By Pat Launer
A wide range of theater; on the comical side
Both ‘Fit to Be Tried’ and ‘Fit to be Tied!’
Dramatically/thematically, ‘A Girl’s War’ was callous;
And musically speaking, A is for ‘…Alice.’
Nicky Silver is a nutcase. His plays are filled with neurosis, angst, negativity, anarchy and seriously dysfunctional families. He never met a mother he liked. He’s brilliant, quippy, New York-cynical. His plays veer precariously, sometimes uncontrollably between searing and silly, terrifying and terrific. But he struck a perfect balance in his 1995 comedy, “Fit to Be Tied,” which turns out to be a really screwy, thoroughly unpredictable love story — as only Nicky Silver could write it. And in director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, he’s found the perfect conduit for his quirky comedy. She has nailed the tone to a T — which really isn’t easy. As she proved, with her 6th @ Penn production of “Kimberly Akimbo” earlier this year (soon to be reprised as a fundraiser for her new Moxie Theatre), she can mine the humor and maintain the darkness — making an audience laugh and gasp at the same time, getting the full measure of revulsion and absurdity simultaneously.
At Diversionary Theatre, Sonnenberg’s production is smart, speedy and endlessly amusing; it’s a hoot — and a hit. In some ways, the plot defies description, but suffice it to say that Arloc Simpson (likable Joey Landwehr) is having a bad day. His alcoholic mother, Nessa (the flawlessly timed, continuously hilarious Jill Drexler — in her best performance ever) has decided to leave her husband, Carl (strait-arrow George Soete) and move in with Arloc on the same day he’s kidnapped the man of his dreams, Boyd (adorably hunky Brennan Taylor), a beautiful, young narcoleptic Christmas Angel from the Radio City Music Hall pageant. After a bit of S&M, a hint of incest, a weeping man, a fight, a threat, a string of pearls, an unread (and possibly pernicious, AIDS-informing) letter, and a ménage à trois, things come to a fairly happy ending — at least for a wacko group like this. Everything feels good about this show — from Silver’s work to Sonnenberg’s, from David Weiner’s classy Manhattan apartment to Jen Setlow’s lighting, Allison Pokladowski’s spot-on costumes and Robbie Henry’s evocative sound.
If you have a tolerance for insanity mixed with off-the-wall wit, you will find yourself doubled over and fit to be tied from this mélange madness and mayhem.
At Diversionary Theatre, through December 4.
Caught the final weekend of “A.. My Name Will Always Be Alice” at Coronado Playhouse — and am I glad I did! It was, amazingly, an all-SDSU production! The actors, designers and director were all alumni of San Diego State. The play was a conflation of the two earlier parts of the “Alice” revues conceived (from the works of many songwriters) by Joan Micklin Silver and Julianne Boyd; the first “Alice” had a long Off Broadway run, beginning in 1984. Then, “A… My Name is Alice” appeared locally at the Globe in 1989 and the next incarnation, “A… My Name is Still Alice,” came to the Globe in 1992. There was a great deal going on for women in that era (it was Clarence Thomas-time), but I didn’t think the show had much bite. This new one doesn’t, either, but it’s an engaging, occasionally touching, account of the triumphs and tribulations of being a century-straddling woman in America — including dating (first date vs. first post-divorce date), harassment on the street and on the job, balancing high-power career and high-impact motherhood, love, loss, death, divorce, kids, wrinkles, friends, and blowing your own horn (as in the upbeat opener, “All Girl Band”). The material, by the likes of David Zippel, Lucy Simon, Lynn Nottage, Anne Meara, Steve Tesich and Michael John La Chiusa, is supposed to comprise the strongest segments from the first two shows, but there were still some slow spots — and unfortunately few ensemble numbers (only two). But the cast was talented and energetic, and each actor/singer got a chance to show her best side. Melissa (Supera) Fernandes, Ivy Vela and Karen Ann Daniels were best with the comedy, though Susan Hammons and Karen Schooley had their humorous moments, too. The second act was a bit song-light and monologue-heavy; an intermissionless 90 minutes (instead of 2 hours with a 20-minute break) would have served the piece better.
Alison Bretches, who just graduated from the SDSU Musical Theatre MFA program, is proving to be a decisive and inventive director/choreographer. Musical director Kirk Valles kept things hopping. In the new, temporary home of the Coronado Playhouse, an attractive dome/tent near the Ferry Landing, scenic designer James Ferguson worked with the curves to create a spare, suggestive array of circles and waveforms redolent of female cycles and undulations. Allison Pokladowski’s costumes were simple, varied and apt. (She’s making a name for herself, too; she’s the one who did such a fine job with “Fit to Be Tied”). So watch out for these SDSU grads … they’re on the loose and ready to make their mark in local theater.
MAY THE FARCE BE WITH YOU
“Stepbrothers in Crime” is the title director Terry Glaser chose for her foray into farce at 6th @ Penn Theatre, pairing Feydeau and Chekhov. Each writer was totally true to form. The piece by the grand French farceur, “Fit to Be Tried, or Stepbrothers in Crime,” was all about mistaken identities and slamming doors. And the Chekhov piece, “The Harmfulness of Tobacco,” not surprisingly, was far less farcical than bittersweet. But the master always insisted that all his works were comedies — the early one-acts as well as the later masterpieces.
In this production, both short pieces succeeded, more or less, but the energy and emotional tone could have been more crisply defined. In Chekhov’s “..Tobacco,” a harbinger of great works to come, we get a snapshot of the frustrations of everyday life. The monologue is conceived as a lecture given reluctantly by a shabby, inept man, pushed into the ordeal by his domineering wife. As the hapless and unhappy lecturer rambles on, we learn much about his bossy, money-hording spouse and their four unmarried daughters, but nothing of the evils of nicotine. Douglas Lay suffuses the pathetic character with a barely concealed, slightly maniacal depression. But there’s not much comedy in the portrayal and it’s a bit jarring to an audience expecting, as promised, an evening of farces.
The Feydeau, of course, fully lives up to expectations. But there is something sluggish and unfunny about the production, though the individual actors do fine in their various not-who-they-seem-to-be characterizations.
The only truly farcical character up there is the ever-engaging Giancarlo Ruiz, who, as a carrot-chomping (and spitting) grocer-turned-cop, is so uproariously over the top that he seems to be in a totally different play (perhaps the right one; he also nearly steals the show). Anthony Hamm is underused (or under-directed) as the inspector; he merely enters, stands and exits. Kati Behumi is lovely as the ditsy, flirtatious wife, and Daniel Greene is amusing as her foppish paramour. What appears to unite the evening’s two pieces is less farce than henpecked husbands. Fred Harlow plays the cuckolded buffoon in his Pinky Lee-type checkered suit, tending to the baby as his wife sees gentlemen callers, among whom is the professorial poseur (a nervous-nelly Lay). The funniest scene is between Lay and Greene, one-upping each other with false stories of their purported lives of crime. The faces and body postures are hilarious. The physical comedy is well executed overall, but the humor often sags.
The plot concerns a man, seeking to woo a married actress by returning a dog that doesn’t belong to her, who is mistaken by her for a murderer who stabs his victims with pruning shears, even though his undergarments are nothing like the killer’s. Add to the mix a jealous husband with a penchant for enemas, a supercilious and gullible lover and a greengrocer who moonlights as a police captain.. and what you get is… the description is funnier than the production.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre; through October 31.
“A Girl’s War,” the new play by Bostonian Joyce Van Dyke, is set in a fictional village in Karabakh, a small Armenian enclave in the Caucasus Mountains (former Soviet Union). Civil war has devastated this impoverished region, as Armenians battle their Azerbaijan neighbors. But despite the landmines and murders that take place within the play, the war it depicts is also, clearly, within one woman — 31 year-old Anahid, a successful fashion model in New York and the daughter of a grieving Armenian mother who, having lost two sons, has become a sniper, staunchly defending her homeland. When Ana returns home, she is confronted by her younger brother’s boyhood friend (an Azerbaijan) and soon, her English/American ex-boyfriend/photographer,
This personal conflict is set against the very real, very messy Armenian-Azerbaijani armistice. Though most of us in America know little of the details, the story serves to represent any of the religious, territorial, ethnic disputes that have proliferated worldwide. To compensate for our ignorance, Van Dyke overloads the first act with exposition and explication. She ends the play unsatisfyingly. But she’s got a piece that’s powerful and provocative — and since it only premiered last fall, we were lucky to get an early glimpse.
For one night only, this past Monday, a (costumed) reading was produced by the Carlsbad Playreaders (run by the ever-gracious Pat and Jim Hansen, soon to be succeeded by UCSD Theatre Dept.’s soon-to-be ex-chairman, Walt Jones and his actor/teacher/director wife, Amy Scholl. Pat and Jim will be focusing their attention on New Village Arts next year). The excellent direction was by the omni-talented Robert Dahey, who chose an outstanding cast.
This story is near and dear to the heart of skilled local actor, Anahid Shahrik, who is herself Armenian. Her aching, heartbreaking portrayal of Anahid was breathtaking — and she looked drop-dead gorgeous doing the first-scene modeling photographic shoot. She exhibited a highly charged, palpable connection with studly Brennan Taylor (who’s been very busy this week — kissing men and women in “Fit to Be Tied” — and then having a fiery liaison with Anahid). D’Ann Paton was wonderful as Ana’s mother, an angry, no-nonsense peasant woman fueled by revenge. Her accent (and, according to Anahid, even her spoken Armenian), was excellent. Ron Choularton was convincing as the controlling, hard-hitting photographer — amusing until he’s touched by a little heart — and a lot of violence. Markus Rodriguez did a fine job as Tito, the photographer’s gay, Italian assistant (though he didn’t seem particularly gay or Italian). Juan Manzo made a few spooky appearances as the dead brother. As the narrator, Leo Baggerly could have projected his voice more, but he did an adequate job otherwise. And Jennifer Gittings’ costumes were just right.
The plan is for a full production somewhere, some time next year. And Dahey hopes to maintain the same cast. I hope so, too; they were terrific. I’d also like to see a little tweaking of the script (and a stronger ending), but according to Anahid, the play is about to be published in a compilation titled, “Contemporary Armenian American Drama: An Anthology,” due out November 15. Look for it on Amazon, or on a stage near you, some time soon. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking piece of theater.
SPECIAL GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
Hi, I’m Mickey Burstein, Pat’s mother. Pat took me to the final matinee of “The Chosen” at North Coast Repertory Theatre. I know you’ve already heard what she has to say about the play and production, so she asked me to weigh in with my opinion — since I was born and raised in Brooklyn and lived through all those times. The show brought back a lot of memories; it’s exactly how I and my generation were brought up. There was nothing but Orthodox Judaism at in our section of Brooklyn at that time. I had a very religious zayde (grandfather) who walked around with a siddur (prayer book) in his hands as if he were still in the Old Country. In the play, the Rabbi (Robert Grossman) was outstanding; I really could relate to him. He personified the kind of Rabbi I knew about in those small Orthodox shuls (synagogues) in Brooklyn. The congregation was his whole life and he was theirs. He was the tzadik (righteous sage) who served as doctor, lawyer and Indian chief — and psychiatrist — to the congregants.
I loved the Chaim Potok book when I read it years ago, and I thought his play was equally powerful. I especially liked the very strong contrast and juxtaposition of the two father- son relationships. These two fathers (played by Grossman and Craig Huisenga) loved their sons equally, but demonstrated their love in dichotomous ways. This is what makes the story universal.
I enjoyed all the performances, including Christopher Williams and Tom Zohar as the sons, and I know Pat was anxious to see director David Ellenstein step into the role of the Narrator. [Yup, I was. And I thoroughly enjoyed his performance. David brought a very different energy to the role from that of the more edgy Ralph Elias. David would have done even more with it, I’m sure, if he’d had a whole run to perfect the various character changes required. As the grown-up Reuven, he portrayed a gentle soul, a caring man whom you could totally like and believe… Always good to see David onstage.
Thanks, Mom, for stepping in to add a little extra ‘glitz’ to the column this week!]
Be a joiner! Don’t forget to call in to become a member of KPBS (or renew your membership) while I’m pitching — Wednesday, 10/27 from 3-6pm, and get the special incentive — a copy of ace photographer Ken Jacques’ fabulous new book, The Play’s the Thing: A Photographic Odyssey through Theatre in San Diego, which chronicles 20 years of local theater productions. In it you’ll find heartfelt memories from a host of San Diego theatrical movers and shakers. You won’t want to miss this book — great holiday gift idea! Extra bonus: Proceeds benefit the Performing Arts League… so everybody wins.
HOT BRIEFS (oh, Baby!)
… There will be more than Four Seasons this year…. Cast members from the La Jolla Playhouse production of “Jersey Boys” will appear at a benefit concert ‘Rockers on Broadway,’ to be held on Monday, November 15, 7-9pm, at Bourbon Street in University Heights. The proceeds benefit Mama’s Kitchen, a volunteer-driven, non-profit meal delivery service for San Diegans living with HIV/AIDS. This concert, a repeated success in New York, features an 80-minute rock ‘n’ roll jam sessions, with other special guests TBA. 619-233-6262 X 104; mamaskitchen.org.
… Provocative title and choreography. “Love and Murder,” the new dance film by John Malashock and UCSD’s John Menier, premieres November 13, on the big screen at the Museum of Photographic Art in Balboa Park. The first showing is at 6:30pm (welcome reception at 6:00pm) and the second showing is at 8:30 pm (welcome reception at 8:00pm); there’ll be a post-screening discussion with choreographer Malashock, director Menier and the dancers. And you can stick around for an encore presentation of Malashock’s wonderful, Emmy-award winning first film, “The Soul of Saturday Night.” 619-260-1622, or go to firstname.lastname@example.org.
…The Bash is Back. The Sledgehammer Halloween Bash, a costumed night of art, music and dancing, features visual performance electronic dance music by Soul In The Machine, live DJs and performances by Urban Tribal Dance Company, as well as circus artists such as aerialists LASYA. Look for a Silent Art Auction, featuring contemporary work by local artists. And, of course, a costume contest. Net proceeds support Sledgehammer Theatre. The festivities begin at 9pm on Saturday, October 30th at Ventanas, 338 7th Ave (between J & K); 619-544-1484 or sledgehammer.org.
… Due to an inordinate number of other things going on the same night (including the Fritz Awards), the Actors Alliance of San Diego has postponed its Fundraiser/Gala from Nov. 1. The re-scheduled event will feature a Silent Auction, live entertainment by acclaimed singer/songwriter Todd Schroeder and a concert reading of the ‘Summer Share‘ segment of “Romance, Romance,” which ran at Moonlight Stage Productions in February 2001. The Tony Award-winning 1988 musical by Barry Marman and Keith Herrmann, will be directed by Rick Simas and stars a couple of talented SDSU alum couples: Ryan and Lisa Drummond and Nick and Rebecca Spear. This scene is set at a rental house in the Hamptons, where we meet best friends Monica and Sam, who, while their respective spouses sleep peacefully in other rooms, consider venturing over the line of platonic friendship. Monday, November 8 at Schroeder’s Club and Cabaret at the Westin Horton Plaza. 619-640-3900.
…. And looking up to North County, the California Center for the Arts – Escondido, is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and on Saturday, October 30th the Poway Center for the Performing Arts, is having a 15th Season Celebration. The pre-show champagne reception takes place in the newly-remodeled lobby, followed by a performance by the beloved Broadway song-and-dance man, Ben Vereen; 858–748-0505, www.powayarts.org.
Nothing to do on Halloween? Don’t be Miserable… see “Les Miz” — for 1/2 price. For this special deal, good for the 1:00pm and 6:30pm shows, be sure to mention the word ‘Treat” — or you might get tricked. 619-570-1100, www.ticketmaster.com/promo/9410.
NOW, HERE’S THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST:
“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.
“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 December 5.
“A Dream Play” — gorgeous, riveting production that recreates a dream-state and turns reality upside down. Wonderful design work, compelling performances.
At Sledgehammer Theatre, through November 21.
“Mrs. Farnsworth” — a juicy little anti-Bush comedy, with a fine cast and a few intriguing twists. At the ARK Theatre, through October 31.
“Crowns” — a crowning glory! Gorgeous gospel singing and heart-warming stories. It’s all in the hattitude! You won’t want to miss this one — an inspiring, feel-good, foot-tappin’ time! At San Diego Repertory Theatre, through October 31.
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” — Jack O’Brien-directed world premiere musical starring John Lithgow and the amazing Norbert Leo Butz. A little raunchy but very funny. Catch it here, now, before it heads to New York. At the Old Globe Theatre, extended through Nov. 7.
“Dial M for Murder” — striking production of a Hitchcockian mystery. At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through November 14.
“Two Rooms” — tense, gripping drama about terrorists’ hostages — and the families who are left behind. Stone Soup Theatre’s excellent, timely production will be reprised for a special performance the night before the election. At SDSU, Nov. 1 only.
There’s great stuff at the theater — but the highest drama is at your polling place! Don’t forget to vote — Our future depends on it!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.