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Theater Reviews: Lovelace: A Rock Opera, U.S. Drag, How Cissy Grew

Lovelace: A Rock Opera
Courtesy of The Hayworth Theatre

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EAGLE HILLS, EAGLE RIDGE, EAGLE LANDING are much more than mere tracts of real estate that looms sight-unseen over Brett Neveu’s comic send-up of middle-class complacency. For the play’s midcareer, middle-management friends and neighbors, Mike (Jon Amirkhan), Kevin (Johnny Clark) and Andy (Jeffrey Stubblefield), these housing developments are essential articles of faith that lend harmony to the men’s empty, prefabricated lives. When the men meet for their customary after-work beers at the local watering hole (finely executed by designer Danny Cistone), however, that harmony all-too-easily turns to discontent. Mike and Andy have already made the move to the more desirable Eagle Ridge. The strangely irritable Kevin, however, has doubts — doubts that soon threaten to undermine the men’s suburban house of cards. Director Ron Klier cleverly frames the comic complications as a kind of existential Three Stooges two-reeler (imagine Larry and Curly grappling with a suddenly self-aware Moe). To that end, the witless Amirkhan and Stubblefield remain hilariously impervious to the implications of Clark’s deepening crisis and eventual rebirth. But if the production more than meets its quota of laughs, Neveu ignores too many other potential voices (the men’s wives, for instance) to rack up much more than a straw-man critique. The result is a funny if slight entertainment with all the substance of a Dilbert cartoon. Hayworth Theater, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Nov. 15. (323) 960-7738 or www.plays411.com/eagle. VS.Theatre Company and Range View Productions (Bill Raden)

 
GO HOW CISSY GREW Susan Johnston’s powerful new play is structured as a pastiche of three family members’ memories, slowly filling in the puzzle of their traumatic lives. In West Virginia, an unmarried couple, Butch and Darla (James Denton and Erin J. O’Brien), are stuck in financial and moral poverty. This is all manifested in legal and illegal addictions, as the pair try to turn their lives around with the help of their daughter, Cissy (Liz Vital). A moment of inattention inflicts a wound that will haunt the three throughout their lives. Susan Johnston’s stark text, rarely punctuated with humor, is piercingly painful and beautifully wrought. The actors, including Stewart W. Calhoun as the various boys in Cissy’s damaged life, play each dramatic moment with conviction. Even their southern accents, which can so easily become generic and insulting, are rendered tenderly. Director Casey Stangl honors the desolate geography of the characters’ lives by stirring life from their bleakness. She keeps the production terse, but extremely well paced. The set pieces are deftly designed by Laura Fine Hawkes for multiple uses. Lighting by Trevor Stirlin Burk, paired with C. Andrew Mayer’s tense sound design, adds to the success of this elegant production. El Portal Theatre, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Nov. 23. (866) 811-4111 or www.elportaltheatre.com. (Tom Provenzano)

 
THE LADY WITH ALL THE ANSWERS A woman sitting a few seats down the row from me was completely amazed by Mimi Kennedy’s impersonation of the late, nationally syndicated advice columnist Ann Landers — not just the bouffant but the dead-on clanging midwest accent. Well, that’s a start. Now playwright David Rambo needs a play to back up Kennedy’s solo impersonation. Here, Landers spends a couple of hours sashaying around her Chicago study in 1975, eating chocolates when confronted with writer’s block and, during intermission, leaving us to take a bath. Gary Wissmann’s set is so detailed with multitudinous knickknacks, and photos, many of which go unused, it arouses the speculation that a more spartan and symbolic set would have justified the contrivance of Landers’ direct audience address. The evening’s pretext is that Landers is in the process of drafting a momentous letter to her readers announcing her divorce from her husband of 36 years — risky business for an advice columnist who has never counseled anyone to get divorced. Around this pretext are a series of anecdotal digressions about her husband, her daughter and her twin sister, rival “Popo,” who imitated her sister’s column with her own variation, “Dear Abby.” Our heroine rolls out her leftist credentials and how she came to overcome her own puritanical streak in a joint television interview with Linda Lovelace. But none of this is dramatic, it’s merely exposition in the style of “And then I wrote.” The possibilities for a real play rear themselves in Act 2, when Landers reveals the depth of homophobic bigotry that came from hostile replies to one of her columns supporting a gay teenager, and from the fury that came in responses to some of her well-intended advice that had adverse consequences. Yet our heroine brushes them both off with similar, sanctimonious disdain, as though bigots and victims of her bad advice were equals. Nothing legal they could do, she remarked of the victims — hardly an embrace of her responsibility to help people in distress. Somewhere in that responsibility, and her cavalier dismissal of it, lies a more penetrating drama yet to be written, something more closely resembling a play than a parade. Brendon Fox directs. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through Nov. 23. (626) 356-PLAY. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

 
LEADING LADIES While crackerjack performances might have transformed Ken Ludwig’s second-rate farce into a hilarious evening, that’s not what evolves from director Richard Israel’s pleasant but unevenly rendered production. Ludwig’s play revolves around Leo (Bruce Ladd) and Jack (understudy Daniel J. Roberts), two penniless Shakespearean actors who pose as the long-lost female heirs of a dying, wealthy old woman. The humor derives from the tension between them — Jack, the reluctant participant, is continually threatened and browbeaten by Leo (think Some Like It Hot), as well as the predicament Leo finds himself in when, dressed in drag, he falls in love with his betrothed cousin, Meg (Karla Droege). Played for laughs, the sight gag of men dressed as women invariably succeeds; in this case Ladd starts out strong as the determined scammer, but is only moderately funny portraying his outsized female counterpart “Maxine,” whose persona he never quite commands. The play’s funniest scene comes near the end when, as “Stephanie,” a horrified Jack (well played by Roberts) finds himself manhandled by two men. Intimating the standard of excellence that might have transported the comedy to a higher realm is Carl A. Johnson, impeccably understated as Meg’s stuffy fiancé. Gus Correas is also on the mark as the lecherous family doctor who keeps misdiagnosing his patient. Other performances are off-kilter or over the top. Designers Stephen Gifford’s and Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting wrap the goings-on with an appealing ambiance. Actors Co-op, 1760 N. Gower St., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., Nov. 1, 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m.; through Nov. 16. (323) 462-8460. (Deborah Klugman)

 
THEATER PICK: LOVELACE: A ROCK OPERA Linda Lovelace, star of Deep Throat, wrote four autobiographies that muddled, not clarified, her unusual life. In the first two, she was a nympho; the second two, a victim. In all, however, her husband, Chuck Traynor (here, played biliously by Jimmy Swan), is clearly a sleaze who lured her into prostitution. Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey’s dark and haunting musical, Lovelace: A Rock Opera, is antipimp, not antiporn, even though the two are inextricably linked. Ken Sawyer’s well-staged production is fated to descend into hellish reds and writhing bodies, yet it’s shot through with beauty and sometimes even hope. As Linda, Katrina Lenk is sensational — she has a dozen nuanced smiles that range from innocent and shattered to grateful, in order to express whatever passes as kindness when, say, a male co-star (Josh Greene) promises to make their scene fun. Waronker and Caffey were members of two major girl bands, That Dog and the Go-Go’s respectively, and their music — with its keyboards, cellos and thrumming guitars — has a pop catchiness that works even with the bleakest lyrics, some originally written by Jeffery Leonard Bowman. Though the facts of Lovelace’s past went with her and Traynor to the grave (both died within months of each other in 2002), there’s strong evidence that her life was even worse than the musical’s ending suggests, but it’s cathartic to watch her stand strong and sing of her hard-fought independence before flashing lights that, in ironic defiance of the play’s title, beam out her real name: Linda Boreman. Hayworth Theater, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 23. (323) 960-4442 or www.plays411.com. (Amy Nicholson)

 
GO LOVE’S OLD SWEET SONG This wacky 1940 William Saroyan comedy celebrates the Fresno writer’s centennial year. In Depression-era Bakersfield, spinster Ann Hamilton (McKerrin Kelly) lives alone with her roses and the stone lion in her front yard, till her life is turned inside out by a string of bizarre visitors: an incorrigibly romantic Western Union messenger (Michael Heshel); a loquacious medicine-show con-man (Steve Marvel) who pretends he’s been in love with her for 27 years; and the Yearling Clan, a family of Okies fleeing the dust bowl: father Cabot (Joel Schumaker), his prodigiously pregnant wife (Jennifer Pennington) and their 11 assorted children. They invade Ann’s home, wreck it, and eventually burn it down, but only after the visit of a loony Time magazine subscription peddler (Shawn MacAulay), a pompous WPA novelist (Daniel Campagna) and a Life magazine photographer (Lauren Dunagan). In Act 2, everybody winds up at the home of former Greek wrestling champ Stylianos Americanos (Chris Damiano). In an agreeably sappy finale, love conquers all, the Yearlings join the medicine show and, presumably, everybody lives happily ever after. Director Martin Bedoian expertly deploys his huge and able cast through the whimsical hilarity, and Jeff Rack provides two handsome sets. GTC Burbank, 1111-B West Olive Ave., Burbank. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., through Nov. 22. A Syzygy Theatre production. (800) 838-3006 or www.syzygytheatre.org. (Neal Weaver)

 

 
GO  MASTERGATE The title of Larry Gelbart’s 1989 Broadway comedy, subtitled A Play on Words, may also be an allusion to what many Americans feel about our leaders in Washington, D.C.: that they’re just a bunch of jack-offs. It’s a hilarious indictment of the doublespeak from opportunistic politicians, government officials and the media as well as a skewering of our own lemminglike purchase of their perverse logic. When a financier runs afoul of the IRS and the government takes over his movie studio, the administration thwarts Congressional oversight and uses the guise of a revisionist Vietnam War movie shoot to ship arms to right-wing Latin American paramilitary forces, à la Reagan-era Iran-Contra scandal. When it all hits the fan, the ensuing hearings are more a farcical exercise in ass-covering and verbal gymnastics than fault-finding. Penny L. Moore’s direction hits some bumps along the way, but her fine cast makes up for the claustrophobic staging, with the standouts being Paul LaGreca as sycophantic IRS agent Abel Lamb, Price Carson as the martinet Major Manley Battle, Desi Bullock as pompous Secretary of State Bishop, and Craig Patton as the venal V.P. Burden. Actors Group Theater, 4378 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m. (no perf Fri., Oct. 31.); through Nov. 2. (800) 838-3006. Doxie 4 Productions & the Actors Repertory. (Martín Hernández)


PIN-UP GIRLS Set designer Starlet Jacobs sets the stage with ’40s memorabilia — racks of vintage costumes adorn the playing area and a model of a USAF bomber hangs suspended from the proscenium arch. With waves of overlapping dialogue punctuated with sporadic moments of farce, playwright-director Andrew Moore variously hits his mark of hyper-realism in his depiction of burlesque performers in the midst of World War II. Though the locale isn’t specified in the program, snippets of dialogue suggest a West Coast setting. While the burlesque act mostly remains offstage, what we see are the backstage comings and goings of the proprietress (April Adams); the dancers (Sylvia Anderson, Lauren Burns, Sarah Cook, Alana Dietze, Pamela Moore and Lauren Mutascio); the pianist (Jovial Kemp), who taps on a nonfunctioning spinet to recorded piano sounds; and a cartoon of a self-appointed guardian of decency (Judith Goldstein), who’s like a Salvation Army officer out of Guys & Dolls. Moore’s story spins on the homecoming of wounded Marine Scotty (Seth Caskey), to his unfaithful STD-infected heartthrob, Helen (Moore, in a robust and sassy performance). Helen defines her independence as the right to leave her guy dangling emotionally, while dancer Ruby (Cook, in a gentle portrayal brimming with hidden desires) eventually makes her move on her colleague’s man, while accepting a post with the WASP corps. It’s unclear how the two women cat-fighting over a guy is an examination of women’s freedom, however demure their fighting may be. That idea is best captured by Helen’s insistence on being her own person while stringing along her wounded suitor: Is this cruelty part of a burgeoning women’s movement, or a subtle condemnation of it? There’s also a subplot of the puppy love between a semiblind youth (Bryan Gaston) and a teen apprentice (Mustascio), who replaces Ruby when the older dancer enlists in the military. The principals offer lovely performances, but this new play is a sometimes cutesy, sometimes romantic construction. Its larger insight into who we are, and where we’ve come from, has yet to be chiseled. Avery Shreiber Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 23. (818) 849-4039. A Theatre Unleashed production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 
TORN BETWEEN TWO BITCHES In addition to his hard-wired horniness, zine writer Jim Goat (playwright-performer Michael Sargent) has punk literary aspirations derived from his contemptuous attitude toward the values of ’90s Portland, where he hopes to make some impression. (His apartment contains framed posters of four theme-based zines: the “asshole,” “suicide,” “serial killer” and “rape” issues.) Sargent portrays Jim by strutting around with no top and jeans that slip off repeatedly through his play. He speaks in phrases delivered with a kind of snarl, accompanied by mugging poses, often shaking his head to draw attention to his shoulder-length locks. Goat’s wife, Debby (Liz Davies), accuses him of fraud: “I find your nonconformity faked and totally conformist; you want to be left alone but you can’t stand being ignored.” Davies shares Sargent’s broad performance style of delivering lines through a peevish snarl, under designer-director Chris Covics’ sometimes cloying yet wryly theatrical staging. When Debby reveals her terminal-cancer diagnosis, Jim’s compassionate response consists of him running out the door screaming, “It could be me! It could be me!” — which is where the core of Sargent’s satire of narcissism finally comes into focus. Until then, with the visit to Jim of a teenage stripper named Sunshine (shrewdly played Brittany Slattery), who’s 10 times smarter and more calculating than the man who thinks he’s gaming her, Covics’ production wavers in tone between an exploitation flick and a comedy by Moliere. When Jim gets into serious trouble near play’s end, the production drops the veneer of its petulant attitude, and wanders into the shallows of sentimentality that Jim has been avoiding his entire career. Punk-porn and romanticism are the two bitches that this show is really torn between. The larger issue is why we should care about a self-involved egotist consigned to the margins of fame in an era gone by. Oddly enough, we do — at least in fits and starts — perhaps because Sargent is probing Beckettian depths of mortality and purpose amid the vain scramble of our lives. And that idea is larger than Jim, and his hollow posturing. Much of the action is accompanied by the band Elemenopy (Joel Rutkowski and Nick Liberatore), whose punk-rock musicianship and vocalizations are way better than their sophomoric repartee. Unknown Theater, 1110 Seward St., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 6 p.m.; through Nov. 1. (323) 466-7781. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

 
GO U.S. DRAG “I want a lot. What do we have to do to get a lot?” says Angela (Megan Goodchild) to her best friend, Allison (Katie Davies), as the pair traverse Manhattan in search of ... a lot, in this West Coast premiere of Gina Gionfriddo’s scintillating comedy. Angela’s every perky/snide conversation is punctuated by the monetary value to be derived from it, whether speaking to an employer or partner. The two smart young women are not smart enough to be rich, and money seems to be the play’s driving force, accompanied by a triptych of fears — fear of loneliness, fear of squandered opportunities (such as fame) and fear of physical attack. Within this cosmopolitan universe, Gionfriddo populates her play with sundry support groups — one led by Evan (Noah Harpster) counsels its members to refuse to help anybody in order to avoid attack — a Wall Street neurotic (Nick Cernoch), a would-be literati (Shawn Lee), and a “helper” (Eric Pargac) with a deranged compulsion to track down and give baked goods and the like to victims of any urban trauma. Gionfriddo’s snappy dialogue is both urban and urbane, reflecting cultural values that have clearly gone off the tracks. Among the play’s delightful conceits is its open question of whether the fears we shape our lives around are actually real, or our own speculative inventions. Darin Anthony’s very slick staging includes riffs of techno pop (original music by Doug Newell) and a set/lighting design by Dan Jenkins that cements the play’s matrix of consumerism and death with boutique windows and streetlife — one character actually arrives on a slab withdrawn from a gutter. The performances are mostly excellent, with a glorious cameo by Johanna McKay as a befuddled attack victim, though some mumbled lines and aimless movement don’t quite match the director’s mat-knife precision. Pasadena Playhouse, Carrie Hamilton Theatre, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; through Nov. 22. A Furious Theatre Company production. (Steven Leigh Morris)


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