Theater Reviews: Of Mice and Men, The Dying Gaul

The Dying Gaul

THE ALL-FEMALE 1929 SKIDOO REVIEW In writer-director Eugene H. Butler’s sentimental variety show, Meme (Audrey Marlyn), a former vaudeville star, and her great-granddaughter Jordanna (Jenna Zillman) visit the elder’s theater the day before it’s to be torn down to make way for a Starbucks. After a grating stretch of exposition where Jordanna ’fesses ignorance of Jack Benny, Playbill and the Great Depression, Meme closes her eyes and the curtain rises. Butler doesn’t initially make a strong argument for vaudeville’s right to life; the opening ditty’s high point is a girl pretending to be a rooster. Yet the cast has able voices and energy to spare. Some bits are too shrill for the small space and the dancing is tentative, but the comedy skits perk up the act, particularly a cornball serial melodrama about a wife (Marian Tomas Griffin) who ditches her broke husband (Heather Wood) for the landlord (Kristi Leigh Snyder). That back then white women sang the blues was news to me, given that two years earlier Al Jolson slipped on blackface to do the same. Nevertheless, nimble piano player Billy Revel plinks along without missing a beat. Actors Forum Theatre, 10655 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru April 13. (818) 506-0600. (Amy Nicholson)

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The Dying Gaul

Ed Kreiger

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The Lost Plays of Tennessee Williams ("The Palooka")

 GO  CULTURE CLASH IN AMERICCA In a retreat from their starkly political works, Water & Power and Chavez Ravine, the Clash are back with lighter but no less important fare. Their fast-moving sketch comedy skewers and celebrates America’s multiple cultures, while ultimately proving, without irony, that we are all one, as in “E Pluribus Unum.” Whether enacting a married Cuban-Nordic couple from Miami, a lesbian pair from the Bay Area or a day laborer looking for work at the Home Depot, Richard Montoya, Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas deliver hilarious comedy without ever disparaging the humanity of their characters. Their subjects are created in three dimensions. This outing, devised to focus on Orange County, is a delightful riff on the disparate individuals and communities that make America such a fascinating place. They point out, interestingly and perhaps accurately, that it is only those born in the USA who have a negative take on the nation. Every non-native in this swirling evening longs to become a legal part of the legendary freedom and opportunity that the Constitution and American folklore promise. Under the gentle and generous direction of David Emmes, the humor is intense and never cynical. South Coast Repertory Theatre, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Wed.-Sun., 7:45 p.m.; mat Sun., 2 p.m.; thru April 6. (714) 708-5555. (Tom Provenzano)

THEATER PICK  THE DYING GAUL Craig Lucas’ decade-old play, set in 1995, receives a commendable L.A. premiere under Jon Lawrence Rivera’s taut yet compassionate direction. Robert (Patrick Hancock) is a screenwriter about to sell his first script. Hollywood producer Jeffrey (Ken Arquelio) wants to buy Robert’s screenplay — if Robert, who recently lost his companion to AIDS, will heterosexualize his gay-themed love story. We soon learn two lessons: A million dollars cuts away a lot of gay pride, and macho movie producers are never what they seem. The fire behind the play, though, is Jeffrey’s wife, Elaine (Mary-Ellen Loukas), a pensive beauty who becomes obsessed with Robert. Using information purloined from Robert’s psychiatrist (Nick Salamone), she impersonates the screenwriter’s dead lover in Internet chat-room conversations with him. Lucas’ play is a funny tragedy peopled with intelligent figures who make stupid decisions. Rivera’s actors display an emotional grace even as their characters unravel — Arquelio especially exudes the dark intensity of a man who naturally deceives himself and others in pursuit of what he believes is true. “You can do anything you want,” he tells Robert, “as long as you don’t name it for what it is.” Gary Lee Reed’s simple set makes efficient use of upstage sliding panels, though the stage’s center of gravity will appear seriously distant for audience members closest to the theater’s entrance. Bonnie Bailey Reed deserves credit for recreating a world, now merely 13 years ago, that seems so distant because of its brick-sized cell phones and double-floppy-drive laptops. Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm.; thru Apr 19. (323) 960-7745. A Master Class Players Production. (Steven Mikulan)  

 THE ENTERTAINER The NoHo London Music Hall, 10620 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru April 20. (818) 762-7883. See Stage feature.


 GO  FAFALO! Writer-director Stephen Legawiec’s beguiling, madcap farce is a breezy collection of gags, dances and mummery — but the show’s underpinnings are an unexpectedly varied amalgam of commedia dell’arte, Kabuki-like ritualized movement and Saturday-morning cartoons. The kingdom of Galliandra is without a king. Royal Chancellor Bogezmo (a splendidly blustery John Achorn) consults the nation’s Book of the Elders and discovers that the only possible candidate for the job is big-nosed Fafalo (Jon Monastero), a rascally thief and all-around idiot. Fafalo is happy to take the gig, but complications ensue when a diabolical sorcerer (Achorn again) swoops into town, vowing to destroy the kingdom if he is not given a hidden magical treasure. With joyful acrobatics, perfectly timed jokes and gleeful mugging, Legawiec’s production possesses a timeless feel-good silliness. The performers, gaily caparisoned in designer Nyoman Setiawan’s gorgeous masks — all glorious honking hook shnozzes and leering overbites — clown it up with graceful hilarity that belies the precision of Legawiec’s tightly focused blocking and the intricacy of Li-Ann Lim’s delicate choreography. The stage crackles with ingenuity and creativity, from the scene in which three gigantic puppets, playing the Town Elders, trundle onto the stage to terrify a bug-eyed Fafalo, to the unexpectedly pyrotechnical moment in which the beautiful love interest, Linga (Anna Heinl, who conveys loveliness even through her ginormous-nosed mask) finally solves the puzzle that saves the day. A Ziggurat Theatre Ensemble production at Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru April 13. (Paul Birchall)

 THE HISTORY OF BOWLING Contrary to the title, Michael Ervin’s sloppily crafted comedy is actually about the lighter side of being disabled. We are on a contemporary college campus where Lou (Tara Samuel), who has epilepsy and a load of emotional baggage, is teamed with the paraplegic Chuck (Danny Murphy) to write a paper for a gym class, in lieu of their handicaps. The pair decides to write about bowling for the disabled, but what gradually evolves is an unlikely romance between them, which is later complicated by Danny’s blind but charismatic roommate, Cornelius (Lynn Manning). In one of the play’s poignant and convincing moments, Cornelius and Lou share an evening under the stars that turns lightly sensual, though Ervin’s script doesn''t offer much of a story. In fact, at times the cheerleaders (Kristin Arnold, Anya Profumo, Chris Scoles, Danyelle Weaver, Kimi Winker) doing their slick routines during scene changes provides some of the more gripping entertainment. Sara Botsford directs. NoHo Arts Center, 1136 Magnolia Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru April 27. (818) 508-7101. Open at the Top Theatre Company. (Lovell Estell III)

 GO  THE LOST PLAYS OF TENNESSEE WILLIAMS Jack Heller portrays the eponymous geezer in “Mister Paradise,” a character much like the aging playwright himself, in the first of a trio of beautifully staged and performed slice-of-life one-acts about the ravages of growing old. Each is taken from a collection of Williams’ plays discovered after his death and assembled in a 2005 anthology. Mister Paradise is an alcoholic poet squandering the remainder of his life in obscurity in the French Quarter. A beautiful Ph.D. candidate (Melissa Lechner) found a battered book of his works under a table leg in a book shop. She also found herself moved and inspired by the poems. She arrives at his door with the aim of “returning him to the world.” This brittle-tender story is a gorgeous, Beckettian meditation of mortality and eternity, and the ownership and higher purpose of literature, expertly staged by Robert Burgos. “The Palooka” is a boxing drama that also studies aging, but through an old fighter (Timothy V. Murphy) trying to adopt a new identity to mask his “washed-out” reputation. Under Brian Foyster’s direction, William Mahoney and Jason Lopez also turn in chiseled performances as, respectively, a trainer and a young boxer. “And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens” shows the gay origins of Blanche Dubois. Also set in the French Quarter, it shows a brutish sailor’s (Chris Rydell) visits to the apartment of a trasvestite-landlord, Mr. Delaney (Foyster), who takes the younger stud’s contempt as a sign of affection. The play dances in the world of closeted yearnings, more horror at aging, and includes a pair of very fey tenants (Chris Carver and Jonathan Runon) who flesh out Mr. Delaney’s limp-wristed world of interior design. Interesting historically, the play’s larger point now sits on the museum shelf of cliché. It boasts another round of sterling performances, this time under Heller’s direction. Danny Cistone designed the detailed, era-specific sets, and Dana Campbell’s costume design contributes to the verisimilitude. L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center, Davidson/Valentinie Theatre, 1125 McCadden Pl., Hlwyd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru June 8. (323) 860-7300. (Steven Leigh Morris)


Ralph Nelson

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Of Mice and Men

Henry DiRocco/SCR

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Culture Clash in Americca

 GO  MASK If this can’t draw a youth audience, nothing can. To its credit, the new musical by Anna Hamilton Phelan (book), Barry Mann (music) and Cynthia Weil (lyrics) doesn’t pander to the sentimental “fatal disease of the week” syndrome that’s built into its spine. After UCLA doctors tell 15-year-old Rocky (Allen E. Reed) and his meth-addicted biker mom, Rusty (Michelle Duffy), that the craniodiaphyseal dysplasia that has been progressively contorting Rocky’s face since he was an infant would lead to his demise within months, the diagnosis is mercifully ignored both by Rocky and the musical itself. (Rusty sings that if she kept digging a grave each time they said her boy would die, she could be eating chow mein in China by now.) The story’s core, spun from Peter Bogdanovich’s 1985 movie starring Cher and Eric Stoltz (Phelan was the screenwriter), focuses on the curiously and beautifully adept mothering skills of Rusty and those of her biker tribe, headed by barrel-bellied Dozer (Michael Lanning). Young Rocky — remarkably well-balanced emotionally and an adept scholar — struggles to fit in to his new school, Azuza High, in the San Gabriel Valley. (The real-life Rusty and Rocky lived in Covina and Glendora. Rusty died two years ago in the aftermath of a motorcycle crash in an Azuza intersection; she had recently served a prison term for meth use. Unmentioned in this musical is that she had another son, Joshua, who died of AIDS at age 32.) Unlike in The Phantom of the Opera or Wicked, here the “mask” doesn’t stand for much that’s larger than itself; though it suffers during moments of straining to be epic, Mask is a chamber piece about the tugs and pulls between a wounded mother and her afflicted son, a perfectly amiable and moving domestic musical supported by Mann’s pop ballads and Weil’s often very witty lyrics, ranging from the school-daze farce of High School Musical to the heroic and largely pointless gush of a rock opera. Under Richard Maltby Jr.’s carefully modulated direction, this work-in-progress has many assets. As Rusty, Duffy’s performance and voice are both sublime, as is Robert Brill’s revolving set that features a silhouette of the San Gabriel Mountains punctuated by industrial-scale power lines — talk about capturing a locale with a few symbols. Now this promising musical needs to do the same. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. (no perfs April 2; added perf April 2, 2 p.m.; thru April 20. (626) 356-PLAY. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 GO  OF MICE AND MEN On the page, John Steinbeck’s 1937 play may seem predictable, but given a production as eloquent as this one, predictability segues into tragic inevitability. Also, it was a delight to see so many teenagers in the audience enraptured by this staging. The tale of huge Lennie Small (here played brilliantly and movingly by Sean Branney), whose massive strength overpowers his limited mental capacity, can only lead to a doom that we anticipate with dread. Lennie is obsessively drawn to small, soft animals, but his brute physical power makes his affectionate caresses accidentally lethal. His loyal companion, George (Andrew Leman), tries vainly to keep Lennie out of trouble as they racket along from job to uncertain job as ranch hands, but when Lennie encounters the boss’s pretty, blonde, flirtatious daughter-in-law (Annie Abrams), the outcome can only be catastrophic. Steinbeck’s play depicts the strong, loving, unequal friendship between George and Lennie, and presents an indelible picture of Depression-era life in racially segregated rural California. The ranch hands are depicted with respectful sympathy: the elderly, one-handed Candy (Barry Lynch); the tough, knowing mule-wrangler Slim (Mark Colson); and the crippled black man Crooks (Thomas Boykin). They, and the fine supporting cast, are expertly led by director Rebecca Marcotte on David Robkin and Arthur McBride’s atmospheric unit set. Theatre Banshee 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Dec. 2. (818) 846-5323, (Neal Weaver)

 GO  WEST BANK, UK An irreverent take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Oren Safdie and Ronnie Cohen’s musical creates strange bedfellows in Israeli Assaf (Jeremy Cohen) and Palestinian Aziz (Mike Mosallam), who are forced to share a London flat when Assaf returns home after breaking up with his German girlfriend (the first in a series of improbably humorous juxtapositions). The two refuse to live together, so their American landlord, NYC (Janine Molinari), is called upon to arbitrate. However, her loyalties are split between the handsome arms dealer (Assaf) and the enticing drug dealer (Aziz). Receiving no assistance, the roommates decided to make the best of a bad situation, getting close and sharing more than just the flat. The songs, spanning a range of musical styles, lampoon the history of the Middle East conflict as well as its modern incarnations. Cohen’s voice is the strongest, but there are few solos in the ensemble-driven piece, which includes numbers such as the dueling “My Hometown,” the plaintive “Let Me Come Visit America” and the tensely hilarious “Tea Time.” Both Molinari and Anthony Patellis play multiple secondary characters, including reporters, Assaf’s paramour and Aziz’s uncle, plus a couple of suicide bombers. While the cast has good energy, Safdie’s direction lets the heavily allusive material hang too ambiguously between being a bawdy comic romp and a story about real people. Malibu Stage Company, 29243 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; thru April 13. (310) 589-1998. (Mayank Keshaviah)

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