By Pat Launer
“What’s new?” you say, in a theatrical daze;
The UCSD Baldwin Fest of New Plays.
This year’s a doozy. Oh Baby! Oh, Mama!
Well-wrought comedy, irony and drama.
The UCSD Baldwin New Play Festival started off with an incredibly Big Bang.
The aptly named Mat Smart has written a spectacular piece of theater called “The Hopper Collection.” Somewhat in the vein of books such as “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and “Girl in Hyacinth Blue,” this is, in part, the imagined backstory behind Edward Hopper’s provocative painting, “Summer Evening.” But it’s so much more than that. It’s a little bit “Virginia Woolf,” in the vicious games played by an older couple before, during and after the visit of a younger couple. It’s about the effect of art, the damaging delusions of life, the price paid for love — and its healing power, too.
Daniel and Marjorie are fabulously wealthy and their art collection is breathtaking. Her favorite piece is the Hopper. He’s never even looked at it. He loves her. She detests him (and tries to push a cyanide Coke on him). She’ll swallow any manner of chemical support to get or keep herself ‘together.’ She’s regal, imperial; he’s a former boxer, “a brute.” And she brutalizes him because he doesn’t live up to her ‘standard,’ one set many years before and (nearly) impossible to equal or exceed.
Into their lives — apparently, the first visitors they’ve had in years — come Edward and ‘Sarah.’ He’s got brain cancer; she’s an aspiring artist. They were drawn together, and to this house, because of the Hopper. It’s all about the power of art — to move, change, destroy and/or repair lives.
The writing is spectacular. Smart has a wonderful ear for dialogue and a heart for humanity. He’s funny and wise. His characters are complex and fascinating. And they’re magnificently inhabited by a stellar cast: Lisa Velten is regal, imperious and certifiably (but engagingly) nuts as Marjorie. Brian Slaten is sadly addicted to her, and will do anything to make her love him. It’s a powerful, pitiful and touching performance. Mark E. Smith poignantly balances the loopiness of Edward’s hangdog lovesickness and his serious illness. And then there’s Christine Albright, who’s already graduated, but is back (along with a few other alums) to contribute to this year’s Festival. She has a luminescence onstage that’s hard to describe but impossible to ignore. She radiates; it must be ‘star quality’ (I wish her well and have high hopes for her in her move to New York).
Astonishingly, the piece was directed by a first-year MFA student, Joseph Ward. Of course, none of the MFA students at UCSD are real novices; Ward has credits at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, among others. Here, he does a masterful job teasing outstanding performances from his cast, making every move count and keeping the tone right and light, highlighting the humor while underscoring the dark undertones.
The scenic design, by first-year designer Kim Ehler, is also impeccable: an open-work 3-sided room sporting blank ‘canvases’ of different sizes. It’s modern, airy, suggestive, excellently enhanced by the lighting design of second-year student designer Shirley Halahmy. The costumes of Elsi Thompson (first-year) are wonderful, especially for the women. Perhaps intentionally, Daniel’s clothes reflected his blue-collar past more than his present wealth. A bit jarring, just as at one — and only one — point, he has a lapse of self-improved speech, saying “Feels good, don’t it?” It’s unnerving, in this generally well-spoken company, but presumably, Smart is exposing Dan’s true colors — which he does incisively with each of the characters.
Overall, this was a thoroughly, completely satisfying evening of theater. The play was deliciously unpredictable. Every time I thought I knew where it was going, it took a hairpin turn. What a triumphant piece of work. Bravo to all involved!
Next up on the schedule was “Two Hands, Very Tired” by second-year MFA student Barry Levey. Thematically, it also concerns the power of art, or more aptly, its value, significance and influence in the face of poverty, homelessness and unhappiness. Barbara was studying sculpture, but when her father leaves her mother and takes up with an art collector her own age, she turns away from art as something frivolous and useless. Instead, she takes a job doing social work, arranging jobs for untrained shelter inhabitants. She soon learns that it’s all about politics, numbers and putting people in any job, not necessarily the right one. Then she meets everyone’s biggest challenge, Bronson, who doesn’t really want a menial job; he’s an artist who wants his art to be seen, even if all he draws is Tron. Torn between her officious boss, Ivy, her new gallery-owning stepmother Andie and Bronson, she begins to learn who she is and what she wants. What altruism is — or isn’t. And what art can do for a person and for a society.
The first act is terrific. The characters are well played, fascinating, compelling and/or amusing. It’s not clear where it’s all going, and we willingly follow along, seeing each of these folks first as caricatures and gradually getting under their skins and seeing who they are, what makes them tick and why they want what they do. But then the second act comes and everything is tied up far too neatly, sitcom-style. I was so intrigued until events and actions took a disappointingly conventional turn. Still, Levey has a great feel for dialogue and dialect (as do the actors) and director Larissa Kokernot mines the humor and keeps the pace admirably snappy.
The performances are uniformly excellent: As Barbara, Teri Kretz is a master of self-deception, Samuel Stricklen is wonderful as Bronson, who’s flip but deep, and ultimately admirable. Ryan McCarthy is very funny as “Professor” Peter, the Russian alcoholic who tries desperately to do well on his first day at Starbucks. But, overworked and overloaded, heavily accented, he tells an angry, impatient line of customers, “I only have two hands, very tired.” Hence the title; it’s a knockout monologue. Katherine Sigismund is comical as the unlikable Ivy, and Quonta Beasley is hilarious is the world-weary wise-ass, “Rummy.” Amy Stewart rounds out the cast as sophisticated Andie. Melpomene Katakaolos’ set is aptly office-gray and angular, transforming nicely into Andie’s minimalist, upscale gallery.
Levey has a lot on his mind — about art and society, wealth and poverty, social workers and their clients, elitism and honesty. If his resolution were, like life, a bit messier, he would have sustained the high level of drama he began with. “We do what we’re good at,” Andie finally convinces Barbara. “We do what we can.” Levey, like his colleagues in the UCSD MFA playwriting program, certainly can write. And he should stay true to his vision. He has a lot to say.
The third full-length play of the Festival (there are also one-acts and a reading coming up this weekend) is “The Weight of Paper” by Rachel Axler. She’s a third-year playwriting student, but in some ways this feels like a sophomore effort. It’s comic and satirical, but though she’s thrown in a few quirky characters and situations, we feel like we’ve seen it all before. And there’s a darkly disturbing message under her irony: while skewering amorality, there’s also a sense of condoning it. Only one character here has any ethics, or thinks he has. Though every character transgresses, some in very big ways, none of them pays or suffers. In fact, everyone gets rewarded at the end, and some other, unknown guy takes the rap. There’s an adolescent, after-school TV-movie feel to this piece.
We meet two roommates, the wimpy nice-guy Ben (adorable Andrew Smith), who’s trying to get a job in publishing, in order to follow in the footsteps of his long-dead mother (who met a goofily untimely demise in the line of duty, as it were). And then there’s Colin (‘yo-dude’ Bradley Fleischer), an unredeemed idiot, though he’s a supposedly hyper-intelligent, anarchistic, trust-fund tech-nerd who does dastardly deeds, with impunity, just because he can, and just to mess with the system — whether the system is the U.S. Presidency or his friend’s life. He’s funny but in a very unappealing way. Perhaps that’s a mark of success in the context of the play. But he gave me the willies.
Ben has an interview with the man-eating Sharon (Genevieve Hardison), a foul-mouthed, ballbusting bitch who’d never survive onstage for a nanosecond if she’d been written by a man. Kira (Jennifer Chang) is another unsavory character whose motives are often nefarious and never fully clarified. Toward the end, we meet Phil (Owiso Odera) an inept FBI-man who, as played, turns the whole play into a farce, changing the pace and tone of the entire endeavor.
Perhaps this is writing in the mode of Neil LaBute, with his young, brutal, unethical, unscrupulous characters. But you want to like Ben. And you understand the wrong turns he takes. Rather than being appalled, as with LaBute’s work, we feel more annoyed. We want these people to grow up, get a life, if not a conscience. I felt a good smack upside the head might’ve helped all of them.
The performances made these characters come alive, even if we like them even less once they’re fully fleshed out. Odera’s over-the-top, farcical portrayal of Phil has to be credited to director West Hyler, who needs to maintain a more consistent tone. The set design had a sort of frat-house Beavis and Butthead mentality, as did most of the play. Axler’s two previous Festival efforts, “Archaeology” and “The Disappearance Conundrum,” were more fully realized and rewarding comic fantasies. This isn’t easy turf; hope she keeps treading it.
ELSEWHERE ON THE CAMPUS…
Groundbreaking conceptual artist and UCSD Faculty Emeritus Eleanor Antin opened her latest show at the University Art Gallery on Friday. It’s a gorgeous series of 13 large-scale color photographs titled ‘The Last Days of Pompeii.’ In this provocative work, Antin is drawing strong parallels between that ancient, hedonistic, on-the-road-to-destruction society and our own. Using actors and models, she ‘staged’ these voluptuous, color-drenched, life-size scenes at the home of Marianne McDonald, at Salk Institute and around the campus. Don’t miss the show — and be sure to check out the ‘Making of..’ video in the little side-room. At the UCSD University Art Gallery, through June 12.
UCSD Stage Management professor Steven Adler, who has on and Off-Broadway SM credits, has been named provost of Warren College. Kudos for the academic step up… but here’s hoping the foray into Administration doesn’t take him too far from the theater students who undoubtedly benefit from his extensive experience.
UCSD alums in the News:
Jenny Morris (MFA ’98) and Quincy Bernstine (MFA ’99) are currently Off Broadway, starring in “Matt and Ben” (as in Damon and Affleck). Ironic that, like the erstwhile wunderkinder they portray, these two young women were also college buddies.
On the Broadway musical stage, Mary Catherine Garrison (MFA ’99) plays Squeaky Fromme in the new revival of Sondheim’s “Assassins,” for which Sledgehammer co-founder Robert Brill (BA ’86) designed the sets.
Douglas Wright’s “I Am My Own Wife,” which began life as the inaugural La Jolla Playhouse Page to Stage production, was just awarded the Pulitzer in Drama. And its spectacular star, Jefferson Mays (UCSD MFA ’91), has just been nominated for an Outer Critics Circle Award for solo performance. It should’ve been for Outstanding Actor in a Play; hope the Tonys get it right. His was one of the most brilliant, subtle, nuanced performances I’ve ever seen.
And at SDSU….. President Stephen Weber presented 25 Outstanding Achievement Awards on Saturday night, for ‘extraordinary contributions to the community’… and I was lucky enough to be among the recipients. I was recognized for service ‘above and beyond the call of duty’ in developing the Patté Awards. It was a lovely event, and I got to giggle all night with the President’s wife, Susan (we were the ‘naughty kids’ all evening!) I really appreciated the recognition, and the 23K gold-plated, inscribed SDSU clock that came with it.
And now, for THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST
UCSD’s Baldwin New Play Festival — lots of great new work; so far, the best of them is “The Hopper Collection” by Mat Smart, playing Wed. April 21 and Sat April 24 at 8pm. Check out the other new plays, too, through the 24th at various venues on the campus. http://theatre.ucsd.edu
“Oedipus at Colonus” — sharply relevant new translation, compelling performances; at 6th @ Penn, through April 25.
“The Gingerbread Lady” — wonderful ensemble work, delicious performances; serious Simon; Renaissance theatre at Cygnet; through April 25.
“M. Butterfly” — the most amazing (true) story ever told! Excellently co-produced by Diversionary and Asian American Rep; at Diversionary Theatre, through May 8
We’ve gotten two months in one: the showers and the flowers… And lotsa bloomin’ theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.