EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE 

CURRENT THEATRE REVIEWS by TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER 

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG 

Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Ahmanson Theatre

According to an illuminating open letter from the president of the Cornley University Drama Society printed in the Center Theatre Group’s program for The Play That Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson, this current engagement is itself a mistake.

Due to a clerical error, there was a terrible mix-up, we’re told, sending the troupe’s production of The Murder at Haversham Manor  to America instead of their mounting of Equus—which unfortunately is now instead being performed back in England in Cornley’s gymnasium. Show business can be such a challenge sometimes, can’t it?

On opening night of the transplanted British Mischief Theatre Company’s The Play That Ends Wrong, winner of the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy of 2015 when it debuted in the West End, everything that was supposed to go wrong went right—or should I say everything that should have gone right in The Murder at Haversham Manor went splendidly wrong?

Of course, this fictional booking faux pas is more than just a challenge to the members of CUDS since, as its president and Haversham Manor’s director (and star!) Chris Bean tells us in his nervous curtain speech, it’s the first play they’ve mounted with roles for all their members. All eight of them.

This is the reason past productions presented by the company have been forced by circumstance to be less ambitious, such as their dramatic presentation Two Sisters  and their reinvented musical Cat.  Why, even their children’s theatre tour of the Roald Dahl’s classic James and the Giant Peach had to first be retitled simply James and the Peach until further complications forced them to call it James, Where’s Your Peach?

In the real play here, director Matt DiCarlo, who stage managed the London and Broadway runs, recreates Mark Bell’s award-winning staging on Nigel Hook’s phenomenally versatile original set, something without which Wrong could really go wrong.

Hooks’ ingenious designs, with stately walls and accoutrements able to fall apart and even disintegrate at will, would seem to be incredibly hard to duplicate without a yearlong consultation with the Disney Imagineers to help turn it into reality from the demanding ideas germinated in the fertile brains of creators/performers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer, and Henry Shields.

The set is the heart and soul of this production, but not without a troupe of eight performers willing and physically able to make it work. One almost wonders if each right Wrong  player had to be a graduate of a physical workshop led by the late Marcel Marceau before studying agility with Cirque du Soleil and completing a season training with the U.S. Olympics gymnastic team.

The cast is pure gold, perfectly epitomizing the concept of ensemble playing not only as they bounce off one another’s energy but doing so as they duck falling coats of arms, crawl from smoke-filled malfunctioning elevators, or smash through the fireplace to replace the missing mantlepiece and not-so patiently hold essential props in place.

See, beyond the need for a uniformly keen ability to deliver the play’s delightfully dry British Monty Python or Mr. Bean-y humor, everyone cast must be able to perform pratfalls ala Buster Keaton from the second level of the crumbling manor house set or tumble backwards out of missing windows without a glitch. If anyone stands 18” to the wrong side, they risk being flattened by crashing chandeliers or other debris and, if someone sits in a chair placed an inch closer than where it should be, a guy could lose his precious cobblers  when a sword blade pierces the floor from below.

In Haversham Manor’s pivotal role of Police Inspector Carter, CUDS’ President Chris Bean—whom we’re informed in the playbill-within-the-playbill serves as the play’s director, set and costume designer, propmaster, box office manager, dramaturg, press and PR rep, vocal and dialect coach, fight choreographer, and also assumed the “rehearsal role of Mr. Fitzroy”—is perfectly assayed by Evan Alexander Smith, whose stuffy demeanor and lanky appearance adds to the fun when things go array and he turns from Basil Rathbone into early Buddy Epsen.

Ned Noyes is especially hilarious as “graceful” tennis-clad hero Max, who has a clear aversion for kissing his love interest Sandra (quintessential fainting heroine Jamie Ann Romero) and early on discovers that audience laughter is a palpable entity and subsequently plays each line with wonderfully exaggerated gestures and movements directly out front to please his fans.

Scott Cote is particularly endearing as resident manservant Dennis, continuously exasperated with himself for having trouble remembering his lines and mispronouncing the big words scribbled in the palm of his hand, while Peyton Crim makes the most of his rich musical theatre baritone as Sandra’s suspicious brother.

Yaegel T. Welch makes the most watchable corpse since Weekend at Bernie’s  and both Angela Grovey and Brandon J. Ellis as, respectively, the production’s nervous stage manager and drunken lighting technician, are a scream when each is forced to go on for Romero’s Sandra after she’s occasionally knocked unconscious by a pesky swinging door.

There is absolutely no message to glean from all this besides enjoying the company’s loving homage to the groundbreaking comedic antics of Keaton, Chaplin, the Keystone Cops, and good ol’ Stan and Ollie as you lose yourself in the loopy but precisionally performed ridiculousness of it all. It’s something very welcome as the horrors of real life are compromised daily by a dangerously out-of-control reality show host with an IQ of 61 who continues to dominate our daily lives.

A good friend commented after the show that this purposefully over-the-top inanity could do well in the future performed by community and dinner theatres. I was unsure if the comment was meant seriously or with a touch of subtle sarcasm but either way, I do agree such venues could definitely use a break from Lovers and Other Strangers and life in Neil Simonland.

The Play That Goes Wrong  could be a winner in such settings after singing “Happy Birthday” to Mabel at Table R7 and finishing your second helping of rubbery Chicken Cordon Bleu, but it would only be possible if the theatre’s resident staff tech director has been attending his AA meetings on a regular basis and all stagehands submit to a pee test each night before the theatrical rollercoaster reaches the tippytop of its first hilariously goofy lift hill.

THROUGH AUG. 11: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

THE RUFFIAN ON THE STAIR 

Photo by Noah Torjesen

Los Angeles LGBT Center

It was August of 1964 when BBC aired a remarkably shocking radio play written the previous year by a basically unknown new badboy upstart named Joe Orton.

So energized was Orton by the sale of his deliciously dark comedy The Ruffian on the Stair  that, by the time of its broadcast, he had already completed and successfully sold his first full-length play. The groundbreaking Entertaining Mr. Sloane  had opened several months before Ruffian  was aired, playing the modest New Arts Theatre before being transferred to Wyndham’s amid an equal plethora of praise and outrage.

In the next three years before the 34-year-old Orton was bludgeoned to death with a hammer by his lover Kenneth Halliwell, he became one of Britain’s most celebrated—and vilified—playwrights. Sloane  was followed by Loot  (currently being resurrected in a wonderful revival at the Odyssey in West LA until mid-August) and What the Butler Saw,  which sadly was to debut in a major production at the Queen’s Theatre, becoming his most successful play two years after his murder.

In his meteoric but tragically brief career that changed the course of comedy forever, among his accomplishments was reworking The Ruffian on the Stair  for the stage and coupling it with another radio play, The Erpingham Camp,  opening the two pieces together in 1966 under the title Crimes of Passion.

Originally based on a novel called The Boy Hairdresser  Orton wrote in collaboration with Halliwell, Ruffian is nothing as well-known as his three other infamous plays nor, in its 60-minute playing time, is it often presented.

I must admit I have been an Orton freak since my teen years, also having once had the great privilege of playing Halliwell in Lanie Robertson’s brilliant Nasty Little Secrets,  the role that garnered me a Best Actor nomination from LA Weekly  and for which I won my first cherished LA Drama Critics Circle Award in 2001.

Although I have had the fun of directing students working on scenes from it several times over the years, I have never seen Ruffian performed before now and I couldn't be more grateful Orton’s most obscure play has come to roost at the LA LGBT Center’s Davidson/Valenti Theatre for a post-Hollywood Fringe Festival extended run.

Luckily for anyone who mourns all the wonders that might have been unearthed if this guy’s career had not been limited to such a short yet prolific period of time, this overshadowed little theatrical gem is beautifully mounted here by director Mark Kemble and three actors who totally get Orton’s dryly farcical British humor and the signature rhythms written into his dialogue.

As Mike, the Irish working-class professional driver who shares his London bedsitter with the common-law wife he met under less-than perfect romantic circumstances, Brian Foyster is dead-on from his first appearance, sneering and preening into an invisible fourth-wall mirror as he readies for work, his mouth shaping itself around his character’s proletarian accent as former boxer Mike desperately tries to appear uppercrust.

Sile Bermingham is his perfect foil as Joyce, the former prostitute who is equally as determined to elevate her class, a major theme winding throughout all of Orton’s work. Her nervous, bird-like demeanor and quick ladylike steps bounce off Foyster’s misogynistic stiff-backed delivery like a British Burns and Allen.

Into the attempted normalcy of their lives comes Reed Michael Campbell as comely cockney youth Wilson, the brash unemployed “men’s hairdresser” who knocks on their door inquiring about a non-existent room for rent and stays on, of course, for a bit of Ortonesque shenanigans.

As in all of Orton’s plays, the cynicism that guided his Quixote-esque mission to skewer the hypocritical cultural and political mores of the time is distinctly present, as are a palpable sense of potential danger lurking just below his characters’ mannered demeanor and an abundance of sexual innuendo meant to be as relentless as the message or  the menace.

Kemble directs with an austere but crystal-clear ability to heighten the tension winding through Orton’s curiously off-kilter tale, but if anything is missing in this production, there's a rather surprising downplaying of the suggestive teasing inherent in the characters’ barely suppressed attraction for one another.

Still, having such an otherwise quintessential representation of the outrageous people and situations Joe Orton celebrated as he cleverly called out the societal and political corkscrewing we still endure a half-century later is indeed a treat, especially as The Ruffian on the Stair is brought to life by this trio of slickly harmonious actors, any of whom I suspect Joe Orton would have been thrilled to encounter by chance in the loo at Islington Station.

And I mean that in a good way. In an Orton-y good way, of course.

THROUGH JULY 28: Davidson/Valenti Theatre, Los Angeles LGBT Center, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Hollywood. 323.860.7300 or www.lalgbtcenter.org/theatre

THE PRODUCERS 

Photo by Matthew Brian Denman

Celebration Theatre

Eighteen years after premiering on Broadway in 2001, winning an unprecedented 12 Tony Awards and spawning a major film version in 2006, The Producers  is still billed in all its incarnations as “A New Mel Brooks Musical.” Surely, this is a contractual element demanded by Music Theatre International when securing the rights to present the musical but, in the case of the Celebration Theatre’s current revival, it couldn't be closer to the truth.

Under the guidance of director Michael Matthews, joined by repeat collaborators Janet Roston as choreographer and Anthony Zediker as musical director in the Celebration’s 49-seat Lex Theatre’s miniscule playing space, The Producers is indeed almost akin to viewing an all-new and freshly entertaining musical.

Working on this challenging stage, which is probably about the size of a trap door on the boards of New York’s austere 1,710-seat St. James Theatre where The Producers  debuted and ran for 2,500 performances, only worldclass talents such as Matthews, Roston, and Zeliker could possibly make it work. Instead of a massive line of synchronized tapdancing chorusgirls in the original production, for instance, at the Lex there are four—yet they dance with a spirit and energy that could conjure an army.

And where Robin Wagner’s versatile Tony-winning scenic design conspired in its grand playing space to create visual magic long before Broadway became dominated by projections and video grandeur, here Stephen Gifford’s set is obviously less able to morph from one wow-inducing scene change to the next.

This deficiency soon declares itself to be an asset to this innovative production, however, as the stage and proscenium crowded with teetering filing cabinets stays stationary throughout but tranforms with great whimsy into whatever Matthews and Gifford decide, with tongues firmly in cheek, to represent—including drawers that open from behind so arms can extend onstage to deliver props or single roses to the performers.

With a total of seven ensemble members cast to play all the various assorted supporting roles throughout the show, something that makes them often have to leave the stage from behind and race around the Lex to quickly reenter from the lobby in a completely new costume, what has been accomplished here is simply amazing.

Not much is lost or compromised. Insane stormtrooper helmet and lederhosen-clad Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind (in a hilarious turn by John Colella, who nearly out-Mars Kenneth Mars) still keeps pigeons on his Manhattan rooftop, who roost upstage in their coop as hand puppets manipulated from behind able to dance along with Brooks’ catchy “Der Guten Tag Hop-Clop” and eventually reveal swastikas gracing their little birdy breasts.

And when all stops are not only pulled out but totally disintegrated in a sea of delightfully inappropriate imagery during the musical’s infamous production number “Springtime for Hitler”—the title of Liebkind’s script that producers Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom (Richardson Jones and Christopher Jewell Valentin) option for Broadway in the hope of mounting a guaranteed flop as a tax write-off—the result is one of the best versions of this extravaganza since the first sight of it shocked appreciative audiences in Brooks’ first non-musical classic film version in 1969.

All these years later, there’s still something to disgust everyone lacking a well-honed sense of humor in The Producers, from poking outrageous fun at Nazism to offending gay people with the depiction of the play-within-a-play’s drag-wearing director Roger De Bris and his light-in-the-stilettos Gloria Swanson-channeling assistant Carmen Ghia, here played to the hilt by the Celebration’s artistic director Michael A. Shepperd and Andrew Diego.

Why, there’s even something to shock Scandinavians as Bialystock and Bloom hire a buxom but talent-free amazonian secretary/assistant from Sweden named Ulla Inga Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson (Mary Ann Welshans), who could singlehandedly send the #METOO movement back to the dark ages with her innocently lustful solo “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It.”

The ensemble, the quartet of chorines mentioned above and three guys willing to occasionally double as chorines, is gamely on-the-money throughout. They are especially memorable in a wonderful rendition of “Along Came Bialy,” in which a chorusline of horny little old ladies Max is schtupping on a regular basis, “keeping his backers on their backs” to finance his projects, sing and dance while providing precision percussive accompaniment with their canes.

Diego is hysterical as the constantly posing Carmen, particularly in one overdramatic exit which lasts forever and ends with only his arm and hand visible as he scratches his nails down the wall leading offstage. Welshans is a delight as Ulla, though hardly traditionally cast since the original, Tony winner Cady Huffman, was about six-foot with breasts the size of Stockholm. Still, Welshans manages to make her lack of stature work beautifully, as perfectly empty-headed and English-challenged as Ulla needs to be.

The towering Shepperd as Roger, from his first appearance in costumer-goddess E.B. Brooks’ dazzlingly glittery couture version of a gown that perfectly evokes the Chrysler Building, is truly the highlight of this cast. From his initial belting of Roger’s anthem “Keep It Gay,” delivered stone-faced below a shocking-white Peggy Lee wig, to his golden impression of Judy Garland making love to her microphone cord, and culminating in his incredible turn as what I suspect might be the only African-American ever cast as der Fuhrer delivering a spirited “Springtime for Hitler,” Shepperd is nothing short of showstopping.

The only real conspicuous downside of all this is the casting of the two terminally goyish leading performers. Granted, Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick—or Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the original film—are all quintessentially hard acts to follow, but try as they will, no matter how much sweat they produce in their attempt to play the sheepish blankey-fettered Max and the bombastically obnoxious Leo, Valentin and Jones just don’t quite slice the pastrami.

This does not mean either of these performers is anything but a potentially dynamic musical theatre performer, only that both are badly miscast. Valentin is incredibly slick playing a nerd, his face possessed of all the endearingly silly mobility of Joe E. Brown as he defies his awkward physicality to impressively keep up as a dancer, but he is simply too young for the role and vocally not yet up for the task, although I suspect in about 15 years he could ace this role superbly.

Jones has impressive credits in musical theatre, just not the chops to find his way as the ridiculously over-the-top Max, something particularly apparent in “Betrayed,” the character’s 11th-hour musical soliloquy from his prison cell that singlehandedly netted Nathan Lane his second (of three) well-deserved Tony Awards. I would love to see Jones in a role better suited to his talents, but I say this with two caveats: next time, someone’s gotta tell him he doesn’t need to project to the second balcony of the Ahmanson when playing the teenytiny Lex, saving those gathered a nasty headache by final curtain, and secondly, if needed, the next presenters better hire a more demanding dialect coach.

Again, this doesn’t mean Valentin and Jones don’t have what it takes, just that both need a little more time to play these demanding and challenging roles intended for more seasoned and more mature actors.

Still, this revival of The Producers  is a must-see, once again a testament to the team that keeps turning out jaw-dropping, ingeniously scaled-down Lilliputian versions of huge productions no other intimate theatre company would ever attempt. I am firmly of the opinion that the gamely unflappable Celebration Theatre, especially with the inclusion of the visionary prestidigitation of director Michael Matthews, could take on War and Peace  and transform it with guaranteed success into a masterful production called Honey, I Shrunk the Napoleonic Wars.

THROUGH AUG. 12: Celebration Theatre, 6760 Lexington Av., Hollywood. 323.957.1884 or celebrationtheatre.com

MYSTERIOUS CIRCUMSTANCES 

Photo by Jeff Lorch

Geffen Playhouse

Fifteen years ago, shortly after the violent death of Sherlock Holmes-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle scholar Richard Lancelyn Green, Geffen Playhouse artistic director Matt Shakman came across an article in The New Yorker  titled “Mysterious Circumstances: The Strange Death of a Sherlock Holmes Fanatic,” written by David Grann and chronicling the mysterious circumstances surrounding the man’s curious demise.

Was it murder? Was it suicide? Found face-down on his bed surrounded by books and manuscripts from his $4 million collection of “Sherlockiana” in his upscale Kensington district home in London’s West End, the 51-year-old Lancelyn Green had been garroted with a shoelace tightened around his neck with a wooden kitchen spoon. Clearly, it was a most puzzling whodunit perhaps only that famous make-believe resident of 221B Baker Street a century earlier could possibly unravel—and indeed, the actual cause is still listed as unsolved.

Fast forward 15 years and, thanks to the adventurous artistic spirit of Shakman, the mysterious circumstances surrounding the poor Mr. Lancelyn Green’s untimely passing have become an amazing new play now world premiering at the Geffen called, appropriately, Mysterious Circumstances.

Back then in 2004, Shakman immediately thought the magazine article chronicling the scholar’s bizarre death would make an interesting subject of a film or TV show, but after mulling around the possibilities of such a thing for several years, he realized the perfect medium to tell the tale of Lancelyn Green’s death and “enter fully into the imaginary life of the central character,” as he explains it, would be in a theatrical setting.

After optioning the rights to Grann’s original article, Shakman approached playwright Michael Mitnick to adapt it for the stage under a commission from the Geffen. The result is the astounding debut of Mysterious Circumstances, truly a feather in the cap of the Geffen and honoring the entire oft-maligned creative innovation originating in the Los Angeles theatrical community.

Brilliantly directed by Shakman with invaluable help from set designer Brett J. Banakis and projection designers Kaitlyn Pietras and Jason H. Thompson, Mitnick’s fanciful play, half-thriller, half-comedy, continuously jumps with lightning speed from 1894 to 110 years later, contrasting both Conan Doyle’s fight to kill off his famous detective and concentrate on more scholarly material, with Lancelyn Green’s obsessive fight to obtain a box of long-lost papers containing the author’s never published personal letters and a handwritten autobiography—a quest that may or may not have led to his baffling end.

The story is suitably fascinating and Mitnick’s adaptation is a gem, but it is the production itself that ultimately is the star of show. As the incredibly whimsical and sometimes towering sets evolve into a series of rapidly unfolding vignettes, seven gamely committed actors assay all the roles, led by the tour de force performance of Alan Tudyk as both Lancelyn Green and Sherlock Holmes himself, as the reality of the scholar’s life transforms smoothly into the fictional magic of the investigation of it by the most famous detective of all time.

Joining Ramiz Monsef as Dr. Watson, Austin Durant as Conan Doyle, and Helen Sadler as his dying wife and his fiercely protective elderly daughter Jean, three of LA’s finest theatrical native sons, Hugo Armstrong, Leo Marks, and John Bobek, play everyone from cockney cabbies and barhounds to stuffy book editors and the quirky members of the Sherlock Holmes Society, of which Lancelyn Green had been a past president.

This serendipitous collaboration of artists at the top of their game results in pure Potterian wizardry, made even more possible by the obvious finacial commitment from the Geffen and support from the Edgerton Foundation New Play Production Fund and the Harold and Mimi Steinberg Charitable Trust. Donors have never before been acknowledged in any of my reviews but simply, without the precision hydraulics and lavish production amenities afforded this production, including E.B. Brooks lavish costumes, Elizabeth Harper’s lighting, Jonathan Snipes’ sound and original music, and visual illusions conjured by Francis Menotti and David Kwong, such wonder could never have been so beautifully and impressively realized.

For this, let’s all celebrate the Geffen’s game-changing decision in 2017 to turn over the artistic reigns of the Playhouse to Matt Shakman. Last year, it was a chance meeting with that great chameleon Jefferson Mays on a day trip with his young daughter to the La Brea Tarpits that resulted in the production of the year in Los Angeles, the Geffen’s monstrously successful one-man adaptation of A Christmas Carol that received my TicketHolders Award for Best Play of 2018 among several other honors, including Best Solo Performance by May.

As that production, hinted to be on a journey off-Broadway later this year, managed to inaugurate, Mysterious Circumstances is both an artistic and technological masterpiece surely employing more dressers and technicians behind the scenes than Cirque du Soleil’s O  has submerged frogmen. It is a must-see for everyone, but especially for the worshipful devotees of Sherlock Holmes and the genre Conan Doyle helped energize over a century ago.

And without a doubt, the advent of Matt Shakman as artistic director was just what was needed to elevate the Geffen Playhouse from where it had descended, into a safety and conservatism that was slowly making it less dynamic than it had always been in the past. Under Shakman’s signature leadership, this is a spectacular redirection for the venerable complex and in helping to finally recognize Los Angeles for the daring and groundbreaking artistic innovation it continues to generate.

THROUGH JULY 21: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood. 310.208.5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org

LOOT 

Photo by Enci Box

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Appearing in London in Hello, Dolly!  in the late 1960s, an era of typically complacent and commercially safe theatrical offerings that appealed to the rigid other-Pondly sensibilities of Brits some 50-plus years ago, we were characteristically welcomed with gracious open arms. Soon, however, the West End was abuzz with talk about a shocking newcomer transferred to the Criterion Theatre after playing and bombing bigtime in several continuously rewritten provincial productions.

The play was the second controversial “off-West End” mounting of an irreverent solidly black comedy by Joe Orton, the then-current upstart badboy of the quickly-evolving English stage. It was called Loot  and, like the best in the traditions of Moliere and Comedia dell’arte, it skewered the English establishment with sharply critical accuracy. I, of course, couldn’t wait to see it.

Now being presented as the kickoff production of “Circa ‘69!,” the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s 50th anniversary season offering an 18-month retrospective of plays that rocked the world of theatrical literature at the time of the company’s inception, Loot  has been lovingly revived under the leadership of director Bart DeLorenzo.

At the encouragement and mentorship of his lover Kenneth Halliwell, who had given his then-rough-around-the-edges workingclass RADA classmate his first typewriter in 1951 and encouraged him to put his outrageously crude sense of humor into essays and, eventually, playwrighting, Orton took on the conservatism of 1960s British society with a vengeance. Gratefully, none of the play’s original shock value has been compromised here—in fact, thanks to DeLorenzo, some of the elements have instead been significantly heightened and expanded upon. 

As one Mr. McLeavy (Nicholas Hormann) mourns the recent death of his wife, whose body lies in state in the living room of his London home, her nurse Fay (Elizabeth Arends) is right there with him—about four feet from Mrs. McLeavy’s open casket—whispering sweet little nothings in his ear about the future. “It’s been three days,” she reminds him. “Have you thought about a second marriage yet?”

Fay, of course, who is also schtupping the randy undertaker’s assistant Dennis (Alex James-Phelps), would be more than willing to fill the role as the next Mrs. McLeavy, especially since she has a long and sorted history of marrying well-off older gentlemen who somehow soon after seem to shuffle off their mortal coil at an alarming rate.

McLeavy seems oblivious to her machinations, only glad that his late wife dropped dead during the right season for some nice plump roses to festoon her funereal tributes and worrying that his son Hal (Robbie Jarvis), who is also schtupping Dennis, is getting off on the wrong track.

As Fay pleads her case for her companionship utilizing her obvious feminine wiles (“I am a woman—and only half the population can say that without contradiction”), Dennis and Hal are trying to decide where to hide the bundles of money they have acquired from robbing the bank located next to Dennis’ place of employment. Temporarily locked in a cupboard near poor Mrs. McLeavy’s remains, they hatch a brilliant plan: replacing her corpse with the piles of cash and burying it instead of her, while unceremoniously stuffing her body headfirst into the cupboard for a woodsy and less ceremonious burial later.

Along the way and weaving through Orton’s wickedly outrageous farce, which manages to lift the genre beyond mistaken identities and slamming doors, he brilliantly satirizes what he saw as the unspoken hypocrisies of stuffy British mores, conventional attitudes, and unending politeness, taking on not only governmental corruption but the saintly Catholic Church and the country’s double-standard in dealing with something close to his own heart: homosexuality.

Of course, it was his country’s unwillingness to recognize and accept his own “deviant” lifestyle, something his handlers worked diligently to suppress as his fame grew, that led to the untimely death of the playwright himself, who 17 months after Loot  debuted in London was bludgeoned to death with a hammer at age 34 by his own overlooked and severely depressed partner Kenneth Halliwell.

Beyond all the issues stuffed into Loot,  Orton also took on the ineptitude of English law enforcement, something he and Halliwell knew only too well after being dogged by the local Islington police relentlessly and having survived six months in prison in 1962 for theft and malicious damage after defacing library books with obscene mottos and images, including adding an enormous fully-erect phallus to a photo of literary icon Dame Agatha Christie—a crime Orton firmly believed was dealt with so harshly “because we’re queers.”

And so to the chaos of the mildly grief stricken McLeary household comes one of Orton’s most endearingly beloved characters, the blustery and bumbling Inspector Truscott “from the Yard” (Ron Bottitta). Patterned as an amalgam of an infamous real-life London Metropolitan Police sergeant named Harold Challenor and the homophobic detective who pursued he and Halliwell relentlessly—at one point, Truscott even says to Dennis and Hal, “You’re bloody well nicked, my little beauties,” the same thing the couples’ nemesis copper actually said when arresting them—Truscott is the comedic gem that, upon his entrance, suddenly elevates the play from funny to downright hilarious.

Although seeming to fumble a bit and get a little tongue-tied by Truscott’s laughingly officious and often impenetrable speeches, Bottitta is the quintessential Truscott, a character I often have speculated might have been the inspiration for Peter Seller’s iconic Inspector Clouseau. Bottitta expertly delivers his juiciest lines simultaneously from within the “three walls” of the McLeary living room, as a character notes of the place in a crafty Ortonian inside joke, and directly out to the audience with equal ease.

As refreshing as it is whenever Bottitta reenters and takes over the stage, the less-flashy performance of Hormann is the most impressive here. His oft-overlooked McLeavy is hugely saucy and deadly serious, while at the same time demonstrating the most perfect comic timing Orton could have ever desired to deliver his eventually doomed character’s scathingly witty and terminally British dialogue.

Among the production’s actual Brits, Arends as the deceitful Fay and Jarvis as the socially rebellious  Hal, clearly the embodiment of the playwright himself as he delights in his own degeneracy, are both great assets to the tight ensemble, while James-Phelps, so like a young English James Cagney that I half-expected him to launch into a chorus of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” at any moment, is well cast as the sexually-insatiable cockney lad everybody wants to fuck—although if he tempered his facial overreactions whenever other characters should be the focus, he’d be even better.

DeLorenzo’s kinetic staging pays respectful homage to the legacy of Orton and the history of this play, adding all the signature craftiness of which he is such a master. Making the late Mrs. McLeavy an actual actor (Selina Woolery Smith, who also doubles as Police Officer Meadows) rather than using the traditional dummy, is a stroke of genius, as is heightening the physical sexual tomfoolery between Dennis and Hal, who here can’t keep their hands off one another and even get to occasionally share a brazen kiss.

I must admit I did miss some of the raucous rat-a-tat-tat and stylistically broad delivery of the original production, where lines and physical outrageousness came so fast and at such a fevered pace that audience members almost didn’t have time to react for fear of missing out on the next ridiculously silly bon mot.

Whether the more to-the-bone and less over-the-top nature of this otherwise excellent revival was intentional, or if instead it simply shows that Loot has lost some of its shock value a half-century later, I know not. It is an inevitable question in our modern world where governmental corruption, the decidedly unsaintly history of organized religion, and fiercely divided attitudes toward same sex and gender issues are explored in literature, on stages, film, television, and on the evening news, are a given and no longer verboten to discuss.

“Wake up! Stop dreaming!” the ballbusting Fay yells to McLeavy at the opening of Loot  as he sits vigil at his wife’s coffin, her dainty yet dead little nose peeping out from the pillows. Perhaps this was Joe Orton’s most fervent warning to playgoers during his tragically short stay on our perilous and precarious planet not long before he left it with so much still to say. Would that people had been bright enough to listen when the laughter finally ended.

THROUGH AUG. 10: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 N. Sepulveda Blvd., West LA. 310.477.2055 or www.OdysseyTheatre.com

ANNE, A NEW PLAY 

Photo by Michael Lamont

Museum of Tolerance

The U.S. premiere of Anne, a New Play at the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance begins with a fantasy that, in a fair world, one could only wish were true, as a perfectly healthy Anne Frank sits in a quaint little Paris bistro after the end of World War II sipping wine and discussing the publication of her diaries with an eagerly interested book publisher.

Unfortunately, our world is anything but fair—something that’s even more clear than ever as this dramatic reminder of the inequities of our existence points out.

First performed in Amsterdam in 2014, Jessica Durlacher and Leon de Winter’s retelling of Frank’s familiar story was translated from Dutch into English by Susan Massotty, then adapted for American audiences by Nick Blaemire, who was hired not only to restore the lyricism and rhythms of the original but bring it in line with the current horrors of racism and anti-Semitism that have exploded with the reign of our own resident “presidential” dictator.

At the beginning, as Anne’s father Otto (Rob Brownstein) poses the question to those gathered why we should still be examining the Frank family’s tragic story, the fictitious publisher (Timothy P. Brown) answers from a seat in the audience: “Because they could be us.”

As the production celebrates what would have been Anne Frank’s 90th birthday last week, the message becomes severely more chilling as it coincides with our Traitor-Tot-in-Chief’s statement over the weekend that his supporters might “demand” he serve more than two terms in office while suggesting the issue might cause them to storm the Bastille, so to speak, if he’s forced to leave the White House.

With an appreciative nod to director Eve Brandstein’s bold and highly welcomed colorblind casting, UCLA School of Theatre, Film and Television student Ava Lalezarzadeh makes a lovely LA stage debut in the title role, leading a highly committed and earnest supporting cast, with particular mention to the sweetly heartfelt performances of Kevin Matsumoto as her fellow captive Peter and Marnina Schon as her sister Margot.

Yet it is Brownstein as her gentle and long-suffering father, who in life would become the only Frank family survivor of the Holocaust, and Mary Gordon Murray in the dual roles of Mrs. Van Pels, another brutalized member of the “Secret Annex” painfully stripped of her lifestyle and her dignity, and as Miep Gies, the Dutch heroine who risked her own life to keep the group hidden from the Nazis, who elevate this presentation beyond its limitations.

Brandstein works diligently staging Anne on Desma Murphy's intentionally static set overpowered by Derek Christiansen's projections of the city and the war, yet it’s obvious that the play was meant to be a more immersive and audience-interactive piece than was Francis Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s well-known 1955 Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning drama The Diary of Anne Frank.

On the wide and shallow stage of museum’s austere 300-seat Peltz Theatre, however, the production is hampered by its rather austere environment surely designed for film showings, awards nights, and speech-giving. This was especially apparent on opening night when most of the audience was seated seven or eight rows from the front of the house. In a more intimate space, there is no doubt Anne would be infinitely more effective.

The message of Anne, a New Play  is still disquieting, made even more terrifying in our current political climate where all the deplorables in our country’s midsection have been encouraged to crawl out from under their rocks.

In their horrifyingly dismal attic prison before the Franks and their reluctant roommates are taken away to be tortured and killed, Peter says to Anne about all the good Christians who let this atrocity happen, “If they are the ‘chosen’ people, I wish for once they’d be chosen for something good.”

As Ayn Rand once said, “Faith and force are the destroyers of the modern world.” That may not be the conclusion the folks at the Museum of Tolerance might wish to be taken away from this, but it’s exactly what I was left pondering once again.

THROUGH AUG. 5: Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., LA. 310.772.2505 or www.museumoftorerhttp://ticketholdersla.com/new-theatre-reviews/#ance.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 absolutely 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 final decision to share or not to share turned out to be.

If I had known where Daniel’s Husband  “goes,” I honestly 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 to 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 was a matter of being electrified by 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 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 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 to show the world you’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 incredible 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 story 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 Cruella DeVille stereotypical behavior without her ability to make Lydia seem human, someone who, although mistakenly, genuinely believes she is not ultimately 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, for me, is where I fell apart. Spoiler alert here, if you want the twists of Daniel’s Husband  to be stay surprise, stop reading now.

Here’s the deal: 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 shared a bedroom and an intimate relationship for only the first 12 years of our half-century living together. This always made the idea of us being married rather a moot point even if we were both philosophically opposed to the idea for many, many years—especially since I have been involved in my own whirlwind life-changing May-December love affair with someone 42 years my junior for as long as Daniel and Mitchell have been together.

When Victor was first diagnosed with Alzheimer’s over a decade ago, the stakes changed drastically for me. For us. As I battled my own fifth bout with the dreaded Big C and one subsequent false alarm, 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 rebellions 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 to be sure he was covered if anything took me away from continuing to hang on for dear life as this risky planet revolves 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 when hearing it.

I’m still not sure if my understanding of 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 makes a plea for us all to be kinder and more conscientious of who we are and what our place is in the world if we care enough to try to leave it a better place

THROUGH JULY 28: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525 or www.fountaintheatre.com

INVISIBLE TANGO 

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 JULY 21: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood. 310.208.5454 or www.geffenplayhouse.org

TRUMP IN SPACE

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 her—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 into 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.

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

See? I'm an angel.