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Enter Smiling

We can put our children on wheels to see the world, but we cannot give them the kind of home that any town provided in the ‘90s, not at any price.

--Henry Seidel Canby, The Age of Confidence

I found the above line completely by accident the other day while cribbing -- I mean, verifying -- a quote from Bartlett’s. Author-critic Canby was referring to the 1890s, of course, but I‘m sure we’ll be hearing more or less these same words again very soon, as people begin bemoaning the heartless, violent 21st century. We‘ll give our new historical home a try, but in our hearts we already faintly disapprove of it. No matter how much we want to belong to tomorrow, we will always be part of a century that smelled of bacon and tasted of Coca-Cola; we will never cease to cry at the end of King Kong or to shudder at the sight of a swastika. And, shortly enough, we will be identified as those cranky old people in theaters who turn around and frown whenever a cell phone rings. Or a gunfight erupts.

It’s fitting, then, when we tote our 10-best lists for 1999 to choose those plays that captured the spirit of their times. For the best plays are those that soon become “dated” in the very narrow definition of setting and agenda. Those are the works of theater that the future respects, the works that make no attempt to be “timeless” but whose circumstances become instant metaphors for tomorrow‘s ills and vanity. Below, alphabetically listed by theater, are my own personal Big 10 for last year, based on a woefully incomplete sampling of shows in 1999. My picks are listed here solely to brace me for Century 21 and are not to be confused with the L.A. Weekly’s annual theater awards, whose nominees will be announced in these pages on January 27.

Culture Clash in Bordertown, Actors‘ Gang Theater

The Clash has always been loud yet never shrill, alarmed but not paranoid in its rollicking examinations of Latinos and their place in a rapidly changing America. Written and performed by Richard Montoya, Ric Salinas and Herbert Siguenza, this installment focused on life in San Diego, both as melting pot and iron curtain, where Anglo, black and Latino characters traded history and resentments. While not as fully realized or textured as Radio Mambo, their look at Miami, the show nevertheless demonstrated that Culture Clash continues to be a formidable and refreshing force of comedy and commentary.

bash, Cañon Theater

Neil LaBute’s three chamber pieces, bound by Greek tragedy and Mormonism, were directed with precision and sympathy by Joe Mantello. Calista Flockhart portrayed a deadpan, white-trash Medea confessing, in a police station, the events that led her to infanticide; Flockhart would later return with Paul Rudd in a riveting piece about two college sweethearts recounting a weekend of shopping and hate crimes in New York City. But it was Rod Eldard‘s performance as a guilt-ridden traveling business exec, holed up in a Vegas hotel, that provided the show’s most nuanced and moving statement about pride, fate and the male psyche.

Collected Stories, Geffen Playhouse

Donald Margulies‘ two-character play about a cranky, middle-aged academic and the comely grad student she hires as an assistant played like a melodrama from the Family Channel when it ran two years ago at South Coast Repertory. Under Gilbert Cates’ assured direction, however, and powered by Linda Lavin‘s quietly virtuoso performance as the writer whose intimate memories are parlayed by her aide into a book deal, the show became a meditation on spiritual property, loneliness and the opportunism of youth.

Oxblood at Glaxa Studios

Depending on your mood, the plays of the Oxblood theater group that appear at Richard Kay’s Glaxa space will seem like either haunting examinations of alienation or second-generation John Steppling. No one can doubt Oxblood‘s commitment, however, to producing challenging theater that requires a thinking audience. Plays like Wesley Walker’s The Conception, Sharon Yablon‘s The First Good Day, Murray Mednick’s Tirade for Three, Sarah Koskoff‘s Debt and Sissy Boyd’s The Definite Child carry on the legacy of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival without the nightmare logistics that event often entailed.

Rebeck Revisited, Theater Neo at the Hudson Avenue Theater

Twenty-five actors had a ball impersonating the daters, exes and cocktail-lounge habitues populating eight Theresa Rebeck playlets. Mostly urban, always urbane, Rebeck‘s stories will serve as a Rosetta stone for decoding the mores and manners of late-20th-century life. It’s true that after a while Rebeck Revisited assumed a cultural sameness, dealing with mostly white, mostly professional women -- sort of Ally McBeal meets Ally McBeal -- but the stories were never predictable, and were always funny.

Medea: The Musical, Hudson Theater

Benefiting from a stage much smaller than the one on which it premiered in San Francisco a few years back, writer-director John Fisher‘s boisterously funny Medea provided nonstop laughter while questioning the misogynist undertow of much gender-bent comedy -- presenting a gay actor who plays Jason in a campy musical version of the tragedy, and who falls in and out of love with his female co-star.

No Orchids for Miss Blandish, Evidence Room at the Ivy Substation

Pulp got its due with Bart DeLorenzo’s psychologically voluptuous staging of this story -- written by Robert David MacDonald, based on James Hadley Chase‘s novel -- about Depression-era outlaws ransoming a kidnapped heiress. As, respectively, the story’s heartless gangster matriarch and her sentimental lieutenant, actors Pamela Gordon and Mickey Cottrell shone in this bleak diorama of greed and human bondage.

The Greeks: The CursedThe Blessed, Odyssey Theater Ensemble

Director Ron Sossi‘s ambitious undertaking paid off big-time in a two-evening, six-hour production of 10 Trojan War plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. John Barton and Kenneth Cavander’s adaptation employed spare but fluid language, while Sossi‘s sensitivity to the works’ gender themes, and the committed ensemble‘s respect for the plays’ gravity, ensured that these timeless tragedies would be available to a new generation of theatergoers. At least during 1999.

Shakespeare‘s Villains, Odyssey Theater

Trust writer-performer Steven Berkoff to present an engaging lecture on stage evil, based on the Bard’s bad guys (among whom he counted Hamlet), while delivering dishy comments about the state of British theater -- at the expense of Sirs Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen, among others. Mixing malevolent satire with social commentary, Berkoff‘s evening was simply one of the year’s great solo shows.

Aliens in America, Tiffany Theater

With this latest monologue (actually, three of them), writer-performer Sandra Tsing Loh created her most intricate and, dare we say, revealing memoir to date. The evening covered growing up with an idiosyncratic Chinese-immigrant aerospace engineer father and a happy-time German mother who had a flair for storytelling and a reverence for musk perfume. Loh‘s own storytelling prowess was honed to perfection, producing that rarest of autobiographical shows, a confession free of recrimination or guilt. Director David Schweizer worked wonders and Jason Adams’ drolly “oriental” set balanced the needs of kitsch and function.


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