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Theater Reviews: Mauritius, Tennessee Williams Unscripted, Home Siege Home

Survived
Courtesy Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble

BEST WISHES The untimely death of a matriarch occasions a reunion of disaffected siblings in Bill Barker’s family comedy, first presented locally in 1984. Del Shores used a similar scenario, with more comedic panache in his Daddy’s Dyin, Who’s Got the Will. A comfortable house in tiny Liberal, Kansas, becomes a battleground when Elda (Joanne McGee), Crystal (Nadya Starr), Dorie (Carol Jones), Vera (Ann Bronston), Gil (Dana Craig) and Denny (Barker) assemble to bury their mother and settle the estate. It isn’t long before familial fault lines emerge. Dorie, always the dutiful daughter, is bitter about her vacuous life and wears her feelings on her sleeve. She constantly clashes with Vera, who has escaped small-town anonymity and boredom for the big city but is a drinker and party girl. Wife and mother Elda is a good-natured pleaser but a dingbat, and Crystal remains an emotional and psychological mystery. There are stabs at humor and lots of squabbling, much of it mundane and pointless. This may be the point, but still ... Either the play, or Hollace Star’s staging of this revival fails to say much incisive about these characters or make them emotionally accessible. Gil and Denny emerge as ciphers, and only Fanny (Peggy Lord Chilton), the town quidnunc, is consistently engaging. Crown City Theater on the campus of St. Matthew’s Church; 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through April 19. (818) 745-8527 (Lovell Estell III)

GO  DESPERATE WRITERS: THE FINAL DRAFT This demented farce by Joshua Grenrock and Catherine Schreiber should be catnip for those who love Hollywood in-jokes. Ashley (Kate Hollingshead) and David (Brian Krause) are lovers and writing partners; though they’ve been toiling for years, they’ve never sold a script. Ashley’s convinced that producers never actually read their scripts, so she kidnaps three of them (writers Grenrock and Schreiber, and Andrew Ross Wynn) at gunpoint, and locks them in a wire cage in her living room (built before our eyes by trusty techies). She prepares a gourmet meal for the producers, while David reads them — despite their protests — a new script. The reading is punctuated by phone calls from agent Vanessa (Jennifer Taub), a death by apoplectic fit, an earthquake, a resurrection and a home invasion by a pair of robbers (Scott Damian and Stephen Grove Malloy), who drop off their pix and résumés on their way out. And, oh, yes, the rental agent (Vivian Bang) arrives to show the house to prospective tenants (Damian and Eden Malyn). The actors are game and skillful, and director Kay Cole keeps the action spinning along on Françoise-Pierre Couture’s set, cleverly designed as an architect’s blueprint. Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 & 7 p.m., through May 10. (800) 838-3006 or http://desperatewriters.com. (Neal Weaver)

DESTRUCTION OF THE 4TH WORLD Playwright Murray Mednick made his name here as pillar of new-play development, running the annual Padua Hills Playwrights Festival from the late ’70s to the mid-’90s as a shrine to whatever linguistic and mythical fonts of creativity might be surging through the resident scribes. The foci of his own creative interests have been Native American folklore and his Jewish heritage. A poet first and structuralist later, Mednick uses mere voices as his point of entry into a new work — an approach used by Caryl Churchill and Suzan-Lori Parks, as well as the late Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, whose end-of-the-world metaphysics and vaudeville aesthetic clearly informs Mednick’s work. Destruction of the 4th World swirls around the grief of a father, Caleb (Michael Shamus Wiles), over the Holocaust-related suicide of his wife, Sarah (Yvette Wulff), who appears throughout as dancing figure/ghost presence. She’s supplemented by another phantom, a Hopi prankster named Coyote (Kelly van Kirk), a figure who appears in many of Mednick’s plays, here attired in a blend of Native-American and Orthodox Jewish attire.

Also grief-stricken is Caleb’s precocious misfit son, young teen Bernie (Mike Lion), who finds sanctuary in the self-imposed isolation of his room, where electronics forms the entirety of his communication with and comprehension of the outside world. This kind of isolation is the implicit cause of the looming, falling sky, though this is not a world of causes and effects but of deeds and events that combine in a swirl of farce and ennui. Add to the mix Caleb’s spitfire mother, Rosie (Laura James), drifting away in a nursing home, pursuing Nazi War criminals in a Rio de Janeiro of her mind; and Caleb’s older son and his wife (Scott Victor Nelson and Kim Fitzgerald).

Despite these spirited performances, Kristi Schultz and Brian Fretté’s staging does little visually to shape the elliptical script or to help clarify its purpose. Matt Aston’s set design is entirely functional. (We see Bernie surrounded by electronics, though the door to his room is 2 feet tall. He crawls through it, the adults don’t.) The mostly realistic acting style — in conjunction with the venue’s exposed brick wall, and a couple of nondescript platforms that have been tossed up on the sides — merely flatten Mednick’s poeticism. The play deserves some sense of visual design and style. Art Share, 801 E. Fourth Place, downtown; in rep, call for schedule; through April 19. (213) 625-1766. A Zoo District production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

 

GO  FAMILY PLANNING In a remount of Julia Edwards’ examination of fertility treatments, Chalk Repertory Theatre stages the production in four different private homes during its run. In a well-appointed Sherman Oaks dwelling, Olivia (Alina Phelan) comes home from work, hormone addled and ready to conceive with her husband, Hamish (David Heckel). To Olivia’s chagrin, Hamish’s childhood buddy Rosen (David Ari) and his premed, teenybopper girlfriend, Jilly (Elia Saldana), have dropped in during their cross-country road trip. As if getting rid of them to take advantage of Olivia’s ovulation window weren’t awkward enough, Hamish’s clingy mother, Greta (Danielle Kennedy), drops by, too. What ensues is a raw and emotional whirlwind of resentment, shame and angst, culminating in a waterfall of bile and vitriol as one secret after another is dredged to the surface, reminiscent in many ways of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The intimate setting, slightly disconcerting at first, provides a surreal hybrid between the close-ups of film and the living, breathing tangibility of theater. Director Larissa Kokernot masterfully manipulates the elements of this environment, such as having the audience move between the living room and the kitchen for different scenes, and brings out stellar performances from the cast, who adjust admirably to the proximity of the audience. For those tired of the stodgy proscenium, this production provides a wonderful respite, as well as a reminder of the voyeuristic thrill of live theater. Private homes around Los Angeles (call for locations); Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through April 26. (800) 838-3006. BrownPaperTickets.com. (Mayank Keshaviah)

GO  HOME SIEGE HOME With a calculated blend of ancient lyricism and contemporary humor, Ghost Road Theater Company rolls out its free-wheeling and substantively edited adaptation of Aeschylus’ trilogy, The Oresteia, told over two separate bills. (Depending on the schedule, they can be seen in one day with a dinner break, or on two separate evenings.) If you’re unfamiliar with the epic, you really should know that it hinges on a series of murders, though the first is technically a sacrifice. Seeking to “rescue” his brother’s wife, Helen of Troy, from the “abduction” that triggered the Trojan War, General Agamemnon (Ronnie Clark) sacrifices his own daughter, Iphigineia, to the god Artemis in order to obtain favorable sea winds for his Troy-bound ships. And in Part 1 (Clytemnestra), though Agamemnon feels truly rotten about the deed (he slit his own daughter’s throat), his wife, Clytemnestra (Trace Turville in Part 1, Christel Joy Johnson in Part 2), feels even more rotten, obsessively mercilessly rotten: Upon her hubby’s heroic homecoming, she butchers him in their bed. Excised from Ghost Road’s interpretation are a couple of characters who complicate our emotional attachments.

In her husband’s absence, Clytemnestra took a lover, Aegisthus, who aided in the murder and who doesn’t appear here. Furthermore, Agamemnon pulled into the driveway with Roman slave-mistress Cassandra in his chariot. Such a publicly displayed sex toy would certainly put a kink in director Katharine Noon’s “Hi, honey, I’m home,” ’50s suburban aesthetic. So Cassandra is also in absentia. What remains is a nuclear family and a house, like the House of Atreus, which could really be in Covina, crumbling, slowly. Noon and company aim to conjure the psychological and cosmic forces that lead to the end of an era, which is pretty much what we’re feeling right now in our sliver of history, so it’s not hard to find connective tissue. In Part 2 (Elektra), the eponymous daddy’s girl (a role shared by Mandy Freud and Christel Joy Johnson) is the now seething daughter of Clytemnestra and the murdered Agamemnon.

She sets up camp in an alley, broadcasting her rage against her mother’s deed over a makeshift radio, like some ignored and increasingly deranged revolutionary, while awaiting the return of her brother Orestes (Ronald Wingate in Part 1, Clark in Part 2). Her bro does eventually arrive, though still a little soft in the masculinity department. With Elektra’s goading, he blusters his way to murder his mother, Clytemnestra, in order to avenge his father’s death — that would be killing number three, setting in place cycles of violence that will spin for centuries. And if Orestes doesn’t feel ambivalent enough over what he has just done, the Three Furies (the entrancing Sarah Broyles, with JoAnna Senatore, and Madelynn Fattibene) torment him to the margins of already-precarious sanity in Part 3 (Orestes), when they’re not lounging around in cocktail dresses sipping martinis and playing bridge.

 

Noon’s production grows increasingly absorbing as it progresses. Among its strengths is the visual unity of Maureen Weiss’ set — a house that folds up into a suitcase. (Tattered suitcases and their symbol of exile anchor Noon’s lucid point of view.) By Part 3, as their world is crumbling, the characters play their scenes in allegorically constricted compartments. The performances are never less than competent and often inspired. Though Turville’s Clytemnestra offers little of the magnetic force and comedy Jacqueline Wright brought to an earlier version of this project, Clyt at Home, Turville comes into her own with wry authority as bitch-goddess Athena, bossing around Apollo (Wingate) in Part 3.

The dialogue careens from petulant platitudes (“You murdered someone who was really important to me” and “The world is fucking complicated. It’s not black and white”) to snippets of exalted poeticism. Brian Weir plays Helen of Troy’s daughter Hermione in drag, yet without a trace of campiness. She’s the outcast, and our narrator. “I don’t belong to this house,” she says tenderly, “but it belongs to me.” As it does to all of us. [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood; in rep, call for schedule. (323) 461-3673. A Ghost Road Company production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  MAURITIUS Theresa Rebeck’s play has serious moments, but it’s essentially a comic crime caper full of lies, betrayals, cupidity and greed. The central figure is Jackie (Kirsten Kollender), who, after years of family trauma, has inherited from her mother an old stamp collection. Then her smarmy, pretentious half-sister Mary (Monette Magrath) appears on the scene, claiming the stamps are hers because her grandfather collected them. (In the absence of a will, it’s hard to say who has the legal claim, but nobody here is concerned with legalities.) Jackie gradually realizes that the rare stamps — issued in Mauritius in 1847 — are worth millions.

Mary becomes entangled with a dubious philatelist (John Billingsley), a likable con man (Chris L. McKenna) and a raffish gangster/gun runner (Ray Abruzzo), who, with a collector’s mania, is determined to own the famous “Mauritians.” Plot reversals abound, as ownership is debated, negotiated and fought over. The piece is so cleverly constructed that we almost forget how slight it is, and director Jessica Kubzansky provides a slick and polished production, with an impeccable cast. Set designer Tom Bruderwitz makes admirable use of the theater’s revolving stage, and Tim Weiske’s fight choreography is convincing. Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; call theater for numerous schedule changes; through April 26. (626) 356-7529. (Neal Weaver)

GO  MISALLIANCE Be warned that G.B. Shaw’s wordy comedy of manners lopes along for almost the entire first act before finally taking off. And then it really flies. It’s set in 1909, in the plush home (artfully realized by designer Stephen Gifford) of a successful underwear retailer named Tarleton (Greg Mullavey), whose daughter Hypatia (Abigail Rose Solomon) has become engaged to a whiny aristocratic nerd (Orestes Arcuni). At first, the play totters under the weight of Shavian didactics: a plethora of chitchat about generational and class conflicts, the experience of aging and the liberation of women. The bright spot in this intermittently sleep-inducing stretch is Solomon’s captivating turn as a sharp young gal chafing under the strictures of her gender; she’s seconded in her charm by Maggie Peach, endearing as her wise, albeit mildly ditzy mother.

Happily, Act 2 gets a lot livelier when an airplane piloted by a dashing young aviator (Nick Mennell) and a liberated lady acrobat (Molly Schaffer) crashes into the family greenhouse, followed by the clandestine entry of a pistol-packing gunman (David Clayberg) determined to do Tarleton in. The confrontation between the merchant and his would-be assassin forms the nub of the second act’s considerable humor, and it’s heightened further by the on-target performances of Mennell as Hypatia’s new love interest and Schaffer as the latest object of Tarleton’s philandering affections. By play’s end, under Elina de Santos’ direction, the production has redeemed its dullish beginnings, delivering up more than our ticket’s worth of laughs. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through April 26. (310) 477-2055. (Deborah Klugman)

GO  MUNCHED Katie Paxton’s two older sisters died before she was born. When she became deathly ill, the nurses and the law were convinced that her mother, Marybeth (Andrea Hutchman), was killing her slowly in a sordid, attention-seeking case of Munchhausen by Proxy. Marybeth went to prison; Katie (Samantha Sloyan) recovered immediately and went into the foster system. Kim Porter’s spellbinding and intimate play catches up with the Paxtons 20 years later, when Katie finds a Pandora’s box of letters, from her mom and to her mom, in her foster mother’s attic.

 

We’re never sure if Marybeth is guilty, though she admits to giving her daughter a poisonous dose of ipecac. But what is clear is that mother and daughter share the same DNA — both face the world with a bitter humor, Katie joking wryly about wrenching trauma, and Marybeth channeling her self-righteous anger into a sarcasm as sharp as a knife. Sloyan and Hutchman turn in two of the best performances I’ve seen all year. Aided by Duane Daniels’ direction, they make comic agony out of deliberate pauses and askance smiles. Shirley Jordan and Peter Breitmayer are quite fine as a whirlwind of nurses, doctors, lawyers and do-gooders, each with their own agenda and unable to see the facts of Marybeth’s actions through their certainty of her psychosis or martyrdom. El Centro Theatre, 804 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through May 2. (323) 960-5771. (Amy Nicholson)

GO  TENNESSEE WILLIAMS UNSCRIPTED The audience members toss in a couple of suggestions at the start of the show, from which Impro Theater spins a full-length improvised drama in the style of Tennessee Williams. Clearly the types are pre-set. Floyd Van Buskirk’s “Daddy” is a compendium of Night of the Iguana’s ex-the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s Big Daddy. Director Brian Lohmann’s Marquis is a flat-footed, slightly neurotic fellow tossed out of service in World War II by a 4F Army classification. His withering self-respect is crushed beneath the boot of Buddy (Dan O’Connor), home from the service and suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder.

There’s an offstage Veterans Day Parade for atmosphere (one of the audience suggestions was “November,” so there you go.) Tenderly comedic performances also by Jo McKinley as the repressed Widow Oleson and by Tracy Burns as the town slut, Loretta, and especially by Lisa Fredrickson as the smart, aging romantic, Charlene. Is there any hope of enduring romance in this isolated mush pot of Williams’ universe? The company guides the drama into a savvy bittersweet resolution. This is a tougher challenge than the company’s prior effort, Jane Austen Unscripted, because the types of repression that form the essences of the comedy are comparatively languid in Williams, whereas the Austen send-up sprang from the starched collars and feelings that couldn’t be expressed — because that would have been impolite.

Williams’ characters say what’s on their minds, usually two or three times in various poetical incarnations: That’s the detail these actors nail on the head. Once that joke has arrived, the challenge is to avoid making a glib mockery of Williams’ drawling explications and the sometimes ham-fisted poetry. It’s a trap the company studiously avoids, so that the event lingers somewhere between satire and homage. It’s a very smart choice. Nice cameo also by Nick Massouh. Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Apri 26. (800) 838-3006. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO  THE WAR CYCLE: SURVIVED Playwright Tom Burmester’s powerful drama, the second installment of his “war cycle” about the Iraqi War, mostly reigns in any implied disapproval for America’s Misbegotten 21st Century Foreign Adventure to focus on more universal themes of family grief. It’s been about a year since U.S. soldier Mike Harper was killed during an Iraqi ambush, and the dead man’s family is still coping — or, more accurately, not coping — with their sorrow. Dad Sam (James W. Sudik) is holed away in his cellar, designing an annex to the family home for Sophia (Melissa Collins), the dead boy’s shattered widow, to live in, even though the idea flatly appalls her.

Meanwhile, Mom Lilith (a nicely brittle Dee Amerio Sudik) engages in a fierce and totally irrelevant feud with Sophia about what to do with the dead soldier’s ashes. Into this already semi-toxic atmosphere unexpectedly comes Sgt. Taylor (Jonathan Redding), a former war buddy of Mike’s, bringing tragic details of his pal’s death, which further rattle the family. Burmester’s drama, co-directed with Danika Sudik, displays unusual skill at articulating a family’s shaky façade of icy normalcy, as it gives way to rage and despair.

Although the piece sometimes falls prey to some stock thematic tropes of the “War Story Genre” (the work occasionally feels as though the playwright wants to be writing about the Vietnam War, a very different military action), the emotions still ring true.

Collins’ Sophia, bewildered by sadness even as she makes tentative gestures at moving on, is particularly compelling — as is Redding, who offers a complex, disturbing turn as the war buddy. Powerhouse Theater, 3112 2nd Street, Santa Monica; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through April 25. (800) 595-4849. A Los Angeles Theater Ensemble production. (Paul Birchall)


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