Theater Reviews: Red Scare on Sunset, Miracle in Rwanda
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A BRONX TALE A memoir of Chazz Palminteri’s adopted gangster father
Almost 20 years since it premiered in L.A. at Theatre West and was discovered by Robert De Niro, Chazz Palminteri’s Broadway hit, solo memoir A Bronx Tale, has all the ingredients of an enduring saga — violence and sentimentality, fathers and sons, rites of passage and tests of loyalty. The setting is Palminteri’s apartment stoop at the corner of Belmont and 187th Street in the Bronx, where, as a 9-year-old in 1960, Palminteri, sitting by himself on the front steps (lovely set by James Noone), witnessed a gang shooting. The gang in this instance was the Italian mob, but one has the sense from Palminteri’s story that the general shapes of gang warfare and drive-by shootings are as universal as the tests of loyalty they induce. Palminteri describes being dragged to the local police station to identify the shooter — one self-appointed neighborhood protector named Sonny, whom the locals respected and feared. The scene has Palminteri playing himself, with his hand thrust into his father’s sweaty palm, as the parent prays the kid will keep his mouth shut — which he does. “I did a good thing, huh, dad?” the boy asks, to which the father replies, “You did a good thing for a bad man,” hoping that the matter — and the dubious morality attached to it — will simply dissipate. But Sonny’s gratitude slowly emerges, and the young Palminteri finds himself with a second father, engaged in an ethics clash with his first. The former is loved, the latter, feared; the former works like a horse and can barely pay his rent; the latter has grown stinking rich by scaring others into doing his works — he delegates and makes decisions. Sonny dismisses the Palminteri family’s love of pro baseball — “When your dad can’t make the rent, tell him to go to Mickey Mantle, and see what he says” — because in this world, “nobody cares.” With that philosophy, Sonny encourages the boy to go to college and work his way up in the world. Meanwhile, through the child’s Faustian friendship with the gangster, the boy finds himself at the center of attention and a superstar at gambling dens and gangster conventions, a kind of attention that intoxicates him. Jerry Zaks directs a tender production, supported by John Gromada’s subtly nostalgic sound design, while Palminteri’s skills at capturing and flipping to and fro among dozens of local denizens, including the leading players, provide much of the sharp edge to his story’s sweet center. Wadsworth Theatre, on the Veterans Administration grounds, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., West Los Angeles; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7:30 p.m.; through Sept. 21. (213) 365-3500 or ticketmaster.com. (Steven Leigh Morris)
THE CAUCUS RACE In Ian M. McDonald’s absurdist comedy, eight strangers wake up on the 50th floor of a high-rise with no escape. Sounds like the first episode of a reality show — and for much of the first act, it feels like one, as the characters argue ideas without listening to anybody else. But as their self-involvement starts to expose their self-interests, McDonald’s apocalyptic Act 2 comes into focus. The one pragmatist (Jo Ann Mendelson) realizes that their world is crumbling and no one else cares. The spiritualist (Rebecca Lynch) invents a god, the artist (Ryan J. Hill) touts his shallow art, the athlete (Sean Patrick) is useless, the scientist (Tim Sheridan) is focused on trivia instead of solutions, and the politicians (Nick Parmer and Troy Matthews) would rather squabble over the kitchen paint job, when the walls are tumbling down. McDonald’s characters are too scatterbrained for their ideas to crescendo into an interesting conflict, but the bigger issue is that director Rae Williams substitutes madness for absurdism: The former can be delivered shrieking, which it is in abundance; the latter is most convincing when it arrives with a straight face — and that’s what’s missing here. Tempered and sharpened, this could be a play of obvious but cutthroat intent rather than just a gaggle of screamers running in circles. Flight Theater at The Complex, 6472 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through Oct. 5. (323) 913-1293. A Veritas Ensemble production. (Amy Nicholson)
GO THE FOUR OF US An exploration of the space between ideals and reality, Itamar Moses’ clever, surprising play takes us inside the lives of novelist Ben (Ryan Johnston) and his best friend, aspiring playwright David (Steven Klein). Ben has just sold his first novel and seems to be on the fast track to success. David, while happy for his friend, tries to hide the envy that consumes him. From this point, we travel down the road of their long-standing friendship, exploring their psyches in depth as scenes shift seamlessly between the past and the present in the tightly woven and complex structure. Far from completely serious, the witty lines and comic moments along the way give the piece a natural and believable feel — including one especially funny sequence, when the pair is traveling in Prague, and Ben ends up humping a stuffed bear during a conversation about sex. Michelle Tattenbaum’s deft direction not only brings out the humanity in her actors but also challenges them to execute precisely choreographed scene changes. Mark Guirguis’ set design and Rachel Myers’ costumes support Tattenbaum’s staging, with a minimalism that allows the actors to maintain the performances’ dramatic momentum. The Elephant Theater Lab, 1076 N. Lillian Way, W. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Oct. 19. (800) 838-3006 or www.fireflyinc.com. A Firefly Theatre and VS. Theatre Company Production. (Mayank Keshaviah)
GO THE FRIENDLY HOUR Tom Jacobson’s lovely new play chronicles the rituals of a women’s club in rural South Dakota from the late 1930s to 2007, and we watch the women with whom we grow increasingly familiar age and engage in theological disputes that are really at the heart of the matter. God’s purpose, and the purpose of community, interweave and clash through the decades, as five fine actors portray many more roles. Leading the pack is Kate Mines’ prickly creationist Effie, and Ann Noble’s proud, forward-thinking Dorcas Briggle, who, had she lived somewhere else, would have joined the Unitarian Church. (Deana Barone, Mara Marine and Bettina Zacar round out the cast.) The play desperately needs pruning — its length is partly responsible for a monochromatic quality that dampens Mark Bringleson’s otherwise animated and tender staging. If this were scaled down to six pointed scenes from its perpetually unrolling carpet of the club’s rites and characters’ domestic crises, the impact of the survivors' dotage in 2007 could be that much more gripping. Still, Jacobson has put aside the conspicuous cleverness of his past works, Bunbury and Ouroboros, for an impressionistic landscape that straddles the literary worlds of Anton Chekhov and Thornton Wilder. Desma Murphey’s wood-frame set, against which a backdrop of clouds peers through, contains both elegance and allegory, and Lisa D. Burke’s costumes contain similar affection and wit. Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 1. (866) 811-4111 or www.roadtheatre.org. A Road Theatre Company produciton. (Steven Leigh Morris)
GO GOING TO MEET THE MAN Almost 20 years since it premiered in L.A. at Theatre West and was discovered by Robert De Niro, Chazz Palminteri’s Broadway hit, solo memoir A Bronx Tale has all the ingredients of an enduring saga — violence and sentimentality, fathers and sons, rites of passage and tests of loyalty. The setting is the Palminteri’s apartment stoop at the corner of Belont and 187th Street in the Bronx, where, as a 9-year-old in 1960, Palminteri, sitting by himself on the front steps (lovely set by James Noone) witnessed a gang shooting. The gang, in this instance, was the Italian mob, but one has the sense from Palminteri’s story that the general shapes of gang warfare and drive-by shootings are as universal as the tests of loyalty they induce. Palminteri describes being dragged to the local police station to identify the shooter — one self-appointed neighborhood protector named Sonny, whom the locals respected and feared. The scene has Palminteri playing himself, with his hand thrust into his father’s sweaty palm, as the parent prays the kid will keep his mouth shut — which he does. “I did a good thing, huh dad?” the boy asks, to which the father replies, “You did a good thing for a bad man,” hoping that the matter — and the dubious morality attached to it — will simply dissipate. But Sonny’s gratitude slowly emerges, and young Chazz finds himself with a second father, engaged in an ethics clash with his first. The former is loved, the latter, feared; the former works like a horse and can barely pay his rent; the latter has grown stinking rich by scaring others into doing his works — he delegates and makes decisions; Sonny dismisses the Palminteri family’s love of pro baseball — “When your dad can’t make the rent, tell him to go to Mickey Mantle, and see what he says” — because in this world, “nobody cares.” With that philosophy, Sonny encourages the boy to go to college and work his way up in the world. Meanwhile, through the child’s Faustian friendship with the gangster, the boy finds himself at the center of attention and a superstar in gambling dens and gangster conventions, a kind of attention that intoxicates him. Jerry Zaks directs a tender production, supported by John Gromada’s subtly nostalgic sound design, while Palminteri’s skills at capturing and flipping to and fro among dozens of local denizens, including the leading players, provide much of the sharp edge to his story’s sweet center. Wadsworth Theatre, on the Veterans Administration grounds, 11301 Wilshire Blvd., W.L.A.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7:30 p.m.; through Sept. 21. (213) 365-3500 or www.ticketmaster.com. (SLM)
GO THE HOUSE OF BLUE LEAVES John Guare’s 1971 farce looks gorgeous in the newly minted Mark Taper Forum — a venue now as fresh and plush as any in the city. The investment in the building, just now reopened after a year of remodeling, truly honors the work on the stage. This work, however, doesn’t quite reciprocate. It does pack fire on many occasions, and that fire is fueled by the energetic interactions between John Pankow and Kate Burton as Artie Shaughnessy — a Queens zookeeper who’s also an aspiring songwriter named Artie Shaughnessy — and his profoundly medicated wife, Bananas. With his thinning hair and mantra that he’s too old to be a young talent, Pankow’s lean and hyperactive Artie struts the stage and slides on to piano stools at the local Ed Dorado club and in his tawdry living room, with the grin of a used-car salesman and an unfettered desperation to be discovered. Oh, how he yearns to fly away to California, the way his old pal, movie director Billy Einhorm (Diedrich Bader) did. He shows a cavalier and abusive disregard for his wife — by flaunting his mistress, Bunny Flingus (Jane Kaczmarek), and making no secret of his plan to have Bananas institutionalized while he and Bunny realize their dreams together in California. Burton’s Bananas is this production’s centerpiece, mastering the skill of playing madness without showing madness. To the contrary, the world’s vainglorious insanity swirls around her, which is Guare’s point, while it’s clear from her eyes that her task is to keep that lunacy, and the lunatics who run the world, at bay. Walking into this theater, I’d wondered what was the point of reopening the Taper with this college and regional theater hit of more than 30 years ago. Burton answers that question with her face and comportment — Bananas has come through shock treatments and must continue, with as much dignity as she can muster, to endure life’s torments and insults to her obvious intelligence at the hands of the maniacs who govern her life. The farce is set in 1965, when the pope was visiting New York, yet Burton propels its significance forward to the election cycle of 2008. The fame that almost everyone but Bananas worships is almost beside the point — which is, vicious and rabid personal ambition while the world skids off its tracks. I shouldn’t bring up Sarah Palin, but why not? Nicholas Martin’s opulent production suspends a veneer of dark blue drapery over Artie’s grimy Queens apartment (set by David Korins). This frames what’s supposed to be an emotionally ribald play with a tempering ornateness, which may be partly responsible for muting the farce that should be literally explosive. Instead, the comedy feels at a remove, more amusing than hysterical, and more sad at play’s close than horrific. I also couldn’t grasp what the ragtime strains in Philip G. Allen’s sound design had to do with any of this. The final reason for the unintended alienation may well be that Martin wasn’t able to find the rhythms and textures among the supporting players. One can’t really tell in a single glance. Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn., Sun., 6:30 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; through Oct. 19. (213) 628-2772. (Steven Leigh Morris)
INSIDE PRIVATE LIVESprovides a platform for audience members to interact with infamous or celebrated personages from the 20th century, as re-created by the ensemble in a series of monologues. The show’s efforts to dismantle the fourth wall yield tame results at best. One problem involves timeliness. The night I attended, the lineup (which varies from night to night) included Christine Jorgenson, Billy Carter, David Koresh, Julia Phillips, Elia Kazan and Marge Schott. None of these people is in the limelight today and — with the exception of Kazan — their public lives, once deemed provocative, no longer seem controversial or even relevant. (How much more volcanic the show might have been had we been able to challenge Karl Rove or Eliot Spitzer, or the current media queen bee, Sarah Palin.). Another drawback is having to rely on the audience for conflict: Even primed with preshow champagne, my fellow theatergoers’ questions, though earnestly exhorted, induced only scant dramatic dustup. And the monologues themselves, developed collaboratively by creator-producer Kristin Stone, director Michael Cohn and the individual performers, were uneven in quality. Three performances succeeded: Adam LeBow’s intense Kazan, Mary McDonald’s bitingly comic Schott, and Leonora Gershman, on-target as Hollywood bad girl, Julia Phillips. But Stone’s flirty Jorgenson, Bryan Safi’s sloppily inebriated Carter and David Shofner’s uncompelling Koresh all lacked persuasiveness, and some of the too-familiar liberties taken with audience members were just embarrassing. Fremont Center Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Oct. 19. (866) 811-4111. (Deborah Klugman)
GO IT’S THE HOUSEWIVES! The Housewives, in this rock musical with book by Hope Juber and Ellen Guylas, are three moms who put together an act for the PTA talent night, and manage to parlay their performance of “domestic rock” (songs like “The Reynold’s Rap” and “It Sucks,” about vacuum cleaners) into a career that, with wild improbability, makes them bigger than the Beatles. The dramaturgy is slapdash and primitive, with narration alternating with flashbacks, as the three women — Lexie (Jayme Lake) the blond airhead; Lynn (Corinne Decker) the pushy egomaniac; and Becca (Jamey Hood) the rueful songwriter — slog their way through all the way stations of girl-group musicals: the sleazy manager (Anthony DeSantis), internecine rivalries, scandals and addiction (in this case, to TV soap operas). Fortunately, the 19 musical numbers, by Hope and Laurence Juber (with several collaborators) are lively, the choreography by Kay Cole is clever, and the Housewives are attractive, engaging and talented. Director Kelly Ann Ford paces the show nicely, and the handsome set by DC2 and the sometimes wacky costumes by Sharell Martin complement the satiric proceedings. The show is feather-light, but it’s slick, stylish and goes down easy. A packed house was lapping it up at the performance I attended. Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Oct. 12. (323) 960-5563 or www.itsthehousewives.com. (Neal Weaver)
GO AN ITALIAN STRAW HAT: A VAUDEVILLE Lyricist John Strand and composer Dennis McCarthy’s new musical opens with the cast singing “God save your hat!” an ode to an outmoded accessory that here is central. The new comedy, set in 1906, takes place in Manhattan, where groom-to-be Fadley (Daniel Blinkoff) sees his wedding day derailed by a cheating bride (Michelle Duffy) and her soldier lover (Damon Kirsche), who refuse to leave Fadley’s honeymoon suite until he restores her propriety, i.e., her hat — a monstrosity laden with fake bananas and apples. The amusing and ensuing mayhem is almost a mockery of the form — the soft-shoe routines and modest rhymes (one ditty rhymes “chapeaux” with “sombrero”). The jokes are a mix of racy double entendres and self-reflexive gag in which Fadley bemoans his disastrous day as being like “one of those vaudeville farces.” Still, anchored by the winning Blinkoff’s commitment to his nervous bimbo-beaux, the strong-voiced and energetic ensemble capture the audience’s heart, bypassing any thought in the world. Standouts include Erika Whalen as the bride, Alan Blumenfeld as her irate father and Kasey Mahaffy — whose two supporting turns bring down the house by riffing off modern stoner flicks instead of old Broadway. Executed with precision by director Stefan Novinski and musical director Dennis Castellano, the event is as breezy and inconsequential as the roller skates worn by the crew when changing the set. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; through Oct. 5. (714) 708-5555. (Amy Nicholson)
GO MIRACLE IN RWANDA I can’t imagine viewing writer-performer Leslie Lewis Sword’s play about surviving the Rwandan genocide without a sense of horror, awe and grief. Co-created and directed by Edward Vilga, it dramatizes the experience of Immaculée Illibagiza, who escaped death by hiding in a 4 foot by 3 foot bathroom with up to seven other women for 91 days. (In 1994, nearly 1 million people, mostly Tutsis, were brutally murdered by their fellow countrymen over three months.) Sword plays all the participants in Illibagiza’s ordeal: among them her father, who, with terrible prescience, dispatched her into hiding; the courageous, elderly pastor who concealed her; her crazed pursuer; and the apparitions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, which comforted her during her tortuous days of confinement. Such is Sword’s skill that with a mere curve of the lip or shift of the eyes, she seems to transform from one character to another. Above all it is the translucent eloquence she imbues in her main character — heightened by Erick Keil’s artful lighting — that gives the piece its compelling strength. The play’s overarching theme is forgiveness, which Illibagiza eventually comes to realize through prayer. Though the piece’s religious overtones may not be to everyone’s taste, its depiction of the unimaginable — in tandem with Illibagiza’s spiritual triumph and enduring will to live — transcends any parochial view. The New LATC, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Sept. 28. (213) 489-0994, ext. 107. (Deborah Klugman)
GO RED SCARE ON SUNSET Charles Busch’s raucous political farce takes place during the 1950s, when paranoia over the “Commie menace” was bearing down on American society. Screen star Mary Dale (a scintillatingly funny Drew Droege) and husband Frank Taggart (Groundlings alum Chris Tarantino), are a seemingly happy Hollywood couple with a nice house and a saucy, gay houseboy (Dane Whitlock). But dark clouds gather over their abode when Frank falls for sultry Marta (Sonya Tatoyan), who talks him into joining her acting class — which is really a front for the Communist Party. Frank soon falls under their fiendish influence and is coerced into doing an unspeakable act. Adding to poor Mary’s dilemma is the plight of her patriotic best friend, Pat Tilford (Michele Begley), who is also the host of a popular radio show. Unfortunately, the Reds have some goods on her in a blackmail scheme involving some nasty pictures she posed for. Thrown into the mayhem are outrageous plot twists, chicanery and a finale that careens over the top. The writing is sharp and clever, and director Cindy Gendrich modulates campiness and physical comedy with impressive ease. The Attic Theater and Film Center, 5429 W. Washington Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Oct. 18. (323) 525-0600 (Lovell Estell III)
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