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Theater Reviews: Burn This, Manish Boy, Bright Ideas

Burn This
Ryan Correll

GO  BRIGHT IDEAS “All the world’s a stage, and our children our players,” advises a tutor to parents Genevra (Amie Farrell) and Joshua Bradley (Brian Stanton) in Eric Coble’s chipper comedy inspired by the playwright’s own preschool panic attack. The Bradleys’ offstage son, Mac, is on the wrong end of 3 — in months, he’ll be 4 — and his chances for a kind of success that would be set in concrete depend on getting him off the waiting list for the area’s best preschool, or so warn the overachieving breeders at their playground. The obstacle is Genevra’s recently divorced co-worker Denise (Meghan Maureen McDonough), who just bought her child’s slot by donating her family’s fortunes to build the school’s new Aquatics Center. When the couple invites Denise over for some poisoned pesto — the better to get her tot sent away to live with his dad — Coble’s script giddily underlines its allusions to Macbeth (“Is this a mortar and pestle I see before me?” frets Genevra). Caryn Desai’s chirpy direction prefers laughs to moral agonies, and her comic ensemble, rounded out by Louis Lotorto and Heather Corwin, keeps the tone quick and fun. This isn’t aiming to usurp the Bard’s place in the canon, but Coble enriches his semi-serious premise with a layer of class resentment and modern masculinity issues that intensify as Stanton’s very funny patriarch struggles to wash the phantom basil from his hands. International City Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; Sat.-Sun., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru September 20. (562) 436-4610. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  BURN THIS This revival of Lanford Wilson’s 1974 play is distinguished by nuanced performances. David Watson’s superior direction emphasizes the quiet moments in what could be an over-the-top drama — it’s clear that the actors are listening to one another. The plot begins after the tragic death of Robbie, the third roommate in an apartment shared by Anna (Melanie Hawkins) and Larry (Mark Thornton). Both are distraught, and Anna is comforted by her boyfriend Burton (Eli Mahar), a successful screenwriter. Anna is a choreographer who had worked with Robbie, a gay dancer, on various projects. Anna regales Larry, also gay, with tales of the funeral, where the family assumed she was Robbie’s girlfriend. A month after the burial, Robbie’s brother Pale (Ben McGroarty) bursts into their apartment at 5 a.m. to retrieve Robbie’s belongings. Disturbed by the drunken, obnoxious Pale, who has a strong resemblance to Robbie, Anna nevertheless sleeps with him. Burton, of course, learns of the affair, and angrily storms off, only later, he will try to win Anna back. As Larry, a very funny Thornton provides dry humor throughout, and McGroarty is persuasive as the violent yet sensitive Pale. Travis McHale’s set and lighting design complement the production. Flight Theater at The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru September 13. (800) 504-4849. (Sandra Ross)

GO  GASLIGHT Patrick Hamilton’s 1944 potboiler (originally Angel Street) continues to be one of the most revived theatrical chestnuts because its melodrama is so unapologetically intense. In an unfashionable section of late-Victorian London, our heroine, Mrs. Manningham (Corrine Shor), is tormented by demons of insanity and the cruel taunting of her domineering husband (John Cygan). Additionally the master is sensually attentive to the young, buxom maid (Emily Bridges) — or is his preoccupatoin only a figment of the Mrs.’ imagination? Jeff G. Rack’s lavishly detailed burgundy set, with perfect gaslight effects by lighting designer Yancey Dunham, creates the ideal atmosphere for the dripping suspense. The actors, under Charlie Mount’s austere direction, commit fully to the chilling revelations as we move slowly toward a known outcome. Don Moss is particularly delightful as a hard-bitten Scotland Yard detective, even though he joined the production late in rehearsals and was still a bit shaky on his lines at the performance I saw. Likewise the maid (in a fine performance by Mary Garripoli), whose role is small but comic, turns into a tense ally of the oppressed Mrs. M. Costumes by Valentino round out this very satisfying production. Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru September 27. (323) 851-7977. (Tom Provenzano)

GETTING OUT Playwright Marsha Norman’s best-known play, ’night, Mother, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, was a grueling long night’s journey toward suicide. This earlier but equally grim work, first produced in 1977, deals with the plight of Arlene (Leah Verrill), who has been paroled after serving an eight-year prison for robbery and manslaughter. All the cards are stacked against her: She has a demanding, judgmental mother (Lonna Montrose), and a bullying former lover, Carl (P.J. Marshall), who wants to drag her back into her old life. She’s also haunted by Allie (Tracy Lane), her unregenerate former self — a ferocious bundle of rage, malice and resentment, rooted in the fact that her father molested her. Now, Arlene has a child, taken from her when she was sent to prison, for whom she seeks, despite the odds, to go straight. A sympathetic but possessive prison guard, Bennie (director Andrew Hamrick), offers help but makes excessive demands. Only Ruby (Cheri Ann Johnson), the tough, unsentimental ex-con who lives upstairs, serves as a mentor. Hamrick has assembled an able cast, and melded them into a bleakly effective, no frills production. The Lyric Hyperion Theatre, 2106 Hyperion Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m., thru September 20. (Neal Weaver)

 

I’M AN ACTOR, THEY DON’T GET IT Written and directed by Tiffany Black, this two-hour production is supported by a talented cast and just enough good writing and variety to make it enjoyable. The 30-plus vignettes are themed around the hardships, struggles and triumphs of young thespians who come to Hollywood with a dream. Black’s writing is a matter of feast or famine. Some pieces are bland and insipid, such as “Family Support,” in which Danette Wilson engages in a predictable phone conversation with a mother who isn’t crazy about her daughter’s career choice; or “Coaches with Creds,” in which Tyler Lueck grouses about acting coaches. But most of the writing is sharp, witty and imaginative and highlights the often perilous, cutthroat road taken by those who want to make it in Tinseltown. Kyoko Okazaki is a hoot as a sensuous ad lady in “Living Headshot,” while Jasmine Hughes is equally impressive as a Jamaican gal who has her own ideas about stardom in “Passport Performer.” Some of the skits feature dancing, singing and some nifty tap dancing. Considering the small stage, Black does a remarkable job marshaling the sizable cast. The Tre Stage Theater, 1523 N. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Fri., 8 p.m.; thru Sept. 18. black.tiffany@gmail.com. (Lovell Estell III)

JULIUS CAESAR One must give director Ellen Geer credit for at least attempting to add some tragic ballast to the usual mix of Bard-lite romances and comedies that typically monopolize summer Shakespeare stages. That said, Geer turns in a curiously staid and colorless revival of what is ostensibly an Elizabethan version of a high-octane political thriller. Given that the political arena in this case is a Republican Rome riven by the rising dictatorship of Julius Caesar (Carl Palmer), the thrills should be of the rhetorical, persuasive kind, as the anti-Caesarean conspirator Cassius (Melora Marshall) sets about turning the conscience of the noble, putatively pro-Caesarean Brutus (Mike Peebler). With Marshall’s singularly strident Cassius (in some gender-bent casting that is as close to a staging concept as this production comes), however, there is little to distinguish the fawning manipulator who plays on Brutus’ patriotism and vanity in Act I from the petty and corrupt quarreler to whom Brutus finds himself joined in Act IV. The missing contrast proves fatal to Peebler’s performance, reducing Brutus from a man ensnared by his sense of honor to the most gullible Roman of them all. Aaron Hendry delivers a suitably athletic and ruthless Marc Antony, making the famed “Friends, Romans, countrymen ...” funeral oration the evening’s showstopper, while Alan Blumenfeld’s robust Casca and Susan Angelo’s ambition-inflected Portia both provide noteworthy support. Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga; Sun., Sept. 6, 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 4 p.m.; thru September 26. (310) 455-3723. (Bill Raden)

MANISH BOY Writer-actor-comedian Ralph Harris is a clever writer, and a very funny man. His eloquent and affectionate portrait of his feisty 94-year-old grandfather is a comic gem, strongly rooted in reality: This is not merely standup comedy but fine, richly detailed acting through which he conjures his African-American family. He also presents sketches of his “devil dad” father, and a drug-saturated uncle. But there’s a disconnect between his individual sketches and the framing device he chose. He begins his tale with a phone call from a girlfriend of 20 years ago, informing him that she thinks her son is his child. She wants him to return to Philadelphia to take a DNA test. He must face the possibility that he has a 20-year-old son. He comes to South Philly, and his mother’s basement, where he dredges up memories of his past. The possible son is a red herring, not organically connected to his other stories, so the performance seems contrived. This is unfortunate because, though his best material is really wonderful, the shape of this production, broken up by many unnecessary blackouts, is awkward and distracting. Director Mark E. Swinton serves Harris well when he leaves him free to perform his character portraits, but he allows too many distractions to impede the flow. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood; Wed., 8 p.m.; thru October 7. (323) 960-1056. www.plays411.com/manishboy. (Neal Weaver)

 

VISITING MR. GREEN If you’re Jewish — or grew up in New York or another American urban metropolis — you’ve probably met the kind of cantankerous old codger depicted in playwright Jeff Baron’s sometimes heartwarming but mostly preachy and predictable message play. Mr. Green (Jack Axelrod) is a grieving 86-year-old widower and an observant Jew. He doesn’t get out much, nor does he care to. Into his life comes a young, gay man named Ross (Antonie Knoppers), assigned to the community-service task of assisting Mr. Green after he nearly ran him over with his car. Initially unfriendly, Green warms to Ross after learning that he’s Jewish, too (“Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”) — but soon turns away in disgust when Ross informs him of his homosexuality. The rest of this somewhat contrived and dated (think 1970s, though the play premiered in 1996) plot follows the coming together of these two individuals, as Ross pours out his soul and Mr. Green reveals the existence of a long-estranged daughter. One problem with this polarized setup is Green’s unworldly attitudes: He doesn’t understand the word gay and thinks American Express is a train. This might be credible coming from an immigrant but hardly from a native-born former shop owner, which Green is. (That Ross doesn’t know from where his grandparents emigrated also seems a stretch.) Under David Rose’s direction, Knoppers grows believably impassioned; Axelrod, on opening night, created a convincing bigot, but his performance needs more shading and nuance. Colony Studio Theater, 555 N. Third St., Burbank; Fri.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Sept. 20. (818) 558-7000. (Deborah Klugman)

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