By Pat Launer
Dysfunctional families make much ado
About skeletons in the closet (and people, too!)
Whether screwball musical or classic drama,
There are mixed-up kids and mad Dad and Mama.
Palm Beach or plantation, each has the capacity
To be a familial hotbed of ‘Mendacity.’
A classic and a world premiere — see what you glean
From my 100th column @ theatrescene !
Although Tennessee Williams wrote “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1955, and won the Pulitzer Prize, he continued to tweak it for years afterward. When the play premiered on Broadway, legendary director Elia Kazan insisted that Williams change the ending, which he reluctantly did. Later, he revised it again, and left the final moments a lot more ambiguous than in the acclaimed 1958 movie (starring Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman) which he loathed. That film, with screenplay/adaptation by director Richard Brooks and James Poe, was under the constraints of the Hays Code of Conduct, so there were no four-letter words permitted, nor references to homosexuality, which feature prominently in the play. And of course, there was a happy( ish ) Hollywood ending. Now Cygnet Theatre is presenting the unexpurgated 1974 version, in a brilliant, beautiful production.
Williams once used feline imagery to describe his own existence: “I have had a life of required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before.”
In the play, he explained, “I’m trying to catch the true quality of experience in a group of people, that cloudy, flickering, evanescent – fiercely charged! – interplay of live human beings in the thundercloud of a common crisis.”
The crisis is the terminal cancer of Big Daddy, the real event that’s gathered this highly dysfunctional Southern family together on his 65th birthday. Big Daddy is a patriarchal plantation owner in Mississippi , for whose 28,000 fertile acres everyone is clamoring. He’s the embodiment of the American Dream – a financial success, to be sure, but a hollow man inside, who can’t communicate with his beloved son; a coarse, curmudgeonly blowhard who’s stayed in a loveless, 40-year marriage and kowtowed to all the hypocrisy and pretenses of the outside world. But in one intense, unforgettable interaction in Act Two, he’s able to confront all the lies (“Mendacity,” as he calls it) in the family and the world.
It takes awhile before we meet Big Daddy. First, we see Maggie the Cat and her husband, Brick. It’s a passionless, childless marriage; Brick refuses to sleep with or even touch her. He’s depressed, alcoholic. A former athlete who quit his job as a sports announcer and started to deteriorate after his long-time, beloved buddy kills himself, he tries, one last time, to vault the hurdles of his youth in the high school ballfield . He winds up hobbling around with a broken ankle, in a cast, using a crutch. Helpless, defensive, self-deprecating, just waiting for the liquor to “click” in his brain and give him peace. Maggie is frustrated, love-starved; he’s unresponsive and indifferent. She, having endured a hardscrabble life, wants to get her hands on Big Daddy’s inheritance, since Brick is the favorite son. But there is his older brother, Gooper , and his shrewish, fecund wife, Mae (Maggie calls their five children “no-neck monstuhs ”). The avarice, the competition, the pettiness and materialism, the total lack of communication, the secrets and lies – Williams does, indeed, paint a candid, warts-and-all portrait of real people, a bona fide family with all their fears and loneliness, their uneasy interactions. It’s a brilliant play, told in gorgeously lush, lyrical language. And the flawless Cygnet production, under the expert direction of artistic director Sean Murray, captures it perfectly.
The cast is magnificent. As Maggie, the kittenish girl turned clawing cat- woman, Jessica John is incandescent — stunning, sexy, seductive, but sexually and emotionally frustrated. It’s her most beautiful, fully-realized portrayal. As Brick, Fran Gercke is at his most calm and controlled, centered and focused. He has, as Maggie says, “all the charm of the defeated.” The performance is coolly detached but by no means unemotional. There’s a great deal lurking, festering, beneath the surface. Jim Chovick is a force of nature as Big Daddy; he nails the bravado and braggadocio, but also the disdain, pain and despair, the fear of death and love of life. There’s the palpable silence of held breath when he finally communicates with Brick in the play’s tense dramatic peak. The awkward, brutal but intimate, ultimately healing confrontation is absolutely mesmerizing. Chovick and Gercke play off each other superbly.
Sandra Ellis-Troy makes Big Mama a woman of many hues, one who projects cloying maternalism but nurses feelings of neglect, greed and cruelty. Tom Stephenson and Melissa Fernandes are wonderfully rapacious as the envious, ambitious Gooper and snooping, conniving Mae. Paul Bourque and Michael Thomas Tower lend support as two fairly extraneous characters, the family doctor and preacher, who seem to represent Williams’ belief that, when you really need them, neither medicine nor the church can offer much help.
The show is as expert technically as artistically. Murray has designed a sultry, leafy, elegant bedroom, strikingly lit by Eric Lotze , who punctuates the stifling atmosphere with lightning and fireworks. M. Scott Grabau’s outstanding sound design features the hum of the outdoors, the shrieks and taunts of children, the crash of a thunderstorm, all echoing the turbulence inside. Michael Dondanville II’s costumes provide additional color and period verisimilitude.
Theater just doesn’t get any more thrilling and affecting than this.
At Cygnet Theatre, through July 10.
Between the World Wars, Palm Beach was the epitome of extravagance, the vacation retreat of big city American powerbrokers and European aristocrats. So it would make sense that the fabulously wealthy (or is that filthy-rich?) Fitch family would escape New York to the Florida playground in “ Palm Beach , the Screwball Musical.” It’s also where jilted chorus girl Liz (winning Erica Piccininni ) goes to lick her wounds, escape her two-timing journalist boyfriend, Max (cute Clarke Thorell ) and find a richer mate. By crazy happenstance, Liz, still dressed in her Queens showgirl ‘finery,’ meets wealthy Lance Fitch (Matt Cavanaugh), who thinks she’s a high-class society girl. Since his father, the bombastic industrialist (Ryan Hilliard) refuses to turn over the business unless his son is married, Lance announces his engagement to Liz (who’s now calling herself ‘Lise,’ and as such, gets a lush, romantic song by that name – and two reprises!). Meanwhile, Lance keeps getting furtive phone calls from someone who calls him ‘ Lancie .’ And Max (Liz’s ex-beau) arrives in Palm Beach to work on a story, posing undercover as a servant on the Fitch estate. Still with me? It gets even more convoluted.
Lance’s mother, a scatterbrained blonde (funny Heather Lee), may have more sense than she seems; his two sisters are pieces of work, too. Jessica (Anastasia Barzee ) is a promiscuous bitch (gratuitously and unnecessarily nasty) who’ll do anything (and bed anyone) to get her father’s approbation and inheritance. Victoria (multi-talented and hilarious Amanda Watkins) is a whiny, hypochondriacal poet who’s loved by the servant Jimmy (Noah Racey , terrific in a song-and-dance number, “To Serve You,” where he taps atop a balance beam in the family gym). Then Leo shows up (he gets a great “42nd Street”-type number, “Bachelor Street,” with the Backup Boys and Girls) and there’s a mysterious story about a baby left at the doorstep, raised by the obsequious head servant Bixby (aptly stuffy John Alban Coughlan ). Disappointed by failed relationships, the lovesick gold-digger Liz and sad-sack sniffler Victoria sing the evening’s show-stopper, “A Bad Man is Easy to Find .”
Needless to say, what with all the insurmountable class distinctions, secrets, closeted skeletons (and men!) , there are countless complications and revelations, not to mention surprises of paternity and sexual preference. The dysfunctional Fitches may get their comeuppance, but everyone in the assemblage pretty much winds up with who/what s/he really wants.
It’s all supremely silly, but extremely well executed. In deference to the screwball comedies of the ‘30s, the whole effort looks and feels like a movie, with pre-show projections, black-white-and-silver setups morphing into to glorious ( techni )color, and neck-snapping scenery changes (double, concentric turntables, and sliding, gliding, flying set-pieces, highly reminiscent of the hyperactive transformations of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” at the Globe last year). But those ever-evolving/revolving sets (designed by Klara Zieglerova ) sure are great-looking. We get to see New York , the sea, and nearly every room on the Fitch estate. And not only the sets are in constant motion. The gorgeous costumes (designed by Paul Tazewell) also alter by the minute, and director Des McAnuff and choreographer Debbie Roshe keep the actors eternally, relentlessly on their toes and on the move. It’s positively dizzying at times. But the singing, acting and dancing are wonderful.
The score (composed by David Gursky ), obviously intended to pay homage to early musical comedy as well as those screwball movies, sounds so familiar and derivative, just about every song has an evil twin from another show. The lyrics (Robert Cary) are often clever, but they’re too contemporary for the retro genre, and feel like a stylistic mismatch. Same could be said of the book (by Robert Cary and Benjamin Feldman). And in terms of accompaniment and orchestration, there are only four instruments in the pit, a low-budget surprise given the high-end efforts in every other aspect of the production.
Ultimately, the clashes of high technology and reverential revisionism are jarring. It all seems like so much ado about so little. Perhaps this world premiere is intended to serve as a diversion from war and a sinking economy, like the original films. Still, a little substance and heft would go a long way. But if you’re looking for pure, mindless escapism, take a trip to Palm Beach .
At the La Jolla Playhouse, through July 10.
ACTORS ON PARADE
Well, the 15th Annual Actors Alliance Festival of Short Plays got off to a spectacular start. The first night was a winner, mostly hysterically funny, with one darkly disturbing drama for balance. All the plays and performances were knockouts.
Program #1 (which repeats Sunday, June 19 at 7:30pm) began with the first act of “The Apple Tree” (by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, who also wrote “Fiddler on the Roof”). It’s ‘The Diary of Adam and Eve,’ an amusing musical take on the First Family. Sandy and Danny Campbell team up as the happily single patriarch and the effervescent matriarch (in pigtails!), while David Radford (dressed in black suit, highlighted by red shirt, tie and sneakers) plays the original reptile who started all the trouble. Directed by Lisa Drummond, with musical direction by G. Scott Lacy, the piece is comical and entertaining (though it’s no “ diffler ”). But any opportunity to hear Sandy Campbell sing is a guaranteed good time for all.
Next up was an excerpt from “Cowboy versus Samurai,” an offbeat little piece by L.A. writer Michael Golamco . Jolene Hui directs Volt Francisco and Chad Sakamoto, both boffo as the only Asians living in Breakneck, Wyoming . Francisco’s Chester is a militant devotee of Bruce Lee and tofu (“I am an island of yellow in a sea of white”) , while Sakamoto’s Travis is more assimilated and contented (“I like the charms of small-town life… Your ideas are stupid”). In their own ways, each contemplates a new arrival to town, a potential (female!) addition to their Breakneck Asian American Alliance, or BAAA. Nice showcase for all concerned; it’d be fun to see where the play goes from there, since it’s supposed to have been inspired by “Cyrano de Bergerac;” amusing as it was, there was sure no hint of that here.
“Little Brown Mice”, written, directed and produced by Doug Hoehn , took the evening down a darker path. Set in Germany in 1933, the piece concerns three lesbians – convincingly played by Monique Fleming, Noell Tarpey and Jasbir Toor . Magda (Fleming) was in a two-year relationship with Charlotte ( Toor ), but that’s over, now that she’s found true love and fulfillment with Elise ( Tarpey ), a strong woman who’s an ardent supporter of Der Führer (the men in brown shirts call their female counterparts “Little Brown Mice,” disdaining their potential for important contributions or real leadership). The ex-lover was Jewish, but Magda , feeling weak and insecure, has chosen a ‘safer’ route with Elise. When she sees the two women together, she’s forced to challenge everything she’s been made to think. Though the language sounds a tad stilted at times, this bleak and harrowing work sheds light on another ugly corner of the Nazi universe.
Back in the realm of absurdity and hilarity, the evening concluded with “The Ventriloquist’s Wife,” a bizarre and outrageous black comedy by the later Ridiculous Theater-maker Charles Ludlam . Produced and directed by Robert Salerno, the play features the beautiful Robin Christ as the ditzy blonde wife of a third-rate comedian named Charles Ludlam (played by Priscilla Allen, in yet another wonderful turn in drag). His latest bid for success is ventriloquism, thanks to the purchase of an expensive dummy (marvelous, malleable Jeff Wells). But who’s controlling whom? Ashley Bischoff lends a hand as the Cigarette Girl, and helps with the wonderful woman-sawing scene. (Too bad we’re losing this budding talent; she’s off to Princeton in the fall). The performances are great, but the piece does go on (it seemed to have about six endings). Still, there are guffaws aplenty and it’s the perfect capper to an exceptional evening of quickies.
Oh, yes, and a new addition to the Festival this year: one-page plays that pepper the various programs. Each little gem is introduced (on tape) by a lovely harmonic offering from the talented trio, The Fabulous Earrings.
Written by the laugh-inducing Todd Blakesley (who also directed and produced, and serves as this year’s Festival artistic director) the first one-page entry introduces Mary Boersma and Sally Stockton (in a dashing brown bob) as “Patrons of the Arts.” Attendees at the 7th Annual Patrons of the Arts event (with upscale hors d’oeuvres passed by Volt Francisco), they’re enticed by three hours and 95 rooms of arts presenters who are trying to woo their interest and investment dollars. For $300 a ticket, they can see the Abandoned Children’s Repertory or the Conjoined Twins’ Choir. A very funny setup, very well done, though it petered out at the end.
The quirky “Love Spam,” written and directed by George Soete and uproariously performed by Joey Landwehr , was created “with apologies to A.R. Gurney.” An updated riff on Gurney’s “Love Letters,” this email epistolary concerns a gnarled Asian woman, Gertrude Angwah (which Landwehr plays like a hunched over, Chinese Richard III) writing in stiff, poorly translated English, hawking various wares online, such as “anodynes and medicaments,” which entice a credulous, love-starved American, gsoete@yahoo , to buy… and fall in love.
After such an outstanding start, I’m disappointed that this is the only night I’ll see of the Festival, which includes more than 30 plays and over 100 actors, directors and playwrights. We’re off to Ireland , b’gorrah . But don’t let that stop you. Catch as many of the 8 enticing programs as you can.
At the Lyceum, through June 26.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” – just about flawless; director Sean Murray does it again! Beautifully designed, directed and acted. A too-rarely-seen classic brought to magnificent life!
At Cygnet Theatre, through July 10.
“ 42nd Street ” (to be reviewed here next week) – glorious celebration of Bway’s glory days. Wonderful performances, outstanding choreography and dancing. Sheer delight!
At the Welk Resort Theatre, through August 28.
“Amy’s View” – beautifully acted ensemble piece featuring a magnificent performance by Rosina Reynolds as Amy’s mom. A touching, talky, sometimes funny play in a delightful production that shouldn’t be missed.
At North Coast RepertoryTheatre , through July 3.
“Bronze” – a world premiere by Sledge regular Ruff Yeager, which he also directs with wit and flair. The acting is excellent, and the play is provocative – about celebrity, parental expectation and individual/communal humiliation.
At Sledgehammer Theatre, through July 3
“Lobby Hero” – tense and intense, and often quite funny, this thought-provoking modern morality play is getting a superb production, under the assured direction of Kirsten Brandt.
On the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through June 26.
“Late Nite Catechism” – ‘class,’ whether Catholic or secular, with or without ruler-whacking, was never this hilarious. Three alternating ‘Sisters’ explain it all and interact with the audience. Be careful what you wear, say or do. Sister is watching.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, Monday and Tuesday nights, extended through June 28.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
At the Theatre in Old Town , ongoing.
Celebrate the beginning of summer (and hopefully, the return of the sun) at the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.