By Pat Launer
Time is slippery in this week’s plays;
Forward and backward, in ways that amaze.
So Come Back, Jimmy Dean, through Communicating Doors;
Isaac ’s online, set to even some scores.
THE SHOW: Communicating Doors , the 1994 comic thriller by Alan Ayckbourn , England ’s most prolific playwright (60+ plays and counting). The piece won the Best Play Award from the Writer’s Guild of Britain, and was nominated for an Olivier (British equivalent of the Tony). Ayckbourn is known for his complex dramatic structure and clever gimmickry. He outdoes himself on this one: murder, suspense, confessions, rewritng history, multiple wives, a dominatrix — and time travel through a door between two hotel rooms (that’s what ‘communicating doors’ means in Brit-speak).
San Diego connection: The 1998 New York production, featuring Mary Louise Parker, was directed by Christopher Ashley, soon to be artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse
THE STORY: A sickly, dying man calls for a call-girl. The whip-wielding, leather-clad dominatrix has dealt with some weirdos in her time. But all this one wants from her is to witness a confession of all his sins, including some very shady business deals and the murder of two wives. But before she can accede, she’s nearly murdered by the man’s sinister partner. Terrified, she hides out in what she thinks is a closet, but its swinging door transports her to the same hotel room 20 years earlier (1998). The first wife of the man is, according to the confession letter, destined to be killed that very night, tossed off a balcony. Lickety-split (time, here, is of the essence), the two women team up, and realize that they have to try to save the life of the second wife as well; so the first wife goes through the swinging door and travels back 20 years in time (to 1978). It all gets rather suspenseful and amusing and convoluted, whisking us along on a rip- snortin ’ ride, an evening of breathless, unpredictable fun.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Every element in this splendid production is attended to with the utmost consideration and specificity. Nick Fouch’s attractive set features a farcical six doorways, a bathroom with bidet (when was the last – first? – time you saw that onstage?), a balcony to be pushed off, and a potted plant that is tripped on and knocked over numerous times during the course of the evening. Outside the lovely French doors, the lighting (Eric Lotze ) changes beautifully as the day wanes (in whatever year). The sound (M. Scott Grabau ) is by turns spooky, mysterious, ominous, melodramatic . And Esther Emery has done it again. One of our most delightfully detailed directors, she has managed to capture the humor, pace, accents and intrigue of a classically British parlor murder mystery. It isn’t easy. But she and her terrific cast make it look effortless.
As Poopay , the whore with the heart of gold, a hardened hooker who seems a tad embarrassed about being a dominatrix, Jessica John is a marvel — hilariously funny and achingly sympathetic, in her swaggering, Cockney-inflected bravado, her wide-eyed innocence, her endearing vulnerability. Gorgeous portrayal from a gorgeous woman, who can wear leather straps, stilettos and bustiers like nobody’s business. A dark-eyed brunette, she’s a blonde bombshell here, and you can’t take your eyes off her (for any number of reasons). Her physical comedy is nonpareil; in the second act, there’s a superb slapstick scene with the three women hanging over the balcony that is nothing short of gut-busting.
Brenda Dodge (actor/singer Randall Dodge’s talented and attractive new wife) is the large- dowried young wife #2 on her honeymoon, more than a little ditsy at first, but over the years, she matures into a handsome, sensible and sophisticated woman. Dodge skillfully veers the character away from the caricature she could become. Sandy Campbell provides wonderful ballast as the resolute, upper-crust first wife, rife with ideas and tactics, a level-headed strategist and a poker-faced, unintentional humorist. As the homicidal partner, Manny Fernandes has the least character arc, but he is seriously menacing and downright scary. Tim West has the most age regression of the lot; he starts out at 70, and goes backward to 30 (thanks, throughout, to excellent wig and hair design by Peter Herman). West is believably doddering at the outset, and feisty in his earlier incarnations. Craig Huisenga courses through all the scenes and decades, as the officious, obsequious and clueless house detective who’ll do anything for a buck (or a boat). The costumes ( Shulamit Nelson- Spilkin ) are spot-on for each of the characters and eras (though styles don’t seem to have changed much by 2018). There isn’t a jot or whit (or wit!) out of place in this production. The women are the dramatic winners– they survive, they change their pasts and futures, they bond; they rule. And, extra bonus: hidden deep in the mind-boggling mayhem and desperate absurdity is a message — about free will, the fragility of time and the significance of serendipity. Coincidence is all. Comedy and mystery are king. But it’d be a tragedy for you to miss this delectable concoction.
THE LOCATION: Cygnet Theatre, through September 23
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean , a 1981 comic drama by Ed Graczyk , who also wrote the screenplay for the 1982 movie, both directed by Robert Altman. The movie turned out to be the dramatic breakout film for Cher . The playwright said the piece was “the result of my own observations and frustrations with progress that ignores a past … and the recurring need of people to build facades to conceal the truths of their lives.”
THE BACKGROUND: Okay, if you’re under a certain age (i.e., Middle), you need a little contextual background:
’Five and Dime’ — an all-purpose variety store like Woolworth’s (if you have any idea what that is!), where they sold anything from clothes to housewares , office supplies to gardening tools, personal hygiene paraphernalia, holiday decorations, toys, pet supplies (and often, pets!), you name it. They frequently had a diner-type lunch counter. The shop’s name referred to the original price of all items. The closest current incarnation would be a 99-Cent store. Chalk it up to inflation.
‘James Dean’ — actor, megastar, teen heartthrob, icon. Starred in only three movies, before dying at age 24, in a head-on car collision in 1955 (he was an avid racer, driving a very souped up Porsche). He’s best known for “Rebel Without a Cause,” which established his ‘Bad Boy’ identity, as well as “East of Eden” and “Giant.” The last two pics made him the only performer to win a posthumous Best Actor Oscar — twice. Just three films, but the legend lingers on.
THE STORY: In the small West Texas town of McCarthy, a group of devoted James Dean fans (they call themselves Disciples) reconvenes for a 20th reunion on the anniversary of the Great One’s death. For each of these middle-aged women, the high point of their lives, and the life of their fading town, was when “Giant” was filmed not far away. One of the group members was cast as an extra on the set, and nine months later, she gave birth to a son she named Jimmy Dean, insisting that he was the result of a one-night stand with the star, under the stars. The dramatic action shifts back and forth from 1955 to 1975; we see the women in their early years, and what they have become. During the course of the gathering, warts, lies and secrets are revealed, thanks to the forthrightness of a surprise guest, who insists that each woman confront her self-deceptions and disappointments.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: This production is part of a Master Plan by director Ruff Yeager . He realized that the diner set for his own play, Bronze (which premiered in 2005 at Sledgehammer, and is being reprised at 6th @ Penn, Sept. 2-26) was exactly right for Jimmy Dean. So he’s directed the two plays back-to-back and side by side, using the original, highly detailed set by Nick Fouch , tricked out for the new space by Yeager and Dale Morris. It works perfectly: the booths, the metal barstools, the tile floor and formica tables. And then there’s that slamming screen door (next to which I unfortunately sat; clever design, but my brain was rattled after that infernal banging near my ear for the umpteenth time. Avoid the aisle seats in the last two rows, house right. But don’t let that spoil your fun; I didn’t).
The piece could be played as melodrama. And there are more than a few stereotypes in the creation of the characters and their opinions. But Yeager avoids all that with pitch-per performances, crackerjack timing and plenty of laughs. But actions and emotions darken in the second act, and this production beautifully captures the sad Southern heartache at the core of the play.
The cast is marvelous, a gathering of some of San Diego ’s finest actresses, meshing into a tight ensemble of frustration, humor and unhappiness. Glorious group. As the long-term clerk in the store, Robin Christ is at the center, in a wonderfully nuanced performance that’s heartbreaking in its shaky timidity, hacking hypochondria, maternal overprotection and child-crushing delusion. Her pain, in the face of reality, is the most profound and palpable. Jill Drexler is the non-nonsense, Bible-thumping manager of the Five and Dime, who’s forced to confront horrible truths about her revered (but seriously unsavory) late husband. Leigh Scarritt is flawless as the tough-talking, oversexed, over-endowed Sissy, whose motto is, “If you’ve got ‘ em , bounce ‘ em .” But she gets her comeuppance, too, in a particularly intense confrontation with the mysterious Joanne (excellently underplayed by Susan Stratton, with a delightful sense of smugness in her relentless effort to uncover truths and even scores). As economic antitheses, Wendy Waddell and Danielle Rhoads make magic with bit parts: one a shallow, aggressive, childless country club dilettante; the other a mousy, fearful waitress, perennially pregnant (and Rhoads really is!). Doing an outstanding job of playing the younger versions of these characters are sexy, dynamic 16 year-old Zoe Katz (as wild Young Sissy), high school junior Victoria Tecca (as a dreamy Young Mona) and adorable Michael Cullen as loving but confused Joe. This is one delicious production. It’s a little like Crimes of the Heart, but with more depth and bite. Sink your teeth into this one, for sure.
THE LOCATION: 6th @ Penn Theatre, through September 30
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
Bonus: Save Green on Bronze, by attending special Pay-What-You-Can performances (just 5 bucks) on September 2, 4 and 5. www.6thatpenn.com ; 619-688-9210
GETTING BLITZED… ONLINE
THE SHOW: The Fritz Blitz of New Plays by California Writers, the 14the annual presentation of new works; Week 2 of 4.
This is the play, Isaac, I Am by Mary Steelsmith of Los Angeles , that I wrote about in detail last year. Fritz founder/artistic director Duane Daniels had made this one of his top choices – and favorite plays – for the 13th Blitz (2006). The actors had learned the lines and rehearsed quite a bit, and then the play was yanked by the playwright. She had gotten a more lucrative deal for a production in another state, and the two simultaneous ‘premieres’ were incompatible. As it turns out, the play was selected, from among 300 submissions, as the winner of the Helford Prize national playwriting contest officiated by Jacksonville University in Florida . So for the Fritz Blitz, she substituted a shorter work, the intriguing True Blue, and Daniels waited… until Isaac, I Am was available again. Many of the cast members have returned.
It’s extremely challenging to stage a play that takes place primarily online, in this case, in IMs or chat rooms. Scenes of narrative exposition or reading of messages and typing of messages (there were several platform-mounted laptops onstage) are unavoidable. The exercise is at great peril of tedium. Rarely does it really work, the one very notable exception being The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, imaginatively staged by former Sledgehammer artistic director Kirsten Brandt at the Old Globe (2004). Here, director Katie Rodda does what she can to keep the action… well, active. But the pace still lags, and the message feels shopworn.
Is it a revelation that people aren’t who they claim to be online? That some people prefer the easy artifice of the internet to the sturm und drang of the Real World? That you can get yourself in trouble getting too involved with net-friends, or trying to phone or meet them? Maybe last year it would’ve seemed fresher. Maybe not. Some of the writing and narrative feels like a stretch; the playwright has suggested that, if you say the play’s title over and over very fast, it comes out ‘How sick I am.’ Hmmm. I prefer her title explanation that harks back to the Biblical Isaac, who was nearly sacrificed by his father, and was later deceived by one of his own sons.
Angela gets sucked into the net( her) world. She avoids relationship and commitment (though the guy who wants her came from a chat room meeting, too, and as played by engaging Eddie Yaroch , he doesn’t seem thoroughly honorable). She thinks her online buddies are her real friends, that they truly need her time and assistance, that she has to be there for them. She gets burned. She gets hurt. She stumbles into a brutal and scary vampire chatroom from which she has to be rescued.
A black-clad, Greek Chorus-like Ensemble (a game Brittney Daylee , Corneliu Valentin and Devlin, making a welcome return to the stage) wafts onstage to provide commentary throughout, peppering the action with their ‘true stories,’ apparently lifted from the Urban Legend files.
Diep Huynh is intense and convincing as a suicidal father with two sick kids (compellingly played by Jacob Sampson and Vicky Truscott). Allison MacDonald is thoroughly credible as gullible but disturbed Angela, who can’t seem to tell reality from online fantasy. But what does it all amount to? What do we learn that we didn’t know before? And was it worth the one-year wait? Too late for you to decide for yourself. You’ll just have to go with the flow… into Week 3 of the Blitz, and the only play by a San Diegan this year: Bets and Blue Notes by Kevin Armento.
THE LOCATION: The Fritz Blitz at the Lyceum, through September 9
The Sky’s the Limit in Theater Dreams
Moonlight Stage Productions is getting a facelift at their summer venue in Vista’s Brengle Terrace Park . City officials just released plans for a $6.1 million enclosure of the outdoor theater stage. The project, slated for completion by June 2009, will replace the current playing space with a 70-foot structure that doubles the height, and allows for flying in scenery (rather than always having to roll it on and off). The roof over the stage will also include a canopy over the orchestra pit (which often flooded), and there’ll backstage workshops and rehearsal space. The amphitheater currently accommodates up to 2000 theatergoers (including lawn seating).
“We’ve been dreaming about this since 1991,” crows an ecstatic Kathy Brombacher, Moonlight founder and artistic director. “The support of this City is phenomenal. It’s thrilling to think that our dream is only a couple of years away.”
Moonlight will only stage three shows next season instead of four, before the current structure is demolished in September. If all goes according to plan, they won’t miss a beat, and will be back up in the 2009 season, with another three shows. Bravo to the City of Vista , and to Moonlight.
Meanwhile, the Solana Beach theater siege is over. The monstrous debacle that engulfed North Coast Repertory Theatre for years, their attempt to create a new, high-profile space at the proposed Cedros Crossing project near the train station, has breathed its last breath. Finally. It had become an embarrassment for the community, what with the City Council’s eternal, infernal waffling. The mixed-use development project sounded like an ideal place for the theater to expand and grow and increase visibility. But there was always a council contingent that fought the theater’s presence. Now that’s all history. NCRT will remain where it has been for 25 years – at Lomas Santa Fe Plaza in Solana Beach . But it will more than double in size, thanks to a $1/year lease from the shopping center’s owner, Del Mar-based American Assets, Inc. The new structure, replacing the current 194-seat house, will contain a 350-seat theater and a smaller, 100-150 seat performance space, pretty much the same as the Cedros Crossing plan. But the extra bonus is — no height restrictions. So, they’ll be able to have a fly space, too!
“ I think this is a great thing for North Coast Rep,” says the battle-weary but newly energized artistic director, David Ellenstein. “American Assets, Inc. has been very generous to us, and there’s no more worrying and wondering; we know this will happen. Our facility will be a free-standing building with its own identity. It will be better equipped and the design is more in our control. This is absolutely the right thing for us.” Amen and good luck!
MORE NEWS AND VIEWS…
… Getting’ Better All the Time… that would be my dance prep, and the event I’m in: Malashock Dance’s 20th anniversary fundraising event, “Malashock Thinks You Can Dance.” Check out my Dance Blog on my website ( www.patteproductions.com ), describing the (arduous and expensive!) process. In addition to the ‘ celeb ’ dancers (including Laura Cain from the Jeff and Jer Showgram and Rana Sampson, the First Lady of San Diego – i.e., the Mayor’s wife), there will be actual dancers from the mega-popular Fox TV show, ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ and the host of the evening is Mary Murphy, the regular judge on the show. Come watch, enjoy — and vote for me! Saturday, September 15 in the Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall in Sorrento Valley . Proceeds support Malashock’s education and outreach programs. Get tix at 619-260-1622; www.malashockdance.org
…I’ll be talking about the Malashock event – and even showing video of my practice sessions! – on KUSI-TV, Wednesday, September 5, on “Inside San Diego” (10-11 am, channel 51/cablw 9). Tune in!
… And speaking of Dance – and Malashock… one of John Malashock’s long-term, featured dancers (a marvelously passionate, agile artist who’s also appeared with dance luminaries such as Bella Lewitzky and Loretta Livingston), Michael Mizerany, is presenting a provocative performance event he’s calling “Riding in My Car,” a tongue-in-cheek, slightly twisted look at dating, lust and longing. In addition to his own and his own company, MizeranyDance company performance Mizerany has commissioned two new works — from John Malashock, founder/artistic director of Malashock Dance, and local dance artist Bradley Lundberg. Sounds sexy! September 7-9 at the Academy of Performing Arts on Alvarado Canyon road; 619-861-5286; firstname.lastname@example.org
… The Cycle continues… Cygnet Theatre renews its collaboration with the San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre with The Cycle Plays, Part II, more staged readings of the intoxicating works of the late, great August Wilson. Next up is King Hedley II, with a cast of local stars: TJ Johnson, Mark Christopher Lawrence, Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson, Grandison M. Phelps III, Monique Gaffney and Hassan El Amin . Sept. 17-18 at Cygnet Theatre. cygnettheatre.com or 619-337-1525.
… Other Readings , Other Projects… A bevy of artistic activists will present a benefit reading of Ladies First, An Anti-War Comedy, by Lauren Simon and Anita Simons. The outstanding ensemble includes Deanna Driscoll, Sandra Ellis-Troy, Monique Gaffney, Annie Hinton, D. Candis Paule and Rosina Reynolds , under the direction of Lisa Berger. In the piece, middle-aged Joan, in angry protest against the war, is camped out in front of the White House. But she loses heart when the supporters and the media begin to depart. Then, the Universe answers her call. The spirits of four former First Ladies appear to her – Mary Todd Lincoln, Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt and Pat Nixon – and together they concoct a madcap plan to end the war. Sunday, Sept. 16 at 3pm at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Hillcrest. The event, sponsored by the Peace and Democracy Action Group, will feature special guest appearances by Cindy Sheehan, Marjorie Cohn and Col Ann Wright. 619-884-6482 or 858-459-4650.
… Carlsbad Playreaders is gearing up for its season with Neil LaBute’s brutal play (aren’t all his works??), The Shape of Things. It’s a wickedly humorous take on modern dating, directed by Eric Bishop and starring, among others, Christopher Williams , director of the New Village Arts production of Julius Caesar, which moves into the Avo Theatre in Vista this weekend. Carlsbad Playreaders : Monday, Sept. 17, 7:30pm at the Dove Library. NVA’s Free Shakespeare: September 1 at 7pm and 2 at 2pm, at the Avo Playhouse in Vista .
… The Film’s the Thing… The Museum of Photographic Arts is hosting a series showing four movie adaptations of Shakespeare: September 20 is Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo and Juliet”; Sept. 27, Ian McKellen’s “Richard III.” October 4 is Akira Kurosawa’s “Throne of Blood” (Macbeth) and the Oct. 11 feature will be Tom Stoppard’s “ Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead .” Free to MoPA members/$6 for the general public. All shows begin at 7pm. www.mopa.org ; 619-238-7559 x202.
… In for the long haul… 6th @ Penn Theatre just signed a new 8-year lease at its Hillcrest location. The intimate little space (49 seats) produces theater year-round, 7 days a week. Many new plays and small theater companies have found a home at 6th @ Penn. Now, if they could just add a backstage bathroom…..
“Arthur Miller’s Missing Act ” .. That’s the name of a 5000-word article Suzanna Andrews wrote in “Vanity Fair” last week, about the great American playwright who died in February 2005. The big, dark secret she revealed is that, with his third wife, photographer Inge Morath , Miller had a son with Down syndrome, born in 1966. According to the New York Times report, the parents placed Daniel in “an institution for the mentally retarded, before Miller essentially cut him out of his life.” Since the disclosure, the blogosphere has been aflame. No surprise, among artists, that the public and private life don’t mesh. But Miller was known as the moral conscience of our country, the outspoken anti-war, anti-HUAC voice of humanitarianism. His plays championed the underdog and examined questions of guilt, morality and responsibility, within the context of the family. The ultimate question is whether or not this will stain his reputation. The jury’s still out. But the plays tell their own story, and they’ll probably long outlast the controversy, which does put a blemish on a commendable social record.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Communicating Doors – murder, mayhem, mystery, time travel and a dominatrix – who could ask for anything more? Intriguing script, terrific production
Cygnet Theatre, through September 23
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean –
6th @ Penn Theatre, through September 30
Susan and God – airy but well-done fun; Sarah Zimmerman is luminous
Lamb’s Players Theatre, through September 23
Bell , Book and Candle – delectable, romantic, attractive production; very well acted and directed
The Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through September 9
Two Gentlemen of Verona – light, frothy, goofy, well-acted fun
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory with Hamlet and Two Gentlemen of Verona, through September 30
Measure for Measure – beautiful , comprehensible, relevant, flawlessly directed and performed
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory with Hamlet and Two Gentlemen of Verona, through September 30
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Take a break from your labor (and your Labor Day celebrations)… at the theater!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.