By Pat Launer
Comedy, tragedy and everything between:
A Nerd, a seamstress and an opera queen.
Intimate Apparel’s tale subtly unfolds;
Emotions are Wagnerian in Twilight of the Golds .
THE SHOW: Intimate Apparel , a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the most frequently produced play this year, written by the highly acclaimed Lynn Nottage
THE STORY: Nottage loves to poke around in the nooks and crannies of black history, finding and expanding on untold tales. This time, inspired by a few old photos, circa 1905, Nottage created Esther Mills, a seamstress who sews glamorous underthings (hence, the title) for ladies wealthier than she, in this case, a neglected white wife and a black saloon prostitute. Esther worked her way up from the South, and for 18 years, she’s been squirreling away money, dollar by dollar, so one day she can open a luxury beauty parlor for black women that makes them feel pampered and indulged. She’s good-hearted and hard-working, but she’s definitely got a dream – and a romantic streak. Unhappily, she’s 35 years old and still single, holding out for Mr. Right (huffily rejecting Mr. Good-Enough or Mister Nobody). One day, she gets a letter from a lusty Barbados worker on the Panama Canal , and even though she’s illiterate, she figures out a way to continue the correspondence, which culminates in a marriage proposal. Esther’s interactions with her busybody landlady, her Orthodox Jewish fabric-merchant, her white upper-crust customer and her earthy black hooker friend, not to mention her randy new husband, make for a captivating and ultimately heartbreaking evening of theater. And a potent commentary on the boundaries and constraints of class, color, religion, friendship, trust and love.
THE PLAYERS/ THE PRODUCTION: Gifted director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg has assembled an outstanding cast, and teased from them subtle, nuanced performances that get to the soul of these complex characters and their mixed messages and motivations. Opening night started off a tad shrill, but soon the proceedings thrummed like a finely crafted, well-oiled machine. At the hub of the action, providing ballast and sensitivity, is the marvelously still, centered Lisa Renee Pitts, whose Esther is a fascinating and unpretentious woman who deserves a lot more than she gets. She does get some surreptitiously sizzling moments with Mr. Marks (excellent, responsive Lance Arthur Smith), the textile-man whose religious beliefs prohibit him from touching a woman. But the two of them sublimate through fabric, lovingly stroking the cloth and communicating their palpable connection and commonality. By contrast, husband George (convincing Michael A. Shepperd ) is a man of base instincts and needs. Lisel Gorell-Getz is sympathetic and surprising as the lonely, shallow, neglected, wealthy wife and Lisa H. Payton is lively and energetic as the hooker who’s also had to put aside her dreams. Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson rounds out the cast with a forceful portrayal of the overbearing landlady who’s made a few compromises of her own. There’s a wide diversity of relationships here – sensitive, abusive, stilted, needy – wonderfully explored by Sonnenberg and her stellar ensemble.
Tucson-based scenic designer Fred Kinney has created a wondrous bi-level set, which provides a playing space for each of the characters – the cheesy brothel, the elegant lady’s digs, the shop of the cloth-man and upstairs, behind a scrim, lit in evocative blues and fuchsias and hot-sun yellows (gorgeous lighting work by talented Jennifer Setlow), a space for George to compose his letters from Panama. Jennifer Brawn Gittings ’ costumes effectively define era and personality. Overall, it’s a beautiful, heartrending production.
THE LOCATION: San Diego Repertory Theatre, through April 9.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: The Twilight of the Golds , the provocative, semi-futuristic comic drama by Jonathan Tolins
THE BACKSTORY/ THE STORY: When Jonathan Tolins wrote and set the play, in 1993, young, talented New Yorkers were dying in droves (it was the height of the U.S. AIDS epidemic). Perhaps the rawness of the story, the fact that it was too close to the bone, gave it a surprisingly short run in The Big Apple. I was blown away when I first saw it at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts (a co-production with the Pasadena Playhouse) in 1993 and again at Sweetooth Theatre (with George Flint as the dismissive, deluded father) in 1996. It was a frightening and inflammatory premise: What if it could be determined in utero that a baby was going to be born homosexual? How much can we/should we play God? How far should genetic engineering go? How deeply ingrained is homophobia? Family loyalty? Unconditional love? And where do we draw the lines?
David Gold, a set-designer-in-training, sees life as opera. He is gay, and he’s fighting for his life. If his sister Suzanne and her geneticist husband decide to terminate the pregnancy on the basis of the information they’ve just received, they are in effect obliterating him, erasing his life. David repeatedly draws parallels between the final opera in Richard Wagner’s mythical, larger-than-life ‘Ring Cycle’ — “ Götterdämmerung ,” The Twilight of the Gods – and the traumatic plight of his neurotic Jewish family as it struggles and dissolves. In The Twilight of the Gods, the fate of the gods hangs in the balance; ultimately, the opera chronicles the end of the world as it was. David is hyperbolic, didactic, cynical and emotional (and also very funny). But big things are at stake here, and the results are tragic.
THE PLAYERS/ THE PRODUCTION: Director Rosina Reynolds is in firm command of the play. But the piece itself gets in the way. Structured like an opera, the ‘arias’ – monologues wherein each family member steps forward, talks to the audience directly and presents his/her side of the unfolding events – get tiresome and repetitive. Too much is spelled out; little is left to the audience imagination. But the issues inherent in the text offer a great deal for the viewer to ponder, and the blistering ‘What Would I Do?’ questions are inevitable. Despite its structural flaws, the play is certainly worth seeing, the ideas are well worth contemplating. With Human Genome mapping complete, we are on the cusp of a New World Order, and we’d all do well to think long and hard about what we’re getting ourselves into.
Onstage at Diversionary, Matt Weeden , a talented graduate of the SDSU MFA program in musical theater, anchors the piece with a witty, compelling and touching performance. He interacts perfectly with Amanda Sitton , who plays his sister, a spoiled, materialistic, underemployed and ultimately confused princess to a T. Their sib scenes are marvels of credibility, the strongest in the production. Joshua Harrell makes Suzanne’s husband neither a villain nor a geek, but a straightforward straight-arrow whose biases are buried beneath his unquestioned faith in the power of science. The parents are a little trickier, written very Jewish (on opening night, playwright Tolins , who hadn’t seen the play in years, chafed at the local newspaper reference to ‘stereotypes’: “if you think these are stereotypes,” he said, “you haven’t met my family!”). They are definitely familiar to this Long Islander, too. Glynn Bedington, a highly competent actor, is just trying too hard with the Noo Yawk dialect, slowing down her speech to a crawl, dragging out every whiny syllable. She nails the manner and mannerisms, but not the speech patterns, and her efforts feel strained and unnatural. Fred Moramarco is more believable, but he was a little shaky on lines on opening night, and hadn’t yet mined the depths of the food- and money-obsessed man beneath the hunger and avoidance.
David Weiner’s set is too minimalist for a yuppified “Ikea-decorated” Manhattan apartment and the Wagnerian ‘ring of fire’ on the back wall, though effectively lit (Jeff Fightmaster ), seems a tad cartoonish. Shulamit Nelson’s costumes are excellent for everyone except David; a 1990s opera queen who works at the Met should be dressed far more hiply in town, and that ‘off-duty’ lumberjack look was way off base.
So there are some quibbles with the production and the play. But, for its searing, frighteningly timely moral dilemmas, and some wonderful performances, it definitely should be seen.
THE LOCATION: Diversionary Theatre, through April 1.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THAT ‘70s SHOW
THE SHOW: The Nerd , one of the two frequently-produced plays of the late Larry Shue (the other is The Foreigner)
THE BACKSTORY/ THE STORY: Larry Shue was born New Orleans in 1946; he grew up in Louisiana , Kansas and Illinois . His sister Jackie was the other member of his performing duo, “The Dancing Shues .” Shue’s life and career, as actor and writer, were cut short by a 1985 commuter plane crash in Virginia during an electrical storm. He was 39, a Baby Boomer who worked to turn his Vietnam-era cynicism into comedy. For my money (okay, I don’t pay for my theater tickets), The Foreigner is a much funnier play. This one is, well, nerdy. It tries to address a few issues, however superficially: talented people becoming too complacent; being too passive to take control of your life. And it’s about friendship – the limits of loyalty and obligation, and pals who insist on “being cruel to be kind.” But there isn’t much sense looking for deep meaning here; the play is shallow, silly and supremely shtick-infested. But it provides lots of opportunity for character acting. And overacting.
The slight story focuses on a sort of spineless nice-guy named Willum who has a flourishing career as an architect, a decent apartment, a circle of buddies and a semi-serious girlfriend, who wouldn’t be moving to Washington, D.C. if he had a little more “gumption.” Oh, did I mention it’s set in Terre Haute , Indiana in the late ‘70s? Easy mark for humor. One of the characters is a theater critic, though there was, in reality, a less-than-stellar theater scene in this coal production town. No wonder he just hangs around getting soused at Willum’s . He is, however, invited to the dedication of the new arts center, which is reportedly made “entirely out of creosote” (not that funny a line, and most people don’t get it). So that’s the ho-hum ‘establishing shot.’ And into the mix barrels Rick Steadman, the eponymous guy who saved Willum’s life during the war. Willum feels that he owes his Purple Heart-winning savior big-time, forever, so he’s willing to put up with Rick’s clueless, endlessly annoying behavior. For awhile. This factory-drudge yahoo from Wyoming is the ultimate social misfit, and the only strategy three seemingly sane and intelligent young adults can come up with to get rid of him is trying to out-nerd him.
THE PLAYERS/ THE PRODUCTION: David Hay, who’s been gone from San Diego stages for too long (from 1993-2002 he was artistic director of Center Repertory Company in Walnut Creek, CA), was an associate director at the Old Globe, and one of the creators of the Globe/USD MFA program in Acting. This play was an odd choice for his local ‘ comebac ’; presumably, he can do better if he gets the opportunity. He’s rounded up a pleasant enough cast, and they do their best with the limited material. James Vasquez is thoroughly likable as Willum , and wide-eyed, comical Kristen Mengelkoch is perky as his maybe-mate. Christopher Williams, so memorable in The Chosen, tosses off those cynical/critical lines with aplomb, but his is a grating (and thoroughly un-Midwest) character. Terri Park is very funny as the tightly-wrapped, plate-smashing wife of Warnock “ Ticky ” Waldgrave , a strait-laced money-man who’s commissioned a hotel from Willum (stalwart Charlie Riendeau, trapped in a thankless role). The high-strung couple has an obnoxious, untrammeled kid in tow (poor Ari Lerner doesn’t get to do anything but slam doors and scream). They’re all there for Willum’s birthday. And before the theatergoing evening is over, lots of liquor will be drunk, cottage cheese will be spewed and spattered, bizarre headgear will be borrowed from the kitchen and there’ll be jokes about macaroni salad. The entertainment is primarily provided by Ted Reis, who sounds delightfully like he just got off the boat from Wis -GAHN-sin, and makes the insufferable, oblivious boor amusing, even if the entire assemblage overstays its welcome.
Marty Burnett’s homey, woody set is nicely detailed (props by Bonnie Durben ) and Shelly Williams’ costumes are creepily, humorously ‘70s for all. It just adds up to so much ado about so little that you just have to wonder Why . But if slightly shopworn, goofball, door-slamming farce is your thing, knock yourself out. If you want to see a really funny farce, much quicker-witted, hilariously executed and stacked with social commentary, hie thee to 6th @ Penn for What the Butler Saw (through 4/30).
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, through April 16.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Critic’s Picks)
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Intimate Apparel – beautifully conceived production of a heartbreaking turn-of-the-last century story.
At the San Diego Repertory Theatre, through April 9
The Twilight of the Golds – provocative premise, admirable ensemble
At Diversionary Theatre, through April 9
The Playboy of the Western World – excellently done (if a wee bit heavy on the accents); skillfully combines all the drama, grisly humor and hero worship Synge intended
New Village Arts at Jazzercise in Carlsbad , through April 1
Into the Woods – well played, well sung, well seen
At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through March 26.
My Fair Lady – spectacularly inventive production; beautifully designed, directed, acted and sung
At Cygnet Theatre, through April 23.
What the Butler Saw – deeply disturbed, hilariously funny. A pitch-perfect black farce, wonderfully acted and comically timed
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through April 30.
Doesn’t feel like Spring – but feel free to take root and blossom at a theater near you!
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.