Theater Reviews: A Lie of the Mind, Mercy Warren’s Tea, Molly, Extinction

Tim Sullens

GO  BLACK LEATHER Photographer Robert Krapplethorpe — an unmistakable twist on Mapplethorpe — is a brazen narcissist. Manic when he’s coked up, marginally less so when he isn’t, he’s an outsized provocateur who revels in outraging others with abrasive remarks and abusive behavior. As portrayed by playwright Michael Sargent, the sexually promiscuous Robert interacts with the world — “finguratively” speaking — with a permanently erect and extended middle finger. In this raucous satire, directed and designed by Chris Covics, the people at the receiving end of Robert’s umbrage include his well-heeled lover and patron Sam (Jan Munroe); a gallery owner named Jilly (Kathy Bell Denton), with lots of money to lose if Robert should screw up; his African-American S&M partner, Milton (Kevin Daniels); his assistant, Ed (Dustin David); and his gal pal and former sweetheart, ostensibly modeled after Patti Smith, Ratty Spit (Liz Davies). Only with Ratty does Robert evince the barest trace of genuine love and care. Not for the prim or classical-minded, the production — aptly billed as a “comedy of desperation” — features lots of bare ass and graphic simulation of rough, homoerotic sex. Between and sometimes during scenes, cacophonous music throbs. The ensemble is solid, although the frenetic pace, reverberating noise and the main character’s grating persona create a distraction from appreciating the fragile humanity beneath the clatter. Unknown Theater, 1110 N. Seward St., Hollywood Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through December 19. (323) 466-7781. (Deborah Klugman)

CHATSWORTH Matt Robertson’s study of living in the margins of the megalopolis — a commune of actors, models and assorted showbiz wannabes who have gravitated to the San Fernando Valley — might be defined as weirdly Chekhovian, with its tangle of unrequited loves and the often farcical romantic-erotic escapades of its characters on their road to nowhere. Chekhov’s inebriating snuff here gets translated into coke — the function is the same. Or maybe this is closer to Gorky’s The Lower Depths. Director Roger Mathey plays the central role, Matthew (same name as the playwright, huh) — a corpulent fellow and one-hit-wonder screenwriter who’s as spiritually bankrupt as his so-called career — an insight he’s trying to keep to himself. Skinny new kid in town (Ry Higdon) gets hooked on amateur photographer (Dana Wing Lau), who toys and then steps on the callow guy. Mathey’s staging is clumsy: The actors must fling open curtains on the side of the stage to reveal their hidden bedrooms, or wherever. Sometimes that’s just for a peek at some gratuitous nudity, including a moment of urophilia in case you were drifting off. The guy who yearns to be peed on is the cad playing several women at once — which is a nice insight. If only the actor weren’t so transparently a player. The theme of breaking or broken dreams doesn’t resonate because, well, in Chatsworth, what else would one expect? It’s just all a little too obvious and a touch too leering to rise above the pedestrian. Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; Wed., 8 p.m; through Dec. 16. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  EXTINCTION Gabe McKinley’s play begins as a fast, funny, hip buddy comedy but grows steadily darker. Fast-talking hedonist and prosperous businessman Max (Michael Weston) regards women as disposable and interchangeable, and has no use for marriage, monogamy or fidelity. His real connection is to his male buddies — including grad student Finn (James Roday). Max is fixated on their college days of boozing, snorting, gambling and chasing girls, so he arranges a spectacular weekend with Finn in Atlantic City. Finn, however, has outgrown Max’s kind of self-indulgence. When he reveals that he’s married and expecting a child, Max sees this as a betrayal, and a dangerous threat to his own self-image. He cajoles, threatens, manipulates and bribes Finn into joining his revels, and brings in a couple of working girls (Amanda Detmer and Stefanie E. Frame) to spice things up. But enforced fun proves to be a kind of hell, leading to disillusion, brutality and several kinds of extinction. Weston and Roday give finely etched and contrasting performances, and Wayne Kasserman directs with a skillful but unobtrusive hand this merciless evisceration of whatever it means to have character. Kurt Boetcher provides the clever, beautiful, black-and-white set. Elephant Space, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through December 13. (323) 960-7784 or Produced by Red Dog Squadron. (Neal Weaver)

GRACE KIM & THE SPIDERS FROM MARS Directed by Jeff Liu, Phillip W. Chung’s pedestrian romantic comedy centers on two estranged sisters’ rivalry for one man’s affections. It’s Christmas: Maysie (Elaine Kao) returns home from L.A. to suburban New Jersey, with her fiancé, Wayne (Hanson Tse), an up-and-coming Beverly Hills surgeon. Wayne is introduced to Maysie’s family, including her maverick sister Grace (Elizabeth Ho), a medical-school dropout and a restless spirit since their mom’s death 10 years ago. Inexplicably (like any number of other random incidents), Wayne chooses this occasion to announce that he’s decided to pull up stakes and move from L.A. to a rural village in China, where he plans to open a pediatric-AIDS clinic. This upsets the astounded Maysie, who’s been cherishing the idea of a cozier, more conventional future. Later that night, Wayne and Grace find themselves drawn to each other. One of the biggest recurring jokes is how all the various women periodically gather teary-eyed round the TV soap opera and weep quietly — as, secretly, does lovable buffoon Dad (Kelvin Han Yee). At junctures, some popular ballad is piped in, and the characters sing, though not well. In need of wit, a surprise and character development, the script hobbles to its reconciliatory, bittersweet conclusion. Some of the dreariness is abated by the charismatic Ho, who performs with a stylish authenticity that allows you to momentarily ignore the material. GTC Burbank, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through December 20. (323) 993-7245. A Lodestone Theatre Ensemble production. (Deborah Klugman)


GO  HAMLET SHUT UP! Writer-director Jonas Oppenheim’s whimsical reimagining of Shakespeare’s play as a silent movie (music composed and performed by Josh Senick) comes packed with theatrical imagination and a robust sense of humor. It also raises the question of what body language can express, and in so doing just grazes the surface of Shakespeare’s multitextured play. Sacred Fools Theatre Company, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. (added perf Thursday, Dec. 17, 8 p.m.); through December 17. (310) 281-8337. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.

GO  HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS! THE MUSICAL The familiar yuletide tale from Dr. Seuss gets a musical face-lift in a touring version of the Broadway production. Narrator Old Max (John Larroquette), a wiser incarnation of the dog belonging to The Grinch (Stefan Karl), introduces the Whos of Whoville and their traditions, as well as the Grinch’s desire to put an end to their good cheer. In addition to Albert Hague’s widely known “Welcome, Christmas” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” a number of new songs cleverly incorporate traditional Christmas jingles but fails to achieve the iconic status of the aforementioned numbers (though “Santa For a Day,” featuring cute-as-a-button Kayley Stallings as Cindy-Lou Who, is sweet). What distinguishes this compact production (90 minutes without intermission) are John Lee Beatty’s set pieces, which incorporate Seuss’ original line drawings; Robert Morgan’s costumes, including the pastel mint hues of the Whos, and the bilious green coat sported by the Grinch; Thomas Augustine’s hair and wigs, featuring mounds of colorful curls and swirls; Angelina Avallone’s wonderfully detailed makeup; and Gregory Meeh’s clever special effects, like the flying sleigh and ubiquitous snowflakes. Director Matt August deftly manages hundreds of moving parts and gets an appropriately over-the-top performance from Karl, whose Grinch surpasses that of Jim Carrey’s. Headliner Larroquette has a surprisingly smooth hot-cocoa baritone, but his deadpan delivery is a bit too reminiscent of Dan Fielding. Like any face-lift, this one retains some wrinkles but makes for good family fare. Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., L.A.; Wed.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2, 5 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m., 2 & 5 p.m.; through January 3. (800) 982-2787 or ­­artist/1062083. A Nederlander and Running Subway Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

GO  A LIE OF THE MIND As an inaugural staging, Studio Five Productions’ revival of Sam Shepard’s 1985 complex, fractured-memory fable proves an auspicious and appropriate debut. Director John Langs’ vibrant production is not only handsomely mounted and caustically funny, but, for a play about self-deception and misremembering, it goes a long way toward finally wiping away the memory of the Taper’s 1988 austere, Robert Woodruff–helmed L.A. premiere. Believing he’s killed his wife, Beth (Natalie Avital), in a jealous rage, Jake (Lance Kramer) flees to his Southern California boyhood home to hide out with his overly doting, widowed mother, Lorraine (Casey Kramer), and black-sheep sister, Sally (Maury Morgan). Unbeknownst to Jake, Beth has survived the assault and been whisked away by her overprotective brother, Mike (P.J. Marshall), to the rural Montana home of their bombastic father, Baylor (John Combs) and ditsy mother, Meg (Jennifer Toffel). While Jake and Beth recover from their respective traumas — his a self-lacerating guilt that has transformed him into a cowering wreck; hers a severe concussion that has left her physically and mentally impaired — the story’s one truth seeker, Jake’s brother Frankie (Logan Fahey), is himself crippled when the befuddled Baylor literally shoots the messenger. While myriad hidden truths will eventually come out, it’s not before Shepard lays bare the self-deluding, foundational myths of each family in blistering parodies of Greek tragedy and frontier lore. Along the way, Langs and his flawless ensemble nimbly navigate the difficult transition between brutal domestic violence and sly, screwball farce, aided by Dwayne Burgess’ elegantly expressionistic set, Travis McHale’s atmospheric lights and the dramatic punch of Tim Labor’s sound. Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through December 20. (888) 534-6001 or Studio Five Productions. (Bill Raden)


MERCY WARREN’S TEA The first American woman playwright, Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1815), is such an intrinsically fascinating historical figure, it’s almost astonishing that she isn’t far better known in the theatrical pantheon. Almost immediately upon learning about this early “Republican mother,” we only wish we could see her satire, The Adulateur, in which she apparently skewered the corrupt British governor in pre–Revolutionary War Massachusetts. However, instead of such intriguing material, we get playwright Jovanka Bach’s plodding historical treatment. In 1783, playwright-historian Mercy (Donna Luisa Guinan) holds a tea party for her pal Abigail Adams (a nicely starchy Mona Lee Wylde), whose husband, John Adams, is one of Mercy’s major intellectual mentors. Mercy is plotting to write the definitive history of the Revolution — and, for research, she has invited none other than Mrs. Benedict Arnold (Susan Ziegler), to join them, so she can tell her side of the story of her husband’s betrayal of the American cause. Mrs. Adams and Mrs. Arnold argue bitterly — which, one suspects, was pretty much what the observational journalist Mercy was hoping for when she brought the pair together. The basic situation of these Daughters of the American Revolution meeting in one room is clever — but Bach’s drama is not, with its stilted, overly researched dialogue, which often feels as though it has been ripped whole cloth from some history text. Worse, the script lets go of Mercy’s story midway through to focus on the much less compelling interactions between Adams and Arnold. Director John Stark’s straightforward staging is functional, underscoring the pedantic tone. Ziegler’s sultry, twisted Mrs. Arnold is engagingly multidimensional, considering the script’s fustiness — and so is Wylde’s tightly controlled Mrs. Adams. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through December 20. (310) 477-2055. (Paul Birchall)

MOLLY British playwright Simon Gray based this play loosely on the sensational 1930s murder trial of Alma Rattenbury. He focuses the drama on Molly (Giselle Wolf), a sort of junior-grade Hedda Gabler, who’s fighting off the approach of middle age. She gets her way with everybody by ruthless flirtation, and her catchphrase is, “pretty please with sugar on it.” Seeking security, she has married a rich, elderly Canadian businessman Teddy (Don Moss), but he’s a deaf semi-invalid, their marriage is sexless, and she has strong sexual needs. When she’s attracted to Oliver (Max Roeg), a sullen, lower-class boy from the village, she hires him as her chauffeur, and proceeds to seduce him, despite the disapproval of their respectable spinster housekeeper, Eve (Ann Gee Byrd). When Molly moves Oliver into their house to facilitate their nightly trysts, she becomes so reckless that even Teddy catches on. He fires and humiliates the unstable Oliver, precipitating disaster. Yet Gray’s play is more of a character study than thriller, almost saved from banality by his intriguing portrait of the volatile, neurotic and vulnerable title character. But it goes flat in the perfunctory, final scene. Jeffery Passero directs his fine cast with finesse, on Elizabeth Hayden-Passero’s impeccably tasteful set. Victory Theatre Center, 3326 West Victory Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through December 20. (818) 841-5421. (Neal Weaver)

POST There doubtless will be many fine plays written in the future about the Iraq War and its effect on the men and women who served in it. This, however, is not one of them. In Donavan Thomas’ superficial tale about the war’s impact on two longtime friends, Michael (Thomas) returns home and moves into the shabby digs (nicely constructed by Erin Sellnow) of fellow veteran and friend Chuck (Nathanyael Grey). The atmosphere of bonhomie quickly starts to evaporate when Chuck’s girlfriend, Autumn (Jamie Renee Smith), suddenly and inexplicably begins a romance with Michael. It doesn’t take a genius to see at this point that the plot is headed for a tragic love triangle; much of the problem with this clunky script is that the predictable blood-soaked finale takes too long to arrive. Between drinking themselves silly and exchanging barbs, there is some mention of Chuck and Michael’s past experiences as soldiers, but they hardly scratch the surface or explain how these two admittedly “fucked-up” guys got that way. Timothy Gagliardo’s tepid direction doesn’t help. The Flight at the Complex Theater, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 7 p.m.; through December 20. (323) 960-7740. Loaded Dice Films. (Lovell Estell III)


GO  VIOLATORS WILL BE VIOLATED Casey Smith’s solo mime show (he does scream a lot, but there are almost no decipherable words) consists of 17 brief sketches accompanied by a swath of musical selections in which the silver-haired actor reveals a meticulously crafted and demented insanity. Each character, from a decathlon athlete to a female stripper, is an unwaveringly merciless portrait of self-destruction, which is the evening’s theme. It’s unabashedly puerile, scatological, nihilistic and as funny as hell. Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 11 p.m.; through December 19. ­ (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.

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