Theater Reviews: Festen, Just Imagine, Never Land, Save Gertrude

THE BLUNDERS Jon Berstein’s site-specific comedy with music about L.A. ditherers and sweet loons is set in an L.A. bar-cabaret — cleverly using the environs of the Vermont Restaurant’s cabaret room. This provides the opportunity and context for Lorna (Leslie Beauvais), Gretel (Celina Stachow) and Suzy (Lisa Donahey) to croon musical director Mitchell Kaplan’s original songs (with additional lyrics by Berstein), as well as excerpts from Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. Meanwhile the unrequited loves and stifled ambitions that play themselves out at the bar resemble a sitcom based on a Sondheim musical — unapologetically so. The parodies include Ezra (Marco Tazioli), a kind-hearted gravel-voiced sage perpetually frustrated in romance and by his over-the-limit credit cards, and who’s mistaken for a Muppet character. We see him somewhat spinelessly or perhaps desperately duped by fly-by-night shrink Dr. Sylvia (Keli Daniels), a former canine psychiatrist who makes her living applying her doggy techniques to Angelenos. Heartthrob bartender Barry (Casey Sullivan) sends overweight Suzy’s heart aflutter in what she thinks is a mutual romance but is merely Barry’s attempt to exploit her job as a receptionist at Capitol Records. After about 30 minutes, the concept wears thin, because it’s a dramatization of symptoms rather than underlying causes. Posing as an affectionate nod to life in our Industry town, it unwittingly provides grist to outsiders convinced of our city’s superficial denizens. The sound design and/or actors’ use of mikes needs modifying in order to prevent distortion, though Donahey in particular has a gorgeous singing voice, and knows how to use it. Upright Cabaret at Vermont, 1714 N. Vermont Ave., L.A.; Wed., 9 p.m. (doors open at 7 p.m.; no minimum for dinner or drinks); through October 21. www.the (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  THE DOCTOR DESPITE HIMSELF In Molière’s farce, oafish woodcutter Sganarelle (Charles Fathy) takes a (rubber) mallet and beats his wife, Martine (Clara Bellar), like a dirty carpet, and why not? since she kind of likes it. However, this doesn’t prevent Martine from spitefully telling a passing dolt (Brad Schmidt) that Sganarelle is a famous surgeon who enjoys being paid for his toils by receiving even more-savage beatings. The dolt beats Sganarelle like a brass gong and then hires him to cure his master’s daughter (Raquel Brussolo) of muteness. Of course, it turns out that the girl is only pretending to be mute so she can trick her dullard dad (Steven Houska) and marry the handsome student (Brad Schmidt) she loves. More beatings ensue. The first thing you need to know, even before watching the play’s casual thumpings, is that director Gulu Montiero’s madcap production is steeped in the art of the clowning. The show has the wonderfully shrill pitch and frantic pace of a living cartoon. The cast know the way around the 17th-century gags — and the goofiness is heightened by designer Swinda Reichelt’s jaw-dropping costumes, which turn these classical characters into outlandish figures risen from some other dimension. In his leering turn as Sganarelle, Fathy’s grinning mug floats in what appears to be a blubbering multicolored beach ball, and when he turns into “the doctor,” he is fitted with a bizarre collar with dangling tassles your cats would adore. Sganarelle’s spiteful wife wears a plastic-y swoop skirt covered with rubber balls — and she then returns later as a sexy housemaid, wearing weird plastic blond braids and gigantic plaster breasts. The result of all this artistry is a production that is both timeless and yet cracklies with the freshness of a living children’s picture book. Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave, Venice; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through November 8. (310) 823-0710. An Ipanema Theatre Troupe production. (Paul Birchall)

GO  FESTEN Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 Danish film, Festen, distributed under the English titleThe Celebration, is the basis of David Eldridge’s English-language stage adaptation. The story is based on the hoax of a man announcing on Danish radio that his father had molested him. The play — which thrived in Britain from 2004, including a successful West End run in 2005 before it withered on Broadway in 2006 — is doggedly faithful to the film’s cinematic repartee of multiple, simultaneous conversations around a dining room table at the 60th birthday celebration of patriarch Helge (Jeff Paul). As part of an “honorary” toast, Helge’s middle-aged son, Christian (David Vegh, possessing just the right twitchy blend of gentleness and smugness) announces that in the past, Helge routinely sodomized him and his twin sister, who has just committed suicide. In the shock of that toast, we become jurors: There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that Christian is mentally unhinged, though being sodomized by one’s father would be a plausible cause of such instability. The rest of the comedy is a study in the violence that floats just beneath the surface of this large family, of its inability to grapple with Christian’s accusation, as well as the blatant bigotry expressed by Christian’s swaggering brother, Michael (Josh Nathan), against their sister’s (Anna Steers) latest black boyfriend (Jarrell Hall). Meanwhile, doddering Grandfather (Ken Rugg) ludicrously keeps warning that a bawdy joke he’s aching to tell might be too shocking. Eldridge’s acerbic sarcasm in this minefield of brutality amidst the trappings of civility gives the play its Pinter-esque trappings, and to her credit, director Joanne Gordon yanks this production from the play’s cinéma vérité moorings, using an increasingly expansive physical stylization (including an archly choreographed, robotic dining sequence) that physicalizes Christian’s growing nightmare. The writing plays a clever, facile game with pop psychology, which is more provocative than penetrating, yet this nicely acted and sleekly designed production is never less than absorbing. Royal Theatre aboard the Queen Mary, 1126 Queens Highway, Long Beach; Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6 p.m.; through Oct. 17. (562) 985-5526. A California Repertory Company production. (Steven Leigh Morris)


GOD SAVE GERTRUDE Playwright Deborah Stein’s melodramatic, musical mash-up of ’70s punk-rock and Hamlet is eerily reminiscent of a beer-fueled, college-dorm-room debate over what constitutes a punk aesthetic — albeit the losing side. As suggested by Stein’s fictional ex–punk superstar–turned vodka-swilling first lady, Gertrude (Jill Van Velzer), the play argues that punk was a politically idealistic movement agitating for social revolution. Maybe, but real-life veterans of New York’s CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City — Gertrude’s erstwhile, formative music scenes — might remember something slightly more sardonic, skeptical and nihilistic. Nevertheless, in this Bizarro Shakespeare, where a besieged Elsinore is under bombardment by an anarchist army, Gertrude takes refuge in a decrepit theater (on Susan Gratch’s war-torn set) to perform an impromptu concert of old songs interspersed with regrets over her betrayal of that alleged punk spirit. Her remorse includes complicity in the murder of a first husband by her current president/spouse (James Horan) that has left her rising, rock-star son (Steve Coombs) smoldering with resentment. But if Van Velzer’s portrayal of a grasping, narcissistic diva doesn’t exactly resonate with the Bard’s Gertrude, Stein and composer David Hanbury prove more in tune as a lyricist-songwriter team for the show’s half-dozen, faux-vintage punk numbers. Van Velzer belts them out with credible gusto, though director Michael Michetti’s somewhat lumbering production could have benefited from the energy of live accompaniment instead of musical director Rob Oriol’s prerecorded band in a can. Theater @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through November 8. (626) 683-6883. (Bill Raden)

HIGH CEILINGS It’s not clear whether writer-performer Jillian Crane was attempting to write a wacky sitcom, an Absurdist farce, or an old-fashioned madcap comedy, but the outcome is way more inane than amusing. Crane’s heroine, Lily — a role she also plays — is apparently intended to be a charming kook, but she emerges as a pushy, bullying, insensitive and inconsiderate nut who, on the eve of her nuptials, carries on with the florist (Lauchlin MacDonald), mistreats and ignores her husband-to-be (Chris Smith), and creates a scandal at the wedding rehearsal by attempting to marry her depressive, heavily medicated and usually comatose father (Patrick Pankhurst). Her prospective bridegroom immediately dumps her — the play’s only sensible act. There’s little rhyme, reason, logic, psychology or credibility to the proceedings. There’s not much director Valerie Landsburg and her talented cast can do with such material. I don’t have a clue as to what the title means, or why anybody chose to produce this farrago. The Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through November 9. (800) 838-3006 or Produced by Storey Productions. (Neal Weaver)

GO  JUST IMAGINE The fun of seeing and hearing Tim Piper’s great John Lennon impersonation in an intimate setting with an outstanding band, under Greg Piper’s musical direction, is just undeniable. The evening, which includes a large portion of the Beatles catalog followed by Lennon’s solo work, never misses a beat or lick with Piper’s perfectly pitched and accented voice and expert instrumentation: Don Butler’s hot guitar, Morley Bartnoff’s keyboard and Don Poncher’s drums. The guys scruffily kowtow to Lennon’s lead, creating the perfect illusion of superstar power. Jonathan Zenz’s sound design achieves a powerful volume without killing our ears in the small Noho Arts Center space. Lighting by Luke Moyer along with Tim Piper’s video images complete the double fantasy of Lennon before and after Yoko. The musical portion is so enjoyable, under the overall eye of director Steve Altman, that we hopefully forget the lame one-man play that slips between the songs. Perhaps the plan is to pull Lennon off his lofty saintlike perch, but the result of a plodding timeline narrative bio leaves Lennon sounding dull and whiny, until the music returns him to his proper place. NoHo Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through November 8. (818) 508-7101, Ext. 7. (Tom Provenzano)


GO  NEVER LAND Phyllis Nagy is a New Yorker who has spent the larger part of her playwriting career in Britain, and is now a naturalized citizen of the U.K. (Her poetical and unflinchingly brutal works were embraced by Stephen Daldry’s Royal Court Theatre, and she currently has commissions with both the National Theatre of Great Britain and the Royal Shakespeare Company.) She’s here to direct the U.S. premiere of her play, Never Land, a comedy of sorts that grapples firmly and unsentimentally with many facets of exile. In the rain-soaked south of France, a native, Henri Joubert (Bradley Fisher), his wife, Anne (Lisa Pelikan), and their beautiful, aging daughter, Elisabeth (Katherine Tozer), possess the language, dialect and attitudes of upwardly mobile Brits. They simply lack the lineage and resources — what with Henri working as a hired hand at the local perfumery for a jocular, world-wise boss (William Dennis Hunt). Henri’s woes are compounded by his masochistic daughter’s engagement to a presumptuous black man (William Christopher Stephens), and by Michael’s offer to sweep her out of France — an offer Henri’s wife envies and covets. Henri also has an offer — or, like his daughter, he believes he does. An Englishman, Nicholas Caton-Smith (Christopher Shaw), who lives half the year in France, runs a series of bookshops in lackluster British cities. Henri believes that his future happiness lies in managing one of his neighbor’s shops in Bristol. (Shannon Holt has a beguiling, twitchy humor as Caton-Smith’s poodle of a wife.) The murkiness of these promises forms the strategically wobbling axis of Nagy’s Absurdist and ultimately despondent comedy, which speaks as much in symbols and dreams as it does in the gently unfolding story — not unlike a latter-day Woyzeck. The family portraits that decorate Frederica Nascimento’s stark set are removed, one by one, as the scenes progress, as the rain pours down unrelentingly. The comedy is lyrical, urbane and erotically charged (largely by Swinda Reichelt’s silky costumes), yet technical problems intrude upon what should be a kind of haunting. In one scene, the sound of the rain is so severe, crucial dialogue becomes muffled. Moreover, the play’s flow depends on a descent from a comedy of British manners into the marsh created by the emotional and atmospheric tempests of a foreign land. Despite the caliber of the actors, the blithe and witty repartee of Act 1 is more mannered than crackling, giving the production a layer of artifice it can ill afford, with its already built-in shifts to the laconic and the violent. This beautiful, difficult play deserves a fully accomplished production to match its brilliance. It could approach that standard as its run progresses. Rogue Machine in Theater/Theatre, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through November 15. (323) 960-7774. (Steven Leigh Morris)

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY This is one of three productions (with Meet Me in St Louis and The Lone Ranger) Fake Radio is staging for its new season. The troupe specializes in authentic re-creations of broadcasts from the “golden age of radio,” cum stylish period costumes, scripts held-in-hand, commercial breaks and a palpable sense of infectious goofiness. Co-produced and directed by David Koff (who also performs), the show boasts an outstanding cast and an alternating lineup of guest stars (the night I attended, Marcia Wallace did the honors). Opening the show, a trio of ladies took their place in front of three onstage microphones and sang a rendition of “Rum and Coca-Cola,” a song popularized by the Andrews Sisters. They were followed by an episode of The Adventures of Superman, with the funny Jon Stark as the caped superhero, and Dave Cox as Batman. Denny Siegel was a blast as Tracy Lords, the ditzy socialite whose pending nuptials precipitate a comic run-in with her ex-husband (Koff), fiancée (Stark) and family in The Philadelphia Story. Koff mentions early on that the script has been tweaked for effect, but it’s very difficult to tell. Everything that transpires, even the breaks for sponsor Lux Soap and war bonds, have a delightful tone and feel of authenticity. Dan Foegelle’s sound design is superb. Fake Radio at the Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through October 24. (877) 460-9774. (Lovell Estell III)

ROCKIN’ WITH THE AGES Following in the footsteps of such shows as Too Old For the Chorus, this musical revue gives the over-60 set a chance to sing, dance, kick up their heels, and prove they’re not too old to cut the mustard. Not surprisingly, the songs tend to be nostalgic golden oldies, ranging from “My Man” and “These Boots Are Made For Walkin,’” “The Music of the Night,” and “Summertime.” But there’s some real talent here, a number of terrific voices, and a sequin-and-feather-clad tap-dancing ensemble called The Razzmatappers, who prove they’re as spry and energetic as most 20-year-olds. Vocal highlights include David Lara’s operatic renditions of “Summertime,” and “O Solo Mio,” Carl Jacobs’ “Dream the Impossible Dream,” Susan La Croix’s sassy rendition of “Anything Goes,” and Klyda Hill Mahoney’s “Stormy Weather.” Director Warren Berlinger keeps the show moving along nicely, emcee Hank Garrett adds dollops of naughty Catskill-type humor, and Ron Rose provides deft keyboard accompaniments. There’s a huge cast, but the lineup seems to vary from performance to performance. The show is obviously a big hit with seniors, but it’s hard to say how much appeal it’ll have for younger audiences. Actors Forum Theatre, 10655 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through October 25. (818) 506-0600. (Neal Weaver)


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