By Pat Launer
‘Times Flies,’ we all complain
In city or country, or on ‘Eden Lane,’
For put-upon husbands, frustrated wives
Who can’t conceal their ‘Private Lives.’
‘Mamma Mia!’ Where did ‘Midsummer’ flee?….
Soon it’s back to school (but Not for me!!)
Local playwright Jack Shea scored big. His provocative and intriguing play, “Citizen Mendez,” was one of 800 submitted to the New York City Fringe Festival, and one of 200 accepted. Each piece receives 3-7 performances; again Shea hit paydirt; his tallied up 6. Unfortunately, one was canceled due to the blackout, and one of the actors wrote about having to trudge home 11 miles in the scorching heat.
The Fringe has been a spawning ground for some memorable work. The Tony Award-winning musical “Urinetown” came through the Fringe, staring at the American Theatre of Actors on West 54th Street, where Shea’s “Mendez” is currently being performed, with the playwright in attendance. Locally, his piece was presented at the Manhattan Playhouse in Lakeside in 2001. Last week, the play rated a mention in the New York Daily News, in an article about the increase in Latino subjects in this year’s Fringe. And here’s some of what Joshua Scher, at nytheatre.com, had to say:
‘”Citizen Mendez’ by Jack Shea, takes an ambitious look at the concept and consequences of borders. Wisely, the play stays grounded, veering away from esoteric or ideological viewpoints and choosing instead the personal over the political…
“Set somewhere on the California/Mexican border, the play dances among three separate stories on one devastating night. ….Two Border Patrol Agents… a young Mexican couple hiding high in the mountains on their way to freedom… and an estranged, self-proclaimed Yuppie couple.
“Surprisingly, the Border Agent thread proves to be the most compelling one… the most original take on the Mexican immigration situation…
“Overall, ‘Citizen Mendez’ forces one to consider how destructive, not descriptive, arbitrary invisible lines can be.”
Bravo, Jack! Let’s see more of your work (he’s had some readings at 6th@Penn) here at home soon. And, while you’re there, give our regards to Broadway!
MIDSUMMER AT THE END OF SUMMER
On its very last weekend, I finally snagged an opportunity to sally up to Stagecoach Park in Carlsbad to see New Village Arts’ production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Wonderful cast (from NVA’s Kristianne Kurner and Fran Gercke to George Flint, Charlie Riendeau, Walter Murray, Jillian Frost and Jessica John) but the production focused far more on the humor than the language. Pity… But this was clearly Shakespeare for the Masses… and it did indeed draw them in. The price was right — free performances! — so families came and filled the little grassy knoll that provided a lovely playing space for Shakespeare’s most fanciful fantasy. Especially felicitous was the use made by Gercke and Kurner, when she (as Helena) chased him madly (as Demetrius) across the lawn — and he ran like the wind. The costumes (Mary Larson) were often inventive, especially for the fairies and for the lion in the play-within-the-play, ‘Pyramus and Thisbe,’ where the mane was imaginatively created from ruched yellow ‘Caution’ tape. Most of the cast was in modern dress (so the audience could ‘get it?’). The direction (Kira Simring) needed more focus, especially on the poetry, and less on the physical comedy. There were undoubtedly folks there, including young kids, who’d never seen the Bard before, and that’s a bonus. But let’s not forget the language, huh?
Who’d a thunk that those can’t-get-’em-outta-your-head ABBA songs would make a show worth seeing? And hard to resist. Set in Greece, the musical wraps a loopy love story around 22 songs by the top-selling ’70s Swedish sensation. You’ll be able to sing along with every one, from “Dancing Queen” and the title tune to “Take a Chance on Me,” “The Winner Takes It All” and “Money, Money, Money.” It’s silly, of course, but it never pretends to be anything but. And this lack of earnestness makes it all the more endearing.
Catherine Johnson has fashioned a book from the music and lyrics of ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus that has old-young love, young-young love, reluctant love and ardent feminists both nubile and mature. The energy is enormous, the costumes outrageous, and the vitality contagious. For such a large cast (25+) and high budget, the show has a fairly small and limited orchestra and a disappointing amount of dancing; a lot was just leaning, posing and hand moves (apparently designed for actors who can’t dance).
One of the great delights of the evening is the local connection — Ellen Harvey — who plays this filthy-rich, spoiled-rotten middle-aged former rocker (of sorts). Harvey, who got all her early education in San Diego, is the daughter of two long-term theater professors at SDSU: actor/director Mike Harvey and Strindberg scholar (and native Swede) Anne-Charlotte Harvey. Though the show has never been translated into Swedish (at Bjorn and Benny’s insistence), the bilingual Ellen sang all the numbers in the native tongue backstage, just for a lark; too bad the creators never got to hear her show how Swede it could be! Meanwhile, Harvey is one of the funniest characters in the show. A tall, lithe blonde, she’s paired with a short, dark stumpy sidekick; they’re a hilarious, made-for-each-other, Mutt and Jeff comic team. Ellen told me that a lot of the shtick was created by them, based on their own skills and talents. Great fun. “Mamma Mia’s” only here a few more days; go, enjoy and don’t forget to sing along.
TIME FLIES LIKE AN ARROW… FRUIT FLIES LIKE A BANANA!
David Ives is not only obsessed with Time, as his two most famous play collections show. “All in the Timing,” done brilliantly at Ensemble Arts Theatre about a decade ago, and again at the Globe in 1998, was a sextet of playlets that confirmed New York Magazine’s citing Ives as one of “the 100 smartest New Yorkers.” Theater just doesn’t get any more witty or literate. The reclusive, often side-splitting playwright created a veritable six-ring circus of linguistic acrobatics. Now, the Globe has mounted another six of Ives’ latest, and disappointingly, he’s lost some of his intellectual edge. Under the direction of Matt August (who was assistant director to John Rando when he over-the-topped the earlier Ives plays at the Globe), these pieces tend much more to the silly and sophomoric than the urbane and cerebral.
Each segment starts out more amusing than it can sustain. The title piece is a cute-meet of mayflies who only live one day, but the humor peters out before they do. Same goes for ‘Babel’s in Arms’ (about the titular Babylonian tower) and ‘the less-than-mysterious “Mystery of Twicknam Vicarage,” a tweaking of Masterpiece Theatre. The sequence of the evening allowed for some more serious build. “The Green Hill,” about a man chasing an elusive nirvana, had some earnestness (too much?). “Bolero” presented some interesting takes on a relationship, how the man demeans and placates the woman, even when she hears something dreadful happening on the other side of their bedroom wall. Great buildup, predictable end.
But in the final piece, “The Lives of the Saints,” Ives reaches his crescendo. This is a quiet piece, a tender, touching little snapshot of two working-class women who’ve been collaborating on Polish funeral breakfasts for years. This one was consistently warm and poignant and filled with heart. The humor came from the onstage actors, creating all the sound-effects, but it didn’t detract from the lovely, warm interaction between young Mia Barron and Nancy Bell playing two aging, angelic do-gooders.
This was just one peek at Ives’ religious ambivalence (he’s a product of an all-boys Catholic seminary); in these playlets, he’s clearly grappling with the existence of God and how he feels about heaven, hell and everything in between. However lighthearted or humorous, there’s a decidedly ecclesiastical element in each of these pieces. Well, there are worse ways to deal with your epistemological uncertainties than to write plays, I suppose. Ives’ personal conundrums are well served by a delightful, chameleon cast of five, who twist themselves, seemingly effortlessly, into all manner of gods, monsters and everyday folk, thanks to August’s sharp direction and Holly Poe Durbin’s endlessly entertaining costumes. Meanwhile, projected on the floor of the circular Cassius Carter Centre Stage, time passes before our eyes (the clock hands spinning, continuously, out of control).Tempus? Fuggit.
They just don’t write ’em like they used to. Comic writing nowadays is sheer sitcom. But in the 1930s, Noel Coward was the king of the sophisticated comedy of manners, master of the arch, immaculate bon mot. Even David Ives at his best doesn’t come close. Especially in the domain of lethal, venomous vitriol. There’s no spleen like a Cowardly spleen.
Last seen in a pitch-perfect production at the Globe in 1996, “Private Lives” offers the comic doyen in tiptop form. Now, Lamb’s Players Theatre has made it a delicious family affair: Deborah Gilmour Smyth and Robert Smyth play the ex-spouses, Amanda and Elyot. Longtime Lambies Cynthia Gerber and Nick Cordileone play their hapless, often clueless new mates. Nick’s wife Amy Cordileone is one of ‘Les Domestiques,’ who tidy up and muck about, pairing off and dancing their way through the pre-opening and intermission. The other uniformed servants are played by the ever-enticing Lamb staffer Chrissy Reynolds-Vogele; and the talented Jason Russell, son of the founders of Christian Community Theatre and Jon Lorenz, whose brother, Jeremiah, is tearing the house down as “Hedwig” at Cygnet Theatre. Four gifted families. Two degrees of separation….
The play, in case you haven’t seen it in the 3/4 century it’s been around, centers on an elaborate, outrageous and unlikely coincidence. Amanda and Elyot, five years after the end of their tempestuous marriage, wind up in adjacent hotel suites on their respective second honeymoons. Their attraction is insurmountable, their repartee delectable — a wry, cynical update of Shakespeare’s biting Beatrice and Benedick, a magnificent mix of dispassion, sentimentalism, ennui, whimsy and nasty, mile-a-minute word-play. Most of all, Amanda and Elyot, while drawn inexorably to each other, are more magnetized by their own seductive wit. Their passion and volatility turn to violence. But under Kerry Meads’ direction, it’s all really good, clean, Lambsian, farcical fun. Though the Smyths handle the language well, the focus here is on the comedy, and the timing — of the dances, the missed and planned connections, the fights, skirmishes and pratfalls — is flawless. What’s missing is a sort of desultory insouciance, a supremely classy detachment, as well as a powerful, uncontrollable passion. Cordileone and Gerber mine their smaller roles for all they’re worth, making both dimwits quite credible characters. The period costumes (Jeanne Reith) are stunning, but the true refinement and elegance go no deeper than the clothes.
Still, there’s plenty to like about the production, and the audience howled most of the way through opening night, suggesting that all the comic marks were hit, though many by physical rather than verbal comedy. So many of the ingredients are there, though, that the production will clearly get stronger and more solid as the run progresses. They certainly are in the right setting: Mike Buckley’s wonderful, malleable design is a highly appealing conversion from posh hotel patio in the first act to gorgeously decadent, Deco apartment in the second.
Gilmour Smyth arranged Coward’s music for a lovely quartet of mostly strings (Mark Foxworthy on guitar and dobro; Dan Sankey on guitar, violin and mandolin; Oliver Shirley on bass; and Rik Ogden on flute, sax and guitar). This brought the first-act musical refrains refreshingly to life, and stayed in our minds as much as in Amanda’s and Elyot’s.
It’s a treat to hear language this luscious. And the Lambs-folks put on a very fine show. Anyone who says Noel Coward plays are musty must be musty himself.
PLAYHOUSE GOES COUNTRY…
The city-country theme is getting a heavy workout in La Jolla. The latest addition, “Eden Lane,” is the perfect counterpart to “The Country” next door. Both La Jolla Playhouse productions deal with city couples who escape to the back-country for solace, comfort, and a clean break. In one instance (“The Country”), it’s evasion of evils and addictions. In the other (“Eden Lane”) it’s retreating from New York post 9/11. In both cases, the provinces are less idyllic than hoped, and less healing. Trouble follows these families wherever they go, and peace, no matter how planned and prayed for, doesn’t rear its cherubic head on demand. As John Lennon put it, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.”
Both plays unfold quite slowly, leaving the audience guessing for long stretches of time. At least “Eden Lane,” the world premiere by Tom Donaghy, ultimately delivers. But honesty and communication are problematic in both dramas, and secrets abound. We never do find out exactly who sullen Timothy (Peter Paige) is, beyond being the boarder with wanderlust who crashes for extended periods with May and with her ex. Philip (a delightful Francois Giroday) is May’s second husband, who welcomes all comers and is upbeat and expansive beyond belief. Alberta (Rachel Jacobs) is the designer who is supposed to make their dream house come true. We learn just a trifle about her ever-sick boyfriend, but not any of the whys or wherefores. The over-friendly, lonely neighbor, Eileen Marie (Kate McGregor-Stewart) is the most transparent of the characters, but 20 year-old Ruby (Sarah Avery) is by far the most credible, with her pouty, hormonal inconsistencies and outbursts. May (Roxanne Hart) is also all over the emotional map, though it’s not entirely clear why she’s so often such a basket case. There are just too many questions, and, like the enigma next door (“The Country”), most of them remain unanswered.
Rather than an unsolved mystery, “Eden Lane” turns out to be more of a slice of life (or, judging from the audience reaction, a slice of sitcom life) that doesn’t really go anywhere. It seems as if we’ll tune in again next week, and maybe we’ll find out what happens. Actually, I found the audience responses quite disturbing; the laughter often seemed misplaced and misguided. When a particularly intense or real or deep moment finally did emerge, they laughed. Nervous? Uncomfortable? Sitcom-primed? Unclear. But not pleasant. As a friend put it, “I think I would have had a very different response to the play if the audience were different.” Hmmmm….
The direction (Des McAnuff) is a bit fussy, Maybe the laughter is a reaction to the restless stage business, rather than the dramatic business at hand. For his production of the season, McAnuff has reconvened his unparalleled “Tommy” design team. John Arnone’s set is a splendid, bi-level house under construction in act one, transformed to a thing of beauty in act two, gorgeously lit, inside and out, by Howell Binkley. Robbin Broad provides an aptly pastoral, evocative sound design. But though the house gets built, the play does not seem similarly finished. It needs to decide exactly what it is and where it’s going. But it couldn’t have gotten a more beautiful premiere production.
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Mamma Mia!” — I never thought I’d like it; but I couldn’t resist it; through the weekend (8/24)
“Private Lives” — the most deliciously Cowardly lines! Smart, funny production @ Lamb’s Players Theatre; through 9/21
“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; then Sally Mayes, who played the role at the Kennedy Center and was Tony-nominated for “She Loves Me,” takes over ) — 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
This is the biggest hit-list I’ve had in eons. There’s plenty of drama out there to pour into your life.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.