By Pat Launer
Humorous, serious, raucous or formal,
Are we all, in some fashion, “Looking for Normal ?”
And when, if we’re lucky, we find love that’s right
Don’t we, like “ Viburnums ,” incline toward the light?
Meet Verne. She’s never married, she wallows in memories of her long-dead mother and distant, unaffectionate father, both of whom she’s recently realized were depressed. She plays old records, She lives a boring, routinized life. But the other day, at the grocery store, she met a man, and now she’s got a date. She’s so nervous she can’t steady her hand to put on her lipstick. And then her companions enter to chide and harass her about her “gentleman caller”: a sprightly preteen fantasist, a 20-something idealist and a 40-ish cynic. Soon enough (at different rates for different viewers), we come to realize that these are all earlier incarnations of Verne, haunting her and holding her back from taking this one final stab at a little bit of happiness and maybe even love.
Doug Field’s “ Viburnum ” premiered locally last year, at the 11th Fritz Blitz of New Plays by California Playwrights. It was the darling of the Festival, and now, fortunately for all, the Fritz is bringing back a full-scale, extended-run production, with nearly all the same excellent cast intact. Only Wendy Waddell had to opt out, for a fairly decent reason: she’s getting married this weekend! Stepping in for her, as the young romantic Verne, is Sharla Boggs, who plays the role with the guileless certainty of inexperience and a touch of sly humor. Rachael van Wormer reprises her role as the energetically wide-eyed, naïve young playwright, creating dialogue to present-day Verne to use on her date. Boggs, who musters a glorious look of shock and disgust, gives advice about manners and etiquette and dealing with men (all gleaned from a careful perusal of texts). Only Paule’s disappointed, disenchanted character has had any real physical contact with a man, and he never called again. Waiting by the phone is an experience all these females know all too well. Desperation for a man (even the fanciful Prince Fey of the young playwright’s imagination) runs through this life, and unattractive as it seems, through the life of many real-life women. Field knows of what he writes. But he’s brutally honest about men, too. And their needs and actions and fragile egos get held up to the same close and unflattering inspection.
The play is by turns touching, moving, funny and sad. And the ensemble, with Rhona Gold at the center, warm and wistful, melancholy but hopeful, is simply splendid. Field has shortened and tightened the play, to excellent effect. But he’s retained the deliciously enigmatic ending. A quick check of those around me showed that there still were multiple interpretations of what actually happens after the final blackout (though the bleakest option played a less prominent role). If you missed the Blitz, you owe yourself this treat. Katie Rodda has directed with acumen and humor, so that Verne (in all her incarnations) may just leave the theater with you and continue to tug on your heartstrings.
A Fritz Theatre production at 6th @ Penn, through June 12.
Irma’s having a hard time. She’s starting menopause, her daughter’s entering puberty, and her husband’s growing breasts. In Jane Anderson’s poignant, often heartbreaking “Looking for Normal ,” Irma knows her solid, long-term marriage is in a little trough. So she drags her husband of 25 years to see their pastor. And when Irma’s out of the room, Roy confesses that he needs a change… a sex change. He feels he’s been living a lie all his life; he’s a woman trapped in a man’s body. He’s going to get the surgery; he just needs to tell his wife.
Anderson makes the ever-widening circle of the affected unnecessarily extensive. There are so many extraneous characters, including the clueless but well-meaning pastor (William Tanner), a mildly amorous boss (Gerard Maxwell), Roy ’s maternalistic mother (Kate Hewitt) and curmudgeonly father (Duane Leake ), and his annoying, hyperverbal ghost of a grandma (Jeanne Horn). The performances are fine, and each has a moving or amusing moment; they just aren’t needed to tell the story, which is gut-wrenching enough when it just focuses on the immediate family: poor, tortured Roy (sympathetic John Rosen) and his stalwart but shell-shocked wife (marvelous Terri Park, who anchors the whole production), and their two confused kids: the inquisitive, pubescent tomboy, Patty Anne (adorably nerdy/butch Natasha Feldman), and the hostile, incredulous rock-band techie, Wayne (excellent Lance Rogers, who blows up at his Dad at Thanksgiving, with the pointed question: “As a man, you’re straight. As a woman, you’re gay. Does that make Mom a lesbian?”). You see, Roy wants Irma to stay with him; she’s the love of his life. “I don’t believe you’re a woman,” she screams. “Only a man could be so selfish.” But though Irma tries another guy — at least one tentative kiss from Maxwell’s Frank – she comes to some potent realizations about love and family and acceptance. With candor and gravity, levied with humor, Anderson has managed create a piece on a serious issue that is neither campy nor treacly (though it has its moments of on-the-nose ‘education’ and preachiness ).
Each person on the stage has a different view of the shocking news, though they’re not all needed for Anderson to make her point. But it may be worth it just to see Leake take the gut-wrenching journey from crusty old coot, a farmer who wants a man to be a man, to a sniveling, demented baby calling for his mama, an independent bisexual woman who abandoned him early in life. And while two ‘lectures’ on anatomy from the school kid are fine, the one from the 20 year-old son is not only redundant but unmotivated (and to whom is it supposed to be directed?).
Talented director Lisa Berger, a recent New York transplant and a welcome addition to the local theater scene, displays admirable skill, but she makes one puzzling misstep. Toward the end, she has Roy walk toward an open upstage door filled with light, enticed by his long-dead grandma. This is a classic symbol for death, but there was no imminent demise; the moment was just confusing. But David Weiner’s serviceable set and Sarah Maines ’ otherwise appropriate lighting, served the production well, abetted by Shulamit Nelson’s spot-on costumes. Although the play has already been performed by the likes of Beau Bridges, Laurie Metcalf and Michael Learned, it still needs work. But the production, minor glitches aside, does a wonderful job of making us care… and making us think.
At Diversionary Theatre, through June 11.
“I lost somebody last year,” Devlin confessed during her recent, knockout performance at Schroeder’s Cabaret. “Myself.” Indeed. The formerly plus-sized actor/singer lost 169 pounds, and she looks like a totally different, and wholly beautiful person. She always had a sexy mien, but now she backs it up with a sexy bod . She said some people accuse her of taking “the easy way out” by having the surgery, but it was no picnic and there are certain foods (meat, carbonated beverages, etc.) that she can never eat again. The sellout crowd was loving how she looked and how she sounded. In three different outfits (none of them apparently completely comfortable or easy to manage on a stool), she sang her heart out, and blew everyone away. She’s great with narrative numbers, being, as she avers, an actor first. She’s terrific with torch songs. And her humor knocks the funny ones outta the park. She was a hit in New York when she performed at the legendary Birdland , and she’s due back in NYC soon. It was a treat to see her. Her mentor, DJ Sullivan, had a front-table seat, and many of DJ’s other students were there, too, including the adorable Daren Scott, with whom Devlin starred in Sullivan’s brave and wonderfully provocative production of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune .” I hope Devlin will still do some acting; she’s too good to lose. And her new look has opened her up to many more roles.
Schroeder’s is such a lovely, intimate cabaret setting, one of San Diego ’s only spots for this kind of performance. It’s about to celebrate a first anniversary. Don’t miss Todd Schreoder , the venue’s namesake and a fantastic pianist/singer, on June 11. On June 17, there’ll be a CD Release Party for golden-voiced local favorite, Sandy Campbell (with musical director/accompanist G. Scott Lacy). And the ever-popular, ever attractive Sam Harris is back for two shows on July 16.
MAD DOGS AND ENGLISHMEN
Perfection is rarely achieved, especially when doing Noel Coward. But the Carlsbad Playreaders came pretty darn close. Their final reading of the season, the deliciously acerbic “Private Lives,” was spectacular. In other hands, the play can seem musty and effete. It’s the story of Amanda and Elyot who, five years after the end of their tempestuous marriage, wind up in adjacent hotel suites on their respective second honeymoons. Kandis Chappell played the role wonderfully at the Globe in 1996, opposite Robert Foxworth (currently on Broadway in “Twelve Angry Men”). This time, Jim Winker was her flawless mate, a dry, wry bundle of haughty insouciance. Chappell magnificently matched him quip for quip and barb for barb. Under the pitch-perfect direction of Walt Jones (whose plop-clink sound effects were also marvelous), the pace was ideally amped and accelerated as the witticisms whipped by like poison darts. Ryan McCarthy (a second-year MFA student at UCSD) did a fine job as Victor, Amanda’s new husband, blustery but not as wimpy, idiotic or pompous as some. The real discovery of the evening was Sara-Ashley Bischoff, a 17 year-old senior at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla . She was spectacular, with her high-pitched, grating voice and her total believability in an incredibly whiney role ( Elyot’s new, young wife). This year, so says Bischoff’s bio, the National Foundation of Advancement in the Arts awarded her a scholarship, placing her in the top 1% of 17 and 18 year old theater students in the country. I second the motion! She’ll be attending Princeton in the fall; I only hope she comes back home to make some local theater. Kudos to the Playgoers, for a great inaugural season under new direction. Looking forward to another good one come September.
Congrats to all the volunteers who won STAR Awards on Monday night. They are the glue that holds the theater together. No one could do it without ‘em!
LEGENDS AND LEGACIES
Speaking of awards, Saturday night was a biggie for me. I was privileged to have been given a Living Legacy Award by the Women’s International Center ( HQd in San Diego). For 2+decades, the organization has been honoring (mostly) women who’ve made a difference through “excellence, accomplishment, philanthropy and humanitarianism.” I couldn’t believe the company I was in… As I put it in my poetic acceptance:
Over 22 years, it’s a Who’s Who read,
From Eleanor Roosevelt to Margaret Mead,
Gloria Steinem and Corazon Aquino ,
Golda Meir and Dianne Feinstein-o,
Sally Ride and Françoise Gilot
Beverly Sills and Maya Angelou
Barbara Jordan and Peggy Lee
Benazir Bhutto and Rose Kennedy,
Billie Jean King and Nanette Fabray ,
Lucille Ball and Deborah Szekely .
Even Mother Teresa is on the list,
And Marianne McDonald must not be missed:
Star introducer, sponsor, presenter,
For this wonderful Women’s International Center .
A great organization, more action than talk,
That Gloria Lane founded with Jonas Salk.
Incredible company! I feel blessed. Quite an assemblage at the event, too, at the beautiful new Solamar Hotel downtown at 6th and J. Iris and Matthew Strauss were there, and Zandra Rhodes, and co-chair Sally Thornton, who donated the wine. And of course, my fellow honorees: Laurel Burch, Tippi Hedren (who, due to health issues, unfortunately couldn’t be present) and County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, who’s done so much for so many arts organizations in San Diego. The Peace and Justice Award went to (a representative of) Tibetan monk Gankar Tulku Rinpoche , the Sistership Award went to singer/songwriter Lisa Sanders and a well-deserved Volunteer Spirit Award was bestowed on singer/songwriter/activist Bridget Brigitte, daughter of the wonderful, generous co-Chair, Marianne McDonald, who also nominated and introduced me. With the flowers and plaques, the excellent food and wonderful energy, and Jenni Prisk as consummate emcee, it was an incredible night, one I won’t soon forget.
LEARBERG? LEARFELD? LEARSTEIN? LEARBLATT?
“A Very Jewish King” is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Written by playwright and UCSD professor Allan Havis, the play premieres next week (one night only) at the 12th annual Lipinsky Family San Diego Jewish Arts Festival. The piece, set in 1930s New York , focuses on the leading actor of the fading Yiddish Theatre, who’s passing his land and legacy to his three actor/daughters. Helmed by Festival artistic director Todd Salovey, the staged reading stars TV’s Stephen Macht (“Raid on Entebbe”) as the father and Armin Shimerman (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nice,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Fool in the Rep’s recent “King Lear”) as his wisecracking, comical brother. I’ll be there to introduce the play and lead a post-performance discussion.
Wednesday, June 1 at 7:30pm, in the Lyceum Space in Horton Plaza .
JUST ADD WATER…
Instant Theatre is coming to San Diego . This is the wild, wooly, fly-by-the-pants theater created collaboratively in a frantic, frenetic 24-hour period. Up to 64 artists will be randomly grouped to write, direct and perform – off book and in front of an audience – 12 short, 5-7 minute original plays. Theater pros and non-professionals alike are invited to participate, by writing, directing or acting in the plays. In association with 6th @ Penn, producer/director Raab Rashi , Theatre Management and Directing alum of Rutgers University, is limiting his experiment (well received in New York and elsewhere) to 12 writers, 12 directors and 40 actors. So register early if you want to get in on the fun. The undoubtedly exhausting but exhilarating experience will culminate in two performances of the completed plays. To get involved, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, Sunday, June 26 at 6 and 8pm.
HOT NEWS FLASH
Billy Crystal just won a New York Drama Desk Award for “700 Sundays,” which was directed by Des McAnuff. In his acceptance, Billy thanked the La Jolla Playhouse, where the piece was developed. San Diego is on every theaterlover’s lips these days! So don’t miss the Tonys on Sunday, June 5.
BAD NEWS FOR PLAYWRIGHTS… AND CRITICS .. AND MINORITIES
On the eve of the first-ever National Critics Conference, bringing to L.A. the first gathering of music, dance, art and theater critics from all over the country, the media are buzzing about the irrelevance of critics.
A long column in the Los Angeles Times (5/22/05) entitled “Critical Condition,” and a similarly intense diatribe in artsjournal.com, noted that these days, cultural tastes are controlled mainly by savvy marketers — and critics, once America ’s tastemakers, have become marginalized. So what happened? According to the Scott Timberg in the Times, “besides the internet and its rash of blogs , suspected culprits include the culture of celebrity, anti-intellectual populism, stingy newspaper owners and what some critics say is a loss of vitality or visibility in their art forms.”
And this in the same week as the closing of the prestigious, 11 year-old National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University , the only program of its kind in America , dedicated to the advocacy of arts journalism. And the same week that Michael Ritchie, the new head of the Center Theatre Group (Ahmanson, Mark Taper Forum, etc.) in L.A. eliminated the company’s minority-based theater initiatives that were established by his high-profile predecessor, founding artistic director Gordon Davidson. As of July 1, there will no longer be the Latino Theatre Initiative, BlackSmyths or the Asian American Theatre Workshop, or The Other Voices Project, dedicated to the empowerment of writers and performers with disabilities. To save money, Ritchie also plans to cut readings and workshops conducted under the direction of playwright Luis Alfaro, who served as Director of New Play Development and who oversaw the Taper New Work Festival. Diane Rodriguez, Alfaro’s collaborator on the Latino Theatre Initiative, will remain as associate producer in charge of new play production.
At the same time, South Coast Repertory Theatre just abandoned its Hispanic Playwrights Project, which championed new work. The program’s director, Juliette Carrilo , expressed deep concern for emerging playwrights, saying, “It’s a very difficult and lonely task, and professional and financial success is a rarity. They need nurturing. The fact that [all] these labs were focused on ethnic groups that are already suffering from underexposure makes it even worse.”
Closer to home, Lamb’s Players Theatre sold its Playhouse on Plaza to National City, so Asian American Repertory Theatre is again without a home. Hopefully, they’ll be able to continue their play readings and new play development. Overall in San Diego, it’s actually a good time for new plays and budding playwrights, what with the Actors Festival, Fritz Blitz, Playwrights Project, Baldwin New Play Festival at UCSD, Jerry Patch (America’s ace new play scout, imported from South Coast Rep) taking up residency at the Globe, and the La Jolla Playhouse committed to developing new work in its new theater complex, we are sitting pretty… for now. Many other theaters have encouraged new work. We need risk- and chance-taking now more than ever. It takes public support to make all this happen, and to allow these programs to continue to flourish. So, as I always say… Go to the theater!!
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“ Viburnum ” – First staged at last year’s Fritz Blitz, this poignant, often-humorous play features excellent direction and an outstanding ensemble.
At 6th @ Penn, through June 12,
“Looking for Normal ” – beautiful performances in a flawed but fascinating play that tests the limits of love.
At Diversionary Theatre, through June 11.
“Late Nite Catechism” – ‘class,’ whether Catholic or secular, with or without ruler-whacking, was never this hilarious. Three alternating ‘Sisters’ explain it all and interact with the audience. Be careful what you wear, say or do. Sister is watching.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, Monday and Tuesday nights, extended through June 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 , ongoing.
It’s Memorial Day weekend .. so remember the theater!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.