EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE 

CURRENT THEATRE REVIEWS by Travis Michael Holder 

 

LADY DAY AT EMERSON'S BAR & GRILL 

Photo by Aaron Batzdorff

Garry Marshall Theatre

It’s the spring of 1959 as we enter the Garry Marshall Theatre and find ourselves surrounded by an atmospheric old long-gone nightspot, site of Lanie Robertson’s flawless 1984 Outer Critics Award-winning theatrical masterpiece Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.

Emerson’s was hardly Billie Holiday’s first choice as the proper venue to display her legendary wares, something she is quick to point out with a stink-eyed sideward glance to her last accompanist-slash-manager-slash-reluctant caregiver Jimmy Powers seated at his piano waiting nervously for her to sing. “There’s heaven and hell,” she admits to us, the ghosts of her original audience at the seedy little jazz club, “and then there’s Philly.”

The glory days of Holiday were sadly long gone by the time she appeared at Emerson’s. As played here by that miraculous theatrical chameleon Deidrie Henry, her body is hunched and broken and, although between songs she seems obsessed to spill out to us, her captive audience, all the horrifying pain and nearly insurmountable trials of her difficult life, her memories are dulled and her voice trails off into a raspy growl thanks to her many years of drug and alcohol abuse.

Unlike those in attendance at the real Emerson’s Tavern at 15th and Bainbridge in South Philly so long ago, we are privy 60 years later to the fact that this appearance in a room she had before her fame always loved to play—and where she now appears despite losing her cabaret license as a convicted felon—was one of her last. Holiday would be dead of cirrhosis of the liver from her rampant alcohol abuse only four months later at the age of 44.

Under the keen direction of Gregg T. Daniel and featuring the incredible Henry backed by award-winning musical director Abdul Hamid Royal on keyboards (also perfectly doubling as Powers) and James Leary on bass, Lanie Robertson’s brilliant 1987 Outer Critics Circle Award-winning Lady Day  shines with matchless production values—although Tanya Orellana’s gorgeously appointed nightclub space, which includes several onstage cabaret tables to put us in the mood, is a tad upscale for the room as I imagine it really looked back in The Day when Holiday’s troubles and addictions kept her from basking in her former glory, a time when she once went to an arraignment for drug charges in a limo and clad in furs directly from her appearance at Carnegie Hall.

Beyond everything, however, Robertson’s script is riveting, craftily incorporating some of the most memorable Holiday standards, including many of the songs she composed herself such as “God Bless the Child,” “Good Morning, Heartache,” “Strange Fruit,” and my personal favorite, “Don’t Explain.” Yet, as we sit captivated listening to some of the best jazz and blues standards ever written or performed, we are also given a vivid, shocking history lesson about how black artists were treated in Holiday’s day, especially in the South.

Despite Powers' efforts to drown out her narrative with his insistent piano introductions, between songs she wanders around the stage sipping gin as she recalls the drug-soaked and twisted story of her life, including her year in a West Virginian prison which, she quips, "is double redundant.” Robertson, a master of creating art around the lives of historical figures, deftly captures the spirit of the tortured, angry, brutalized jazz diva stricken by the lesser offense of someone recently referring to her in print as Lady Yesterday  and wondering aloud if in her life she’s have been better off if she’d “moved on her pocketbook" rather than her feelings.

Initially coaxed onstage by Powers after her initial protests from behind the curtains that she can’t do it, the reception from the audience for a time energizes the frail and teetering former star who, despite briefly finding her sea-legs and insisting she’s “good” to us and to Powers, eventually breaks down. Henry by this point has so won us over that it’s heartbreaking when Holiday stops her performance mid-set to stagger offstage and shoot up, then returns totally out of her head, nearly tumbling off the stage and nodding off between lyrics.

I have been privileged to see three amazing actors appear in Lady Day  over the years, the first time many years ago right here at the now long-shuttered Hollywood Playhouse starring S. Epatha Merkerson, who won awards in the role way back during her Reba the Mail Lady days, as did Audra McDonald, who received her sixth Tony Award when the play was revived on Broadway in 2014. I suspect Henry will not be far behind in honors for her turn as Holiday.

Although any critic worth his salt tries desperately to be objective, the fact that Lanie Robertson is a treasured friend and also author of Nasty Little Secrets,  the play in which I appeared and won a staggering number of awards and honors nearly 20 years ago playing Joe Orton’s lover-executioner Kenneth Halliwell, does not make me as biased as one might expect since I first praised the amazing Lady Day  a decade or so before he came into my life personally.

This questionable objectivity might also seem true of my personal connection with Deidrie Henry. Again, I proudly count her as a close friend and my costar in 2013 when she played Antoinette K-Doe opposite me in the west coast premiere of Hurricane Katrina Comedy Fest,  Rob Florence’s fascinating chronicle of five real-life survivors who lived through what folks in New Orleans refer to only as “The Storm.”

Luckily, again, I was praising the gifts of Henry to the rafters long before I worked with her or knew her personally, first introduced to her 14 years ago when, as member (and former Best Actor winner) of the LA Drama Critics Circle, I had the privilege to present her with Best Actress honors for her memorable turn in Yellowman  at the Fountain—which also won her top Ovation, Garland, LA Weekly, and my own TicketHolder Award in 2005.

I have never heard Deidrie sing, however, and was knocked out by yet another of her endless talents. Her haunting and evocative voice offers the suggestion of Lady Day’s unearthly vocal stylings and unique phrasing, lingering just long enough on certain words and smoothly dipping into the vast emotional well of sorrow that has kept Holiday’s sound compelling to this day.

Billie Holiday is a legend and, as such, is a hard act to follow. Deidrie Henry, however, with the precision directorial guidance of Gregg T. Daniel and both of them paying deference to Lanie Robertson’s uncanny ability to bring Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill  back to life, does far more than follow: she creates an indelible, mesmeric portrait of one of the greatest figures in American musical history.

THROUGH JUNE 9: Garry Marshall Theatre, 4252 W Riverside Drive, Burbank. 818.955.8101 or GarryMarshallTheatre.org

HAPPY DAYS 

Photo by Craig Schwartz

Mark Taper Forum

Although written and first performed nearly 60 years ago, it seems Samuel Beckett was something of a Nostradamus while churning out his hilariously bitter, deliciously off-centered allegories chronicling the hidden underbelly of life as he saw it.

With our planet today crashing toward destruction through climate change as we all helplessly endure the destructive reign of a “leader” more interested in his legacy than our planet, the absurdist playwright’s 1961 play Happy Days  eerily reinforces his chillingly prophetic, humorously bleak pronouncements of the gradual disintegration of all living creatures struggling for fresh air and daily sustenance on this unforgiving planet.

“Something of this is being heard,” Beckett’s leading lady Winnie (two-time Oscar/two-time Emmy-winner Dianne Wiest) cries out with trepidation at one point but, since not even the literary warnings from such dramatists as the Bard himself, the brave practitioners of commedia dell-arte, or Anton Chekhov made us think twice about our future, the fact that this classic work has basically also been all but ignored does not bode well for the future of our species.

British director Peter Hall once expressed that Beckett’s much-dissected work was “as much about mime and physical precision as about words.” It’s an observation expertly buttressed here at the Mark Taper by the suitably austere directorial vision of Yale School of Drama Dean James Bundy, who originally directed Wiest in the role there in 2017, a performance praised to the skies when it transferred off-Broadway later that year.

Guiding an actor as brilliant as Wiest, who has several times in interviews referred to the role as a “female Hamlet,” has inspired something truly remarkable as Happy Days  arrives on our left coast. With her body stuck in a massive mound of dirt from up to her waist throughout Act One, Wiest never moves, with only her arms, her incredibly mobile face, a voice that dips and soars as if performing an operatic aria—as well as a scattering of everyday items pulled from a large leather satchel and a few scattered groans and mumbles emanating from the mostly out of sight Michael Rudko as her husband Willie—available to help her keep her audience conscious and alert.

When lights come up for the play’s second half, Winnie is buried even deeper in the sandy soil and is now visible only from the neck up. Wiest still uncannily manages to hold the stage despite her character’s restricted physicality (“What a curse, mobility!” Winnie exclaims without much conviction), riveting our attention with her soulful eyes imparting an acute sense of the mournfully lonely and exaggeratedly barren spaces surrounding her steadily shrinking world as she desperately clings to what is clearly a frightfully horrific existence.

Even as the play begins with a loud, jarring bell signaling its daily message for her to wake up and open her eyes, as Winnie intones her daily mantra “Another heavenly day!” with more than a hint of uncertainness in her delivery, Wiest instantly employs the flash of a wide goofy smile followed quickly by the flickering of a quickly-extinguished dark cloud of fear while trying to convince us—and herself—just how happy her days really are.

The long-suffering Willie is there to help, but not able to do much himself. “You’re not the crawler you once were, dear,” Winnie notes when, quite late in the play, he finally pulls himself onstage and across the mound of dirt to unsuccessfully reach her—or perhaps reach the gun she has pulled out of her satchel in Act One but is now unavailable to her. Yet life without him is the scariest thing she might have to endure. “If you were to die or go away and leave me,” she realizes, “what would I do? What could I do all day long? Simply gaze before me with compressed lips?”

Between the ringing of that headache-inducing bell to guide her daily habits, the first shrill bleat to start each day and a last to demand her to sleep, Winnie exists without a clue why she and Willie are there. “But that is what I find so wonderful,” she tries to convince herself. “The way man adapts himself to changing conditions.” Winnie always looks to the bright side of her dilemma, chronicling the “great mercies” of her situation in a bizarrely poetic, bitingly funny, and incredibly pessimistic two-act monologue as Beckett’s infamous heroine continuously searches for things to reinforce how wonderful life is.

I have seen several amazing, worldclass actors ace this uber-challenging role, including the late-great Charlotte Rae on this same stage in 1990 and Brooke Adams at the Boston Court in 2014, but as memorable as both those performances were for me, Wiest’s Winnie brings something new: a fragility and vulnerability that makes her turn interpreting Beckett something truly unique. In her capable hands and in collaboration with Bundy, her Winnie is even more prone to mercurial moodswings, something seemingly effortless for Wiest considering the octave-defying musicality of her voice and her sweet face’s ability to darken or brighten at a moment’s notice.

Interpreted by lesser talents than this director and his muse, nothing can be harder to sit through than Happy Days—something that thrilled its author, who was famous for sitting near the rear exit of his plays in performance to gleefully thank the patrons who chose to leave early.

See, his work—especially this play and his classic Waiting for Godot—skewers the dryness and encroaching disintegration of daily life as we know it. Winnie tries her best to keep this negativity inside her, but despite her continuous little expressions of small gleeful discoveries, “sorrow keeps breaking in.” And personally, I have to admit that I grok what Beckett was saying far more at age 72 than I did when I was a yung’un—or even at 43 seeing my dear old friend Charlotte so splendidly personalize the role.

Despite his once-grateful personal thank-yous offered to disgusted or confused departing audience members rushing for the exit, Samuel Beckett did not with his Happy Days  let us leave the theatre feeling good about the world around us. “No better, no worse, no pain, no gain!” Winnie observes cheerfully and his mournful, often uproarious revelations do oddly celebrate the indomitable spirit of the human condition despite the massively insurmountable odds stacked against us.

THROUGH JUNE 30: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

INVISIBLE TANGO

Photo by Jeff Lorch

Geffen Playhouse

Reviewed for TicketHoldersLA by H.A. EAGLEHART

Art is the secret of any great storyteller. Nobody could define the embodiment of great storytelling better than Frank Marshall, director of Invisible Tango, now playing at the Geffen Playhouse. When the producer of my favorite film franchises Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, and the Bourne series decided to take on this theatrical project bringing the art of magic and storytelling together, my curiosity alone wouldn’t let me miss this 80-minute story told by Portuguese native card genius Helder Guimarães about his lifelong quest to understand the age-old creed of fate, “Everything happens for a reason.”

Guimarães humbly takes the stage, allowing us to see him exactly for who he is, a simple man holding a deck of cards, and his genuine courage naturally imbues the magician with the power to set any audience at ease. His simple use of theatricality brings the electrifying art of magic to life, swaying gradual control over everyone—myself included—no doubt manifesting Helder’s esteemed hero Max Malini, who performed his sleight of hand before royalty at Buckingham Palace in the first part of the 20th century.

All great storytellers strive to welcome us. Yet in Invisible Tango, Guimarães literally welcomes us into his home, recreated onstage in masterfully simplistic fashion by scenic designer François Pierre Couture (who knocked my socks off with his attention-to-every-detail set design for Jackie Unveiled at the Wallis Center last year), while original subtle jazz music by Moby played on an onstage turntable adds to the mystique. 

Witnessing a single card trick will be more than enough to make anyone slide to the edge of their seat realizing the courage of Guimarães is grounded in something far deeper than first appearances reveal. Deception is not an art, rather telling the truth is. For this reason, the brilliance of Helder comes from his natural ability to let people watch him prove the sincerity of his own truth. He brings the chaos we all share by living with an orange goon in the White House and, with the ease of his sleight of hand, shuffles all our cares and worries into his deck.

One of my greatest mentors in acting and purveyor of this very website always reminds me that art cannot be taught; it can only be nurtured. Invisible Tango is a breath of fresh air in America where the art of passing knowledge along to the future has all but erased stories like this, which Guimarães tells, in unison with performing card tricks, of an elderly clown who mentored him through secretly having an antique store owner slip him a journal with pages stained by rum and filled with many of the secrets to the card tricks now onstage at the Geffen.

The journal is devoid of the person’s name who poorly wrote down the tricks in it. Invisible Tango is Helder’s long quest searching for the mysterious author of the journal. His story and the magic become intertwined as we tango through the evening with Helder—and nobody can deny this master of cards successfully earns trust through proving in trick after trick that chaos can be wielded when grounded in truth.

Our fear of chaos comes from the human abhorrence to danger. Evolution reared us to avoid threatening situations. Experience in the stunt industry revealed to me the art in bringing danger to the stage. Greatly inspired by Malini, Guimarães eventually introduces us to the danger of chaos once certain he has won trust by proving capable of shuffling fate into submission before our very eyes.

The secret to the art of danger is suspense and Invisible Tango’s breakneck speed literally sends every last nerve in the audience over the edge when Helder takes a very real, very sharp dagger into his hand. Wielding the dagger as his magician’s wand, it’s during this most suspenseful sequence of the show that Guimarães’ hand slips and the dagger stabs the wrong card on a wooden tabletop, a mistake which Helder masterfully shrugs off by saying, “Hey, even I am human.” This amazing magician of illusion, even when caught for being human, still leaves the audience wondering if the mistake was simply an intentional/important/necessary part of imbuing us with his courage to believe in his magic.

Destiny takes a young Portuguese boy on a quest around the world, an Invisible Tango through the dark of evening by route of the story of an old mentoring clown in Buenos Aires and his journal of anonymously-written card tricks. We follow Helder Guimarães and his deck of cards from South America, to Scotland, and finally all the way to Los Angeles where learning the definition of “liability” in the fine print of his auto insurance policy has Helder questioning whether everything really does happen for a reason or not.

This delightful Geffen production left me in agreement with Helder’s philosophic summation on life, which is that destiny only requires us to find what makes each of us truly happy and then never letting go. Happiness may seem beyond reach with orange goons in office, but Helder’s courage quite literally proves to the audience with a simple deck of cards that anything is possible. All we must do is believe in a little magic.

THROUGH JUNE 30: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood. 310.208.5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org

VIOLENCE: THE MISADVENTURES OF SPIKE SPANGLE, FARMER

Photo by Ashley Randall

Actors’ Gang Theatre

As part of my students’ final project at the end of a semester teaching 20th-century plays and playwrights, I always offer extra credit if they can write a mini-essay speculating why I chose the five plays we study in depth, beginning with Chekhov’s 1904 “comedy” The Cherry Orchard and finishing the semester examining Tracy Lett’s 2007 contemporary masterpiece August: Osage County.

If any of them realize my subtle point is that over the century between the time those two great literary masterpieces were first presented, nothing much has changed—and that our species is as messed up and incapable of learning lessons from our past as we were 100 years ago—their grades go up considerably.

The pre-curtain recorded greeting accompanying Tim Robbins and Adam Simon’s outrageous 1985 farce Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer, currently being revived at Robbins’ always groundbreaking Actors’ Gang, asks us to turn off our cellphones and locate the nearest exits in case of fire or the total collapse of the American democracy. Somehow, after the initial laughs subside, there’s a palpable air of dread that hangs over the audience all these years later when such an idea is not that unthinkable.

Even without a bizarre yellow cotton candy wig and tacky red tie hanging down to his teenytiny testies, it’s not hard to realize the clown-white-faced Maximilian Enormous, leading player in Robbins and Simon’s comedia dell’arte-inspired satire blasting militarism and media manipulation, immediately reminds us of our dear Celebrity Appresident Donald J. Douchebag, who back in the mid-80s when this production first debuted was probably busy losing his first billion and backrupting one of his early business enterprises.

Max (splendid Gang stalwart Will Thomas McFadden, who in his heavily-kohled white face resembles Dwight Frye as Renfield) earnestly insists he isn’t a monster simply because his ridiculously profitable conglomerate Maximillian Enterprises “put the ME in America” and he swears he doesn’t want to use his wealth and power to interfere with the laws of nature—as long as no one gets in the way of his obsession to live forever.

The irony of this character, who so bigly conjures our Traitor-Tot-in-Chief, is he was created 30-something years ago. Violence was first presented by the Gang way back then, originally directed by its co-author himself, their prolific founder and artistic director. Of course, political corruption, corporate greed, and the obscenity of celebrity is hardly a new theme in underground theatre; to the contrary, it’s the major part of what made the four-and-a-half century old comedia such a significant part of the history and development of dramatic literature as we know it.

Still, Robbins and Simon might have had a crystal ball when they sat down to noodle out Violence,  a nagging windmillian quest that made them feel obligated to warn us of what might come to be. Through the wackiness and absurdity of the situations and performances, so splendidly fleshed out in the direction of Bob Turton, there lurks an urgent three decade-old message beyond the humor. Sorry to say, no one back then seemed to listen.

Spike Spangle and his wife Flora (Tom Szymanski and Andrea Monte Warren) are simple farmers, struggling to stay afloat in a dying profession as they expect their first child. Turned down by a dastardly villainous banker (director Turton, another of the Gang’s resident geniuses) for a loan to help them get through their crisis, Spike at his lowest point is chosen randomly to join a collective of both real-life and fictional celebrities—including Superman, Sly Stallone as Rambo, Elmer Fudd, Anson Williams, and “little Mary Lou Retton”—to be sent off into the cosmos on Maximillian Enterprises’ Elon Musk/Jeff Bazos-esque Celebrity Space Shuttle (I told you Robbins and Simon had a crystal ball) to become the first farmer in space.

Accompanied by a shitload of money, this offer is the answer for which Spike has prayed, the proudest thing that has happened to him since 1973 when he had his picture taken during the International Year of the Farmer, although Flora is far more wary and suspicious of his potential ride off into the galaxy.

What is untold is that Max is conspiring in the mission with the greedily self-serving leaders of the U.S. military who plan to blow up the spacecraft as a convenient way to start a war in the Mideast, the personal sacrifice of these untrained celeb astronauts paving the way for the dastardly CEO and the boys of the Pentagon to unleash the most powerful superweapon in the history of our country—which, as Jimmy Carter noted recently, has been involved in one profitable war after another for all but 16 years of A'murka's 243-year history.

Of course, the drooling generals leering and sticking their tongues out from under Erhard Stiefel’s unsettling expressionless masks see their mission as honorable, made even more acceptable by asking their spiritual guide the Reverend (Jeremie Loncka) to say a prayer for the doomed otherworldly mission is perfectly chosen to reflect their own goals, ending in “…and keep them safe from Communism, even in space.”

David Robbins’ musical choices, from pop tunes to TV jingles from the era when Violence first debuted are golden, as is video editor Peter Lazarus’ running montage of bad space movies and popular commercials selling, selling, selling us lemmings anything we were dumb enough to buy.

The cast is, as always for the Gang, insanely committed and uniformly unstoppable in the range of their antics and movement, with McFadden particularly brilliant as Max and Stephanie Pinnock a standout as his over-the-top yet bloodless girlfriend welcoming the Spangles to the CEO’s quintessentially grand but vapidly soulless Hollywood party. Warren and Szymanski are excellent as the everyman famers, the only performers onstage without a mask or makeup—that is until Spike succumbs to the celebrity to which he is tantalized to join.

Turton’s staging is spot-on and uncannily true to the original material throughout, his directorial debut on the Gang’s mainstage beautifully augmented by his turn as a disheveled, incoherent, coke-addicted Superman furious that the current depiction of himself back then was only chosen because his last name was Reeve.

As Turton writes in his program notes, “Bringing [Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer] back to life represents not only an opportunity to pay homage to our roots as a company, but also to look back and realize that the conflicts, scandals, heroes, and villains of that time are the same threats to our culture, society, and entire civilization today. Hold onto your armrests as we accelerate this theatre to 88 miles per hour, engage the flux capacitor in the lighting booth, and unleash a 1.21 gigawatt torrent of 1985 Actors’ Gang Rocket Sauce!” I for one, could not be more grateful they did.

Now, grant me a well-meaning personal aside:

Although I miss getting paid, as I did for so many years for my reviews, the thing I love most about writing for my own website is I don’t have to adhere to any rules of journalism and AP Style that always hampered my work in print media. Except for my weekly column which ran for 21 years in Entertainment Today, where I could express myself however I wanted as long as my copy filled the empty space around the ads (prompting my friend John Wimbs to once dub me the Dorothy Parker of the West Coast), using “I” in a piece or relating my thoughts to my own personal experience was strictly verboten. When I was an editor myself, I didn’t change or deflate any of my writers’ opinions; I only corrected their punctuation, grammar, and misspelled words. This was not a luxury afforded me for a long time. Now I’m poorer but far more content.

Which is a lead-in to say something about Tim Robbins I never could have related in a more professional venue. This man, someone I’m proud to say has become a friend over the years mainly because of my devotion to the relentless social advocacy of his theatre company, is a hero to me. He has never been someone who shutthefuckup about his personal beliefs and opinions in order to please—or I should say not displease—the powers-that-be in our fickle and rule-demanding industry who can so easily make or break a career.

The Actors’ Gang, Tim’s 38-year-old personal passion project that has taken on the establishment and the dangers of conservatism since its inception in 1981, has proven that fact repeatedly, especially considering the many original scripts and like-minded productions, many of them touring literally all over the world, he has himself contributed to the cause without fear or regard for professional backlash.

Add in his company’s Prison Project, which brings art as a redemptive tool to incarcerated men, women, and children in 12 California prisons, and their Education Department, helping public school kids to discover a new confidence, creativity, and most of all respect for one another, and if I were religious I’d put his name in the hat for some kind of modernday artistic sainthood. The clear decency inherent in Tim Robbins’ activism in no way is linked to any kind of ulterior motive; it’s just who he is in a most elemental way.

Opening night of Violence, as we were entering the theatre, Tim was helping an elderly lady in a walker navigate the Gang’s steep stairs and get to her seat without mishap. My humor sometimes is too spontaneous and without filter and, as we greeted one another, in jest I said conspiratorially in his ear, “Thinking about your liability insurance, are you?”

Tim looked suddenly stricken. “No, no” he quickly answered, “I just want to be sure everyone is comfortable.” I felt kinda awful through the rest of the evening, but in retrospect, that’s just the kind of man this guy is—although for us mere mortals, his unswerving generosity of spirit and caring nature can sometimes make one feel a bit humbled in the presence of his goodness, not to mention his personal courage in his art to call a spade a spade.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but although most anyone interested enough to still be reading this and/or to be interesting in offering support to the humanitarianism and activism of Tim Robbins and his Actors’ Gang, I assume is also someone who constantly tries to be an honorable and productive member of our downward-spiraling and majorly fucked-up society, I think something deserves to be noted once again.

We are all of us done in by one major flaw in our genetic makeup, it seems to me. There’s a constant battle in our journey as human beings to think beyond ourselves and fight one huge flaw in our collective humanity: the need to feel superior to someone else. Even more importantly, we have to recognize and not blame others around us for where we now find ourselves in our species’ evolution.

“These are not actors,” we’re told in so many recent TV commercials. “They are real people.”

In Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer, those creatively unstoppable Actors’ Gang members sweating off their weirdly wonderful kabuki makeup and flicking their tongues out from under Stiefel’s hauntingly creepy masks are not just actors either. They are us. We are them. It’s a shame it’s always so hard to remember that, to recognize and live with that, even as we try our best at every opportunity to defy the shortcomings inherent in our own human nature.

THROUGH June 22: Actors’ Gang Theatre, 9070 Venice Blvd., Venice. 310.838.4264 or theactorsgang.com.

DANIEL'S HUSBAND 

Photo by Ed Krieger

Fountain Theatre

After reviewing theatre in Los Angeles for the past 32 years, I have my share of memories of some difficult assignments I’ve stumbled through over that period of time. Usually, that difficulty involves having less-than glowing things to say about people I admire and love. After attending the opening night of the Fountain’s SoCal premiere of Michael McKeever’s off-Broadway hit Daniel’s Husband, however, this is only the second time in my reviewing history that I almost opted to not write about the production.

If it were not for my pal Maya Lynne Robinson, my gorgeous “date” for the evening, I might not be sitting here composing this. Maya told me I must write about it, if only for the cathartic aspect of doing the deed and, when it was done, she reasoned, I could decide whether to publish it or not. As I write this, that conclusion is still quite up in the air for me; you, the reader, now know better than I do what my decision turned out to be.

If I had known where Daniel’s Husband  “goes,” I probably would have opted not to attend. To say the storyline is agonizingly close to home for me would be a major, major understatement. Dealing with a longterm relationship between two guys completely and committedly in love who find life’s little emotional butcher knife thrusts between the ribs do not often escape their world is a scenario I know only too well.

In McKeever’s play, Daniel (Bill Brochtrup) longs to be married to Mitchell (Tim Cummings), his partner of seven years, something his mate is equally adamant to avoid. Having shared my life with my Victor for 50 years next November, the difference for us was that neither of us wanted to make our union official despite the acceptance and legalization of same-sex marriage, both feeling as Mitchell does that marriage is just a piece of paper that tells our greedy government and equally greedy vendors of goods who we are and gives them the freedom to know how to tax and to market to us.

McKeever, a Floridian who had to rewrite his play after marriage laws changed in his state, presents Mitchell’s argument clearly, that as a gay man he relishes being different and loves not being seen by the world as normal. I remember, at a very young age, my mother half-joking to me that she knew I would be a lifelong rebel because I was only attracted to black girls and white boys—and she was right. It wasn’t a matter of what was between someone’s legs for me, but instead it was a matter of being electrified doing anything and everything society and religious dogma told me was wrong.

For Daniel and Mitchell, the argument between them about the future of their relationship becomes quite a surprise about a third of the way through McKeever’s tale. Although his dialogue is quick and hilariously clever, his play at first appeared to me to be a sitcom-y modern amalgam of Neil Simon crossed with Mart Crowley—that is until things suddenly turned serious.

As someone who has never been much of a fan of gay-oriented humor, especially in a story depicting a perfect, successful same-sex couple hosting their friend and his newest squeeze in their perfect Tarak and Christina-inspired home and serving Daniel’s perfect crème brulee to their guests after his perfect dinner, I at first found the play extremely disappointing.

Despite a dynamic cast honed to razor-sharpness by director Simon Levy, jokes about Tallulah Bankhead and dating boys in junior high school whose worldview could only be based on watching The Real Housewives of Orange County, McKeever’s look into the lives of these modernday boys without a band started to get old for me purdydurn quick—that is until Mitchell starts expounding heatedly to his friend Barry’s (Ed F. Martin) cradle-robbed new love interest Trip (Jose Fernando) the reasons he does not believe in gay marriage. Although both his lover and the kid see it as a way two people can show the world they’re committed to one another, Mitchell sees it as a means to pacify “insipid queens’ desperate need to assimilate.”

If this sudden turn in the storyline were not jarring enough, especially after a weeklong visit from Daniel’s Auntie Mame-ish and glaringly self-centered nightmare of a mother Lydia (Jenny O’Hara), McKeever’s surprises are not over yet. It’s obvious and incredibly sweet how much Daniel and Mitchell adore one another, but is it enough when they are thrust into a medical crisis that could potentially end their idyllic existence, especially when, if they had indeed been legally married, the trauma and heartache they are soon forced to try to overcome would not have been an issue?

Even though at first one might think Daniel’s Husband is going to be all about crème brulee and the issue of multigenerational relationships, those topics soon fade into dust and the last third of the play is guaranteed to leave you moved and emotionally exhausted, albeit in a gorgeously lyrical way.

Brochtrup, O’Hara, and Levy’s knockout supporting players are uniformly exceptional and quite stunning throughout, turning on a dime from playing an updated version of Harold and Emory blowing out the birthday candles to ripping the heart out of anyone in attendance. O’Hara is a special standout as a character who so easily could slip into stereotypical Cruella DeVil-ville behavior without her ability to make Lydia seem human, someone who genuinely believes she is not the villain of the story.

Yet it is Cummings who, under the extremely passionate leadership of Levy, delivers one of the most indelible performances of a man in pain that anyone could possibly imagine, culminating in a harrowing confrontational scene between he and O’Hara that is the stuff awards are made to honor. It is simply the performance of a lifetime from an actor who, despite my once bashing him quite ruthlessly in a review at this same theatre, has given us a plethora of brilliant performances over the ensuing years.

Levy’s direction is incredibly in tune to the rhythms of McKeever’s play, which in itself is surely destined to be a classic in the annals of contemporary gay drama. DeAnne Mallais’ impressively and elegantly appointed set is a welcome addition, as are the contributions of Levy’s crackerjack team of designers.

It’s always a tad earthshattering when a play seems to be written about things one personally has experienced and here is where I fell apart. Spoiler alert: if you don't want what I hope will be carefully constructed hints about the twists of Daniel’s Husband, stop reading now.

Although I’ve shared my life since 1969 in a fiercely committed bond guaranteed to last for whatever time Victor and I have left together, he and I have not shared a bedroom or an intimate relationship except for the first 12 years of our past half-century together. This made the idea of us being married not a consideration, especially since we were both philosophically opposed to the idea for many, many years—and now that I have been involved in my own whirlwind life-changing May-December love affair with someone 42 years my junior for nearly as long as Daniel and Mitchell have been together, that made it even less of a possibility for us.

When Victor was first diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease in 2001 (not the medical issue in the play, by the way), the stakes changed drastically. As I battled my own sixth bout with the dreaded Big C, I knew it was time. Despite my love for Hugh, who by the way helps me immensely in my daily quest to care for and keep Victor at home for as long as possible, I knew the idea of marriage was no longer governed by our political and religious rebelliousness but had to be about our commitment to one another. For me, it was about making decisions about his care and for him, it was essential he was covered if anything took me away from continuing to hang on for dear life as this risky planet spins around the sun at breakneck speed.

Victor and I were married in Las Vegas in December, 2016 after nearly 48 years living together while the patient, understanding person who has revealed himself to be the true and undying love of my life stayed at home in LA to watch our dogs, his sainted acceptance of my situation a testament to our feelings for one another despite the oddities or  the odds.

A character in Daniel’s Husband tells another whose well-meaning attempts to comfort eventually become an irritant that the person has no idea “how hard it is to keep up a good front these days,” particularly when waking each morning he quietly checks to see if the sleeping lump of a person with whom he has chosen to spend his life is still breathing. I know that routine only too well and, hearing it delivered in McKeever’s tender, thought-provoking masterpiece nearly did me in.

I’m still not sure if my camaraderie with these characters was due to my own situation in life, but I suspect it’s more universal than that. Daniel’s Husband is a tribute to committing oneself to love and life, written by a splendid wordsmith and assayed by a brilliant team of designers and players who tenderly make a plea for us all to be kinder and more conscientious of who we are in the world if we care enough to try to leave it a better place.

THROUGH JUNE 23: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525 or www.fountaintheatre.com

THE END OF SEX 

Photo by Tim Sullens

Victory Theatre Center

“Doctor,” that infamous old line from my cradle days goes, “my wife (or husband) doesn’t understand me”—and in our current age of fast-tracked communications and the explosion of social media dominating our lives, I’m sure that sentiment is even more prevalent than back when I was a young’un and the dinosaurs still roamed the earth.

Having shared my life with someone for 50 years next November, for many years everyone we knew referred to us as their perfect example of a happily married couple. I began to tire of the label and started admitting to people who saw us as posterchildren for marital bliss that, although we remained committed to one another, we had lived in separate bedrooms since 1981. Soon after, many others in my life came clean to me about the unspoken lack of intimacy haunting their own relationships.

It became apparent to me that the majority of couples I knew did not have the idyllic, sexually insatiable relationship they all professed to have. As Ayn Rand once observed, most people in the world live as “second-handers." They live for how others perceive them to be rather than for who they are—and what a terrible waste of time such societally-driven deception is.

If there’s any place where people strive for stiff-upperlippedness and work incredibly hard to keep their dirty little secrets to themselves, it’s within the family situation. Uncharacteristically, however, for the family members in the world premiere of Gay Walch’s The End of Sex, those dastardly secrets come spilling out in a series of epic confessions as they gather to celebrate their earthmother matriarch’s birthday.

Heather and her husband Ryan (Austin Highsmith and Chad Coe) show up at her parents’ San Fernando Valley home already snapping at each other over his decision to make dinner reservations later than she thinks acceptable, but it soon becomes obvious to them that the coolness emanating in waves between her folks Nancy and Ken (Sara Botsford and Tom Ormeny) signal a far bigger problem brewing than what time the appetizer will arrive at their table.

And like the younger couple’s silly quarrel over dinnertime, Heather’s parents’ situation was triggered by another insidiously grating pea under her mother’s emotional mattress: the fact that Ken arrived home with a bunch of birthday flowers grabbed on the run at Von’s Lakeside Plaza, wrapped in that telltale cellophane and including two fading blooms already on the way to the trashcan.

These issues escalate into a series of late night confessionals reminiscent of a slightly less violent modernday version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Although the situations faced by these people are much less “sad, sad, sad” then the lives of Martha and George and their own conflicted houseguests, their troubles are equally as capable of ending a relationship or two, especially in the faster and more stepped-up media-dominated world of 2019.

As the evening progresses, we learn that Ryan has lost interest in sex with Heather, mainly because her impending success has so completely overshadowed his own attempts to build a career. Yet it is Nancy and Ken who are in the most trouble, since right before the “kids” arrived she has informed her husband of 36 years that she no longer wants to have sex with him.

Fueled by anger and revulsion at his wife's desire for total and final abstinence, the revelation beginning with Nancy admitting she has hidden his Little Blue Pills in the depths of her purse, in frustration Ken brings up the subject of her drastic decision in front of Heather and Ryan, much to his wife's embarrassment and shock that he would want to discuss their sex lives in front of their daughter.

Still, Nancy is soon telling those gathered how she feels, admitting she has looked back at her life and has realized she has too many times agreed to too many things despite her lingering deep-downs. "Why don't you go to one of those doctors," she rails at Ken, "and find out why your sex drive is so annoying."

Damn those wilted supermarket flowers... how could  Ken have been so horribly insensitive?  Oops. Sorry. I guess my closet misogyny is showing.

Walch’s writing is smart and often riveting, especially in the two-character scenes between each of the sexually troubled couples that so perfectly explain why they find themselves in the trouble they’re in. Under the Victory’s venerable co-artistic director Maria Gobetti’s ever-razorsharp and insightful leadership, her dynamic cast helps make the dialogue soar.

Botsford is the quintessential foil for Ormeny’s exceptional portrait of a man often in denial, his quietly wicked comic timing giving us, the audience, some well-needed moments of relief from the growing tensions between Walch’s downward-spiraling family in crisis.

Highsmith also serves her character well, yet it is the eerily calm and collected Coe, often offering thrown-away oneliners from the sidelines, who provides the evening’s most indelible performance—particularly when everything Ryan is going through leads to meltdown and potential tragedy.

There is room for some improvement in Walch’s otherwise exceptional script, especially in the opening scene where Botsford and Ormeny are forced to deliver so much clunky exposition that it’s a surprise when her story soon after evolves into such a  compelling view of contemporary marriage.

There could also be a few easy tweaks to the storyline that could make it more probable considering this particular cast, the age of the actors playing the parents a bit off as they discuss Nancy’s menopause and remember how they met as college students 36 years earlier.

This doesn’t mean Botsford and Ormeny are not worthy choices to assay these complex roles, only that some minor accommodations to Walch’s timeline could make their relationship more believable since they’d perhaps be better depicted meeting as young college professors rather than students living in a dorm.

One of the most desirable attainments for any drama is its ability to make us think, to create a dialogue between people that lingers far beyond the final curtain. Surely, The End of Sex is a fine example of this, as I left the theatre feeling frustrated and vexed by what I felt was intensely myopic and self-centered behavior from both Nancy and her daughter.

In the play’s final scene, in which a 19-year-old previously unseen houseguest (Lianna Liew) returns unexpectedly to retrieve something she and her boyfriend left behind, Nancy delivers what is, to me, a majorly inappropriate and unsolicited parental lecture telling the girl how to live her life as she tries desperately to escape. Were it me, I would have grabbed my property, told the woman to mind her own fucking business, and disappeared from her abrasive ranting as fast as my little feet could carry me.

In discussing this on our ride home, I found my boyfriend, he of a decidedly different generation than I am, had felt exactly the opposite from me, that to him it was Ken and Ryan who were the selfish and insensitive culprits creating the problems, not their mates. Great dramatic literature throughout time provokes such conversation and helps us look at ourselves and reevaluate our own personal attitudes.

In the case of Gay Walch’s startlingly honest and most contemporary new play, mounted spectacularly by Gobetti and her crackerjack team of actors and designers, The End of Sex is gripping and most welcome in our communal attempt as artists to leave behind a chronicle of who we are, particularly as it simultaneously heralds the advent of a clear, fresh, distinctive new voice in American theatre.

THROUGH JUN. 2: Victory Theatre, 3324 W. Victory Blvd, Burbank. 818.841.5421 or thevictorytheatrecenter.org

TRUMP IN SPACE 

Photo by Joe Funk

Second City Hollywood

It isn’t easy to poke untapped fun at our disastrous Celebrity Appresident when every friggin’ day he continues to expose himself as the biggest joke of our time in history. The creative folks at Second City Hollywood, however, have somehow managed to make Dotard Donnie look almost as ridiculous as he does in real life with their oft-extended new musical Trump in Space, winner of last summer’s Encore Award after its debut at the Hollywood Fringe Festival 2017.

With original music composed by the show’s musical director Tony Gonzalez and Sam Johnides, Trump-ian bookwriters Gillian Bellinger and Landon Kirksey double onstage in roles they surely created for themselves. Bellinger appears as the stone-faced starship captain Natasha Trump, a reluctant descendent of our own current presidential Voldemort, while Kirksey makes a few judiciously planned cameos as The Executive, a faceless, gravel-voiced Darth Vader clone with a patch of blond hair sticking out of his hood and sporting a long red tie nearly reaching the knee area of his mysterious black robe.

Set in 2417, it’s rather scary to think our National Embarrassment might have survived the 400 years since all of us have shuffled off our mortal coils—maybe collectively if somebody doesn’t soon stop the out of control asshole—but it’s instantly crystal clear who The Executive is meant to represent, especially when he tells those gathered he’s the “most just leader in the history of the universe.”

There’s no rocket science employed here—if you’ll excuse the expression—but the hour-long romp through the cosmos is sure to please with constant in-jokes referencing Star Wars, Star Trek, and its most accessible and welcome target: that huuuuuge black hole known as the current administration as it tumbles headfirst through its own shocking and unbelievable trip into its own self-created script for Twilight Zone.

Capt. Trump and her crew (Jim Shipley, Rob Warner, and Joy Regullano) are on a mission traveling through space for the ruling United States of Commerce, fighting to reach a new star system called Polaris IV while hot on their heels are the rebels manning the Starship California (Nicole Pelligrino and Jessie Sherman, led by their commander Scott Palmason). Early in the proceedings, Trump’s followers capture their enemies and, spotting one another, she and Captain Barack “Barry” Sanders (Palmason) realize they are the lovers lost to one another years before, enabling them to break into song as smoothly as Nellie Forbush when she finds her Emile. 

Under Frank Caeti’s whimsical direction, every castmember has his or her own golden moment to shine, both in song and in deed, with the bi-spectacled Regullano proving to be a special standout as the meek and frustratingly overlooked Lt. Joy while Warner, dressed in an homage to Sgt. Dangle on Reno 911!, is hilarious throughout the gayest starship crewmember since the coming out of Mr. Sulu.

Pellegrino creates her own moments, moments reminiscent of a severely stoned Sid Vicious in an old Sex Pistols concert, which the others watch with suitably patient wonder before blaming her overacting as the result of her character’s juice cleanse. There’s also an eleventh-hour surprise from Mary Jo, who suddenly appears out of nowhere as another of the Republicants most jaw-dropping posterchildren, singing her lungs out as a character who, one might assume, thinks she sees Russia from the window of the spacecraft’s galley.

No, there’s not much content here aimed to change the desperate nature of our current world situation, but hey—The Executive does get blown to smithereens at the end, so besides the nonstop laughs of Trump in Space, there is some satisfaction watching him finally leave the universe a better place.

FRIDAYS THROUGH AUG. 16: Second City Hollywood, 6560 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 323.464.8542 or www.secondcity.com/shows/hollywood/trump-in-space 

 

  See?  I'm an angel.