By Pat Launer
The Blitz is into Week #3
And the Penn’s got ‘Bloody Poetry,’
‘Invention’s’ filled with Oxford romancers
While ‘The Lady’ thinks she has all the answers.
Oxford , Cambridge , Latin, lectures, disquisitions and textual criticism. If this is your (intellectual) turn-on, you’re gonna love “The Invention of Love.” Tom Stoppard, the playwright who loves nothing more than putting an audience through mind-pretzel mental calisthenics, has really outdone himself this time. Many have found his “Travesties” and “ Arcadia ” dense. But they’re positively frothy compared to “The Invention of Love.”
The intriguing and provocative play, making its local premiere at Cygnet Theatre, is so chock-full of obscure factoids and arcane references, scholarly obsessions and academic conundrums, you’d swear Stoppard was just showing off. I never got to see the Broadway production of 2001. Our own Jack O’Brien was nominated for a Tony as Best Director; his stars, Richard Easton (Best Actor) and Robert Sean Leonard (Best Featured Actor) won their Tonys. The play, also nominated as the Best of the year, had already won London ’s Evening Standard Award as Best Play of 1997. What’s most striking, when reading multiple reviews of prior productions, is how many people call the play a comedy, and applaud its funniness and hilarity. Ay, there’s the rub. That’s exactly the element that’s missing from Sean Murray’s beautifully heartfelt but ultimate unsatisfying production.
This is the story of poet and classics scholar A.E. Housman (1859-1936), most famous for his melancholy book of poems. “A Shropshire Lad.” The setup reveals, yet again, Stoppard’s genius for structure. In the opening scene, Housman finds himself on the River Styx, confronted by Charon , the ferryman to the underworld. “Good, I’m dead,” he says. ( which he may or may not be). There’s every reason to believe that he’s still alive, though barely, in a nursing home at age 77, and this is all a dream, as he interacts with characters from his life, real and imagined, known or unknown, alive and dead. He repeatedly confronts his younger self, and has delightful discourses, hoping perhaps to alter the course of his emotionally unfulfilled life. Late in the second act, he meets up with Oscar Wilde, who was his contemporary at Oxford , but whom he’d never met. The juxtaposition is profound. The contrast between these two life- choices couldn’t be more disparate. Housman hid his homosexual urges, and his deep, abiding love for his Oxford schoolchum , attractive, athletic (and decidedly heterosexual) Moses Jackson. He lived a quiet life of loneliness and regret. By contrast, no one could have been more expansive and gregarious than Wilde, who was flamboyant about all his passions, including his homosexuality, which netted him a conviction for “gross indecency,” two years of hard labor and death in exile. He believed, as Neil Young (and Kurt Cobain) put it, ‘Better to burn out than to fade away.’
But there is just so much intervening ‘stuff’ between the introduction of the core character, AEH (Jim Chovick) and his younger self (Sean Cox), and this vital dramatic juxtaposition. So much about classic texts and uncovering their elusive ‘truths’ (relating, of course, to humans and their complexity and inscrutability). About youthful exuberance and camaraderie vs. the solitude and isolation of age. About scholars vs. Aesthetes. About the path not taken. About the importance of poetry, the meaning of love.
As depicted on the Cygnet stage, it’s a slow, long, heavy slog through the first act. Tim West provides the only humor as the punning Charon . There are many bright spots in this excellent ensemble: the energetic and charming Tristan Poje (as the young Oxfordian , Pollard), Dennis Scott as the unabashedly gay Chamberlain, and Daren Scott’s delightful turn as Oscar Wilde. But funny? Not once. Hilarious? I don’t think so. And with all these Latin quotes and translation quibbles, mythical and historical citations, boy, do we need comic relief!
Murray’s set design, dark sequential panels representing, perhaps, layers of meaning or understanding, is magnificently coupled with Eric Lotze’s beautiful lighting and a marvelous series of projections — from the grainy, black and white river into the underworld, to the lush green of the Oxford grounds, morphing into each other (dividing reality from fantasy) in a slow, expanding circle of rippling water. Gorgeous. The costumes (Shulamit Nelson) and sound (George Yé) are also lovely and evocative.
Chovick and Cox are wonderful, together and separately. David Humphrey is aptly appealing, jockish (and often clueless) as the beloved Jackson . The Three Men in a Boat (a Jerome K. Jerome title, and one of the frequent allusions in the play) are delightful, making excellent use of the turntable, as does West as Charon . But most of the evening is just so portentous and intense. If emotional repression is the theme of the drama, it’s too often played out in this production. And that keeps us from experiencing the true weight of the despair and the depth of ardor denied.
At Cygnet Theatre, through September 25.
MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
Her pen-name remains a household word. At the peak of her career, she had (as she tells us numerous times throughout our shared evening) 60 million readers. For nearly five decades, Ann Landers defined the heart of America – its social and sexual fears, concerns, morality and proclivities. David Rambo’s “The Lady with All the Answers” keeps telling us facts and figures, but it doesn’t get to the soul of the woman who was such a groundbreaker in the advice column field, and beyond. In fact, it’s her trip to Vietnam during the war, which she did not reveal in her column, that gives us the most insight into who and what she was. The rest is superficial, lightweight, insubstantial . We don’t learn that much about her. And beyond a few memories and semi-flashbacks, most of the play is set in 1975, when she’s writing “the most difficult column of [her] career” – the one that admitted that she and her beloved husband were getting a divorce (“I didn’t want you to hear it from anyone but me”). It’s an interesting conceit, but it goes, like the mink she proudly displays, only skin deep. And we’d like to know what happened to her after that, how much longer she lived and wrote, and what she died of (at least in the program notes). In fact, the writer’s notes had quippier quips than Rambo put in the play. For example, when a woman wrote that she wanted to marry her fiancé’s father, Ann shot back, “Drop Daedalus !” There are plenty of homespun, Midwest aphorisms, euphemisms and clichés, like “ hermans “ for breasts and expressions like “twenty lashes with a wet noodle,” “this’ll really twirl your turban” or “he’s two pickles shy of a turkey sandwich.” They do start to wear out their welcome. Eppie Lederer admits that she’s “hopelessly square.” But she was surprisingly forward-thinking and unflinching in her direct assault on racism, sexism, homophobia and senseless war. And though we get a bit of that, she seems too self-serving to give us the goods.
Tony Award winner Randy Graff is an engaging performer. And she looks perfect in the bouffant hair and pink outfits (costumes by Robert Blackman, set against the lovely scenic design of Ralph Funicello). But there’s something unnerving about her tone in this piece. She prolongs her vowels so she sounds sort of whiny. There’s a self-satisfied smirk in her voice, face and manner that contradicts the empathic, compassionate tone of Lederer’s letters that made her what she was. One might surmise that this was, perhaps, the real Eppie . But that doesn’t jibe with the quotes in the program, from Barbara Walters (“People realize that from her heart, she’s telling the truth”) and from her daughter, Margo Howard (okay, not the most objective opinion), writing in Ann Landers’ final column: “She was convinced that if any one thing could serve as a solution to all manner of problems, it was kindness.”
So, if that’s true, then the play/performance cannot also be true. The heart of Eppie is barely revealed; for a few minutes at the end, as she reads her divorce-divulging column to her daughter before submitting it, and during her reports of the Vietnam field hospital visits, we see the emotion behind the façade and the pseudonym. But mostly it’s flip and wisecracking; we don’t feel the tenderness and sensitivity, nor do we see any of the darkness within. The script doesn’t flesh out the competition between Eppie and her identical twin, Popo (she was born Pauline Esther Friedman; Eppie was Esther Pauline), who became Dear Abby ( “ I was Ann Landers six months before she was Dear Abby!,” Eppie insists). Her own worries and concerns, and what led up to her love-at-first-sight, 36-year husband “falling in love with a woman younger than his daughter” or the signs that something was amiss in their marriage – we get none of those. “I’m so anti-divorce,” she says, “ my dateline could be The Vatican.” But Jules said “the marriage is over,” and Eppie has “no rage, no hostility… I guess some marriages do run their course.” That’s all we get? Eppie’s overarching philosophy, summed up at the end of the first act, is “Life is just one goddamn thing after another.” Deep.
So, it isn’t a dramatically or biographically satisfying evening. But compared to the heavy wade through “The Invention of Love,” it’s a walk in the park.
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through September 11.
IT’S THE BLITZ!
Illness, aging and legacies figured prominently in Week 3 of the Fritz Blitz of New Plays by California Writers, except in one quirky/comic delight. But again, the play quality was variable, and the order of presentations was baffling.
The evening began with Scott McMorrow’s “Turtle Shopping ,” a poignant piece about three generations of women and how they’re connected by soup – and heritage. Under D. Candis Paule’s direction, Barbara Cole and Monique Fleming were fine as the mother and daughter, but as the Old World grandma, Rhona Gold was terrific, spouting wisdom and Yiddishisms and warm humor. They cut vegetables in tandem, though they spanned different decades and lifetimes. One suffered the pogroms in Russia , the other was a WWII ‘war-child’; both “came up in hard times,” when they “shopped like turtles – slow and steady. “People adjust,” the grandma Sarah says. No matter what the subject. So, when they talk about cooking and marriage and men, she adds.: “A good marriage is like good soup; keep stirring the ingredients and changing it whenever your taste changes.” Nice little piece, very nicely done.
“Free Lunch” came next, a short piece about a lively, if physically limited older woman who doesn’t seem to be able to care for herself and live independently. Her nephew and his ex-wife want to put her away in a home, but they’re lying to her, treating her like a child, saying he just flew in to take her out to lunch. She’s onto them; she’s no fool, though she can be feisty and funny. She doesn’t want to be “buried alive.” “ can’t you wait until I’m completely mad and won’t know where I am?” she begs. “I wish I had just stopped. It’s hasn’t been a good life and there’s nothing likely in the future to make it better.” In the (rather abrupt, somewhat fanciful) ending, Millie takes charge and makes her own choice. The playlet captures some of the real emotions of exes and aging. Though he may not be breaking new ground, San Francisco playwright Lionel Kranitz (who is a member of the Actors Studio, where the play was developed) imbued the piece with familiar sentiments and credible dialogue. Duane Daniels shepherded the convincing cast: Sharron Voorhees crafty and crotchety as Millie, Len Irving, the successful young insensitive relative and Teri Brown as his no-nonsense but ineffectual former mate.
“Intrusion” introduces San Diegans to some fresh skills in local talent. First-time playwright Eli Hans has served as assistant director to some our of finest (Rick Seer, Mark Wing-Davey at LJP, Duane Daniesl , Katie Rodda ). His first official foray into playwriting is a delightfully idiosyncratic comedy. Director Mike Kelly makes a welcome return to the Fritz, and so does beautifully buff Robert Borzych, who seems to be doing more film-work these days than theater. He’s flawless in the role of Howard, the ominous intruder who breaks into nerdy Sam’s apartment (strait-laced Jeffrey Krebs) with his pale, frightened girlfriend (Julie Ann Compton) and her baby, insisting that they move in for awhile “to lay low.” The pacing is perfect and the menace palpable. The twist ending is a delicious surprise. This witty, unpredictable piece should have ended the evening.
Instead, there was “The Tropic Of,” Jillian Frost’s downbeat meditation on the pain and torment of cancer in women. Under Diane Shea’s direction, four women (Tara Donovan, Sharron Voorhees, Lisa Goodman Deborah Moore), identified only as #1, #2, #3 and #4, dressed in drapey shapeless sacks that could be pale burkas or togas, towels or hospital gowns, stand in a semi-circle and declaim. The text comprises a repetitive series of fragments and phrases, a suffering stream of consciousness: “Pain. Fear. Help me! Anger. Helpless. Unbearable. My hair. Metal taste. Be strong. Be positive. The dark. The light.” At the end, one woman feels better, one dies. It’s about “Life and its beauty. Life and its cruelty.” Each of the varied-age actors seemed to be affecting a different approach to the piece: one realistic, another surreal, the third unbending, and the oldest (Voorhees) stylized in her graceful movement. The (in )action dragged and the play failed to reveal any new insights about ailing, anguished women or cancer. And it proved a real downer to an otherwise engaging and often amusing evening.
Catch the last weekend of the Blitz in the Lyceum Space, through August 28.
I’M NOT MY OWN WIFE
The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia is turning a highly acclaimed, universally lauded solo into a surprise duet. In Doug Wright’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “I Am My Own Wife,” all 30+ characters are played by one actor. At first, it was the Tony Award-winning UCSD alum Jefferson Mays. But now the script is out and about. And the Wilma’s co-artistic director, Blanka Zizka , will cast two actors – one to play the East German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (and other characters) and the other to play Wright, who wrote his interviews and quandaries into the piece. This could only have been done with Wright’s blessing. His relationship with Zizka and her theater goes back to 1996, when she helmed an award-winning production of his play, “Quills.” In 2001, Wright was artist-in-residence at the Wilma, where “I Am My Own Wife” was workshopped (it was also workshopped that year at the La Jolla Playhouse). According to Playbill online, when Wright was questioned about Zizka’s decision, he said, “I didn’t do it lightly. The play has a very central tenet: that one person can embody a host of contradictions, so it’s fitting that one actor embodies so many points of view. That said, Blanka is one of the most innovative and responsible directors that I know. She’s directed my work with such insight and zest in the past… she’s also a formidable theatrical intellect, and I think she has the capacity to teach me new things about a play I already know very well. I don’t plan to sanction ‘alternative’ or ‘radical’ production of the work, but Blanka will always be an exception. I trust her.”
This calls to mind the local brouhaha about Karen Hartman’s play, “Gum,” which was to be produced by Lynx Theatre, and which, one night before opening, had the performance rights revoked. It should be clear to all directors that there is no freedom and flexibility in rearranging the text of a play or reframing the author’s words. A play is a piece of art. And it’s one that is leased, not bought. Changing the writer’s creation would be like renting a video or borrowing a book and altering it in whatever ways you choose, to fit your needs and preferences. When you sign for the use of a play, you agree not to make any changes whatsoever. Any changes require the explicit approval of the creator. As local playwright Jack Shea put it in a letter he wrote to the San Diego Union -Tribune (which was never published), “According to the Dramatists Guild, NO ONE .. and I repeat, NO ONE has the right to change one word of what a Playwright has written without his/her explicit permission. Don’t even change A to THE without permission.”
The rancor that surrounded the cancellation of the fully-rehearsed production was unprofessional in view of what had occurred (a substantial re-organization and “deconstruction” of the text). I hope lessons have been learned, writers will be henceforth respected, and an unfortunate situation such as this never occurs again in San Diego .
As an ironic postscript, you can still see a production of “Gum.” It’s part of the UCSD theater season, opening in the Weiss Forum Studio next February.
More distraught poets (see “The Invention of Love,” above) but this time, with more passion. Howard Brenton’s “Bloody Poetry” concerns those wacky Romantics, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Alfred, Lord Byron, who lived in the early 19th century, and shared more than their philosophies and poetic proclivities. During a summer together in Switzerland (both anarchic poets were in exile), they slept with the same woman (who was the half sister of Shelley’s second wife). They both had young daughters who died in Italy . They were libertines who fathered numerous children and lived a life of debauchery and promiscuity. In this version, Byron is a boorish, abusive, selfish solipsist. None of that melancholia he was so famous for. Shelley, the revolutionary, speaks of freedom for the downtrodden, but there was considerable hypocrisy in his treatment of his women. There’s a conspicuous contradiction in the beauty of the poetic imagery both men create and the decadence of their lives.
The humanist Shelley (or Bysshe , as he’s called) is haunted by the ghost of his neglected first wife, who drowned herself in the Serpentine. He has lung problems and seizures. Byron has syphilis and other venereal diseases; he’s loyal to no one but himself, though he professes to have loved Shelley. Shelley’s second wife, Mary (creator of “Frankenstein”), is an intelligent realist; her half sister, Claire Clairemont , is an idealist who blindly loves Byron and thinks she’ll change him (all the while she’s sleeping with Shelley). With all the talk of freedom and liberation, no one is happy here. And the play does go on, though there are provocative scenes and wonderful performances, under the assured direction of Doug Hoehn . But the plot gets bogged down in the poetic disquisitions and political fixations. Unlike the veddy proper and restrained Brits in “The Invention of Love,” there are extremes of emotion in this work. Peaks and valleys of passion.
Nonetheless, the structure and style of the play lack cohesion. There’s a jerky rhythm and flow, with narration and soliloquy, commentary, discourse and poetic recitations. But Hoehn’s cast is excellent; Thomas Hall is terrific as Shelley, wild-eyed, handsome and quite credibly mad. Giancarlo Ruiz is expansive, at times boorish and downright offensive as the dissolute Byron, though he rushes or swallows his (biting) words at times. Celeste Innocenti plays Mary Shelley with intensity, intelligence and wit, and Sara Jane Nash is attractively deluded as the ingenuous Claire. James E. Steinberg is aptly villainous as the nasty diarist, Dr. William Polidori , who is so envious of (and rejected by) the talented men he observes, he uses them to make a name and living for himself, exaggerating their profligacy to generate gossip and sell copy. Christyn Chandler is haunting as Shelley’s ghostly first wife, Harriet.
The play is flawed; too episodic, too long, trying too hard to be erudite and to make a point. But the story and the characters are fascinating, and the work is well presented.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights and Saturday at 4, at 6th @ Penn Theatre, through September 7.
MAYBE SIZE DOESN’T MATTER… BUT ONE’S SHORTENED, ONE’S LENGTHENED
As a result of the fire at the Civic Theatre last week, the opening of “Little Women – The Broadway Musical,” the first stop on the national tour, has had to be postponed. There was damage to the set, and the repairs are taking longer than anticipated. So, the Tuesday, 8/30 opening is pushed back to Friday, 9/2, and there will be a total of five rather than eight performances.
In the lengthening department, the Lamb’s Players production of “Pump Boys and Dinettes” has been extended through September 18. So, you have more time to fill ‘ er up at the Double Cupp diner.
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
The Fritz Blitz – – Fritz artistic director Duane Daniels assured me that this week’s play, “”Munched,” by Kim Porter, is “one of the best scripts that’s ever been seen at the Blitz.”
So check out the final week of the Blitz, at the Lyceum Theatre, through August 28.
“I Am My Own Wife” – another opportunity to see Jefferson Mays’ dazzling performance as the German transvestite who was a survivor and an enigma. Provocative play, incredible acting. Don’t miss it this time. Or if you saw it before, see it again; it’s as stellar as the first time!
At the La Jolla Playhouse, through September 11.
“The Winter’s Tale” – beautifully designed and directed. Director Darko Tresnjak is a wonder, and he teases outstanding performances from his talented ensemble.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
“Macbeth” – marvelous direction (Paul Mullins), costumes (Linda Cho ) and truly spooky, chilling moments make this “ MacB ” a standout.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
“The Comedy of Errors” – Director Darko Tresnjak shows his sillier side, with a farcical, slapstick production that’s precisely directed and humorously performed.
In repertory on the Globe’s Festival Stage, through October 2.
“ 42nd Street ” – glorious celebration of Bway’s glory days. Wonderful performances, outstanding choreography and dancing. Sheer delight!
At the Welk Resort Theatre, through August 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 , closing (after >250 performances), on September 4.
New plays, local premieres… there’s nothing waning about this summer!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.