. In the basement apartment of Sam and Susy Hendrix (Bert Emmett, Liza de Weerd), Sam is approached by a stranger to transport a doll for a sickly child. Unfortunately, the doll contains heroin, and he has lost it, which has made some hoodlums very unhappy. When Sam is forced to leave the city, Susy, who is blind, is thrown into a high stakes game of survival when the smugglers come calling for their merchandise. Most of the deceptively simple plot is laid out in the opening minutes of the play, and as presented here, they are frustratingly blurry. This play rises and falls on the methodical ratcheting up of tension and suspense, both of which are but faint glimmers under Colwell's bland direction. Even the finale, which transpires in semi-darkness and should erupt with energy, implodes. There are also problems with cast: Leo Weltman and Chris Winfield, who portray the gangsters, project all the feral menace of a department store Santa. Weltman comes across as an engaging buffoon much of the time - which might have provided some comic relief were there any danger on the stage to be relieved from. Robert Gallo, as Harry Roat the ringleader, fares slightly better. As the blind girl, Weerd turns in a perfectly credible performance. The Group Repertory/Lonny Chapman Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd. N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.; thru May 8. (818) 700-4878. thegrouprep.com (Lovell Estell III)
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