By Pat Launer
The best of times, the worst of times;
A theater week measured in “Nickels and Dimes,”
With a “Sight Unseen,” an “Angry Inch.”
And a “Country” visit that makes you flinch.
Add to that an exit from SDSU,
To begin the next stage, my own Act 2.
After 23 years of teaching undergrads and grad students about communication development and disorders, it was time for me to take my leave from SDSU. Dare I say retire? How about ‘reconsider’? North Coast Rep’s John Guth doesn’t think I should use the R-word, so he keeps sending me alternate phrasing… “Diva Delightfully Departs” “Diva Downtime” “Diva Distraction” or just plain “DIVA’S DONE!” I think they’re all (euphemistically) fine. The good news is that I won’t be straddling two full-time professions any more, trying to keep up with people and places, news and journals, upsets and updates in two fields. Now at last, I can devote my time exclusively to theater pursuits (onstage, offstage, backstage, writing, thinking, critiquing, radio, TV — the sky’s the limit). What a theatrical thrill!
GENDER-BENDING HEDWIG IS HERE!!
After weeks of postponements, the long-anticipated, much-awaited “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” has made its San Diego debut. And so, at the same time, has the Cygnet Theatre. Founder/artistic director Sean Murray is making a powerful statement with his premiere production. This isn’t going to be any middle-of-the road, backwater community playhouse. This place is starting out as a force to be reckoned with. So hold onto your hats. And in the case of “Hedwig,” your ears. Be forewarned. If you don’t like heavy rock and ultra-loud music, maybe you’d better stay home. Wait for Murray to mount “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (now postponed till next year). “Hedwig” is eye-popping and ear-splitting. It’s not clear whether the problem on opening night was one of sound mixing, balance, or too high a volume in too small a space. But the fantastic band drowned out most of the lyrics, which tell most of the story.
But we still got the gist … and we were treated to the dazzling, astonishing performance of Jeremiah Lorenz as the glam queen Hedwig, a hapless, hopeless “girlie boy” from Communist East Berlin who has become an “internationally ignored song stylist.” Hedwig underwent a botched sex change, just to get married and get out of the country. The relocation was closely followed by abandonment in the American boondocks. It’s a sad story of rejection, sexual and personal identity, and looking for love in all the wrong places. Juxtaposed with the wanna-be rock status of Hedwig, who plays sleazy dives “on El Cajon Boulevard,” is Tommy Gnosis, whom Hedwig loved, trained and created, and who has now become a genuine rockstar. We can hear, offstage, the screams of the crowd “at Cox Arena,” as Tommy hits the big-time, forgetting everything he learned at Hedwig’s feet (or more aptly, when Hedwig was on her knees).
It’s a sad story, really. But Hedwig is a survivor. And Lorenz makes her wonderfully multidimensional, in all her glittered glory. And man oh woman, can he sing! Lorenz was terrific last year at North Coast Rep as the Emcee in “Cabaret” (another character of somewhat indefinite gender). But this time, he pulls out all the stops; he struts, he prances, he swaggers, he capers and cavorts in his platform shoes. He hits the full range of emotions. If only we could decipher every precious word he says, every heartache he feels.
At the denouement, the man who plays a bungled transsexual, who dresses as a woman finally becomes a man, and the woman who plays a man who wants to be a drag queen is set free to do what he/she wants. That woman/man is Yitzhak, portrayed by Jenn Grinels, a local rocker who belts the hell out of her songs, and competes vocally (and resentfully) with Hedwig at every turn.
The music and lyrics, written by Steven Trask, are high voltage, ranging from the trashy “Angry Inch” (also the name of Hedwig’s band), to the country “Sugar Daddy,” to the sweet ballad “The Origin of Love” (illustrated with slides created by David Lee Cuthbert and Sean Murray — who also directed and designed the set). The glitzy costumes were designed by Shelly Williams, the wild wigs by Peter Herman. The text was written by John Cameron Mitchell, who created the character and played it Off Broadway and onscreen, to cult following. It’s this decade’s “Rocky Horror Show.”
Hedwig is a trip. When she enters, she thanks the audience for the applause. “I do love a warm hand on my entrance,” she quips. And later, “When it comes to huge openings, a lot of people think of me.” That’s what’s so endearing about her; as lousy as her life has been, Hedwig never loses her sense of humor. “I laugh because I will cry if I don’t.”
Meanwhile, in the background, there is this killer band, that is both colorful and darkly goth, dour, snarling and very funny… not to mention enormously talented: Brian Dall on drums, Steve Gouveia (with red-yellow hair and leather chaps) on bass, Jim Mooney on guitar and Linda Libby (that surprising chameleon) on keyboards.
And what do we come away with? “To be free, you have to give up a little part of yourself.” Hmmmm….. words to live by. And probably Sean Murray’s motto.
A ‘SIGHT’ FOR SORE EYES
North Coast Rep’s production of Donald Margulies’ “Sight Unseen” is the third time I’ve seen the show in San Diego. The first was a decade ago, a year after the play first hit the theater scene in ’92, when it was part of the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company’s Festival of New Jewish Plays. The cast, directed by the artist formerly known as Nonnie Vishner, was incredible: David Ellenstein played the lead character, artist Jonathan Waxman; Rosina Reynolds was his old flame and muse; Ron Choularton was her oddball, taciturn husband and Shana Wride played the provocative young German journalist. I never forgot the play, and have followed Margulies’ work ever since. I still think the Obie-winning “Sight Unseen” is a much stronger, more interesting, more thought-provoking piece than “Dinner with Friends,” for which he won the Pulitzer.
Well, anyway, in 1996, the Fritz brought the play back, in a robust production starring Lou Seitchik, with Tracey MacNeil, Charlie Riendeau and Jeannine Torres, incisively directed by Karin Williams. Now, a decade later, David Ellenstein is the new artistic director of North Coast Rep, and he’s back as Jonathan, a role he also played at Portland Rep. Obviously, it’s a character (or at least a role) that’s near and dear to his heart. And he brought back colleague, friend and former San Diego powerhouse Ralph Elias to direct. The results are potent, though not quite as compelling as my earlier experiences of the play.
Jonathan is a Brooklyn-born star of the international art scene, who comes to London for his first European retrospective and detours to the hinterlands to visit his college girlfriend, Patricia., now unhappily married to an English archaeologist, Nick. As the play deftly transports us backward and forward in time, we see who Jonathan and Patricia used to be, when they were true to themselves and their passions. We come to see the evolution and devolution of their relationship, the amorality of the art world, the price of fame, the paranoia of Jewish identity, the cost of an unresolved father-son relationship and the value of values. We first view Jonathan through Patricia’s still-loving but resentful eyes. (Despite their intense connection, he left her summarily because she wasn’t Jewish — and then went on, years later, to marry another shiksa). Some of the most chilling speeches are those of the silent, withdrawn, aggrieved and angry Nick, who turns his piercing, unrelenting gaze on Jonathan and art. The penetrating, seductively scornful confrontations with German journalist Grete also help to strip away the layers of artifice behind which Jonathan has hidden and protected himself.
The production is wonderful, and yet, there’s something missing. There’s a tad too much anger, a bit too little shading in the characters’ feelings, especially Nick’s. Tim West is terrific; this is one of his finest performances. Yet his Nick is so bitter, envious and vindictive we don’t trust or attend to his opinions. We just see him as the poor, boring chap who’s lived in Jonathan’s shadow ever since Patricia agreed, surprisingly, to marry him. And he should be the voice of the people, not swayed by and ever questioning modern art. Jennifer Eve Kraus, who’s becoming a real force on the local theater scene, is dressed very provocatively, but she doesn’t exploit that sexuality in ensnaring and ultimately infuriating Jonathan with her Jew-baiting questions during her confrontational interview. It’s only her fleeting, smug smile at the end of the scene that shows us where she really stands. DeAnna Driscoll is marvelous, as always, credible in every stage of Patricia’s existence, breathtaking as the young “dilettante,” worn down and disappointed in her later life. Jonathan helped to tamp her down, and in this surprise visit, he stealthily takes from her the last shred of his and her former –better, more honest — selves.
David Ellenstein starts out a mite too pedantic, too loud. But he soon settles into this character he knows so well. This man who never made peace with his father, and cannot sit shiva for him, whose fame now means nothing to him, and who’s lost his grounding, his passion and maybe even his talent. When the play ends with the very first encounter between Jonathan and Patricia, we realize how much has been lost. And we grieve for these characters.
The production is well directed (by a most welcome Ralph Elias), simply designed by Marty Burnett, who uses the turntable adeptly and effectively, and well lit (Jason H. Thompson), except for the flashing lights that I think are supposed to signal a backward move in time. Trust the audience. They get it. They’ll take the play’s journey with you. Sight unseen.
B FAST, B Funny, B 100
With his first dramatic effort, “Nickels and Dimes,” B-100 a.m. DJ Jerry Cesak (one-half of “Jeff and Jer”), has penned a semi-autobiographical love letter to San Diego. Actually, Cesak graduated from the Theatre Arts Dept. at the University of Maryland, so he considers the stage his “first love.” They’ve had a long separation, though.
As in the play, he and his partner have spent decades perfecting their patter (21 years for Jeff and Jer, 30 for Nickels and Dimes). Johnny Nickels and Donnie Dimes started out in the hinterlands — Pittsfield, Maine — and from their first day together, their off-the-wall, sometimes off-color repartee got them in trouble — and got them fired repeatedly. Not clear how much of the show is based in fact, but when the onstage pair finally lands in San Diego, their radio producer (played by the show’s associate producer, Annie Hinton) suggests that instead of the typical shock-jock, in-your-face banter (“Playin’ the hits while you’re spraying your pits”) they try doing “the hardest thing, to go on radio and be yourself… Nobody on radio just talks to people,” she says. So they try that, and it sticks — for three decades, until the station is sold to a mega-business that owns 1000 stations and is changing the format to country music. No political potshots here, though it was a great opportunity to make a statement. But that’s not the point of this play. This is a chance for Jerry to say what he feels right to his faithful San Diego audience, while employing some talented San Diego actors, and telling (at least part of) his own story.
There are plenty of laughs (though also plenty of times you can see them coming a mile away), but the audience the night I was there was filled with serious Jeff and Jer devotees, who’d earned their tickets through their daily point accumulations (it ‘cost’ them 19,000 points to get a free seat). Most of them seemed new to this (to any?) live theater. That’s a great service right there. Not only were these folks ecstatic to see their radio idol at the end of the show, but he brought to the theater a whole new potential audience — so everyone wins. In addition, all the proceeds for the 16 performances (through 8/24) go to the Unicorn Foundation, which Jerry and his wife Pam founded in 1989 to benefit animal rights organizations. Oh, and the performances are dedicated to Jerry Lewis, Jerry Cesak’s childhood matinee idol and later, friend. (That would explain all the “Lady!” exclamations in the play).
Now, on to the show. It’s cute. It’s very well done. It’s obviously a labor of love for the novice playwright. It’s got a great cast. What it doesn’t do enough is trust the audience (is that a recurring refrain this week??).
The opening setup — three old radios alternately in a spotlight on an empty stage provide static visual backdrop to time-establishing clips from a dozen seminal radio broadcasts (from Jack Benny and Burns & Allen to the Lone Ranger and FDR, from JFK and MLK to Allan Freed and Wolfman Jack. And then we cut to the TV news show, where Pamela Davis and Michael Tuck play themselves. This pokey-paced insert serves as (tedious, repetitive) bookend, backstory and exposition. It’s an interview with the current Nickels and Dimes about their history, their evolution and their feelings about having San Diego’s most popular radio show cancelled. The interview (comprising dull, pedestrian questions) introduces the events and incidents of their lives, which are then enacted by the actors. The onstage business is so lively and amusing, there really isn’t a need for this extra medium and its oversized projections.
As the dynamic duo, Barry Pearl (Nickels) and Jerry Kernion (Dimes) are terrific. They’re fast-paced, fast-talking, great with the rat-a-tat timing the characters’ shtick requires. They play off each other physically as well; Pearl is skinny, Kernion is hefty. Both are natural comics, Equity actors with impressive credentials, and together they’re dynamite. Their connection and mutual admiration is palpable; you could almost believe they’ve been together for years… a credit to their talent, and to director Jerry Cesak, who in the program, thanks Annie Hinton for teaching him “the art and craft of the stage.” Hinton herself is entertaining as Dimes’ Mom and in several incarnations of the intuitive but slightly wacky producer, Annie (a role that was written for her).
The secondary characters are a hoot. Almost none of them has any lines, but they provide the most hilarious backup, and the costumes and wigs (Beth Mallette, Peter Herman) are really comical: Ron Choularton as a little old Amish-looking plumber and a greasy-haired cop, Jimmy Saba as a plaid-clad, balding boss and a nun whose face melts against the studio window as s/he faints dead away from something The Boys have said, dragging her little Catholic acolytes (Aubri French, Emily Ratajkowski and Alexandra Hinton, Annie’s daughter) down with her. Was that when one of them said “Mary rode Joseph’s ass all the way to Bethlehem?” Maybe not. But that’s the kind of laughs that get elicited all night. The audience loved it. Jerry Lewis would’ve loved it. But it was the serious moments that worked best: when Johnny confesses to being gay, when they both confront a homophobic listener; and when Donnie has to deal with his drinking problem (though that’s diminished significantly by the silly scene at Christmastime with the guys getting shnockered on air to show how fast blood-alcohol levels increase). There were several great opportunities to make some real statements, but those weren’t taken. The focus, instead, is on a heartfelt retrospective that serves the fans and the creator. But it also demonstrates that he has comic and dramatic promise, should stretch himself theatrically in the future, and should allow himself to get serious at times, too.
YOU CAN TAKE THE BOY OUT OF ‘THE COUNTRY’…..
A city couple moves to the country. That’s about all we know at the outset. The man, a doctor, finds a young girl lying by the side of the road; he swoops her up in his arms and brings her home. She’s upstairs sleeping. The wife is asking questions. The couple doesn’t really communicate; their comments ricochet off each other and bounce back (a distracted “what?,” a repeated utterance). Information is doled out in tantalizing snippets, bits and pieces, and it’s up to us to fit them all together, to fill in the blanks, to make sense of it all. Audience as detective. It’s intriguing at first, but then, when it doesn’t stop, it becomes downright annoying. As the twists and turns in Martin Crimp’s play get more winding and convoluted, as the Pinteresque dialogue gets less and less informative, we start to care less who these people really are and what will become of them. By the end, we’re just plum wore out. (Isn’t that ‘country talk’?) Of course, THIS country is England, and the playwright is English, too. We poor Americans are lost somewhere in the transatlantic haze. At the end, as many questions remain unanswered as are asked. Where IS the girl, after all? And what exactly did the husband do to/with her? What is/are the nasty habits that he can’t escape? What’s the significance of his boss/partner? What function does he serve for the couple? For the play? Do we care?
This is a play about corrosive deceit and delusion in a relationship. Language is used as a mask. Semantic nitpicking prevails. As the young girl (played with a captivating insouciance by Emily Bergl) shrewdly remarks to the wife: “The more you talk, the less you say.” It’s true for all three of these enigmatic, unlikable characters. There’s a gaping abyss underlying this precarious marriage. The husband, inscrutably enacted by Gary Cole, seems to be a slime of the first order. The anxious wife, convincingly played by Catherine Dent, slowly wakes up to the nightmare of her life as colossal fraud. She had thought the move to the country would represent a clean break with the past and with her husband’s dangerous addictions. But there is no idyll in the wilderness. In the end, who’s most deluded? The wife? The girl? The audience?
Director Lisa Peterson keeps the suspense high, but there’s still a sort of torpor about the production; it just doesn’t generate the eerie, creepy intensity that it should, despite Mark Bennett’s screechy, dental-drill sound design. Rachel Hauck’s set is a bit of a mystery, too. A sprawling house is just suggested, with a few spare pieces of furniture and a twisted, winding stairway to nowhere that parallels the play itself.
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — Jeremiah Lorenz is fabulous, and the band, though ultra-loud, is killer. The Cygnet is hatched, and it soars; through October
“Sight Unseen” — provocative play; well crafted, well acted production; through 9/7
“Beside Herself” — interesting play, lovely performances — at 6th @ Penn, Sundays through Wednesdays, through 8/30
“Dirty Blonde” – terrific performances — and Kathy Najimy! (but only TILL 8/24) — at the Globe, through 8/30
“The Children of Heracles” — Marianne McDonald’s wonderfully accessible new translation, which provides the opportunity for two knockout performances: by Jack Banning and young Shannon Partrick; at 6th@ Penn, ‘on-nights’ (Thurs-Sat.) through 8/24
Are these the infamous Dog Days of summer? So put on the dog… and put a little drama in your life.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.