EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE 

CURRENT REVIEWS from

TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER 

 

Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical 

Photo by Brian Kuhlmann

Ensemble Theatre Company

If you live in Los Angeles, heading to Santa Barbara to see a production mounted by the venerable Ensemble Theatre Company at the New Vic is usually well worth the trip—and then of course, it’s also a swell excuse for planning an overnight or weekend mini-vaca to one of our state’s most beautiful and historic regions.

The first production in ECT’s valiant (and exceptionally safe) attempt to return to normalcy, the company reopens with the SoCal premiere of the regionally well-traveled musical Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical, which unfortunately sports a flawed and glaringly chopped-up book by Janet Yates Vogt and Mark Friedman yet also features one noteworthy reason for a trip up our coast: a spectacular tour de force turn by Linda Purl in the title role. 

Although I will do my best, perhaps I am not the best guy to be completely objective in covering this show since Rosie was one of my dearest friends and early mentors when as a young pup I first arrived in Lost Angeles and later became my frequent "plus-one" when I began reviewing theatre in the late 80s. In turn, I was her “date” for many of the social events and benefits she attended when I was editor of the Beverly Hills Post before she found and connected with her lost love Dante DiPaolo in the mid-90s.

I was also given an earlier version of this script when it was first being passed around more than a decade ago to see if my personal insight could help it grow. I’m not sure what the authors thought of my input but, judging from where Tenderly has gone since then, not much, it seems.

Although setting the musical in the mental hospital where Rosie was admitted after her notorious breakdown in 1968 while performing onstage in Reno is a clever hook, it also tends to make Tenderly more about Rosie’s woes and many trials in her journey than it celebrates her infectious humor and joy for life that I was lucky enough to be privy to until her passing from lung cancer in 2002.

What’s missing here is Rosie’s incredibly quick and world-class wit, something that easily helped her hold her own against some of her many celebrated comedian friends. The absence of this integral part of one of the most spirited and resilient people I have even known makes it hard for me to see her portrayed as troubled 90% of the time in this predictable “And-then-she-wrote” musical chronicling of her life.

Despite this, Purl is magnificent in the challenging role, astoundingly able to create, under the guidance of one of LA’s best directors Jenny Sullivan (something to which I can personally attest having the supreme privilege of being directed by her myself several times), an indelible and multifaceted characterization despite the script’s lack of depth in the portrayal of the larger-than-life musical icon. Beyond the limitations given them by the playwrights, however, there's definitely a complete person created here and may I also say how uncannily Miss Purl has managed to duplicate Rosie’s vocal stylings and phrasing, as well as the uniqueness of her voice, complete with those eerie lower ranges that always made her sound as though was singing through a bad cold.

Although when I was given one of the first versions of Tenderly to peruse and comment upon, unless my quickly disappearing memory does not serve me, it featured several actors and, although most of them played various people weaving in and out of Rosie’s life, here David Engel has the exhausting task of playing everyone in the story, sometimes in ridiculously quick turnarounds. This includes the psychiatrist who helped Rosie through her breakdown, as well as her ex-husband Jose Ferrer, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dante, even her mother and sister Betty, someone Engel impressively assays in a musical duet of “Sisters” from White Christmas brightly choreographed by Jean Michelle Sayeg.

The majorly talented LA musical theatre veteran Engel, who understandably is most comfortable in Tenderly’s musical interludes, faces a near-impossible task of making all this work and generally it does, although after awhile one might hope we could be trusted to recognize these characters without him having to grab Betty’s scarf, der Bingle’s ever-present pipe, or Sinatra’s cocked fedora with jacket swung over one shoulder each time he saunters on. We get it without the need for such visual overkill, honest. 

The onstage trio featuring musical director George Friedenthal on keyboards, David Hunt on drums, and Rob Moreno on bass, contribute quintessential accompaniment to Purl’s memorable recreations of Rosie’s most famous hits—particularly the title song and “Hey There”—and the design elements are impressive throughout, notably Francois-Pierre Couture’s creamily rich and evocative lighting. Again, what doesn’t live up to everything else about this production is the book, which seems to have been written by two rabid fans intent on namedropping every famous person who ever came into Rosemary’s life, from Bing to Frank to Bobby Kennedy to even a completely unnecessary mention of her sharing a bowl of chili at Chasen’s with Gregory Peck.  

No designer contributes more to any production than costumer extraordinaire Alex Jaeger, but here he is hampered by the title character spending the entire production dressed in a dowdy blue hospital gown, only to blossom way too late in the second act into one of Rosie’s glamorous and gorgeous shimmering stage gowns—something she had rows and rows of glistening behind hermetically-sealed glass doors in the remodeled room adjacent to the ever-cluttered and chaotic upstairs bedroom suite in her now sadly demolished Beverly Hills house on Roxbury Drive (the former home of George Gershwin, in front of which young Miguel and Rafi Ferrer sold lemonade to passing tourists).

In a fine example of the lategreat star’s warpspeed self-deprecating humor so glaringly absent here, I was instantly reminded, seeing Miss Purl enter for the last scene decked out in Jaeger's perfect recreation of one of Rosie’s many lavishly sequined plus-sized camouflaging jackets, that she had dubbed them with an especially endearing tag. I heard it for the first time one day as she prepared to leave town on tour when she asked me if I wanted to go with her to her dressmaker’s where she was getting fitted for her “new tents.” 

See, this is the Rosemary Clooney still lost in Tenderly. A friend commented after the show, “My god, I never knew what an awful life she led!” No, actually she didn’t—but only because she innately knew, despite those infamously public lapses, how to rise above the trials and tribulations of her life, a gift which has been a huge inspiration in how I’ve lived my own life. Now, that’s the part of the story I hope will still one day be told.

THROUGH OCT. 24: Ensemble Theatre Company at the New Vic, 33 W. Victoria St., Santa Barbara. 805.965.5400 or boxoffice@etcsb.org

My Fair Lady 

Photo by Martha Swope

Dolby Theatre

Under the precision and loving directorial eye of theatrical magician Bartlett Sher, the majestic 2018 Broadway revival of the usually too-often revived musical My Fair Lady, now playing at the equally majestic Dolby Theatre, pays a palpable and most respectful homage to the original production, successfully conjuring the overwhelming sense of having stepped back in time to 1956 when this enduring classic first debuted.

The musical itself, of course, pays such homage to G.B. Shaw’s original 1913 theatrical masterpiece Pygmalion, so much so in fact that personally I’ve always believed the credits, instead of listing Alan Jay Lerner for book and lyrics, should read “Book by George Bernard Shaw with lyrics added by Alan Jay Lerner.” Simply saying “Adapted from…” is not enough since almost all non-musical scenes are lifted directly from the play word-for-word—one reason Lady runs almost three hours, the extra time piled on by Frederick Loewe’s score, beautiful and welcome though it is.

In general, the ensemble is exceptional, particularly notable for powerful vocals and well-drilled choreography from Christopher Gattelli. Dressed to the nines in Catherine Zuber’s Tony Award-winning period costumes and dodging Michael Yeargan’s massively creative but ever on-the-move sets, this touring cast is both talented and, with a tip of the hat to our otherwise current restrictive times for the arts, in this case pleasingly diverse.

Shereen Ahmed makes a memorable Eliza Doolittle, smoothly navigating her character’s traditionally difficult transformation from “gutter snipe” (ol’ G.B.’s description here, not mine) to elegant and fashionable London lady at the turn of the 20th century with surprising believability. She has strong support from a wonderfully unstuffy Leslie Alexander as Mrs. Higgins, Kevin Pariseau as Colonel Pickering, Gayton Scott as Mrs. Pearce, and Sam Simahk as Freddy Eynsford-Hill, a character I played so many times as a yung’un I almost began singing along through my mask right from Row J about the pavement always staying beneath my feet before.

Still, it is Adam Grupper’s Alfred P. Doolittle who steals the show, especially in the production’s best and most enjoyable musical number, “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Grupper also offers the production’s most authentic Cockney accent, a fact that had me scrambling through the program to see if the cast has a dialect coach traveling on the road with them. Surprisingly, they have.

Unfortunately, Laird Mackintosh is a lot too young and lots more too bland as Henry Higgins, a role that takes the charm of a Rex Harrison to make the woman-hating confirmed bachelor linguistics professor still somehow remain endearing and lovable despite wanting to tell him off a few times during his grumpy and decidedly 19th-century diatribes about class and gender.

Add in that Mackintosh seemed to always be a tad ahead of John Bell’s orchestra and that, again in our current “woke” era, the character’s misogyny comes off more thorny than ever… well, let me just say I’d love to see this actor play the role in another decade. In the meantime, someone please cast him as Albert in Bye Bye Birdie.

Maybe the most apparent new spin on this old familiar tale is also in the modern updating of the second act that brings My Fair Lady into 2021 with a significant snap: not only does Eliza become a poised lady able to turn every head at the Embassy Ball, she also grows a spine and a couple of cajones under her glittering Tony-winning gowns.

Whereas in the original, the play happy-ends with a romantic embrace despite Higgins barking (affectionately?) at Eliza, “Fetch me my slippers, girl!,” in Bart Sher’s crafty rethinking of Shaw’s century-old sensibility, without changing a word of dialogue our heroine here pulls the perfect Nora, raising her head high and stately sauntering right the heck out of the doll’s house.  

THROUGH OCT. 31: Broadway in Hollywood at the Dolby Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. www.broadwayinhollywood.com

Ascension 

Photo by Ahmed Best

Echo Theater Company

It’s not always easy to be a reviewer to do what he must to remain credible, especially when one has supreme respect and admiration for the theatre troupe and the impressive group of artists mounting and performing in a show. Such is the case with the world premiere of the D.G. Watson’s futuristic play-ish Ascension which, to make my task even more thorny, was commissioned by the prolific and fiercely talented folks at the Echo Theater Company and now opening at the Atwater Village Theatre.

Among many other diverse accomplishments, Watson arrives with an august track record as a playwright and obviously has an intense interest in the genre of science fiction and personal knowledge of all things cyber. His play—let’s compromise and call it a performance piece—proves itself to be extremely convoluted and mazelike, the scope of which is something quite commendable in itself. Still, Ascension is far more Azimov than Vonnegut and, although I admire both groundbreaking writers, there is no doubt I’d pick up Slaughterhouse Five before Understanding Phsyics.

The point here is that it may be me. Although I could watch the same Twilight Zone marathon every holiday until eternity, I can’t say I’ve ever gotten through 2001: A Space Odyssey once without nodding out here and there. Critiquing is one person’s opinion at all times and in all cases and, when it comes to grokking sci-fi this heavily entrenched in scientific theories and concepts, I confess it may be over my continuously stoned-out and geriatrically-challenged head.

Watson’s tale of a time-traveling scientist (Karen Sours Albisua) and the transparently Big Brother-y invention she develops—which interests a greedy mustache-twirling multimillionaire entrepreneur (Steve Hofvendahl) and catches its creator in its virtual-assistant-from-hellish web—covers about as much new literary ground as watching the evening news from last January 6th on a continuous loop.

It did not take long to get lost in the characters’ jargon and become disinterested in their trials, especially as directed by Ahmed Best with pauses so pregnant if they were a human child they’d pop out already teething. Now, this is the most difficult part, because Best is also a proven talent and the interactive aspects he and Watson have developed together to energize this otherwise flat production are clever and quite unique—including requesting audience members to talk back to the actors and offering some knockout cagey tricks that, without giving anything away, involve things such as asking us to only silence our phones before the show instead of delivering the traditional turn-off speech.

The visuals, including wild geometric projections created by reality designer Jesse Gilbert and a suitably spooky electronic soundscape by Black Music The Avatar, are quite provocative, while the high professionality of the ensemble, all of whom try desperately to make sense out of Watson’s often impenetrable dialogue, helps things out. A tad.

Our poor heroine Dr. Monica Traver, head of AI and Suspended Animation Research at Enventure, Inc., is written as perpetually one-note, continuously troubled and possibly even bordering on menopausal, yet Albisua does a yeoman’s job trying to keep us engaged in her character’s predictable plight. Leandro Cano is solid and increasingly more menacing as the lab’s mysterious caretaker and Gloria Ines as Dr. Traver’s terminally ill daughter could easily have evoked a few audience tears in one poignant recorded monologue if the lag in the program opening night hadn’t lessened the impact of Watson’s best and most engagingly human speech. 

Charrell Mack doesn’t as smoothly survive the limitations of her confused and frightened captive character, but it is clear she has the talent to do more in the future—no pun intended. Still, it is Hofvendahl who generates the evening’s most interesting and multifaceted performance as the initially kindly and gently supportive boss whose charm soon gives way to dastardly villianry.

Three or four times in D.G. Watson’s Ascension, a character looks directly at the audience, those of us gathered who it’s said in the script may or may not be real, and asks us, “Are you still here?” This is a dangerous choice that may along the way bring unintentional giggles or possibly elicit an unwelcome response from someone who’s been encouraged to talk back to the actors. Believe me, if I could have somewhere along the way astral-projected myself directly next door to Momed for a stiff drink, I would have gone *poof* right before their eyes. 

THROUGH NOV. 18: Echo Theater Company at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Av., LA. 310.307.3753 or www.EchoTheaterCompany.com

The Enigmatist 

Photo by Yann Rabanier

Geffen Playhouse

Man, there’s no theatrical performance piece harder to “review” than a solo show created and helmed by a magician. To make it even more daunting, David Kwong is not just a guy who practices sleight-of-hand—although he is no slouch at making audience-signed dollar bills disappear and then reappear inside a juicy uncut kiwi—he’s a puzzlemaster extraordinaire whose day job is creating those thorny and infamously difficult crosswords in the New York Times I pass over as quickly as humanly possible before they make me feel I must have an IQ of Trumptian minimalism.

The previously announced New York hit The Enigmatist, now finally arriving at the Geffen after being stalled for a rather infuriating period of time by that little inconvenience we call Covid-19, is not really theatre as we know it, but it’s also not a simple magic show. As its charismatic creator repeatedly assures us what a nerd he’s always been, he instead comes off like a brainy Cary Grant, someone we wish would come over for dinner to share a few of his tricks—no pun intended, honest.

Kwong’s Enigmatist  is ominously interactive for someone such as me who appears to have been left brain-challenged since birth, beginning with tickertholders asked to show up early to solve four wall-sized visual puzzles displayed in the Geffen’s courtyard and lobby, the solving of which before the show becoming an important part of the evening’s plethora of onstage brain-twisting enigmas.

Even if the puzzles had been easier—each is displayed with two hidden hints, one small, one large—this night out was our first excursion venturing into the world to experience live theatre not presented in the open air. Perhaps this might seem an excuse, but I’d like to think it was the Evita-esque clustered jumble of herded patrons crowded too close to one another around the displays that left me with one unsolved as the lobby lights started blinking to get us inside and be seated.

Once past the daunting demands of the lobby's posted conundrums, the Geffen’s more intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre has been turned into a kind of huge professor-y study dominated by bookcases filled with scholarly tomes and eclectic tchotchkes. The atmospheric and reassuring space is surrounded on three sides by nightclub chairs and tables replacing most of the seats to help bring Kwong’s audience into the action, not to mention giving those attending a comforting bit of separation. Although the communal respect from the Geffen’s accordant audience members to keep masks placed above our noses did make me feel a tad safer in my current immune-compromised condition, frankly it was just a tad. I sure will be pleased when all the Troglodytes disappear so the rest of us can go back to living freely again.

Kwong’s show astounds from the first traditional illusion and a few card tricks to tell the story of an eccentric midwestern millionaire at the end of the 19th-century named George Fabyen, who was obsessed with deciphering the mysterious legendary code that many thought was secretly placed in the texts of William Shakespeare's plays by Sir Francis Bacon so one day it could be revealed that he was the true author of the Bard’s body of work.

As he tells the tale of “Colonel” Fabyen and the pair of cryptographers who subsequently fell in love after he enticed them both to Riverbank, his massive estate and the private research laboratory he founded in Lake Geneva, Illinois, to break the code. It was a task they  accomplished so well they debunked the theory concerning Bacon's mischief, something which both infuriated their host and subsequently led him to steal credit for their published results. Kwong is a consummate storyteller, easily engaging the audience in what I suspect is a yarn based on fact.

Along the way, Kwong offers visual puzzles and projected quizzes for the audience to unravel, asking those able to do so to stand up and give their conclusions along with their names, places of birth, and an answer a seemingly casual query about some favorite animal or fantasized vacation destination. These responses are, of course, anything but random, leading to the 90-minute presentation’s jaw-dropping conclusion that is one part Kwong but also at least two parts Criss Angel and about a hundred parts David Copperfield.

Judging from those gathered the night we attended, it’s no wonder this show has already been extended through November 14, as it appears there are a heap of veteran puzzle aficionados residing in our reclaimed desert climes, as some of the answers to Kwong’s suitably enigmatic mystifications were shockingly rapid while the rest of us sat in bewildered silence.

Near the eleventh hour, Kwong pulls down an oversized blank crossword grid and before our blinking eyes proceeds to create an entire Times-worthy puzzle. As he shouts out clues to the words he is implementing, people shout out answers so fast I wondered if I should give up considering reading Einstein and make a geriatric return to Dr. Suess or Winnie-the-Pooh. Still none of my personal inadequacies should be a deterrent to catching The Enigmatist—to the contrary, the engaging uber-nerd David Kwong provides a memorably enlightening and challenging evening that also proves itself to be a uniquely satisfying entertainment.   

THROUGH NOV. 14: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood. 310.208.5454 or geffenplayhouse.org

A Midsummer Night's Dream 

Photo by Ian Flanders

Theatricum Botanicum

There is nothing that serves as a more inspirational example of artistic resiliency in the history of Los Angeles theatre than Theatricum Botanicum’s annual presentation of Shakespeare’s most charming and well-loved fantasy A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

It was 1973 when Will Geer and his wife Herta Ware decided to open their bucolic secluded Topanga Canyon estate to the public and offer the Bard’s most enduring classic to inaugurate their open-air performance space carved into the side of a wooded canyon ravine under a canopy of majestic and perfectly placed oak trees. Is there a quote in the vast Shakespearean lexicon having something to say about things that are meant to be?

Nestled in the richly verdant natural setting where Geer and many of his Hollywood colleagues fled in 1953 to escape the destructive aftermath of Joe McCarthy’s blacklisting witchhunt, Theatricum Botanicum was an ambitious attempt to create a repertory company focused on presenting the great classics of theatrical literature in such a remote and special setting—and their quintessential mounting of Midsummer  has been the cornerstone of the ensemble’s much-anticipated summer season for the past 48 years.

Although I have not seen Midsummer  presented here for well over a decade, I remembered fondly that my favorite time to schedule a trip up the canyon was to attend one of the early evening shows, where the magic of the familiar tale begins to unfold while the sun slowly sets and the enveloping woods surrounding the stage come alive with shadows of curious bats and the songs of frogs and crickets, as well as Zachary Moore’s dreamlike lighting as Queen Titania (played by the show’s perennial director Melora Marshall) and her otherworldly band of tittering extraterrestrials descend from the hilltop high above in costumer Beth Eslick’s glittering, gossamer fairy-wear.

Under the leadership of Marshall, Ware’s daughter who grew up performing on this very stage while living here in her family’s idyllic Topanga enclave, there is a broadly kinetic, palpably tongue-in-cheek appreciation for and homage to ol’ Will’s most delightful and entertaining classic which permeates this welcoming return to Midsummer,  something obviously elaborated upon and polished by the director over the years to a sparkling sheen.

The smoothly quirky physical comedy—presumably some “bits” perfected while continuously reviving Theatricum’s signature event every 12 months for nearly a half-century, some surely added by the eager castmembers of this current incarnation—is the key to unlocking the wonders of this production and providing an overlying refreshing sense of absolution that easily transcends any roughness and unevenness in the playing style and general professionalism of the cast.

Theatricum employs a handful of AEA contracts each season, several of the Equity performers part of the hardworking Geer clan while other roles are usually fulfilled by longtime ensemble members who have returned each season for as long as two decades. Still, it is the inclusion of other notable LA performers who appear here almost as unspoken “guest artists” that so uniquely energizes these productions.

Other roles are assayed by less seasoned actors, some cast from the local community and many others artists being groomed from the ranks of Theatricum’s many workshops and classes for both children and young adults. The result can occasionally be rocky but ironically for even the most demanding of theatrical purists, it matters not a whit—all is forgiven while enfolded in the enchanted spirit of Will and Herta’s passionate dream so fiercely maintained by their talented and prolific descendants.

The most exciting thing about this year’s return to Midsummer’s  convoluted romp through the haunted woods of Athens is the casting of world-renowned Shakespearean master Lisa Wolpe, founder of the LA Women’s Shakespeare Company and a guest artist-lecturer who has literally toured the globe playing the Bard’s most powerful male characters. Wolpe is simply magnificent as Oberon, legendary Renaissance-era King of the Fairies, giving the role a depth and import that completely commands and energizes the stage with her every appearance. Hers is the definition of quintessential Shakespeare, a performance that rivals the work of my favorite Oberon of all time, Sir Ian McKellan.

Longtime Theatricum mainstays Earnestine Phillips and Thad Geer are well-seasoned assets as the play’s resident buffoons Quince and Bottom, impressively leading their hilarious band of “rude mechanicals” ready to perform Midsummer’s  infamously clunky play-within-a-play with a great sense of comedic abandon, while the most impressive turn in the promising youthful performer-on-the-rise sweepstakes comes from Sara Mountjoy-Pepka, who dazzlingly assays the role of the gangly, lovelorn Helena with a little bit Lucille Ball, a little bit Meryl Streep, and a whole lotta Sutton Foster.

From the ranks of the huge and deliciously eclectic cast, Terrence Wayne Jr. brings a fascinating new contemporary spin to that mischievous forest sprite Puck, even breaking into a bit of hip-hop which works surprisingly well with iambic pentameter, and in an impressively sweet and achingly charming stage debut, the teeny-tiny puppydog-ish Aarush Mehta as the Changeling Boy is surely the cutest and most endearing woodland creature since Bambi.

I could not be more pleased to return to Theatricum Botanicum twice this summer, a place everyone needs to visit whenever they need a little dose of theatrical sorcery and give themselves a respite from the daily horrors of the evening news and revel once again in the resiliency of art and artists, clearly the last people on our troubled planet not ready to totally give up on the future.

THROUGH NOV. 7: Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. 310.455.3723 or www.theatricum.com

Me as Bottom, 1965, age 18... jus' cuzz

The Last, Best Small Town 

Photo by Ian Flanders

Theatricum Botanicum

There is no place anywhere in SoCal as enchanted as Theatricum Botanicum, the boundlessly prolific seasonal open-air theatre company established nearly a half-century ago on the grounds of Will Geer’s Topanga Canyon mountain retreat, the place where the actor had to move in the 1950s when his blacklisting by that Trump-prequel destroyer Joseph McCarthy shredded his career in film.

There, along with many other friends facing the same fate—including Woody Guthrie, who lived out his life there in the small mud hut he built himself which still stands to greet visitors near the entrance to the canyon’s natural wooded amphitheater as a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit—the Geer family established a ragtag artists’ colony where the members, made up of once highly respected and established Hollywood artists, collectively survived their life-altering ordeal by selling homegrown produce on the highway.

Through the years and thanks to the unstoppable dedication to the performing arts by Will’s former late wife Herta Ware and under the scrappy artistic direction of his daughter Ellen, Theatricum has become established as one of the most unique performance arts venues anywhere in the country. Each summer, the complex presents several classic plays performed in repertory with an emphasis on the Shakespearean classics Ware and Geer championed fiercely.

Usually however, the season includes one contemporary piece—customarily a world premiere—and this season is no exception. Los Angeles-based Latinx playwright John Guerra’s The Last, Best Small Town  is a clever updating of Thornton Wilder’s enduring 1938 classic drama Our Town,  spanning the years between 2005 and 2009 all wound up in the intertwined lives of a pair of ethnically-disparate neighboring families occupying adjacent homes in the nearby Ventura County town of Fillmore.

The stuff of their lives through the years, with an emphsis on the culturally-diverse problems facing the two families, are overseen from the future perspective of the character of the playwright himself, the traditional Grover’s Corners stage manager role here gratefully assigned to and in the always-capable hands of Leonardo Cano, another true LA theatrical treasure.

As the early years of the new century unfold, the storyline Cano recounts directly to the audience centers around the blossoming love between young Maya Miller and her neighbor Elliot Gonzalez (Jordan Tyler Kessler and Kelvin Morales) as they grow from bratty childhood into their coming of age teen years as they attempt to quell their teenage angst and raging hormones in a world that in the early days of our fucked-up 21st century can no longer offer them the Golden Ticket to our country’s long-lost and sorrowfully lamented American Dream.

There is often at Theatricum Botanicum an oddly overlooked unevenness in the performing styles of the actors, something that can not only usually be forgiven but even embraced if it’s in a production of one of Shakespeare’s or Oscar Wilde’s often operetic classics where overemoting and the exaggerated projecting of voices in an effort to reach the back bleachers high up in the hillside is indeed part of the charm. In more contemporary faire, this theatrical conceit instead tends to hinder the performance. Under Ellen Geer’s direction, so well established on this stage over the years, the individual work is unfortunately glaringly spotty.

The pearl-clutching melancholy and wistful expressions, delivered directly above the high canyon-y place where the audience is sure to see the emotional trauma of the members of the two otherwise highly endearing families, is overshadowed by the intensely realistic and more naturalistic work of other castmembers—particularly the amazingly simple and highly grounded performance of Cano which provides the theatrical glue holding everything together despite any inherent internal flaws in Guerra's script.

This welcoming simplicity is also true of the three actors cast as the male members of the Gonzalez family: the proud and hard-working patriarch played lovingly by Richard Azurdia, Morales as the conflicted son bursting with a need to find a new way to live without his parents’ sacrificing everything to make it so, and especially a highly memorable turn by Miguel Perez as the clan’s ne’er-do-well and often drunken grandfather—someone who through his troubles still appears to have more sense than any other character in the piece besides his grandson.

As with most first productions of a worthy play, The Last, Best Small Town,  although fascinating in its look into the cultural inequities of contemporary life, is also in need of further finetuning. Guerra, of both Boyle Heights Mexican and midwestern Caucasian ancestry, surely has the beginnings of a wonderful new contemporary American classic, especially noteworthy for his crisp and often exceedingly clever tongue-in-cheek dialogue, as well as his insight into both cultures here clashing over the families’ backyard fences.

There is also a rather blatant predictability in the situations unfolding in his heartfelt play and I would imagine there are very few audience members who, by the end of Act One, have not already anticipated what the surprise twist finishing the act is going to be. This is also true of the play’s climatic scene, which is not only predictable but underwritten, leaving us both unsurprised by events unfolding between the young lovers and disappointed the ending is not more uniquely satisfying.

Some of this could be forgiven if indeed Guerra takes a little time and delves more deeply into the unfortunate inequitable issues fostered by the two families’ societal differences instead of just hinting at them throughout the piece—and me'thinks this particular highly promising new playwright is the perfect guy to take them on headfirst.

THROUGH NOV. 6: Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. 310.455.3723 or www.theatricum.com

 

See? I’m an angel!