Theater Reviews: Blank, Palomino, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying
GO BLANK In his deceptively simple, powerful solo show, playwright Brian Stanton describes the process of reuniting with the birth mother who gave him up for adoption when he was an infant. Although material of this sort could easily founder on reefs of melodramatic cliché, the piece is instead deeply moving, and Stanton launches us on an existentialist journey as his inner debate over meeting his mother shifts into Hamlet-like musing on the nature of self-definition and the heartfelt needs we may not even be aware of. The play charts the paroxysm of the self-analysis that occurs after Stanton, an appealing young performer who looks as though he is central casting for the happy-go-lucky next-door neighbor on a TV sitcom, learns his birth mother's name. When he subsequently discovers the horrific incidents that led to his being put up for adoption in the first place, the knowledge takes on the force of Greek tragedy, as Stanton must come to grips with the fact that he is, in his own words, "part victim, part monster." In director McKerrin Kelly's brisk, passionate production, Stanton's writing is simultaneously dramatic and erudite, eloquently juxtaposing the philosophy of Plato and Buddha along with his own not-to-be-disparaged poetic turn of a phrase — and he demonstrates a flair for creating unexpected images out of the most minimalist concepts, such as a sequence in which he imagines a conversation between himself and the ghost image of his rapist biological father, who is depicted as a coldly smiling prophet of evil. Stanton's skill in balancing a profoundly personal tale with classical underpinnings ultimately hints at the evocative idea that all our lives are full of events and incidents that touch on the mythic and the timeless. Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 7 p.m.; through May 23. (323) 960-5770. A Lone Star Ensemble Production. (Paul Birchall)
THE DEVIL'S EYE Even among avowed Bergman-philes, the late Swedish auteur's 1960 film, The Devil's Eye, is considered a middling effort, a footnote, really, to a financing deal for Virgin Spring (1960), which required him to deliver a comedy in addition to the austere, medieval morality tale he wanted to make. While the movie is deceptively theatrical, it must have been an act of sheer hubris that led director Michael Moon to separate even a minor Bergman script (translated by Moon and Anna Lerbom) from the eloquence of the maestro's cinematic mise-en-scène for the Demon Theater's inaugural production. The result is an occasionally amusing though oddly flat, pseudo-Shavian story about the confrontation between innocence and worldliness. Tormented by the impending marriage of a chaste minister's daughter (Lerbom), Satan (a Broderick Crawford–like Craig Patton) sends Don Juan (Dave Buzzotta) and his manservant, Pablo (Omar Leyva), back to Earth to claim the country maiden's virginity. Juan sets about seducing the girl by using sophisticated wiles, as Pablo makes a more direct assault on the marital fidelity of the minister's disaffected wife (Jolene Adams). While virtue eventually triumphs, albeit in ironic ways, it is no thanks to Moon's anemic staging and an almost cripplingly indifferent production design (Lerbom's bedroomless, bedroom-farce set, Matt Richter's problem-plagued lights). Inspired comic turns by John Combs as the simpleminded father and Ebb Miller as a mincing, Edward Everett Horton–esque demon aren't enough to salvage this fundamentally misguided endeavor. Arena Stage at Theater of Arts (formerly the Egyptian Arena Theater), 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 5. (323) 960-7863. A Demon Theater Production. (Bill Raden)
GO FOUR PLACES The family outing on display in Joel Drake Johnson's unsettling comedy resembles a gathering of ornery, wounded jackals. Siblings Warren (Tim Bagley) and Ellen (Roxanne Hart) motor to their parents' Chicago home to take their diminutive, gray-haired mother Peggy (Anne Gee Byrd) out for a what is presumably a pleasant lunch. At first blush, this seems innocent enough, but something about Ellen's painful, labored smile as she hugs the wheel, and Warren's cold, mummified expression, suggest that something is amiss. It isn't long before the moral underbelly of this clan emerges along with some ugly revelations. Mom's harmless exterior drips away with each rum and Coke she knocks back (and every trip to the bathroom, where she pees blood), and there emerges a subtly vicious female, a practiced manipulator who delights in tormenting her children with reminders of their lacerating miseries and failures. But an even darker secret surfaces concerning Peggy's alcoholic, invalid husband (who never appears onstage but is a towering presence, nevertheless), and rumors that she is abusing, and even attempting to murder him. The manner in which Drake tells this story — blending humor and stark ugliness, while exploring themes of sibling rivalry, marital infidelity and even euthanasia — is thoroughly engaging and held in sharp balance by director Robin Larsen. The characters are fully fleshed out, both in the writing and the performances, as disturbing for their and their vulnerabilities as for their anger. Rounding out a superb cast is Lisa Rothschiller. Rogue Machine in Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m. Sun., 7 p.m.; through June 13. (323) 960-4424, roguemachine.com (Lovell Estell III)
TicketsSat., Feb. 25, 8:00pm
TicketsSat., Feb. 25, 8:00pm
The Nighttime Show with Stephen Kramer Glickman
TicketsSat., Feb. 25, 10:00pm
Long Hard Sets with Ken Garr & More!
TicketsSat., Feb. 25, 10:00pm
Stand-Up When? with Jodi Miller & More!
TicketsMon., Feb. 27, 8:00pm
GO HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING This 1961 musical, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock and Willie Gilbert, depicts the spectacular rise of window washer J. Pierrepont Finch (Josh Grisetti) as he schemes his way to the top at the World Wide Wicket Company, armed only with boundless ambition, a how-to guidebook, and no conscience whatsoever. Grisetti is long, lanky, and engaging, and his Finch exudes faux innocence as he cheerfully betrays, backbites and undermines both rivals and superiors. He receives top-notch support from John O'Hurley as company boss J.B. Biggley; Simon Helberg as Bud Frump, the boss' sniveling nephew; Nicole Parker as the girl who falls for Finch; Melissa Fahn as the air-head vamp Hedy Larue, and a host of others. Director-choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge gives the piece a broad, slick, stylish, fast-moving production, musical director Darryl Archibald serves up the songs with high energy and crisp precision, and Bradley Kaye provides the clever, colorful set. In the wake of Enron, Goldman Sachs, and corporate bailouts, the satire here seems benign and toothless, but the piece remains an amusing romp. UCLA, Ralph Freud Playhouse, Macgowan Hall, Wstwd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through May 23. Produced by Reprise Theatre Company. (310) 825-2101. (Neal Weaver)
KING OF THE DESERT Solo performer Rene Rivera delivers an energetic performance in this quasi-biographical work about a Mexican-American boy from the barrio who defies low cultural expectations to become a professional actor. Written by Stacey Martino, the piece derives its title from tales of Rivera's father, about their people's rich cultural heritage — stories that filtered into the boy's imagination to become part of his identity, along with the more raw experiences of violence, racial prejudice and domestic strife that shaped his everyday life. Eventually the narrative travels to New York (later Hollywood), where Rivera's alter ego awakens to a broader landscape that includes women, drugs and alcohol. Directed by Valentino Ferreira, the densely layered chronicle moves at a swift pace that later becomes hypersonic, with few quiet moments to set off the increasing number of melodramatic highlights that culminate in a rather conventional declaration of personal pride and acceptance. Throughout, Rivera undertakes all roles with professional adeptness and the vocal power of a trained actor. What's missing, paradoxically, is the sense of a vital connection between this performer and the experiences he is relaying — a disconnect that detracts from the play's emotional punch. Constrained by limited resources, designer Tony Sanders' lighting fails to underscore the numerous transitions of time and place, and set designer Danuta Tomzynski's backdrop is also something of a cluttered distraction; this piece might more effectively play on a barer stage. El Centro Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 11. (323) 960-5774. A CoActive Content Production. (Deborah Klugman)
LENNY BRUCE IS BACK (AND BOY IS HE PISSED) Ronnie Marmo does a great rendition of the late hipster social commentarian comic — arrested three times for obscenity, in the days when they used to arrest comics in nightclubs. Marmo looks the part, impersonates Bruce's vocal cadences, as well as his distinctive gestures (arm resting on the microphone cradle). The solo show, written by Sam Bobrick and Julie Stein, takes place in the San Fernando Valley cemetery where Bruce was laid to rest. Here, he's not resting, however. He's ruminating and reliving his life in the '50s and '60s, in events leading up to his fatal drug overdose in 1966. Unfortunately, YouTube clips of Bruce's act are far more compelling than Bobrick and Stein's script, which is written largely in the past tense and concentrates on interpersonal relations with friends and family — including Bruce's appreciation for his mother and annoyance with his father. Such domestic confession is not what made this comedian a legend. What made him a legend is in short supply here — brusque, stinging satires of personal sexual habits, ethnic stereotypes: a hipster version of Chris Rock. Bruce was a giant, and despite the information here explaining what made him a giant, the actual interpretation, in writing and performance, is squeezed into a brand of defiance that's more petty than noble. From watching this show, you'll know but not feel how this man changed stand-up comedy, and paved the way for Andy Kaufman and Jon Stewart. Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs., 8 p.m.; indef. (323) 960-5068. (Steven Leigh Morris)
LONDON'S SCARS The preshow announcement in the style of the London Underground's famous "mind the gap" admonition takes us to Thurloe Square, the site of a recent bus bombing in the world premiere of Richard Martin Hirsch's latest work. The bombing is discussed by psychologists Bronwyn (Imelda Corcoran) and Margaret (Ann Noble); the former is an art therapist and becomes saddled with Mary (Meredith Bishop), a young woman who witnessed the tragedy and is consequently a person of interest to MI5 field agent Dowd (Rob Nagle). In their sessions, Mary is initially reticent, responding only with book quotations. As Bronwyn uses art to delve into Mary's psyche, however, Mary opens up, revealing her occupation as a call girl and her association with Habib (Ammar Ramzi), the Pakistani man thought to be responsible for the bombing. Hirsch's ear for the British idiom, especially London slang, is undeniable, and his characters are fascinating — especially the tortured souls of Mary and Habib. However the simmering tension Hirsch strives to build into "explosive" (sorry) moments unfortunately lacks the requisite danger and menace to keep us in anticipation. Director Darin Anthony employs creative staging of the numerous flashbacks and movements in space and time, aided by Christie Wright's nimble lighting, Stephen Gifford's flexible set, and Bill Froggatt's soundscape of London calling. The solid cast is punctuated by standouts Nagle, notable for his chameleonic shifts in playing two other minor characters as well, and Bishop, whose tortured intensity is palpable. Odyssey Theatre, 2005 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through June 27. (310) 477-2055. A Coffeehouse Production (Mayank Keshaviah)
GO LOVE, LOSS, AND WHAT I WORE Ilene Beckerman's book, on which Delia Ephron and Nora Ephron based their "intimate collection of stories," is the kind you'd grab from the display near the register at a Barnes and Nobles, to serve as a dressy envelope for a birthday check to your goddaughter or an upgraded Mother's Day card. But if the recipient read it instead of tossing in onto a pile of similarly gifted minibooks, she'd find a classy little number, a J. Peterman catalog minus the pretentiousness. With sparse text and barebones sketches, Beckerman records her history through the clothes she and her female relatives wore. Director Jenny Sullivan constructs the stage version in much the same way: The star-studded ensemble wears black (there's an ode to the color, every woman's old faithful) while sitting in a straight line; and Carol Kane, who reads as Beckerman, handles the main prop, a "closet" full of the book's renderings situated on wire clothes hangers. But this is Nora Ephron, and chumminess quickly trumps austerity. The scenes themselves are ruminations on relationships thinly veiled as (mostly) funny riffs on clothes — Tracee Ellis Ross almost runs away with the show every time the spotlight's hers but particularly so with "The Shirt." Kane, who must be one of the most endearing actors ever, dances her monologues' transitions so delicately and adroitly you can only marvel. There are a couple of moments ("The Bathrobe," "Brides") during which all but those with a particularly voracious emotional appetite will find themselves choking on the syrup. Fortunately, though, the Ephron sisters have nimbly stitched together the scenes so that there's far more head nodding than eye rolling. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 7 p.m.; Sun., 3 and 8 p.m.; through June 26. (310) 966-2412. (Rebecca Haithcoat)
GO 1951-2006 Writer-director Donald Freed's romance about a military veteran, Dave (Michael Matthys), who, in 1951, finds himself confined to a wheelchair in a grubby fourth-floor New York City walk-up, and the woman, Meg (Debra De Liso), who moves in across the hall. François-Pierre Couture's set shows the hallway with its grimy tile floor and slats emerging through the edges of the cement walls, offering an intersection of realism and surrealism that will play itself out in the drama — nicely aided by Christopher Ash's lighting schema. If you recall Bernard Slade's comedy, Same Time, Next Year about an adulterous affair that is sliced into scenes occurring at regular intervals through the decades — as the culture ages along with the characters — that's pretty much the template here. Sound designer John Zalewski serves up a soundscape of scene transitions that will stir any number of associations in people who have lived through them — the McCarthy hearings, news reports of the unfolding details of the JFK assassination, Nixon's resignation, Ronald Reagan's speech celebrating the continuity of our political process as the Carter administration handed over the reins of power. Dave is a Jewish anarchist who, in one scene, draws the attention of the FBI (Christopher Fairbanks), when he harbors a Black Panther Party member accused of shooting a police officer. Dave's is a sort of attraction of opposites to Meg, a lapsed Irish Catholic. The drama has far more literary and political resonance than dramatic momentum, largely because — with the exception of the FBI raid, when the characters must decide something in the moment — director Freed isn't entirely successful in drawing out the emotional tugs and pulls that lie beneath his very intelligent, often snappy and largely reflective dialogue, which says that this politically charged and appealingly smart couple have a deeply abiding love; I just got the sense that they were very friendly neighbors who enjoyed talking about politics. When Meg turns 86, a couple of hours after we saw her as a late–20-something, it's more than evident that time is the protagonist here, and we're seeing the aging of the progressive wing. I just wish that the romance were as persuasive as the history is poignant. Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through June 13. (213) 489-0994, ext. 2. Produced by Latino Theater Company. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO PALOMINO The title of writer-performer-director David Cale's solo performance about — among other people — a horse-drawn carriage driver in Manhattan may refer to the breed of horse that the womanizing driver, named Kieren, is steering. But the story he unfurls could just as easily be called Cougars. The 30-year-old Irish protagonist begins with a reference to his 1940s "come fly with me" fedora, boasting that it all starts with the hat. The man he's filling in for will later hear that reference in a written memoir penned by Kieren, and describe the author as an "asshole." And he's sort of right, but that certainly doesn't make Kieren's story any less engaging. Kieren tells of being approached by a woman named Marsha, who has a business proposition, for giving a "good time" to some female friends of hers, and he certainly gives them a ride. Cale is an unprepossessing yet hypnotic storyteller with a bald pate and slender build that belies the physical attraction his clients see in him. Yet when he leaves Kieren behind, and retells the story from the points of view of the various women whom Kieren seduces, with all their potent observations of his charisma, his sexual style, as well as his romantic inadequacies, the event isn't so much about any one character as it is about a world that's conjured in slices, and how the story is a slow reveal of an ever-more expansive world. This is, in some way, a one-man variation of Brian Friel's Faith Healer, somehow blended into Lady Chatterley's Lover. The piece constantly evokes the knot of romance and lust and commerce that are infinitely fascinating and impossible to untangle. Jason H. Thompson's projections are just perfect in their subtlety, offering a sense of place by being literary rather than literal, which matches many of the subtly embedded images in Cale's story. One recurring motif is a bird — one in a painting that's gifted to Kieren, which he later tries to sell; another is a pigeon, captured in Thompson's projection in flight. Not only does the literary/visual image have inexplicable beauty, but it's an emblem for the state of being embodied in all of Cale's characters, and an image for how we all push through life, on a wing and prayer so to speak, with the help and hindrance of the winds. Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through June 6. (213) 628-2772. Center Theatre Group. (Steven Leigh Morris)
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