MORE

Theater Reviews: Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, The Life and Times of A. Einstein

THE BLVD. This Hollywood Gothic comedy parodies Sunset Boulevard, but its main drag is that strip of Santa Monica where you can buy a boy for a benjamin. Struggling French-Arab actor Joe (Quentin Elias) has sold himself plenty between soap opera stints. He's a beefcake, so packed with muscles he's as broad as he is tall, and Joseph Castel and Danny De La Paz's script finds any excuse to parade his natural gifts — Elias spends several scenes in his skivvies, and two in just a leather apron and socks. When Joe pulls into the mansion of disgraced drag actress Norman Desmond (Miss Lana Luster, a grande dame), he's mistaken for the grave digger ordered by housekeeper Max (Joe Garcia) to inter her pet (and meal ticket), the Taco Bell chihuahua. But Norman is plotting a comeback: the lead role in a biopic on Divine. ("I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Waters.") The Billy Wilder classic starred two shrewd schemers; this lampoon is a hustle. Director De La Paz delights in his tawdriness: The set is garishly gold and tasseled, Elias is forever licking his lips, and Norman practices Divine's final scene in Pink Flamingos (you know, that one). "What's my motivation?" she demands. And, well, there isn't much of one. The Blvd. is a Xerox of a masterpiece. The second act splices in gags from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? — they are, after all, two mansion melodramas about superstars and their live-in help — but despite their similarities, the show doesn't blend the two tales together. Instead, it feels like the same cast is in two concurrent plays. With more thought — and more of its own motivation — this could be a solid send-up, but it needs more scenes like the dynamite showdowns between Ms. Desmond and Max, when the latter is tarted up in a pinafore and serving Ms. Desmond a roasted parrot. Macha Theatre, 1107 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 18. (323) 654-0680, plays411.com/theblvd. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  JACQUES BREL IS ALIVE AND WELL AND LIVING IN PARIS When the title of your musical proclaims that Jacques Brel is alive and well, it seems perverse to stage it as his funeral, complete with onstage coffin and open grave. The piece becomes a bit lugubrious, and its darker aspects are overly emphasized. (The original off-Broadway rendition was more frankly presentational, with a wider emotional range.) Still, this production has much to recommend it, including a quartet of fine performers: Jennifer Shelton and Zachary Ford (who also plays a mean accordion) are the younger couple, while Eileen Barnet and Gregory Franklin supply the voices of experience. All four capture the charm, the passionate feeling that suffuses Brel's songs, and the lyricism and driving force of numbers like "If We Only Have Love," "Amsterdam" and the rousing "Carousel." But Brel is essentially a storyteller, and his lyrics (translated by Eric Blau and Mort Shuman) matter, yet here they are often overpowered by the accompaniment. Jon Lawrence Rivera's direction is always professional, though his sometimes over-busy staging (particularly for the men's numbers) can obscure rather than enhance. Musical director Brent Crayon and a four-man ensemble provide stirring instrumental backup, and John H. Binkley designed the handsome, semi-abstract set. The Colony Theatre, 555 North Third St., Burbank; variable schedule. Call theater for information. (818) 558-7000, ext. 15, colonytheatre.org. (Neal Weaver)

L.A. VIEWS III — HUNGER AND THE CITY Set in a restaurant, this compendium of eight short plays takes hunger as its theme — not the craving for food so much as the human longing for fame, love, acceptance and justice. (Gay identity and the issues surrounding it are also recurring motifs.) By far the most accomplished is writer John Dubiel's character-driven "Steaks," in which a casting director named Pax (Pat Cochran) dangles the possibility of a major film role before a straight stage actor (Joe Sofranko) in exchange for sexual favors. Directed by Danny Munoz, Cochran is entertaining as a barmy Hollywood player, impervious to anyone's needs but his own, while Sofranko delivers a nicely calibrated portrait of his prey. The other pieces suffer variously from thin characterizations, a surfeit of earnestness or tepid humor. Tira Palmquist's "Table for Three" sets up a simplistic polemic between two carriers of HIV: Jordan (Leilani M. Smith), a young mother and ardent activist; and Ruben (Art McDermott), an older gay man who prefers remaining cynical and detached. Michael Patrick Spillers' disjointed "Follow" concerns two lovers (Sofranko and Anthony Mark Barrow), already under strain, who dispute whether to continue patronizing a restaurant after the owner (Jully Lee) votes yes on Prop. 8. Henry Ong's "Who's Fucking the Horse" and Leon Martell's "Bleeding Sergeants" both go over the top with unamusing plots built around manipulative women who use guns to compel reluctant males to do their bidding. While the quality varies, the show's direction and performances tend to be workshop standard. Company of Angels, Alexandria Hotel, 501 S. Spring St., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 25. (323) 883-1717. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A. EINSTEIN In a piece that could be just as accurately titled Waiting for Einstein, the legendary scientist's secretary, Ellen Schöenhammer (Kres Mersky, who also wrote the play), keeps at bay a "press corps" waiting for the genius on his birthday. While delivering a steady stream of apologies for his lateness, Ellen buzzes about Einstein's Princeton, N.J., study — with its hand-carved mahogany accents, floral motifs and ubiquitous shades of brown — making final preparations for the party. She is at times interrupted by the telephone, on the other end of which is Anna, the incompetent hired help who frustrates the long-serving Ellen. Her description of this frustration is the first of many fingers from the past that poke out of Ellen's psychological space-time continuum. During these interludes she relates how she first came to work for Einstein and his wife, describing life in Weimar Berlin, how the German public received his theories, and even her secret attraction to the man. A veteran of stage and screen, Mersky nails both the Germanic tongue and dry sense of humor, and in weaving her self-admittedly simplistic interpretation of Einstein's theories into her storytelling, she makes us forget that we are waiting for the man himself. Director Paul Gersten keeps Mersky moving about the stage with an industry that lives up to the Germanic stereotype; he also handles time jumps with subtlety. Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West Hollywood; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through May 16. (323) 851-7977, theatrewest.org. (Mayank Keshaviah)

SAVE SHELDON! The subject to be rescued here is not man or woman or even a cuddly pet pooch but a towering 3,000-year-old sequoia slated for the chain saw in order to make way for a housing development. In her hourlong solo show, Kristina Haddad dons the mask of a committed environmentalist fighting the good fight against the always-looming forces of progress. "When I was a girl, nature was the only thing that made sense to me." And with that, Haddad opens the door to a brief discussion of a not-so-happy childhood, when the slightest oddity or annoyance would trigger heated arguments. Happier days were spent with her grandparents, and with whom she first met Sheldon. From there, the narrative takes a startlingly awkward jump to her days as an environmental activist, where in addition to fighting for Sheldon, she steps up for a poor Latina, whose neighborhood plays host to a chemical polluter. Haddad doesn't acquit herself well as a storyteller; there is too much left out and a glaring dearth of the substantive. What she does excel at is channeling an odd assortment of characters. Ben Meyerson directs. Hayworth Theatre, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 7 p.m., through April 17. (323) 969-1707, arktheatre.org. (Lovell Estell III)

A TINY PIECE OF LAND This worthy but heavy-handed drama by playwrights Joni Browne-Walders and Mel Weiser is a well-intentioned attempt to articulate the pro-Israeli side in the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. To its credit, director Weiser's production hits its stride most engagingly during the intellectually astute scenes in which characters argue about Israel's right to exist — issues about which the playwrights have powerful opinions. Sadly, though, it's when Browne-Walders and Weiser's bloated text attempts to operate as drama that the show goes off the rails into clumsily executed melodrama. After the untimely death of his wife, Jewish-American dentist Barry (Robert G. Bledsoe) impulsively flies to Israel to be reunited with his long-estranged younger brother, Yosi (Cliff Smith), Yosi's loving wife, Aviva (Andrea Dovner) and their daughter Rachel (Anat Gerber). A proverbial Babe in this Holy Land, Barry almost immediately causes consternation within his clan by arrogantly opining his belief that the Israelis are as much at fault as the Palestinians are in the conflict. But when terrorist attacks hit the area, Barry gradually discovers that the complexities of the battle can't be easily defined and understood by outsiders — even by Americans Jews. Weiser's straightforward staging is workmanlike, with some embarrassingly stiff blocking and overly mawkish line readings. Yet a larger problem is the lackluster script, which, while slightly redeemed by the friction generated by the political debate, is ultimately set back by scene after scene of small talk and flat-footed character exposition. Dovner's fiery performance as Israeli family matriarch Aviva and Gerber's angsty turn as daughter Rachel convey the passionate nature of Israeli personality — but other performers are stiff, seemingly unable to overcome the play's preaching hamstrings. Pico Playhouse, 10508 W. Pico Blvd, L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through April 24. (800) 595-4849. Atpol Productions. (Paul Birchall)


Sponsor Content