By Pat Launer
There’s Good, there’s Bad, there’s on the level;
And in every show, there’s a bit of the devil.
‘The Boys Next Door’ may create a fuss;
But really, the disabled are just like us.
‘Cast a Line’ tells a harrowing backstage story
And gospel rules in ‘Tambourines to Glory.’
Maybe you can’t go home again, but you can get awfully close. The first time I saw Lamb’s Players Theatre’s West coast premiere of “The Boys Next Door,” a dozen years ago, I thought it was just about flawless. It’s not quite perfect this time around, but it’s not far off. In Tom Griffin’s 1986 play, the ‘Boys’ are really men, four disabled roommates, one with obsessive anxiety, one schizophrenic and two with retardation. They cannot survive on their own, so they live in a sheltered situation, sharing an apartment that’s regularly visited by their caseworker, the put-upon, burning-out divorcé, Jack.
The cast, though somewhat changed, is splendid. Robert Smyth reprises his role of the donut-addicted Norman, in a performance that’s nothing short of breathtaking. Not a false move, not a forced moment. Once again, his girlfriend, Sheila, is played by wife Deborah Gilmour Smyth. She has an odd, unidentifiable accent, and a stuffy-nosed sweetness. Their scenes together are touching. Paul Maley is believably over-anxious and overwhelmed as Arnold, Nick Cordileone is engaging and normal-seeming as the delusional schizophrenic Barry, who thinks he’s a golf pro. This character takes the greatest journey in the play. Cordileone shows his hand a bit early; it’s more powerful if he doesn’t ever ‘lose it’ until after his (sleazeball) father arrives. But the change is still heart-rending. Jon Lorenz is solid as the somewhat lost though normal Jack. Keith Jefferson shows range and enormous facial flexibility as he contorts his attractive good looks to become the wide-eyed, simple-minded Lucien, who has to face a Senate subcommittee in order to get back his benefits. The dream-scene when Lucien becomes, for a moment, eminently articulate, is at once heavy-handed and heart-wrenching. But the fantasy sequence that I never forgot was when the Smyths, as Norman and Sheila, were shuffling together at a dance, trying to connect and stay connected. As the lights change, they are transformed into a graceful, nimble Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers duo. This time, there’s no waltz, just some uninspired swing-moves, and they lessen the effect of this formerly unforgettable, act-ending scene.
Overall, though, Kerry Meads has directed with humor and sensitivity, Mike Buckley’s set is a nicely detailed, adaptable interior/exterior apartment complex and Jeanne Reith’s costumes, as always, are spot-on. The secondary roles — played by Veronica Murphy, Tom Stephenson and Doren Elias — are all well executed. There are messages here for all of us, about the proximity — physical and emotional — of these less able neighbors to ourselves.
THE AMEN CORNER
I caught “Tambourines to Glory” on its last night, and was I glad I did! Part morality play, part church service, part gospel choir concert, this was an inspirational event. The Langston Hughes folk drama, directed by Floyd Gaffney, is the premiere production of Common Ground Theatre (formerly Southeast Community Theatre) now under Gaffney’s artistic direction. The audience was spirited and interactive, as the Devil, in the guise of a smooth-talking, slick, seductive huckster (whom every woman obviously recognized) wormed his way into the heart of Laura and nearly destroyed her. Playing the slithering Big-Eyed Buddy Lomax was Hassan El-Amin, who recently toured nationally in “The Lion King,” and who, ironically, made his theatrical debut in the very same play under the direction of Dr. Gaffney many years ago. He’s a commanding and riveting stage presence, but his backup was powerful, too, especially vocally. The leading ladies (P.J. Peavy, Deborah Branch, Mae Hicks and Netreia Pope) were terrific, and the singing was foot-tapping, hand-clapping, singalong irresistible, under the baton of music director/vocal coach Rose Buchanan. The 7-piece band nearly tore the house down at the Joan Kroc Corps Community Center. The story is all about Good and Evil, sin and salvation, damnation and redemption. But it’s really the melodies that linger on. Combining folk, jazz, traditional and secular music, the songs evoke 1950s Harlem and resonate wonderfully today. Here’s to harmonious productions that start from a Common Ground and reach a broad-based audience.
“Cast a Line,” by George Weinberg-Harter and Gail West, has been in the works, on and off, for seven years. It started out as a skit for the Actors Festival and grew into a four-character one-act, which has now morphed into a two-act play with 12 characters and ten actors. The authors wanted songs, too; they engaged a composer and then he suddenly died. A subsequent composer had wonderful ideas, but never committed them to paper. Finally, a few songs were written, and are played at the performances by the composer (Lea Schmidt-Rogers). When the show was ready to go up, it was to be staged at the Asian American Rep’s space, which was summarily closed. The indomitable co-writers arranged to open the play at the Actors Asylum, but before that could happen, the theater changed hands and began undergoing reconstruction. Now, at long last, the show has opened, under the banner of the Talent to aMuse Theatre Company, in the Vanguard Theatre at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Point Loma. This is the most apt back-story you can imagine for a play about onstage and offstage theater company mayhem.
The prolix plot centers around an explosive leading lady (Jill Drexler) who creates endless complications for her theater troupe (The Crummles), quarreling with her estranged lover, forgetting her lines, bemoaning her age, alienating everyone and generally trashing directors, stage managers, assistant stage managers, critics and everyone else in the theater except the actors, and she’s none too gracious about them, either.
Everyone seems to be having a super time with the onstage shenanigans, but the authors have crammed in too much … There’s a play within-the-play (an 18th century comedy with an incredibly complicated plot), there are scenes replayed in the style of Chekhov, Shakespeare and Thornton Wilder. There are arcane theater references galore (including all the characters’ names — Booth, Kean, Kemble, etc.) and a boatload of nautical humor (see play title, et al.). The Stage Manager has wall-breaking omniscience. The ASM is a math savant. There’s a one-minute review of the entire history of theater. And then there are those long-awaited songs (which don’t do any of the actors any favors). Where, oh where is the kitchen sink??
The cast is game, and features several delightful performances — Jill Drexler, a diva of high drama as the glamorous prima donna; Tom Haine thoroughly natural as her leading man; Miranda Halverson adorable as the ingénue; and David Blaise Meredith, funny as a young actor who makes his first foray into period drag. As in their prior efforts, the creators also perform, to comic effect (especially when Weinberg-Harter plays a mewling critic). In that character, and the other critics, we see more than a slight resemblance to some local familiars (despite the program disclaimer about ‘no resemblance to persons living or dead’). The direction is a bit fussy, but the costumes (designed by author West) are wonderful. The theater posters that adorn the walls are the imaginative, spoofy creations of artist/master calligrapher Weinberg-Harter, and they’re a hoot. The script should be trimmed, the songs should go (but the piano accompaniment should stay) and though the proceedings get silly at times, the overall effect is of good fun and excellent intention — the talent to amuse and to educate.
IF YOU MISSED IT AGAIN, MAYBE YOU CAN CATCH IT IN KOREA…..
Voices of Women’s “Reflections on War and Peace,” directed by Rosina Reynolds, was a smash hit. This reprise performance was held at USD’s Joan Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice (and may its benefactor rest in peace, with justice). At the end of an hour of readings of the touching, moving, gut-wrenching and inspiring words of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dylan, Elie Wiesel and Eleanor Roosevelt and many others, the Institute’s four women Peacemakers joined us onstage for a Q&A; the women hailed from Somalia, Korea, Krzykstan and Israel.. It was incredible! Here we were, doing theater, and there they were, the real thing, having actually lived the stories we related. They were so moved by the performance that the representative from Korea invited us all to come to her country and present it again. We’re ready… Catch us if you can!!
ART FOR ART’S SAKE
And don’t forget to tune in to “Full Focus” on KPBS-TV this Thursday, Oct. 16 for a rousing discussion about public art in San Diego. I’m guest-hosting, and in studio with me will be Robert Pincus (Union-Tribune art critic), Iris Strauss (co-chair of the committee that drafted the new Public Art Master Plan for San Diego) and award-winning artist Joyce Cutler Shaw (who did such magnificent work on the Mission Valley Library). Hear the Singing Bridge; learn about the opening of the last project designed by Niki de Saint Phalle. Find out how much the public should weigh in on public art. Be there! — Thursday, 6:30pm and 11:30pm, channel 13, cable 11.
And now, for the ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
LAST CHANCE! CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — Jeremiah Lorenz is fabulous, and the band, though ultra-loud, is killer. The Cygnet is hatched, and it soars; LAST CHANCE! Closing October 19!
“Love! Valour! Compassion!” — the boys are back in town! And what fabulous company they are. Closing this weekend — October 18
“Beauty” — gorgeous world premiere, beautifully written and wonderfully directed by Tina Landau; mystical, magical… See it! At La Jolla Playhouse; through October 19
“The Boys Next Door” — wonderful performances, touching and often humorous play; at Lamb’s Players Theatre through November 16
“Proof” — provocative, intelligent, Pulitzer Prize-winning play; at San Diego Repertory Theatre; EXTENDED to November 2
“Anna in the Tropics” — well worth the trip to the beautiful, newly redesigned South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa; a lush, seductive play about language and love; through Oct. 25
“Blue/Orange” — provocative brain-twister about shrinks and crazies, racism and institutions; in the Globe’s Cassius Carter, through October 26
“Annie Get Your Gun” — delightful production with two great leads and wonderful costumes; at the Lawrence Welk Resort Theatre, through November 8
…and closing soon… catch it while you can:
“Beehive” — one of San Diego’s longest-running musical hits; all those great girl-group songs; irresistible! At the Theatre in Old Town; through January 4 only.
California has overdone the statewide histrionics… but maybe you can still put a little drama in your own life!
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.