Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht find themselves on the Santa Monica Pier for Paul Sand's Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel — a cabaret that critic Paul Birchall describes as a “tour de force.” It's this week's Pick of the Week.
Neal Weaver enjoyed I'll East You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers starring Bette Midler at the Geffen Playhouse, and about the Hollywood super-agent Mengers. Bill Raden adored The Mystery Plays, an unorthodox and skillfully staged duet of holiday-themed one-acts. Also, Pauline Adamek praised the kid-friendly Peter and the Starcatcher at the Ahmanson.
See below for all of the latest new theater reviews and region-wide stage listings. The theater feature returns next week.
NEW THEATER REVIEWS, scheduled for publication Dec. 11. 2013
GO: I'LL EAT YOU LAST: A CHAT WITH SUE MENGERS Bette Midler and Hollywood super-agent Sue Mengers have many things in common: both were self-invented, and both are marked by a large dollop of sass and brass, a mean wit and a knack for uninhibited, earthy language. So Midler was the obvious choice to play Mengers in John Logan's solo play. But Midler is not content to merely display her own qualities, producing instead a richly layered portrait, deftly directed by Joe Mantello. Logan invites us to an afternoon with Mengers at her lavish Beverly Hills home, circa 1981. She's ensconced on a sofa, in a voluminous blue caftan, her long blond hair swinging, with cigarettes, telephone, booze and plenty of grass on hand. She tells us about her birth in Germany, her family's emigration to the United States to escape the Nazis and her determined rise to power as the agent who represented everybody from Barbra Streisand and Gene Hackman to Cher and Nick Nolte. She's outrageous, gossipy, contemptuous of anyone who doesn't meet her standards, imperious (pressing an audience member into service to fetch her drinks), likable and, ultimately, sad as she realizes her glory days are over, and the world has passed her by. Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Dec. 22. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com. (Neal Weaver)
THE :NV:S:BLE PLAY
The office dork smitten with the comely gal in the next cubicle is a familiar comic setup. In Alex Dremann's strained satire, the unhappy swain, Colin (Trevor H. Olsen), has much bigger problems than the simple disregard he engenders from the willowy Fran (Jennifer Flack): He is literally disappearing! Once an active member of the editing staff of a publishing house for existential books, he's now invisible to his colleagues and utterly forgotten — even though he can see them and react to their mistakes and misunderstandings. Dremann's clever twist on corporate dehumanization is muddied by glib (as opposed to meaningful) exhortations to personal responsibility and the facile insistence that love is the path to redemption. The writer's discerning theme outpaces his dialogue as well. Directed by Amanda Weier, the production is most entertaining in its second half when Flack, a skillful comedian, takes center stage as the oblivious object of Colin's ardor. As the smarmy dude on the make, Norm Johnson stays within the boundaries of sketch comedy, but his timing and physicality are pitch perfect. Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd.; Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Dec. 21. (323) 856-8611, theatreofnote.com. (Deborah Klugman)
PICK OF THE WEEK: KURT WEILL AT THE CUTTLEFISH HOTEL
Director-adapter Paul Sand's tour de force of ferocious Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht lieder collaborations, Kurt Weill at the Cuttlefish Hotel, boasts many of the trappings of a night of difficult theater: The venue, a shabby restaurant backroom at the end of the dodgy area of the Santa Monica Pier, is deliciously seedy, literally perched above the sea during high tide.The stage and all the seating are on the same level, creating dreadful sightlines. And, on the night reviewed, just before the show, fishermen on the dock below pulled up a dying baby shark, covered with tumors. How Brecht would have loved it! The revue consists of some of the great melodies of the Brecht-Weill canon, performed cabaret-style by an ensemble of sexy but sinister performers whose morally ambivalent attitude perfectly reflects the dark, carny atmosphere of the Santa Monica Pier after sundown. Whether it's the sensuously cruel turn offered by Shay Astar, who sings “The Ballad of Mack the Knife” with a cool, luscious voice that seems equal parts ice cream and razor blades, or the piercing vibrata of Megan Rippey's sweet but diabolical “Pirate Jenny,” Sand's production, assisted by Michael Roth's dynamically evocative music direction, crafts rich and textured renditions of these wonderful, infernal songs. West End Theatre, Santa Monica Pier, 200 Santa Monica Pier; Fri.-Sat., 7:30 & 9 p.m.; through Dec. 21. thewestendtheatre.com (Paul Birchall)
MOM'S GIFT A sentimental family comedy about emotional repression, Mom's Gift mines predictable scenarios — getting a daughter married off, engineering intergenerational détente — for a few genuinely snappy quips and some amusing battle lines without adding up to much more. Almost a year after her mother was killed by a drunk driver, tightly wound Kat (Gina Yates) returns home to celebrate her father's birthday. She finds there the usual sorts of guests: her ditzy younger sister, Brittney (Trisha Hershberger); Kevin (Cyrus Alexander), the neighbor she grew up crushing on; and Trish (Lisa McGee-Mann), the amiable home-care nurse who helped out after the accident. There's also one rather surprising visitor — the ghost of her dead mother, sent back from the beyond with vague orders to right some wrongs and a mandate to rope Kat into her mission. Nice pacing, a soupçon of red herrings and a couple mild plot twists move the production along, but ultimately it lacks both real drama and credible warmth. Lonny Chapman Group Repertory Theatre, 10900 Burbank Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through Jan. 19. 818-700-4878, thegrouprep.com. (Mindy Farabee)
GO THE MYSTERY PLAYS
Leave it to horror specialists the Visceral Company to concoct the perfect corrective to the season's saccharine tide of Christmas stage fare with director Christopher Basile's deftly mounted, minimalist revival (skillfully accented by Ric Zimmerman's low-key lighting) of playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's arresting duet of haunting — and haunted — one-acts. The haunting comes in “The Filmmaker's Mystery” when chance leaves a Lovecraftian movie director (Daniel Jimenez) the sole survivor of a holiday train disaster and he finds himself the object of a spectral stalker's (Michael Mraz) mysterious obsession. The haunted appears in “Ghost Children” in the person of a New York attorney (Devereau Chumrau) who is forced to confront a long-suppressed truth when she flies back to Oregon to assist in the sentence-reduction appeal of her brother (Alex Taber), imprisoned for slaying their abusive parents and an innocent younger sister 15 years before. Aguirre-Sacasa's engaging homage to the Amicus portmanteau horror films of the 1960s is elevated by a supremely accomplished ensemble (including versatile standout Frank Blocker) tackling multiple roles in a wryly poetic, keenly probing and spooky meditation on the unspoken fears (“the world beneath the world,” as one character puts it) that power fictional mysteries and spur seemingly senseless, real-world frights. Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., Dec. 29 & Jan. 5, 3 p.m.; through Jan. 5. thevisceralcompany.com. (Bill Raden)
GO: PETER AND THE STARCATCHER
Much like the dastardly pirates terrorizing the high seas in his fun Peter and the Starcatcher, playwright Rick Elice has ransacked the best of British kids lit, giving us plucky, pint-sized sleuths fresh from the Boy's Own adventures and larger-than-life characters straight out of rowdy pantomimes. Based on the 2006 novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the tale is an imagined prequel to one of England's most beloved plays, Peter Pan, Or, The Boy Who Never Grew Up. A trio of orphans, including a forlorn nameless Boy — later Peter (Joey deBettencourt) — are enlisted into service aboard the good ship Neverland, bound for exotic lands and bearing a precious cargo. Boy meets the Captain's daughter, Molly (Megan Stern), and they both escape to a mysterious island when pirates take her father's ship. No wires or stage trickery for this Peter, though. The low-tech staging (by co-directors Roger Rees and Alex Timbers) is fresh and inventive, employing the simplest of devices, such as a rope held aloft to represent the crowded confines of a ship's cabin. The cast of 12 tilts and leans in unison to suggest the passage of the ship over uneven seas, and nimbly skips through a hundred different characters. The show is extra kid-friendly, with vomit, fart and poop jokes abounding, plus schoolboy pranks, silly puns and pratfalls. Two musicians perform gorgeous live music and sound effects from their proscenium perches above the stage. Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., dwntwn. Check website for schedule; through Jan. 12. (213) 628-2772, centertheatregroup.org. (Pauline Adamek)
SEASCAPE WITH SHARKS AND DANCER
As the saying goes, “Amor vincit omnia” — love conquers all — and Cupid does have the last word in Don Nigro's perplexing romantic drama, directed by Matt Doherty. Ben (Lane Compton) is a reclusive writer whose sedate life is disrupted when he rescues a drowning woman and takes her to his ramshackle beach house. In short order, Tracy (fine performance by Ri Versteegh) proves that no good deed goes unpunished, as she starts ordering Ben around as if he were a lowly servant, indulging in cruel mind games, continually hurling invectives at him and even bloodying his nose. He takes all this with the graceful forbearance of Job, and eventually the pair strike up a love relationship, but Tracy's painful past and deep emotional lacerations only worsen the abuse. Even after two months, the seeming pleasant domesticity that opens Act II rapidly implodes. What exactly is the connection between these opposites? It isn't made clear, and that makes Ben's saintly behavior under near constant fire seem all the more bizarre and unpersuasive. Had the playwright added more psychological depth and context to these characters, the story would have greater resonance. The Santa Monica Little Theater, 12420 Santa Monica Blvd., Sawtelle District; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through Dec. 15. (310) 622-4482, theblackboxtheater.org. (Lovell Estell III)
ONGOING SHOWS, REGION-WIDE: