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Uncertain Curtains

Comedic agony on 9/12: Nathan Brooks Burgess, Dawn Burgess and Drake Simpson in Recent Tragic Events

Believe it or not, most theater critics take their seats before curtain desperately wanting to enjoy what they are about to see. As a species, reviewers are no more jealous or resentful than the people sitting next to them. There are differences between reviewers and theatergoers, of course — we critics don’t pay for our tickets and we’re not likely to have friends in the cast. This immediately eliminates two natural impulses to like a play. On the other hand, we live for the opportunity of discovering the next Joe Orton or Suzan-Lori Parks, which is why, when a critic likes something, he or she really seems to like it.

This past theater year has been no better or worse than others. I’d like to report that I discovered an incredibly committed, wickedly funny and politically wise troupe of young actors performing in a Gardena storage unit. Instead, all I can say is that 2006 was the typical mixed bag whose successes were mostly found in all the usual places.

The one-person show, that dicey theater staple, was amply represented in 2006. Yet the creators of such big-ticket celeb shows as Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundaysand Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking seemed to be holding back from their audiences. Crystal, directed by Des McAnuff, built a nearly three-hour evening at the Wilshire Theater around growing up in suburban Long Island in the 1950s and ’60s. Slides, home movies and schmaltzy music gilded the show, whose wan highlights included young Billy discovering masturbation.

Carrie Fisher’s outing at the Geffen Playhouse had similar amounts of screen projections, but, compared to the comfortably facile Crystal, she seemed startlingly ill at ease with her own life — or at least with talking about it to a live audience. Worse, her show was not the scalding confessional we thought it would be, but a sampler of sweetly embarrassing moments in Fisher’s life without any deeper explanation than a punch line. For my money the most honest and story-driven solo show was a San Francisco import at the Hayworth Theater: Brian Copeland’s Not a Genuine Black Man, a sardonic and harrowing tale about Copeland’s years growing up in San Leandro, a conservative, whites-only suburb near liberal San Francisco.

Copeland’s story raised troubling questions about black identity within white society and among African-Americans. It succeeded without being overtly political, whereas a heavily weighted play such as Sam Shepard’s 2004 paranoid farce, The God of Hell (which received its L.A. premiere at the Geffen), left me with a headache — or, rather, an earache. This was a loud, angry, but ultimately sterile comedy, directed with sledgehammer finesse by Jason Alexander, about a Homeland Security agent visiting a Wisconsin farm disguised as a chirpy traveling salesman. Far more watchable was Furious Theater Co.’s Back of the Throat, Yussef El Guindi’s brutal encounter between two government agents who pay a menacing call on a young Arab-American student. Unlike The God of Hell, El Guindi’s play, which first opened last year in San Francisco, actually bothered to throw in a mystery — who fingered the mild-mannered, apparently innocent student?

Another knockout “post-9/11” play was Recent Tragic Events, Theater Tribe’s production of Craig Wright’s unlikely 2002 comedy about a couple’s blind date that takes place the day after the World Trade Center attack. The Victory Theater had scored an earlier success with another perceptive Wright play, the domestic meltdown known as Orange Flower Water, a 2002 work receiving its West Coast premiere under Carri Sullens’ direction. Later, Furious Theater Co. gave Grace, yet another Wright story (about a Christian couple and their emotionally damaged neighbor), a slam-bang local premiere under Dámaso Rodriguez’s smooth direction.

In fact, one truth about 2006 is that too many of the best plays were written by non-L.A. playwrights — or, in the case of Wright (who moved here four years ago to work in TV and film), their best work did not receive their world premieres here. I will spend 2007 crossing my fingers that the next L.A. play I see will be the first time anyone sees it.