By Pat Launer
And The Busy World unnerves the Most Wanted.
THE SHOW: Humble Boy, the San Diego premiere of Charlotte Jones’ comedy, winner of the London Critics Circle Award for Best New Play of 2001
THE STORY: Something is rotten in the English Cotswolds . Humble Boy slinks in the shadow of Hamlet, with its smart but ineffectual and overprotected son, conflicted about his oversexed mother, who’s planning remarriage too soon after the death of her under-appreciated husband. There are even ghostly apparitions. But also tossed into the mix are beekeeping and stuttering, astrophysics and English country ennui, entomology and questions of paternity, gardening tips and pent-up emotions that erupt unexpectedly in volcanic monologues. The characters are quirky, the writing is often smart and clever. But it’s not quite clear exactly what it all adds up to. We’re left with untied loose ends and the feeling that though a lot has been said, and we’ve had a good time, there isn’t really all that much takeaway. But it’s a humdinger of a mother-son story, and a mostly-comic contemplation of letting go — of grief and unreasonable expectations.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: There may be (black) holes in the play, but the production is divine. Kristianne Kurner helms an outstanding cast, each one carving out a credible — if eccentric — character who harbors real pain. The central relationship is between mother and son.
Rosina Reynolds is perfection itself as the casually cruel, terminally disappointed, hatefully imperious and deeply shallow Mommie Dearest. Flora is the man-eating Queen Bee, and her son is merely a drone. As the object of her scorn, derision and displeasure, Daren Scott is heartbreaking. His Felix is a 35 year-old child, stuttering in his mother’s presence as he did in his youth (conveniently enough, only on Bs, an unsubtle allusion to his father’s apiary passion, and an implausibly specific speech aberration). He’s a mishmash mess, intellectually gifted but socially inept (his clothes are ridiculous, his sex-scene pathetically laughable); in short, a clear case of Asperger Syndrome, but that thankfully didn’t make its way into the script. Felix tries, like Hamlet, to find just the right word for every situation, stumbling and bumbling along while the conversation and the world move past him. Scott makes him a sad case but a sympathetic character, who does take something of an emotional journey, though we don’t expect him to change dramatically in its aftermath.
Jim Chovick puts in an expansive, ebullient performance as George Pye , Flora’s singing, dancing suitor (Chovick is delightfully light on his feet) , a cheerfully swinish vulgarian who wears lime-green pants and never self-censors. As his mousy daughter, Rosie, Jessica John is stronger-willed than she looks, sexually aggressive and fiercely proud that she’s raised her daughter on her own. It’s Felix’s daughter, in fact, named Felicity, though in this, as in so many other things, except astrophysics, he remains in the dark. Tom Deak , who played the ghost in NVA’s Hamlet last year, makes another spectral appearance as Jim the Gardener, who speaks the language of flowers (or at least a litany of their Latinate names). Dana Case is Mercy, the self-effacing friend of Flora who buzzes around her, doing her bidding. She mistakenly pours Felix’s father’s ashes into her gazpacho (a delicious comic scene) and explodes in a furious, pre-lunch Grace that rattles the rafters and brings down the house.
Francis Gercke’s design is a lovely English garden, complete with grass, flowers, whimsical
arches , lawn elves and a swing, with a huge beehive upstage center, that lights from within. Jessica John has a wonderful way with clothes. Her costumes are whimsical (for Scott and Chovick) and beautiful (for Reynolds). The lighting (Jerry Sonnenberg) and sound (Tom Jones) complement the action; the musical selections, from “Flight of the Bumblebee” to “Party Doll” are a hoot. Kurner has proven herself, once again, able to mine the heart of a play, unearthing its raw emotion and unbridled humor.
THE LOCATION: New Village Arts , through November 11
BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
FAITH AND FAMILY
THE SHOW: The Busy World is Hushed, a drama by Keith Bunin that premiered Off Broadway (Playwrights Horizons) in 2006, in a production that starred Jill Clayburgh and Hamish Linklater .
THE STORY: It’s a faith-based initiative: the dramatic triangle features a believer (a widowed Episcopal minister), a non-believer (a former follower of the faith, currently a blocked writer) and a doubting Thomas (the minister’s son, who probes as much as he avoids). But wait, there’s more. The two men are gay. The surprisingly liberal but oppressively over-protective mother just wants her son to be happy – and home. He has a tendency to play a game he calls “Get Lost,” disappearing for months or even years at a time. She has a tendency to worry and meddle. It doesn’t make for a warm-fuzzy, trusting relationship. Enter Brandt, who’s hoping to avoid his own problems by serving as ghostwriter on Hannah’s book. He gets a lot more than employment.
Each character is on a deep personal/spiritual quest. Hannah, a hard-edged, no-nonsense cleric who focuses on her flock and her ideologies in a desperate effort to bury her long-harbored widow’s grief, is delving into a new-found Gospel that may pre-date the other Four, and might shed light on the real Jesus. Her witty, smart-assed, irresponsible but adorable son is looking for himself, and trying to find any clue, within the family’s huge collection of Bibles and books, to his father’s enigmatic death before Thomas was even born. Struggling with his own father-son issues, Brandt can’t fathom how a benevolent God would cause such suffering in the man he admires, now dying of a brain tumor. Brandt naively steps into a hornet’s nest – a mother-son conflict in which he alternately serves as mediator, moderator, lover and pawn.
The stage is set for intellectual banter, religious debate, relationship issues of the man-to-man, employer-employee and parent-child variety, peppered with wry wit. There are airless spells in the sometimes heady, philosophical/religious dialogue, but the play is thought-provoking, on many subjects. And it might just make you question your own conception of faith.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Diversionary executive/artistic director Dan Kirsch makes an impressive local directorial debut. With assistance from dramaturg Patricia Loughrey and mentoring from USD/Globe director Rick Seer , he nimbly charts the choppy course of the talky but intelligent play. The cast brings these troubled characters to life, and makes their concerns and conflicts thoroughly believable.
Jerusha Matsen Neal brings a wealth of life experience to the role of Hannah; she is an ordained American Baptist minister who recently returned to the stage. She has the steely certainty of a self-assured religious leader but also the doubts of a thinking believer and an anxious parent. She could demonstrate a tad more emotional range, and she swallowed the play’s final, seminal line, but overall, she’s quite credible, if not always lovable. The same can be said for all these characters. Barron Henzel makes Brandt a confused and damaged man, caught in the anguished crossfire of two families – Hannah’s and his own. Aaron Marcotte does his best work yet as Thomas, making this reckless and terminally adolescent young man a sometimes sympathetic, if maddeningly flawed human, apparently less likely to heal and grow than the others.
The detailed set (Greg Stevens), with its wood wainscoting, flocked wallpaper and thigh-high piles of books, suggests an understated minister’s home (“faculty housing”), complete with four suspended Christian-themed stained glass windows. The lighting (Matthew Bright) is evocative (rain, snow, and patterns refracted through church windows), and it combines nicely with the city- and storm- scape of the sound design (Bonnie Breckenridge). The costumes (Erick Sunquist ) aptly define character.
The play’s first act is thrilling in its intelligence; the second act flags a bit, and the ending is somehow unsatisfying. But overall, this is a compelling and thought-provoking piece of work.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, through October 28
BOTTOM LINE : BEST BET
THE SHOW: Electra, Sophocles’ tragedy of grief and revenge, at Mira Costa College .
The story centers on the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra . When her father returned from the Trojan War , he was murdered by his wife and her lover, Aegisthus . Electra rescued her infant brother, Orestes , and sent him away. Now treated as a slave in the palace of Mycenae , she’s spent her life in misery and anguish, steeped in hatred and plans for retribution. She awaits the return of her brother, so together they can carry out their murderous plan for revenge, killing both Clytemnestra and Aegisthus .
The Mira Costa production was inspired by a visit from two Greek dramatists this past summer, and the students’ singular experience shows. In collaboration with Michael Mufson of Palomar College and Marcos Martinez of Cal State San Marcos, Mira Costa’s Eric Bishop brought in two artists ( Al exia Kokkali and Georgios Kormanos ) for a two-week actors’ academy on Greek theater.
Having seen some of Bishop’s impressive directorial efforts (the recent reading of Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things at Carlsbad Playreaders ; Hay Fever at Moonlight this past February), I was glad I caught the last weekend of his exciting production. Under his precise and nuanced direction, the play began as Greek drama did 2000 years ago, as ceremony, ritual. The chorus, in marvelous masks created by student Jessi Walters, circle slowly around a firepit . There’s the keening sound of a singing bowl, the heartbeat rhythm of drums; the music grows louder and then the murderous lovers emerge from the huge-pillared castle, bathed in red light. The moves are deliberate and stylized, setting the stage for a magical production, in a superb translation by Kenneth McLeish – clear, comprehensible, lyrical and poetic. The 17-member cast isn’t always up to Bishop’s grand intentions, but as a group, they acquit themselves admirably. At times, their movements and actions seem decidedly 21st century. But the emotions are deep and earnest. Summer Spiro’s Electra is heartbreaking, neither the freedom fighter nor the vengeful neurotic of some productions, but a tortured soul who cannot shake off her grief, who will not concede her need for a bloody reprisal.
Bishop is a director to watch, and he should be seen often on local stages. He has an ear for dialogue, a demand for clarity, an eye for the striking stage picture, and a prodigious knowledge of theater. Producers, take note!
SAN DIEGO ANTI-HERO
THE SHOW: The world premiere musical drama, Most Wanted, presented by the La Jolla Playhouse, with an all-star creative team that last appeared at the La Jolla playhouse in 1998 to create the intriguing Dogeaters . Michael Greif , former LJP artistic director, helms the new production, written by Jessica Hagedorn (who wrote the excellent book, “ Dogeaters ”) and Mark Bennett.
Since this is a work-in-progress, the first production of the Playhouse’s new experimental series called The Edge, critics aren’t allowed to review. But there’s a San Diego slant to entice local audiences, since the unsavory protagonist was spawned here. It’s all about Andrew Cunanan , the young Filipino-American who lived in Chula Vista , attended Bishop’s School, got caught up in the high-end gay scene and wound up on a killing spree that culminated with the murder of international design sensation Gianni Versace. Al l that and music, too. Including the marvelous Ken Page, who plays the drag queen, Stormy Leather… quite a trip from his last performance at the Playhouse — playing God in Randy Newman’s Faust (also directed by Greif ). Daniel Torres, who boasts Broadway and Off Broadway credits, played Danny Reyes, the Cunanan character obsessed with wealth, fame, celebrity and doing or saying absolutely anything to get what you want. If you want to catch a new work as it evolves (audience feedback is solicited and changes are being made daily), check it out this final weekend. Al l tickets $25.
THE LOCATION: La Jolla Playhouse, through October 14
NEWS AND VIEWS…
SF Bound Sometime Soon ? … Come to the 11thInternational Latino Film Festival in the Bay Area, where the documentary I made with Rick Bollinger of City TV, “The Legacy of Luis Valdez, Father of Chicano Theater,” will be shown as part of a Tribute to Luis Valdez. The Festival runs Nov. 2-18; our film shows on Thursday Nov. 8. Be there if you can – I will, along with the Valdez family! www.latinofilmfestival.org
… KUSI and I… … My next appearance on “Inside San Diego ” is Wed. Oct. 17. My last visit, Wed. Sept. 26, is available for viewing on my website: www.patteproductions.com
…Hot Tix : Check out my suggestions for theater picks of the week on KNSD’s What’s Hot webpage: http://www.nbcsandiego.com/whatshot/index.html . If that’s too much, just go to www.nbcsandiego.com , and click on What’s Hot.
… New Kid in Town… The Brand New Kid is coming to Poway — the Kennedy Center musical adaptation of Katie Couric’s popular children’s book about acceptance and tolerance. October 27. www.powayarts.org
… Pretty Good Break for Priti … San Diego ’s homegrown mezzo soprano, Priti Gandhi, a regular at Lyric Opera San Diego, made her debut at Lincoln Center with the New York City Opera on October 5, playing the role of Mercedes in Carmen. Originally cast as the understudy, she was asked to step into the limelight when the originally-cast singer required emergency surgery.Come December , Gandhi returns to her hometown, to assume the leading role of the Mother in Lyric Opera’s Amahl and the Night Visitors.
…Ruff and Foote Readings… Vox Nova Theatre Company is presenting a staged reading of a new holiday musical written by its founder/artistic director, Ruff Yeager. The family-friendly show, a new riff on the Dickens classic, is called A Christmas Carol: Not-so-Tiny Tim’s Great Big Musical. The story is told from the point of view of the little hero all grown up – and needing, like his old friend Scrooge, to learn the hard lessons of forgiveness, generosity and good will. The new work, directed by Susan Stratton, features 14 songs and an ensemble including Ria Carey, Jason Connors , Olivia Espinosa, Fred Harlow, Jessica Lerner and John Martin. A talkback with the playwright follows the performance. October 22 at the Lyceum Theatre. www.voxnovatheatrecompany.com
And the next Monday, Carlsbad Playreaders presents Horton Foote’s 1995 drama, The Young Man from Atlanta . Winner of the 1997 Tony Award for Best Play, the piece is a painful yet humorous reflection on grief, faith, homosexuality, suicide, deceit, race relations and the elusive American Dream. Francis Gercke directs Joshua Everett Johnson, Dana Case, Jack Missett, and others.
… Harvey Growls Back… As the buzz increases about A Catered Affair (at the Old Globe) and its upcoming Broadway premiere, writer/actor Harvey Fierstein has taken umbrage – and action – after a decidedly dyspeptic review from Charles McNulty of the L.A. Times. He blogged angrily and sent emails to influential New Yorkers, railing that “The man begins his piece by telling us that he hates the original film [Paddy Chayefsky’s 1952 movie, starring Bette Davis], hates the original teleplay, has no respect or even like for the work of Paddy Chayefsky , dislikes social drama in general and downright loathes me.” As the New York Post put it, Fierstein “made sure that the theater industry knows that McNulty was the only naysayer in the bunch and therefore should not be taken as the final word.” McNulty’s editor, the Post reports, “would not comment on Fierstein’s attack, but the general rule of thumb in journalism is that if somebody famous goes after you, your editor takes you out to dinner.”
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
Humble Boy – a Hamletian man-child, overpowered by his oversexed mother, grieving for his absent father; quirky characters, delightful production
New Village Arts , through November 11
The Busy World is Hushed – fathers, faith and family — a mother-son and man-to-man confrontation. Wise, witty, thought provoking and very well done
Diversionary Theatre, through October 28
A Catered Affair – poignant, touching story, beautifully acted, well sung, with the music excellently integrated into the dialogue
The Old Globe, through November 4
Thoroughly Modern Millie — thoroughly engaging production, with great singing and dancing
Welk Resort Theatre, through November 4
Ain’t Misbehavin ’ – hot – and cool — Fats Waller songs, well sung and excellently played
San Diego Repertory Theatre, through October 14
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Autumn is time to turn over a new (more colorful) leaf… Try seeing more theater!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.
For more than 20 years, Pat Launer has been the only regular broadcast theater critic in San Diego . An Emmy Award-winner with a Ph.D. in Communication Arts & Sciences, Pat sees and reviews more than 200 local theater productions every year. For the past decade, she has hosted and produced The Patté Awards for Theatre Excellence, a gala community event that honors local theatermakers (“San Diegans making theater for San Diego ”) and celebrates the broad diversity of San Diego theater .