By Pat Launer
History and comedy and drama, oh my!
The holiday weekend fairly flew by:
A Lion roared, an elf felt disdain,
And whaddaya know ?… Jesus hopped the A train.
As prison dramas go, this one’s a killer. Angel Cruz, a poor Puerto Rican, isn’t sure why he’s in jail after pointing a gun at Reverend Kim, the cultic minister who’s brainwashed his best friend. “All I did was shoot him in the ass,” he explains to his court-appointed attorney. But when the Reverend dies unexpectedly of a heart attack, Angel lands in the lock-down unit of the infamous Riker’s Island in New York . He’s in solitary for 23 hours a day; the other hour is spent airing out in a rooftop cage, adjacent to Lucius, a “superstar” born-again serial killer. When we first see Angel, he’s naked, curled in a fetal ball, weeping, wailing and trying desperately, but unsuccessfully, to say the Lord’s Prayer. Religion is central to “Jesus Hopped the A Train,” but it’s only one thing playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis has on his mind.
Guirgis , the Irish/Egyptian darling of New York , whom the Times declared “the best American playwright under 40,” based the play on his own experience. He had a close friend who joined a cult. In a joint effort with the boy’s brother and father, he tried to kidnap and de-program his buddy. But the kid never left the sect, and remains ensconced in it today. Guirgis linked his resultant anger to his lapsed-Catholic re-assessment of God. He had intimate knowledge of his characters and their milieu, having attended school in Harlem , and having spent five years as a violence prevention counselor in prisons just like Riker’s. His dialogue is amazingly real, his language incredibly raw (one person counted 82 uses of the f-word in the first five minutes of the play – filling in as every possible part of speech!). When the play started circulating abroad, having scored big at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Steppenwolf Theatre and Off Broadway, and snagging an Olivier nomination as the Best New Play of 2002, Guirgis quipped that, in Finnish, the f-word has three syllables, which could add 20 minutes to the play!
The gritty, harrowing piece concerns faith and morality, desperation and dishonesty, the legal and prison systems — and becoming a man, taking responsibility for your life and your acts. The dichotomies addressed are guilt and innocence, damnation and redemption, incarceration and freedom and just plain good vs. evil. Guirgis layers his visceral narrative with equal parts humor and knife-edge emotion. Angel is an anxious, confused, conflicted young man. He doesn’t know who he is or what he wants. His principled public defender wants him to lie to save his skin. His warden sneers that he’ll never get out. His ‘prison buddy’ talks about guilt and salvation. There’s anger and disappointment in every character, even the well-meaning, nice-guy guard who befriends Lucius. At the end, there is no clear or simple resolution. Guirgis leaves us with ambiguities galore. Lucius is unequivocally guilty of murder, but he believes his religion will save him; Angel is innocent of murderous intent, but without faith he is rooted in despair. Lucius attacks television and drugs as addictions society imposes on the populace to pacify them, but he’s similarly sucked in by the Bible, and he ultimately returns to his cocaine and heroin habits. Angel has a sneaking suspicion that Jesus saved him from being splattered by the A train when playing on the tracks with his buddy as a child. Religion is what makes the cruel prison existence bearable for Lucius, yet it’s also the source of Angel’s friend’s abduction. When Angel finally gets his day in court, whether through Lucius’ indoctrination or his own desperation, he turns to the Lord, to shocking effect. Whatever you make of this forceful, provocative play, you mustn’t miss the spellbinding Lynx Theatre production.
Jeremiah Maestas is marvelous — pitiful, passionate, volatile — as Angel, a tough but basically good young man who suffers for his one act of righteous indignation. Maestas ’ emotions turn on a dime, and he’s a powerful onstage force. Mark Broadnax is thoroughly charismatic as Lucius – handsome, macho, self-assured, buff and athletic, definitive in his beliefs and his self-exoneration — the perfect foil for Angel’s uncertainly and searching anxiety. Their fiery interactions crackle with energy. Watching their every move is Denton Davis as Valdez , the cynical, sadistic warden. Davis is terrifying in his unflinching cruelty, the contemptuous master of his little prison-ward fiefdom. Gerard Maxwell makes a couple of brief, sputtering, but poignant appearances as D’Amico, the affable guard who genuinely likes Lucius and brings him goodies from home. Then there’s Mary Jane Hanrahan , the most enigmatic and ill-defined character in the play. She’s the feisty, burned-out Irish Catholic attorney who will do anything to prove Angel’s innocence – even after he’s inadvertently confessed to her – which could jeopardize her career. De Anna Driscoll gives a convincing and compelling performance, though the character is substantively and dramaturgically weak. By any measure, this is a stellar ensemble, tautly directed by Al Germani , who also designed the stark set and lighting. This striking piece of theater keeps you riveted — 115 minutes of ferocious, breath-holding, tooth-clenching drama.
At Lynx Performance Theatre in the Rose Canyon area, through December 12.
PUTTING THE FUN IN DYSFUNCTIONAL
You think your family’s brutal at holiday gatherings? Try spending an evening with the Plantagenets . They’re not only monstrous, they’re royal pains in the you-know-what. At the head of the household is an aging and conniving King Henry II, who plans this jovial family reunion, Christmas 1183, in order to name a successor to the throne. He summons all the usual suspects: his scheming wife, whom he’s kept locked up for a decade so she won’t plot against him; his mistress, Princess Alais , whom he wishes to marry – if he can only get his 31-year marriage annulled; his three hideous sons – who will later become Richard Coeur de Lion and King John, and then there’s poor, neglected, middle-child Geoffrey — all of whom desperately desire the crown; and, just to spice things up, Henry adds in the young but crafty King Philip of France (who also happens to be the brother of the King’s paramour, Alais ). With the fate of Henry’s empire up for grabs, each character has a stake, and his/her own brand of treachery.
This is the deliciously wicked setting for James Goldman’s priceless historical/comical drama, “The Lion in Winter,” which began life as a play (1966) and went on to be immortalized as a film (1968), for which Goldman won an Oscar for his screenplay adaptation. It was a highly prized effort all around. The movie captured the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Film, Peter O’Toole garnered a Best Actor Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe Award, Katharine Hepburn won her third of four Best Actress Oscars, and this was the film debut of Anthony Hopkins (as Richard) and Timothy Dalton (Prince Philip). It’s unequivocally a star vehicle; a 2003 TV version featured Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart.
Now along comes Premiere Productions, with its producer/director Randall Hickman and designer Douglas Davis, in a brand spanking new home, the Broadway Theatre in Vista , to tackle this fiercely brilliant family drama. And they do it proud. The theme is family betrayal and intrigue, as played out by seven cunning, greedy and ambitious royals. Each cheats, connives and stops at nothing in the pursuit of political power and personal gain. After a night of treachery and duplicity that would make any modern dysfunctional kinfolk blanch , Eleanor blithely asks, in one of the play’s most famous lines, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?” The dialogue is endlessly witty and biting, and it’s very well handled by a very competent cast.
At the center of the action, as the King, both grounding and incendiary, is Charlie Riendeau in his finest, most electrifying performance ever. He’s breezy, angry, loving, cantankerous, devious, manipulative, teasing and droll. Bobby Louise Ames is a bit more variable as the imperious Eleanor, but she often rises to a pitch-perfect level of simultaneous playfulness and viciousness. The sons all have excellent dramatic moments, though James E. Steinberg isn’t as bellicose and belligerent as warrior Richard should be (and it’s doubtful that a soldier would drag/scrape his feet like that). Jason Britt is fine as the pimply, bratty, spoiled Prince John. Evans Jarnefeldt is most convincing as the oily, scheming, intelligent but sadly ignored and rejected Geoffrey (who, in actuality, met an untimely tournament death shortly after the action of the play). As King Philip II of France , Patrick Wenk -Wolff has an enchantingly smug, innocent but smirky look as he systematically dupes every member of the family. Corey Stempien is lovely as his sister Alais , the unfortunate pawn in all these deadly games.
Hickman has done an admirable job of directing, as well as designing (collecting?) the very attractive, regal costumes. Davis designed the spare set, three arches that serve admirably to suggest the cold, dank castle at Chinon .
Hickman and Davis have created a handsome theater from what once was a large dry cleaner building (just a block from Moonlight’s Avo Playhouse). They opened in June with a musical revue; this is quite an impressive follow-up. The space is appealingly decorated with theater posters and in the lobby, a huge, multi-wall, hand-drawn re-creation (by Davis , using up 100 silver pens) of four early Al Hirschfeld illustrations (1938-1942), a concatenation of caricatures called “Broadway Opening Nights.” The theater’s red, black and white décor is striking; the interior black-box space is flexible, and can accommodate from 49-70 seats. For this production, it’s effectively re-configured as a thrust stage, with the audience on three sides. Hickman and Davis obviously do meticulous work — and they pay their actors, too. What a delightful addition to the San Diego/North County theater scene. Welcome, bravo and rock on!
At the new Broadway Theatre in Vista , through December 19.
ALL BY HIS ELF
If you’re a faithful NPR listener (and shouldn’t everyone be?), you’re of course familiar with “The Santaland Diaries.” The chronicles of two weeks in the hapless life of an elf at Macy’s Herald Square (NYC) – a job writer David Sedaris actually held – first aired in 1992. it’s been one of NPR’s most requested holiday favorites ever since.
In 1996, Tony Award-winning actor/director Joe Mantello turned the hilarious commentaries, originally presented in Sedaris’ mordant, monotonal , whiney voice, into a one-act that’s actually very hard to pull off without mugging, turning vicious or going way over the top. This is the third time it’s been done in San Diego – once at Sledgehammer (1998) and twice at the Globe (2001-2). But the third time is definitely the charm. And Dennis Scott is most assuredly a charmer.
What makes his performance work so well is that he’s not trying to be funny or malicious or even liked. He’s just another despondent, out-of-work actor who takes an off-the-wall job out of sheer desperation. Scott mines the pathos of the situation, as well as Sedaris’ acid-laced cynicism and sarcasm. But he never turns nasty. Goofy ‘uniform’ aside, his Crumpet is kinda cute, bolstered by Scott’s irresistible dimples and demeanor. He also has the best costume EVER for the role, thanks to Shulamit Nelson. This is a credibly talented man (so he tells us), fed up with the inanities of the season and the forced cheerfulness of the job. He’s derisive, but not bitter or angry.
Consummate director Sean Murray, who adeptly adapts his “Book of Liz” set with snowflake projections and a large, lighted, rotating Christmas tree, wisely does away with the typewriter gambit (these are supposed to be diary entries) and just makes it a direct-to-the audience narrative recounting of a tale of holiday horror. Scott even interacts with the onlookers a bit, and gets them to chime in with a Santa cheer. It’s his realistic, conversational tone that makes us believe him, feel for him, laugh with him. He’s not supercilious, though he’s often surrounded by moronic or hateful employers, colleagues, kids and parents. He’s not pathetic, either. In this delicious incarnation, the show isn’t maudlin or acidic. We feel like we’re in the presence of a great raconteur, telling a fabulous story. Which is how this piece began. Scott makes it sing (and his woozy, boozy Billie Holiday ain’t bad, either!). It’s a sheer delight spending a brief hour with him. You’d be nuts not to.
At Cygnet Theatre, Sundays-Wednesdays through December 20.
HOT STUFF, WORTH NOTING
… Check your newspaper or go online… This Sunday, December 5, “700 Sundays,” the side-splitting and touching Billy Crystal show that debuted at the La Jolla Playhouse earlier this year, opens on Broadway ( Broadhurst Theatre) and coming soon to the Great White Way (previews bgin 1/31), “dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” and soon after that, we hope, “Jersey Boys” (though no word yet on a New York theater or start-date). Any way you slice it, we are definitely a hotspot on the national theater map!
… Mark your calendar for the TV airdate of the 8th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence . The live event is January 10, 2005. in the Shildey Studio at KPBS. The TV show airs Sunday, Jan. 16 at 3:30pm. Hope you can make one or the other.
… and when you’re thinking Hannukah cheer or stocking stuffers, consider “The Play’s The Thing: A Photographic Odyssey Through Theatre in San Diego ,” the gorgeous new coffee-table photography book by Ken Jacques (with Intro by Sam Woodhouse and Foreword by me). Check it out yourself at the book Launch Party Wednesday, Dec. 15, 5-7pm at the Lyceum/San Diego Rep in Horton Plaza . Or, you can order this super holiday gift online at www.sunbeltbooks.com . And it’s coming to a bookstore near you!
NOW, HERE’S THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED‘ LIST:
“Jesus Hopped the A Train” – outstanding, intense, riveting production of a powerful, provocative play. Not for the faint of heart (linguistically speaking), but if you love deep, dark drama, this is definitely for you. At Lynx Performance Theatre in Rose Canyon , through December 12.
“Lion in Winter ” – a taut and often quite humorous production, with an outstanding performance by Charlie Riendeau as King Henry II. Makes your crazy family look good! At the Broadway Theatre in Vista , through December 19.
“The Santaland Diaries” – the most delightfully sarcastic elf you’ll ever meet. Spend a brief evening with Crumpet, and you’ll be thoroughly sated. At Cygnet Theatre, through December 20.
“Fit to Be Tied ” — hilarious, dark, richly delicious. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and her excellent cast mine all the wacky, warped humor of Nicky Silver. Perfect holiday antidote. At Diversionary Theatre, through December 4.
“Hecuba” – beautiful, stark production, excellently designed and directed, featuring a gut-wrenching performance by Robin Christ. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through December 19.
” Jersey Boys ” — smash-hit world premiere musical, telling the rock ‘n’ roll, rags-to-riches story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Fantastic fun! Run, scamper, scurry — see it!
At La Jolla Playhouse, extended through January 2.
Well, December is upon us… and we’re already plowed under with holiday cheer. Make the most of it… at the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.