Theater Reviews: The Birthday Present, Broken Glass, The Eccentricities of a Nightingale
GO THE BIRTHDAY PRESENT 2050 Stories about dystopian societies often risk seeming contrived, but playwright Tania Wisbar's beautifully detailed and elegiac tale depicts a world that might believably exist, say, 100 years after a Nazi takeover. In the future, poverty and disease have been eliminated, but the world is instead organized on entirely practical lines, with your right to survive being decided by the number of "points" you earn every year. On the 75th birthday of family matriarch Teresa (Salome Jens), her devoted daughter Marsha (Elyssa Davalos) thinks she has collected enough points from her two sisters and family to allow Teresa to live another year. More than just being the emotional center of her clan, Teresa is one of the last living rebels who recalls life before the odious new order came to pass. Marsha's hopes are threatened when unexpected complications up the fee for Teresa's right to life. In director Jonathan Sanger's beautifully melancholy staging, what could be a mechanical exercise in high-concept plotting becomes a wistful tale of how easy it would be to purge memory of the past from the world. Sanger's smoothly executed production boasts many rich details: Set designer Kis Knekt's calculatedly sterile living room is replete with decorative video screens that show 1984-esque messages from the genially sinister bureaucrat (Jeffrey Doornbos) who oversees the family's doings. Knekt's set, in conjunction with composer Karen Martin's eerie incidental music, crafts a world that's just plain crazy. The ensemble work is just as assured. Apart from Jens' powerful turn as the ferociously nonconforming grandmother, Davalos' complex performance as Marsha is exceptional: Her character is seemingly an upbeat chirper, but her good mood is so clearly artificial, it seems as though she's always about to weep. Also engaging in supporting roles are Katrina Lenk, as Marsha's venomously selfish younger sister, and Demetrius Grosse, as a guilt-haunted security agent. Katselas Theatre Company at the Skylight Theatre, 1816 ½ N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m., thru April 17. (323) 960-7733. (Paul Birchall)
BONDED Bolstered by director Jon Lawrence Rivera's unadorned, precise vision, Act 1 of Donald Jolly's homoerotic slave narrative set on a Virginia plantation in 1820 is a piece of earnest, thought-provoking theater. Jolly's frank but lovely storytelling graces the genre with fresh insights about the lives of slaves, traveling beyond the dehumanizing stories of sexual abuse and unspeakable human violence penned so powerfully in the firsthand accounts of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs, taking us instead to a slightly reimagined slice of the old South, where sexual freedom becomes nearly as urgent as freedom from human ownership. Sonny (Terrence Colby Clemons), Lily (Toyin Moses) and Jack (Carl Crudup) are the last remaining slaves on a rapidly crumbling Virginia plantation. Enter Asa (Eric B. Anthony), a New York "house boy," whom the three plantation slaves quickly dub "new nigger." Accustomed to fetching cocktails and completing other indoor chores, Asa melts down after being shackled and scrubbed, whipped by Jack (a 70-something, self-proclaimed "true African" who wants to keep the uppity Northerner in his place) and forced to keep impossibly long hours plowing fields. When Sonny and Asa begin to bond emotionally, sexual tensions arise and eventually explode. Sadly, Act 2 is a bundle of redundancies, a drawn-out series of melodramatic manipulations that don't do justice to the first act's promise. Bob Blackburn's sound design, Adam Blumenthal's lighting and John H. Binkley's set serve the story well. Playwrights Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., dwntwn.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., thru April 9. (866) 811-4111, thelatc.org (Amy Lyons)
GO BROKEN GLASS Arthur Miller's searing 1995 drama ostensibly deals with the theme of Jewish assimilation and the price of ignoring evil in the rest of the world. In the end, though, the issue is a metaphor for the moral rot fragmenting a loveless marriage. In 1938, American Jewish housewife Sylvia (Susan Angelo) reads in the papers of the atrocities taking place in Germany and develops what appears to be a hysterical, psychosomatic paralysis. Sylvia's husband, uptight mortgage broker Phillip (Michael Bofshever), is justifiably alarmed, but as he seeks help from kindly Dr. Hyman (Stephen Burleigh), the real problems underlying his wife's condition begin to emerge. For his part, Phillip is contemptuous of his own Jewish heritage and is so self-hating he pretends to be Finnish, rather than Polish, even as he's forced to suck up the subtle anti-Semitism at his workplace. In director Elina de Santos' beautifully empathetic staging, the pacing is unhurried, but the emotions rise in tension and pitch until, finally, they reach Shakespearean heights of tragedy. There's so much simmering below the surface here — especially the notion of how, under certain circumstances, self-loathing and guilt can actually be physically manifested. The acting work crackles with subtext and organic emotion. At first the prickly, unforgiving Phillip seems monstrously dismissive — but in Bofshever's increasingly subtle, pragmatic turn, we gradually start to realize the insecurities underlying his self-loathing. The show's engrossing moral center, however, is Angelo's wonderfully vulnerable performance as Sylvia, who is played as part giggling ingénue and part world-weary social activist trapped in a life that, for the most part, she cannot control. Pico Playhouse, 10580 Pico Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., thru April 17. (323) 821-2449. (Paul Birchall)
CROOKED ROAD Few choices were available to respectable British women in the early 19th century. In Jane Austen's 1816 novel Persuasion, a 27- year-old unmarried woman — considered over the hill by the standards of that time — struggles to come to terms with the decades of humiliating spinsterhood that seemingly stretch before her. Erin Gaw's soap-operatic adaptation, in South Los Angeles, revolves around Anne (Kristal Adams), who works in her dad's real estate business and once upon a time gave up the love of her life to care for her ailing mom, now deceased. Anne's organizational skills and common sense are grossly unappreciated by her spendthrift father (Kabin Thomas), who regularly insults her; he much prefers her shallow sister, Mary (Kelicea Meadows), who bitchily flaunts her own married status before her more mature and stoical sibling. Commencing from this almost Dickensian juxtaposition of virtue and cruelty, the play plods along for a merciless three hours (the first two without an intermission), padded with commonplace dialogue, unremarkable songs and unnecessary characters. Details of staging are carelessly handled under Naisa Wong's direction; for example, in a packing scene, characters unpack, then repack, the same items. The ensemble strives earnestly, but its collective inexperience is unmistakable. Loneliness and longing surely continue to beset many unattached women, but the issues involved are ill-served when observed through a jejune periscope such as this one. Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Ave., Mid-City; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 & 7 p.m., thru March 27. (323) 871-5830. (Deborah Klugman)
GO THE ECCENTRICITIES OF A NIGHTINGALE It's New Year's Eve in Tennessee Williams' drama, and Alma Winemiller is enchanted by the crisp snaps of "frosty branches crackin'," but she's so flushed with an inner flame she's shed jacket, scarf and gloves. Deborah Puette's Alma is burning, set alight by a firecracker the recently graduated doctor John Buchanan (Jason Dechert, in a role made for him) casually tosses at her during Glorious Hill, Mississippi's Fourth of July celebration. But Alma isn't like the pretty, simple girls who have surrounded the eligible Buchanan up north. Nearing spinsterhood, she's the town eccentric, who scatters crumbs for birds in the square and is given to heart palpitations that seem a result of the fluttery bird beating about in her own chest. Simultaneously attracted ("The light keeps changin' in [her eyes]") and repelled ("It's not lit," he says in the heartbreaking penultimate scene, crudely referring to his sexual desire), Buchanan engages with Alma as an almost scientific experiment. Yet Williams refuses to allow such cold sterility, and in a scene so charged it leaves you smoldering in your seat, Buchanan examines a frantic Alma, uttering possibly the most erotic three words ever written by a playwright. Director Damaso Rodriguez dances the entire production through the play's musicality on a stage lit beautifully by James P. Taylor in the soft gauziness that Williams' "romantic clichés" demand. In fact, the only slip is that early on, Puette rests on an overactive accent. But by the second act, even that flaw is forgiven, and as Williams' ever-tragic tide begins to come in, the only thing to do is let it wash over you. A Noise Within, 234 S. Brand Blvd., Glendale; runs in repertory thru May 28. (818) 240-0910, anoisewithin.org. (Rebecca Haithcoat)
GO ENDGAME A successful staging of Samuel Beckett's absurdist classic requires a director who can mine the play's comic and lyrical elements, and effectively meld them with the author's relentlessly harsh vision. Here, director Paul Plunkett does just that, aided by an excellent cast which maintains that crucial balance throughout. Endgame is about four pitiful characters trapped in a dismal room as the outside world collapses in decay and sterility. Unlike the forlorn tramps in Waiting for Godot, there is no expectation of relief or purpose, just the slow passage of time ending in an inevitable, painful demise. Confined in a pair of battered, industrial containers, the ghoulish-looking Nagg and Nell (Barry Ford and the striking Kathy Bell Denton) emerge sporadically to break the tedium of the central "action," which unfolds on a rickety caricature of a throne. There, the blind, crippled Hamm (Leon Russom) is unable to move and has his needs tended to by the perpetually besieged Clov (David Fraioli), in a bizarre, ongoing ritual of servitude. When, toward the end, Hamm asks about his painkiller, and is told by Clov that there isn't any more, we know that, for this outing anyway, the laughs are balm enough. As effective as Plunkett's direction is, this fine revival really soars on the wings of the cast's terrific performances. Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Silver Lake, Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., April 10 & 17, 7 p.m., thru April 23. (310) 281-8337. (Lovell Estell III)
GO GIRLS TALK Roger Kumble's new seriocomedy sets out to debunk that famous feminist promise that women can have it all — the career, the family and their sanity. As lights go up on a beached Brooke Shields, a milk pump attached to each breast, Kumble softens up his audience with broad comic strokes and entertainment industry in-jokes. He even pokes fun at racism before settling in to a serious examination of four power moms in Brentwood, and the dilemmas they face. As mother of three Lori, Shields shows up in a pink hoodie and Uggs, but pretty soon sky-high wedge heels and hefty designer handbags take over the stage (costumes by Ann Closs-Farley). She slobs about the solid, trilevel set (design by Tom Buderwitz) as the other, more pretentious moms arrive. Meanwhile Lori's former writing partner, Claire (Constance Zimmer), wants to lure her back to the cutthroat world of TV with an irresistible opportunity — a meeting with Oprah herself. But what about Lori's commitments to her eldest kid's preschool fundraiser? Eileen Galindo is underused as Lori's uncomprehending temp nanny. Andrea Bendewald is magnificent as alpha mom Jane, especially when she unleashes her vicious tongue, completely annihilating Scarlett (Nicole Paggi), the needy Southern mom who is trying so hard to be Jewish ("Holla for challa!"). But Jane gets her comeuppance, courtesy of Claire, a fearless non-mom. This play is full of squabbly little victories, some distasteful, some victorious. It concludes abruptly on a cliffhanger, but by then Kumble has well and truly made his point. Lee Strasberg Institute, Marilyn Monroe Theatre, 7936 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m., thru April 24. (800) 595-4849, tix.com. (Pauline Adamek)
THE INSOMNIA PLAY When you have insomnia, what keeps you up at night? Worries, or a stalker ordering you to put on a prettier nightgown? For Georgina (Liz Vital), it's both. On her first sleepover with new guy George (Nick Mills), she's kept up by the Sandman (Jeff Irwin) needling her that she's too crazy to keep a man. In Jessica Brickman's short play, the Sandman's obviously standing in for Georgina's insecurities: He knows she's flighty, fluttery and prone to emotional meltdowns. But he's also his own man with a complicated relationship with his sexy sheep assistant (the kind you count at night, played by Jessica Culaciati, hugely pregnant and an energetic comedian). His own insecurities include a jealous streak that's got him trying to sabotage Georgina's fledgling relationship, even sending the sheep into the bed to seduce George. (Set designer Robert Tintoc has made a bed big enough to swallow a circus act.) There's a haziness about the play, as if we, too, are strapped for sleep and a little confused about what's happening. But if director Gioia Marchese can't shape much of a message out of the play, she's got a good handle on its standout scene, where the Sandman shifts forward and backward seven months in George and Georgina's relationship, forcing the actors to make hairpin turns between infatuation and ennui. Lyric-Hyperion Theater Cafe, 2106 Hyperion Ave., Silver Lake; Fri., Sun., 8 p.m., thru April 10. (847) 800-1762, lyrichyperion.com. (Amy Nicholson)
THE MERCY SEAT Neil LaBute, a writer renowned for his lacerating portraits of narcissistic cads and the arrested adolescent within, doesn't exactly spring to mind when one speaks of a "9/11 play." So it comes as something of a relief that this 2002 drama set in lower Manhattan on the day after the terrorist attacks is less concerned with collapsing office towers than it is with the imploding illusions of its feuding pair of illicit lovers. In fact, the only disaster in sight turns out to be of the emotional kind. The curtain opens on Ben (Johnny Clark), a husband and father so paralyzed by callow self-pity and passive-aggressive guilt that he is unable to answer his incessantly ringing cell phone or move from his armchair for nearly the entire play. Turns out that he was only spared from dying in the conflagration because he skipped a meeting at Ground Zero for an early-morning assignation with his boss and mistress, Abby (Michelle Clunie), at her luxury loft. When Ben compounds his callous indifference to the loss of life outside by cynically seizing on his own presumed death in a scheme to abandon his family and run off with her, Abby is finally jolted into a belated reappraisal of their three-year affair. Clunie all but steals the show with an artfully nuanced performance that galvanizes Abby's tough exterior with affecting currents of wounded vulnerability and frustrated yearning. Unfortunately, with the exception of exhilarating flourishes provided by Derrick McDaniel's poetic lights, director Ron Klier's staging is so weighted down by Danny Cistone's distractingly overelaborate and hyperrealistic set that the production rarely achieves LaBute's intended metaphoric lift. A Vs. Theatre Company production. [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hlywd.; Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 2 p.m., thru April 24. (323) 461-3673, fordtheatres.org. (Bill Raden)
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