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L’armoire, C’est Moi

Photo by Ed Krieger

“Grass grows on a desk, and there are stars in the sky. A woman’s white summer dress hanging from a tree branch.”

Depending on your taste threshold for whimsy, the forgoing will read either like subtitles for a French film or a late entry from Timothy Leary’s diary. Audience members at the Theater@Boston Court, however, will recognize these lines as describing the set for a freewheeling investigation into the nature of romantic love, an evening of aphoristic conversation that is by turns poetic, operatic and silly. In other words, a play by Charles L. Mee.

Summertime, which premiered in 2000 at San Francisco’s Magic Theater, is another of the playwright-historian’s attempts to make sense of the senseless but often lifelong relationships that develop between men and women — and, here, between members of the same sex as well. Nearly two years ago the Pacific Resident Theater scored a huge success with Mee’s Big Love, a boisterous retelling of Aeschylus’ The Suppliants set in modern Italy. In Summertime Mee eschews the Greeks, content to set the action in what looks like late-1950s Martha’s Vineyard. Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz plants some slender trees around a raked stage of distressed plank boards, with a row of umbrellas hovering high from the heavens. (He skips that grassy desk, however.) Costumer Scott L. Lane places the women in somewhat puffy pastels and the men in a look that might be called casual Good Friday — relaxed but visually busy outfits — while Steven Young’s crepuscular lighting plot accentuates the titular season’s mood of lazy regret. By the time the “More” theme from Mondo Cane comes on, you half expect to be handed a whiskey sour.

Summertime is both easy and difficult to describe. Easy because there’s no plot, difficult because its slippery dialogues grapple with very real emotional issues over the course of two hours. James (Thomas Patrick Kelly) is trying to find a translator to caption photos for an Italian book that may or may not be about love. The more he discusses the project with a prospective interpreter, Tessa (Tessa Thompson), the deeper James falls for the young woman. Before he can articulate his feelings, though, a suave Frenchman, Francois (Bjørn Johnson), emerges from an armoire that until now had been quietly minding its own business upstage. (NB: This wardrobe will see a lot of action before the night is through.) He is the first intrusion upon James’ fumbling attempts to woo, but, even resplendent in St. Tropez white, the Frenchman’s will not be the most flamboyant. Soon after Francois’ arrival come Tessa’s Italian mother (Elizabeth Huffman), her former lesbian pal Mimi (Eileen T’Kaye), two gay men (Travis Michael Holder and Larry Reinhardt-Meyer) and an assortment of secondary characters, including an intimidating pizza deliveryman (Patrick Gallo) haunted by memories of a triple murder he committed.

 

Mee, who has endured polio since adolescence, is not known for writing scenarios in which people sit still and whisper their inner thoughts. Instead, his characters shout, dance, bounce, jump and roll their way to enlightenment, or at least to euphoria — in one memorable scene from bobrauschenbergamerica, a couple slip and slide through a giant martini that’s been poured onto the floor. Summertime director Michael Michetti is attuned to the athletic rhythms of Mee’s vision and unleashes his cast accordingly, though he never allows the action to become a blurry free-for-all. His production likewise embodies the look and sound (thanks to John Zalewski’s flawless sound design) of what’s become the familiar Meescape — vaguely anachronistic, intuitively surreal — and gets strong support from a smart ensemble.

Last year Thompson, whose Tessa in some ways anchors Summertime, was a strong Juliet in Boston Court’s Romeo and Juliet: Antebellum New Orleans, 1836, and is likable enough in this far less substantial role. This production, however, gravitates to Johnson, whose Francois shows an impressive range of feelings and characterizations as he ricochets from clown to bed-weary traveler, delivering his philosophy (“You are born, you have one great love, you die”) like an existential Maurice Chevalier. Huffman also shines through as Tessa’s melodramatic mother, no more so than in one extended scene where she garrulously sings the praises of Tuscany.

Mee’s plays, with their soliloquy-like conversations, can be an actor’s dream as attention gets thrown from one character to the next. A man-hating tirade in Act 1 delivered by the earthy cook Barbara (Sandy Martin) is a veritable standup comedy routine — there’s no way this character will get lost in the shuffle. The problem is that, like Mee’s laconic set description, the lines of Summertime’s dialogue, filled with impromptu declarations and disarming phrasing, sound more like subtitles than dialogue.

Last year, when I interviewed Mee for this paper at his Brooklyn home, he made very plain his disdain for two things: Richard Nixon and the well-made play. His Berlin Circle, loosely based on Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, was another L.A. success at the Evidence Room and represented Mee at his best as character and motion powered a fable of political collapse.

Summertime, however, errs too far on the side of vagueness — we get the idea that Mee is telling us something about the human condition, but the lesson is lost in theatrical translation. It isn’t even a matter of not knowing what to think but, before too long, of not caring. Close your eyes and the dialogue all seems to be spoken by the same person. (Ironically, the one distinctive voice belongs to the pizza deliveryman, whose appearances make the least sense and which slow down the momentum the most.) Worse, Summertime is half an hour longer than the Pacific Resident Theater’s engaging Big Love yet feels as though it should have been a one-act. Or, at least, served with a tray of whiskey sours.

SUMMERTIME | By CHARLES L. MEE | At Theater@Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Through July 11 | (626) 683-6883.

Bad second act. Bad, bad, bad second act.

Such was the reductive drift of my notes toward the end of Bill Wingard’s transparent farce Kill Your Darlings at the Hudson Mainstage Theater. True, Act 1 had not exactly been Noises Off, but at least it struggled to maintain a consistent mood. Now, however, around 9:30 p.m., Wingard seemed to give up the ghost, and his story cartwheeled into a tumble of clichéd developments, each less believable than its predecessor.

For the record, his play, set in 1949, looks at a group of gay New Yorkers involved in the theater. There’s Oscar Lake (Michael Della Femina), a renowned Broadway director; the new project’s leading man and his ex-lover, Dashiell Gray (Wingard); Oscar’s young secretary/new lover, Dorian Ferris (Daniel Kash); and an insecure playwright, Mickey Jacobson (Paul Hungerford). When Dashiell’s co-star meets with a mysterious accident, Dorian steps into the part, even as Oscar warns him, “You can be a good person or a star. Or neither. But you can’t be both.”

Kill Your Darlings’ familiar plot is, to an extent, intentionally predictable. Wingard relies upon the wisecracking staccato reminiscent of old movies to pull us along as he tries to imagine a Howard Hawks screwball comedy about gay show-business types. As directed by Troy Blendell, however, the necessary conversational rat-tat-tat-tat isn’t consistent; more important, all the script’s bitchy putdowns and catty observations get in the way of any character or plot development and soon become the play’s apparent raison d’être. Which explains why it unfolds as an interminable series of blackouts during which people argue, eavesdrop while hiding behind small pieces of furniture, or appear in open doorways at key conversational moments but make no decisions onstage.

This may sound like pedantic quibbling, but even within the malarial precincts of slapstick there is usually some narrative logic, some attempt at tricking the audience into believing the comedy contains a peculiar truth.

Individually, the show’s actors don’t do too badly, although they seem to have been directed for a staged reading instead of a full production. Part of the problem is Blendell’s inept blocking, which frequently aligns characters along a single plane (more than once, seven characters converse while standing in a curtain-call formation), and the tiny, spare stage they attempt to inhabit just isn’t meant to hold a play where that many people appear together. (The eight-member ensemble portrays 11 characters.) In the end, though, it is Wingard’s inability to add anything to Act 1 but a lot of figurative door slamming (the nearly bare set has no actual doors) and confusing character transformations. He needs to realize that you can be a good writer or you can be a flashy writer. You can even be both.

—Steven Mikulan

KILL YOUR DARLINGS | By BILL WINGARD | At Hudson Mainstage Theater, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through July 13 | (323) 856-4249

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