Theater Reviews: Candida, Poor, Poor Lear, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
GO CANDIDA If Kathleen F. Conlin’s staging of George Bernard Shaw’s romantic comedy isn’t perfect, it’s sure close. One “fine morning in October 1894,” a self-satisfied local pastor, Morell (Mark Deakins), who also happens to be a socialist, finds himself competing for the affections of his wife, Candida (Willow Geer), with a callow, 18-year-old “nervous disease” poet named Marchbanks (Johnathan McClain). “Let your ideas compete with mine, then let her choose,” the twitchy, arrogant young man challenges his senior. By the time Shaw’s comedy has spun to its final, playful scene, everybody has lost something, and everybody has won something, and everybody, except Candida perhaps, has been charged with and convicted of presumptuousness and hypocrisy. The themes haven’t aged a day, the dialects are pitch-perfect, yet this production hangs on the rare, meticulous brilliance of McClain’s Marchbanks. His performance is a tour de force of physical comedy, a compendium of tics and an unceasing, and ceaselessly entertaining, dance of belligerent attacks and coy withdrawals, each rolling atop the next with split-second timing. Deakins’ pastor is a glorious counter, a handsome rock of vigorous pomposity, an emblem of privilege too sure of his so-called magnanimous ideas, and ideals. The joy is in watching them crumble, and watching the pastor struggle with his own dignity. Grand turns also by Kate Hillinshead’s love-smitten secretary, by Matthew Henerson as Candida’s blustery father, and Gabriel Diani’s foundling turned aristocrat. In the title role, the elegant and beautiful Geer is slightly mannered in Act 1 but finds her confidence soon after. Michael C. Smith’s drawing-room set comes packed with fastidious detail, as do Sherry Linnell’s costumes. Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. (added perfs Feb. 14 & 21, 3 p.m. and Feb. 26 & March 5, 8 p.m.); through March 8. (818) 558-7000, ext. 15. (Steven Leigh Morris)
FLIGHT: THE RISE AND FALL OF CHARLES LINDBERGH Garth Wingfield’s bio-drama of the famous American aviator is more like an overstated cautionary tale about the perils of being a celebrity. Rather than presenting a structured story with a plot or dramatic arc, the writer gives us a montage of scenes, which comes across like a collection of news headlines and interviews. Gerald Downey does a fine turn as the Everyman pilot, whose 1927 flight from New York to Paris brought him instant acclaim. And then there’s the matter of the kidnapping of baby Charles, and Lindy’s foot-in-mouth debacle as a Nazi sympathizer, all of which occurred in the span of 14 years, turning Lindbergh from hero to heel. Wingfield doesn’t probe these events in depth, nor does he provide a meaningful context or perspective, which is too bad because we miss a true sense of Lindbergh and his life. (He was also an author, scientist and environmentalist.) Instead, the picture here is of a likable but cranky “aw-shucks,” fellow slyly exploited by a bevy of rapacious reporters (played by Eric Charles Jorgenson), who is badly in need of a P.R. man. The acting is spotty at best, but Robin Roy is passable as Anne Lindbergh. James Carey provides good direction. Attic Theater & Film Center, 5429 W. Washington Blvd., L.A., Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through March 14. (323) 525-0600. (Lovell Estell III)
THE MAKING OF A MULATTO Born in France to a black father from North Carolina and a white French mother, writer-performer Juliette Fairley should have a compelling tale to tell. Unfortunately, she delivers a slapdash one-woman outing that merely scratches the surface of the equally challenging struggles in her parents’ romance and marriage, and Fairley’s own growing up a mixed-race child in a prejudiced America. Under Bill Becker’s shaky direction, the show has disjointed pacing due to Fairley’s underdeveloped characters and storyline, and a running time just shy of 30 minutes. We do learn that as a child, Fairley’s mother and her family endured hardship under the Nazi occupation of Paris, and that Fairley’s father joined the U.S. Air Force to be a pilot, but his race precluded him from fulfilling that dream. Yet Fairley gives short shrift to her parents’ relationship and to how it endured under American racism once the airman and his wife retuned from his European stint. Fairley would do well to take sufficient time to expand this heartfelt work-in-progress and do justice to her family’s assuredly intriguing legacy. Sunset Gardner Stages, 1501 N. Gardner St., Hollywood; Sun., 3 p.m., on Feb.22, March 22, April 5 & 19, and May 3. (323) 957-4652. (Martín Hernández)
MINSKY’S The raid of Minsky’s Burlesque house on New York’s Lower East Side in 1925 — initiated when dancer Mary Dawson of Pennsylvania removed her top and then allowed her bare breasts to sway — was the basis of William Friedkin’s 1968 movie, The Night They Raided Minsky’s. Turns out, the whole thing was a publicity stunt by club owner Billy Minsky in order to draw better crowds to his club, which presented a genre of entertainment that was on the ropes at the time — wedged between moribund vaudeville and burgeoning Broadway. From a business standpoint, it was pretty good stunt, one that propelled a whole new audience to the club. Bob Martin, Charles Strouse and Susan Birkenhead’s new musical, Minsky’s, at the Ahmanson (original book by Evan Hunter) bears as little resemblance to the film (it makes no claim to be an adaptation) as it does to the historical record. The time has been flung forward a decade from the Roaring ’20s to Depression-Era ’30s, presumably to ramp up its relevance to our own hard times, which are echoed in lyrics sung by chorus girls: “Everyone wants an escape now/The country’s in terrible shape now/Every time another bank fails/We go and polish our nails.” This is the story of Minsky (Christopher Fitzgerald), and his love-hate affair with the daughter (Katharine Leonard) of the prim city councilman (George Wendt), who’s on a morality crusade to shut down all the burlesque houses in town. Minsky’s is a clever, romantic musical that ambles along in no particular direction on the power of its charm, until it tries to fool us into believing that its pedestrian ambitions contain some higher purpose. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 p.m.; through March 1. (213) 628-2772. (Steven Leigh Morris) See Theater Feature.
GO THE NEO-SACRED REVIVAL: THREE SHORT PLAYS FOR THE MODERN SOUL Three smartly staged one-acts from the current generation of Padua Playwrights illustrate both the risks and the rewards of the long-running writing workshop’s dedication to what they call a “poet’s theater.” The evening’s highlight is Sharon Yablons’ “Acts of Love,” a scathingly funny look at physical desire, emotional intimacy and the sadomasochistic trap awaiting those couples who don’t understand the difference. Richard Azurdia and a nicely nuanced Mickey Swenson are the witless cads unable to muster desire for the women they love and respect; Lake Sharp, Sandra McCurdy and Kim Debus are the significant others grappling with their partners’ mystifying erotic indifference. Gray Palmer directs. Less successful are Guy Zimmerman’s “Hammers” and Heidi Darchuk’s “Tiny Trumpets.” Zimmerman (who also directs) uses a callow screenwriter’s (Gill Gayle) relationship to his brain-damaged brother (Adrian Alex Cruz) to implicate storytelling, history and the past in the fate of the tortured siblings. Darchuk’s tale follows estranged parents (Lisa Denke and Palmer) reuniting for the funeral of their daughter (Caroline Duncan). Though director Gill Gayle ably realizes Darchuk’s dark humor and off-kilter lyricism, the compelling human drama never feels connected to the piece’s more oblique passages. It’s a flaw shared by Zimmerman — trying to score big intellectual points far too unwieldy and abstract for such intimate work. Art Share Los Angeles, 801 E. Fourth Place, L.A.; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 15. (213) 625-1766. A Padua Playwrights production. (Bill Raden)
GO POOR, POOR LEAR In her one woman Shakespeare show-within-a-show, Nina Sallinen nearly triples her age to play a 90-year-old Finnish diva, returning to the stage after decades away to perform King Lear with just a hat, a doll and a flower to represent the king’s three ill-fated daughters. The aged actress is seemingly in constant motion, thrilled to be back in the spotlight, but her overactive mouth, her limbs and, on occasion, her mind are betraying her. When her stubborn legs and distracted brain cause her to freeze up onstage, it’s as electric as her shock of white hair that shakes loose in wild directions. A solo performance of King Lear is a vanity piece, however cleverly slummed up with nice touches like the hair dryer Sallinen clicks on so that she can deliver the king’s “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” speech into its tinny gale. But what’s really at stake for the ancient drama queen is that her estranged daughters — and the evening’s guests of honor — have instead gone to the movies, spinning her into a manic depression where she acknowledges the parallels between her characters and herself. A shattered second act soliloquy overexplains what we’ve enjoyed intuiting, but when Sallinen’s actress drops her facade and asks the audience to see her for who she really is, the moment is so kinetic we forget we’re still looking at a fictional creation. The Complex, 6468 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through March 1. (818) 430-4835. (Amy Nicholson)
SURVIVING SEX is a pretty good, facile sitcom by David Landsberg about the plight of romantic nebbish accountant Stan (Jeff Marlowe), trying to steer his battered life raft through the crosscurrents of his own docility and inertia, and the presumed desire of the women in his life for a real man who knows how to degrade them. That isn’t really the life they want, but it’s the romantic performance they want from their fellas. Nice guys finish last. Woody Allen has handled all this with more astuteness and aplomb, nonetheless Landsberg has crafted some witty, satirical riffs on the double standards set by women, which emerge from Stan’s mouth in hilarious, furious crescendos. Marlowe is an accomplished comic whose droll reactions to the mayhem surrounding him produce some intoxicating moments. This is the kind of guy who financially supports his girlfriend — foxy, aspiring actress Denise (Amy Handelman). Stan then has to endure watching her rehearse in his own living room a sizzling love scene with her stud scene partner (Steve Coombs). After Denise dumps him, Stan finds himself manacled to the kitchen table with a new date (Dana Green) trying out her dominatrix fantasies. There’s a pleasing performance by Mandy June Turpin as Larry’s wife, Jennifer, particularly when she must handle her hubby’s announcement that he’s in love with Stan. The farce trips over itself, under Susan Morgenstern’s otherwise fine direction, with strains of plausibility, such as Stan opening his front door with his trousers wrapped around his ankles, just so his his best buddy, Larry (Peter Story), can check to see how his date is going. When looking to have some sex toys delivered, Stan checks the phone book. Does anyone younger than 40 even use a phone book anymore? Falcon Theater, 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through March 1. (818) 955-8101. (Steven Leigh Morris)
VIOLET SHARP The world-famous Charles Lindbergh kidnapping case spawned a web of mystery. One person to become haplessly entangled in the tragedy was Violet Sharp (Meredith Bishop), a 27-year old domestic in the Lindbergh household, whose defiant attitude and evasive answers to routine police questioning aroused suspicion. Playwright William Cameron structures his melodrama around the obsessive pursuit of Violet’s confession by police inspector Harry Walsh (David Hunt Stafford). Hunt and other authorities persuaded themselves of Violet’s complicity, despite flimsy evidence and the unwavering endorsement she received from the Lindberghs themselves. The play scores points for its observations about women and class and the dangerous proclivities of some men to distort facts for the sake of their own compulsive desire for closure. But the production, under David Coleman’s direction, leaves much to be desired. While she nails a couple of moments near the end, Bishop’s housemaid comes off more sullen than sassy (in contrast to the historical accounts), while Hunt’s driven cop gives off bombast but no heat. Amy Lloyd does respectable triple duty as a tongue-wagging sister, a secretary and a nurse. Many supporting performances are overly dramatic or under rehearsed – or both. Random blocking, gratuitous videography, Jeff Rack’s drab set, and Jeremy Pivnick’s indifferent lighting underscore the more pivotal problems with the acting and direction. Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theater, 241 Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills; (in rep, call for schedule); thru March 12. (310) 364-0535. (Deborah Klugman)
GO WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Too often, fine actors with disabilities are barred from playing the roles their talents merit, so Blue Zone Theatre was founded to offer them opportunities that don’t exist elsewhere. The result, in this case, is an eloquent and powerful production of Edward Albee’s modern classic. It’s undeniably disconcerting at first to discover that three out of the four actors are visibly disabled. But we soon get past that, and this production is in many ways superior to the overly cozy one at the Doolittle Theatre a few years ago, with John Lithgow and Glenda Jackson, directed by Albee himself. These actors play from the gut, and the small theatre enables them to be subtle. There are tricky moments, as when the ditsy young wife Honey (Teal Sherer), seated in her wheelchair, declares, “I love to dance. I dance like the wind.” But she makes it work, doing “interpretive” wheeling and zooming round the stage. Ann Colby Stocking, who’s given us excellent work in the past, is an impassioned and brassy Martha, Jack Patterson keeps the fires raging beneath George’s seeming submissiveness, Sherer finds ample comedy as the brandy-swilling Honey, and Paul Haitkin captures Nick’s smug arrogance as well as his vulnerability. Noho Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m.; through March 1. (323) 960-7711. (Neal Weaver)