Theater Reviews: Divorce! The Musical, Grand Motel, The Jazz Age
BLUES FOR CENTRAL AVENUE Willard Manus’ play with music is a spirited glimpse at downtown L.A. of yore and folklore, of Central Avenue’s storied era of jazz clubs and nightspots where the likes of Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and others were frequent headliners. The action unfolds in and around the famous Dunbar Hotel, where Lowell Smith (Wallace Demarrià), fresh from a stint in the Army with plans on starting a record label, discovers the singing prowess of the lovely Roberta Youngblood (Christian Omari) during a night out on the Avenue. She grudgingly allows the aspiring businessman to guide her career, but when her prodigious talents attract the attention of a Hollywood mogul (Charles Anteby), jealousy and racial fault lines emerge, changing the lives of those involved. The story is not overly engaging, and Manus and director Ken Crosby do less than an artful job of telling it. Some of Manus’ characters are only slightly deeper than caricatures, and his writing often lacks polish. Crosby’s clunky direction make a play that clocks in at 90 minutes feel like three hours. These problems are somewhat mitigated by good acting. Lou Briggs serves up snappy music and splendid accompaniment on the piano, and stylish dancing by Barkia A. Croom and Jackie Marriot proves that choreographer Anne Mesa has done her homework. The Little Company Hollywood Civic Light Opera at Write Act Theatre, 6125 Yucca Ave., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m., through March 7. (323) 469-3113. (Lovell Estell III)
CALL ME MISTER FRY As a teacher, Jack Fry was once written up by an L.A. Unified bureaucrat for flourishing an elongated pink balloon in his classroom. The fifth-grade instructor was accused of violating the district “zero tolerance for violence” policy; his job threatened, he ultimately escaped with a reprimand. The anecdote furnishes a highlight in Fry’s solo piece based on his teaching experiences in South L.A., where beleaguered teachers cope daily with troubled kids on the one hand and administrative idiocy on the other. Much of this autobiographical chronicle focuses on Fry’s relationship with two particular students to whom he reached out: Anthony, the disruptive offspring of two deaf-mute parents, and Jasmine, a needy child whose single mother could never find time to show up at school. The writer-performer also includes confidences about his own troubled romance and his personal struggles for self-fulfillment. Any veteran of an urban public-school system (as I am) is sure to empathize, and Fry’s wry self-deprecatory manner offers an engaging plus. His bristling references to “No Child Left Behind” also score points. Having said that, the story sometimes comes off disjointed; the script needs pruning, shaping and polishing, while the various characters Fry depicts could be more crisply delineated. Jeff Michalski directs. Crown City Theatre, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 1. (310) 899-2985. (Deborah Klugman)
GO DIVORCE! THE MUSICAL Erin Kamler’s witty and entertaining new musical satire (for which she wrote the music, lyrics and book) takes apart almost every emotional phase of a marital breakup, including the horrors of dating and the hollows of rebound sex, and sets it to chirpy and wry songs that feature some sophisticated musical juxtapositions and harmonies. Musical direction and arrangements by David O. Kamler skirt the apparent danger of triteness, setting a too familiar circumstance to music, by cutting beneath the veneer of gender warfare. This is a study of the decaying partnership of a resentful Brentwood radiologist (Rick Segall) and his aspiring actress wife (Lowe Taylor), goaded by their respective attorneys. The lawyers are the villains here — one (Gabrielle Wagner) a Beverly Hills shark, the other (Leslie Stevens) a swirl of confusion from her own recent divorce and now “temporarily” based in Studio City. These vultures collude to distort the grievances of their clients, who both actually care about their exes, and would be better off without “representation.” They might even remain married, the musical implies. Director Rick Sparks gets clean, accomplished performances from his five-person ensemble (that also includes Gregory Franklin, as the Mediator, i.e., host of an absurdist game show.) Danny Cistone’s cubist set, with rolling platforms, masks the live three-piece band parked behind the action: This includes the ex-groom’s impulsive decision, based in his lawyer’s misinformation, to remove all furniture from his home, where he and ex-bride continue to live — only to find his bank accounts and credit cards frozen. In the song, “We Stuck It Out,” there’s a kind of Sondheimian ennui to the verities of lifelong partnerships. The song is ostensibly an homage to his parents, in whose basement he winds up living. As the Brits would say, marriage is bloody hard work. Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 29. (323) 960-1056. (Steven Leigh Morris)
THEATER PICK FILM Local playwright Patrick McGowan’s new play, Film, has no right to be as good as it is. The central character is the late theater director Alan Schneider (Bill Robens) — known for staging some of the best plays by Absurdist authors, including Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? on Broadway, and introducing almost all of Samuel Beckett’s plays to the American stage. Film has no right to be so good because Schneider, in this play, is an insufferable, flailing bully. The play is Schneider’s nightmare — an Absurdist nightmare, naturally — a comedy and inexplicably scintillating entertainment about artistic failure. This biographical story, set in 1965 New York, portrays Schneider’s attempt to make a film from a screenplay by Beckett (Phil Ward). The playwright has come to New York to work with Schneider. Joining them to star in the slogging, portentous film, also named Film (now regarded by some historians as a “masterpiece”), is Beckett’s favorite comedian, Buster Keaton (Carl J. Johnson), long past his prime, spiritually at ease with his station in life, and willing to play along with the clueless intellectuals and a film crew whose patience is sorely tested. Ward’s Beckett is a delightfully rueful, awkward and solitary figure, aching in vain (of course) for the affections of the starstruck yet savvy prop mistress (the lovely Deana Barone). Johnson’s Keaton (Mandi Moss handily plays the comedian in his younger days) has a pleasingly bemused perspective on Schneider’s temper tantrums. Framing the story are slivers of Waiting for Godot in both French and English, and, in another nod to Beckett, a vaudeville in front of a curtain, featuring a kind of Mutt and Jeff routine, here played out by Schneider and the source of his envy, director Mike Nichols (who grabbed the job directing the movie of Virginia Woolf), portrayed as a figure of rare competence by Trevor H. Olsen. Despite the production being slightly too long, director Trevor Biship knows exactly what he’s doing, astutely staging the action (with supplementary archived film clips of Keaton in his prime) on Sarah Palmrose’s emblematic set of a stage within a stage within a stage, each with its own curtain, and together depicting the multiple, clashing realities inside Schneider’s tormented brain. Theatre of NOTE, 1517 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through March 21. (323) 856-8611.
GRAND MOTEL The real star of Michael Sargent’s new farce is the set — Chris Covics’ stunningly realistic backyard of a Palm Springs men-only nudist motel, replete with lawn chairs and lawn, swimming pool containing little rubber duckies, the motel’s stacco walls and a sliding door to the room facing the pool. Early in Act 1, aging “degenerate Southern playwright” Cornelius Coffin (Dennis Christopher) staggers from that room into the 95-degree heat at 10 a.m., dressed in a white shroud, like Tennessee Williams or “like the men wear in Morocco.” As though jolted by a surge of electricity, he flails backward upon entering the heat, shielding his eyes from the glare and staggering back into his room to retrieve his sunglasses. It’s one in a series of funny, small jokes, nicely staged by the author. Coffin is hiding from the East Coast premiere of his latest play, or at least hiding from the reviews, which are due out any moment. There’s a suicide pact he makes with a male model (Andy Hopper), who insists he has a girlfriend, while Coffin’s so-called friend, Maria St. Juiced (Shannon Holt), arrives by scaling an 8-foot wall. Holt offers a performance of nicely timed tics and wiggles, which reveal her character’s idiosyncratic insanity. Another wall-hopper is the local, prancing male escort (Nick Soper). The motel’s co-owners (Craig Johnson and Erik Hanson) are struggling to keep the place afloat, though we hear that the competition across the street, another male nudist motel called The Deep End, is fully booked. Nice comedic cameos also by Bruce Adel and Nathaniel Stanton as an aging couple, respectively named Low Hangers and Papa Smurf, who come to P.S. to reinvigorate their otherwise flaccid love life. There is a plot about things not being what they seem, but this is essentially a comedy of manners. Sargent’s structure is so languid that once the jokes about the atmosphere tumble away, the play is left wearing mere threads, not unlike its characters. Unknown Theater, 1110 Seward St., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through March 28. (323) 466-7781. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO THE JAZZ AGE The title phrase, coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald about the desperate frivolity of the post–World War I era, captures the spirit if not the style of Allan Knee’s fascinating, melodramatic fantasy of life. The play shows the intersecting lives of Fitzgerald (Luke Macfarlane), his troubled Southern belle wife, Zelda (Heather Prete), and literary rival Ernest Hemingway (Jeremy Gabriel). Fitzgerald is at the apex of his career when he tries to woo into his world the reluctant, soon-to-be poster boy for machismo. Opposites in style but with both being enthusiastic expats in Paris, the hard-drinking womanizers bond, spar and occasionally hint at urges toward homoeroticism through more than a decade of rocky friendship. With their live performance of exhilarating period (and some original) music, Ian Whitcomb and his Bungalow Boys punctuate much of the play. Director Michael Matthews and the fine cast follow Knee’s heavy-handed writing with fierce dramatics that effectively play like the most overarching characterizations of 1940s plays by Tennessee Williams — with Prete’s powerful Zelda resembling Blanche. Kurt Boetcher’s set evocatively transforms The Blank’s tiny space, pairing masculine wood frames with panels of effete Tiffany’s blue. 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Bvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 22. (323) 661-9827. The Blank Theatre. (Tom Provenzano)
GO MISSIONARY POSITION Steven Fales’ earlier monodrama, the autobiographical Confessions of a Mormon Boy, told the tale of Fales’ futile attempts to escape his homosexuality, his doomed marriage, his excommunication from the Mormon Church, a brief career as a male prostitute, drug addiction, rehabilitation and his theatrical career as “a gay Mormon chorus boy.” It was, in its way, an epic tale, but this, the second installment of his Mormon Boy Trilogy, is more like a comic footnote. It examines the two years he spent as a Mormon missionary in Portugal. Sexually frustrated, still in denial about his homosexuality and desperately trying to maintain his Mormon beliefs, he took refuge in hard work, unconsummated crushes, fantasies and rationalizations. Though he clearly considers the beliefs and rituals of the Church of Latter-day Saints absurd, Fales knows Mormonism from the inside. Born into a sixth-generation Mormon family, he was indoctrinated from birth, and despite his antagonism toward that church (particularly in the wake of its vast and possibly illegal financial support for the campaign to pass Proposition 8), he retains a kind of rueful, bemused affection for its follies. An attractive, engaging performer, and an able raconteur, he can be very funny. Celebration Theatre, 7051 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through February 22. (323) 957-1884 or www.tix.com. (Neal Weaver)
STRIP In writer-director George Damian’s self-described play about eight dancers at a gentlemen’s club, the boundary between reality, dreams and theater is as narrow as a G-string. It’s an L.A. curio: the product of a town where actresses work as strippers only to get cast as wannabe actresses working as strippers in a play that features a dozen actual pole dances — during which the audience is encouraged to whoop and throw money. How meta. The plot and acting are functional, perhaps even fun for fans of trainwreck B-movies; here, the dancing reigns supreme. Sets range from awe-inspiring athleticism where the performers do the splits 10 feet off the ground upside down and supported by the mere crook of an elbow before drizzling down the pole like honey, to physical comedy, as the newbie or strung-out strippers twirl madly in seemingly constant peril of shattering an ankle bound in 6-inch clear stilettos. (The play’s sponsors include a waxing company and a shoe store on Hollywood Blvd.) The story comes with a dose of pathos, but it’s no victim’s lament — just unapologetic titillation dotted with stripper trivia and wisdom where the happy-enough ending is the once-innocent Midwest ingenue whirling with whiplash speed around the pole with a smile. The Hayworth Studio Upstairs, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through Feb. 21. (323) 960-7784. (Amy Nicholson)
TIME STANDS STILL is Donald Margulies’ newest work, being given its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse. It would be nice to see our institutional theaters dip a bit deeper into the lake of American playwrights (perhaps lesser-known ones) so that, as with the National Theatre of Great Britain for example, the theaters can take credit for promoting new voices, rather than just riding on the coattails of the established ones, but that’s not the world we live in. It is, nonetheless, a relief and a pleasure to see such thoughtful and well-crafted new writing on the stage. Margulies is a compassionate observer of human behavior, and his play concerns a photojournalist (Anna Gunn), just returned to her Brooklyn digs from a German hospital after being struck by a roadside bomb in Iraq. She barks at her life partner who’s a reporter (David Harbour) over his concerned reluctance to offer her a cup of coffee in public; her pithy attack seems on the surface to be over nothing but a cup of coffee. The play is actually about all that lies underneath — the morality of her career as a photojournalist that feeds on the miseries on the world, and spews it back in the form of coffee-table books. One of Margulies’ sourer points is the service such journalists provides to liberal consumers who use bad news in the press to fuel their outrage over injustice, and to assuage their guilt over doing nothing about it. But would the world really be better without such journalists, and without those images? Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through March 15. (310) 208-5454. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater feature.
THE TWILIGHT OF THE GOLDS Playwright Jonathan Tolins’ drama of ethics is part moral debate and part family tragedy, in which righteousness comes into direct conflict with pragmatism. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a young married couple — Suzanne (Gretchen Koerner) and her husband Rob (Bryan Okes Fuller) — are delighted when they learn Suzanne is pregnant, and Rob convinces her to allow the fetus to undergo an experimental genetics test. The test comes back positive – positive for probable homosexuality, that is. Much to the shock of Suzanne’s charming, artistic gay younger brother David (Eli Kranski), the couple seriously considers aborting the infant, rather than raise a gay son – a choice that is tacitly backed by David’s seemingly kind and liberal parents (Penny Peyser and Mark L. Taylor). The debate between David and his bewildered and increasingly hostile family shifts from being a simple meditation on “right to life” issues to a confrontation in which David feels he has to justify his own existence. Although director T.K. Kolman’s straightforward production aptly conveys the subtext of hostility and mutual incomprehension lurking beneath the apparently happy family’s relations, the staging often lacks nuance and comes across as stodgy. Many exchanges consist of loud roaring and arm waving histrionics, a problem exacerbated by the padded talkiness of Tolins’ dialogue. Kranski adds some haunting dimension as the hurt, appalled gay son, and so does Koerner, as the guilt-racked older sister. Chandler Studio Theater, 12443 Chandler Blvd, North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through March 14. The Production Company. (Paul Birchall)
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