In Israela Margalit's Trio, which just opened at Hollywood's Lounge Theatre, and Jonas Oppenheim's interactive satire Free $$$, at Sacred Fools Theater on Hollywood's eastern edge, love is on the rocks.
The former concerns a supremely talented, real-life married couple, pianist-composers Clara and Robert Schumann (Meghan Maureen McDonough and Bjorn Johnson). But even a Geiger counter couldn't locate the talent in the latter's power duo, Robin and Randy Petraeus (Jocelyn Towne and Tim Hamelen), who, in writer-director Oppenheim's Free $$$, offer their workshop: "How to MANIFEST YOUR DREAMS on ZERO DOLLARS A DAY ... or YOUR MONEY BACK — guaranteed!"
This is a couple that has blown all its credit and lives out of a car, and its history includes her cuckolding him, night after night, in exchange for a place for them both to sleep in the apartment of a "friend." And yet they're still together, here, with us, with the self-proclaimed authority of the self-help book that they're trying to hawk, and, of course, the wisdom accrued from their many, many errors of judgment.
The question for us to fathom in Free $$$ is whether we're to trust people whose actual success we can verify and emulate, or whether we're to invest in the alternative theory that truly wise people have learned from their mistakes, and therefore are worth believing. This really isn't a contest, and that Oppenheim's power couple is so transparently useless and, by design, bereft of credibility is both the source of the satire and, paradoxically, the very reason for us to disengage. To a point. Because there's something much larger and more vital going on here than a vicious parody of losers. More on that in a moment.
Margalit's history play about the personal lives of the Schumanns premiered at Moscow's Sovremennik Theatre before touring throughout Russia and Ukraine for five years. Margalit is herself an acclaimed concert pianist, as well as a television writer.
"The challenge," she said in a March 8 online interview, "was how to bring their past into the play without exposition. For my taste, exposition in a play is like a voice-over in a movie — it's a writing cop-out and an insult to the intelligence of the audience."
This is an interesting quotation, because of the constricted TV taste it reveals: In some movies and plays, voice-overs are very effective. What would documentaries be without voice-overs, or even a film like Liev Schreiber's 2005 Everything Is Illuminated, in which the wry narration is one of the engines? If the expository narration were deleted from Thornton Wilder's Our Town, the work would be diminished. If you did the same in Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood, there would be nothing left.
It's doubly interesting because Margalit's Trio, presented in director Rick Sparks' mostly naturalistic production, is exactly the kind of kitchen-sink drama in which the exposition Margalit decries arrives so thuddingly. Here we have Clara and Robert Schumann rehashing their personal histories, which we may need in order to understand the plot, but which they already know, and therefore have little reason to reiterate to each other.
But that's a minor complaint, given the scale of problems here.
We've had a number of plays roll through recently about classical musicians, and how the pettiness of their personal lives contrasts with the glory of the music they create: Last year at the Fountain Theatre was Opus, by Michael Hollinger, about a string quartet whose members can barely endure each other's company. Earlier this year, Moisés Kaufman's 33 Variations at the Ahmanson took on Peter Shaffer's theory in Amadeus that God had bestowed His greatest gifts on a godless, sex-obsessed, self-centered, scatological man-child named Mozart, while cursing with mediocrity the devout composer who understood this. Kaufman's play counter-argues that only the mediocre wrongfully condemn mediocrity, and that a genius such as Beethoven could recognize the transcendent qualities in a melody dismissed by lesser minds as insignificant.
In these productions, the composers' personal lives led to bigger ideas that matched the grandeur of the music — even the ideas about personal malice and jealousy were roped to the heavens. The direction reflected that scale, mostly through abstraction. At the tiny Fountain, Frederica Nascimento's constructivist set allowed Opus to breathe and then to soar. At the Ahmanson, scenic designer Derek McLane and projection designer Jeff Sugg crashed open the walls of the claustrophobic garret in which Beethoven lived and worked.
Not so Joel Daavid's realistically detailed set in Trio, whose aim is to toy with one of the unanswered questions of classical music history: Did Johannes Brahms (a callow performance by Jeremy Shranko, personified by a conspicuously faux magnanimity) engage in a mere friendship or consummate an affair with Clara Schumann, while her husband was going bonkers in the loony bin? Daavid's is an opulent television set for the aging Schumanns and Brahms, their young protégé, to play out a love triangle. The play's tinkering with infidelity, Robert's oppression of his brilliant wife (forget the concert tours, dear; stay home and care for our eight children, while I sit here and bemoan my waning powers) and his subsequent descent into madness get compressed by the setting into a tendentious episode of Masterpiece Theatre. These are ideas that need to be pulled out from the play, not smashed further into it. The tinny quality of the music doesn't help.
The production's high point is McDonough's perfectly calibrated performance as Clara — a monument to dignity and decorum gently overlaying her hideous betrayal of her husband, and the increasingly clear reasons for it.
Over at Sacred Fools, it doesn't take long to grasp that our self-help power couple is neither powerful nor a couple. But the play finally kick-starts with the arrival of delivery guy Cesar (Ronnie Alvarez), bearing a huge mannequin-shaped computer that answers questions, instead of the long-promised books authored by Robin and Randy.
The couple's assistant, Estrella, a single mother and college student who can barely afford her baby's formula — she's played by the delightful Marta Portillo, growing more contentious by the minute — takes a stand: Since things have gone so terribly wrong, the fees the couple collected for the workshop, which she clutches in a case on her lap, should be returned to the audience. Anything less would be a con.
Towne's Robin is clearly horrified by this suggestion. She's lived the better part of her life on cons. And so begins an election, orchestrated by Cesar and Estrella, on whether the money should be returned to the audience, given to the homeless couple, given to a homeless organization, to the theater, to the American Civil Liberties Union or to other destinations proposed by the audience.
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In the blink of an eye, we're all of America, arguing over and voting on whether to give nickels to the arts or to the homeless, while collective bargaining is swept away on the other side of the land.
The play is like one of those roller-coaster rides where at first you say, "Yeah, yeah, show me something I don't know." Then suddenly the carriage lurches skyward, and you can't help but think, "My goodness, what a view."
FREE $$$ | Written and directed by Jonas Oppenheim | Sacred Fools Theater, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Silver Lake | Sun., 7 p.m., Thurs., March 24 and 31, 8 p.m. | Through April 3 | (310) 281-8337, sacredfools.org
TRIO | By Israela Margalit | Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m. | Through April 10 | (323) 960-4412