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Theater Reviews: Facing East, Insanity, Farragut North

Miriam Geer
The Cherry Orchard

GO  THE CHERRY ORCHARD In 1950, writer-director Josh Logan transferred Chekhov’s play to the American South in an adaptation called The Wisteria Trees. Now, director Heidi Helen Davis, and Ellen Geer have reset the play near Charlottesville, Virginia, and updated it to 1970. The ex-serfs have become the descendants of slaves, and Chekhov’s Madame Ranevsky has become Lillian Randolph Cunningham (Ellen Geer), the owner of the famous cherry orchard that’s “mentioned in the Encyclopedia Britannica.” Though it’s a very free adaptation, it admirably preserves the play’s flavor and spirit. And while Davis’ production skewers the characters for their vanity, folly and ineptitude, it treats them with affectionate respect. She’s blessed with a wonderful cast, including William Dennis Hunt as the landowner’s garrulous, fatuous brother; J.R. Starr as an ancient family retainer; Melora Marshall as the eccentric governess Carlotta; and Steve Matt as the grandson of slaves — and a go-getter businessman who longs to be the master. The production is easygoing, relaxed, faithful in its own way, and often very funny. It may be the most fully integrated (in every sense of the word) production of the play that we’re likely to see. Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga; call for schedule; through September 26. (310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com. (Neal Weaver)

GO  FACING EAST From Tony Kushner’s historical fantasias to Neil LaBute’s violent ravings, theater artists have successfully focused on strains between Mormonism and homosexuality — two cultures shrouded in mystery and searching for acceptance in American life. Playwright Carol Lynn Pearson writes from personal experience as a devout Mormon whose equally pious husband left after 12 years to pursue his life as a gay man. Her play is riveting, not despite but because of its unapologetically, densely overwritten and intense emotionality. Over an open grave in a Salt Lake City cemetery, parents Ruth and Alex (Terry Davis and Christian Lebano) struggle internally and against one another to absorb the suicide of their 24-year-old son, who had finally come to terms with his sexuality and entered into a seemingly happy relationship. Pearson’s personal understanding of spiritual crisis keeps Ruth’s hard-line attitude from becoming alienating, while Alex’s growing doubts about his strict religiosity never become too lofty. Into a mix of guilt and blame comes Marcus (Daniel Kash), the partner of the dead son, who provides some long-sought answers for the grieving parents. Director Shashin Desai wisely never tries to lighten the heaviness of the text — though there are a few gentle moments provided interestingly through flashback in which the onstage actors become the voice of the departed, who remains a constant character in this short but often agonizing play. Stephan Gifford’s simple set design of a graveyard covered in snow provides a beautiful backdrop. International City Theatre, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through July 5. (562) 436-4610 (Tom Provenzano)

GO  FARRAGUT NORTH Who says they don’t write them like they used to? Playwright Beau Willimon’s enjoyable if facile romp in the cesspools of backroom presidential-primary electioneering is a throwback to a species of earnest, political-insider melodrama thought extinct with the onset of the ’60s — think Gore Vidal’s The Best Man updated with the sex and cynicism of cable’s Mad Men. Chris Pine (Star Trek’s new James T. Kirk) stars as Stephen Bellamy, an ambitious, 25-year-old wunderkind press spokesman, who, under his mentor, campaign manager Paul Zara (the excellent Chris Noth), works for an idealistic, albeit unseen Howard Dean–like favorite during the Democratic Iowa caucuses. In the midst of spinning his candidate’s record and seducing a young campaign intern (Olivia Thirlby), Stephen’s confidence is shaken and his loyalty tested when rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (standout Isiah Whitlock Jr.) urges him to defect by suggesting that the apparent lead of Stephen’s candidate is a carefully orchestrated illusion: “You need to decide whether you want friends or whether you want to work for the president.” Stephen’s choice not only unmasks his true character but also serves as Willimon’s coda for what lies at the rotten heart of national politics. Director Doug Hughes’ polished, high-octane production (imported from its New York premiere) benefits from the flash and circumstance of David Korins’ network-newslike set and Joshua White and Bec Stupak’s animated video projections. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Thurs., 7:30 p.m.; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through July 26. (310) 208-5454. (Bill Raden)

INSANITY In this unexpectedly inert musical from James J. Mellon, Scott DeTurk, and Larry Russo, Zarek Saxton (Kevin Bailey) is a B-movie director who, midway through filming his latest slasher flick, drops a designer drug, sees visions, and decides to make a totally different movie — one he hopes will cure war, feed children and save the world. In other words, he wants to make a movie that will go direct to video. Perhaps understandably, producer Ramsey (a nicely oily Bob Morrissey) decides to commit the director to a mental hospital, and tries to bribe top shrink Megan (Dana Meller) to certify him as nuts so she he can toss Zarek off the movie. While he’s in the bin, Zarek casts a darkly ironic outsider’s eye on the various emotional problems of the inmates — a collection of damaged souls whom he comes to admire. The play’s shift in tone from sassy Hollywood spoof to a mawkish recycle of One Flew Over The Cockoo’s Nest is awkward and strangely uninvolving — and the play’s central relationship, between the arrogantly self-important Zarek and the smirking, humorless Megan, thuds. Strangely enough, the relationship between DeTurk’s unmemorable, smooth jazz score and Mellon’s overly complicated lyrics is not much better, although Bailey’s comical rendition of “You Couldn’t Write This Shit,” in which his character ridicules his fellow patients behind their backs, has some toe-tapping potential. In a supporting role as an actor with emotional problems, Brad Blaisdell’s character shows some depth, while Sabrina Miller, as the director’s self-absorbed leading lady and girlfriend, conveys the Hollywood mood believably. The rest is a comparatively dull opus that hasn’t yet gelled. Noho Arts Center, 11136 Magnolia Blvd, North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Aug. 9. (818) 508-7107, ext. 7. (Paul Birchall)

 

GO  SHAKESPEARE UNSCRIPTED The idea hasn’t lost anything in the decade since I reviewed this concept-driven improvisation. Shakespeare Unscripted is an impromptu story inspired by the Bard’s work, using Elizabethan literary conventions and stylistic nuances. Audience members are asked for suggestions to start things off, and if something sounds good, the “play” is on. A slow start is common, but as the actors get warmed up, the wit, charm, energy and creativity on display are delightful and entertaining. The night I attended, the subjects chosen were “river” and “waterfall,” and the cast did a snappy job of creating a storyline about two lost brothers, exiled from their kingdom; a mother mourning her lost sons; a jilted, German suitor, who is cuckolded by an enchantress;, and tossed in for good measure, a scheming pair of siblings and some humorous courtly intrigue. Most of the fun here comes from trying to guess where the plot is heading and seeing the cast members straining to contain their own mirth. The production utilizes alternating casts, and is co-directed by Brian Lohmann and Dan O’Connor. Theatre of the Arts, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. through Aug. 1. (800) 838-3006. Impro Theatre. (Lovell Estell III).

GO  TEN CENT NIGHT Marisa Wegrzyn’s Texas melodrama is as emotionally overloaded as a jukebox favorite. A country star and abusive father of two sets of twins has shot himself in the head, orphaning his children just when the youngest girl, Sadie (Alison Rood), needs a heart transplant — literally and metaphorically (She’s just realized she’s in love with her twin brother Holt (Shane Zwiner). Older daughter Dee (Caitlin Muelder) is furious that Sadie has asked Dee’s twin, Roby (Tara Buck), a hard-drinking singer, to come back to the ranch, which she does, handcuffed to a police chair and pursued by a handsome mute (Martin Papazian) and a gangster (Gareth Williams) with a magic dime. Maria Gobetti’s naturalistic direction delays our awareness of and enjoyment in the script’s mythological ambitions; with the second act entrance of a local whore (Kathleen Bailey), who controls the hearts, bodies and bank accounts of Dee and Roby, we’re in waters as deep and loaded as the Oedipus myth. Staged more like a comic soap opera than a fable with fangs, its rhythm could be sharper, but once the ensemble gets rolling, we’re humming along. Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Toluca Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through Aug. 2. (818) 841-5421. (Amy Nicholson)

THE UNSEEN In some unspecified country, two prisoners, Valdez (Matt Kirkwood) and Wallace (Darin Singleton) have been held for years in isolation cells. They are close enough to talk to but not to see each other. They don’t know why they have been incarcerated, or by whom. They are constantly questioned and tortured, and subjected to nerve-shattering noises. They spend their days carrying out private rituals, and playing word and memory games in an attempt to preserve their sanity. The only mortal they see is the guard Smash (Douglas Dickerman), who is both torturer and caretaker. Craig Wright’s allegorical new play keeps its larger meaning sketchy, perhaps because it lacks a concrete context. It’s interesting mainly for the interaction of the two men, and the strange and whimsical nature of Smash. Wright directs his play skillfully on Desma Murphy’s handsomely bleak set. Kirkwood and Singleton provide richly detailed portraits of the two men who comfort themselves with escape fantasies, and Dickerman creates a bizarre figure as the guard who hates his charges because he can’t help feeling their pain as he tortures them. The Road Theatre, 5108 Lankershim Boulevard, North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through August 22. (866) 811-4111 or www.roadtheatre.com. (Neal Weaver)

 

GO  THE VOYSEY INHERITANCE David Mamet’s streamlined adaptation of Harley Granville-Barker’s 1905 drama succeeds on many levels. Granville-Barker’s play about an Edwardian family dealing with the explosion of a Ponzi scheme retains its dramatic impact. Mamet’s compressed adaptation of the four-hour original adds dramatic thrust. Moreover, the play resonates due to contemporary misdeeds on Wall Street. In the drama, the Voysey family lives in Edwardian splendor as a result of the outwardly successful investment firm managed by father (Patrick John Hurley) and son Edward (Alec Beard). When Edward uncovers financial fraud, he confronts his father, who freely admits deceitful practices. After Voysey senior dies, Voysey junior fights valiantly to keep the firm afloat — it’s either that or a prison sentence. The drama climaxes when a chief client (David Hunt Stafford) wants to liquidate his investments. Many of the play’s lighter moments are provided by Edward’s blustering brother, Major Booth (Jon Woodward Kirby). As Edward’s stalwart fiancée Alice, Debbie Jaffe stands out among the players. Avoiding any Edwardian stuffiness, Bruce Gray confidently directs the large cast of Voysey family members and retainers, creating a strong sense of ensemble work. Suzanne Scott’s lovely period costumes are complemented by Jeff G. Rack’s luxurious set design. Theatre 40 at the Reuben Cordova Theater, 241 Moreno Drive (on the Beverly Hills High School campus), Beverly Hills; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through July 19. (310) 364-0535. (Sandra Ross)

THEATER PICK  ST. JOAN OF THE SLAUGHTERHOUSES For a lucid analysis of the malfunctioning global financial markets, one could do worse than Bertolt Brecht. And it’s hard to imagine doing Brecht any better than director Michael Rothhaar in this electrifying staging of the Marxist maestro’s classic, antimorality play, St. Joan of the Slaughterhouses. Set in the Chicago meatpacking markets of the 1930s (wittily caricatured in Danielle Ozymandias’ costumes), the story cleverly inverts the Jeanne d’Arc legend in the character of Joan Dark (a dynamic Dalia Vosylius), an antipoverty crusader whose “Warriors of God” mission caters to packers left destitute by slaughterhouse closings. Joan’s efforts to get the men back to work lead her to financier Pierpont Mauler (the fine Andrew Parks), unaware that it is his stock manipulations that are responsible for the closings and that Mauler is cynically using Joan’s appeals to further his scheme. When she subsequently refuses a Mauler bribe for the financially strapped mission, she is cast into the street, where she belatedly realizes the pointlessness of good intentions without collective action. Powered by Peter Mellencamp’s vivid, new translation and an unerring ensemble (including standouts Robin Becker, Ed Levey, Tony Pasqualini and Daniel Riordan), Rothhaar’s production is a perfectly pitched tribute to the principles of epic theater. (It’s also a showcase for the multitalented Norman Scott, who lights his own set design and shines as Mauler’s scurvy hatchet man.) Rothhaar & Co. not only prove that the old, dialectical dogmatist still has teeth but that Brecht’s bark and his bite are both wickedly entertaining. Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Aug. 9, (No perfs July 3-4.) (310) 822-8392. (Bill Raden)


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