By Pat Launer
This election season, the deck seems stacked
in favor of fiction over fact
Local theater reflects the same disarray
In a history, mystery and political play.
Okay, kids, class is in session. Take your seats; it’ll be 90 minutes, and when the bell rings, the course is over. Creative Writing, remember? Gordon Bell is your teacher and you can look around at your fellow students while the syllabus (program) is handed out.
That’s the setup for A.R. “Pete” Gurney’s “Mrs. Farnsworth.” The play is framed as a class, and the other students are interspersed in the audience. In rushes the title character, and we’re off, in a roller-coaster ride about politics, our current election, who’s telling the truth and who’s got a serious agenda (or, more accurately in this case, who hasn’t?). This light political comedy takes some delicious, delighted jabs at the current White House occupant.
Mrs. F, you see, has a story to tell. She’s calling it fiction, but with its anger, hurt and long-term resentment, it has the distinct scent of fact. She reads the first paragraph aloud to the class, and the left-leaning lecturer soon smells a rat — that would be GWB, lurking behind the tale of a dissolute Yalie whose family is steeped in politics. How he impregnates the young Vassar girl and then the family sends a henchman/lawyer to pay her off to take a trip to South America and get rid of the ‘evidence.’
Gurney takes us on a bumpily amusing ride of ‘who’s-doing-what-to-whom.’ The teacher wants in on the story so it can blow the election wide open (and maybe he’ll make a success of himself in the bargain) The husband comes in, trying to rein in his “unstable” wife and get her to back off, to be true to her class. He doesn’t want his name besmirched, either. No one is exactly what s/he seems. The husband is manipulative, the teacher is self-serving, and poor Mrs. Farnsworth; well, she’s got a few problems of her own.
Gurney is trying to make some political points here; it’s not just a gleeful Bush-bashing. There are issues of class in America, moral hypocrisy, and the use of ‘old news’ instead of current policy to fuel the election debate. As always, his work is set in the Old Money/WASP world he so effortlessly inhabits. But it’s got the young student perspective, too, and a few juicy surprises.
Under the banner of his own Laterthanever productions, SDSU Prof, writer and sometime actor Federico Moramarco has assembled an excellent cast. The real corker is that one of the leads — Tim Curns — took over the role a mere five days before the opening. The director’s son was supposed to play Gordon, but “L.A. commitments” called him away. There’s a backstory there, but whatever it is, Curns stepped up from the 6-line role of one of the students, to learning the lines and doing a solid, credible job as the teacher. He’s the fulcrum between Mr. and Mrs. Farnsworth, delightfully inhabited by Rosina Reynolds and Jim Chovick. Both are obviously relishing this opportunity to create an unpredictably multifaceted character — and make a few political statements in the bargain. The play peters out a bit at the end, but there’s a lot to chew on — and a great deal to enjoy.
Dan Venzon’s set is a convincing classroom — with a beautiful window-view of the Manhattan skyline. The costumes (Lizz Taylor) could’ve dressed up Mrs. F. a bit more; she doesn’t reek of wealth and class, which would kind of nail her early on. But quibbles aside, in these dark and disturbing political days, it’s nice to have a playwright, a theater and a bevy of local actors speak out — in the best way they can. And comedy makes the politics go down easy.
At the ARK Theatre on Kettner, through October 31.
THE MURDER OF THE LAMBS
“Dial M for Murder” isn’t a whodunit. We know that practically from the get-go. The question is, when is HE gonna get it? The psychological thriller, by Frederick Knott, originated as a play, but was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in his 1954 film, which starred Grace Kelly, Ray Milland and Robert Cummings. It isn’t deep and it only has a few moments of real suspense, but Lamb’s Players Theatre gives it a striking production. It was slipped into their schedule instead of a world premiere musical, “Chaunticleer,” and it’s the kind of period piece the Lambies do so well. Mike Buckley has designed a highly serviceable English garden-flat (though furnished perhaps a bit shabbily for a fairly well-to-do couple), and Jeanne Reith’s costumes are period-perfect — with beautiful dresses (and peignoir!) for the woman and baggy suits and fedoras for the men. The blues and browns complemented each other especially well.
Rick Meads plays the jealous husband with a dashing insouciance, chillingly right for the murderous, money-grubbing sociopath he is. A scheming ex-tennis-champ, he confesses early on that he married Margot for her money. And when he found out that she was dallying with an American crime-writer, he anonymously stalked and blackmailed her and now he wants her dead. Nick Cordileone plays the slimy, mustachioed Captain Lesgate, who’s hired to do the dirty deed. Matt Scott is the world-weary but still love-sick Max Halliday, the murder-mystery maven who ultimately saves the day. David Cochran Heath brings a Columbo clumsiness and that ‘just one more thing’ mentality to his role as the Inspector.
Kerry Meads has directed with a light hand; the murder scene is especially compelling, as is the final unraveling of the plot. It’s a delightful evening, really. Not deep and disturbing. Not too psycho. Not rare, but very very well done.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through November 14.
SONGS FOR AN EXECUTION
Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed in 1953, for allegedly passing atomic information to the Soviet Union. Their controversial case has fascinated people for half a century. Among them is late-blooming local playwright, Joan Beber, 71, who’s been working on a play about the Rosenbergs, on and off, for the past ten years. “Ethel Sings” was given a staged reading last week at 6th @ Penn Theatre. Beber has a personal connection to the story; her father, Sam Beber, was a second cousin of Ethel’s who met the Rosenbergs in prison (Sing-Sing) shortly before they were put to death.
Her story is told from Ethel’s perspective.. and both the title and some of the scenes (especially a dream sequence, where Roy Cohn appears) are strongly reminiscent of Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” Beber is trying to do/say many things in this piece, maybe too many. She uses the circus metaphor (which is certainly appropriate for the Better-Dead-Than-Red frenzy of the times) to good effect. Slimy, amoral prosecutor Roy Cohn is the tightrope walker, the defense attorney (a non-trial-lawyer friend of the family) is a bumbling juggler, etc. Those sections are fun. Then there is the non-linear time-hopping. And the relationship between Ethel and Julius — nice scene of their meeting. And there’s the press corps and the family (Ethel’s unsympathetic mother was played in an accent more like Bloody Mary than Molly Goldberg). The relevance to today’s political climate. The inconclusiveness of the case. The plight of the Rosenberg children. It all seems a bit… unfocused.
The performances in the reading were very uneven. But Rhona Gold was terrific as Ethel — with her arty and political leanings, her poetry and singing, her aspirations to stardom and her fierce devotion to her children. But the tone swings wildly, so we come to see Ethel as a well-meaning but ineffectual mother and Julius as a taciturn, distracted and generally absent father.
Beber’s intentions are good. And the case, though somewhat less controversial since the release of the KGB files that clearly incriminated Julius (and possibly Ethel as well), is certainly timely. Beber was motivated to get the play produced now, because it’s all about how rapidly our great freedoms can disappear. “We must be ever-vigilant,” she says in her program notes, “to forces that would destroy that freedom.” Amen to that. The time is unequivocally right. The Right is again on the march. But the play needs some fixing, focus and further consistency. It was hamstrung, in a way, by this production, which seemed miscast. Anthony Hamm did well as the narrator, and Brian Hammond was fine as Michael, the Rosenbergs’ older son, and as the reptilian Cohn. But the rest, under the direction of Doug Hoehn, were spotty at best. Reportedly, some L.A. producers are interested, but I think the play itself is not yet ready for prime time… even if this IS the time.
A PRESSING SITUATION
Theater rocked at this year’s San Diego Press Club Awards. I won first place for Website Reviews, for one of my sdtheatrescene columns — the one on “A Life in the Theatre” and “The Wild Party” (5/12/04). I won another first-place for my KPBS radio review of “Dirty Blonde,” and a second place for Magazine Arts and Entertainment writing, for a piece on Luis Valdez, about whom I’m also now working on a documentary for CityTV. It’s been a very dramatic year.
AND NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS‘ PRODUCTIONS:
“Mrs. Farnsworth” — a juicy little anti-Bush comedy, with a fine cast and a few intriguing twists. At the ARK Theatre, through October 31.
“Dial M for Murder” — striking production of a Hitchcockian mystery. At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through November 14.
“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.
“The Chosen” — NCRT artistic director David Ellenstein has poured his heart and soul into this lovely, moving reworking of Chaim Potok’s acclaimed novel. A marvelous ensemble and a glorious production. Extended again; director Ellenstein takes over in the role of the Narrator for the last two weekends — great excuse to see it again!
At North Coast Rep, through Oct. 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.
“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, followed by a post-show discussion.
At SDSU, Nov. 1 only.
In honor of Columbus Day, try a little exploration yourself — d iscover a theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.