THE BONEYARD

TRAVIS' REVIEWS: Fall 2018 to...? 

 

THE LITTLE FOXES at Antaeus Theatre Company 

Timely, much?

In Antaeus Theatre’s gorgeously appointed revival of the too-long overlooked 1939 masterpiece The Little Foxes, one of the greatest works written by the also too-long overlooked Lillian Hellman, the great playwright’s observation, so much of it dredged up from her own personal experience, is even more of a warning than ever before in the world in which we live today.

As the Hubbard family’s long-suffering maid and former slave Addie (Judy Louise Johnson) observes watching the events of the period drama beyond her control unfold around her, “There are people who ate the earth… and there are people who sat around and watched them eat it.” Could this possibly be more of an urgent message than it is right now, some 80 years later, as boldly-hewn greed and a race for power “trump” any possible societal civility as our poor bruised country gears for the most important midterm election in our long and storied history?

Suggested by her friend Dorothy Parker, Hellman’s title was lifted from “The Song of Solomon” in the King James version of the Bible: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines, for our vines have tender grapes.” See, the Hubbards, simply put, are total shits—and there’s no way any little fox or any other living creature would not be in grave danger while trying to survive their sugar-coated Southern charms hiding their dastardly agenda lurching just under their fine ports and voluminous lace. These people, quickly soaring to elitist fatcat status at the expense of all others in the post-war reconstructionist era of the Deep South, eat their grapes by the fistful.

Set in a small town in Alabama at the turn of the 20th-century, it doesn’t take long to realize that, although it’s said blood is thicker than water, when it comes to money and social position, these people would cut one another’s throats in a heartbeat—and in the course of the play’s three quickly-moving acts, they practically do.

LA theatrical royalty Deborah Puette leads the Hubbard pack as Regina Hubbard Giddens, she possessed of the sharpest of knives. Regina remains one of the juiciest and most female coveted roles into which any eager actor would love to sink their canines. Originated on Broadway by Tallulah Bankhead and in William Wyler’s 1941 film version by Bette Davis, Puette brings something new and ominous to the task, a less concealed coldness and nastiness that makes the character even more frightening than ever.

As her equally ruthless brother Oscar, Rob Nagle, who is quickly becoming the go-to resident Simon Lagree for any play produced in LA over the last few years, is once again so delightfully creepy he could almost twirl a handlebar moustache and get away with it, while Mike McShane holds his own splendidly working against the formidable Puette and Nagle as the third Hubbard sibling Ben. As this horrific triumvirate, each of whom would bury anybody in their path while careening forward on their breakneck quest for wealth, these three powerful actors should win one special collective award for performance, bouncing off one another with a palpable electricity and a creative bravery seldom seen even when assaying the senior members of the Hubbard clan.

As with anything produced by Antaeus, this revival is stunningly appointed, with a gloriously evocative set by John Iocovelli and incredibly rich costuming designed by Terri A. Lewis, who singlehandedly built all of Puette’s gowns especially for this production. Of course, none of this could possibly work without the uncanny eye of director Cameron Watson, who leads a stellar supporting cast to conjure the Hubbards’ home and lifestyle—and perfumed evildoing—with consummate skill.

Not that anyone else in this cast is off somewhere hiding amongst the magnolia blossoms; this is truly a dream ensemble for any director to mold and polish. Calvin Picou is wonderfully unlikable as Oscar’s dimwitted disappointment of a son Leo, the only person here unable to hide his well-bred roguery, while both Johnson and William L. Warren are perfect as the family’s stomped-upon servants bullied into submission.

John DeMita and Kristin Couture are excellent as Regina’s badly manipulated husband and daughter, while Timothy Adam Venable takes the brief and rather unchallenging role of Chicago industrialist William Marshall and makes it his own. And last but hardly least, as Oscar’s timid and abused alcoholic wife Birdie, Jocelyn Towne gives a tour de force performance, particularly moving near the end when she confesses what a nightmare her life has been in a warning to her niece not to let the same fate befall her.

Beyond all the world-class Antaeusian accoutrement delivered in this smart and sumptuous production, what lingers the most after the final curtain descends is the classic script by Hellman, who so clearly understood the Southern mentality and, despite the political incorrectness of exposing it, more importantly saw the dangers of not calling it out. The playwright spent half her childhood at her two maiden aunts’ boarding house in New Orleans—in a room where I have myself have stayed during one excursion there where I hoped some of her genius would rub off on me—and the other half with her mother’s wealthy family in New York.

Hellman, once heralded as our greatest female playwright before ironically being blacklisted and basically buried by Joseph McCarthy and his savagely destructive committee, was determined in her career to chronicle her family’s whispered tales of the death of the Gilded Age and the advent of the Progressive Era, as well as the explosion of industrialization, urbanization, and freemarket capitalism. These issues were all too familiar to her, to the point where she approached her Aunt Florence at intermission when The Little Foxes first debuted on Broadway and asked, “Well, do you recognize your relatives?”

Still, just as Chekhov, Ibsen, and O’Neill before her tried so valiantly to depict how monumentally we as a species continuously mess things up for ourselves, nothing ever seems to result from their cautionary admonitions. At one point, Cal (Williams) talks to Oscar about his boss’ passion for hunting, commenting that he bet he shot enough bobcats and squirrels to give “every n****r in town a Jesus party.” Oscar, with a daggered look from Mr. Nagle that could wither a rose in bloom, immediately snaps back, “Cal, if I catch a n****r in this town goin’ shootin’, you know what’s gonna happen." Beyond the tender grapes they grumbled were spoiling the vines back then, strange fruit still swung from Southern trees on a regular basis in 1900.

In the same week The Little Foxes debuted at Antaeus, a beautiful friend and neighbor walking down the street here in Hollywood was twice called that same odious “n”-word in two separate random incidents—in Hollywood, folks, not Alabama, not Kentucky. In Hollywood, California.

We all know who has emboldened this kind of vile behavior in our country today and the actions and beliefs of this "leader" of the free world could make the horrible Hubbards look like members of the Von Trapp family. Hellman and her contemporaries warned us so long ago, but who would have ever thought such feelings would belch out into the open after the 2016 election.

See The Little Foxes and be amazed, be entertained, be forewarned, but above all, damn it, although I may be preaching to the choir here, let it inspire you to cast your vote for the return of decency and compassion on Nov. 6 or I’m afraid America will never, ever be the same. Listen to the words of the Hubbards’ wise servant Addie: Don’t sit around and helplessly watch the earth be eaten around us.

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BABY EYES from Playwrights' Arena at Atwater Village Theatre

Evoking the ancient Greek myth of Zeus and his boytoy Ganymede, playwright Donald Jolly has re-envisioned the legendary tale for modern audiences with Baby Eyes, a gritty and sharply eroticized exploration into the nature of that ultimate forbidden love—that is, a love between a man and an underage boy still flossing to Taylor Swift.

Set in a depressed Baltimore bluecollar community in the 1950s and centering on a park-like area cruised by those kind of fellows where “through the cover of night what goes on is nobody’s business,” a precocious 14-year-old named Gio (Rudy Martinez) falls in love with a grown adult man who calls himself Tremaine (Melvin Ward). It takes awhile for the object of Gio’s affections to “get” what the kid wants, which considering the later plotpoint revealed about the character it seems more than a little naïve.

While Billie Holiday wails her evocative wail in the background, Gio dons his tighty-whiteys and checks his youthful body in the mirror at home, comparing himself to the posing-pouched muscleboys he idolizes captured in glossy black-and-white for posterity in his tattered copy of Physique Pictorial.

As the kid’s growing pains explode into nearly crazed idol worship, his targeted Tremaine struggles to live down some of that mysterious history and find a job in his newly adopted city, an unaccepting place where his racist asshole of a landlord (a delightfully creepy turn by Ted Monte) on a good day treats him like Kunta Kinte still chained to a beam in the ship’s hold.

That landlord, Salvatore, also happens to be Gio’s father, a guy who’s more than displeased his son is turning out less than the masculine what-about-them-Lakers son he wanted to spawn. Still, old Sal has a few secret issues of his own which, like those tormenting Tremaine, are sure to be revealed along the way just as might be expected from any play based on a Greek tragedy.

And speaking of the ancients, Jolly fascinatingly avoids reality in his all-too real tale by adding his own contemporary version of a Greek chorus, assayed by a trio of comely young men in tight t-shirts (Jason Caceres, James Kaemmerling, and Dennis Renard), who spout poetry in unison as they change the furniture on Christopher Scott Murillo’s sparsely realized set and occasionally step into the story to morph into various minor characters.

Renard is hilarious as Tremaine’s hot-to-trot female Tiffany Haddishesque neighbor who provides the first hint the guy might not be terribly interested in bedding the wenches. Kaemmerling has suitably serious moments as a rather ominous doctor with shocking treatments in mind and Caceres is on the money as the boy’s abrasive, sharp-tongued but loving Brooklyn-y mother unwilling to take any shit from her obnoxious loudmouth of a husband.

Ward is excellent as the doomed Tremaine, while Martinez is affecting but could still go deeper to find the real person lurking beyond Gio’s eyelash-batting, incessantly demure attitude, something that surely will come with the seasoning of the young performer during the play’s run. Yet, since Baby Eyes defies reality in so many instances, I’ll bet the catlike Caceres—who, speaking of Greek mythology, perhaps in another life served as one of Odysseus' temptress sirens—could also have been a great choice as Gio since he is good enough an actor to make us believe he could be a 14-year-old in about a minute flat.

Jolly’s lyrical Baby Eyes is well-written and certainly imaginative, although it still should be explored to make it even better, while director Jon Lawrence Rivera’s sturdy, artful staging lifts the script up into the stratosphere, especially considering it plays in a small black box which could define intimate theatre. It’s very difficult to work in such a restrictive space, especially with choosing traverse staging with audience members on two sides forced to stare at one another.

In some plays that concept can work gangbusters—Equus is a prime example, where the shock on the faces of the folks on the other side is instrumental in bringing all the reality and all the fantasy into focus—but here it becomes a distraction, especially in the two-person scenes where Rivera’s actors are placed so far apart during a conversation one needs to react as though watching a ping-pong match to keep up with the action.

Still, Baby Eyes is a courageous leap into basically uncharted territory and nobody producing theatre in LA is better at dealing with such exciting, promising material as the amazing Jon Rivera and his always provocative, admirably committed Playwrights’ Arena.

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VALLEY OF THE HEART at Mark Taper Forum

The melding of two disparate cultures collide early in the LA premiere of Luis Valdez’ Valley of the Heart at the Taper. From Mexican musicians playing Japanese instruments live outside the theatre winding into the lobby before the performance, the clash of these two historically abused peoples, particularly centering around the horrendous treatment Japanese-American citizens received during World War II, forms the nucleus for Valdez’ tale originally presented by his San Juan Bautista-based El Theatro Campesino Company at the San Jose Stage Company.

With the invaluable support of Cesar Chavez, ETC was founded by Valdez (of Zoot Suit and La Bamba fame) in 1965 as the cultural arm of the United Farm Workers. The original actors in the troupe were all Chicano farmworkers enacting events inspired by the lives of their audience and performed on flatbed trucks in the middle of the fields in Delano.

The 78-year-old Valdez and his entire family appear to still be heavily instrumental in the continuing quest of ETC, including the great man himself helming this production as both playwright and director, his son Kinan as associate director, his brother Daniel as music consultant and appearing as one of the primary castmembers, his wife Lupe as costumer designer, and their other son Lakin appearing in the play’s pivotal leading role.

Originally and most appropriately dubbed a “kabuki corrida,” Valdez’ sweepingly ambitious Valley of the Heart is fascinating, but it’s also something of a major conundrum. It is surely an epic—and a historical one at that. On John Iacovelli’s phenomenally inventive set, with a swipe of an oversized Japanese screen or two by traditional Japanese black-hooded “kurogos” and enhanced by David Murakami’s evocative projections featuring grainy black-and-white photos of haunted-eyed farmworkers of that era, the central action switches between a fictional working farm in Cupertino owned by Ichiro Yamaguchi (Randall Nakano) and one of our country's most notorious real-life Japanese-American “containment" camps at Heart Mountain, Wyoming.

Able to own land yet denied American citizenship, Yamaguchi harvests his seasonal crops on a sharecropping arrangement with Mexican immigrant Cayetano Montano (Daniel Valdez), who in turn jokes to his cold and crowded brood that "no one has ever heard of a Mexican owning a rancho in California." The intertwined world of these two neighboring families is conjured on the wide Taper stage depicting the comfy and neatly-appointed farmhouse inhabited by the Yamaguchis on one side and the humble, roughhewn, badly-heated wood shack of the Montanos on the other.

Although both families seem rather uncomfortable trying to understand the cultural distinctions of the other, what binds them is the 20-year working relationship between the two strong-willed patriarchs and a deep respect for the loyalties within each family which they extend toward one another. Of course, it doesn’t take long to predict a problem in their idyllic relationship when the boss’ daughter Thelma (Melanie Arii Mah) starts wearing makeup and dressing up to go out into the harsh, hot fields to pick broccoli, something quickly observed by Montano’s eldest son Benjamin (Lakin Valdez), who fully appreciates those moments when Thelma bends over to tend the crops.

With Thelma stuck in an arranged engagement to the well-heeled American-born Calvin Sakamoto (Scott Keui Takeda, who delivers the play’s best and most memorable performance), sparks are bound to fly and, in true Romeo and Juliet/Tony and Maria fashion, fly they do—leaving the senior Yamaguchi fiercely determined to break off the young lovers’ frequent trysts behind the woodpile even as he appreciates the hardworking young man’s work ethic which results in him reluctantly promoting the kid to become his foreman.

This is where the story takes on something alien to its more infamous predecessors, when the bombing of Pearl Harbor sends the senior Yamaguchi off to Louisiana to be held for an agonizingly long period in FBI custody and his once-comfortable family to be evicted from their farm and transferred to the detention camp in Wyoming. When Thelma leaves for the camp, however, it is with a bun in the oven—and of course the kid ain’t Calvin’s.

Unfortunately, there’s another culture clash that hangs over Valley of the Heart and often leaves it feeling rudimentary and basically unfinished. Despite the exceptionally slick production values available to and implemented by the venerable Center Theatre Group, there’s a clash between those spectacular theatrical appointments added by Iacovelli’s sets, Murakami’s projections, Valdez’ costumes, Pablo Santiago’s lighting, and Phillip G. Allen’s sound design, and the simple folksy nature of the material itself.

Although the circumstances energizing Valdez’ script are uncomfortably close to the recent George Takei-led musical Allegiance—including a prologue mumbled by an ancient survivor of our country’s dastardly Japanese-American camps, a classic racially star-crossed love affair, a pair of wartime deaths predictable in about the first 10 minutes of the play, and even a character who defies the government and meets the same fate as Calvin Sakamoto does here—and considering the fact that the playwright’s staging is always inventive and celebratory, there’s also a feeling, especially considering the glaringly uneven performances delivered by the ensemble cast, that leaves the piece feeling as though it might still be more successful being performed in the back of one of those aforementioned flatbeds in the middle of a field in Delano.

Still, there much to offer from Valley of the Heart, including an urgently important lesson in the treatment of immigrants that should be watched by every member of the Orange Nightmare’s current ever-fluctuating cast of soulless minions. Each of them, including their ignorant and mentally-unstable leader, should be strapped into a seat in the front row of the Taper with their heads tightly secured in the early steampunkian apparatus used to hold that droogie Alex’ eyelids open as Dr. Brodsky attempted the Ludovico Technique.

Maybe then they’d have a change of heart… no wait, that’s a human trait, isn’t it?

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CLEO, THEO & WU at Theatre of NOTE

In real life, Kirsten Vangsness, Criminal Mind’s resident computer geek Penelope Garcia, is almost as eccentric as the character she has made famous—and that’s lucky for us.

Last year, Vangsness brought her prodigiously personal solo piece Mess to Theatre of NOTE, the bravely off-the-wall Hollywood theatre company she refers to as “Mother NOTE” since she has been loyal to the company for years and admits it was within its tiny but sturdy black-painted brick walls where her talents grew and prospered. With that first memorably in-your-face assault to the senses, Vangsness exposed herself to be far more than one of the best and most fearless actors drudging away in our fair-weathery industry town; she proved she is also a truly unfiltered storyteller who forces her viewers to hold onto the handrails and be ready for quite a ride.

Mess was inspired by a TED Talk called “Making Sense of a Visible Quantum Object” by Aaron O’Connell, which questioned and challenged whether or not time is indeed a linear concept. As if waking from a particularly disturbing dream, Vangsness raced back and forth at time-warping speed through various periods in her own life past, present, and future—a concept she takes from solo performance piece into ensemble territory with her newest madhatter of a creation, Cleo, Theo & Wu.

Directed by the formidable Lisa Dring and again gracing the accepting Theatre of NOTE space in its world premiere, C,T&W also germinated from something the writer studied, a 12-hour lecture on ancient history in Audible.com’s Great Courses series. Vangsness became “struck by how unstuck” she was that the significant women of times past took a clear backseat to their male counterparts in the written evolution of our human condition. At first, she says, just the names “Cleo, Theo and Wu” clanged on endless repeat in her head, but it wasn’t long before her thoughts were whispering to her at night and forcing her to pull over her car or stop making dinner to scribble down what would soon turn into her newest play.

These scribblings grew into an entity with which to be reckoned, leading Vangsness to the logical place for her to make sense of them: Theatre of NOTE. Debuting before a live audience for the first time, the compulsive thoughts shooting from Vangsness’ fertile and often poetic brain were workshopped to be performed by a cast of 13, including Tamara Perry and Jennifer Flack as two oppositely-opinionated Cleopatras, Cat Chengery as Theodora, and Hiwa Chow Elms as China’s Tang and Zhou dynasty concubine-turned-sovereign Empress Wu Zetian.

Of course, this quest for righting some tilting ancient windmills once turned by remarkable female rulers could not possibly stop there in the many-cylindered chambers tucked into the deepest crevices of their mentor’s volcanic mind. As these important women Vangsness has conjured are joined by others from various times past to plead their case for how they really influenced our history and went far beyond being labelled as the extravagantly self-absorbed vixens who used their sexual treasures to obtain their power, the playwright appears as her dragged-about presentday alter-ego Lucy, who then is subsequently visited by an oft-confused space alien named Glock (the always droll Joel Scher, who could one day play every Clifton Webb role ever written) and his bizarre band of brothers who fall somewhere between android and robot.

For me, I have to say it was more impressive in Mess to see Vangsness out there all alone, playing every character and assaying every voice, whereas this time, the addition of other actors, albeit all completely committed actors without a hint of inhibition as they follow their leader’s vision—as well as obviously having a great fun time doing it—is less a complete success. Still, C,T&W is a colossal effort, sure to knock your socks off if you’ve never before been privy to the sheer voracity and unquenchable spirit of Vangsness’ gifts, not to mention her willingness to put everything exploding the synapses of her obviously overworked brain out there for all to contemplate.

As she did when she began her odyssey of discovery that first time out, Vangsness once again spills out this chapter of her evolving journey with manic energy, her fingers splayed out vertically before her like she’s nursing a drying manicure and her signature quirky body language resembling a kid in water wings floating for the very first time. If you’ve never seen her do all this in person before or if you’ve never heard the quirky wonder of her often profound, often hilarious continuing observations on life, Cleo, Theo & Wu is definitely worth your time.

Look up the term “force of nature” in the dictionary. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the entry includes a photograph of Kirsten Vangsness.

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A BRONX TALE at the Pantages Theatre

The bigassed Broadway musical version of Chazz Palminteri’s once-humble 1989 one-man performance piece, co-directed by Robert DeNiro and Jerry Zaks and with an infectious Motown-meets-Jersey Boys score by legendary composer Alan Menken and lyrics by the equally legendary Glenn Slater, had its bareboned beginnings right here in good ol’ El Lay.

Based on Palminteri’s own boyhood memories growing up on Belmont Avenue in the mean streets of the Bronx in the 1960s, A Bronx Tale was germinated with the invaluable mentoring of director Mark W. Travis in his incisive solo storytelling workshop at Theatre West. Soon after Palminteri was fired as a doorman at an elite nightclub after refusing entry to Swifty Lazar, with surprising alacrity the typical starving actor wannabe went from broke to being offered $500,000 for the film rights during the project’s first humble incarnation at TW. Never one to avoid making daring decisions, however, he turned the offer down.

Palminteri and Travis took another risk, taking A Bronx Tale off-Broadway in 1989, where it enjoyed an easily sold-out run and garnered its creator a special award from the Outer Critics Circle. Serendipitously attending a performance when the play moved to a Broadway house, Robert DeNiro fell in love with the piece and offered to buy the film rights, something to which Palminteri would only agree on two conditions: that he write the screenplay and also appear onscreen in the pivotal role of Belmont Avenue’s resident wiseguy Sonny LoSpecchio.

The film version premiered in 1993, marking DeNiro’s directorial debut and assuring Palminteri would never be again work as a doorman. Whether the newly-minted star ever got to gloat about his success to Lazar is not public knowledge, but the notoriously ruthless superagent did Bite the Big One only a few weeks after the movie’s premiere. Just saying.

After a decade toiling over its next stage in development, A Bronx Tale was adapted into a stage musical featuring the aforementioned pedigreed participants creating under the leadership of DeNiro and Jerry Zaks as co-directors. It premiered at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse early in 2016 before transferring once again to the Great White Way later that year, where it held court at the Longacre until last August when the production packed up and hit the road as a touring production traveling the country.

Now returning to the original “scene of the crime” where it began, stopping at the Pantages for a spell only a few miles and across the Cahuenga Pass from Theatre West, the evolution of A Bronx Tale seems like quite a wonder to anyone who might have been witness to its development all those years ago.

Palminteri’s autobiographical tale begins when his nine-year-old alter-ego Calogero Anello (Frankie Leoni) witnesses neighborhood hood Sonny (Joe Barbara) whack a guy on the sidewalk who was clobbering one of his comrades with a baseball bat over a parking space. Calogero refuses to identify Sonny to the police, knowing as a good Catholic boy he will be able go to confession and be forgiven with a five Our Fathers and five Hail Mary’s. “For a murder rap!” he gloats gleefully, thus beginning the kid’s counterculture education on the mean streets of the Bronx.

This incident leads to the grateful minor organized crime boss fostering a father-like relationship with “C,” taking him under his well-armed wing and teaching him how to win and prosper in his world—and in turn reconsider the staunchly decent values his hardworking busdriver dad Lorenzo (Richard H. Blake) is trying so hard to instill in his son.

Calogero grows into a tough guy way too early, able to earn more in a good crap game at the local bar than Lorenzo can earn in a year, something that becomes a bit of an issue between his dad and mother (Michelle Aravena), someone who sees the toughening of her son as possibly beneficial in their ‘hood—and his ill-gotten windfalls possibly a great way not to struggle with the family’s bills. Add in the tickle in his loins “C” experiences whenever he’s near a beautiful young African-American classmate named Jane (Brianna-Marie Bell) in an era and area where such a romance is forbidden in the extreme, and the crisis between his parents’ values and his mentor’s belief that such behavior makes a guy a “sucker” forms the basis for the boy’s coming-of-age journey.

A Bronx Tale could not be an odder play to be transformed into a musical, but thanks to the wonderful score by Menken instantly recalling the earlier do-wap-themed strains of his Little Shop of Horrors, and a knockout West Side Story-esque ensemble leaping to the heights of designer Beowulf Boritt’s towering tenement fire escapes as choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, the problems one would suspect could be insurmountable disappear with the dynamic first aptly-named production number “Belmont Avenue.”

As the teenaged “C,” Joey Barreiro narrates as Palminteri did originally and, under the directorial savvy of DeNiro and Zaks, the triumvirate of the show’s major male characters are played with spectacular success. Blake, who originated the role of Lorenzo on Broadway, is a particular standout, especially in his heartfelt ballad to his son “Look to Your Heart,” while Barbara, who also played Sonny in the New York cast, is a charmer as the goombah we love more than hate, most memorable as he advises his protégé to follow his heart with Jane and not miss “One of the Great Ones.”

As the nine-year-old Calogero, Leoni makes an impressive, confident impression in the role he also first assayed in the New York cast, bringing the house down with his wonderfully brassy turn in “I Like It” backed by the exceptional ensemble of characters straight out of Guys and Dolls. As his older counterpart, Barriero is also a rock throughout, but is especially touching whenever fighting off his vulnerability, contributing wonderful moments with Bell as they fall in love to Menken’s gorgeous ballad “Out of Your Head.”

There’s nothing earthshattering or new about the ultimately formulaic A Bronx Tale, but it is remarkable that such a charming, comfortable little tale could, under the watch of some considerably talented dramatists, morph from a simple one-man show to become a huge, incredibly glitzy and exciting major musical production without losing its heart—or the impact of Palminteri and Travis’ original concept.

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SELL/BUY/DATE at the Renberg, LA LGBT Center

After a highly acclaimed run earlier this year at the Geffen, Sarah Jones has transported her latest amazing solo piece Sell/Buy/Date to the Renberg at the Los Angeles LGBT Center—and it could not be more timely.

Presented under the sponsorship of the Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center, with opening night festivities hosted by Tomlin, Laverne Cox, and Rashida Jones, net proceeds from Sell/Buy/Date benefit the Center’s many admirable causes, including programs for homeless youth and seniors, the latter something my friend from our cradle days Lily admitted was particularly dear to her heart. As one of Jones’ less-PC characters conjured during the show gushes, “I totally believe in causes and all that stuff.”

The Tony-winning Jones’ work goes way beyond raising funds for the worthiest of causes and all that stuff, however. She instantly elevates the genre of one-person shows showcasing their creators’ talent to a heroic level, launching her unique performance art into George Carlin strata with a gentle jab of social protest peeking through her signature talent and humor.

Set in the future, Jones’ Sell/Buy/Date envisions a future that, among other dubiously intentioned innovations, is able to play “taped” interviews with people from the past—namely, 2019—with the advent of Bio Empathetic Resonance Technology (BERT).

Under the leadership of director Carolyn Cantor and a slickly professional crack design team, Jones begins her engaging 90-minute performance playing a British sociology professor conducting a seminar on how women waaay back when in the early decades of the 21st century were conditioned to think of themselves as sexual objects, something that tickles the more advanced citizen of the future considerably.

Utilizing the technology of BERT to enable the viewer not only to hear and see the person being grilled but to experience their thoughts and emotions, those being interviewed here are all sex workers and people affected by the sex industry from that “earlier” era, including a character fresh from her feminist pole dancing group to another who admits maybe she likes being a sexual object: “But, like, a powerful object.”

Jones’ script is a strong indictment of our patriarchal society but still, not without its barbs aimed at the other side. It’s not difficult to see where Jones stands, but she makes her points with such intelligence and deliciously biting humor that all attacks to my particular sex are accepted and embraced, all wounds quickly healed by her cleverly peddled insight.

Jones plays a wide range of multicultural types, instantly transforming from one distinctly-accented character to the next with jaw-dropping alacrity—and the results are simply dazzling. Jones is both a tremendously gifted actor and an equally worthy chronicler of the many injustices which dominate our time spinning around this ridiculously inequitable planet where most of our problems stem from those many greedy misogynistic male “leaders” like Dotard Donnie and his soulless zombie minions, the guys who are clearly responsible for all this division.

And just what were those entitled and self-important male shitbirds dominating the early part of the 21st century called anyway, one of the myriad of characters in Sell/Buy/Date asks? Easy answer: “Men.” Of course, receiving the brunt of Jones’ wrath once again makes me wish I personally didn’t fall under the category of mature white male but still, I could not possibly agree with her more about just where the blame should lie.

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JOHNNY GOT HIS GUN at the Actors' Gang Theatre

In 1917, that historic yankee doodle dandy George M. Cohan wrote the patriotic song “Over There” in an effort to energize every young American “Son of Liberty” to enlist in the war effort and ship out to fight and possibly die in World War I.

Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun...

In 1938, then unknown screenwriter Dalton Trumbo wrote a courageously anti-war novel riffing on that lyric and dealing with a young man who did just that, making his “Daddy glad to have had such a lad” by fighting for his country’s honor. But the story’s proud hero Joe returns stateside seriously disabled in a bomb attack: blind, deaf, without arms or legs, and even without a mouth and nose.

Take it on the run, on the run, on the run...

Trumbo’s risky book was Johnny Got His Gun and surprisingly, in the very midst of all the usual hysterically blatant mid-war propaganda, the author was suitably shocked to learn he had received the National Book Award for the Most Original Book of 1939.

Of course, Trumbo went on to be a successful screenwriter until 1947, when that vile pre-Trumpian witchhunter Senator Joseph McCarthy and his destructive House Un-American Activities Committee blacklisted him for life from working in the motion picture industry. As one of the infamous Hollywood Ten, Trumbo had refused to answer questions about the infiltration of communist sympathizers in the business and, as happened to so many of our most gifted filmmakers, actors, and screenwriters, his honorable dissidence cost him his career.

Trumbo was a fighter, however, and continued to work writing films under other writers’ names and pseudonyms. While in professional hiding, he managed to win two Academy Awards for the screenplays for Roman Holiday and The Brave One, neither of which he was free to accept. It wasn’t until 1960 when Trumbo was officially and openly credited for his award-winning scripts for both Exodus and Spartacus that his exile came to an end and, in 1971, he further pushed the boundaries by directing and adapting his novel Johnny Got His Gun into a very controversial—and very disturbing—feature film.

Send the word, send the word over there...

It was an intentionally difficult film to sit through, with Timothy Bottoms as Joe basically lying in a bed for the entire film except for flashbacks, statically shot from above his bed as he remained motionless covered in bandages. His omnipresent voiceover acknowledged the pain and horror he felt as he remained locked in the prison of his broken body, completely unable to move or communicate or inform his family and girl back home he was still alive.

Not even allowed to be wheeled outside into the warm sunlight because of “regulations”—in other words, to save the government from letting the world see one of their most glaringly horrific mistakes—Joe’s cautionary journey invigorated Trumbo’s claustrophobic masterpiece by providing a powerful message about the horrors and inhumanities of war.

Make you mother proud of you...

And the old red, white, and blue...

In the early 1980s, Bradley Rand Smith adapted Johnny again, this time as a solo piece for the stage, the off-Broadway premiere of which at Circle Rep won Jeff Daniels an Obie for his performance. Having seen this version performed once long ago, what I remember most is it seemed like a memorized recitation of the great novel; maybe with Daniels as Joe, I might have found the experience more inspiring.

Enter Tim Robbins stage-left (no pun intended), who luckily has a tendency to inspire like gangbusters (ditto). Robbins is a guy who doesn’t let his fame or his Oscar or his continuously busy Hollywood career stop him from tirelessly creating incredibly evocative theatrical magic at the Actors’ Gang Theatre in Venice, the prolific company he founded 37 years ago.

After scheduling what was sure to be a brilliant reinvention of Giraudoux’s classic The Madwoman of Chaillot as the Gang’s fall production with Tim at its helm as director, coming across the script for Smith’s stage adaptation of Trumbo’s disturbing but masterful screenplay caught his eye and stayed with him until the first choice was scrapped. The madwoman returned to Chaillot for awhile and Johnny is now her quintessential replacement.

Anyone with a history of appreciating past productions at the Gang will be able to see Robbins’ signature touch all over this production. His first spark of vision? Taking the character’s solo status away and adding a dynamic, tightly rehearsed ensemble of eight gifted veteran actors to join and continuously surround the one actor playing the “primary” Joe (a Herculean turn by the splendid Nathan Woodworth), movingly evoking his inner-voices, his alter-ego, his bittersweet memories of the cherished people in his life.

As with Robbins’ indelible workshop-spawned The New Colossus earlier this year, on the Gang’s starkly bare reclaimed municipal substation’s cavernous playing space, actors move as one collective interrelated entity, sprinting from one side of the stage to the other or running in tightly structured Evita-esque circles around Joe, haunting his dreams of those lost days when he himself could move and communicate with the world outside his nightmarish physical condition.

Hoist the flag and let her fly…

Yankee Doodle do or die...

Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit...

First considering Robbins’ well-known and most admirable predilection for candidly outspoken political activism, with our current greedy and abhorrently bloodthirsty regime hopefully about to get trounced in the mid-term elections, this mounting could not have more timely, even if most of the dedicated patrons who attend and savor productions at the Gang are surely part of that choir we all hear people are frustrated preaching to.

Since its ancient beginnings, theatre has always tested the established mandates trying to cattle-prod us all off into our individual stalls just before the final solution that will eventually makes us all obsolete but hopefully, as committed artists, our efforts to shout out our refusal to accept the inequities of the status quo during our fragile tenure on this planet will live after we’re all gone.

Here them calling you and me, every son of liberty...

That’s what creating art is truly all about, not fame or fortune or awards, living proof of which surely our Mr. Robbins is the ultimate posterchild. Theatrical expression was always a risky artform for anyone with an alternate point of view to attempt, once germinated in public squares and makeshift outdoor stages many centuries ago while warily looking out for the monarch’s soldiers poised to take them off to the stocks. That practice lives on at the Actors’ Gang with enormous respect and gratitude for the effort going to Tim Robbins.

See, not only is Johnny Got His Gun a plea to resist the long-protested immoral horrors of war, it also explores the indomitable spirit of our human species as Joe conjures new ways to keep himself from going mad, relying on everything from his happy memories to doing math problems in his head to keep sane.

It’s a lesson for us all as we wake each day unable to understand what is being allowed to happen around us. And most of us lucky ones, thank Terpsichore, still have our power to speak out—not to mention vote our displeasure for being railroaded by an abhorrent stable genius with a genetic instinct for science determined to destroy the beautiful world around us.

So prepare, say a prayer...

Send the word, send the word to beware...

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THE RESCUED at the Road Theatre Company

There are no eyes more loving or grateful than those of a rescued pet—unless of course the ordeal the poor thing has endured on its struggle with life has left it wary and unable to trust. In the world premiere of Julie Marie Myatt's incredibly unique and highly moving The Rescued at the Road, six displaced denizens of our hardhearted ol’ planet live in a group home cared for by a couple we never see but whose impending return is anticipated with bated breath.

As senior residents of the shelter Buster and Harold (Leandro Cano and J.D. Hall) sit vegging in ragged easy chairs on Sarah B. Brown's starkly unadorned set—the unfinished quality of it something that soon becomes cleverly obvious—they reminisce in Mamet-like rhythm about their scrappy earlier days and what made their lives go so wrong that they ended up incarcerated before their kindhearted mentors sprung them and brought them to live out their days in peace at the home.

Each of the roommates has a story, from vain uppercrust flirt Candice (Meghan Holaway) to the pregnant Lola (Kacie Rogers), a waif who lives in terrified isolation from the others in a closet rather than continue to be perpetually abused by everyone she encounters and, perhaps, to even be bitten by the competitive Candice. Again.

Then there's Darrell (Rahul Rai), who loves to explore the simple wonders of life all around him when he's not yelling at passersby to stay clear of their house or peeing uncontrollably when he gets excited, and Jason (Patrick Joseph Rieger), an ominously unbalanced miscreant newly added to the home’s population whose presence gives the others the willies. 

There are laughs aplenty in Myatt's wonderfully imaginative tale, but underneath the humor there's a lesson to be learned about the abandoned strays of our society who exist in the shadows around us, those lost souls who never quite found their own place just to the right of their hearts, marginal creatures forever abused and ignored by the rest of us. A perfect example of this is the ever-happy Darrell, who only goes dark when asked about the origins of the cigarette burns that travel down his back and follow the curve of his spine.

We get to know these sad creatures intimately, but it doesn't take long to realize something is a tad strange here. Harold mourns never getting a pat on the head in his life or being offered a bone, while Buster goes crazy, bursting out with wildly discordant screams when Jason walks away with a toy rubber football. And although she denies it, Candice, it seems, has eaten the compound's pet goldfish Dick.

Blessed with one of the most impressive ensemble casts of this year led by the insightful and crafty direction of Marya Mazor, The Rescued may be an underdog (sorry) but proves itself to be both thought-provoking and a great treat for LA theatregoers, reminding us that although the world spins way too fast around us, we should take a moment to consider the plight of those less fortunate, all of whom have their own story and their own desperate need to belong.

As a longtime resident of Hollywood, that onetime bastion of glamour that in its golden age provided a ray of hope that fantasies actually could come true and has now become a literal boulevard of broken dreams, existing among some of the most disenfranchised members of our once-promising society is a part of my daily life.

I'm one of those pollyannaesque confirmed city dwellers who smile and say hello to everyone I pass in the street regardless of their station in life, but letting the message of The Rescued sink in has made me realize one thing: I fawn over the pets of the legion of forgotten men and women wandering around my community and sleeping on the street far more enthusiastically and far more compassionately than I do their human companions.

Something tells me that's about to change for me and I credit Julie Marie Myatt and the committed team of artists who breathed such brilliant life into The Rescued for opening my weary old eyes once again. My pockets perpetually filled with treats and dog biscuits as I navigate my neighborhood might just be a little more stuffed with other goodies in days to come. 

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AIN'T TOO PROUD at the Ahmanson Theatre

With the slick multi-award-winning director and choreographer of the megahit Jersey Boys onboard, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations is already ahead by miles in its pre-Broadway run here at the Ahmanson prior to its much-anticipated New York opening at the Imperial Theatre in the Spring of 2019.

Based on the memoir by Patricia Romanowski and the Temptations’ founder and last surviving member Otis Williams, the Great White Way’s latest future contender in the jukebox musical sweepstakes has a guaranteed future, surely making anyone in attendance for the glittery and star-studded opening night performance feel as though they were privy to what is about to become musical theatre history.

Unlike the aforementioned Jersey Boys, what Ain’t Too Proud doesn’t have is a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, the one thing that quickly elevated that musical to its continuing heights of success. That’s quickly overcome, however, by the contagiously irresistible and groundbreaking barrage of familiar classic hits by the group which helped define R&B music and became instrumental in putting Berry Gordy’s Motown Records on the map—along the way also coining the phrase “psychedelic soul,” something that proved the quintessential crossover for super-white stoners like me everywhere in the late 1960s.

From their original chartbuster “Cloud Nine,” which won Motown its first Grammy Award in 1969, to the group’s Lifetime Achievement honors from the esteemed Recording Academy in 2013, the Temptations have been around since the dinosaurs roamed the earth—with me right beside them wielding my club—bringing Williams and his ever-morphing troupe worldwide recognition, awards up the culo, and lots and lots of bling, something hard to know how to manage when you’re a troubled ghetto kid who grew up in poverty and strife.

Like Frankie Valli and his boys, the bandmembers who became part of the Temps hardly lived fairytale existences or, as Williams (assayed here in a tour de force performance by Derrick Baskin) tells the audience in Ain’t Too Proud, big heads were as contagious as the flu. This is part of what made Jersey Boys stand apart from other such efforts to chronicle the careers of superstars, Brickman and Elice more than willing to expose all the dysfunction and tragedy that haunted the group along the way.

The same is true here of the journey of the Temptations, the members of the group dropping like flies along the way despite their continuing and ever-growing success. The “Classic Five” (Williams, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, Eddie Kendricks, and David Ruffin) formed the nucleus of the Temps in 1964 and are initially responsible for the monumental appeal which resulted in being chosen by Rolling Stone as one of the top 100 musical groups of all time. Still, by 1968 things were definitely already unraveling.

Ruffin (Ephraim Sykes) went particularly wacko, insisting in riding to and from gigs in a private mink-lined limo with his then-girlfriend, fellow Motown artist Tammi Terrell, and arriving hours late to appearances and recording sessions if he showed up at all. With the agreement of all the other bandmembers—some reluctantly—Ruffin was tossed out of the Temps later that year and eventually, in 1991, was found beaten and unconscious in front of a Philly hospital, dying there of complications of cocaine abuse, his body going unclaimed for a week.

Ruffin was not the only casualty of the Temps’ fame and fortune, however, and along the way to today, 23 different singers have made up their ranks, each and every one of the incarnations performing with Williams as their leader and inspiration. This is not an easy evolution to follow and, for bookwriter Dominique Morisseau, chronicling the revolving door of the group’s bandmembers without confusion and swimming heads is not an easy task.

What of course makes this all work is the music, including so many Temptations and Motown hits that it boggles the mind. McAnuff, a veteran of this kind of diversion, does a masterful job keeping it all moving along, even to the point where, on Robert Brill’s grandly versatile set and with the help of massive projections designed by Peter Nigrini, Temptations come and go in droves—some even exiting on conveyor belts to keep the action flowing.

None of this would be possible without stellar musical performers, of course, and it’s almost hard to believe casting directors Tara Rubin and Merri Sugerman found so many worldclass artists to energize Ain’t Too Proud which, even without the book and continuous narrative by Baskin as Williams, could succeed as an astoundingly perfect concert-style recreation of the music which defined a genre for all time.

Baskin hardly ever leaves the stage and, in a fair world, should win a Tony for his pivotal role, his character whisked from emotional direct storytelling to breakneck onstage musical demands without a chance to even take a breath. Jawan M. Jackson is also a standout as the Temps’ bassist Melvin Franklin, sounding more like his Robeson-voiced real life counterpart than anyone else in the cast.

Rashidra Scott contributes a brief but memorable turn as Williams’ lonely and left-behind wife Josephine, inexplicably but gratefully breaking into a showstopping rendition of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” that brings the house down. Nasia Thomas contributes wonderful cameos as Terrell, as well as Franklin’s formidably protective mother Rose and as Florence Ballard, joining Taylor Simone Jackson as Mary Wilson and Candice Marie Woods as Diana Ross for a knockout rendition of “Baby Love,” among other welcoming Supremes classics.

Sykes has some dynamic moments, especially recreating Ruffin’s lead vocal for “My Girl” and the title “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” but it is his smoothly elfin dance moves that remain the most memorable—which brings me to mention the musical’s greatest and most obvious asset: the brilliant, wildly infectious choreography of Trujillo, both recreating the Temps’ original smooth precision moves while also giving the production a whimsical and brightly joyous new spin.

In all my 32 years writing about theatre in Los Angeles, never before have I seen such a frantic and long-extended standing ovation than at the conclusion of Ain’t Too Proud, but even that was not the end of the revelries as, from the stage, Baskin acknowledged some of the legendary musical figures in attendance on opening night, including Motown honcho Berry Gordy, the Supreme’s original Mary Wilson, the Temps’ hard-hitting manager Shelly Berger (also a creative consultant on the production), and the looming larger-than-life Otis Williams himself who, at 76, still to this day performs with the group he invented and championed for nearly six decades.

I’m still walking around singing “You Can’t Hurry Love” at full volume, something that will hopefully soon dissipate to the relief of all those forced to exist around me. Thank you, Mr. Williams, for making our lives so much richer.

*  *  *

SWEAT at Mark Taper Forum

Between my two current Playwrights/Screenwriters classes, my students have studied nine great plays this semester: Long Day's Journey Into Night, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Death of a Salesman, and Glengarry Glen Ross in my BFA class and The Cherry Orchard, The Night of the Iguana, The Shadow Box, Rabbit Hole, and August: Osage County in my AFA class.

Contemplating this review, I realized that of these nine plays, eight are American and seven are past winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. This wasn't an intentional decision on my part when it came to choosing my curriculum; what I was going for was the evolution of playwrighting in the 20th century and, if my kiddies realize that in the 100 years between The Cherry Orchard (1905) and August: Osage County (2005) nothing has changed much and our species seems to learn nothing from our mistakes, I've done what I set out to do.

But the point of the annual Pulitzer Prize is to honor that handful of worldclass theatrical contributions chronicling who we are as a people, works original in source and dealing with the mystery, challenges, and traumas of American life. Certainly, all of my play choices to study bring that in spades and so, privileged enough to enjoy the opening night of Lynn Nottage's 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner Sweat in its west coast debut at the Taper, our collective troubled journey through our short stay on this fucked-up planet continues brilliantly.

This is Nottage’s second Pulitzer, the first awarded for her 2009 play Ruined, making her the only woman in history to win the honor twice—and along with her colleague Suzan-Lori Parks, these two great contemporary wordsmiths are the only African-American women to ever be so recognized by the Pulitzer committee.

Sweat follows the harrowing downward spiral of a community of generationally moribund bluecollar laborers toiling their lives away on the assembly line at a failing steel plant in Reading, Pennsylvania between the years 2000 and 2008. The only joy for this bedeviled group of smalltown coworkers seems to be getting drunk and griping about working conditions at the local watering hole after their grueling soul-sucking shifts on the factory floor.

In real life—such that it is these days—Nottage spent time in Reading getting to know and talking to displaced steelworkers before she began to write this play and surely this insight in the conditions they were forced to endure plays a heavy role in why Sweat makes such a powerful statement. The situation, though horrendously awful and morally sickening, is not hard to imagine these dark days, something the writer clarifies by creating exceptionally real dialogue and characters who are the kind many of us avoid when we choose not to go “home” for Thanksgiving.

These people have little in their lives beyond hard work in the dank, unforgiving bowels of the omnipresent local factory and this also rather dim but comforting neighborhood bar run by Stan (Michael O’Keefe), himself a former steelworker before suffering a job-related disability. Stan’s bar is a place where they can hang after work to commiserate with each other and as the play unfolds—albeit not in chronological time—we can see what a true horror their daily lives have been.

Still, as bad as things are, they’re about to get a helluva lot worse. Beginning with a scene unfolding in 2008, Sweat jumps back and forth in time as we are left to wonder what the event was that happened to these people, something only hinted at when the play begins at the end. Under the exceptionally fluid staging of director Lisa Peterson on Christopher Barreca’s bleak but evocative set, Nottage’s characters spring to life beautifully, something made far easier by her ability to create quirky, multifaceted individuals, a gift then sent over the moon by this exquisitely talented and committed cast.

Though playing a smaller character, a former steelworker whose job loss has cost him both his family and his sobriety, John Earl Jelks is the anchor of this production in a role he assayed in the play’s original award-winning New York run. Portia as his long-suffering wife Cynthia and Grantham Coleman as their ambitious but cursed son Chris are also dynamic, as are Will Hochman as his increasingly scarier best friend Jason and Mary Mara as Jason’s loud and abrasive mother Tracey—two characters increasingly more boxed into a corner who eventually lash out like nightmarish Trump supporters at a Maxine Waters rally.

Peter Mendoza is excellent and perfectly cast as Oscar, the young Colombian bar worker whose striving for a better life becomes the target for the play’s most unspeakable act, while Kevin T. Carroll is a standout in the play’s least pivotal role. And as Cynthia and Tracey’s hapless coworker who dresses in junior-sized quinceanera dresses and can’t stay sober enough to tell exactly what’s happening around her, Amy Pietz provides the play’s much needed moments of guilty humor, making her Jessie a memorable cross between a drunken Karen Weston and Chaplin’s Little Tramp.

There are a lot of repetitive dialogue and situations in Nottage’s tale that honestly makes it sometimes hard to sit through—or is that the point?—but trimmed of about a half-hour of drinking and complaining and losing the intermission might not be a bad experiment. Still, what makes her overstated yet riveting masterpiece stand out amongst the well-honored group of classic plays mentioned earlier from misters O’Neill, Williams, Miller, Christofer, Mamet, Lindsay-Abaire, and Letts, is something the playwright clearly shares with Miller and his saga of poor ol’ Willie Loman.

Although most of the works I chose to study in my courses this semester deal with the most frequently tackled premise in all modern dramatic literature, the plight of the dysfunctional family, Sweat and Death of a Salesman both explore the reason why these dysfunctional characters became so dysfunctional: the death of the American dream. Although there may be an argument Glengarry Glen Ross, that infamous story of integrity-challenged conmen Shelley "The Machine" Levine and Ricky Roma, could also fit into that category, the actions of Mamet’s characters are the result of our collective societal demise in this country, while Nottage’s life-tossed Pennsylvanians are still in the process of being caught in the web of it. The state of our country and our society is almost a palpable 10th character here, covering everything that happens onstage like a enveloping shroud.

Rather than already being morally compromised before the tale begins to unfold, Tracey, Cynthia, and Jessie are still victims of the dream they thought they’d been guaranteed by putting in hard work and paying taxes, a delusion further hampered by the limited opportunities offered in their insular and claustrophobic daily existence. Like Willie Loman, these displaced steelworkers have spent their entire lives believing our democratic system was going to save them and reward them, an illusion teased on by the promise of a nice little nuclear family living in a sweet two-bedroom house with a white picket fence and two cars in the garage.

And, as is the case for so many deluded supporters of our current Disaster-in-Chief and his soulless minions, the desperation of these disillusioned characters leads them to go backwards, adopting racism, that easy target, for their woes, eventually resorting to unspeakable violence they never thought was in them. There isn’t even one tiny glimmer of hope in Nottage’s urgently important play that these residents of Reading, Pennsylvania are going to ultimately survive but then, the way things are going in this country, perhaps that will be the fate for all of us.

Hopefully future generations, if there are future generations, will be able to study Sweat and contemplate the questions explored by Lynn Nottage and those other brilliantly insightful Pulitzer-winning playwrights who have helped forge the way to a better world. Art heals, I know, but I wish these days I could say I am as optimistic as I once was that will be the case.

 *  *  *

BEAUTIFUL at the Pantages Theatre and Segerstrom Center for the Arts

In the Republic, Plato theorized that all art imitates life and, when it comes to the increasingly more popular genre of bio-musicals, it certainly seems those wise old Greeks guys were onto something. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, opens with the ubertalented Sarah Bockel almost eerily channeling the singer-songwriter as she sat at her trusty Steinway onstage in front of a sold-out audience at Carnegie Hall some 47 years ago—her very first solo performance on any major concert stage.

Wearing costumer Alejo Vietti’s faithful replica of the same dress and exhibiting the same nerves, warmth, and incredible talent as the real King gave the world of music, Bockel takes a deep breath, bangs the keyboard fiercely while letting her double's wild mane of curls obliterate her face, and launches into a spot-on recreation of "So Far Away."

Watching the lights come up on Bockel opening night of Beautiful at the equally (almost) majestic Pantages Theatre, it was more than an imitation for me, instantly flashing me back to that night in the summer of 1971 when I sat there in the very front row, my partner Victor Colin and I bookending our dear friend Laura Nyro as we, in something very akin to total awe, observed musical history taking place right before our eyes.

My personal history with Carole goes back two years earlier when, as Talent Coordinator of the Troubadour, the newly transplanted New Yorker would sneak into the Troub during the day to try out her newest compositions on the club's resident grand piano. Our friendship began with my secretary dipping into the closed kitchen to produce a couple of famously juicy (albeit greasy) burgers for Carole and me after she had first been swayed by the cooking smells wafting there during an earlier purloined lunch several days before.

I remember, as we sat on the lip of the stage eating, telling her that the deal for her pal James Taylor to play the club was nearly finalized and, since I knew he has asked her if she would come in as his piano accompanist if that happened, I took the bull by the horns. Since I was knocked out every time I heard her voice drifting up to my office above the stage every time she practiced, I asked Carole if she'd consider being his opening act. It was something I had discussed and conspired to make happen with James, his producer-manager Peter Asher, and her mentor Danny Kirshner, although all three of them were certain she would most emphatically say no.

Carole did more than say no; she practically spit her Diet Coke across the Troubadour floor. "No, I can't ever sing in front of an audience!" she wailed loudly to the empty room where she would soon make her live performing debut several months later in November, 1970. "I'd have a heart attack!"

It was one of those real art-imitates-life moments for me opening night of Beautiful, when Bockel as Carole says the exact same thing to her friends and friendly rivals Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (played by Jacob Heimer and Alison Whitehurst with the added yammy-yammies of having the legendary songwriting team seated right before them in the Pantages audience) when, back before she left the comfort of her native climes, she's asked to come onstage at the Bitter End in The Village to sing one of her songs. I’m not sure if the reference to impending heart failure is a coincidence, something the Manns told bookwriter Douglas McGrath she’s said, or if that phrase was a standard line Carole used whenever she was asked to perform live back then.

In the era of the bio-musical—and it's not hard to picture this one settling in someplace in Las Vegas like Planet Hollywood in the near future for a long and extended run—McGrath's book doesn't compare to Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's surprisingly literate work on Jersey Boys, yet it could rival another current LA visitor, Ain't Too Proud, in fulfilling the And-Then-I-Wrote sweepstakes that conveniently makes possible the welcome revisiting of the music of, respectively, Carole King and the Temptations.

Interestingly, as well as I knew Carole, I was fairly unschooled about what had happened in her life before she came into mine in 1970. I knew she and her first husband, the late Gerry Goffin, had already found enormous success and fame in their late teens by writing some of the most popular tunes in the history of pop music, including the Drifters' "Some Kind of Wonderful" and "Up On the Roof;" the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow;" as well as "Take Good Care of My Baby," written as an ode to the young couple's five-month daughter Louise; and "Do the Locomotion,"  the classic that made a quickly-flickering star of the Goffins' babysitter (Little) Eva Boyd, whose goofy dance moves inspired the number and went on to inspire a generation.

Under the fluid leadership of director Marc Bruni, Beautiful is a wonderful diversion, quickly pointing out the indelible groundbreaking music of one of the most successful singer-songwriters in modern history—although for me it was a bit disconcerting to realize most of those in attendance mouthing every lyric looked as though they were wearing Depends under their sequins and carried an AARP card in their wallets. You know; people my age--except I only cop to the AARP card and even that I keep in a desk drawer at home.

Despite the stereotypical behavior of most of McGrath's characters, every performer here takes what's offered and runs with it. On Derek McLane’s versatile and highly kinetic set, the exceptionally talented supporting cast morphs from one 1950s-1960s star to the next with lightning speed, aided by the whimsical choreography by Josh Prince and Vietti’s costuming, something that could be included in a Vegas quick-change act.

In the musical's running subplot, Whitehead and Heimer turn in admirable work as King's lifelong friends the Manns, themselves prolific songwriters here also honored by the inclusion of some of their own well-known tunes: "Walking in the Rain," "On Broadway," "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," and even "Who Put the Bomp," which Mann recorded and performed himself—and was cowritten with Goffin as a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the then-current do-wap craze.

James Clow and Suzanne Grodner do yeoman's work in the pivotal yet underwritten roles of Danny Kirshner and Carole's undeniably crusty Brooklyn-fueled mother Genie Klein, but it is Dylan S. Walloch who does something amazing here, making his womanizing, increasingly more mentally unstable Gerry Goffin somewhat sympathetic and less of a villain than the character, as written, could come off as the story unfolds.

Then there's Bockel. Although not the original star of Beautiful on Broadway, to say she radiates everything Carole was about is a major understatement. At once shy, vulnerable, loving, and yet subtly charismatic and strong as an ox as her living legend counterpart navigates fame, fortune, and a mess of a personal life, Bockel is miraculous. Add in a voice that reaches the heights, finds the raspy riffs, and still mines the personal depths of insecurity and emotion that made King's music some of the most enduring of all time, and her performance is worthy of any award offered and made me want to hug her after the show as though greeting an old friend.

I hope you'll indulge me in relating one last story about my personal history with Carole, something that lets me proudly proclaim my part in getting her to perform her own music for the first time ever in front of an audience all those many years ago.

The Troubadour was of course packed that night. Carole finally got the nerve to leave the club's upstairs dressing room, which forced performers to walk across and in front of the balcony seats, down a flight of rickety wooden stairs, and make their way to the stage by pushing directly through the gathered crowds, eventually sitting down sheepishly at her favorite piano while her already adoring fans left their seats and ominously gathered in front of the stage to cheer and howl.

She pursued the crowd with a warm but obviously terrified smile, sighed deeply, hit the keyboard, and launched into the intro to her first number. She had not gotten past more than the first few bars into the song when Michael Shire, announcing from the Troub's lighting booth, stopped her over the loudspeakers with a tentative, "Uh, Carole..."

A bomb scare had been called in, forcing the West Hollywood Sheriffs to descend on the showroom and start evacuating patrons as quickly as possible. After sweeping the stage and every corner of the club for over an hour, the audience, all of whom had been standing outside crowded together on Santa Monica Boulevard, was let to come back in. However, the crowd had attracted a heap on non-paying additional revelers by that time, as well as a few impatient ticketholders from the now monumentally late second show, making the reseating of the audience another long and drawn-out nightmare.

Finally, Carole again sat at her piano to begin what was supposed to be the first 7pm show, now about to start well after 9:30 if I remember correctly. Just before she began, Michael's voice again came over the sound system to say, "Sorry about that, Carole."

"No, no, it's fine, really!" Carole said with a nervous laugh. "I'm just relieved it was a bomb threat and not my playing."

BEAUTIFUL PLAYS INDEFINITELY at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, 124 W. 43rd St., New York. 212.239.6200 or www.beautifulonbroadway.com

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THE UNTRANSLATABLE SECRETS OF NIKKI CORONA at Geffen Playhouse

In Jose Rivera's new play The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona, one character tells another, "I hate it when you're cryptic."  This is glaringly ironic since there might be no contemporary playwright as mysterious and enigmatic as Rivera and, on every other occasion listening to his bold and evocatively poetic language chronicling the human condition at this point in our evolution as a species and a planet, I've been right there cheering him on.

This time, however, Rivera's elliptical message is simply confusing, with nothing relatable about the tale besides the leading character's eagerness to move on. By the time the final metaphorical door appears for Orlando (Richard Chavira) to pass through, if relief from the audience is the desired effect, Nikki Corona succeeds splendidly. I was relieved to step into the fresh air and onto the Geffen Playhouse patio, as ready to move on as poor confused Orlando.

The most frustrating thing here is the promise. The fluid directorial hand of Jo Bonney and the work of the actors and designers deserve praise, but just what was the point of putting all that time and energy into delivering a slickly professional mounting of a play obviously not ready for primetime?

Rivera, author of the groundbreaking References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, Marisol, and Sonnets for an Old Century, as well as the underrated screenplay for On the Road and recipient of an Oscar nomination for his film adaptation of The Motorcycle Diaries, has always been someone to whom I pay attention. In Nikki Corona, the first act again portends more of such signature brilliance, especially as it begins with an arrestingly lyrical monologue as the title character’s twin sister Abril (both roles played by Onahoua Rodriguez) leaves a last message on her sister’s phone before jumping to her death from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Nikki, agonizingly troubled for not being there to answer the call, goes to a very special service called A New Orpheus, run by the not-too confident Maren (Cate Scott Campbell), an entrepreneur who links loved ones left behind with someone terminally ill, charging a large fee to potentially have the dying patient deliver a message to someone recently departed when they get to the afterlife. Although Nikki is neither daunted by the enormity of the payment or Maren’s lack of assurances that the whole concept isn’t ridiculous and without guarantees, what she doesn’t reckon with is finding an unnerving affection for the dying patient (Chavira).

When Orlando takes his last breath at the end of Act One, however, anything we feel as audience members is left dangling. Never again do we see Nikki or experience any catharsis about what the death of Orlando changes for her, instead journeying with him into a surreal purgatory governed by giant octopuses and featuring staggeringly psychedelic undulating stage-filling graphic projections designed by Hana S. Kim that are the best thing about this production.

With the help of a Southern trailerparkish guide named Lisandra (Campbell again, clad in daisy dukes and sporting warrior tattoos), Orlando visits several of his dead relatives before finally finding Abril, at which time he whispers the secret Nikki shared with him as he lie dying to relate to her sister. Abril laughs uproariously, a portal to the next “plateau” opens onto the fourth wall, and we all get to go home. End of play—and of my patience.

All the uniformly screwed-up dead people of Orlando’s life are played by Zilah Mendoza and Juan Fernando Villa, including his rigid unfeeling mother who seems to be spending eternity writing letters of contrition to the thousands of people she swindled in a political scheme—the profits of which she left to the Daughters of Ayn Rand Association instead of her children—and his great-great-grandfather who lived off the fact that his greatest accomplishment in life was a sham. Unfortunately, by the time Orlando finds Abril, we couldn’t care less, either about him or his Dr. Livingston or listening to much of anything else Rivera is trying to say here.

If only the playwright had stuck with the situations and questions which ended the first half of The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona and didn’t leave us wondering what religious dogma from his childhood he was trying to exorcise with this play or what he must have been “on” when he wrote Act Two, I might have been less ready to wish I’d left at intermission since the things left hanging there were better left a mystery rather than having to sit through Rivera’s unfathomable and masturbatory second half.

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ARRIVAL & DEPARTURE at the Fountain Theatre

The Fountain’s co-founder and co-artistic director Stephen Sachs has a long history creating and supporting art for the deaf community, including his collaboration with the celebrated Deaf West Theatre Company, which began its evolution when Sachs and his fellow founder and producing partner Deborah Culver offered Ed Waterstreet office space to use before establishing his company's own space in the early 1990s.

As an established playwright, Sachs’ many beautifully realized plays about the non-hearing world performed in ASL stand out mightily in his prolific body of work. His latest effort, now in its world premiere at the Fountain, is an amazingly evocative adaptation of David Lean’s enduring 1945 classic English film Brief Encounter, which of course was blessed by a magnificent screenplay by Sir Noel Coward based on his short play Still Life.

With the indomitable Troy Katsur in its leading role, perhaps the finest non-speaking actor of his generation and a man who can get away with more charming excesses in his performances than French Stewart, cast here opposite his talented real-life wife Deanne Bray in the roles made timeless by Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson, Arrival & Departure is simply nothing short of brilliant.

Sachs' script is both austere and accessible, revealing his clear understanding of the fragility of the human condition yet possessed of a poetic lyricism that shines through his down-to-earth dialogue. This is especially admirable in the scenes between Brooklyn-direct Dunkin' Donuts barista Mya (Jessica Jade Andres) and her NYC Transit Authority security guard suitor Russell (Shon Fuller), whose initially clumsy romantic intentions provides a lovely diversionary subplot to counteract Emily and Sam's bittersweet efforts to find happiness.

Sachs also contributes a fine directorial eye, smoothly moving his nine game ensemble members as though pieces on an elaborate chessboard to magically become a city full of strangers. Matthew G. Hill's impressively versatile subway station set is an invaluable asset, as is the eye-catching vision of Movement Director Gary Franco, who marches the actors around between scenes with remarkable precision, traveling in tight circles and in drill team-worthy queues across the stage as typical cellphone and Starbucks-obsessed commuters aggressively navigating the streets of Manhattan.

And as those anonymous city-dwellers squeeze past one another, the essence of the New York experience is further conjured by the rush of Peter Bayne's jazzy, brilliantly urban original music score and Nicholas E. Santiago's spectacularly evocative video projections, which—when not utilized to title the dialogue of the signing deaf cast members—streak behind the action like Koyannisquatsi on steroids.

Stasha Surdyke and Adam Burch do a wondrous job playing a plethora of those aforementioned anonymous commuters and other strangers, becoming almost heroic as they create their own emotional nuance while providing the  speaking voices of Bray and Kotsur, who only communicate with one another in ASL.

Surdyke provides a charming turn as Emily's Long Islandy-whining neighbor Marjorie, who comes into the city to shop 'til she drops, but I was most fascinated watching her surreptitiously try not to react as Emily while inconspicupusly sitting on the sidelines playing a faceless commuter while her alter-ego pleads with her daughter or tries to get through the thickheadedness of her rigidly stuck-in-his-ways husband Doug (Brian Robert Burns).

Sachs also contributes a fine directorial eye, smoothly moving his nine game ensemble members as though pieces on an elaborate chessboard to magically become a city full of strangers. Matthew G. Hill's impressively versatile subway station set is an invaluable asset, as is the eye-catching vision of Movement Director Gary Franco, who marches the actors around between scenes with remarkable precision, traveling in tight circles and in drill team-worthy queues across the stage as typical cellphone and Starbucks-obsessed commuters aggressively navigating the streets of Manhattan.

And as those anonymous city-dwellers squeeze past one another, the essence of the New York experience is further conjured by the rush of Peter Bayne's jazzy, brilliantly urban original music score and Nicholas E. Santiago's spectacularly evocative video projections, which—when not utilized to title the dialogue of the signing deaf cast members—streak behind the action like Koyannisquatsi on steroids.

Stasha Surdyke and Adam Burch do a wondrous job playing a plethora of those aforementioned anonymous commuters and other strangers, becoming almost heroic as they create their own emotional nuance while providing the  speaking voices of Bray and Kotsur, who only communicate with one another in ASL.

Surdyke provides a charming turn as Emily's Long Islandy-whining neighbor Marjorie, who comes into the city to shop 'til she drops, but I was most fascinated watching her surreptitiously try not to react as Emily while inconspicupusly sitting on the sidelines playing a faceless commuter while her alter-ego pleads with her daughter or tries to get through the thickheadedness of her rigidly stuck-in-his-ways husband Doug (Brian Robert Burns).

Arrival & Departure also marks the auspicious Fountain Theatre debut of CHAMPS Charter High School of the Arts' student Aurelia Myers as Emily and Doug's gawky, frustrated daughter Jule, who turns in a sweetly affecting performance full of all the pathos a teenager in our media-smothered society often endures, including an online romance with a boy of 16 who, of course, isn't what he seems. Myers' work is arrestingly confient and full of humor, easily chronicling what it must be like to make it through puberty in our madly accelerated age of electronic domination. 

As a new and unseen entity—I’ll bet during the final rehearsals the boldness of Franco’s choreography provided a few yammy-yammies about whether it would work for an audience—Arrive & Departure has a few minor issues I’m sure will mellow during this initial run like the fine wine it is. These include the emotional journey at the heart of the story, as feelings begin to grow between Emily and Sam, which too quickly morphs from joking and innocent flirting to its intensely passionate depths without the subtlety it needs, especially disconcerting since Katsur and Bray are offstage actually a couple.

Also needing further exploration is what makes Burns’ efforts such a difficult task. Until the final scene between Doug and Emily, there’s not much to like about the guy—although I’ll admit being objective about misogynistic cavemen husbands, especially ones who spout endlessly about born-again Christianity, is perhaps my biggest challenge as a critic and a person. Still, by the end of the play, call me a hopeless romantic but for me, Emily and Doug’s resolution is too little too late, making me frustrated she didn’t choose the more dangerous and less-traveled path, perhaps escaping to the Irish countryside to travel with Sam in a gypsy wagon with two tambourines and a dancing bear.

Aside from these evolving growing pains, however, Stephen Sachs' Arrival & Departure is an innovative and important new take on Sir Noel's enduring classic "modern" love story for the ages, one hopefully able to enjoy a similar journey without losing its impact for as long as the original has stayed a viable example of storytelling at its most accessibly human. 

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NATIVE GARDENS at Pasadena Playhouse

In a country and a world wildly spinning off its axis on a daily basis, it’s a rarity these politically-dominated days when we get to simply laugh and escape the frustrations of ugly reality for a few minutes. This is the major factor that makes Karen Zacarias’ Native Gardens such a welcome diversion at this particular point in time, as it’s a play that, in its west coast debut at Pasadena Playhouse, let's us all sit back for at least a quick 90 minutes and stop thinking of things we never imagined our decency would let our minds conjure.

Interestingly, Zacarias has accomplished something even more crafty, as there actually is a prickly societal agenda lurking just behind the humor, the impact of which might not be completely apparent until one is driving home from Pasadena. On the surface, Native Gardens is a throwback to the old days of the family-friendly 1970s-style TV sitcom as two neighboring couples fight over property lines and the definition of what is beautiful—in an arboreal sorta way. Beyond that, however, is a gentle and hilarious morality tale of how quickly the thin veneer of civilization can wear itself off even for the seemingly most enlightened and educated among us.

Virginia and Frank Butley (Frances Fisher and Bruce Davison) are a… er… mature couple who have been living in their upscale Washington, DC neighborhood for several decades, where the center of Frank's life is the verdant English garden he has tended and cultivated for many seasons in an effort to be chosen over his neighbor across the street as recipient of an annual award for his dedicated horticultural efforts.

A new couple has moved into the “fixer-upper” next door and love their overgrown and long-untended grounds butting against the Butleys’ property. The focus of their ardor is their arbor—the centerpiece of which is a giant and stately 350-year-old oak. Tania and Pablo del Valle (Jessica Meraz and Chrisian Barillas) want to design an ecologically-sound landscape centered around their beloved tree but the Butleys instead think it should be cut down, mostly to stop it from shedding its leaves on their own highly-manicured property.

Things are more than friendly when the couples first meet, complete with the Butleys gifting their new friends with the finest merlot and the best Belgian dark chocolates. Soon, however, the del Valles’ realize that their property line on the survey they initiate before building a new dividing fence between the properties is off by two feet—two feet occupied by Frank’s cherished and well-cared-for flowerbeds.

That lovely air of neighborly graciousness between the new neighbors wears off in layers purdy durn quick, replaced by sharp-tongued bickering and finally physically-enhanced feuding, exposing a long-hidden underbelly of racism from the older couple, the Butleys obviously not used to people not of the WASP variety moving into their staid Republican enclave—especially people of the millennial variety who want to turn their property into an ecological oasis where drought-resistant weeds can flourish and bugs and other unwanted creatures can thrive and multiply at will.

Under the well-practiced comedic guidance of director Jason Alexander and with the veteran skills of Fisher and Davison smoothly driving the storyline forward, what could be a difficult project to pull off in our contemporary culture, where unless a comedy is potentially scandalous and totally off-the-wall and no one would cop to appreciating a return to the days of Mary Tyler Moore and the Golden Girls, Native Gardens rapidly becomes a guilty pleasure. “Do you think we’ll be that out of touch when we’re their age?” Tania asks her husband. “Naw,” says Pablo, “we’re not white.”

While Frank laments that everything they hold dear is now bad, from margarine to white rice to Cat Stevens, Virginia decides a sit-in is possibly the answer as their neighbors plan for a weekend barbeque to impress the senior members of Pablo’s new law firm. “It was very effective to us young folks back then,” she reasons. “Maybe it will work for us old people now.”

On David Meyer’s whimsical outdoor garden set, one side terminally floral-strewn and looking like it was designed for the funeral of a head of state while the other looks like a scene from The Blair Witch Project, these four actors battle it out with one-liner gutbusters so frequent it hurts. The foursome is also joined by a trio of goofy gardeners (Julian Armaya, Richard Biglia, and Bradley Roa II), who enter between scenes to tear down and rebuild fences and pull up flowerbeds as they introduce each new scene with placards hidden cleverly behind trees, set pieces, and unfurling from the oddest places imaginable.

From the very beginning as patrons file into the theatre, these wonderfully spirited gardeners work to engage the audience directly and salsa dance their scene changes in precision moves, something I am told, although not credited anywhere easy to find, was choreographed by assistant director Rhonda Kohl. Whether this concept is part of Zacarias’ original script or was the comedic brainchild of Alexander I know not, but whatever its origins, it’s a charming and welcome addition to the proceedings.

Although it takes awhile to warm up to the initially rather self-conscious performances of Meraz and Barillas, something they both overcame on opening night within the first 20 minutes or so, from the very first beats, watching Fisher and Davison at work effortlessly doing their well-honed thing and bringing an uncanny innate sense of comic timing is a joy to behold. What’s most interesting and, with credit I imagine going equally to the actors, their director, and the playwright, they bring something to the roles of the Butleys I wouldn’t have thought possible at this stage in the virulent daily attacks from our classless Celebrity Appresident and his zombified minions: a kind of forgivable misguided conservative mindset that becomes almost endearing—as long as we have to deal with it from across the footlights and not in real life. 

Pasadena Playhouse is a tough nut to crack when someone is not used to working there, its size and historical majesty bringing a false sense of having to project one’s voice to the back pews at Stratford when, in actuality, with an audience in place, the acoustics stand up for themselves without pushing it—again something I think Meraz and Barrillas realized as the performance continued and will settle into even more successfully during the run.

Karen Zacarias’ play is a lovely little treat and serves as a perfect departure from impending climate change-spawned hurricanes, ugly midterm political drama, and non-presidential fistbumps from a classless clown who himself wouldn’t even fit into a farce such as this without donning a suit of armor. Native Gardens won’t change the world but, while it makes you laugh until the tears are streaming down your cheeks, it also could inspire one thing I hope might result from this production: a TV series of their own for Frances Fisher and Bruce Davison, whose undeniable charisma together as a comedic team rivals Desi and Lucy at the top of their game.