By Pat Launer
Drama appears in many a guise;
This week it came as a Pullet Surprise.
Two, in fact, and both were topical:
One offered Proof, the other was tropical.
The first time I saw David Auburn’s “Proof,” last January at South Coast Rep, I thought it was “Good Will Hunting” meets “A Beautiful Mind” in “Arcadia.” Now, at the San Diego Rep, the 2001 winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony for Best Play is a very different show. Well, it still has all those elements, but the balance of talent has shifted the equilibrium of the play. The first time, it was primarily about a father-daughter relationship. Catherine, the 25 year-old offspring of Robert, a mathematical mastermind, fears she’s inherited her father’s madness as well as his genius. The secondary characters were the mediocre math-man (a former grad student of Robert) and Catherine’s vapid, envious, Yuppie sister. There’s also a serious question of a found mathematical proof and just who wrote/solved it.
But in the San Diego production, the play is a love story, with much of the mystery defused. Part of that is the direction (by Sam Woodhouse and Delicia Turner-Sonnenberg) and part is the acting. The players in the secondary roles are actually more robust than the central characters. As sister Claire, Cheryl Kenan Fording has created a real, multi-faceted person, not the shrill, disdainful, Big Apple urbanite I saw in Costa Mesa (Christina Haag). And as the genius-wannabe Hal, Francis Gercke is spellbinding, even as he chews scenery, steals focus, and nearly runs away with the show. In this production, it’s more a Mozart/Salieri story, where Hal idolizes the father and is irresistibly drawn to the daughter. One element of the mystery in the version I saw was whether or not Hal was using Catherine, coming on to her because he wanted to get close to the father — and to the proof. Here, there’s no such enigma; he’s head over heels for Catherine from the get-go, as a believable young nerd, and a falling-all-over-himself (with hilarious physical comedy that may or may not match the tone of the play) still-gawky math-prof who’s never made his mark in a field that favors rather young (20-something) men.
As the father, Sam Woodhouse is less than convincingly brilliant or crazy; he’s avuncular, he’s zhlubby; but he hasn’t yet found the core of the character. He has settled on a sameness in his line readings, often ending in the maddening ‘upspeak’ of current campuses. And when, in an unforgettable second-act scene, we watch his madness take hold, we should be abashed, shocked, astonished. The moment is not at all as shattering as it should be. Part of the problem is Danica McKellar, a TV actress (‘The West Wing,’ ‘The Wonder Years’) with little stage experience. She has the ideal background for the role of Catherine. She herself, as an undergrad at UCLA (on hiatus from acting), actually solved a mathematical proof which now bears her name. She is working valiantly to capture the character of Catherine, who gets to do depression, anger, resentment, excitement, inebriation and ardor. But there aren’t yet enough colors in her palette. Her performance is a bit pallid, and that allows Gercke and Fording to take more control (Woodhouse isn’t onstage that much, and he should be a much more commanding presence when he is). This role of Catherine is a star-turn (undertaken by the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Anne Heche). She needs to be charismatic and compelling…. But it’s Gercke who captivates every time.
All that said, this is still a satisfying production of an absorbing play. Some of the directorial decisions are masterful (e.g., having Robert play the piano, as so many mathematicians do). Jerry Sonnenberg’s set is a glorious mess of a Chicago back porch, with years of accumulated detritus gathering dust before our eyes. Jennifer Setlow’s lighting is a bit too tricked up; it becomes intrusive at times, with its bright focus on one or another ‘significant’ window or set-piece. The play remains intriguing if not enigmatic, and though the focus on the budding (here, inevitable) romance weakens the impact, the issue of inherited insanity is appealing enough to stimulate some hearty after-performance conversation.
TOLSTOY GOES TROPICAL
The opening line of “Anna Karenina” is one of those simply unforgettable, eternally quotable truths: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Perhaps the same could be said of individuals, or relationships. The lives and loves of the great Russian novel are played out in a steamy Tampa cigar factory in Nilo Cruz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics.” Set in 1929, in a small town called Ybor City, the play focuses on the delicious tradition of having lectores, well-dressed, educated men who were paid by Cuban factory workers to read the classics to them as they rolled cigars. The practice harks back to the oral tradition of earlier cultures, the griot, the storyteller. We never tire of being told or read a good, juicy narrative. And what our country would be like if those lectors still read (above the din, through individual headsets!) to assembly-line workers, or anyone strapped in a tedious, repetitive job. A literate, thinking populace would do some fascinating things come election day. But that’s another topic for another column and another day…..
Back to “Anna.” Cruz’s beautiful, lush, lyrical language matches the topical setting. These Cuban Americans have brought all the elements of home to their new land: cockfights, cigar factories, lectors and pasión. The owner of the factory, Santiago (Tony Plana) and his wife Ofelia (the rock-solid Karmín Murcelo) have one of the ‘happy families” Tolstoy alludes to. He loses his money at the cockfights, with a mounting debt to his brother (the disgruntled and disaffected Cheché (Geoffrey Rivas), but his stalwart wife loves and supports him, and he her. Their daughters are less fortunate. The elder, Conchita (Adriana Sevan) is married to the philandering, unloving Palomo (Jonathan Nichols). The younger daughter, the naïve and romantic Marela (Onahoua Rodriguez), is dreamy, wide-eyed and innocent. But not for long.
At the stylized start of the play, the men are stage right, betting at a cockfight. The women are stage left, on a pier, waiting for the new lector to arrive from Cuba (the last one died three months ago, at age 80; “his heart couldn’t take the love stories.” Another one ran off with Cheché’s wife). Marela is so excited, she wets herself. They hope he has all the qualities of an excellent lector: good vocal cords, deep lungs, a strong voice, good diction. “As long as he reads with feeling and gusto, I’m content,” says Marela. And he does. Everything Juan Julian (Julian Acosta) recites from “Anna Karenina” goes right to the heart. It makes one character fall in dreamy, idealistic love, another have an affair, incites a third to rape and murder. It makes Santiago name his new cigar ‘Anna Karenina’ (pronounced throughout as a more exotic kahr-en-NEEN-a). Heady stuff, this literature. It’s the power of the word — on the page and on the stage.
The exposition is a little clumsy at the outset. And the women seem less than potent at first, though all rise marvelously to new heights in the second act. The music (composed by Christopher Webb) is rhythmic and evocative. There’s even a sex scene, and lots of luxuriant language. But there isn’t quite as much passion as one might hope. Acosta looks slick and debonair as the cultured lector, but he doesn’t exude sexuality as he should (Count Vronsky, anyone??). I could only imagine Jimmy Smits and Daphne Ruben-Vega burning up the stage of New Jersey’s McCarter Theatre, whose current production goes right to Broadway. Never mind; there’s still plenty to take you to another time and place… to transport you and make you think — about tradition, ardor, the influence of the word and the price of mechanization. And there’s all that language to love. Sometimes a cigar is more than a cigar.
IF YOU DIDN’T SEE IT IN APRIL, NOW’S YOUR BIG CHANCE…..
Voices of Women’s “Reflections on War and Peace,” directed by Rosina Reynolds, will be reprised at the USD Joan Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice, Thursday, October 9 at 7:30 pm. Refreshments to follow. Come hear the awesome and inspiring words of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Dylan, Elie Wiesel and Eleanor Roosevelt and many others, spoken by a bevy of local actors. Proceeds from the $20 tix go to women’s programs of the P&J Institute’s Nepal Project.
And now, for the ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
“Proof” — provocative, intelligent, Pulitzer Prize-winning play; at San Diego Repertory Theatre; through October 26
“Anna in the Tropics” — well worth the trip to the beautiful, newly redesigned South Coast Repertory Theatre in Costa Mesa; a lush, seductive play about language and love; through Oct. 25
“Blue/Orange” — provocative brain-twister about shrinks and crazies, racism and institutions; in the Globe’s Cassius Carter, through October 26
“Beauty” — gorgeous world premiere, beautifully written and wonderfully directed by Tina Landau; mystical, magical… See it! At La Jolla Playhouse; through October 19
“Annie Get Your Gun” — delightful production with two great leads and wonderful costumes; at the Lawrence Welk Resort Theatre, through November 8
“Love! Valour! Compassion!” — the boys are back in town! And what fabulous company they are. Extended to October 18
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” — Jeremiah Lorenz is fabulous, and the band, though ultra-loud, is killer. The Cygnet is hatched, and it soars; extended to November 2
California is certainly trying to do it for you… but you should put a little drama in your own life!
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.