Theater Reviews: Bury the Dead, Coriolanus, Inherit the Wind

ABIGAIL’S PARTY What might have been provocative in 1979, when Mike Leigh’s play first appeared, now feels dated. Beverly (Nikki Glick) — a happily childless, unhappily married woman at the start of her descent into middle age — and Laurence (Darren Richardson) — her unremarkable estate agent husband with a love for classical music and sandwiches — have the neighbors over for drinks. As gin and tonics go down, tensions come up. Playwright Leigh derived much of his work from improvisation, which makes for some pleasantly unexpected turns and subconscious outbursts. However, in revival, it really does reveal itself as a product of its time. Director Julian Holloway shapes this production well for the most part, but a conspicuously contemporary Schweppes bottle and pointless stage business for actors who have to engage themselves while others speak certainly distract from the main action. The cast is primarily strong, with a stellar performance from Phoebe James as a gregarious young party guest. And Charles Erven’s set delights in subtleties of the ’70s, though Graham Oakes’ sound design could actually use some touches of nuance. Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; from Sept. 7: Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Oct. 19. (310) 477-2055. (Luis Reyes)

 

GO  THE BONES OF LESSER MEN Sure-handedly directed by L. Flint Esquerra, Yves Lola St. Vil’s play, in this world-premiere production, presents an engaging mix of sex and politics. Set in the 1990s at Elly’s Place, an African-American-owned diner in Brooklyn, the play focuses on an electoral race for governor that includes a viable black candidate, the much talked about but unseen Collins. Among the regulars at Elly’s Place are the youthful Brooklyn (William Christopher Stephens), who can hardly contain his enthusiasm for Collins, while the middle-aged Junior (Freedom) is skeptical of all politicians. When not cooking, Elly (Staci Ashley) provides a maternal influence, which extends to Collins’ mistress (Randa Walker). Early in the play, much of the uproarious humor emanates from Free (Carl Crudup), a teller of tall tales. But the hilarious, well-written banter of Act 1 gives way to something much darker in Act 2 when one of the characters appears with a series of escalating injuries and bruises. Director Esquerra handles the light and dark elements equally well, adding to the shock in Act 2. As with many plays set in diners or bars, playwright St. Vil includes various stock characters, including a street hustler (Antonio Ramirez) and a church lady (Barbara Barnes), but superb character development puts refreshing new twists on these archetypes. MET Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Sept. 28. (Added perfs Sept. 3 & 4, 8 p.m.) (323) 957-1152. (Sandra Ross)

 

GO  BURY THE DEAD In Irwin Shaw’s 1935 expressionistic antiwar play, six soldiers, killed in combat in an unspecified war, stand up and refuse to be buried. At a time when the U.S. is still reeling from the effects of its wars in Vietnam and Iraq, Shaw’s play possesses a raw power, but it never lets us forget that it’s delivering a message. For the government, the recalcitrant corpses are first and foremost a public relations and morale problem. Soon, however, the dead men’s womenfolk are brought in to persuade them to lie down and submit to burial. In a massive but predictable set piece, each of the soldiers (Andrew Wheeler, John Pick, Brandon Hanson, Colin Golden, Jesse Luken and Brian Allman) is confronted with a wife, sister, girlfriend or mother, begging him to stop bucking the system. In a telling moment, one tough wife (Donna Jo Thorndale) asks her husband why he waited till he was dead to stand up and fight back. Matthew Huffman’s somber production is terrific, and so is his cast. The Depression-Era detail offers additional interest, but the piece remains more a potently vivid poster than a play. The Actors’ Gang, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Sept. 13. (310) 838-4264 or www.theactorsgang.com. (Neal Weaver)

 

CORIOLANUS Intermingling war veterans and theater professionals, director Stephan Wolfert has pared Shakespeare’s epic about the Roman warrior Caius Marcius (later dubbed Coriolanus) down to a comparatively lean two hours (with intermission) and fiddled with a bit of the plotting — most noticeably, the demise of the arrogant hero. He holds his own people (who haven’t served in the military) in open contempt. After many triumphant returns from battles to a starving populace, and at the urging of his mother, Volumnia (Adeye Sahran), Coriolanus (Daniel Kucan) runs for election as a Roman consul. Echoes of our own politics bounce around the stage as discussions of military experience hang in the air. Ultimately, they just ask the big guy to be polite to the commoners, which he can’t endure. Anticipating countless social revolutions to come, Shakespeare has the enraged consular officials ban their own war hero in the name of the people. Understandably, Coriolanus joins the enemy Volscians and leads the foreign army against his own “ungrateful” homeland. After Coriolanus’ mother successfully pleads with him to spare Rome, Shakespeare has the Volscians kill Coriolanus; but here, he falls on his own sword — not unlike Sophocles’ Ajax, who also became deranged from combat, pride and the urgings of a woman (the goddess Athena). In an outdoor park setting, Wolfert directs the play on three stages, with terrific amplification, enunciation, atmosphere and sense. The acting has more posturing than layering, so that it vaguely resembles a Tom Cruise flick. (Kucan bears some resemblance to the movie star.) Nice performances, however, by Michael Allen as Roman senator Menenius, Bruce Cervi as Volscian General Aufidius, and Sahran as Coriolanus’ tormented mother. West L.A. Civic Center, 1645 Corinth Ave., West Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; thru Sept. 6. (310) 428-6610 or www.wlanc.com. Veterans Center for the Performing Arts and the Los Angeles Area Veterans Artists Alliance. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

 

INHERIT THE WIND A fictionalization of the Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s masterpiece tells of a high school teacher, Bertram Cates (John Paul Karliak), who is put on trial for breaking state law by teaching Darwin’s theories of evolution. To argue the case, a nationally famous politician and orator, Matthew Harrison Brady (James Rice), and a well-known trial lawyer, Henry Drummond (Robert Craig), descend on “heavenly Hillsboro,” setting up an ideological clash of titans that is documented by reporter E.K. Hornbeck (Julie Terrell). While cross-gender casting often proves interesting, Terrell, sounding like Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy, doesn’t quite sell the character. Likewise, Craig, who flubs too many lines, and Rice try too hard to be “larger than life.” At times, even the townsfolk are played a bit hyperbolically as simpletons and hicks. Where director Tiger Reel fails to give his actors nuance, he succeeds in his set design, which is cleverly minimalist, even using the walls as prop storage. The color palette of the citizens’ costumes, a simple Puritan black and white, likewise sets a stylized tone. The production uniquely employs a folk band that plays religious music between scenes, but it gets to be a bit much when it holds up the action of the story. One wishes for a more strongly acted and nuanced production, given the resurrection of Evangelical fervor in the past few years that makes the play as relevant today as it was when it debuted in 1955. This production is nonetheless required viewing for anyone who has never seen the play. Art/Works Theatre, 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; thru Sept. 14. (323) 908-7276. An Action! Theatre Company production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

 

THE PAVILION Craig Wright (Orange Flower Water, Recent Tragic Events) wrote this play “about time,” in 2005, and this is its Los Angeles premiere. Being about time, and small-town folk, it ambles onto the poetical-theatrical turf of Thornton Wilder and Dylan Thomas, which could explain why the narrator (Chris Smith) is clad in black. He reminds us (in case we might forget) that we’re in a theater. He propels a Styrofoam ball across a wire to represent a shooting star, as background for a very bitter, slightly sweet romance between Kathi (Kristin Chiles) and Peter (Tim Hamelen) at their 10-year high school reunion. (Smith jumps in — often in drag — to play all the sniggering, swaggering peers Kathi and Peter crash into, many also suffering the heartache of time passing.) Peter is now floundering and Kathi’s in a desolate marriage. Peter left Kathi pregnant in high school; on his father’s orders, he stopped answering her calls like a cad. And now he’s returned to make amends, she’s not having much of it, or him, for a while. Chiles’ Act 1 shrillness yields to an emotional depth approaching wisdom in Act 2. Hamelen reveals an appealing sensitivity and stoic resolve throughout. Wright includes too much precious narration in order to put a high school reunion in the context of the Big Bang and the rise and fall of empires. Obren Milanovic directs with wistful intelligence before trying to charm us with the cleverness of the play’s many theatrical conceits. Some in the audience might have been charmed. Lyric Theatre, 520 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Oct. 5. (323) 939-9220. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

SCAREDYCATS As the Neighborhood Watch group in Cheryl Bascom’s new farce is arriving at the home of the Pudneys (Julian Berlin and Dan Wingard) — “20 miles from Rosemead” — we see how the local police rep, Officer Melton (Bradley Snedeker), can’t keep his paws off Mr. Pudney’s blonde vixen wife or, later in the play, the babysitter (Lauren Waisbren) for the stuck-up Gleasons (Derek Long and Meeghan Holaway). The neighborhood is a cauldron of infidelity, bigotry, petty jealousy and paranoia. A gunshot, or what sounds like a gunshot, is reason enough for the group to seize a young Latino (Patrick Gomez) whose father owns a pool-cleaning company, and who was caught in the yard looking for his cell phone. Bascom’s satire of fearing fear itself might stand a chance in a production that’s not so over the top. The glaring mockery in Doug Clayton’s staging (Mrs. Pudney opens the play striding across her own living room, weapons in hand) reduces to mere frivolity what borders on an American comi-tragedy: that we’ll never be secure by being so insecure. Bascom must take some responsibility for underscoring the obvious: One neighbor greets a very swishy couple (Christian Malmin and Josh T. Ryan) with the salutation, “Hi gays, I mean guys.”) On the matinee I attended, somebody slammed the door and an entire shelf, with its contents, came crashing down, flummoxing the actors. It was a metaphor for the production’s hyperkinetic energy defying a higher purpose, or any purpose at all. The show features some strong comedic talent that deserves better — Ben Brannon and Heather Corwin as a neocon neighbor and his horrible pregnant wife; Long’s sneering lech, Pat Gleason, and Waisbren’s opportunistic babysitter with a penchant for playing dumber than she is. Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Sept. 28. (866) 811-4111. Produced in association with the California Performing Arts Center. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

 

SISSYSTRATA After last year’s scintillating gay version of The Bacchae, the same production team set to work on this adaptation of Lysistrata, Aristophanes’ ancient Greek antiwar comedy, in which the women of Athens withhold sex from their men until peace is declared. Playwright Allain Rochel and director Michael Matthews leap headlong into a politically incorrect fantasy in which West Hollywood musclemen are called in to help the Iraq war effort, leaving their sissy boyfriends home to whine, bicker and complain — fabulously. Lip-synching drag numbers and lisping limp-wristed stereotypes, worthy of Fred Phelps’ slogan “God hates fags,” abound in this self-mocking production. Unfortunately, under Matthews’ staging, the caricatures emerge as merely embarrassing rather than hilarious. Only Michael Taylor Gray, in the title role, possesses the needed physical and vocal prowess, yet his character becomes absurdly strident rather than satirical. The butch men are even weaker than the sissies as the whole adventure turns flat and tedious. Marjorie Lockwood’s unflattering costumes, especially for the femmes, would shock any snapping queen, who need only swish into any Out of the Closet for better drag. The cartoon set design representing West Hollywood’s enormously popular bar-restaurant The Abbey (substituting for Aristophanes’ Acropolis) provides a bit of visual amusement. Celebration Theater, ­7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Sept. 28. (323) 957-1884 or www.tix.com. (Tom Provenzano)

 

GO  YOU WILL MOST LIKELY DIE When not romping through whirlwind comedy nights, the three-man, two-woman sketch group Dynamite Kablammo have been marshaling video hits online to showcase their brash and off-kilter humor. With new member Meredith Rensa — a fearless brunette with the face of Vivien Leigh — the ensemble of Greg Kaczynski (who directs), Dane Biren, Dana DeRuyck and Matt DeNoto blitz the audience with skits that build in momentum as they shake off their SNL roots with premises that splinter off in clever and unexpected directions. An unhinged blood-donor recruit offers reluctant volunteers cocaine; ancient Greek sirens are reimagined as gruff Jersey grandmas, luring Odysseus with soup and sweaters; and when a frozen man’s testicles climb into his brain, the gang doesn’t go for easy horn-dog jokes but the primal fun of his hapless balls lurching him around like a broken puppet. Though the room feels too small for big laughs, everyone’s chuckling quietly as DeNoto motors through a monologue in which he plays a losing coach confessing to running over his rival’s dog (“I’m not saying I was drunk ... because you can’t be drunk on meth”); then there’s the go-for-broke sound effects of a XXX old-time radio show called “Commie Dearest,” on which a cuckolded husband dismisses his wife’s Soviet seducer with “Your sexual ideas are just as underdeveloped as your political ones.” ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Tues., 8:30 p.m.; thru Sept. 2. (818) 202-4120 or www.­zombiejoes.com. (Amy Nicholson)


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