TRAVIS' REVIEWS:  Fall 2019 to... ? 

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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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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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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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.