By Pat Launer
It was a week of dramatic hopes and fears
And three — just count ’em! — world premieres!
Scoundrels and Brooklyn Boys satisfy.
Theater can surely feel Cool as We Fly!
Give them what they want. That’s the opening number and the underlying theme of the musical, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,“ now premiering at the Old Globe. The two woman-fleecing conmen think they’re giving the gals what they want –a little excitement, a little pizzazz. And that’s what the creators of the musical are doing, too. Give ’em a splashy, singing-dancing musical, with a bona fide movie/TV star, and wealthy people in gorgeous surroundings wearing fabulous clothes…. Who could ask for anything more?
As the program informs us, over 5000 glass beads and 800 hand-dyed feathers were used in Gregg Barnes’ lavish, luxurious costume designs. Not to mention David Rockwell’s stunning but dizzying set (in constant motion, including chandeliers dropping down, the French Riviera and Mediterranean floating in, palm trees on the move, etc. etc. etc.). And then there’s Jerry Mitchell’s choreography, a dance for every possible song-style, and David Yazbek has composed a few doozies, including the foot-stompin’ “Oklahoma?” and everything from hiphop to Latin to waltz.
But it’s not all glitter and glam. There is a plotline here, too, based on the 1964 film, “Bedtime Story” and the 1988 Michael Caine/Steve Martin comedy, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.” The characters may not be nice, but they sure are fun.
Jeffrey Lane has crafted a very funny book, fleshing out several back-stories, including the wealthy, downhome, Oklahoma cowgirl (comical, talented Sara Gettelfinger) who wants to rope herself a man, and a romance between two secondary characters, the crooked French cop and the sarcastic American socialite. But the “Sleuth”-like multiple scams and deceits are what make this story sing. You’re never quite sure who’s doing or out-doing whom — up until the very last minute. Even if you’ve seen the movie, the plot-twists are deliciously unpredictable. So sit back, suspend disbelief, don’t expect anything deep or meaningful, and have yourself a terrific time. Director Jack O’Brien sure knows how to deliver the goods; he always sends an audience home happy. And once he and his team trim this puppy down from nearly three hours, and lose some of the ballads and slow scenes, it’ll be more than ready for its Broadway debut this winter.
So who are these Wise Guys? Well, there’s Lawrence Jameson, the suave, veddy English grifter who frequently poses as a deposed Prince trying to raise money for his war-torn (fictional) country. The wealthy female tourists fall for it every time; he’s actually getting a bit bored by it all. Then into his life trips the klutzy but crafty, crude and conniving American lowlife, Freddy Benson, whose cons are lower class but no less effective. Sensing opportunity (as he always does), Freddy convinces Lawrence to take him into his chateau and give him some elegance and élan. Soon they’re operating as partners, but tiny little Beaumont sur Mer isn’t big enough for both of them. They pick out a likely mark and make a bet: the first one to bilk her out of $50,000 gets to stay in town, and the other has to depart for other ports. Maybe it’s a little sad that we root for the bad guys — and the bad guys win. But the book and lyrics are so clever, we’re more than willing to go along for the often-exhilarating ride.
John Lithgow has all the requisite style and sophistication for Lawrence, who’s a snooty, self-adoring snob. Lithgow is a consummate actor, but he’s weak in the singing and dancing department. His perfect foil (and frequent scene-stealer) is the ebullient triple-threat, Norbert Leo Butz (did he really go through life with that name??) whose comic timing is impeccable, and whose antic stage business is hilarious. And boy, can he sing! You can’t take your eyes off him when he’s onstage, even if he’s reduced to the gross, sniveling, drooling, leg-humping Ruprecht (created by Jameson to deflect the strangulating advances of the cow-pie cutie-pie from Oklahoma).
As the ultimate object of their competitive cons, Sherie Rene Scott seems naïve and sincere. She gets most of the serious songs, but Yazbek adds a bit of vinegar and spice to even the most tender ballad. His lyrics are irony-clad. The ever-amusing Joanna Gleason plays cynical perfectly as Muriel Eubanks (that’s Muriel of Omaha), who dresses to kill and slays the unsuspecting (and under-written) Andre, the crooked chief of police with the heart of gold. The teeth have been taken out of this role, but Gregory Jbara makes the character charming if not ruthless.
The ensemble is attractive and accommodating in all those multitudinous dance styles, but some of those numbers are gratuitous and unnecessary. The whole show needs to lose some 20 minutes or so. Some of the songs –and orchestrations — sound astonishingly similar to the brass-heavy “Full Monty” (e.g., compare “Great Big Stuff” and “Big Ass Rock”). But the principals are, of course, the same (Yazbek plus legendary orchestrator Harold Wheeler and music director Ted Sperling). This is a talented team, to be sure. And they’re almost there.
It’s a Dirty Rotten shame that the show is having such a short run; it’s the hottest ticket in town.
At the Old Globe Theatre., through October 31.
BOY IN THE ‘HOOD
“Brooklyn Boy” is the name of a semi-autobiographical novel written by the central character in the play of the same name. The world premiere, by Daniel Margulies, is the third play commissioned by South Coast Repertory Theatre. The two previous pieces — “Sight Unseen” and “Collected Stories” — were terrific. And, of course, Margulies won the Pulitzer for “Dinner with Friends.” Well, it looks like the South Coast crowd has got another winner on their hands — already heading for New York (this is a co-production with Manhattan Theatre Club, which opens the play at the Biltmore Theatre in February).
Like the magnificent “Sight Unseen,” it’s about the price of fame. Like “Collected Stories,” it’s about the line between fact and fiction — and whose life is it, anyway. As in both those plays, a central issue concerns how art is created — and from what source.
Ironically, in a New York Times interview a few days ago (9/27/04), Margulies said the play” reflects aspects of my life, but it is by no means a dramatization of my life.” which is pretty much exactly what his main character, Eric Weiss, says about his novel. Margulies related how it was his friend/fellow playwright, Herb Gardner (author of “I’m Not Rappaport” and “Conversations with My Father”) who urged him, as a writer, “to go back to Brooklyn.” To which Margulies reports replying, “It took me years to get out of Brooklyn.”
And so it is with Eric, who goes back to the old Brownstone neighborhood to visit his dying father. He also runs into an old childhood friend, who’s become an Orthodox Jew in the intervening 1/4 century since they last met. At first, Eric doesn’t recognize him “out of context.” To which Ira retorts, “This is Brooklyn; this is the context.” Indeed.
It’s all very recursive. The critics said Eric’s book had “a rueful ache.” And the same can be said of Margulies’ play. In the first act, there’s a great deal of laughter, but it’s definitely of the painful recognition kind: for instance, a father who can’t bear to give his son one word of praise, pride or support. When told Eric’s book is number 11 on the New York Times Best Seller list, he says, “You mean there is an 11? I thought it only went to 10. Good thing they made it longer.” His father barely looks at the book, says he hasn’t got time to read it. Former-friend Ira, on the other hand, hangs on Eric and his every word. He’s adoring unto annoying obsequiousness. He begs Eric to acknowledge that the secondary character was inspired by him. Poor, pathetic Ira, still living in his parents’ house, sleeping in their bed, running the deli they owned. “You’re our local boy made good,” he says to Eric with awe. “Our Sandy Koufax.”
And then there’s the shiksa wife. Also a writer, she hasn’t had anything published in years. And she can no longer keep up or compete. Plus, there were all those miscarriages. She wants a divorce. Eric goes to L.A., where Paramount has optioned the book. His agent thinks his story should be less Jewish. He’s on the verge of losing both his story and his soul.
Everyone is lost here; no one is happy. They’ve all settled, and they’re uncomfortable in their skin and their locale. For a long time, the play is unpredictable, even if its characters are stock. Margulies writes terrific dialogue, he creates fascinating characters. He knows his Brooklyn Jews… and he’s not bad in Hollywood, either. But he cops out at the end. His resolution is unsurprising and unsatisfying, the father returning from the dead to say all the things his son wishes he’d said all his life. The father explaining why he undermined Eric all those years: he couldn’t compete with his son — intellectually, or in his wife’s eye. “Two adoring parents would be overkill,” his father tells him. “I gave you something to write about.”
But there’s so much more here. “How do you do it?” people ask Eric repeatedly. How is art made? And he (perhaps like Margulies?) feels a bit less than creative in mining his own life for material rather than creating his stories out of whole cloth.
The play has warmth and depth and many intriguing issues. Margulies should rework the ending. That would make the piece thoroughly, instead of almost, satisfying (does that sound like his father? Well, I was born in Brooklyn, too).
“Brooklyn Boy” could not have gotten a more magnificent production. Daniel Sullivan is a magnificent, skilled and subtle director; he’s not showy or show-offy. He gets out of the way, and puts the text center stage.
The San Diego connections to this production are strong. SDSU’s Ralph Funicello has designed one of his very best sets: an endlessly malleable construction with a so-real-you-can-feel-it, three-story brownstone in the background — lighted windows, fire escapes and all — which looms over the other settings that glide forward soundlessly from its center: a hospital room, a waiting area, a sleek, sparse Manhattan apartment, a slick L.A. agent’s office. UCSD’s Chris Parry lights it perfectly, and Michael Roth’s sound mournfully punctuates the action.
The cast is impeccable. Adam Arkin is wonderful as the adrift, ungrounded Eric, who doesn’t quite feel at home anywhere. Allan Miller is better as the sick than the ghostly father, but he sure is potent (aptly kvetchy and crotchety) in that deadly first scene of father-son confrontation. The other players nail the secondary characters: Arye Gross as the pitiful Ira; Dana Reeve as the chilly, insecure wife; Ari Graynor as the Valley Girl author-groupie; Mimi Lieber as the super-L.A. agent; and Kevin Isola as the prancing, blonde-streaked, up-and-coming actor who’s dying to play the lead role.
This is one of those plays that’s bound to make it in New York, and you’ll kick yourself for not seeing it on this coast first. Go [back] to Brooklyn; you’ll be glad you did.
At South Coast Repertory Theatre, through October 10.
A friend suggested that Ruff Yeager’s new play, “Cool As We Fly,“ made him think of “The Sound and the Fury,” Faulkner’s radical experiment in form and technique. Three-fourths of the 1929 novel comprised interior monologues, opaque pieces of a puzzle that add up to a highly dysfunctional, self-destructive family. The first section is the “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.” The end of that “Macbeth” quote, one might recall, is “signifying nothing.”
Here, we surely get the dysfunctional family. and the interior monologues. The fantasies, the rationalizations. The structure is very complex, impenetrable for a great proportion of the 90 intermissionless minutes. It takes most of the observer’s time and energy just trying to figure out how all these disparate people relate, and ultimate, where each bent, broken branch hangs on the family tree. The tie that binds them all together is not dumb, or even mute, but deaf. Through sign language, she interprets their painful losses and longings. But why is she deaf? And why is she played by a hearing actor?
Yeager has a great deal on his mind, perhaps too much for one play. There’s childbirth, infertility and adoption, cancer surgery and child abuse, Nazis at the door, deceptions, narrow escapes, self-destructive tendencies and suicide attempts. We spend more time wondering than caring. But there are some gorgeous images here, expressed in wonderfully poetic language.
Esther Emery has directed with a finely nuanced touch. The actors are uniformly excellent. Rachael Van Wormer did a wonderful job of learning to sign and her expressive face is a wonder to behold. Besides flexibly playing several roles, male and female, John Martin served as translator/instructor. Not all the translations or productions were precise, but the artistic beauty and fluidity of sign language were well conveyed. Van Wormer’s wide-eyed, knowing innocence is irresistible. She even manages a credible ‘deaf voice’ (hopefully, this will help people stop, for once and for all, calling them ‘mute). But with a huge deaf population in San Diego, why go back to the bad old days of impersonating Others?? Even with wonderful actors… it’s un-PC, retro, and uncalled-for.
Kim Strassburger and Wendy Waddell continue to improve on their recent series of excellent performances. Strassburger is fine as the German woman (why no accent??) who is forced to give up her child, Waddell aching as the unhappy woman who adopts and then abuses him. As that unfortunate son, Juan Manzo does a wonderful job, though he’s not half as fey as written and self-described.
The play spans and transcends time and place. Without the Director’s Notes, we wouldn’t know that each character exists in a separate decade. Only in their dreams are they brought together, as young Emily (Van Wormer, existing in 2004) listens to and assuages them, serving tea from her tiny toy tea set, and translating their free-form flying fantasies into art-sign. There is a great deal to commend here; some tweaks, changes and clarifications would make the play fly, just like the title.
At Adams Avenue Studio of the Arts, through October 9.
There are still tickets left for the San Diego Shakespeare Society’s 3rd annual Celebration of the Sonnet, Monday, October 4 at 7pm on the Cassius Carter Centre Stage. I’ll be the emcee, and the list of presenters — from theater, arts, radio and education — just keeps growing and getting more impressive and exciting. Theater-folk include: Jonathan McMurtry, Jack Montgomery, “TJ” Johnson, Richard Baird and playwright Stephen Metcalfe and his 13 year-old daughter. Other visiting dignitaries include: the Opera’s Nic Reveles, word-maven Richard Lederer and his new sidekick, Martha Barnette, City Schools Superintendent Alan Bersin, international triathlon champ Scott Tinley and KPRI’s ‘Madison in the Morning’ (Keith Miller). Strolling Elizabethan musicians and the Queen herself (actress Tara Pool) will be there. Hope you are, too.
Proceeds benefit the Shakespeare Society’s Education Fund for establishing the first annual county-wide Shakespeare Festival for students grades K-12, slated for 2006.
Tix are $15 at sandiegoperforms.com or the ArtsTix booth in Horton Plaza.
ART FOR ART’S SAKE
Bulletin!! October 1st is the official California Arts Day, established to bring focus and attention to the arts created in our state, and to further the idea of arts participation by ALL Californians. The California Arts Council, in partnership with the San Diego Performing Arts League and the Commission for Arts and Culture, encourages you to Create, Participate, Celebrate and Support the arts on Arts Day (and every day!!).
Show how much you value the arts by visiting a museum, attending a concert, shooting a video, painting a picture, writing a poem, dancing, singing, beating a drum, blowing a horn (your own, if you’re an artmaker!), reading a book to a child or taking him/her (and/or yourself) to the theater.
Join with other Americans across the nation in commemorating National Arts and Humanities Month, throughout October. And here at home, celebrate California Arts Day and recognize the major impact the arts have on California’s economy, the education of our children, and the civic life of our state. Without culture, we aren’t a culture.
AND NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS‘ PRODUCTIONS:
“Brooklyn Boy” — Donald Margulies’ painfully funny world premiere (headed for NY in Feb.) about a best-selling author, the price of success, and going home to the old neighborhood. At South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, through October 10.
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” — Jack O’Brien-directed world premiere musical starring John Lithgow and the amazing Norbert Leo Butz. A little raunchy but very funny. Catch it here, before it heads to New York. At the Old Globe Theatre, through October 31.
“Two Rooms” — tense, gripping drama about terrorists’ hostages — and the families who are left behind. Stone Soup Theatre’s excellent production will be reprised for a special performance Nov. 1 (the night before the election), at SDSU with a post-show discussion.
“A Raisin in the Sun” — terrific production of a ground-breaking classic that’s still timely and touching. Ion Theatre in association with Common Ground Theatre and the San Diego Council for Fair Housing. At the Lyceum, through October 3.
“Remains” — the world premiere of Seema Sueko’s semi-autobiographical play, and her new Mo’olelo Theatre. Searing drama that tells the MidEast story from a fresh perspective. Excellently directed and acted. Janet Hayatshahi has taken over Seema’s role. At ARK Theatre, through October 3.
“Thief River” — taut production, sad story … of homophobia (and intolerance) in small-town America. At Diversionary Theatre, through October 2.
“The Chosen” — North Coast Repertory Theatre artistic director David Ellenstein has poured his heart and soul into this lovely, touching reworking of Chaim Potok’s acclaimed novel. A marvelous ensemble and a glorious production. At North Coast Rep, extended, and director DAVID ELLENSTEIN takes over in the role of the Narrator for the last two weeks — great excuse to see it again! through Oct. 31.
Yikes! October already! Time flies when you spend it all at the theater!
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.