By Pat Launer
Trying tells us just a little
About former justice Francis Biddle,
While the Baldwin New Plays tell us a lot
About what’s on young minds – and what is not.
THE SHOW: Trying, an autobiographical semi-biography written in 2004 by Joanna McClelland Glass
THE BACKSTORY/THE STORY: In 1967, the playwright was hired as personal secretary to 81 year-old Judge Francis Biddle, former Attorney General to FDR and the chief American judge at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. The two came from completely different worlds: he was a patrician, born in Paris , educated at Harvard. His family had bought a great deal of what is now New Jersey – in the late 1600s, from William Penn. He was the protégé of legendary Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. During the Depression, when he became aware of the plight of the Pennsylvania coal miners, he became a liberal Democrat. His life accomplishments were enormous. He wrote many books, and was working on his two-volume memoirs in the waning years of his life. His wife Elizabeth, a published poet, hired a young woman to help him get his papers and correspondence in order, as his mind and body declined.
She was a “prairie populist” from Saskatoon , Saskatchewan , the product of an illiterate mother and an abusive, alcoholic father. The job had a lifelong effect on Glass, and she’s translated it into a 2-hour, 2-act two-hander.
In Trying, the Judge is probably as supercilious and irascible as the real-life octogenarian – pedantic, disorganized, intolerant of personal interactions and grammatical missteps. The young secretary is efficient and energetic, but unlike the mother of three children that Glass actually was at the time, her fictional counterpart is 25 and pregnant, lonely in her marriage to a budding academic. We learn a bit about the Judge, through his dictated letters, and recordings of seminal moments in the history that he participated in; we hear the voices of Roosevelt, Hitler, the Kennedys. But mostly, this is a May-December, Odd Couple story.
Structurally and thematically, it’s similar to other prickly winter-spring relationship plays, particularly, Israel Horovitz’s 1980 Park Your Car in Harvard Yard, about the fading years of the toughest, meanest teacher of Gloucester High School and the housekeeper he hires to look after him. You know how it’s going to end before it begins, and you know pretty much what’s going to happen along the way, as these two feisty fighters find their commonalities – in this case, language, poetry, perseverance, determination and hatred of social injustice – and come to adapt to each other’s lives and needs. The play has more humor and conflict in the first act than in the predictable second. But it makes for a compelling historical review, and it does pique the interest about this more or less forgotten figure in American and world history. (Or was he the Spencer Tracey character in “Judgment at Nuremberg ”?)
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Director Rick Seer, who’s been the director of the Old Globe/USD Professional Actor Training Program since 1993, is virtuosic at teasing the depth and nuance from characters, and eliciting deep and affecting performances from actors. Once again, he’s cast impeccably. Jonathan McMurtry is aptly crusty and crumbling as Biddle, persnickety without being overly mannered, completely credible in chafing against his declining physical and mental capacities. It’s a beautiful performance. And it’s matched, in the warm, heartfelt, vigorous, aggressive and by no means angelic portrayal of Christine Marie Brown, a talented graduate of the Globe/USD MFA program..
Despite the occasional clunkiness of the text, the duo’s testy interactions are terrific. They have Alan E. Muraoka’s wonderfully detailed, weathered wood attic/office set to play around in, enhanced by Chris Rhynne’s understated lighting, Charlotte Devaux’s season-setting costumes and Paul Peterson’s era-defining sound design. The players and production make the play worth seeing.
THE LOCATION: the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through May 21.
If there’s one theme running through the UCSD Baldwin New Play Festival 2006, it’s betrayal and abandonment. Competitive, destructive sibs figure prominently, too, at least in the three plays I’ve seen so far. Family is not a felicitous thing for the talented UCSD Playwriting MFA students. Oh, politics puts in a periodic appearance. But all of these onstage sibs seem to be parentless, mostly by virtue of being dumped, neglected or left behind. And at least one of each sister-brother pair is bonkers and toxic. There are wild shifts in tone in each of these plays; the dialogue is strong throughout. But there are so many thematic commonalities among them, it almost feels like the pieces emerged from a class assignment. The acting, direction and design work are uniformly excellent, and in each well-executed production, there’s one standout, knockout performance.
In The Nightshade Family, by Ruth McKee, the sister (solid Michelle Diaz) is actually allergic to her brother (magnetic, athletic Ryan Shams). She breaks out in hives as soon as the peripatetic loser comes slinking back home after the death of their mother. Their father, need I mention, abandoned them years ago. Hannah is a dentist who’s about to embark on a mission to Hungary with the Seventh Day Adventists. The ‘deadly nightshade’ is the belladonna she uses in her dental practice, which is shared with a strait-laced partner (Dorian Christian Baucum) who’s been waiting to settle down with Hannah in a nice, boring life. When Hannah’s skin condition gets worse, she agrees to see her brother’s wacked out New Age health practitioner (Baucum again). Meanwhile, there’s Emily (credible Keiana Richard), who’s supposed to move into Hannah’s house when she leaves. Kevin wants to settle in with Emily; Hannah won’t have it. Kevin loved and abandoned Emily years ago, and Hannah’s strongly connected to her, too, though Kevin impugns Hannah’s motives/intentions. The sibs fight over domination of Emily, while she makes scrapbooks that help her remember the good times in her life, and forget the ugly divorce, her single motherhood and her having to go back to live with her mother. Each character is trying to recreate the past and return to a simpler, happier stage. They’re all stuck in the past, patent cases of arrested development. Interspersed with these intense, naturalistic interactions, director Joseph Ward creates outrageous, fantastical, stylized scenes in the dentist’s or ‘doctor’s’ office. Amusing though they are, those scenes seem to come from another play. There’s a final revelation of betrayal, followed by a neatly unsatisfying dénouement, summarized/analogized by Hannah as follows: “In dentistry, sometimes you need to break a man’s jaw to set it straight.”
Santa Ana Winds , by Tim J. Lord, seems allegorical/fantastical from the get-go. The set (Caleb Levengood) is a suggestive, earth-toned, multi-level array of sand/stone. The big sky behind this sculpted desertscape changes beautifully throughout the play (lighting by Tom Ontiveros again). The sound (Paloma Young) and costumes (Margaret Whitaker) are excellent.
When they were abandoned by their parents, Mike (engagingly intense Peter Wylie) was left to care for his younger sister, Josephine (believably young Baily Hopkins), who just wants to find her mother back in Kansas . But Mike wants no part of it; he’s restless, can’t stay in one place, keeps moving them further and further into the desert wilderness. He’s escaping from his ex-girlfriend, the promiscuous Josie (potent, seductive Amy Ellenberger), who’s after him, tracking him in order to get him out of her life and system forever. Both Mike and Josie seek out their best friend, Carpenter (spectacular, visceral, animalistic Walter Belenky) for help. Carpenter and Josie feel they’ve been abandoned by Mike; she ensnares and enraptures him, so he agrees to help her find Mike and kill him. But Carpenter has gone totally over the edge. He’s in the midst of a species change; he thinks he’s a coyote – moves, acts, sniffs, scratches and howls like the animals with which he feels an inescapable affinity. Meanwhile, a little bit of Faith (Carmen Gill) is thrown into the mix, ‘summoned’ by Josephine in her nighttime prayer and soliloquy-filled ambles. Faith is the catalyst for salvation, though at the end, she just seems to serve her purpose and move on. Director West Hyler does a great job of maintaining the tension and suspense that Lord has effectively created. Things get a little hairy and scary toward the conclusion, which is wrapped up a tad too neatly, rife with symbolism. It’s a very intriguing piece of theater; still needs some work, but it certainly rivets the attention.
Each of the plays trades in humor, but the full-on wackiest of the bunch, by far, is Election Day, by Josh Tobiessen. The characters start out nutty and end up totally off the wall, just like the situations. The primary playing space is a cutaway interior, with red-flocked papered walls, a nice little apartment rented by Brenda (no-nonsense Hilary Ward), whose boyfriend Adam (comical/clueless Brandon Taylor) is about to move in. It’s Election Day, and Brenda is seriously involved in defeating Mayoral candidate Clark. She can’t talk/think about anything else, and she bullies Adam about voting – and other things. Meanwhile, out on the street, Clark (hunky/funny Larry Herron) is campaigning unscrupulously, and there’s a clandestine meeting between Cleo, Adam’s nutcase of a sister (hilarious Liz Jenkins) and the dark, enigmatic Edmund (stylized, spellbinding Rufio Lerma). He’s gotten her into his radical environmental group, and they’ve heinous acts are planned. She even blew up her own car. Brenda has an unwitting interaction with Edmund, Cleo has an S&M assignation with Clark , Adam weakly, helplessly watches it all spinning inexorably out of control. Things get really crazy, but the hair-trigger-timing and marvelous comic direction (Gerardo Jose Ruiz) keep you laughing so hard you don’t care about the absurdity that lapses into over-the-top idiocy. Beneath/behind the madness. Tobiessen is poking holes in political hypocrisy, satirizing activists and politicians. Everyone gets his/her just desserts. I loved it till it got a little too silly for me, but the rest of the audience was consistently busting a gut. Even the curtain calls were a riot. Tobiessen has a great comic voice, and he’s got one more year here. So we’ll get to see the final phase of his UCSD evolution next year.
I can’t say this is the strongest of the Baldwin Festivals I’ve seen; nothing really blew me away as in years past. But many of these already-experienced graduate students are quite gifted, and this is a wonderful way to see them before they take the theater world by storm.
THE LOCATION: Various locations, on the campus of UCSD, through April 29.
Once again, Tales from the Far Side of Fifty, the touching, funny stories written and told by 14 older women, was a smash-hit. There were more than 500 people in attendance at the Lyceum Theatre, which was more full than I can ever remember it, unbelievable given absolutely no advertising, and only word of mouth. Several gentle men, including Alex Sandie of the San Diego Shakespeare Society, thought there should be a comparable piece from the male perspective. Are YOU interested? Lemme know.
THE BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT SHAKESPEARE COULD EVER WANT
… What better way to celebrate The Bard’s 442nd birthday than at San Diego ’s FIRST ANNUAL STUDENT SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL, brought to us by the San Diego Shakespeare Society? Watching students get turned on to the wonders of the plays, poems, sonnets, soliloquies and songs will warm the cockles of any thespian or theatergoer’s heart. Be there at 12:30 for the opening festivities at the Organ Pavilion and the costumed procession to the two performance spaces on the Prado: at the Reflecting Pool and near the fountain. Hundreds of students from 22 schools (elementary through high school) will be there, and you should be too. SATURDAY, APRIL 29. The event is free and lasts till 4:30pm. For info about the Festival and the Shakespeare Society’s Birthday Bash for the Bard this Saturday, April 22, go to sandiegoshakespearesociety.org.
…Don’t forget to mark your calendar for the command performance of I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document Given to Me by a Young Lady from Rwanda at 6th @ Penn. See a compelling portrayal by Dale Morris and the Patté Award-winning performance of Monique Gaffney , in this heart-wrenching one-act. May 7-10 only. www.sixthatpenn.com
AMBULANCE CHASERS… for SHAME!
The article in the U-T about the lawyer and paralegal, Alfred G. Rava and Steven Surrey (aka Rava Law Firm), who keep suing non-profits, made my hair stand up and my hackles rise (wherever exactly the hackles may be). Those guys should be drawn and quartered, for going after organizations that can ill afford it, and who are only trying to attract new theater attendees and devotees. I’d heard about the Lamb’s suit, but not the ones lodged against the Spreckels Theatre, City Ballet or the San Diego Rep. Tens of thousands have been shelled out to keep these shysters at bay. Though the Lambies were advised to settle, they decided to fight, “for arts organizations everywhere,” said artistic director Robert Smyth. Now the Lambs Players are thrilled that the State Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal, after both a Superior Court and Appellate Court found in the theater’s favor. This is, says Smyth, “not just for our sake, but for every arts organization that has to think creatively in promoting its work and building an audience.” With so much real misconduct and corruption out and about, going after performing arts groups for selectively marketing to ‘women’ or ‘Boomers’ or whatever, is a bona fide crime.
JERSEY BOYS DON’T CRY
As the New York theater award season heats up, Jersey Boys is racking up the nominations. So far, it’s garnered three Drama League nods and six Outer Critics Circle Award noms. And the Drama League will honor Des McAnuff with its Julia Hansen Award for Excellence in Directing. The Drama League and Outer Critics Circle not only nominated John Lloyd Young for his performance as Frankie Valli (a likely shoo-in for the Tony, too), but also adorable and affable San Diegan Christian Hoff, who plays Tommy DeVito. Tony nominations coming soon; stay tuned.
THE CHOPPING OF THE TREES
Distinguished SDSU theater professor emeritus Anne-Charlotte Harvey, European theater scholar and grad program coordinator, will make her official retirement swansong performance as Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard. Her husband, Michael Harvey, will also be in the cast, along with faculty members Peter Larlham and Dude Stephenson. Randy Reinholz directs the cross-age cast. The play, he says, “offers wonderful, mature parts for the veteran actors, and meaty roles for the young people, the kind of pedagogical roles they’ve been reading about since they arrived here.” Sumptuous period sets and costumes are promised. April 28-May 6 in the Don Powell Theatre on the campus of SDSU.
MFAs MOVIN’ OUT
Tim Lord , who wrote one of this year’s entries in the UCSD Baldwin New Play Festival (Santa Ana Winds), just officially graduated, and is off to the University Playwrights Workshop at Stanford. Over the course of two weeks, he’ll be working on a new play entitled The Secret History of Caleb Caan, with the artistic director of Actor’s Express theater in Atlanta (Jasson Minadakis) and the literary manager at the Magic Theatre in SF (Mark Routheir). The play will get a public performance as a staged reading at the end of the program. Then Lord is off to New York .
Meanwhile, his classmate/colleague Ruth McKee (who wrote this year’s Nightshade Family, was a runner-up for the Alliance Theatre’s Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition, and Nightshade will receive a staged reading in Atlanta during their 2006-7 season.
And another talented playwright, Ken Weitzman, a UCSD alum who’s been teaching in the Theatre Dept., is moving on with his talented wife, Amy Cook, from the UCSD Directing program. She directs the reading of the revised version of Ken’s fascinating, quirky play, The As If Body Loop on Saturday morning (4/29, 10am, 157 Galbraith Hall) , before the couple and their two young sons head for Atlanta , where Amy begins a post-Doc at Emory University . But before she leaves, she’ll direct the Spring Undergraduate Production of Amy Freed’s hilarious ‘who wrote Shakespeare?’ play, The Beard of Avon (5/19-27).
Reality TV has hit its nadir (didn’t think there was a bottom to the abyss?). In Belfast last week, aspiring actors auditioned for the role of Maria in a big-budget production of The Sound of Music, the first London revival in 20 years. Those talented Britons, Welsh, Scottish or Irish making it past the first rounds will compete for the approval of judges and viewers on an ‘American Idol’-style TV talent show co-produced by – hold onto your lederhosen – Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber.
THE WAITING IS OVER — NEW BECKETT PLAY!
The Onion reported this week that, just weeks after the centennial of the birth of pioneering minimalist playwright Samuel Beckett, archivists analyzing papers from his Paris estate uncovered a small stack of blank paper that scholars are calling “the latest example of the late Irish-born writer’s genius.” The 23 blank pages, which literary experts presume is a two-act play composed some time between 1973 and 1975, are already being heralded as one of the most ambitious works by the Nobel Prize-winning author. “In what was surely a conscious decision by Mr. Beckett, the white, uniform, non-ruled pages, which symbolize the starkness and emptiness of life, were left unbound, unmarked and untouched,” said Trinity College professor of Irish literature Fintan O’Donoghue. “And, as if to further exemplify the anonymity and facelessness of 20th-century Man, they were found, of all places, between other sheets of paper.” Literary critic Eric Matheson praised the work for “the bare-bones structure and bleak repetition of what can only be describes as ‘nothingness.” There are already plans to stage the play during the intermission of an upcoming production of Waiting for Godot. You heard it here first (uh, second). Thanks to Joseph Grienenberger for the scoop.
Just got word that the documentary that I wrote, and co-produced with Rick Bollinger of City TV-24 (also aired on KPBS-TV), was nominated for an Emmy Award– woohoo! The feature focused on Luis Valdez, Father of Chicano Theatre, and included interviews with the amazing, inspirational, visionary Valdez , his stalwart wife, Lupe, and their three sons, as well as Edward Olmos and locals Sam Woodhouse, Todd Salovey, Jorge Huerta and Bill Virchis. It was a fantastic project to work on; I loved every minute of it. More as it happens.
This is my final opportunity to bid a very fond and bittersweet farewell to George and Vally Flint. In a very short time, George made a significant dent in the theater community. When he founded his Renaissance Theatre Company in 2000, he was 80 years old. But he was deeply committed to unearthing classics and bringing thought-provoking theater to town. Raised in New York , and a surgeon for most of his life, George returned to his first love (theater) and an early love (Vally) when he retired, divorced and relocated to California . I’d known him for a long time; my ex-husband was a surgical resident at the same hospital where George was an attending physician. And they were in the same field – colo-rectal surgery (“Rectum? Damn near killed ‘im!”). I worked at the hospital too (heading up the Speech and Hearing Dept.) so when we met again in San Diego it was a fantastic surprise. And on top of that, both of us were now involved in theater. George sank a lot of his own money into his string of excellent, wonderfully received productions. He hired the best talent around. He mounted some unforgettable shows, including Zoo Story, The Caretaker, Long Day’s Journey into Night and Of Mice and Men. He featured and highlighted stellar actors – from Ron Choularton, Rosina Reynolds and Sandy Ellis-Troy to then-unknowns like Jeffrey Jones. He tapped the brilliance of our best designers, such as Jeanne Reith (costumes), Marty Burnett (sets) and Jennifer Setlow (lighting). And he was always serious about the work, even if the work itself wasn’t always serious. He will leave a huge, gaping hole in the local theater community. We may not see his like again, someone so committed so late in life, so willing not just to do his own work, but to support, both financially and with his tireless attendance, the work of other talented theatermakers in San Diego. And Vally was always by his side, an incredible cheerleader and supporter, a generous donor (to many theaters, in San Diego and L.A. ), an indefatigable audience member, a gracious and magnanimous friend. They are moving to Chicago to be closer to their kids and grandkids. But I will miss them dearly — as fellow theatergoers, colleagues and fabulous friends. Fyi , they’ve promised to come back for the Pattés next year, January 8, 2007. Look for them there!
For one of the multitudinous parties that have been held in their honor, I wrote the following ODE TO GEORGE AND VALLY, which I’m sharing with you:
Ode to G & V by Pat Launer
The play’s the thing for the Family Flint
Though they had another life before their local stint
Before the dramatic bug could infect ‘em
[I knew George when the hospital nearly wrecked ‘im!]
Before he left Long Island for this climate divine
And emerged from the place where the sun don’t shine.
He made tracks, and didn’t dilly-dally,
Going back to his first loves – theater and Vally!
His View from the Bridge was clearly not shady;
He married his favorite Gingerbread Lady.
They were joyfully together again
They were the envy Of Mice and Men.
She was his Caretaker; he gave her ‘jewelery’
And Shirley Valentines and other Tomfoolery.
They made a highly enviable team;
Their story was The American Dream.
Accompanying him to every show
She waited for him like Didi for Godot.
She planned the receptions, she dressed to the nines
She always laughed at the comic lines.
But she wasn’t just a theater wife
She made scads of friends and had her own life.
Supporting the arts, here and in L.A.
A social genius with society cachet.
She approaches friendship with loving ferocity
She gives with boundless generosity.
Ever sunny and cheerful, a gust of fair weather
And brilliant at gathering women together.
They’ve made their mark, they’ve made us all friends
But this isn’t where the narrative ends
He’s not done with theater (like he was with his gurney)
This is just another stage in their Long Day’s Journey.
There’s more to be done here; there’s never a lack
And first Chicago winter, we know they’ll be back!
We’ll always be grateful that we met them
And you can be sure that we’ll never forget them.
Each of us here’s an unqualified fan
Of this Fabulous Woman and Renaissance Man.
San Diego , 4/2/06
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Trying – an autobiographical two-hander, a tad predictable, but excellently acted, directed and designed
At the Old Globe (Cassius Carter), through May 21.
What the Butler Saw – deeply disturbed, hilariously funny. A pitch-perfect black farce, wonderfully acted and comically timed
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through April 30.
The Constant Wife – a gorgeously designed, fast-paced and funny production
At the Old Globe Theatre, through May 7.
My Fair Lady – spectacularly inventive production; beautifully designed, directed, acted and sung
At Cygnet Theatre, EXTENDED to May 7.
Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit – drop-dead uproarious. RUN, don’t saunter, to see this side-splitting spoof of Broadway shows, with the mega-talented Off Broadway cast. Limited engagement; what are you waiting for?
At the Theatre in Old Town , EXTENDED through June 11.
Mayday! Mayday! Theater emergency! Get to a theater as fast as you can!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.