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Theater Reviews: The Bird and Mr. Banks, Waiting for Godot, Boadicea, The Dining Room

Light up the Sky
Maia Rosenfeld

GO BATTLE HYMN In a fit of passion and adoration, young Martha (Suzy Jane Hunt) has a fling with a pretty (and pretty oblivious) school chum, Henry (Bill Heck), as he’s about to join the Union army during the Civil War (despite the couple’s Kentucky home). Finding herself pregnant and alone — Martha learns that Henry finds other men more attractive than her — she is spurned by her minister father (William Salyers), who banishes her to relatives far away. Jim Leonard’s lovely new play, a variation on Voltaire’s Candide, follows Martha as she traverses the country and the century, finding herself in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district during the Summer of Love, still pregnant, still waiting for “the right time” to bring her infant into the world. Leonard’s play is more emotionally moving than intellectually rigorous — a compendium of symbols that add up to a century of clashes between America’s founding principles and the betrayals of those principles, which show up through history, from slavery and gay rights to religious hypocrisy. This land is our land? Hardly. And yet the prevailing symbol is that of birth, and rebirth, of ourselves. Leonard’s structure has a few problems. Dwelling on the Civil War era through Act 1, and then racing through time in Act 2, its surrealism would be less jarring if the play’s motion were more carefully proportioned. He’s been given a first-rank production with John Langs’ quasi-cinematic staging, featuring some moving musical backdrops composed by Michael A. Levine. Brian Sidney Bembridge’s set and lighting have just the right amount of visual animation, without too much glib winking. Hunt simply charms as Martha, with a wide-eyed conviction that’s largely blind to the betrayals that lurk around every corner; John Short and Robert Manning Jr. complete the finely textured ensemble. [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru Feb. 21. (323) 461-3673. A Circle X Production. (Steven Leigh Morris)

GO THE BIRD AND MR. BANKS Alternately ghoulish and sweet, playwright Kevin Huff’s darkly ironic tale is a pleasingly twisted mix of romance and Grand Guignol horror. After she’s dumped by her lover, who also happens to be her louse of a boss (Chet Grissom), corporate secretary Annie (Jenny Kern) tries to kill herself. She receives emotional support from a soft-spoken accountant, Mr. Banks (Sam Anderson), whom the other folks in the office have long considered slightly creepy. After she moves into Mr. Banks’ sprawling, dusty house, Annie discovers that the co-workers don’t know the half of it. Still attached by a cast-iron Oedipal apron string to parents long since dead, Banks has furnished the home in a dusty style that can charitably be called “Norman Bates Modern.” When Annie’s boss stops by and subsequently attempts to rape her, Banks pulls out a cudgel, and events take a gruesome turn. Although the plot bogs down during a needlessly long Act-2 road trip, Huff’s writing is otherwise smart, edgy and full of vituperative charm. Director Mark St. Amant’s comedically tight production punches the weird, Addams Family tone, with brio, nicely balancing horror with genuine sympathy for the characters. From his deep, soft, insanity-steeped voice to his shambolic gait and his half-baked “drunk, crazy uncle” stage persona, Anderson’s turn as the crazed killer-accountant is utterly compelling. Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd, North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; thru March 14. (866) 811-4111. Road Theater Production. (Paul Birchall)

BOADICEA Writer-director Bill Sterritt’s treatment of the legendary Icenian queen’s revolt against the first-century Roman occupation of Britain is more a play of ideas than heroic exploits. It’s too bad, because if Sterritt had lavished the same attention on simple stagecraft that he does on transcendentalist philosophy, he might have landed the postmodern tragedy he intended rather than the arid dissertation he actually bags. The intellectual game Sterritt hunts is the age-old dichotomy between civilization and nature. The two sides are personified by Roman governor Suetonius Paulinus (Matt Haught), whose mandate is to peacefully Romanize the British tribes through civil means, and “nature’s regent,” Queen Boadicea (Gowrie Hayden), whose initial accommodation with Rome ends in humiliation — the rape of her daughters (Ashby Plain, Lindsay Lauren Wray) and the annexation of her lands by licentious procurator, Catus Decianus (a charismatic Sean Pritchett). Arousing her warrior nature, the queen initially mauls the Romans until Suetonius sheds the mask of civility to unleash the animal brutality of imperial power. Unfortunately, Sterritt’s stilted, quasi-heroic dialogue, his curiously flat staging and his reliance on symbolic relationships rather than the interpersonal kind robs the proceedings of any real pathos. With no character-driven conflicts to play off, the cast does its best (Hayden and Pritchett are standouts), but even Brando would have been hard-pressed to crack the role of “civilization.” Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., L.A.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; thru Feb. 15. (323) 463-3900. (Bill Raden)

 

GO THE DINING ROOM A.R. Gurney’s engaging, bittersweet 1982 play details life in a dining room — or, rather, several dining rooms — inhabited by a multitude of characters. Short, overlapping vignettes transpire around a dining room table: a birthday party, illicit meetings, student projects and, of course, family gatherings. Most of the bits present snapshots of family dynamics stressing the universality of what happens around a table, despite the WASPy leanings of the material. With minimal costume changes, the actors use vocal mannerisms to carve out distinct characters, often with physical transformations to suggest age and vitality. Particularly memorable vignettes include an architect trying to convince a psychiatrist to tear down the walls of the dining room to make an office; two teenagers drinking gin mixed with vodka and Fresca; a Thanksgiving dinner interrupted by a mentally failing matriarch; and a student filming an old-fashioned aunt for an anthropology class. The events take place on Vandy Scoates’ expansive, well-appointed set, and the six actors (Matthew Ashford, Mimi Cozzens, Robert Briscoe Evans, James Greene, Tracy Powell and Amanda Tepe) all demonstrate colorful versatility. Kay Cole’s fluid direction is most in evidence when vignettes overlap one another without distracting the audience from the dialogue. Victory Theatre Center, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank; Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m. thru Feb. 15. (818) 765-8732. An Interact Theatre Company production. (Sandra Ross)

GO LIGHT UP THE SKY Moss Hart’s sharp, hard-boiled 1946 farce Light Up the Sky is the quintessential backstage tale of the mid-20th century. His characters are often based on real people: fast-talking producer Sidney Black (Benjamin Burdick) and his sassy ice-skater wife, Frances (Andrea Syglowski), are almost certainly meant to suggest Mr. and Mrs. Billy Rose. The characters are types, but Hart transmutes them into archetypes, readily recognizable to those too young to remember the era they represent. We meet them in a hotel in Boston, where they’re preparing for the out-of-town opening of a show they hope will go off “like a Roman candle in the tired face of show business.” There’s the self-dramatizing star Irene (Laura Flanagan), her dim-bulb husband (Richard Michael Knolla), and her earthy, disenchanted mother (Barbara Schofield). The pretentious, overemotional director (Colin Campbell) is said to cry at card tricks, and the callow young playwright (Dominic Spillane) must undergo his theatrical baptism by fire. Hart’s script crackles with wit and wisecracks, and, under the clever direction of Bjorn Johnson, the laughter is near-constant on Victoria Profitt’s art-deco set. Burdick is a dynamo of verbal pyrotechnics, and he’s evenly matched by most of the cast, who make the most of Hart’s cynical/sentimental Valentine to show business. Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., through March 7. (323) 882-6912. (Neal Weaver)

GO MAMMALS Persuasive performances under John Pleshette’s skillful direction lend humor and heft to this dark comedy by first-time British playwright Amelia Bluemore. Sporting shades of Alan Ayckbourn, the play concerns a married couple, Jane (Bess Meyer) and Kev (Adrian Neil), who discover disturbing facts about each other’s taken-for-granted fidelity. Dealing with these hurtful revelations becomes complicated by the demanding presence of their two willful daughters, 4-year-old Jess and 6-year-old Betty (played by adult performers Phoebe James and Abigail Revasch), and by their weekend guests, Kev’s old friend Phil (David Corbett) and his narcissistic girlfriend, Lorna (Stephanie Ittleson). The play takes a while to get going by virtue of an unnecessarily lengthy scene showing the frazzled Jane struggling to cope with the bratty kids. While no reflection on the performers, the casting of adults as children — meant to convey the breadth of a child’s presence in people’s lives — is a device that soon wears thin. But once the arena shifts to grown-up turf, the piece is more involving, in large part due to the performers’ adept and nuanced work. Of particular note are Meyer, unfailingly on the mark as an intelligent but harried homemaker; Neil, as a man twitching timorously on the verge of an affair; and Corbett, as his blithe, roll-with-the-punches pal. Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Ave., Hollywood; Fri-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 4 p.m. thru March 8. (800) 595-4849. Note: Roles alternate. (Deborah Klugman)

RESIGNATION DAY Terry Southern wrote Easy Rider, Barbarella, Doctor Strangelove and a host of other classic movies along with searing and clever articles and stories steeped in a hippie intellectualism, and he is certainly a man whose life makes for interesting theater. Despite some missteps, playwright Charles Pike has written a generally interesting semibiographical work, but two distinct plays emerge out of his “day-in-the-life” approach: One is a deep and disturbing, darkly comedic portrait of a mad genius of the ’60s (a suitably sardonic Chairman Barnes) disintegrating into professional seclusion. The other is a punch-line-laden vaudevillian romp packed with iconic characters (including William Burroughs played with rich dryness by Roy Allen). The collisions of these two tracks keep either from melding into a singular stage experience. The cast is mostly good, despite some sloppy timing (possibly the result of a jittery opening night). But David LM McIntyre’s loose staging dulls some potentially sharp and funny moments. The play is set on the day of Richard Nixon’s resignation, a day of joy for Terry and his gaggle, who spend the second act spouting wry liberal vitriol, perhaps tacitly lamenting that their enemy — and essentially their purpose — is gone. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 Heliotrope, Silver Lake; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; thru Feb. 21. (310) 281-8337. (Luis Reyes)

 

WAITING FOR GODOT Director Andrew Traister’s traditional staging of Samuel Beckett’s masterwork has all the technical elements of a scintillating rendition — the repartee between Estragon and Vladimir (the thoroughly accomplished Joel Swetow and Robertson Dean) is swift and comical yet with studied interludes of silent agony that texture the comedy with the profoundest existential depths — at least, in the musicality. Mitchell Edmonds’ pompous Pozzo struts with his slave, Lucky (Mark Bramhall), with the embodiment of solipsistic insensitivity. They’re a quartet of clowns incapable of taking the simplest action to lift themselves, or each other, out of the swamp of life, as aging and death close in on them so inexorably. For all that, this is more of a recitation of the play than an enactment of it, like the staging of a radio play. It’s as though the company’s first aim is to hit their marks, aurally and physically, in order to satisfy the play’s veneer. The cost of that is a production that delivers that veneer with only the vaguest signs of a deeper feeling of the characters for each other. Beckett’s theatrical poem comes off as more impressive than moving — an unfulfilled use of the obvious talents at work here, since this play can be, at its heart, a deeply felt lament in the guise of comedy. A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; in rep thru Jan. 25. (818) 240-0910. (Steven Leigh Morris)


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