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Theater Reviews: In a Garden, Through the Night, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
PHOTO BY JOHN GANUN

ABOVE THE LINE Hollywood stereotypes are so La-Z-Boy lived-in, a newcomer to L.A. can giggle at them right along with industry insiders. In this world premiere, playwright Susan Rubin has gotten the whole gang together again for our theater-armchair gawking. There's the screen-star-mama's-boy producer, Jeremy (Jason Stuart); the seemingly Zen Earth mother executive with silver-ring brass knuckles (Denise Dowse); the ladder-climbing Silver Lake punk composer, Christian (Stewart W. Calhoun); the triple-threat writer/bourbon drinker/asshole lady-killer, John (Nick Menell); and his triple-threat feminist lit professor/New Yorker/desperate prey, Lucy (Heather Marie Marsden). Now watch them try to make Tea, a movie musical based on a family-heirloom journal kept circa the Boston Tea Party. Rubin knows all their soft spots and pokes judiciously: When Lucy mentions Samuel Adams, Jeremy casually tosses off, "Oh, the beer guy." Yet the entire play resembles a 15-year-old learning to drive on a stick shift. The lines, pace and relationships jerk to life and then stall; the brakes are slammed. As Lucy leaves John, all fury and fangs, and he halfheartedly stops her, you wonder for what these two are fighting. Jeremy and Christian's affair is likewise hastily erected, and both couplings suffer from either a lack of chemistry or a lack of rehearsal. Director Mark Bringelson and cinematographer Adam Soch created a neat device merging film and theater, but it's so underused — and in the dinner-scene instance, extraneous — they should've scrapped it and focused that energy on the play. Hmmm ... art imitates Hollywood. Bootleg Theatre, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sun., 8 p.m.; through April 24. (213) 389-3856. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

AN AMERICAN TRACT Barbara White Morgan's irksome drama about a struggling single mom comes weighted down with hackneyed dialogue, superficial characters and gratuitous subplots. In the mid-1980s, nurse's assistant Ann (Darlene Bel Grayson) had lived in the 'hood with her two sons until a dying patient bequeathed her a house in a pretentious white suburb. Euphoric when she first moves in, Ann is soon being visited by well-meaning and hostile neighbors, who complain about her unlandscaped lawn and her son Rodney's boom box — and demand all sorts of ownership levies she doesn't have. Meanwhile the listless Rodney (Larry "Bam" Hall) yearns to return to the projects — even though his father was murdered there — while Ann's boyfriend, Earl (Carl Crudup), makes it plain he too feels out of place. Her spirit unbowed, Ann soldiers on, skillfully handling the patronizing white lady next door (Jennifer Lamar), fending off her journalist husband (Darrell Philip), who keeps giving Ann hankering looks, and vanquishing the nasty patrician president of the homeowner's association (Maurice Weiss). Whatever truthful elements the story embraces are torpedoed by the typically one-note performances, under Richard Elkins' direction. Though Ann is always well groomed, her living room (designer David Mauer's set) inexplicably resembles a squatters' den, with blank, dirty walls and sheet-draped, torn upholstery. (The place finally gets spiffed up in Act 2.) Among the ensemble, Miriam Korn is the most convincing as a likable teen who penetrates Rodney's sullen defenses. Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 25. brownpapertickets.com/event/100569. (800) 838-3006. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  AWAKE AND SING Clifford Odets painted a loving portrait of the Berger family in the darkest days of the Great Depression. Three generations live together in their Bronx apartment. Matriarch Bessie (Deborah Strang) is a feisty, loyal woman who's capable of terrible things if she believes they're in her family's best interests. Her husband, Myron (Joel Swetow), is "a born follower"; her daughter Hennie (Molly Leland) is pregnant by a man who has dumped her; and son Ralph (Adam Silver) is in love with a girl he can't afford to marry. But it's the grandfather, Jake (the wonderful Len Lesser), who is the household's soul, and delivers the play's message of hope and desperate optimism: "... take the world in your two hands and make it like new. Go out and fight so life shouldn't be printed on dollar bills." Jake is an old Marxist who loves his Caruso records and his grandson, Ralph. Director Andrew J. Traister captures the play's potent blend of love, longing and frustration, along with its lyricism and zest for language. The cast includes Daniel Reichert as Moe, the man Hennie loves; David Lengel as the sad-sack immigrant she marries; and Alan Blumenfeld as plutocratic Uncle Morty. They are all terrific. A Noise Within, 234 South Brand Boulevard, Glendale; in rep, call for schedule. (818) 240-0910, ext. 1. ANoiseWithin.org. (Neal Weaver)

THE CHARM OF MAKING Playwright Timothy McNeil's drama is one of those deep, Southern-baked ham fests in which the characters baste themselves with family guilt and grief while downing endless glasses of bourbon (which seems to have been flavored with a dash of Tennessee Williams and a soupçon of Osage County). Elvin (Thor Edgell) is a middle-aged gay virgin who sublimates his despair over his family's troubled pedigree by secretly dressing in a sequined gown and getting drunk in the privacy of his own Mississippi family manor. Yet, he's not the most eccentric denizen of his clan: That honor could go either to his sister Morgan (Bonnie McNeil), who wanders around the woods irrelevantly chanting a magical spell; or to his equally unhinged Aunt Lottie (May Quigley Goodman), who is so desperate for validation she throws herself at a random 18-year-old Bible student after church. The main problem with director Milton Justice's flat, Monopoly-board staging is that it's heavier than Mississippi humidity, an issue that is exacerbated by leaden pacing, which even spills over to the perfunctory attempts at Southern backbiting and spiteful repartee. The mistakes of storytelling are legion, from the torpid, cement-thick monologues and overwrought line readings to the endless discussion of characters' pointless dreams. If it weren't for the show's execution being so ponderously serious, the piece would actually come across as unintentionally funny — particularly when Edgell's "good ole boy" Elvin shows up in his gown, or during his halting, oddly tepid first romance. Instead, even with game attempts by McNeil's unstable turn as Morgan and by Goodman's venomous Lottie, the results are ultimately an uninvolving trudge through Southern culture. Stella Adler Theatre, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 25. (323) 960-7735. Stella Adler Los Angeles Theatre Collective. (Paul Birchall)

 

GO  THE DIVINERS Writer Jim Leonard Jr. sets his Depression-era fable in the Indiana community of Zion, population 40. C.C. Showers (Nathan Graham Smith), a disillusioned former preacher, arrives in Zion seeking work, and encounters a strange boy, Buddy (Rob Herring), a simpleminded savant. At age 4, Buddy nearly drowned; his mother died attempting to save him. His long immersion left him with strange powers, including the ability to find water during a drought, but he's also terrified of water. Showers befriends the boy, and attempts to cure him of his fears, but Bible-thumping religious zealot Norma Henshaw (Jennifer Lynn Davis) believes the former preacher has come to save the town. Her bossy interference leads to catastrophe. Leonard's attempt to give his tale cosmic significance doesn't entirely convince, but as a sweet folk tragi-comedy, his play is highly engaging. Smith makes Showers completely persuasive, Herring is funny and touching as Buddy, and, under TL Kolman's able direction, the cast offers fine support. Alex Egan and Reed Armstrong find rich comedy in the village elders, Lauren Schneider provides a sympathetic portrait of Buddy's loyal sister, and Chris Blim, Reed Windle and Ferrell Marshall are colorful locals. The Chandler Studio Theatre, 12443 Chandler Blvd., N.Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., through April 10. (800) 838-3006, theprodco.com. Produced by The Production Company. (Neal Weaver)

GO  A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM While Stephen Sondheim wasn't present for this 80th birthday tribute, his creation nonetheless shines brightly nearly 50 years after its debut at the Alvin Theatre (though this restaging is modeled on the 1972 revival). The show, with a book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, is a Roman comedy set to music in which the slave Pseudolus (the versatile Lee Wilkof) tries to win his freedom by helping his young master, Hero (Erich Bergen), to court Philia (Annie Abrams), the young virgin next door. Complicating this plan are, among other things, Hero's mother, Domina (the wonderfully over-the-top Ruth Williamson), who wants to keep Hero pure; Hero's father, Senex (a nicely lascivious Ron Orbach), who becomes enamored with Philia himself, and the warrior Miles Gloriosus (whose narcissism and bravado are perfectly executed by Stuart Ambrose), to whom Philia is already promised by the owner of the brothel next door, Marcus Lycus (Michael Kostroff). Rounding out the principals are Hysterium (Larry Raben), another slave to Senex and Domina; and the old man Erronius (a youthful and hilarious Alan Mandell). Director David Lee and choreographer Peggy Hickey keep the actors moving on, off and around the stage with the frenetic energy necessary to pull off the farce, with Lee finding the appropriate balance between the physical gags and the lyrical wit. The cast executes admirably, making for a thoroughly entertaining evening. UCLA, Ralph Freud Playhouse, 405 Hilgard Ave., Wstwd.; Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 and 7 p.m.; through March 28. (310) 825-2101, reprise.org. A Reprise Theater Company production. (Mayank Keshaviah)

GO  IN A GARDEN In 1989, a foreign bureaucrat (Mark Harelik), representing the Ministry of Culture in some (fictitious) Middle Eastern nation named Aqaat, commissions an American architect (Matt Letscher) to build a gazebo near that nation's presidential palace. This is more complicated than it sounds. The two can't agree on the definition of gazebo (the bureaucrat prefers "summer house") or even who the minister is. ("You are the Minister of Culture?" clarifies the architect. Replies the bureaucrat, "In essence.") Furthermore, Aqaat is a controversial Muslim nation helmed by Brother Najid (Jarlon Monroe), who shares the qualities of pretension and intimidation with a deceased dictator whose name rhymes with Madame Coltrane. Playwright and screenwriter Howard Korder's red-tape comedy hinges on the communication breakdown between a Yank who wants answers and a client (or "patron," as the bureaucrat prefers) who speaks in metaphors about dragonflies and Dances with Wolves, and is anchored by an otherworldly condescension for Letscher's ideas, and the patronizing confidence that his frazzled employee will eventually get it right, even as the months tick by. But Korder and director David Warren have put together something bigger than a Kafka-esque culture clash: This is a bitterly funny play about trust, ego and beauty — a trinity that rarely survives any regime intact. (It's no coincidence that Korder has challenged his characters to commandeer a garden, the site of man's original downfall.) As the frustrated architect, Letscher is an overly sensitive sputterer and people-pleaser forever on the verge of storming out of the minister's palace. He's terrific, but this very smart play is in Harelik's haberdashered pocket. At once obsequious and imperious, maddening and brilliant, Harelik stirs up a jumble of emotions that encompass not so much our feelings for his ancient civilization as a man continually in the news, a man who commands respect and caution, yet he's given neither by his own cavalier masters. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m.; Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; through March 28. (714)708-5555. (Amy Nicholson)

 

NEIGHBORHOOD 3: REQUISITION OF DOOM It probably looked great on paper: a teen horror-comedy about an online, multi-player, zombie-invasion game that employs cutting-edge GPS and satellite technology — and not a little hocus-pocus — to merge the players' own neighborhood and families into the virtual-game scape with frighteningly real-world consequences. On-stage, however, playwright Jennifer Haley's Hollywood-worthy high concept makes for a rather schizophrenic ride. Part gaming parody, part suburban-dystopia satire, the production scores early with director Jaime Robledo's deftly staged send-up of the video-game environment, replete with eerie voice-over (Eric Vesbit), comically crude projected game icons (by Kwasi Boyd), ominous lighting (courtesy of designer Matt Richter) and set designer James W. Thompson Jr.'s clever triptych of Sim City–like, dormered house façades. Haley then splits the subsequent play between scenes of the clueless neighborhood parents (all played with wonderful, quick-change panache by Eric Curtis Johnson and Lynn Odell) and those of their disaffected, game-addicted kids (Amy Talebizadeh and Adam Trent). It is in the parents' bewildered reality where Haley is at her best, neatly skewering the insular, over-controlled sterility of subdivision life and the generational alienation that have driven their angry offspring to the comforting camaraderie and ultra-violence of their virtual world. Unfortunately, the children's side of the divide is all too soon taken over by a too-complicated and uninteresting explication of the thriller plotline, rendering the play's ultimate synthesis of the real and the virtual a discordant, melodramatic anticlimax. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through April 24. (310) 281-8337. (Bill Raden)

PLAYING JORDAN GOLDMAN David and Andy Neiman's Jewish comedy revisits the all-too-familiar terrain of religion as racket. Flat-broke, jobless and tossed out of the apartment he shared with his girlfriend, Sarah (Alexandra Ozeri), Jordan (David Neiman) hits upon the idea of swindling money from the Jewish community by staging his own Bar Mitzvah. The idea appalls his sister Emily (Lynn Freedman), an orthodox Jew, but is fully supported by Jordan's gay friend, Matthew (Joseph George Makdisi), whose racy quips and humorous in-your-face antics provide laughs but not nearly enough to offset the script's torpor. Jordan's plan gains currency with the help of some enthusiastic corporate backers (Andy Neiman and Paul Strolli), and the sham event is even marked for television, but Jordan is eventually confronted with pangs of conscience over his ethical failings, which prompt an epiphany of sorts. In addition to the wobbly premise and bland script, the mediocre acting, and director Cynthia Levin's directorial malaise, there are far too many scene changes, which are handled with the refinement of a rugby scrum. Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd.; L.A.; Thurs.-Fri., 8 p.m.; thru April 23. brownpapertickets.com/event/100406, (800) 838-3006. A Silver Lining Film Group production. (Lovell Estell III)

THROUGH THE NIGHT Two motifs dominate in writer/solo performer Daniel Beaty's somewhat schematic "soul aria" — the soapbox and concentric circles. They form the literal design elements of Alexander V. Nichols' tastefully austere, wood-slat set (Nichols is also credited with lights and some superfluous projections). But, more importantly, they turn up in the swirling interconnectedness of Beaty's urban portrait gallery and in the sometimes preachy, uplifting tale he contrives to dramatize the spheres of support upon which his mainly male, African-American protagonists rely to get them through the crisis-filled, long night of life in a ghetto housing project. The common center of those circles is Eric, the young, gifted son of Mr. Rogers, a spokesman for black self-empowerment and owner of a failing neighborhood health-food store. The unusually sensitive child puts his ingenuity to use by obsessively mixing potions in the back of his father's shop to cure the very adult problems afflicting the souls of his troubled neighbors. These include Bishop Alfred, the community's overweight spiritual leader struggling with a secret junk-food addiction; Isaac, his closeted, 40-year-old, businessman son; Antwoine, the teen Isaac has mentored through high school and acceptance to college; and Dre, an HIV-infected ex-con who worries about the health prospects for his unborn son. Although crisply directed by Charles Randolph-Wright and buoyed by Beaty's engaging, Gospel-inflected performance, the show is beset by too many thinly generic characterizations and moments of unearned sentimentality to allow its inspirational message to soar. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through April 4. (310) 208-5454. (Bill Raden)

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