By Pat Launer
This week’s theater was deliciously rife
With dark comedies of domestic strife.
Devious dilemmas became acute
In ‘Vigil’ and in ‘La Dispute’
But the farcical side of the faithless life
Showed in ‘Private Fittings’ and ‘The Allergist’s Wife.’
You have to go to see a farce in a certain frame of mind. A door-frame, you might say. There are the requisite slamming doors, deceptions, subterfuges and infidelities – typically accomplished simultaneously at breakneck pace. The term itself derives from the French (and ultimately, the Latin) for ‘stuffing.’ So, whether modern or medieval, expect the play to be overstuffed – in terms of linguistic and sight gags, physical comedy, (slap )shtick and shenanigans. If this isn’t to your taste, you won’t relish “Private Fittings,” the new adaptation of Georges Feydeau’s first full-length play (1886), “ Tailleur pour Dames” (sometimes translated as “A Gown for His Mistress”). The farce usually confronts the questions of bedmanship : Who’s sleeping with whom, where and when, and who knows about it? There’s almost always someone caught with his pants down; in this version, the protagonist pulls down his own pants for audience inspection.
Mark O’Donnell, a former writer for ‘Saturday Night Live,’ creator of the book for “Hairspray” (and soon, the screenplay), has re-set his farce in San Diego . How apt for the delayed opening of the new Potiker Theatre, the showpiece/playground of the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Center at the La Jolla Playhouse. In the world of Feydeau, the ‘father of French farce,’ Man is helplessly out of control of his destiny. The main character, invariably one of the wealthy bourgeoisie , finds himself ensnared in situations he’s created, surrounded by the very people he’s trying to avoid and besieged by objects that seem to take on a perverse life of their own.
Here, we meet Eric (Kyle Fabel ), a quackish , faddish purveyor of alternative medicine of some sort (a “spiritual coach”), who’s only six months married but already sleeping in his own room and dying to bed one of his ‘patients,’ Suzanne (Jessica Boevers ). A “perfect couple,” according to Ranch and Coast Magazine, Eric and his wife, Yvonne ( Stana Katic ), live in a gorgeous, ultra-modern house (a wonderfully malleable confection designed by Neil Patel), attended by a personal assistant cum pool-guy, Steve (Eric Wippo ), a surfer dude who cheerfully, if ineptly, covers repeatedly for his boss (“Bros before ho’s ” is his motto). Trouble is, Suzanne has an ex-Navy SEAL husband (Chris Kipiniak ) who also has a mistress (Lucia Brawley) who happens to be an ex-hooker Eric used to know, and is also the runaway wife of his tediously dull friend, Drew (Chris Hoch ). And oh yes, Yvonne has A Mother (Joan van Ark), a pop-psych writer-harridan from hell (BUT she’s listed in “Who’s Who in the Hamptons !”). So there’s still some opportunity to go where farces go, into the domain of class discrepancy (Steve is hopelessly, uncontrollably materialistic – he just wants to wear the Boss’s robe, smoke his dope and sleep in his satin sheets). The place of assignation where, of course, everyone ultimately turns up, is an apartment in P.B. that used to house a fashion designer, which gives Eric the opportunity to pose as a gay couturier. The monster-Mom has a robotic dog, btw, and the scene-changers dash around on skates. Everyone is clothed in bright, gaudy, sexy, spot-on costumes by Paul Tazewell. The theater is a perfect playground for director Des McAnuff, who really gets to show its stuff. Fabric and fixtures drop down from above, the kitchen island descends into the nether regions of a seemingly bottomless trap, actors cavort high above on the catwalks. It’s all deliciously dizzying.
But the theater has a cavernous feel; with the high ceilings, the industrial look of exposed metalwork, the audience on two sides and the playing space defined by two far-flung walls, the only thing missing seemed to be basketball hoops. And though the acoustics are good enough for the actors not to be miked , that doesn’t stop them from screaming through most of the show (this was especially true of Fabel and van Ark). Despite a hoarse voice and a manic manner, Fabel is funny — and especially adept at making us believe that all those amazingly intricate lies just pop into his head – entrapment and infidelity obviously are the mothers of mendacious invention. The rest of the cast play their cartoonish Stock Characters extremely well; Wippo is a particular standout in this regard. Overall, of course, the men are pigs or idiots and the women are bitches or bimbos. But that’s farce for ya .’
O’Donnell’s ever-clever script is a hoot, with a laugh-line a-second. McAnuff makes it all swirl by in 75 frenetic, intermissionless minutes. If you like this sort of thing, you’re gonna love it. Whipped cream on cotton candy. Go get stuffed.
In the new Potiker Theatre at the La Jolla Playhouse, through March 27.
AT DEATH’S DOOR
So, you’re a loser in a dead-end job. You get a note from your elderly aunt saying she’s “old and dying.” You rush to her side to be with your only living relative in her final hours. You’re looking for love – and a little inheritance wouldn’t hurt either. So you start your “Vigil,” but things don’t go as you planned.
Canadian Morris Panych penned a nasty little comedy that is a pitch-perfect fit for the darkly droll, incredibly English Ron Choularton. He originated the role nearly a decade ago, in the company of then 80-year old actor Katherine Faulconer , the beloved performer to whom this production is dedicated. They took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where it won four-star reviews. Now, to celebrate the Fritz Theatre ’s 15th anniversary (with a little hiatus thrown in during the (still) homeless years, the ever-quirky company is bringing back one of its true star-turns. Choularton doesn’t disappoint, though the show feels much longer and more repetitive than before. There seem to be about six endings, and then it just stops.
Pat DiMeo is amusing as the silent, suffering Auntie (semi-sarcastically named Grace) whom Kemp (Choularton) vainly tries to off by multiple means, to hasten her departure and his fantasized freedom. He doesn’t have much to go back to, but that’s another story. Through his two-act monologue (which would do much better as a single, nonstop infection of verbal diarrhea) we find out what a horrific life he’s had. How nobody cared for him, nobody loved him, nobody even noticed him. And so, not surprisingly, he’s become a trenchant, cynical, acerbic misanthrope. But to us, he’s damned comical, of course. Choularton plumbs the depths and dimensions of this hapless character — his sorrowful inner core, his sadistic side, his explosive anger and his inadvertent moments of kindness and caring. It’s a wonderful performance, veering wildly from hilarious to heartbreaking. Rosina Reynolds has directed with a distinctly English sensibility, especially noticeable in the sound design she created with Michael Shapiro, which seems to be rife with North Country classics (though the timeframe is said to be “recent”). The Brits in the audience, of which there were many on opening night (all those Manchester fans?) were singing along with many of the music selections. And Chris Rynne’s set design underscored the split-personality of the piece: a dowdy, no-nonsense flat backed by blue skies and fluffily surreal clouds. Magritte lives.
In its nasty, wicked way, the play is far more comic than tragic; but the undertone of anguish is what makes it work so well. If you missed it before, don’t make the same mistake twice.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through March 27.
A few shows were briefly here and gone, but definitely worth mentioning:
… Director Darko Tresnjak, that wizard wunderkind, is spending the year at UCSD as visiting professor. Though he has impressive international credits, he made his local directing debut in the spectacular “Cymbeline” at the Old Globe. On the strength of that production, the Globe invited him to be artistic director of its newly revived Summer Shakespeare Festival, a role he will reprise this year. In between those two gigs, he’s given the community a gorgeous production of Marivaux’s impious Garden of Eden fable, “La Dispute,” which ran all too briefly at the Mandell Weiss Theatre.
In the 1744 original, a royal couple argues about the relative infidelity of the sexes, and which gender was faithless first. On the whim of a regal forebear, a similar debate engendered an experiment of shocking social engineering. Two infants of each sex were raised in complete isolation from the world. Now, fully grown, they will be released for the amusement of the overlooking, overseeing nobles — and their underlings. In this voyeuristic setup, what we see is a disturbing distortion of love: youth drunk on itself, a vain, narcissistic, competitive, petty, hormone-fueled pas de deux of mix-and-match, seduce and spurn, adore and betray. The cast is effective and attractive, magnificently costumed by Emily Pepper. But it’s Darko’s direction, with its precise, stylized virtually choreographed moves, that takes the breath away. We are so fortunate to have a young visionary in our midst; be sure to see his summer offerings at the Globe; he’ll be directing “The Comedy of Errors” and “The Winter’s Tale.”
… The baton has been passed, but the passers just won’t go away. After ten years of shepherding the delightful staged readings of Carlsbad Playreaders , Pat and Jim Hansen have stepped down … sort of. There they were again this week, taking tickets, proving themselves, as ever, indispensable. But the mantle has officially been taken up by Jim and Bonnie Hall, along with Walt Jones (who just stepped down as Chair of the UCSD Theatre Department, passing that crown to Charlie Oates, the director and movement-wiz who gave his talents to “Private Fittings”) and Jones’ wife, UCSD lecturer Amy Scholl, who directed their inaugural production, Charles Busch’s uproarious comedy, “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.” The casting was so terrific, and the laughs so non-stop, that this absolutely MUST be mounted as a full-fledged San Diego production — soon. Scholl went all out for a reading, opening with a scene-setting slide show, a valentine to New York , backed by “Rhapsody in Blue.” Once the play began, the suggestive costumes and superb performances made the music stands melt away, and we were mentally transported to the Upper West Side , the lovely two-bedroom apartment of the well-heeled Taubs — the do-gooder, retired doctor and his culture-vulture on the verge of a breakdown.
Jill Drexler excels at playing overly wealthy women with too much time and cash on their hands. Last year, she won a Patté Award for Outstanding Performance as Nessa in Nicky Silver’s darkly comic “Fit to Be Tied.” Now she’s Marjorie Taub , the titular spouse, mourning the death of her shrink, and recovering from a little ‘outburst’ she had in a Disney store, impulsively smashing six porcelain figurines (“Goofy alone cost $150,” her husband says). Meanwhile, her mate (the adorably understated Jack Missett ) is running a free clinic for the allergy-impaired homeless. Her mother (the hysterically funny Sue Kaye) is obsessed with her bowel functions. The sympathetic, 20-something Iraqi-American doorman, Mohammed (appealing Amir Khastoo , fresh from his entertaining performance in the La Jolla Playhouse POP tour, “Bay and the Spectacles of Doom”) is well read and well connected. Only poor Marjorie is “ Perdu .” Then, swirling irresistibly into her upper-middle class, humdrum life comes her childhood chum, Lee (exotic, bewitching Julia Fulton). And everything, irrevocably and irreversibly, changes. The play has some flaws (like an unsatisfying ending) but the satirical, existential trip to the finish-line makes for a wild, wacky, wonderful ride.
Next up for Carlsbad Playreaders : Donald Margulies’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Dinner with Friends,” directed by Robert Dahey. Looks to be another winner. Don’t miss it! 7:30pm Monday, March 14 at the Carlsbad Library, 1775 Dove Lane . Get the rest of the exciting monthly offerings onto your calendar now: carlsbadplayreaders.org
… In preparation for its much-anticipated production of “King Lear,” the San Diego Repertory Theatre is presenting “Lear on the Border” – an attempt to bring Shakespeare to local students. The Rep is one of only 22 theater companies nationwide, and one of just three in California , selected to participate in the ‘Shakespeare for a New Generation’ program, for which they were awarded $25,000. The theater is partnering with the Sweetwater Union High School District for an array of on-site and outreach activities that will show these young students of San Diego ’s border communities how relevant the Bard can be. There’ll be bilingual workshops, “Lear” scenes at the schools and a Day at the Rep, meeting with the artistic and design creators of the production. A post-show Q&A with cast and crew will follow the production. Immerse yourself in “Lear” — directed by Todd Salovey and starring Sam Woodhouse, March 19-April 17.
.. Speaking of nurturing San Diego youth, consider Full Circle Theatre, a resident company of educators and professional artists dedicated to the production of cross-generational works. So far, they’ve mounted shows such as “ Kindertransport ” by Diane Samuels, “The Diviners” by Jim Leonard and “Teach Me How to Cry,” by Patricia Joudry . Next up is the Steven Berkoff adaptation of “The Trial,” Franz Kafka’s unfinished, enigmatic, fragmentary novel (published posthumously in 1925) about a powerless individual confronting a baffling, belligerent bureaucracy. The bland, colorless bank assessor, Joseph K, will be played by Matt Harrington, and the lawyer, Huld , will be portrayed by the award-winning Priscilla Allen. The story has been endlessly debated and interpreted. See what you make of it, March 3-13 at the Parker Auditorim , 750 Nautilus Street, in La Jolla; 858-454-3081 X 4402.
… Meanwhile, still in the academic domain, there’s Randy Reinholz , head of performance at SDSU’s School of Theatre , Television and Film. He just directed a magnificent production of “The Waiting Room” (reviewed here last week), and is now up in L.A. with his other love, Native Voices at the Autry, of which he is artistic director and co-creator. Part Choctaw, Reinholz has committed himself to making Native voices heard. He started Native Voices in 1993, when he was teaching at Illinois State University . In 1999, he hooked up with the Autry Museum . His group is now part of the Autry National Center , a multicultural history showcase formed by the merger of three L.A. museums: the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of the American West and the Women of the West Museum . Reinholz ’ latest production, “Kino & Teresa,” by James Lujan (from Taos Pueblo) is a Native American adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” set in 17th century Santa Fe . Written, produced, directed and performed by Native American theater artists, the play will run weekends, (Friday and Saturdays at 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm), March 4-20, at the Autry National Center’s Wells Fargo Theatre. www.museumoftheamericanwest.org/visit/nativevoices.php#kt
…the First Buds of Spring …. In honor of the Vernal Equinox and AIDS victims local and worldwide, a special presentation of Ever-Returning Spring will take place at Cygnet Theatre on Monday, March 21 at 7:30pm. For the 14th year, David Cohen will perform “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d ,” Walt Whitman’s gut-wrenching elegy for Abraham Lincoln and all the dead of the Civil War. This is Cohen’s annual ritual of mourning and remembrance for all those lost to AIDS.
This year, the event is dedicated to Broadway star Larry Kert , who died of complications from AIDS in 1991. Kert was the original ‘Tony’ from the 1957 Broadway cast of “West Side Story,” later Tony-nominated for his work in Sondheim’s “Company” (1970).
“He had been a favorite since my early adolescence,” says Cohen. “I’d always expected that one day I’d get to see him perform live… A central part of the yearly mission of ‘Ever-Returning Spring’ is to go back and rescue one person at a time from the tsunami of AIDS… to appreciate what he gave and what we were deprived of by his passing.
“The poem,” Cohen continues, “is meant to express grief for a single death against the backdrop of a huge number of deaths.”
This year’s presentation will include singer/actor David S. Humphrey, performing the Bernstein songs first sung by Kert , and John Diaz, of Jean Isaacs’ San Diego Dance Theater, with a dance tribute to Kert — the “Somewhere” ballet from “West Side Story.” Proceeds from the event will benefit the Actors Alliance of San Diego and Being ALIVE. To learn more, listen to David Cohen on San Diego Theatre Scene ON AIR on World Talk Radio, www.worldtalkradio.com , on Thursday, March 10, from 3-4pm or anytime thereafter on the program archives. The radio broadcast will include an interview with special guest, Miles Kreuger , of the American Musical Theatre. For event intro/reservations, call 619-299-2828.
NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED‘ LIST:
“Vigil” – Ron Choularton at his darkly hilarious best. A reprise of his beloved, prize-winning performance.
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through March 27.
Private Fittings – frothy, frivolous, Feydeau farce, updated and upended – done up, Des-style – and really done well.
At La Jolla Playhouse, through March 27.
“Thunder at Dawn” – a timely/timeless tale of soldiers on desert duty. Taut, intense and provocative.
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through March 20.
“When the World Was Green” – Kirsten Brandt’s beautifully spare, precise farewell to Sledge and San Diego . Understated, evocative design and performances.
At Sledgehammer Theatre, through March 13.
“I Just Stopped By to See the Man” – Blues in the Night. Director Seret Scott has marshaled an outstanding cast – and they all beautifully sing the blues. Lovely production.
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, EXTENDED through March 20.
Enjoy the sun, but beware the Ides…You’d do best to March right into a theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.