THE BONEYARD

TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Fall-Winter 2019  

CIRCA: HUMANS at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

British journalist Lyn Gardner referred to Australia’s internationally acclaimed Circa Contemporary Circus in The Guardian  as “The mighty Circa,” which could easily be the title of the company’s next powerful touring show. Until then, nothing could be more aptly named than the Brisbane-based performance troupe's latest offering Humans, which made its too brief debut on any professional Southern California stage at the Wallis on November 1st and 2nd.

Cirque did Soleil did a remarkable job reinventing the modern idea of circus nearly 30 years ago now, eliminating the need to trot out poor overworked and badly treated animals and replacing them with truly spectacular design elements and surreal musical compositions while pumping up the stakes for human physical gravity-defying feats and endurance.

Now Circa’s artistic director Yaron Lifschitz has championed that concept one step further, boldly eliminating the dazzling jaw-dropping look of Cirque du Soleil productions while pushing the extreme physicality—and sensuality—of his company members as they perform extraordinarily hyperphysical stunts on a basically bare raked stage.

To say Humans  pushes the boundaries of what members of our fragile and most breakable species can accomplish is an understatement as this award-winning 10-member ensemble blurs the lines between movement, acrobatics, dance, and theatricality, immediately raising the stakes of what the term “circus” can encompass.

Performing their nearly unimaginable feats of physicality to an eclectic soundtrack which includes everything from classical Russian violin music to the pounding rhythms of 1950s R & B to gravely Tom Waites vocals, the seemingly boneless multi-skilled members of the troupe, almost all of whom come from traditional circus families and have been actively perusing their craft since childhood, create human tableaux that seem impossible, some in solo turns but most in groups, including a stunning moment when company member Marty Evans balances a pyramid of five other performers on his shoulders.

From the massive Hulk-like strength of Hamish McCourty to the vulnerability of the incredibly beautiful and sweetly androgynous Jarrod Takle, the unearthly abilities of these well-trained and unstoppably fearless artists appear to be beyond anything possible to achieve. We’re somehow left with a new faith in the redemptive powers of the human condition, our much maligned and imperfect breed obviously able to overcome all those challenging limitations we spend a lifetime being told are beyond our reach.

Simply, the spirit of Humans  is monumentally infectious, unapologetically erotic, and ultimately surprisingly reassuring, although as exhausting an emotional rollercoaster ride it is for those in attendance watching people test and defy their mortality right before our eyes, I can’t help wondering what it must be like for the members of the company who must surely train on a daily basis as they travel the world doing this show night after night.

Since its inception in 2004, Circa has won honors worldwide, appearing in over 40 countries to over a million people, greeted all over the globe with rave reviews, sold-out houses, and standing ovations. This may be the first time they have brought the magic to any professional stage in our culturally explosive desert climes, but hopefully it will not be the last—and also hopefully one day soon the Wallis will be established enough within our local community to be able to sustain longer runs for such spectacular events as this.

If Humans  is any indication of what Yaron Lifschitz and his thrilling Circa Contemporary Circus has to give, we need for them to make their next stop here in LaLaLand a far longer engagement.

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1984 at The Actors’ Gang

Reviewed for TicketHoldersLA by H.A. EAGLEHART

The Actors’ Gang is home to some of the best productions I’ve seen presented in my nearly seven years attending LA theatre on a regular basis.

Their workshop-developed Harlequino: On to Freedom is one of my favorite plays in which Will Thomas McFadden has performed, but after seeing him in the leading role of Winston Smith in the premiere of 1984,  no doubt I will need to reconsider. McFadden brings the familiar character to life through his true insight into Michael Gene Sullivan's brilliant stage adaptation of the classic 1949 novel.

Four corners of a bleak room appear on a stage inventively surrounded on all four sides by audience members witnessing the story unfold, painfully at times, mere feet from their eyes. Actors’ Gang founder and artistic director Tim Robbins masterfully directs this reawakening of George Orwell’s 1984  into a journey attempting to recant the truth. From the safety of the bleachers I was able to reflect on the dismal state of a world turned asunder when freedom becomes a criminal crusade.

The litepanel monitors overhead hauntingly echo the voice of the company's founder and resident Academy Award-winner voicing the relentless questioning of Orwell’s infamous antagonist O’Brien, truthfully embodying Big Brother’s power over Winston, the message achieved without Robbins even needing to be physically present onstage.

However, this production features yet one more exciting surprise as, in the production’s 11th hour, the towering Robbins suddenly walks into the light and offers us the rare opportunity to see one of our greatest film actors performing live and in the flesh in the theatre he tirelessly worked to create.

Stellar ensemble support is truly the wings giving flight to this production and special props must be given to Gang favorite Bob Turton, who has gripped the helm or supported many of my favorite plays done at the troupe’s former Ivy Substation space.

From earlier this year playing the real-life Superman and making his directorial debut in Violence: The Misadventures of Spike Spangle, Farmer  to appearing as The Maniac in Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Turton has proven there is no character his talents cannot embody—and 1984  is definitely no exception.

Here he plays three characters throughout the course of his two-hour plus performance, changing from a Party Member interrogator holding Winston accountable while facing the constantly-changing litepanel monitor flashing O’Brien’s voice, then morphing into Mr. Charrington, and finally becoming Parsons, a poor dimwitted fellow whose endearingly steadfast sweetness towards reality, even as Big Brother is finally marching him away for execution, wins our hearts in a manner Winston describes by noting, “He actually looks excited.”

Lee Margaret Hanson also steps up to the task of playing three ensemble characters and breathes life into the most important factor of rebellion in Orwell’s tale: love. Hanson embodies Winston’s lover Julia with the perfect flavor capable of driving Winston into a state of primal emotion, while also disgusting the three Party Members in the interrogation room.

At one point during one of Winston’s recanting monologues of his sexual affair with Julia, Turton's Party Member No. 3 goes into a rage set to kill Winston for fear the whole situation is actually Big Brother testing their loyalty. Hanson not only makes the state’s Party Members squeamish but also stirs the audience members sitting onstage who are made uncomfortable yet empathetic towards this horrific story of two people being destroyed for their love.

Tom Szymanski, who played the title character in Misadventure of Spike Spangle, Farmer, has a great knack for embracing vulnerable roles, never falling for the traps in acting. Here he is featured as two characters in this exceptional ensemble, becoming a focal catalyst in charging the play forward at full throttle. His inner monologue compels everyone to listen as he plays Party Member No. 1 literally standing on a soap box enforcing O’Brien’s every word.

The telling of this amazing story requires insurmountable stakes and Szymanski manifests the necessary larger-than-life presence of Big Brother, something which Robbins then masterfully fills further upon entering near the end of Act Two. Both of Szymanski’s brilliantly performed characters set the stage for Robbins’ paramount entrance, manifesting Orwell’s cautionary fable into the stake driven straight into the heart of rebellion.

Robbins both directs and acts in this version of 1984  with a fresh perspective that my virgin seven-year immersion into great LA theatre truly appreciates. He directs Sullivan’s adaptation with a fresh take on the Gang’s original 2006 production, which he also directed. I am willing to argue there is important relevance in Robbins’ 2019 reawakening of the play and my proof is the emotional impact his amazing ensemble had on the faces of my fellow young theatregoers seated across from us almost directly onstage.

Robbins is a daring, brave, powerful dynamo. Since 2006, his Actors’ Gang has taken 1984  all over the world and, in one of his program notes, it fascinates me that while performing the play to audiences in Spain and Argentina, audience members came up afterwards and talked to cast members about relatives of theirs who had been executed for committing the same “thought crimes” of which Winston is accused.

Robbins’ innate ability to tell timely stories in a relevant and truthful manner through his scholarly understanding of humanity can only be upstaged by his own startling performance as O’Brien. I was left amazed at his ability to take over an entire scene through his unparalleled talent as a storyteller.  

The times ahead in 2019 are as equally bleak as Orwell predicted for Winston’s fictional then-futuristic society. My day job has me working outdoors with thousands of children every year and the question kids ask me the most about current SoCal weather is, “Is this climate change?”

We are living Orwell’s bleak prediction and somehow Tim Robbins infuses the message with hope: hope in the power of our own humanity. He tirelessly leads as an actor, director, and activist, contributing so much back to his community. This personal commitment to the work is currently shining brightly at the Actors’ Gang, so please come see this revival of 1984 before it no doubt revitalizes the world once again by reminding us to fight back with commitment... and with love.

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THE THANKSGIVING PLAY at Geffen Playhouse

In the Geffen’s second space, a suburban middle school classroom is turned into a rehearsal space for the drama department “anywhere but in the Los Angeles area” as a terminally overdramatic earthmother tries to produce relevant outspoken social commentary to be performed by her teenaged charges. In other words, good luck with that.

In fact, her recent mounting of  O'Neill's gritty The Iceman Cometh  at her last school, featuring a cast of 15-year-olds, resulted in her termination after 327 horrified parents signed a petition demanding that she go poof.  Now Logan (Samantha Sloyan) has been given a second chance, hired by another local school to create an all-new holiday-themed presentation to be called The Thanksgiving Play.

Germinating from the seriously wicked mind of award-winning playwright Larissa Fasthorse, another socially-conscious but far more successful theatre artist in the real world—you know, the one outside Los Angeles—the resulting play of the same name just opening at the Geffen should seriously become an annual holiday classic.

Just think twice if production stage manager Samantha Cotton decides not to come back next time. Without an industrial-strength clean-up crew to help her restore civility after every performance, this is one of those rare Equity jobs that deserves combat pay.

As important as it is for our melodramatic heroine to redeem her reputation and succeed this time out, admitting she has in her self-immolating life repeatedly been the product of her own decisions, she believes she must also remain faithful to her quest to save not only the planet but the 45 million turkeys who end up cooked to a crisp on a platter every fourth Thursday in November. “I do my best,” she insists with characteristic flourish, “and I hope the Buddha and my karma make up for it.”

Logan does have help, both from her equally overdramatic secret boyfriend Jaxton (Noah Bean), who bristles when reminded he's a street performer dependent on a tin can to provide his income (“I am a local celebrity!” he corrects), and Caden (Jeff Markow), an eager administrator assigned by the school district, they say, to provide research on the history of the holiday but surely also to keep an eye on their hardly predictable newest employee.

Still, Logan has something considerable on her side this time, having been awarded a grant providing funds to hire a real life professional actor, a term which Jaxton finds a bit dismissive of his own... er... career. She manages to unruffle his feathers (no seasonal pun intended) by assuring him she appreciates the body of his “work” but that she’s required by terms of the grant to hire a Native American to play a leading role. Besides, the guest artist about to arrive for their first rehearsal is a professional actress... from Los Angeles.

She reminds her offended partner that if anyone in their community is an expert on what it is to be an actor in LA it’s her, uniquely possessed of a firsthand understanding regarding the difficulties, disappointments, and calloused ins-and-outs of such a condition only too well having experienced it personally. Logan, it seems, once faced the daunting struggles and blistering inequities of living here in our reclaimed desert climes herself—for an entire six weeks.

This exciting casting choice is Logan’s guaranteed ace in the hole, but when the vapid and empty-headed Alicia (Alexandra Henrikson) shows up late and complaining about the bus service from her Motel 6, it doesn’t take long to realize the creation of The Thanksgiving Play  might be more difficult than the original task the pilgrims had planning the very first feast, making sure both they and their guests all had seats at the table and that their weapons were kept hidden behind the trees.

First of all, the project is to be created from scratch with the participation of this quartet of wonderfully silly misfits and Alicia, although she wants to stick around long enough to be sure her role will be substantial, doesn’t Do improv, a discipline Logan tells her she considers a “world of yes.”

Alicia instead announces she’ll take off for now and they can call her back when they have a script, but to the rescue comes the ecstatic supernerd Caden, who turns out to be a fervent amateur dramatist and has arrived with a completed epic-length manuscript which begins a few centuries before what is acknowledged as the first documented Thanksgiving celebration.

“I’ve written 62 plays,” he bursts out excitedly, “and this is the first one I’ve ever heard read by people over nine!”

Although Logan has problems with Caden’s script, she is happy to have been gifted with a dramaturg, a position she considers the holy grail of American theatre. “What’s a dramaturg?” professional theatre actor Alicia asks with a signature bat of her eyelashes. “No one knows,” Logan admits dourly.

Yet the embattled director knows her obstacles are still considerable and, despite the flirting that permeates the air between Alicia and Jaxton, she must keep her pouty guest performer happy to keep her grant, something that soon gets severely tomahawked when her star tells her she's not a descendant of our indigenous ancestors at all but that Logan merely hired her from her Native American headshot. It’s the necklace in the photo that does the trick every time, Alicia believes, earnestly reminding the others that Native Americans “invented turquoise.”

Fasthorse is a master at jabbing us in our social consciousness with outrageous humor, creating exaggerated gothic characters and situations that address a heap of cultural inequities as our majorly fucked-up country prepares to collectively give thanks while we blithely ignore the marginalization of a large portion of our own citizenry.

She refers to her outrageously skewed play as a “comedy within a satire, as it is a satire but the comedic bits are the sugar that helps the medicine go down.” With the invaluable aid of director Michael John Garces and his brilliantly fearless and delightfully over-the-top performers, she pulls that trick off splendidly.

Even Sara Ryung Clements’ drab classroom set, slyly accentuated with such prefect detail as a bobblehead of William Shakespeare watching over the ensuing storm of insanity from atop a filing cabinet and theatrical posters of past productions adorning the walls. Besides featuring middle school standards such as Grease and Our Town, if you look closely you'll notice they also include questionable former mountings of American Buffalo, Extremities, 4.48 Psychosis, and offering a hint of what’s to come from the Bard’s bloodiest tragedy Titus Andronicus—all productions I personally would love to have seen.

The Thanksgiving Play  is the Slings and Arrows  of live theatre, with much of it aimed at people who have been there to be able to understand the humor.  Judging from the reaction of many of the opening nighters in the audience, most of Fasthorse’s “in” jokes went directly over their heads, something that alienated them further when papier-mache heads of our dispatched Native American forebearers began to get tossed and kicked around the stage as though balls in a rugby match and a Texas Chainsaw-sized load of gore ultimately covered both the walls and the actors with a few pricey gallons of stage blood.

Still, this is LA and surely there are enough of us here to appreciate this production and keep it returning each November as a yearly Thanksgiving companion to our beloved and equally brazen homegrown Christmas classic Bob’s Holiday Office Party, which has been making a monumental mess nightly each December as a sold-out Lost Angeles tradition since 1995.

One thing brought to mind by The Thanksgiving Play,  as Alicia is questioned by Jaxton about the acting technique she utilizes to practice her craft and bring her characters to life. “Oh, I just pretend I’m them,” she chirps brightly.

While helping to build a set for a show at a local 99-seat theatre a couple of years ago, my boyfriend talked to a fellow volunteer who told him her day job was as a telemarketer for a theatrical ticketing service, a position she said she loved because she could spend all day talking to people who loved theatre—meaning obviously she'd been working there for less than two weeks, I suspect.

Still, she told him she also teaches acting, so if he “really wanted to become an actor,” he should take classes from her. Aside from the fact that Hugh is a brilliant actor, as well as a published author, poet, and playwright with a partner who makes much of his living, besides reviewing plays such as this one, teaching acting and coaching spoiled superstars, he has two college degrees, the second of which is in Acting for Film from the New York Film Academy.

Still, as a humble guy raised on a New Mexican Navajo reservation always brought up to be respectful, he kept his resume to himself and asked his proposed professora  what technique she taught.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “I mean," he explained, "do you teach Stanislavsky or Meisner or Strasburg or Uta Hagan or Stella Adler or what?”

“No, no, I don’t teach any of that,”  she answered. “I just teach people how to act.”

Please help me campaign to see that The Thanksgiving Play  returns to the Geffen next November, won't you? Lord knows us jaded Angelenos need the laughs and I'm afraid by next year at this time we may need 'em more than ever.

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THE ABUELAS at Antaeus Theatre Company

In 1976 when General Jorge Rafael Videla seized the weakened government of Argentina from Isabel Peron under the premise that leftists were threatening their capitalist and, of course, Christian way of life, they called it a war. As Ryan McRee, dramatist for the west coast premiere of Stephanie Alison Walker’s The Abuelas  at Antaeus, mentions in the program: “Historians today refer to it by its proper name: genocide.”

This is without a shadow of a doubt an urgently important message to our country right now as our own virulent administration led by a crass and vulgar monster as potentially dangerous and evil as Videla locks children in cages and attempts to strip us all of the human rights we’ve fought so hard to establish—of course, their causes also thrust upon us in the name of fighting the left and saving Christianity, factors that have been at the center of preserving “righteousness” for the last 2000 years as they destroy our freedoms and our humanity.

Walker’s intriguing The Abuelas  tells the fictional tale of one of the many descendants of the 30,000 Argentinians who were murdered in the coup, including as many as 500 pregnant young women who were forced to undergo Caesarian sections after being given meds to accelerate birth while being secretly detained at ESMA (Escuela Mecanica de la Armada), the horrific prison often referred to as the Argentine Auschwitz.

These young mothers were blindfolded and tied to the bed as they delivered, after which their babies were immediately taken away and given to “politically acceptable” parents with ties to the Videla regime. The mothers were then killed to guarantee the severing of all biological ties in an effort to insure all future generations would be marching in step behind the “new” Argentina.

Those children were called “los desaparecido con vida”—the living disappeared—and here professional cellist Gabriela (Luisina Quarleri), living a comfortable though less-than perfect life in Chicago with her once-philandering husband Marty (Seamus Dever), finds her existence rocked further when she is told by a volunteer from The Abuelas, a group founded in Buenos Aries in the late 1970s by a band of courageous grandmothers seeking to learn the fate of their missing daughters and abducted grandchildren, that she is indeed one of “the disappeared.“

Gabriela was raised in affluence by the overpoweringly demanding Soledad (Denise Blasor), who is visiting the couple to help care for their infant child. Soon Soledad’s birthday celebration is blindsided by her own invited guest Cesar (David DeSantos), an acquaintance also visiting from Argentina, who brings along another surprise guest, a mysterious older woman named Carolina (Irene De Bari).

Walker’s script is an absorbing, beautifully constructed piece of work, with special notice going to her unique ability to get extraneous characters on and offstage to leave room for a series of dynamic two-character scenes, something extremely difficult to accomplish without obviousness. The story is sure to produce a few tears, even for hardhearted and crusty old theatre critics, although there could still be some work done to more adequately explain at least one prominent plotline involving tensions in the marriage of Gabriela and Marty and also to provide satisfying resolution to the fate of Soledad as most everything falls into place for the couple and Gaby’s initially challenging relationship with Carolina.

Andi Chapman directs with an even hand on Edward E. Haynes, Jr’s well-appointed urban highrise set, suitably overshadowed by remarkable video projections by Adam R. Macias that made me homesick for my hometown, featuring the Chicago skyline and Lakeshore Drive as they alter dramatically in the city’s ever-changing severe winter weather conditions.

Jeff Gardner’s sound design is also a surprising standout, subtly energizing the story as the weather crescendos and the wind whistles. By any chance, did the good folks at Antaeus take along the vibrating underseat woofers when they moved to Glendale from Deaf West Theatre space last year?

One glaring problem with the staging and set, however, is the several oddly-shaped steps that lift the upstage kitchen area above the living space but are so fake plywood-noisy when walked upon and hard to maneuver around that too often The Arbuelas  could be retitled The Play About the Stairs—or then again, perhaps even The Play About the Stairs and Refilling Wine Glasses  might also be apropos.

Still this complex and riveting play is an exciting introduction to a vital new playwriting voice and the performances here are all golden.

Whether it be in the writing or the direction, sometimes it does seem as though Quarleri’s Gabriela remains too uniformly tortured and depressed from the very first scene to just before the ending, leaving the actor nowhere to go as the character’s emotions accelerate, while David DeSantos as Cesar, the intruding volunteer from The Abuelas who brings the shocking news of Gaby’s past, is a wonderfully affecting actor but Chapman or someone needs to tell the guy he doesn’t need to project his voice to the rear balcony of the Ahmanson in Antaeus’ intimate 80-seat Kiki and David Gindler Theatre.

Blasor, Dever, and De Bari all offer exceptionally evocative performances that will haunt you in their ability to make us get caught up in and relate to their individual personal situations. Though we soon after the first scene may want Blasor’s richly authentic Soledad to go home to Argentina and stop trying to control her daughter’s life, as her command of the situation disintegrates and the character begins to beg for the future of her tightly-wound relationship with her daughter, her performance is exceptionally heartrending and brilliantly facile.

The simple, poignant performance of De Bari as the long-grieving Carolina as she possibly confronts the granddaughter for whom she’s searched for over three decades is also a heartbreaker, while Dever, in a role that could easily be overlooked as the major dilemmas in the storyline leave Marty somewhat on the periphery, is remarkable here. In less skilled hands, the role of Marty could definitely be an afterthought, but Dever contributes an amazingly complex performance, especially when so many of his character’s problems are left unanswered and his reactions left to the actor's ability to flesh them out in Walker’s otherwise accommodating script.

“This party is always in danger of being upset,” a character notes along the way and boy, that is the definition of life on this risky planet, isn’t it? What Walker has done is to celebrate the resilience of the human spirit in an existence which, no matter how idyllic, might one day be subject to drastic and unexpected adjustments. What The Abuelas—and the organization that inspired it—makes us realize is that, as a species, we can survive just about anything with which we’re faced, especially with the love and understanding of those around us since we are all in this mess together.

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THE NEW ONE at the Ahmanson Theatre

There’s been a lot of commentary lately about the choices made by the venerable Center Theatre Group and its programming, with particular emphasis focusing on two recent productions—one just ended and one just opening—booked into the austere and physically massive 2,000-seat Ahmanson Theatre.

While multi-cast, more elaborately mounted shows were part of the season selected to play CTG’s 739-seat Mark Taper Forum and their 317-seat westside Kirk Douglas Theatre, John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons  and Mike Birbiglia’ s The New One, both featuring solo performances and basically devoid of set or major design requirements needing time be accommodated, were chosen to play the Ahmanson.

Surely this choice was a marketing determination, with the CTG decision-makers considering how likely each show would be to sell seats. In Leguizamo’s case, especially considering both his professional notoriety and the abundance of culturally often overlooked Latino residents of LA and Southern California, the chance of a sellout was less of a crapshoot, but the booking of Birbiglia is another matter.

Opening nights are a bad forecaster to determine how the run of a show will do financially, especially at CTG’s venues or the Pantages or other large venues determined to fill all the seats the first night with donors, diehard supporters, and us dastardly critics scheduled to be in attendance. And although I have heard no data about final tallies garnered from Leguizamo’s brilliant performance over the remainder of his run after his reviews cooed and cheered, his fame surely boosting sales, I wonder if similar notices will put the butts in the seats for The New One.

Granted Birbiglia, who earlier this year was honored with the prestigious Kurt Vonnegut Humor Award, has a large New York following, has written books and directed his own films, and has toured 101 cities in a year in his two previous solo shows (both also eventually filmed for Netflix) everywhere from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House to, as he tells us, towns so small they’re nothing but Applebee’s with a dream. Still, despite all that as well as television appearances as an actor and radio exposure as a contributor to public radio’s popular This American Life, let’s just say this guy is hardly a household name guaranteed to fill 2,000 seats a night for a five-week run.

That said, dwarfed as The New One  may be in its present venue, Birbiglia, like Leguizamo, fills the cavernous Ahmanson stage quite nicely, thank you. Under the direction of Seth Barrish and with the minimal but effective contribution of some of Broadway’s most celebrated designers, not only is Birbiglia a wonderfully eccentric newly-harvested voice in the self-deprecating traditions of Dave Barry and David Sedaris, he has a lovably nondescript physicality and classic nebbishness that quickly puts all 2,000 people on his side as they listen in on in his casual and obviously personally therapeutic rant about the continuously overwhelming woes and seemingly infrequent joys of his life.

Birbiglia is a one-of-a-kind comedian, evoking for me the image of an early Wally Cox crossed with the relentlessly manic persona of Robin Williams, albeit without the voices of multiple personalities. He leads us directly into his simple but relatable story, which this time out involves his journey from young single urban male in love with the reassuring arms of his comfortable and comforting living room couch, then onto his later days as a married man under the proverbial yoke and eventually, to his current tenure as a reluctant father.

Even his married brother and weary father of two agrees that kids are worse than a disease, although, as such, they’re a disease that he wants his sibling to contract in a classic misery-loves-company kinda way. Regardless of his brother’s insistence that being a dad is a particular joy he’ll never know or understand until he has children of his own, Birbiglia’s very delivery of that message, hilariously recreated evoking a guy in midlife crisis who has undergone too much Botox, is enough to make any hetrosexual male who has not had a vasectomy run for the nearest urologist’s office.

Booking Birbiglia into the Ahmanson may indeed be a gamble for the CTG, but then, isn’t creating and championing all art a gamble?

Indeed The New One, which begins with Birbiglia delivering a Woody Allen-style monologue wondering about what makes this particular night qualify as an ”opening night” performance (“I’ll do my best,” he tells us, “but I’ll bet it’ll be a whole lot like any other night”), is somewhat akin to seeing hopeful stand-up comedians take the mike at the world’s largest comedy club. And let’s face it, his choice of subject matter is hardly something one would imagine to be interesting to anyone except young married couples considering or dealing with becoming new parents.

Still, Mike Birbiglia’s brazenly yet endearingly off-color comedy is all his own and as such, The New One  is highly unique and refreshingly entertaining, making us feel a tad embarrassed to be laughing at his poor-me modernday Little Tramp persona—that is until one considers there’s a strong possibility we might just be watching the beginning stages of a sizable career in the fickle world of comedy that could a perfect fit for CTG-sized ambitions.

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SUMMER: THE DONNA SUMMER MUSICAL at the Pantages Theatre

Under Howell Brinkley’s evocative concert-style lighting on the Pantages’ well-traveled stage, here resembling a major music venue, Dan’yelle Williamson breaks through the line of glittering disco-clad chorus members to march directly downstage center and declare “The Queen in Back!”

So begins Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,  in which the life of the Queen of Disco is portrayed not only by the dynamic Williamson as the older and more seasoned Diva Donna, but by two other knockout performers: Alex Hairston as the young unknown Summer blossoming into a newly-minted superstar and Olivia Elease Hardy making an auspicious debut as the former Boston-born LaDonna Adrian Gaines from ages 11 to 16.

Conceived and directed by the legendary Des McAnuff and originating as so many of his hits have over the years at his former home La Jolla Playhouse, Summer  is blindingly appointed and brightly realized from the first celebratory moments to its grand finale an intermissionless 100 minutes later, seamlessly unfolding as it barrels through the life and career of one of the most memorable talents to emerge from the unapologetically money-spinning music scene in the late 1970s.

Grand-scale Broadway productions celebrating the careers of famous musical icons are legion these days, including honoring the lives of everyone from Cher to Gloria Estefan to The Temptations to Carole King. All of these productions by nature offer quickly glossed over CliffNotes versions of their subjects’ lives and considerable careers and Summer  is hardly an exception—in fact, it might be the most blatantly banal and mawkish of the lot.

Yet this is a dazzling entertainment despite perhaps the worst—or at least more blatantly commercially-driven—book in the history of musical theatre. McAnuff, also credited for writing the script with Coleman Domingo and Robert Cary, redeems himself with his magical staging, which zips at lightning speed from scene to scene without even trying to hide the fact that they are just treading water between the crowd-pleasing musical numbers.

And here is the wonder of Summer  (maybe if someone creates a musical about Stevie Wonder in the future and opens it in June or July, I can turn around that phrase and write about the “summer of Wonder”).  The huge production numbers featuring the diva’s greatest hits have their eager audience literally dancing in their seats, especially, I might add, those in attendance of a particular age—like mine.

Which brings me to the very best part of Summer, undeniably the incredible troupe of dancers totally acing the jubilant, often extremely complicated choreography by Sergio Trujillo, last year’s well-deserved Tony winner for Ain’t Too Proud  (speaking of biographical musicals).

Trujillo’s work knocks me out every friggin’ time I see it, not only because it is consistently infectious and powerful but because it is always different. Although not meant as a slight, it’s not hard to pick out the signature moves of greats, such as the innovative angularity of Agnes deMille, the grand athleticism of Jerry Robbins, or the jazz hands of Bob Fosse, yet the choreography of Trujillo is new and fresh every time I see his work, consistently paying quintessential homage to whatever genre he tackles.

As someone who usually spent four or five nights a week out dancing the night away with my professional hoofer partner in them good ol’ days fueled by an endless supply of reds and clear light, let me say disco was never my personal favorite, something I would like to think ended my club years rather than considering that milestone might have actually been caused by that dastardly encroachment of middle age.

The book made me cranky as it zipped past and whitewashed the difficult parts of Summers’ life, including her sexual abuse at the hands of her pastor (of course), her violent relationships, her drug addiction, her unhappiness at never shedding her music exec-generated Disco Queen image, and her death at age 63 from lung cancer, the contracting of which she always blamed as a result of inhaling toxic fumes during the 9/11 attack in New York City.

Aside from unnecessarily demonizing Summers’ mentor and my old friend, the lategreat musical Svengali Neil Bogart, as a slimy moustache-twirling villain and depicting his brilliant and influential wife Joyce as a somewhat vapid stoned-out groupie, the most disturbing bastardization of the truth here is the quick sugar-coated rendering of the greatest controversy of the singer’s career, something which was in great part instrumental in the disintegration of her popularity among the members of the same group who originally generated it.

In the mid-1980s, Summer “allegedly” made hyper-religious anti-gay remarks about a relatively new disease called AIDS, which of course back then mainly affected the very people responsible for the hugeness of her success. Although she publicly denied making such comments, repeatedly calling it a terrible misunderstanding, her shouting out to raucous members of her audience from the stage during a concert that "God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve" was the faux pas  that never went away.

It's a shame McAnuff didn’t employ his former collaborators Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, whose brilliant book for the director’s The Jersey Boys  lifted the stakes for musical biographies tenfold. Although musically still honoring the careers of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the production also intelligently and without filter delved into the darker parts of their lives, surely contributing greatly to the show’s continued success.

Still, as happened with that spectacular production, it’s no doubt Summer  could finish its national tour and head straight to the Vegas Strip and dig in there for an extended run in the same city where The Jersey Boys  played for a phenomenal eight years at the Venetian and then Paris to an estimated 33,000 patrons, culminating in being touted as the longest-running musical in Las Vegas history.

Despite what does and doesn’t work for Des McAnuff and his team this time out, however, ultimately Summer  helped me forget about the show’s sloppy oversentimentality and glaring factual omissions and had me undulating to the contagious beat of the former Miss Gaines’ groundbreaking music along with the rest of the Pantages’ opening night crowd.

I don’t think there was a single person, from pintsized kids to us geriatrically-challenged former partypeople in the house, who did not eventually succumb to the need to stand up and rock out by the time the 11th-hour recreation of Summers’ megahit “Hot Stuff” filled the stately Pantages with its joyous spirit guaranteed to make anyone still breathing forget their troubles and come on an’ get happy.

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BLUE MAN GROUP: SPEECHLESS at the Pantages Theatre

Although they began to make being blue de rigueur  nearly 30 years ago, the cult-classic Blue Man Group, which began humbly at New York’s historic 300-seat Astor Place Theatre in 1991 where it still reigns supreme, has since spawned permanent live shows in Las Vegas, Chicago, Boston, Orlando, and Berlin, as well as numerous international tours playing globally over the years to some 35 million patrons.  

Blue Man shows, which traditionally have combined rock music, astoundingly detailed multimedia theatrics, and a monumental amount of recycled paper products, was originally conceived to take a uniquely entertaining step into the future as seen by a bizarre trio of disorientated émigrés from someplace where being blue might just be the norm. 

Over the years, BMG became more and more elaborate, culminating in 2005 when those infamously bald cobalt-colored guys debuted in their own specially designed 1,760-seat theatre in the Venetian Hotel in Vegas. That production, clearly designed to confound the somnambulant tribes of tourists gathered there and compete with Cirque du Soleil's monopoly on the Strip, was suitably astounding. I mean, who needs crashing three-ton chandeliers or hydraulically controlled pools of water when you’ve got your own onstage jet plane?

Now, BMG has entered into some interesting uncharted territory since the company was bought out by—you guessed it—the Cirque du Soleil Entertainment Group. Their redesigned and reimagined national tour, Blue Man Group: Speechless,  has taken over the Pantages to show off their reworked wares and, under the leadership of Jenny Koons as the new show’s director,  it’s a treat to have them in town.

Although the first few rows of patrons are still asked to don hooded raincoats for a potential assault of random liquids spilling and spitting from the stage, most of BMG’s incredible video presentations known to assault the senses with a barrage of mind-boggling statistical data about the technological information-obsessed world in which we try to live, are nearly gone. Without such a pertinent theme that seems even more appropriate in 2019, although Speechless  is still wildly entertaining, its new direction is something akin to Blue Man Group's Greatest Hits.

Speechless  is still populated by an incredible trio of BMG veterans, in the case of opening night Steven Wendt, Adam Zuick, and their “captain” Meridian, but this incarnation is more of a concert version of what the company usually does. This includes a vibrant onstage three-piece combo providing rhythmically tribal accompaniment as the unstoppably agile troupe continues the traditions of catching florescent marshmallows in their teeth, finding their share of suitably wary victims in the house to help them create art pieces with their own bodies, and send recycled confetti propelled into the audience from onstage and above from the Pantages’ grandly art deco ceiling ornamentation.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Steven, Adam and Meridian is the well-honed continuous state of world-class bewilderment they manage to maintain throughout the 100-minute performance, as though everything they experience happens for the first time. This makes for great Blue Manship, which I thoroughly enjoyed experiencing for the umpteenth time more than I might have since I got to watch it unfold as if for the first time vicariously by inviting my former New York Film Academy student Patrick Steward (Hubert to my Margaret Mead and student director to my faculty mentor in our revival of Hair  at NYFA in 2016), who recently spent four days training to be considered for a future job slapping on the blue.

The irony for me was accentuated because I journeyed to Vegas to review the production for Gorgeous Magazine in early 2007 and brought along my dear friend Peter Musante, who had recently been cast in the then soon-to-open Orlando show and had never seen BMG perform prior to our trip there. As with Peter way back then, seeing the troupe perform through Patrick’s enormously widened eyes was like… well, you know… déjà vu all over again, especially since both of these gifted yung’uns were 22 as they discovered firsthand what makes BMG so spectacular.  

Not only was Peter venturing into a whole new city and embarking on a brand new dimension of his already staggeringly successful professional life since his graduation from UCLA in 2005, in Vegas I watched his extreme anxiety turn to extreme excitement as he contemplated entering the next stage in his career development, made even more exciting when a sweet Vegas Blue Man named Brett took him under his wing and gave him an extensive tour of the backstage operations, where he was introduced and then warmly welcomed by the company as a potential future member of the family.  By the time we left Vegas, Peter was more than ready to don his first skullcap and dig into that ominous jar of day-glo blue greasepaint—and the rest is history.  

See, what’s amazing about this is that Peter, who went from the original Orlando troupe to the New York cast and has since performed as a Blue Man virtually all over the planet over the past 12 years, is still employed with the company, among his many other accomplishments such as teaching performance art in Manhattan and perfecting his clowning skills further touring in his own amazingly unique two-person show Legs & All  opposite his equally crazed former UCLA classmate Summer Shapiro.

So not only did I get to again introduce a whole new stand of cotton to his own first experience seeing Blue Man Group perform, I got to introduce Patrick to Peter, who helped develop this new tour and is here in El Lay for a whirlwind week of press events, media appearances, and luckily for me, hanging out with old friends.

Something tells me I might not be around another 12 years from now to know for sure if Patrick has joined Peter in Blue Manery, but something also tells me by then both of these guys will be major stars if dear Terpsichore is around to give ‘em both a well-deserved push. Why, who knows? If our planet hasn’t already killed itself by 2031, maybe Pete Buttigieg might even be our President by then.

In the meantime, LA audiences can be privy to something incredible by heading to the Pantages to check out Blue Man Group: Speechless.  There are a few minor kinks to work out and some adds and detracts to consider, but with people as talented as Jenny Koons and Peter Musante in their corner to help make that a reality, the world is lucky to get a fresh coat of blue to make the rest of our troubles disappear for a delightful 100-minutes of pure enjoyment.

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IN CIRCLES at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

“First in a circle.

Papa dozes mamma blows her noses.

We cannot say this the other way.

Exactly.

Passably.”

Anyone willing to try to adapt the highly experimental and dizzyingly repetitious poetry of Gertrude Stein into a stage musical has to be a bit off. So it was with Al Carmines, the associate pastor at Greenwich Village’s infamous Judson Memorial Church who, starting in the early 1950s, led a “radical arts” ministry that offered space to visual and performance artists where they could do their thing within the sanctuary of religious protections and devoid of rules or censorship.

A decade later, Carmines began to try his hand at writing his own musicals and “oratorios” that featured volunteer choruses. In Circles, his second of six operas fulfilling his lifelong obsession with Stein and based on her trailblazing writings, debuted at Judson Memorial in the fall of 1967. It proved so successful it transferred to the Cherry Lane the following spring, eventually winning the Obie for Best Musical of 1968 and a Drama Desk Award for Carmines’ jaunty and wildly creative score.

Los Angeles theatrical hero Jacque Lynn Colton was part of that original cast and remembers the experience fondly. “The original was a unique collaboration between Al [who also appeared onstage], director Lawrence Kornfeld, and the cast,” she recalls. With every line in the musical culled directly from Stein’s 1920 work A Circular Play, the ensemble of brave underground players and La Mama veterans such as Colton gathered in Carmine’s living room pouring over the 12 pages of Stein’s highly idiosyncratic piece, which begins with the passage at the top of this article.

“We were encouraged to develop our own characters and to take any line we wanted,” according to Colton. “If another castmember felt attached to that line, they could repeat it.” And so In Circles  was born and began its journey to weave itself into the very fabric of theatre history in the 20th century.

Luckily for us, In Circles  was also chosen as part of Circa ’69,  the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble’s current 50th anniversary season dedicated to reviving significant and adventurous plays which debuted at relatively the same time the company was formed back in 1969.

Colton, who helped us win many awards and honors when she directed me in my last performance (of 13) as Lennie in Of Mice and Men  in 1997, has been a fiercely loyal part of the Odyssey’s troupe of players for many years, appearing in such memorable productions there as The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage and Her Children, Rhinoceros, Kvetch, and most recently Arsenic and Old Lace last season.

As she told me between vegetarian sausages at the opening night reception for In Circles, when she first heard that the Odyssey was reviving Carmines’ masterwork, her heart skipped a couple of beats—especially learning it would be mounted under the leadership of legendary director David Schweizer, who directed her before at the equally legendary Public Theatre in New York in the 1980s and in Marlene Meyer’s outrageous Kingfish at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1988.

Since she knew she was now too long-in-tooth to play any of the characters, least of all Mildred, the role she originated in 1967, Colton thought she would be relegated to rising to give a little wave of recognition to those gathered as part of the opening night audience—but this is a David Schweizer production, after all. She should have known better.

Instead of feeling nostalgic watching it unfold from the front row, Colton was instead onstage as the patrons filed into the theatre, sitting quietly dead-center on Mark Guirguis’ bare yet shockingly all-red stage in a red rolling desk chair reading a copy of A Circular Play. As part of Schweizer’s always innovative vision, Colton was added to the production to play Gertrude Stein herself, appearing as an observer-guide-critic as the youthful ensemble of gifted players sing and dance around her.

This revival would have made Carmines float back from the spirit world if the stuff he conveyed as a pastor was not a comforting but improbable fantasy, for his beloved In Circles  has been brilliantly reinvented by Schweizer to become one of the most delightful and most refreshing musical treats to hit LA stages this year. Stein’s highly playful rhythmical essays were created to evoke the “excitedness of pure being,” paying homage to her own lifelong obsession with art and artists, particularly focusing on cubism, plasticity, and the endless possibilities of collage.

The cast is all for this, obviously, surely spurned on by and having complete faith in the transformational genius of their director and the inspired inclusion of choreographer Kate Coleman and of musical director Kenneth J. Grimes, who doubles onstage as Dole, the show’s onstage pianist.

P.T. Mahoney, who has the voice of an angel and towers physically above the other players, makes an auspicious LA musical debut as Cousin, his performance instantly reminding me in so many ways of a young beginning singer-dancer with whom I appeared in shows at Melody Top Theatres in Chicago and Milwaukee when I was a teenager. I was mesmerized by the guy who, despite his 6’6” gawkiness and a body so thin he looked anorexic, moved with inspired grace and filled the theatre with his personality. His name was Tommy Tune.

Henry Arber is also a standout and all three additional female castmembers have knockout voices, especially in a section where each actor sings the same passage but each goes an octave higher, ending with notes from Ashlee Dutson that would have potentially won her a sing-off with Yma Sumac.

Still, the evening is ultimately all about Jacque Lynn Colton, whose expressive face can alter from stern admonishment to sweet Abby Brewster-esque kindness at a moment’s notice as she shepherds and leads her costars in how to interpret what she and her director perceive might have been Stein’s original intention.

Simply having the privilege of watching Colton play Stein as a newly added and uber-presence, especially in a work she as an actor was instrumental in creating over a half-century ago, is an honor we all need to embrace. As she sits back in her chair centerstage at the show’s end and her fellow devoted castmembers fill the space around her with flowers in silent tribute to Stein is one moment I bet will never be erased from my admittedly fading memorybanks.

As an inveterate theatre nerd who grew up singing about carrots ‘n potatoes and whistling a happy tune nightly for far, far too long, I personally break for most traditional American musicals these days. This doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate them and their worthy place in our history, only that in most cases I have no need to see them presented again—unless they are groundbreaking dark musicals with titles such as Sweeney Todd, Urinetown, Next to Normal, or Fun Home, if you get my drift.

But… hey. Revive Brel or Kurt Weill and I’m there. Revive In Circles  and I’m ready to go back a few times before the production closes to help wipe away the troubles of our world and dull the grease and grime of how our country is currently being led.

In a fair world, Al Carmines, who also in 1974 wrote the score for another amazing musical adaptation of Stein’s 1908 manuscript The Making of Americans  with the also lategreat and my sorely missed friend Leon Katz, should be recognized with equal reverence as fellows named Rodgers, Hammerstein, Bernstein, and Sondheim. Without him around to make artistic waves during the emergence of the original off-Broadway movement, we might still only be singing about real good clambakes.

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JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at the Pantages Theatre

On the 50th anniversary of Jesus Christ Superstar,  the Pantages is briefly home to the current 30-city national tour of the Olivier Award-winning revisioning of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber’s puzzlingly enduring and majorly insipid musical conundrum.

Judging from the touring schedule for this ambitious and well-appointed revival, which appears to be playing no more than a week in any one place, perhaps the most amazing thing about it is how the heck such an enormous production can be broken down, transported, reloaded, and be ready for audiences in each city on every seventh day. Obviously, this is one time that on Sundays, the work of the Lord does not remain at rest.

If there is any doubt in your minds from the hints already dropped here, I am not much of a fan of Lord Andrew’s commercially-driven ka-ching  approach to musical theatre, with special disdain for this particular one, with its most prominent melody brazenly stolen directly from Mendelssohn and obviously created solely to loosen the pocketbooks of all those religious lemmings who would pay to see those awful evildoers torture and horrifically murder the mythological son of their imaginary deity yet again.

That said, this heartfelt reworking of JCS  is absolutely gorgeous, beautifully appointed, and passionately performed, completely deserving of the Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival it garnered in its original West End mounting in 2017.

The large and fiercely committed ensemble is effectively staged by director Timothy Sheader on designer Tom Scutt’s towering yet simple two-story set resembling a series of steel girders standing with ghostly majesty on an unfinished highrise building. All multi-level playing spaces seem positioned to cradle a mammoth cross dominating at centerstage able to accommodate scenes performed on top and around it—that is until hydraulics transform it into the production’s culminating Vegas-style illusion as poor ol’ Geebus (Aaron LaVigne) meets his inevitable dastardly fate.

Lee Curran’s dramatic and evocative lighting adds to the wonder of successfully elevating this JCS  far higher than the musical itself and its trite rock score pandering to the trends of the time it was first created deserves, as does the excellent sound design by Keith Caggiano and Nick Lidster, conquering the often difficult acoustical challenges inherent in the majestic Pantages. Musical director Shawn Gough leads the rocking orchestra of 11 visible high above the stage on the second level of Scutt’s structure while several of the actors, including LaVigne, Tyce Green as Annas, and Tommy McDowell as Peter, also exhibit their skills on their own high-decibel electric guitars.

The gifted cast assembled defies the usual pressures of being on the road doing eights shows a week in 30 cities, with all oft-overlooked ensemble members filled with energy and dancing their faux-biblical asses off. Particular nods go to LaVigne, James Delisco Beers’ fine-voiced Judas, Paul Louis Lessard in a show-stopper of a turn as a Liberace/Elton John-inspired Herod, and Alvin Crawford as Caiaphas, he possessed of a baritone so deep it would be surprising if he hasn’t sung “Old Man River” in various productions of Showboat  numerous times in his career.

Still, the most impressive thing about this revival is the truly exceptional, intentionally strident, jarringly innovative choreography of Drew McOnie, who seems to be channeling Agnes de Mille inhabiting the body of Twyla Tharp by way of Andy Blankenbeuhler.

You know the old adage about putting lipstick on a pig? Let’s just say anyone who can make this tired old epic cashcow, written by a pandering melody thief who’s made a career of squandering his talent and getting lost in a sea of marketing schemes, look and sound anything other than a week-old carnitas plate from El Coyote, gets major points from me. 

It almost hurts me to say so, but this production of Jesus Christ Superstar  is something deserving of considerable praise, quite a surprise for anyone expecting another infuriating rehash of something not worthy of reviving in the first place. Wonder what these talented theatrical magicians who teamed together to make this happen could do with Tell Me on a Sunday?

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4.48 PSYCHOSIS at Son of Semele Ensemble

Sitting through 4.48 Psychosis,  Sarah Kane’s infamous theatrical suicide note, is not an easy thing. The controversial British playwright’s final play, dealing with her own manic depression and thoughts about offing herself, was written in 1999 just before she hung herself with her shoelaces in the bathroom of the psychiatric hospital where she had been taken after a massive intentional drug overdose. It was produced posthumously the following year at the Royal Court, opening soon after what would have been her 29th birthday.

Neil Simon it ain’t.

Kane’s poetic yet disturbing cry for help is not a simple play to produce—and not only because of the subject matter as Kane graphically chronicled her struggle not only with her own debilitating depression and drug dependency, something especially traumatizing as she often woke up mornings at 4:48am ready to call it quits, but also because it is a journal of a life spent in painful self-induced isolation, shunning relationships as she groused about not having any.

Surely the reason 4.48 Psychosis is so seldom attempted is that it is written as a schizophrenic rant of words and thoughts which spilled randomly from Kane’s tortured mind and has no specific characters, no specific dialogue, no indicated setting or stage directions.

Visionary director and Son of Semele’s tireless champion Matthew McCray has chosen to set the play in a minimal, dreamlike space, often suggesting the antiseptic ward of a mental hospital. Here a group of actresses speaking Kane’s repetitious screams and moans of jarring dialogue are brilliantly led by a phenomenally brave tour de force  turn by Dylan Jones in an effort to moor their synchronized and highly choreographed movements.

From disconcerting images and various lines from the play projected on the walls to a spectacular water effects I have to say I have never seen duplicated on a stage—culminating in a courageously naked and totally exposed Jones completely submerged among floating dollhouse furniture and empty pill bottles in a giant fishtank we’ve watched slowly fill before our eyes, obviously representing Kane’s loss of control over her life—McCray’s staging conjures absolute magic.

It was as an ensemble that the play was workshopped, lines were assigned, situations fleshed out and blocked, and design elements were inspired, something that must have been a monumental effort I wish I had been a fly on the wall to observe unfold. The result, although occasionally having the overall feeling of being a tad overproduced, is mesmerizing.

The gamely committed and artistically willing conspirators, from McCray to his actors and designers, are a definite asset joined to bring his uniquely innovative take on such a theatrical puzzle of a play to fruition. Melinda Bielefelt, Taylor Hawthorne, Jinny Ryann, and Betsy Zajko are all haunting as figures representing the ever-changing frenzied thoughts tearing Kane’s mind asunder, while the ever-sturdy Ron Bottitta is the quintessential anchor as the reassuring voice of her world-weary psychiatrist.

Yet none of this would have been possible without one major piece of such an intricate puzzle: the indelible performance of Dylan Jones, who is absolutely fearless and totally heartbreaking as the surrogate Sarah Kane.

In lesser hands than hers, the writer’s overpowering sense of self-indulgence and self-absorption, although a symptom surely familiar to anyone ever dealing with someone suffering from manic depression, could take its toll and even result in losing our interest. Jones induces a totally sympathetic and, oddly, even nurturing reaction from those gathered to watch 4.48 Psychosis—especially since we all know exactly what it “celebrates” and how Kane’s story ended soon after its completion.

This production is revelatory in concept, design, and performance and, as such, is definitely worth your time. Still, especially considering the depressing events that are already fucking up our lives on a daily basis under the “leadership” of a true psychotic, be sure to have a post-show plan to down a few margaritas or pop a xanex or two after leaving the theatre in a necessary effort to shake off the heaviness and melancholy this peek into the brilliant though troubled mind of Sarah Kane is sure to induce.

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DEADLY from the Sacred Fools Theater Company

According to award-winning Louis and Keely: Live at the Sahara  playwright Vanessa Claire Stewart, six years ago she was gobsmacked by a History Channel documentary about H.H. Holmes, the infamous late-19th-century serial killer often referred to as the American Jack the Ripper who in 1896 was executed for the death of his accomplice Benjamin Pitezel and, while awaiting the noose, confessed to the murder of 27 additional victims.

There are a plethora of urban myths surrounding Holmes, who holds the dubious distinction of often being referred to as our country’s very first serial killer, including suspicion that he was responsible for dispatching up to 200 more people before being caught—many of them murdered as part of intricate insurance fraud schemes he would concoct. 

Yet the major infamy that has survived over 100 years concerning Holmes deals with his personal mission to lure and sleep with a long list of beautiful women he would then systematically do away with in the most grisly fashion he could conjure, an accomplishment he proudly considered his “art.”

As the character of the good doctor states in Stewart’s bravely off-centered new musical Deadly,  now world premiering in partnership with her longtime collaborators at Sacred Fools Theater, his skill at making people disappear in imaginative ways that could rival Dr. Phibes himself, was for him a “thing that no one can ever appreciate.”

Unlike latter-day monsters Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, Holmes’ twisted abilites were not self-taught. Ironically, his “art” was perfected during his education to become a licensed medical doctor with an emphasis on studying human anatomy, skills then presumably honed during his time apprenticing under a noted specialist in human dissection.

What struck Stewart most about everything she read about the notorious Dr. Holmes was how little was known about his victims besides their names. With Deadly,  her hope was to rectify that, to give eight of his most well-known actual victims a voice to explain who they were and why they deserve to be remembered.

Under the slick direction of Jamie Robledo, who also helmed Stewart’s multi-award-winning  megahit Stoneface: The Rise and Fall of Buster Keaton  starring her husband French Stewart at Sacred Fools several years ago, Deadly  is an impressive new effort which also reunited the duo with composer-musical director Ryan Thomas Johnson.

As Stephen Gifford’s metal structure set and Corwin Evans’ projections suggest areas in Holmes’ tricked-out Chicago hotel, often referred to as the “Murder Castle,” each of his comely victims arrive there to see or to find work related to the nearby World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 honoring the 400th anniversary of ol’ Chris’ now questionable landing in the New World.

Robledo’s cast is golden, filling the Fools’ often-unwieldy mainstage space with uniformly laudable vocal skills, particularly considering the pitfalls inherent in Johnson’s lyrical but difficult Sondheim-inspired score.

Keith Allen, even out of his distinctive zombie-defying blue Z Nation makeup, is both powerful and completely creepy in his depiction of Holmes, especially when near the end he suddenly breaks out in a Fosse-esque finale complete with an off-kilter bowler hat and a rather unexpected knack for jazz hands.

From the talented chorus of Holmes’ doomed female victims (reappearing postmortem in whimsically distressed Victorian grave-worn finery designed by costumer Linda Muggeridge), all of whom link together in death to try to stop their dark angel from ending the lives of his newest targets, Brittney S. Wheeler is a standout as Lizzie Sommers, one of the first spirits to appear to guide the others who stays disheartened that no one ever cared enough to come around asking about her whereabouts.

Erica Hanrahan-Ball is also impressive as Julia Connor, whose love for Holmes turns to thinly-disguised horror as she attempts to try to praise his cellar adorned with decaying body parts in an effort to stay alive, and understudy Shaina Hammer is also noteworthy as her sweet preteen daughter Pearl. 

Eric Curtis Johnson is an asset as the Cook County homicide detective whose revulsion for Holmes and confusion over the voices of the dead who continuously sing their plea for justice in his ear provide the musical’s most grounded moments, while David LM McIntyre (alternating in the role with French Stewart) is endearing as poor dumb emotionally-damaged schlep Ben Pitezel who reluctantly goes along with his boss’ dastardly bidding despite being increasingly more apprehensive about his role in the crimes.

This is an auspicious beginning for a delightfully dark new musical, a genre which I love but usually does sport a few more warped efforts to lift the darkness of the mood. Even Les Miz  has the Thenardiers around to rock “Master of the House” and Mrs. Lovett has her moment singing about cooking priests into meatpies, but while Johnson’s score is gorgeous, it’s also severely ballad-heavy and provides Stewart very little help in lightening the load.

Still, I truly believe Deadly  will join Vanessa Claire Stewart’s collection of eclectic historical figures she has chosen as the subject of her surprisingly compelling musical adaptations, but this one could use a little more reworking before it rivals her previous efforts.

With H.H. Holmes’ series of incredibly multifarious murders weaving throughout Deadly,  although Stewart’s personal odyssey to put an emphasis on the identities of his mostly forgotten female victims is a worthy cause to champion, if things were ocassionally brightened up a tad and the script was interspersed with a few more humorously over-the-top and graphically choreographed murderous deeds—and maybe featured a few cases of stage blood to make the stage management crew groan in anticipation—this potentially extraordinary new musical could easily become the Sweeney Todd of the 2020s.

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Bill Irwin's ON BECKETT at the Kirk Douglas Theatre

Just before curtain opening night at the Douglas for Bill Irwin’s solo show On Beckett,  my friend Charlie Degelman turned to me from the seat directly in front of me and told me how he first met his friend Mr. Irwin many years ago when they worked together in Larry Pisoni’s legendary Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco in that lamentably long gone golden era I knew so well.

When Irwin first arrived on that scene, Charlie recalled, he thought, “I give this guy about three months before he leaves to start selling insurance.”

As Irwin stands on the Douglas stage, dwarfed by the space, speaking in a halting monotone about his lifelong passion for all things Samuel Beckett and sheepishly offering “some amount of reassurance” that his performance would be over in another 88 or 89 minutes, indeed he does conjure the air of an insurance salesman awkwardly and uncomfortably addressing a crowd gathered at a convention he never expected to be so well attended.

But then, after explaining how, from the very beginning when discovering the legendary and Nobel Prize-winning avant-garde dramatist, the works have drilled a hole in his head that refuses to mend, he dons a signature and compulsory Beckett bowler hat and suddenly morphs before our very eyes into the great rubber-faced and limbless worldclass physical comedian he is.

Irwin, veteran of many Beckett performances, his own inventive solo shows, and celebrated straight theatre pieces including his Tony-winning turn as George in the Kathleen Turner revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,  found whatever he did and however his career was splintering away from his early days with the aforementioned Pickle Family Circus and as a member of Herbert Blau’s Kraken Theatre Company, the writings of the dense yet jarringly poetic first great mid-century avant-garde dramatist stayed hammering away at his consciousness somewhere in his crowded cerebellum.

“I found I had this repository of Beckett stuff in my head,” he admits. “It was important to me. It wouldn’t go away and I was looking for a way to share the place that this language has had in my noggin and my life.”

He hoped this unique performance he has created as a coping mechanism for this constant inner voice might be something healing that would also be a “celebration and an investigation of [Beckett’s] language.”

On Beckett  transforms repeatedly from Irwin’s own fiercely intellectual but humanly vulnerable observations about the master’s writing to diving headfirst into passages from his work. He begins the journey with a bravely over-pronounced interpretive reading from Beckett’s 1950 Texts for Nothing #1, questioning whether the writer was exploring the confusion and fragility inherent in the human condition or was instead simply chronicling the many voices and the conflicted thoughts that pour out of the mysterious chambers of our busy brains on a continuous basis.

From there, Irwin’s magical performance becomes more and more physical and decidedly clown-like, donning a succession of slightly different bowlers and utilizing a variety of props to create new and increasingly more broadly vaudevillian characters. From behind a simple podium providing a safe haven for his actions, he produces a series of canes, microphones that refuse to stay erect, coats that won’t be donned without a struggle, and those obligatory baggy pants that turn him immediately into a modernday Charlie Chaplin.

Irwin spends his self-imposed 88 or 89 minutes talking about the meaning of Beckett’s plays and offering passages from his work, from the obscure to the familiar. These include The Unnamable, Watt, and two other Texts for Nothing. Although it’s listed in the program’s running order, he avoids delving into Endgame, explaining to us he has decided to no longer attempt to “tackle that Goliath.”

His amazing transformations from character to character conclude, with help from a gifted pintsized collaborator named Benjamin Taylor in his promising stage debut (alternating in performances at the Douglas with Carl Barber), presenting scenes and passages from Waiting for Godot, a play Irwin knows well having appeared opposite artists from Robin Williams, Steve Martin, and F. Murray Abraham in his 2009 Drama Desk Award-nominated performance as Lucky to later playing Vladimir opposite Nathan Lane at Studio 54.

Along the way, Irwin continuously admits the many puzzles Beckett has left us are far above his own poor powers to add and detract, continuing to stay beyond his ability to make sense of all things. Yet if anyone—besides, of course, our own cherished local Beckett scholar and cohort Alan Mandell—can help us decipher these writings, it’s Irwin.

“Habit,” he quotes Beckett as observing, “is a great deadener,” a condition it’s clear will never take down this unique and incredible performer who obviously hopes to explain to us and to himself why the equally unique voice of the master, complete with its “slippery pronouns” in its effort to decipher and honor the intricacies of human intelligence and its fight to understand our existence, stays so relevant.

“This guy’s voice, this writer’s voice,” Irwin insists, “is one that’s going to last way into the future. People are going to be reading Beckett’s stuff and performing Beckett’s stuff the way they have Shakespeare.”

With the inimitable contribution of the comedic and the scholarly genius of great artists such as misters Mandell and Irwin to help that effort along with their courageous Quixote-esque personal missions to help Samuel Beckett’s work arrive at the “center of the culture,” there’s a comforting guarantee that such a thing will indeed come to fruition.

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ANASTASIA at the Pantages Theatre / Segerstrom Center for the Arts

Even aside from a score by Broadway legends Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, the new musical version of the classic tale of Anastasia, now filling the Pantages with visual splendor, has an amazing pedigree all around.

Reunited with Terrence McNally, one of our greatest playwrights and with whom they shared well-deserved Tony Award honors for Ragtime,  Ahrens and Flaherty's creative partners for Anastasia also included director Darko Tresnjak, Tony winner for A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder,  as well as his award-winning team for that production: choreographer Peggy Hickey, set designer Alexander Dodge, video and projection designer Aaron Rhyne, and Tony winner for costuming Linda Cho.

Add in two-time Tony winner and 13-time nominated lighting designer Donald Holder and sound designer Peter Hylenski, both of whom also collaborated with Ahrens and Flaherty on their other Tony winner Once On This Island,  and how could Anastasia  possibly miss?

The production is spectacular in almost every regard. Tresnjak’s staging of this incredibly large and ambitious show is remarkably fluid, Cho’s period costuming is breathtakingly glittery and sumptuous, and Rhyne’s picture-perfect projections evoking a snowy Leningrad in 1906 and the shimmering sunlit Seine in the Paris of the 1920s conjure images of enormous animated postcards.

So, with such a dynamic team of established and honored Broadway thoroughbred talent and all its incredible visual razzle-dazzle, why is Anastasia  a huge disappointment?  A majority of the problem is simply this traditional formulaic musical is such a throwback to the days when escapist fare featuring production numbers about the rain in Spain and real good clambakes ruled the world of musical theatre—something which is especially problematic in today’s instantaneous information media-fueled world currently being dismantled yet again by another soulless band of power-hungry madmen intent on destroying our planet.

Reminiscent of Jerry Herman’s horrendously ill-advised 1979 flop The Grand Tour,  where a chorusline of all-singing, all-dancing Nazis chases a Jewish refugee across Europe as he hides by being shot out of a cannon in a traveling circus, parts of Anastasia  nearly rival The Producers’  “Springtime for Hitler.”

Early on in Anastasia,  the charmed life of the young Grand Duchess (in a lovely turn by Delilah Rose Pellow) enjoying an idyllic childhood enveloped in the elegant beauty of Tsar Nicholas’ winter retreat is suddenly transformed into a scene of the mass extinction of her entire family, the towering white walls of the palace turning into two-story flames and the beauty of old St. Petersburg morphing into the bleak darkness of post-Revolutionary Leningrad.

The accompanying production number, “The Last Dance of the Romanovs,” is downright creepy as Anya’s entire family is “tastefully” dispatched—albeit offstage—especially when followed by the starving peasants of the city then joining in song to wail about their miserable existence in the “new” Russia. Never fear, however; in true musical theatre fashion, her large extended family soon returns to happily sing and dance around her bed like a post-Bolshevik troupe of Casper the Friendly Ghosts.

Now, here’s something that may be a first for me, considering how many times I’ve praised the Herculean efforts of musical ensemble casts rising above what they’ve been handed. Here, although the score is lovely (if not memorable) and the staging and design are richly opulent, the players seem to have given up on it.

Everyone in this ensemble is possessed of appropriately splendid voices, but there’s generally about as much passion in the performances as in the umpteenth show of the day for Mickey and the Magical Map  at Disneyland. I’d have to chalk this malady off to roadshow-itis, that inevitable fatigue and burnout that afflicts a cast embarking on the second year on the grueling national tour circuit.

What this makes it appear is that Tresnjak and his cohorts have basically moved on from the piece or someone would be around to give a goose the serviceable but terminally melancholy performances of Lila Coogan in the title role, Jake Levy as her predictable love interest, and Joy Franz in the potentially juicy role of her heartbroken grandmother. 

I’m not sure any amount of rehearsal could improve the cartoon-Javert woodenness of Jason Michael Evans as Anya’s torn KGB-y pursuer Gleb or temper the unwatchable Marx Brothers-esque antics of the horribly miscast Edward Staudenmayer as “lovable” former Count-turned-conman Vlad, but I sure wish someone would try.

Again, both of these actors contribute impressive vocal power to the production, but more than that skill is needed to tell the story without the distraction of under or  overacting in these two pivotal roles. At least someone might have wanted to alter Vlad’s lyric about how fat and complacent he’s gotten when the far-too young Staudenmayer instead has the lanky body to play the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.

Aside from the generally somnambulant performances, however, the most glaring problem with this big “new” musical is the source material. In an era of thematic and less-than cheery musicals such as Falsettos, Next to Normal, Fun Home,  and Indecent,  modern audiences have welcomed in the genre of musical theatre rather than still hanging onto a fiercely unmovable passion for enjoying only old-style sappy musical comedies. 

Although the once-groundbreaking classic warhorses created by Rodgers and Hammerstein and Jerry Herman still work as nostalgia, today we need more than a steady stream of escapist fare. Even if amphetamines were pumped into the ventilation system of the Pantages’ basement dressing rooms before each show to give the cast a much-needed boost of energy, no matter how beautifully mounted and produced Anastasia  may be, it’s still a tad stodgy and ultimately a letdown.

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LATIN HISTORY FOR MORONS at the Ahmanson Theatre

When his son Lucas was in middle school, John Leguizamo began to feel like a failure as a parent, something that led to what he refers to as Latent Ghetto Rage in his latest Tony Award-nominated one-man show Latin History for Morons,  now beginning its national tour at the Ahmanson.

Confronting the father of one of Lucas’ classmates to tell him that the other man’s son was bullying his kid at school, calling him a “spic greaseball heebie kike" loser like his “celebri-tard” dad, the guy offers a halfhearted apology before giving the stick up his ass a little twirl of reassurance and going off about his privileged family’s history from the landing of the goddam Mayflower and on to today.

This didn’t unfold at the inner-city public school Leguizamo had endured with “55 feral latchkey kids per class,” but at a tony private school where one would think something like this wouldn’t happen. “I’ve worked hard to be respectable,” he tells his audience, adding a cautionary “Fuck you” just in case anyone is having a problem with that statement. I mean, after all, he has studied “icelandic  pentameter” and everything.

When his son is assigned a huge research project examining each student’s own personal hero, something that could help turn around a slip in his grades, Leguizamo also saw it as a possible channel to help him turn around his own feelings of inadequacy as a parent. He realizes most of Lucas’ knowledge about his roots came from watching Apocalypto, meaning he was learning his own history from Mel Gibson, so if he could incite him to write about a Latino hero, maybe in the process he’ll learn to stand up for himself at school.

In Latin History,  Leguizamo chronicles his real-life efforts to help find a suitable hero for his kid to select as his subject, going back all the way to the Mayans in 1000BC and on to perform a dead-on impersonation of Pitbull. Along the way he makes a legion of discoveries of his own, leaving many golden opportunities to get a laugh from his personal realization that “ColumbASS” was the Donald Trump of the New World and that the randy disease-carrying Conquistadors spread deadly viruses to our vulnerable continent faster than MBA players at a Kardashian pool party.

Still, beyond discovering things that would eventually gift him with his fifth amazingly successful solo show since 1991—the others being Mambo Mouth, Spic-o-Rama, Freak, Sexaholix… A Love Story, and Ghetto Klown—Leguizamo also came face-to-face with horrifying statistics about how Latinos have been treated throughout history.

It’s made perfectly clear that us comfy entitled ‘Merkins, those of us who in our ranks don’t realize or choose not to confront how we collectively obliterated the peaceful indigenous “pagans” from our adopted land, are the morons of the title. Leguizamo cites the 130 million of 145 million original inhabitants of the Americas we systematically exterminated the minute we got here, going on to chronicle Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears and the decimation of the entire Taino people in the Caribbean Holocaust among the many atrocities throughout hisory.

“How is there a god who is so merciful he lets people do this to each other?” Leguizamo stops to sincerely ask, a question that has haunted me my entire life.

All of the shocking statistics about Latino genocide are scrawled on a giant blackboard as Latin History alternatingly makes us laugh and shudder for an intermissionless two hours that might be almost as exhausting for us as it is for Leguizamo­­—an accomplishment which led to his Special Tony Award last year honoring his many achievements over the last 30 years that craftily go way beyond entertaining us.

It takes a special talent to make this work without losing offended audience members, but no one is more up to the task than this unique storyteller. He unswervingly hammers lectures at us that should make us all ashamed of our societal complacency and in two hours educates us better than a whole semester at many schools, particularly since this part of our history is usually so quickly glossed over.

Whenever the finger-waving gets a little thick, however, this worldclass physical comedian immediately lightens it up by donning silly hats, collapsing in a frustrated heap, dancing every Latin dance known to man, and performing masterful impressions of everyone from Sigmund Freud to his time-conscious personal therapist who sounds exactly like Tim Gunn.

Before curtain I was wondering why a one-person show would be booked into a theatre the massive size of the Ahmanson when CTG also has the far more intimate Mark Taper and Kirk Douglas theatres to choose for such a run. Under the guidance of Tony Taccone, however, one of our time’s most gifted and prolific directors, Leguizamo completely fills and dominates the austere and cavernous Ahmanson stage for two friggin’ break-less hours with a minimum of props and visual tools besides that aforementioned blackboard and some mighty smudgy chalk that ends up in the strangest places.

How does one say tour de force in Spanish?

After anyone who has attended Latin History for Morons eventually stops reliving the barrage of ingenious comic moments, what should linger in a fair world is an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy as a human being—something akin to what John Leguizamo felt he was missing as a father. Still one inappropriate but ultimately wise and useful nugget of parental counseling he offered Lucas will stay with me as well. “Life is gonna fuck you, honey,” he tells his young son. “You just gotta change positions until it feels good.” Sounds like a perfect bit of parental advice if you ask me.

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SKINTIGHT at Geffen Playhouse

When late-fortysomething Jodi Isaac flees LA on the red eye to surprise her famous fashion icon father in his posh West Village marble-and-chrome-heavy townhome on his 70th birthday, her reasons for the intrusion, especially since her crispy and clearly non-nurturing dad has expressed emphatically that he wants a peaceful landmark passage without people or fanfare, it’s clearly suspicious.

It seems her recent soul-shattering divorce has resulted in her ex’s announcement that he is about to marry the comely young lassie that broke them up, someone named Missy or Misty or Madison—Jodi Isaac (Idina Menzel) refuses to remember which—a 24-year-old fitness devotee she prefers to refer to only as The Little Spinner. More than wishing her dear ol’ dad a wonderful milestone as he passes into his eighth decade, Elliot (Harry Groener) knows better since his neurotic offspring doesn’t appear to do much of anything without an ulterior motive.

So begins Joshua Harmon’s achingly insightful, scathingly bitter, hilariously funny contemporary comedy Skintight,  arriving at the Geffen Playhouse after a successful run last season at the Roundabout in New York. Along for the ride with Menzel in her celebrated and rare non-singing performance are the show’s original director Daniel Aukin, two of her original costars, and the production’s precision design team, first and foremost including Lauren Helpern’s massive and startingly grand Manhattan mansion set which must have been a bear to transport across country.

At first, Menzel seems to still be playing Elphaba, as though she’s once again been cast as a wicked witch, albeit without the green makeup this time. Her Jodi is a mess, so raw and fragile and annoyingly obnoxious it doesn’t take long to make us wish the incredible cool and patient Elliot would tell his self-absorbed offspring to hop right back on a flight back to LaLaLand. Yet, as much as it’s a temptation to shout out from the audience for her to shutthefuggup, we soon begrudgingly begin to find her oddly lovable—though that doesn’t mean I’d want to invite her over for Thanksgiving dinner.

Groener, a true LA theatrical treasure in the classiest of ways, is a perfect foil for Menzel’s frantic shrillness as her patient stuffedshirt of a father whose wish to be alone and happily family-free on his birthday is understandable—especially considering his family. And as he observes through clenched teeth as Jodi coos and chirps patronizingly on about his Happy Day, turning 70 is not a prompt for rolling a Veniero’s birthday cake into the dayroom of the resthome on a cart. “It’s not an achievement to not die,” he tells her dryly.

Although Jodi immediately surmises his lack of glee seeing her unexpectedly is due to hitting the botox a little too hard and has nothing to do to her planning a family dinner or her announcing the imminent arrival of her spoiled and gravely insecure son Benjamin (Eli Gelb, gratefully reprising his showstopping turn at the Roundabout), what Isaac was actually trying to avoid was the entrance of his uber-buff and swaggering 20-year-old live-in boyfriend Trey (Will Brittain, the other impressive transplantee from the New York cast), an ex-pornstar who just happens to be the exact same age as Benjamin and loves to make jokes about what a jawbreaker Isaac has hidden in his satin pajama bottoms.

“Everyone is marrying someone younger... what kind of message is that to send to you and [your brother]?” Jodi wails to Benjamin in her classic patented JAP whine. “Um… I don’t know,” he answers with a graceful hand running through his curly locks. “Stay younger?”

Harmon’s latest comedic bashing of the hypocrisies running rampant through the emotional trials of modern life involves our obsession with youth and beauty.  Jodi will not admit she isn't as young and attractive as she might have once been, but not even the arrival of a practitioner to deliver a little squirt of rejuvenation to the foreheads of virtually every character in the play—including Isaac’s loyal and professionally inobtrusive servants Orsolya and Jeff (Kimberly Jurgen and Jeff Skowron), who tiptoe quietly down from the upstairs bedroom area with the same tissue held tightly to their foreheads as sported by the other members of the family—will sidetrack Jodi’s mission to stay as miserable as humanly possible.

Gelb is golden as the awkward but bratty Benjamin, who is on hiatus from his semester studying Queer Studies in Budapest, a place, he is quick to point out, where their family originated before fleeing the tigers and the fleas. From sewing garments in the impoverished family’s modest New York basement, Isaac turned their poverty into an enormous fashion empire, but his decision to ignore the fate of the Hungarian Jews in favor of commerce is something that drives Benjamin nuts as he passes the compulsory ELLIOT ISAAC flag store on his way to class every day.

Although some of Harmon’s most volatile fireworks come in confrontations between Jodi and Trey, as she very pointedly insists her father’s boytoy is not a family member and he repeatedly reminds her he lives there and is in every sense Elliot’s partner, the most dangerously combustive scene ends Act One and features the near-seduction of Trey by his lover’s grandson.

When Trey enters the living room late at night wearing nothing but an ELLIOT ISAAC jockstrap, much to the horror of Jodi and the vaguely-concealed delight of Benjamin, the two 20-year-olds find themselves alone when Jodi head off to bed to escape sitting next to her dad’s near-naked paramour. After Benjamin has moved a little too close and becomes bold enough to question the guy about the sexual part of the relationship with his grandfather—to which Trey blithely replies, “Well, 20-year-old dick tastes better than 70-year-old dick”—Benjamin makes a move to check out the snakebite scar way too high on Trey’s inner thigh just as Elliot appears at the top of the staircase.

Brittain is impressive as the quintessential lost kid from Oklahoma tossed around and presumably eaten alive by the hungry vultures before landing a wealthy older man willing to buy him a $450,000 Rolex, bringing a complex and touching vulnerability to what could become a glaring stereotype featuring someone cast more for his physicality than being able to find such nuance as an actor.

Of course, this didn’t keep the New York Post  from declaring that Brittain’s prominent buttocks stole the show from Menzel, not an easy task even when she isn’t belting her signature “Let It Go” from Frozen.  “Off-Broadway’s long been the place to discover fresh faces,” the Post’s  Barbara Hoffman wrote. “Now and then, along comes something cheekier: a dashing derriere.” I need not say more, although I do concur.

Aukin guides Skintight’s  dynamic ensemble cast with suitable tightness and an elegant hand, yet he is never afraid to let his players take their time, including in that Act One ending when Brittain ascends the townhome’s steep staircase in a slowed-down, balletic ritual or when, near the end of the play, Trey offers a shocking proposal that leaves Groener and the others in stark-still silence for an intentionally extended period of time.

This is Harmon’s third turn sharing his talents with the world in general and the Geffen in particular (the others being Significant Other  and Bad Jews)  and may I say I adore his plays and believe he’ll be a major influence on the future of theatre of this century. Still, there is at this point a clearly evident theme in the evolution of his work, an underlying anger below the sharply clever humor that occasionally proves so weighty that it gets in the way.

I’m not sure if Harmon was raised around and is personally haunted by overpowering women in his life such as Jodi Isaac and the religiously obsessive and equally controlling sister Daphna Fegenbaum in his Bad Jews, but as comfortable as he is giving voice to such characters, one might wonder after three turns if they could be echoes of his own past. Whether or not this is just a natural perception due to the currently available body of his work, in the future I hope he’ll move on and explore something new.

And although I believe Skintight  is a sharp and brutally honest new play, I have to also say I was disappointed in the missed opportunity inherent in Elliot’s eleventh-hour confession explaining to his daughter why he loves Trey. Groener delivers an admittedly mesmerizing monologue about the man’s obsessive attraction to the younger man’s beauty and, kinda creepily, later croons to him as he caresses his smoothly taut young shoulder that he wishes he could “sleep in a bed with sheets made from your skin.”

See, if Elliot’s love for Trey is truly based solely on deeply drinking in his youth and appreciating how vital the kid makes him feel, it personally makes me sad, especially since, for the last seven years, I have had the privilege of experiencing the most amazing love of my life with someone 42 years my junior.

It’s a shame Harmon feels the character of Elliot has to answer with such musty and platitudinous stereotypical behavior when this would be such a glorious opportunity to express how such a love could go beyond the physical. I certainly think my own partner is the most beautiful and sexiest man I know, but what I love about him—and visa-versa, I have come to trust—has very little to do with appearance or piggybanking on someone else’s youthfulness.

In a play about people’s obsession with youth and beauty, it would be far more uplifting if, instead of the arbitrary final tableau meant to add a little note of hope for the future of the Isaac family members, putting an inauthentic button on an otherwise insightful story, how much more interesting and meaningful it would have been if Joshua Harmon had chosen to end Skintight  showing the love Elliot and Trey share is ultimately the most real and genuine relationship in the entire play.

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HANDJOB from the Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre

I have been around the block so many times in my life that I’ve made grooves in the pavement.

I was butt-naked and promoting “Suck-Ins for Jesus” in Hair  for an extended period of time in the late 60s, the very first time full-frontal nudity was attempted on a stage anywhere—which usually meant vice cops were around to line the back of the theatre wherever we opened waiting for a signal to take us all away.

In 2000-2001, I was nude again onstage, this time in my early fifties and covered in Joe Orton’s blood each night playing Kenneth Halliwell in Lanie Robertson’s Nasty Little Secrets. It proved to be a performance which won me a shelf-ful of impressive awards, but I’ve always suspected that was because I was brave enough to expose my massive girth in my sunset-ing years for all to see more than it was meant to honor my performance.

Then there was that less-than mainstream movie my then-partner Victor that I made for our friend Nicholas Grippo in 1971 or so. It was called Cheaters  and, if anyone has or ever finds a copy of it, please share it with me because gawd knows we ain’t’a gonna ever look like that  again.

The point here is, I purdy much consider myself artistically shockproof. Yet, about halfway through Echo’s world premiere of Erik Patterson’s Handjob, just as everyone else in the Atwater Village Theatre audience, my jaw must have fallen to just about there.

At that point in the play, the title proves playable in a most boldly graphic way but what could be seen in most other situations as gratuitous, here it is absolutely the opposite. Shocking the heck outta us is exactly what the outrageous Mr. Patterson wants to accomplish. As the playwright’s onstage counterpart Keith (Steven Culp) admits soon after that little transaction goes south and the characters discuss its impact, “I need to make people uncomfortable. People need to leave this theatre and have this very conversation.”

Mission accomplished.

In the first scene of Handjob, Keith has hired a strapping young housecleaner named Eddie (Michael Rishawn in an auspicious LA debut) to make his apartment spic and span. Oddly enough, however, although Keith apologizes profusely for being such a dysfunctional mess, on Amanda Knehans’ brick-walled Manhattan apartment set there are some books stacked around on the floor and a few random newspapers out of place, but there’s not much cleaning to be done, which forces Eddie (or any actor playing him) to busy himself moving things around from place to place and dusting in front of the framed RENT  and Legally Blonde  playbills on the bookcase instead of getting down and dirty (no pun intended).

Whether this is an intentional device because Keith has ulterior motives to get his money’s worth or if it’s an annoying oversight director Chris Fields has ignored is unclear, but Eddie’s lack of things to do appears to be more of a distraction for someone as anal retentive as I am than it is a theatrical choice. And if anyone cleaning my apartment ever cavalierly decided to throw away saved newspapers and stacks of envelopes without asking if they needed to be saved, he’d be out the door with or without his shirt.

See, the reason Keith hired this guy to clean is because he advertised as someone who cleans in the buff. I would guess this is the case since that is what’s usually offered in such cases, although in this production Rishawn never strips off anything except his shirt—which again feels like a bit of a copout, especially considering the handy-dandy climactic (no pun intended again) sex act that becomes the pivotal moment in the play.

There are a few missteps such as this in this world premiere that really, really need tweaking next time it’s mounted (pun intended this time), but my druthers are minor because its assault to our complacent senses is absolutely brilliant, opening up a discourse about why any artist needs to shy away from controversy as it continuously barrages those gathered with uproariously funny dialogue and awkward situations. Handjob is, perhaps, my favorite of Patterson’s many works I have repeatedly praised throughout the years.

Patterson’s plays are traditionally full of unexpected turns and this one is a prime example of that. Soon after Keith makes the mistake of ignoring the straight Eddie’s rule that he can look all he wants but not touch, Kevin misinterprets a sideway smile as a signal and grabs his junk as he bends over the sink. Before the first scene goes to blackout after Eddie has gone all #metoo on his host, the second scene opens with two other actors in the same apartment saying and doing almost exactly the same things as the first two did before them.

The only difference is that this time Bradley (Ryan Nealy) is more than willing to put out for an extra $40, stripping down to a ridiculously overstuffed jockstrap as he tells his host Kevin (Stephen Guarino) he’s only been good at two things in his life: cleaning and fucking.

This leads to the aforementioned action suggested in the provocative title and, beyond that moment in the storyline, I would be doing this fascinatingly twisted play a disservice by revealing (another pun?) anything more at this point. Let me just let Patterson’s alter-ego Keith speak for me as he defends the pivotal act: “If you put it onstage, if you light it, then that’s not violating anyone.” Again, whether or not there’s truth in that statement is up to what you decide after the show over drinks at Momed or on your drive home from Atwater Village.

Aside from the lack of authentic activities for the two housecleaners to perform before each gets to put his own tool to use, Fields’ production is quite impressive and his game ensemble is gratefully willing to go wherever Patterson’s insightful situations and delightfully sick mind takes them. This includes castmembers Tamarra Graham and Gloria Ines, whose characters' identities and the reason they suddenly show up onstage offer another mystery I’ll leave at that.

I might suggest that perhaps a smaller prosthetic prop and more fiddling around before said prop “appears” might make the critical scene between Guarino and Nealy more believable, but both handle it (oh, the puns) smoothly and Guarino’s dryly hilarious take on his complacent predator who “felt safe enough to explore the moment” is a standout.

In his LA stage debut, Rishawn is especially charismatic yet incredibly comfortable donning the conflicted skin of Eddie, whose presence opens a whole other can of worms as he accuses Keith of purposefully casting a character based on him in a play as caucasian, suspecting he didn’t want the “blackness of me to overpower the gayness of you.” If ol’ Terpsichore is in the house, Rishawn’s performance here could mark the beginning of an impressive and well-deserved career in our hardhearted Industry town.

Now, a final thought: I think next time someone shows an interest in producing Handjob, the ever-tendentious Erik Patterson might consider renaming his newest play Blowjob  and take the stakes one step higher. This would be something I think could make it even more controversial, which is an admirable goal, if you ask me—and besides, I think it would be a far more realistic goal for Keith in his duplicitous quest to get his already clean apartment cleaned.

I mean, once his hired help rearranges a few books and throws away those newspapers without asking if they’re being saved for a reason, I think the guy needs to have something  to do, don’t you?

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A PLAY IS A POEM at Mark Taper Forum

Anyone who lives in LaLaLand, whether part of the entertainment industry or running a dry cleaning business in the heart of WeHo, has at some point attended one of those frequent acting showcase events or, as presented under my tutelage in scene study classes at New York Film Academy, an end-of-semester “presentation.”

You know the deal. I’m talking about one of those frequent evenings of scenes from plays performed by members of one acting class or workshop who hope beyond hope they can cajole some producer or someone in casting to come see them do their thing.

Such showcases are of course valuable tools for those trying to buck the massive odds in our hardhearted old town and get a leg up in what is spoken of in reverent tones as The Industry, but they are not something one would expect to see mounted at the prestigious Mark Taper Forum featuring several short unrelated pieces written by a major Hollywood filmmaker.

Unfortunately, this is a rare misstep for the venerable Center Theatre Group. There’s a glaring lack of cohesion that should be around to link together the five playlets by Ethan Coen now world premiering at the Taper, making their title A Play is a Poem  a little tough to live up to. It’s certainly true a play can be a poem—just not this one. This one, I’m afraid, is about as poetic as a grocery list.

Although the evening is impressively acted, smartly designed, and lovingly directed by frequent Coen collaborator Neil Pepe, artistic director of New York’s prolific Atlantic Theatre Company, there isn’t much point to any of the pieces, leaving me at the end with the feeling it was all playtime—albeit well-meaning and beautifully presented playtime—between film projects.

It’s said all art is imitation but here Coen takes that concept to new heights. Granted, his dialogue throughout is extremely funny and clearly reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ signature cleverly off-kilter wit and subtle counter-celebration of A’murkin life.

The concept for each individual piece in A Play is a Poem, however, is something clearly “borrowed” Stephen King-style from other sources. Each playlet could become part of a party game, with participants vying to see who will be the first to shout out what famous playwright or play from which it was purloined.

It takes about a minute-and-a-half to realize what the opening sequence of The Redeemers  recalls, opening with two moronic redneck brothers (Max Casella and Joey Slotnick who, along with CJ Wilson as their slightly smarter brother, deserve far better) standing in the middle of the stage staring down at the floorboards and contemplating what to do with their father’s headless body buried there.

The scene immediately resembles an Appalachian retelling of the first scene of The Lieutenant of Inishmore, where a pair of Martin McDonaugh’s dimwitted Irish losers are discovered at lights-up staring blankly as the brain falls out of a dead cat lying in a bloody heap before them.

A Tough Case  seems as though it’s a mismatch between Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon  and the tongue-in-cheek Larry Gelbart musical City of Angels, with Slotnick again as the world-weary gumshoe and Micaela Diamond as the chippy secretary he bends over his desk when nobody’s looking.

At the Gazebo  is a period piece lifted directly from Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke  by way of Oscar Wilde, so mannered that the title’s set piece becomes more interesting than the dialogue, while the tough-talking New York Depression-era battling couple in The Urbanes  (Casella and Miriam Silverman) could almost be doing an improvised version of Joe and Edna’s “Why the palookas, we paid three-quarters!” scene from Clifford Odet’s Waiting for Lefty.

The best piece of the evening was saved for last—or honestly, the best was last and  first, when factoring in the frequent appearance of singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, a little Ani DiFranco, a little Patsy Cline, a little Mary Schneider, who opens the show with one of her charming original songs and between each scene performs her own quirky material from an onstage piano or weaving throughout the audience accompanying herself on the banjo.

McKay is the sweet icing on an otherwise rather stale cake, making it almost a disappointment when the lights go off on her most welcome interludes. She also has the evening’s best line in A Tough Case  as a nightclub singer named LuAnne who, criticized for her melancholy song choice, says, “I’m a torch singer, honey... I get paid to complain.”

The last mini-play, Inside Talk, is a wonderful sendup of the absurdities of the Hollywood system, although it is so close to Speed-the-Plow  that David Mamet himself might not be surprised if Madonna walked into the palm tree-adorned studio office with a copy of the radiation book.

Still, there’s a delightful satisfaction whenever insiders themselves skewer the Industry and when an actor as sharp as Jacob Kravits is able to play a pitchman trying to sell a producer (Peter Jacobson) on green-lighting the idea of remaking “Das Boot  on a boat” with a straight face, it’s worth seeing.

Again, the actors here are all absolutely golden throughout, especially Casella as both of his outrageous cartoon characters and Saul Rubinek as a down-on-his-luck formerly successful filmmaker desperately trying to hold onto his dignity. Ro Boddie and Sam Vartholomeos gamely complete the exceptionally talented and admirably committed cast.

I’m reminded of that old adage about Chinese food. No matter how tasty the dish, no matter how unique or well prepared it may be, an hour later you’re hungry again. In the case of A Play is a Poem, after the performance I was ready to partake in some good solid food by the time I got to Level 6 of the parking lot.

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SISTERS IN LAW at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

Starting in 1993 during the first days of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s appointment by Bill Clinton to the U.S. Supreme Court, Jonathan Shapiro’s new play Sisters in Law  deals with RBG’s respectful but often contentious relationship with her cohort Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to ever sit on the Court.

Based on the bestselling dual biography of both women by Linda Hirshman, Shapiro’s two-person stage adaptation celebrates the unique friendship that developed over the years despite the drastic differences between the hardass Jewish Democrat feminist born and raised in Brooklyn and the soft-spoken yet hard-as-nails Christian Republican cowgirl from Arizona.

As the first two female Supreme Court Justices in American history, the stakes were instantly high for Ginsburg to try to work with O’Connor, who early on tells her new colleague, “You want to change things fast, Ruth… I want to change things slowly and the men don’t want to change things at all.”

In the impressive west coast debut of Sisters in Law  at the Wallis, directed by Patricia McGregor on a wonderfully movable (but occasionally distracting) set by Rachel Myers strikingly augmented by Yee Eun Nam’s historically accurate feminist-inspired projections, Shapiro’s tale unfolds as more than the evolution of these two judicial giants’ personal relationship.

It’s also a fascinating study of their individual methods utilized as they both attempt to initiate change in the way women are treated in our society. O’Connor (Stephanie Faracy) stays gracious and outwardly compliant as she gently cajoles her male counterparts in her attempt to gradually break through the proverbial glass ceiling, while the prickly Ginsburg (Tovah Feldshuh) is ready to take a pickax to the damn thing and get on with it.

Neither woman ever minces words, O’Connor beginning by making decor and lighting suggestions to Ginsburg for her office while her new pal instead wants to make serious changes to the decision O’Connor has been chosen to author despite RBG’s fervent belief that she was the most knowledgeable person on the Court to be asked to write it.

As Ginsburg, the remarkable Feldshuh is of course perfectly cast, even more the obvious choice to play the role than Faracy who, despite a tendency to play out as though performing for film or television cameras rather than a live audience, still aces O’Connor in spite of her habit to make things more about “takes” than finding a throughline and character arc.

Still, although their names are surely a draw to bring people in to see Sisters in Law,  I have to say I wish I had seen the play performed in its world premiere at the Phoenix Theatre Company last spring featuring our own incredibly gifted LA theatre treasures Eileen T’Kaye as Ginsburg and Laura Wernette as O’Connor. As much as I understand star-power helping put butts into seats, sometimes I wish such a safe decision didn’t have to compromise the quality of the finished project.

No matter who plays these roles, however, the true star of Sisters in Law  is Shapiro’s play itself, which craftily delves into some of the most important issues of today as it simultaneously celebrates the humanity lurking just below the surface of people such obsessively driven Type A individuals as O’Connor and RBG.

Whatever their individual politics, in the last analysis these are two great living American heroes who both decided, at some early personal crossroads in each of their lives, that to become a dedicated crusader and fight for what one believes is the most important thing we can do in our time on this risky planet, even if it occasionally happens at the risk of one’s comfort and personal wellbeing. 

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DRIVING WILDE at Theatre of NOTE

As the voice of Oscar Wilde delivers some of his most famous bon mots on the often disturbing essence of human nature from behind an attic door at the tippy-top of a staircase on Song Yi Park’s minimalistic set, some of the most enduring themes explored in his The Picture of Dorian Gray  now imaginatively thrust us into a timewarp—familiar territory for any avid cult follower of the workings of Jacqueline Wright’s delightfully sick and impressively twisted view of our mutual collective existence.

In NOTE’s world premiere of Wright’s Driving Wilde, the setting morphs from Victorian England to postmodern times, a place where after a traffic accident, caused when the spectre of Wilde himself crosses the path of a car filled with raucous revelers, Dorian wakes from a coma with his memory erased. This provides a perfect petre dish for the duplicitous world to grow its usual culture of what religious dinosaurs consider immorality and corruption without being affected by the clutter of typical life experiences.

As did Wilde, Wright takes on a lot more than most people can comfortably handle, including the nature of beauty and our species’ narcissistic obsession with youth (“The tragedy of old age is not that one is old,” he wrote, “but that one is young”). And as we all are coerced by the societal norms we’ve inherited, we're told we must live a life that results in what Ayn Rand called “second-handers,” most of us questionably evolved human beings carefully taught to care more for how we are perceived by others rather than who we really are.

Wilde warned us the truth is “rarely pure and never simple” and, as the great playwright’s infamous hero careens through his fresh new take on life as filtered through the fertile brain of Wright, the truths he discovers as Basil’s portrait of him goes to hell, here locked in the attic with Wilde, are basically the same as the great literary giant conjured in 1890, much to the shock of British critics at the time who felt he merited prosecution for violating the laws of public decency.

Thanks to the era in which Wright can now interpret Wilde’s only novel, Dorian’s descent into immorality and depravity can today be even more pronounced in a time when sexual promiscuity is not as forbidden a topic as it was 130 years ago. This leaves room for our hero’s failed romance with a Shakespeare-spouting surfer girl, a series of tosses with seemingly vapid dancing go-go boys, and the hedonistic Lord Henry’s dominatrix of a wife introducing him to the receiving end of a massive strap-on dildo.

Under the direction of Bart DeLorenzo with incredibly colorful era-hopping costuming designed by Ann Closs-Farley, Driving Wilde makes an auspicious debut despite a few random druthers I might not have had if I didn’t know the material as well as I do. Wright has been writing and rewriting her most incredibly personal play for years and one thing about an earlier draft, in which I performed in a staged reading for the Ensemble Studio Theatre several years ago, included something I fiercely missed in its current incarnation.

In that version, Wilde was still relegated to observing from his attic view but in return was visible to the audience as he played voyeur to his characters’ downward spiral down the rabbit-hole. This made his frequent lines and interjections—almost 100% taken from the author’s original novel with a tad of De Profundis  thrown in—far more relevant as Dorian and his lascivious upperclass admirers strike out on their own without their creator able to intervene, experiencing a life he himself could not have known during his own life and times.

The cast has individual moments but, in general, most seem to somehow be collectively missing the exigency and passion of what both Wilde and Wright are trying to say. The clear exception is the gloriously rubber-faced Carl J. Johnson, looking a lot like Mona Washbourne as a slatternly Hooters waitress and in his 70s-style wig as Basil, a poor nebbish whose adoration for Dorian leads to his eventual degradation and demise. David Wilcox is also a standout as the bored and ruthless Lord Henry, who describes himself as hungry but not starving and admits one of the great joys of his life is “catching a boy just before he falls.”

As anything written by Wright (including Love Water, Buddy Buddette, and the jarringly controversial Eat Me, which was turned into an equally controversial recent feature film starring the author), this is still a most memorable, intentionally shocking, and sufficiently rough ride down that aforementioned bramble-laden rabbit-hole as it calls out the hypocrisy of our species’ inherited religious-based mandates.

Beyond any easily amendable flaws in its world premiere, Driving Wilde offers yet another wonderfully wild and joyously rule-defying Jacqueline Wrightian treatise, once again brilliantly skewering all those ridiculous soul-crunching ingrained rules and regulations that bog us down.

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HANNAH AND THE DREAD GAZEBO at the Fountain Theatre

New York med student Hannah lives in what many feel is a limpic space, somewhere between being American by birth and Korean by heredity, yet not quite feeling a part of either culture—especially since their parents’ generation purposely did not speak their native language at home so their children could more handily assimilate in their adoptive country.

When Hannah’s South Korean grandmother sends her a package from her confinement to the Sunrise Dewdrop Apartment City for Senior Living, located directly on the border of the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea, she’s frustrated she can’t read the enclosed handwritten note and even more alarmed when, instead of translating it for her, her local drycleaner will only tell her she better join her parents there as quickly as she can pack.

The struggle to navigate those contrasting cultures and the Twilight Zone that exists between alienation and acceptance, between peace and war, and soon even between living and dying, are some of the threads examined from the perspective of a kind of uncertain millennial haze in Jiehae Park’s Hannah and the Dread Gazebo, currently being presented at the Fountain Theatre in conjunction with East West Players.

Despite a gossamer lyricism running throughout Park’s dialogue, her rapidly flying metaphors begin to bog down the piece, leaving its audience struggling to grab onto or even find interest in any one of her themes. Still, under the smoothly-evolving staging of director Jennifer Chang, the magical and beautifully mounted tale is something lovely to behold.

Chang’s richly-appointed production features an accomplished cast, as well as clever and even elegant design elements to keep us mesmerized as the action zips from location to location, often interrupted by monologues delivered directly to the audience from Hannah (Monica Hong) meant to help us keep up with what’s going on.

Hong is naturally at ease as she slips into the skin of Hannah, warmly letting the audience in on her character's emotional journey at every juncture on the bumpy ride. Rising from the uniformly talented supporting cast—including Janet Song and Hahn Cho as her bewildered and bewildering parents and Wonjung Kim as a sprightly activist with an eye for Hannah's brother Dang (Gavin Lee)—Jully Lee is a standout as the “Shapeshifter,” playing everyone from Hannah’s suicidal grandmother to the unnerved drycleaner to a rather unhelpful duty nurse to an old man Dang encounters while waiting at a train station who relates to him the ancient Dangun fable, something about a tiger and a bear and their encounter that mythologically explains the creation of Korea.

On Yee Eun Nam’s austerely minimal set, her continuous barrage of colorful and evocative video projections nicely set the mood but also underscore Park’s message that living in limbo, both personally and culturally, takes its toll for modernday Korean-Americans or, as Hannah tells us, “messes with my sense of identity or whatever.”

Hopefully, the Fountain-East West collaboration on Park’s poetic though perhaps too ambitious play will spark a new desire to explore issues that touch people whose stories are often overlooked in the quest to shout out about more universal topics overwhelming our society. In that effort, this sincere and well-groomed production should be heralded and congratulated for opening those doors.

It’s funny, though. When my first play was mounted 25 years ago, I fought like crazy not to listen to my producers and director, refusing to make some judicious cuts to the script. It was as though everything I ever wanted to say had to be said in that one piece. A decade later when working on the screenplay version of the play, I excised pages of unnecessary dialogue without blinking an eye.

I wonder if the obviously promising and exceptionally talented Jiehae Park will come to that same conclusion one day and maybe the various themes overpowering Hannah and the Dread Gazebo could be explored once again, albeit maybe splintered off into several different plays.

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WITCH at the Geffen Playhouse

It might not be hard for the devil to grab the souls of nebbishy nobleman Cuddy Banks and Frank Thorney, an ambitious commoner looking to replace the other guy as heir to the young fop’s family fortune, but when the dealmaker gets to the cottage of Elizabeth Sawyer, a strong, no-nonsense single woman shunned by the townsfolk and whispered about as a witch all her life, he hits a brick wall.

Jen Silverman’s Witch at the Geffen is a smart and crafty new comedy loosely based on William Rowley, Thomas Dekker, and John Ford’s 1621 Jacobean drama The Witch of Edmonton that leaves the characters stuck in 17th-century England but with one foot firmly planted in our own equally hostile and inequitably judgmental era.

The strapping and charismatic Frank (Ruy Iskandar) conspires to replace Cuddy (Will Von Vogt) as the son Sir Arthur (Brian George) desires, one who doesn’t consider his obsession for all-male Morris dancing as his passion or whose “favorite flavor might not be wife.” So when devil-in-training Scratch (Evan Jonigkeit) offers Frank a deal he can’t refuse, that’s the trade he sees as worthy of giving up a future playing a golden harp on some fluffy cloud in the sky.

Cuddy, on the other hand, has simpler needs. All he wants is Frank dead, despite his secret desire to kiss him as much as he would like to see him disemboweled. “I think we can make this work,” is Scratch’s answer to both of the rivals’ wishes but, as simple as those transactions might have proven to be, he still can’t get anywhere with Elizabeth (Maura Tierney) no matter how many times he visits her as she chops wood and takes care of herself all alone in her self-imposed exile.

It’s a great puzzle for Scratch since Elizabeth has the perfect reason to want to find a way to revenge how badly she’s been treated since childhood. As he tries to convince his resistant new customer to make a deal, he asks her just what she’s done with her soul during her life on earth. “Not much,” she admits. “Good!” he exclaims. “Then you won’t miss it!”

See, it’s not that Elizabeth has been tossing toads into cauldrons and conjuring evil spells all her life; it’s just that her sturdiness and independent spirit are suspect to the villagers, just as such behavior might ring all too familiar to what is frequently endured by many women today—which through Silverman’s razor-sharp contemporary wit is surely the point she’s trying to make. As the timeframe of the play is listed in the program: “Then-ish. But equally of our moment.”

Despite Danae Iris McQueen’s lavish period costuming and Diane Laffrey’s versatile set, which morphs from a dirt floor dominated by a huge period portrait of Sir Arthur’s late wife into a richly-appointed dining room in the Banks’ manor house, Silverman’s dialogue is delightfully contemporary, zipping without concern for literary convention though time periods as easily as yet another excellent adventure traveled by Bill and Ted themselves. Still, beyond the snappy patter, modern phrasing, and social-media-friendly attitude, there’s a fascinating air of something quite Chekhovian in the mix.

Jonigkeit is impressive as Scratch, finding both the character’s appreciation for his power and salesmanship yet, as the story progresses, his increasingly more touching realization that he might not be as heartless and ruthless as he thought he could be. Iskandar as Frank and Vella Lovell as Winnifred, the lowly put-upon servant girl to whom he is secretly wed and carries their child, both ace the style handily, their performances falling somewhere between classically-trained Shakespearean and appearing in a revival of Into the Woods.

George is suitably bumbling and inept as poor Sir Arthur who, after revealing repeatedly how bad he is at being either a father or the patriarch of a noble estate, suddenly transforms from caricature to tragic figure as he sits alone at the ruined dining table talking to the portrait of his beloved late wife who would have known how to navigate life better than he does. Von Vogt, who replaced Simon Helberg before opening as his desperately needy son Cuddy, melds perfectly into ensemble as the overlooked George Gobel-like heir trying desperately to hide his true proclivities from his father and their narrowminded, condemnatory community.

Yet, under the precision leadership of director and longtime Silverman collaborator Marti Lyons, Tierney is the heart of the play, bringing an eerily understated but overwhelmingly fierce presence as the mysterious Elizabeth—part Arthur Miller character, part Colleen Dewhurst, part Tina Fey in her delivery.

In a direct monologue beginning the play, Tierney as Elizabeth warns audience members to ask themselves if they still have hope in their lives. “If you do,” she suggests dryly, “you might want to start ignoring me right now.” I, of course, could thereafter feel free to hang on her every word, something that’s not hard to do if you’re as cynical as I am in my disappointing and disappointed golden years.

Near the end of Witch, when the long-scorned Elizabeth has made the conflicted Scratch so intrigued by her that he begins to doubt his calling, she suddenly reverses her decision and just might be willing to go the Robert Johnson at the Mississippi crossroads route after all. How Tierney presents Elizabeth’s argument for the total annihilation of civilization as we know it is a little unsettling—but it’s unsettling because, at this point in Jen Silverman’s brilliantly conceived cautionary tale, it seems a worthy argument for how the earth might resolve its current descent into universal madness.

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ANDY WARHOL'S TOMATO at Pacific Resident Theatre

At age 18, Andy Warhola was ready to leave home for New York City since, as he tells the owner of a bar where he has taken up swatting rights in 1946, nobody gets famous in Pittsburgh and the quirky kid is already looking for his 15 minutes.

In the world premiere of Vince Melocchi’s Andy Warhol’s Tomato at Pacific Resident Theatre, it’s that clash between the brash idiosyncrasies of a kid with unstoppable ambitions and a gruff middle-aged blue-collar worker who has all but given up on his. Even as a teen, Warhol obviously had the ephemeral—and fragile—soul of an artist.

Melocchi’s fascinating two-hander character study is based partially on real facts and partially on the wild folklore that has swirled for decades about Warhol, whose own quarter-hour of fame lasted for nearly four decades before his untimely death at age 58, but there’s also a large dollop of fictionalized conjecture in the work.

It’s something akin to Peter Shaffer’s journey when, traveling through the English countryside, he heard sketchy details about a boy who had perpetrated a horrific deed but could not find any more details besides details of the act itself. Unable to get the incident out of his mind, Shaffer wrote a totally fictionalized play around the little information he had to relieve the cacophony in his mind. The result was Equus.

In Andy Warhol’s Tomato, the future superstar of the art world (Derek Chariton) wakes up in the basement storeroom of a working-class bar in his native Pittsburgh after fainting while helping his brother deliver produce. Behind schedule, Paul Warhola leaves the young Andy behind to rest with the promise to pick him up later in the day. For Mario “Bones” Bonino (Keith Stevenson), it obviously can’t be soon enough. To him, Andy is more of a puzzlement than anything else and, as he puts it, Bonino’s Bar isn’t exactly the Algonquin Round Table.

The young artist is oddly comfortable there, however, and his attraction to hanging out in the storeroom is difficult for Bones to understand. Perhaps the kid sees the roughhewn Slovakian-born father he lost at age 13 in his wannabe friend but, for the bartender turned owner, there’s no connection between the two, especially since his own conversations are about football scores and time spent balancing his books. “You’re an artist,” Bones concludes early on. “You’re always feeling things and shit.”

Still, Andy is all but ready to move in, especially since somehow he is able to work there and, because of his poor attendance at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), he needs a place that inspires him to work, his professor promising him he won’t flunk him if he fills up a sketchbook with art before the end of the semester.

Although there’s something a tad convenient about Andy Warhol finding inspiration in the cellar of Bonino’s from empty cans of Campbell’s Tomato Soup and bottles of Coca-Cola, not to mention Bones’ oddly poetic monologue about the produce Paul delivers—hence the infamous tomato of the title—Melocchi’s play is so much more.

After peeking through Bones’ industrial metal shelves crammed with cartons and bottles and storage items, he finds a typewriter and a stack of papers, including secret writings the ol’ guy creates he has never shared with anyone. Like his warning to Andy that if the bar patrons upstairs shooting pool and downing Rolling Rocks pick up on the fact that he may be a little “funny,” he’s also sure he’d be the laughing stock if they realized he also feels things and shit when nobody’s looking.

The two form an implausible bond, even as Bones is appalled when the kid tells him he looks like a burly William Holden and flirts with him outrageously, even at one point getting a little physically frisky, much to Bones’ horror. Still, what Andy Warhol’s Tomato celebrates is how alike we all are despite our differences, where we come from, and where we have to go to fulfill our life’s ambitions.

The bond between these two men is incredibly impactful, particularly because the bizarre young teenager who plops himself in Bones’ cellar, in the process of finding his sea-legs as an artist in such an unlikely environment, inspires his unlikely friend to explore his own dreams to be recognized as an artist.

Dana Jackson directs on Rich Rose’s evocative concrete walled and cardboard box-laden set with a unique ability to keep things moving despite the static nature of the surroundings and considering everything that happens only involves these two characters, each with their own desires, be it Andy’s need to get close or Bones’ desire to keep his distance.

Stevenson offers an indelible portrait of a hard-working man caught in the web of life’s everyday expectations. His performance is incredibly accessible, his character’s pains and frustrations, although palpable, subtle enough to make us work to deduce what the man’s frustrations are and see for ourselves how easily we might just identify with them.

There’s no doubt whatsoever that Chariton is also an exceptional actor but, as one of the modern world’s most famous artists at age 18, to say he is glaringly miscast is an understatement. I have no idea just how old the actor might really be, but it’s purdy obvious he left his angst-ridden teen years behind some time ago. His performance could be quite compelling if he wasn’t portraying a character whose age factors so importantly into the storyline.

It’s also even more difficult to play someone real who was captured so often in interviews and newsreels, but from what I remember about Andy Warhol in the news and my few times being with him in the flesh was that, though dramatically mannered and larger than life, he was not at all “queeny” in his physicality or delivery.

If Andy had expressed to a guy like Bones that he was handsome in a burly Bill Holden-y way and hint he might want to get a little closer to him than his friend might find comfortable, he would have done so in a flat matter-of-fact vocal delivery and without cocking his head, batting his eyelashes, and fluttering his hands.

The quirkiness of Andy is all there in the script. If Chariton trusted Melocchi’s dialogue, followed his own instincts and avoided the kind of loafer-light affectations the man he’s playing never displayed—and was the right age to play him as an awkward rather than overtly feminine teenager—he would ace the role.

Still, all that can be overlooked, overshadowed by what Vince Melocchi’s Andy Warhol’s Tomato has to say about the human condition as we all spin out of control on this risky ol’ orb we call home. Van Gogh once said that great artists are the simplifiers of our existence. If we all stop alienating one another by focusing on our differences, instead trusting and finding motivation in the things we share that make us the same, our species’ ability to dream big dreams could become reality far more often.