By Pat Launer
A super-wild weekend that exceeded five plays
And on TV, Candide , Malashock — and the Pattés.
There were Mice and Men, and Wrinkles galore,
The Playwrights Project and Burn This, and more:
The Playhouse Open House, a playwright-meeting day.
With all this drama, what’s to say but “Fucking A!”
Rabbits, mice, men, murder and even music… John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” has a long and colorful history. The novelist’s first attempt at writing a play (with the help of George S. Kaufman) was produced shortly after the novella was published in 1937. Directed by Kaufman, the premiere starred Broderick Crawford as Lennie and Wallace Ford as George. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1938. Films based on the play were made in 1939 (Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, Jr.) and 1992 (starring Steppenwolf Theatre alums John Malkovich and Gary Sinise , with screenplay by Horton Foote). The Carlyle Floyd opera was staged by the San Diego Opera in 1999. Earlier in the ‘90s, the novel was banned from various school libraries and curricula, for “profane language, moral statement, treatment of the retarded, and the violent ending.”
The play hasn’t been seen here since Larry Drake portrayed Lennie at the Old Globe in 1985. It was that heart-stopping performance that inspired the role of the developmentally delayed office clerk, Benny Stulwicz , which made Drake a household face for seven seasons of “L.A. Law” and earned him two Emmy Awards and three Golden Globe nominations.
Now along comes George Flint and his Renaissance Theatre, with a magnetic cast of young and veteran talent, and an electrifying revival.
The play is a searing examination of power and powerlessness, a study of migrant workers in Northern California during the Great Depression. It’s all about friendship and loneliness, harsh, hardscrabble reality butting up against the dream of independence, self-sufficiency and a little piece of property (“ livin ’ off the fat o’ the land”). The themes are timeless; the play remains unnerving and deeply touching.
George Milton and Lennie Small make an odd couple, but they’re mutually dependent: their brains/brawn, almost father/son relationship is symbolic, symbiotic and ultimately tragic. George has the words and plans, Lennie has the heart and affection. The characters assembled around these two represent variants of power or powerlessness. The power is in the hands of The Boss, his mean-spirited son, Curley, and even Curley’s wife. The men in the bunkhouse, on the other hand, have little control over their lives; they live from hand to mouth, job to job. The story is very much about loneliness and isolation, and how companionship can cut against those conditions.
Anchoring the powerhouse production is the empathic central pair of drifters: Joshua Everett Johnson (in his finest, most nuanced performance) as George, fiercely protective, compelling and compassionate — with an occasional, convincing flash of frustration or anger; and Daren Scott, who plays Lennie as a gentle giant, a severely retarded but heartful man-child, drawn to soft, furry things but unable to control his emotions and his brute strength. There may be a few too many mannerisms (the hand posturing and poorly articulated speech) but it’s a spellbinding performance. Throughout the play, we get foreshadowing of the dramatic crescendo to come, as Lennie repeatedly cradles his objects of desire and loves them to death. Nonetheless, the catastrophic ending may leave you breathless or even teary.
The production is frank and unadorned. Marty Burnett’s beautifully rugged, worn-wood bunkhouse is perfectly complemented by Jeanne Reith’s dusty, rustic costumes and Danielle Hill’s desolate sound design. Jeff Anthony Miller’s outstanding fight choreography makes the climactic moments truly shocking.
The supporting cast is unswervingly believable. Jack Banning is heart-breaking as the aging, one-handed Candy, who grieves pitiably for his dog, sentimentally recalls his long-ago but unforgettable cathouse experience, and offers up his lifetime savings, literally buying into George and Lennie’s dream, the one ray of hope in this bleak landscape. Charlie Riendeau is excellent as Slim, the pragmatic, tough but good-hearted muleteam foreman. Thomas Hall is a tornado of anger as Curley, and Jennifer Eve Kraus makes his wife flirtatious without being a floozy, lonely without being cloying or manipulative. As The Boss and another worker, Jack Winans and Joe Nesnow round out the assemblage, though the deleted old black hand , Crooks, might have added another dimension to the story.
Written one year before his masterpiece, “The Grapes of Wrath” (also at times banned from school libraries!), the novel/play’s title hews close to the theme of Robert Burns’ poem, “To A Mouse,” and its famous lines about “the best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,” which (to paraphrase from the Scottish dialect) often go awry, and leave us nothing but “grief and pain for promised joy.” The picture the play so vividly paints isn’t a pretty one; sadly, it remains all too accurate. Migrant workers still toil under punishing conditions (even here in North County !) and they still long for a better life. No matter how bleak, it’s always exhilarating to revisit Steinbeck country. Thanks for telling about the rabbits, George!
Renaissance Theatre at 6th @ Penn Theatre, though February 20.
“Burn This ” is one sexy, suggestive, squirm-in-your seat slice of theater. It’s an off-beat love story, one in which the protagonists say ‘Back off!’ instead of “Come hither!” They’re scared to death of each other.
Anna is a dancer-turned-choreographer who’s searching for the creative center in her life. When her roommate/close friend/fellow dancer, Robbie, dies in a freak boating accident, her other roommate, a gay, cynical, uber -New Yorker, and her spoiled rotten, screenwriter boyfriend try to console her and fill the emptiness within. And then, Robbie’s brother Pale comes barreling into her life. Pale is an angry, blue-collar rebel who’s looking for a place to cool the passions roiling inside him. She’s skittish; he’s drunk, reeking of testosterone and aggressively seductive, in that Bad Boy/Train Wreck way women invariably find irresistible. They should never have come together. They should never fall in lust, in bed or in love. But they do.
At Cygnet Theatre, guest director Kristianne Kurner (co-founder of New Village Arts) chose a spectacular cast: the stunning Jessica John, the electrifying Jeffrey Jones, and for ballast and comic relief, Manny Fernandes and David McBean. They all do a first-rate job. There’s only one problem; until the last scenes, there’s just not enough sexual tension – or frank, unalloyed sexuality — between and within the two protagonists. John digs deep within for her palpable anguish and grief. Jones is unparalleled with agitation, aggression and anger. But both actors, as attractive and alluring as they are, just don’t radiate the requisite heat. Their first meeting should be absolutely combustible… we should feel that we’re in Pheromone City . But their interactions start at a simmer, and only later come to a boil.
The costumes don’t help. Jones is wearing a suit, and when he takes it off, those blue print cotton boxers are just wrong – and a total turnoff. How ‘bout something fitted and sexy for a guy who’s ultra-macho and hyper-concerned about his clothes? Later, when John dresses up, she looks terrific in a black evening gown, but when she dons a supposedly erotic negligée , she just looks kind of ‘pretty in pink.’
Fernandes is appropriately vapid yet assertive as the rich-kid boyfriend, and Collen Kelly works wonders with the fight choreography. McBean is funny, but actually a little too low-key, not quite extreme enough for his prissy/cynical character – and his clothes, too, are more drab and shabby than upscale, uptown hip. Once Jones takes his shirt off, late in the second act, there’s more heat generated. But I never felt like these two really couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Everything, everyone was just a little too polite. Except for Jones’ hyper-manic, wild-and-crazy scene, where he’s downright scary when he unleashes his rage.
Sean Murray’s set design is a wonder, and actually gives the feeling of an expansive, Manhattan loft. But I didn’t quite get the blood-red stairs up to the upper level or the naked, peeling –paint walls. Eric Lotze’s lighting is lovely, including a couple of suggestive snowfalls, and Kenny Lewis highlights sounds of the city. I hope that, as the show progresses and the cast gets more comfortable in their roles, they can go deeper, to get to the juice. Then the show can really kick butt – or cross legs! – as the San Diego Rep’s 1990 production did. I think the potential is there; everyone has to pull out all the stops and let the inhibitions go. If they can’t lose themselves in the animal magnetism, neither can we .
GAY SKELETONS IN THE FAMILY CLOSET
Given three generations of hyperverbal females, it takes an awfully long time for the first of them (the oldest) to reveal her long-closeted secret. Playwright Rebecca Basham did a wonderful job on “ Lot ’s Daughters,” another Southern-set lesbian play that premiered here at Diversionary Theatre in 2002. That one seemed more ready for prime time, but it had been workshopped at Sundance and had more time to evolve and percolate. “Wrinkles” seems to be at an earlier stage of development. Though the play contains a good deal of crackling dialogue, warmth and down-home humor, it needs some trimming and condensing. It’s just too talky and at times, overly preachy and academic (can we get a bit less of Psych and Freud 101??). That said, “Wrinkles” is a delight. The characters are intriguing and at least two of them are unpredictable; the mother-in-the-middle remains fairly intractable throughout, a Queen of Denial. But that’s not such a bad thing; otherwise, the resolution would be too neat, tidy and happily-ever-after.
The Grandma and her granddaughter, played by Sally Stockton and Lisell Gorell-Getz, are terrific together. Stockton was having some trouble with lines on opening night, but her feisty, cussing, Southern tell-it-like-it-is septuagenarian is a kick. When we meet her, she’s packing up her house, and no one knows where she’s going or why. After a long treatise on the id, ego and superego by her super-smart, Ph.D. granddaughter, she finally spills the beans about her life of lies. Ellie goes into shock and remains in a semi-catatonic state for several days, unwashed and discomfited. In the tautly written second act, her mother (a prissy/proper Terri Park) comes in to check on her, and we find out that Ellie, too, has moved out of her place. but it’s not till the end of the play that she reveals why. Finally, at a Christmas gathering, Gram comes back and the three women are forced to face all the untruths of their lives. It takes too long to get there… and the ultimate revelation doesn’t come till the final moments of the story. But the performances are pitch-perfect. Gorell-Getz is especially wonderful; she has the most emotional terrain to cover and she does it with skill, energy and aplomb.
Basham has a lot to say, about gay generational differences – and similarities in coming out. There are enormous pressures and expectations to be “normal,” even for a professor of Women’s Studies in the urban academe of the 1980s. Fascinating stuff and charmingly stubborn, multi-faceted characters, with some great turns of Southern speech and a few really true-to-life knock-down, drag-out family free-for-alls. Basham, whom I re-met at a brunch on Sunday, knows of what she speaks – from many angles. She hails from the South, has lived in Kentucky , where both her plays are set, teaches college (creative writing, at Rider University ), is gay, and comes from a family of high-powered women. Her experience shows in the credibility of her work.
Once again, director Rosina Reynolds demonstrates a signature flair, and a sensitive feel for Basham’s characters and situations. And again she’s assembled the pitch-perfect cast and design team. David Weiner, fresh from his Broadway success creating the set for Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays” (and, he told me, Billy wants him to do another project. Woo- hoo ! ), has created a marvelously hideous living room, with flowered wallpaper and wood paneling, cheesy chintz easy-chairs and that godawful multi-brown sculptured carpeting everyone seemed to love in the ‘80s. Shulamit Nelson’s costumes are character-defining and Jen Setlow’s lights are just right.
There’s a little family insight here for everyone, and plenty about living the life you want, not the one you’re forced into. You go, girls!
OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES
Comedy ruled during the first installment of this year’s Plays by Young Writers, the 20th anniversary of the statewide competition sponsored by the Playwrights Project. I went to a morning performance with an audience full of kids –and what fun that was! Ranging from 6th grade through high school, the students remained rapt throughout the presentation.
The reading of “Purposely Mistaken” came first, a short, appealing piece written by 13 year-old Karen Barros . Genaro Aguilar, Angie Chan, Jo Ann Glover and Kelly Ozaki were engaging and adorable as schoolgirls focused on a male classmate, an old-fashioned guy who may or may not be interested in the gal who goes for him. Barros has a great ear for realistic teen dialogue and she set up a clever, meet-cute situation.
Next came “The Other Side,” a humorous and heartwarming play written by Teddy Steinkellner , a 14 year-old from Santa Barbara . It’s the humorous and poignant story of a sarcastic teen, his single mom and the attempts of a TV psychic to contact their deceased Dad. The play raises questions of spiritual and otherworldly belief, life after life and making contact with the dead. Esther Emery directs a delightful cast: Robert Wallace as the skeptical/cynical adolescent jokester, the ever-credible Diane Addis as his beleaguered Mom and Craig Huisenga , both straightforward and enigmatic as Jacob Jeremiah, the world renowned psychic.
The final play of Part I of the series was “Over the Asian Airwaves,” an all-out farce written by 18 year-old San Franciscan Lauren D. Yee. Set in 1949, the piece concerns a Chinese American woman who chooses her wild, chaotic existence at a struggling radio station over the staid predictability of a life with her conservative, controlling boyfriend. Farce is as difficult to write as to play, and here, both elements are spot-on. With the help of a “master of comedy,” Scott Patrick Wagner, New Works Director at North Coast Rep, Yee has created multiple overlapping situations and conversations. Co-directors Anne Tran and George Yé do a superb job of encouraging crackerjack comic timing and killer physical comedy (pratfalls and all). It’s a slight piece, but a paean to female independence and ingenuity. Angie Chan, Jason Hwang, Kelly Ozaki and Volt Francisco are great as the harried, sometimes hyperactive radio employees, while Giovanni Tejeda is aptly uptight as the boyfriend and Dana Hooley does a comic turn as the radio show’s primary sponsor, a relentless pusher of pork products – and her own plays. An amusing, invigorating piece of theater, well written and well executed.
Personally, I prefer the meatier work, but this year’s winners seem to be focused on young folks and their more entertaining interactions. Stay tuned for the next installment next week.
TAKE THE ‘A’ TRAIN
Suzan-Lori Parks is amazingly inventive. Her work is provocative. She plays with language like it was silly-putty, or a jazz instrument. She invents new forms for theater, new words for her off-the-wall dialogue. Her recent novel, “Getting Mother’s Body,” was quirky and delicious. Her plays are equally unusual and innovative. In 1997, the Fritz Theater brought us “The America Play” and in 2000, “Venus.” Two years later, Parks, already a Macarthur “genius grant” recipient, became the first African American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize — for her “ Topdog /Underdog.”
Now UCSD is presenting the local premiere of the play that preceded her prizewinner, “Fucking A.” Unfortunately, the title is the most interesting part of the piece. And its relationship to Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” is so deeply embedded, more like buried, that except for the name of the central character, and the ‘A’ emblazoned on Hester’s chest (not embroidered on her clothes, as with Hester Prynne ), you’d never even begin to think of that great American classic. Motherhood is about the only theme that remains.
This Hester was a scrubwoman for the despotic Mayor in a semi-futuristic, quasi-dictatorship in an unknown locale. When her young son stole bread from the family, he was ratted on by the Mayor’s wife and was sent to prison. Hester was given the choice of incarceration or becoming an abortionist, so she took the “A,’ which, by law, must always be prominently displayed. She kept herself alive in the hopes of earning enough money to buy her son’s freedom. For 30 years, she’s harbored that hope – and a raging, black-hearted vengeance against the woman who destroyed her life. While she is courted by the butcher and has a wonderful friend in the good-hearted harlot, Canary Mary, she plots revenge, never wavering from her misguided image of ‘angelic’ son as the antithesis of the demonic missus. Meanwhile, the ‘angel’ has turned into a fiendish demon called Monster. In the long-awaited visitation picnic, she meets instead with a stand-in prisoner, who proceeds to rape her. When she finally is reunited with her son, it’s too late for both of them.
The play has some truly fascinating dramatic moments. The production has some fine performances. But the whole seems relentless – too long, too dark, too repetitive. The invented language, ‘Talk,’ that only women speak, is intriguing. But we don’t need the supertitle translations, especially if they’re going to go by so fast that only the Ripley’s record-holding speedreader could catch them… and then, they’re so redundant – all about women’s body parts and body functions – that we hardly care. The imagination would interpret far better.
The weakest part of Parks’ theatrical experiment is what’s referred to in the opaque director’s notes as ‘ Brechtian songs.’ She should be so lucky. Her musical numbers are embarrassing; the lyrics are ridiculous and simplistic, the melodies monotonous and the staging crude and only very occasionally imaginative or amusing. And most of the cast, while capable actors, can’t handle the jagged, sometimes jazz-infused score. The interstitial, inter-scene music is often more interesting than the songs; the musicians, Arash Haile on drums and music director Crystal Li on keyboard, do a top-notch job.
The New York ( Lincoln Center ) production last year was directed by Michael Greif , former artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse. Apparently, he made more sense and sensibility of the work. UCSD faculty member Nadine George-Graves veers wildly between obfuscation and over-simplification. As Hester, Quonta Beasley presents a work-weary woman who had gripping, often fascinating interactions with Katherine Sigismund’s Canary Mary. Sigismund is, again, a riveting presence, as she was in her recent, stellar turn as Blanche DuBois in UCSD’s “Streetcar.” Mark Smith is wonderful as Butcher, impressive in his hilariously endless catalogue of his daughter’s sins, which say so much about the state of that state (and indirectly, of course, ours). She is “a bad seed, rotten to the core,” imprisoned for a litany of crimes ranging from prostitution to cyberfraud , from “claiming spouses” to “hanging upside down in a public space,” from “orgasm” to “smiling in the off-season… speaking her mind without a permit… having no sense of direction… slave-trading… speeding… and …laughing out of turn.” For shame! The three bounty hunters are occasionally comical; Bradley Felsicher is very funny as the pumped-up, self-serving Mayor, as well as the frighteningly intense Freshly-Freed Prisoner. Amy Ellenberger is fine as the First Lady, and Geno Monteiro is charismatic and dangerous as Monster.
Sometimes, it’s hard to tell whether the problems are the fault of the play or the production. In this case, seems like both. I’ll be surprised if this is what Parks comes to be remembered for – or the acclaimed UCSD theater program, either.
TV GUIDE ..
It was a great week for TV… I finally caught the UCSD-TV broadcast of Malashock Dance’s latest film effort, “Love & Murder.” Wow! What a knockout! The collaboration between choreographer John Malashock and UCSD filmmaker John Menier continues to be spectacular. Their first filmic effort, “The Soul of Saturday Night,” was terrific. This one’s much edgier, more suggestive, and highlights both men’s ability to meld bleakness, cynicism and whimsy. Set in the Millhaven Hospital for the Criminally Insane, and backed by the darkly evocative songs of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the gorgeous and chilling images re-enact the murders for which this therapy group of misfits was incarcerated. With it beautiful park, pier and playground settings in San Diego , its sex, angry, angular choreography and marvelous cinematography, this film is bound to be another big-time award-winner. Bravo to the Johns!
… “ Candide ,” a musical adaptation of Voltaire’s 1759 comic novella, was adapted into a musical by the ever-acerbic novelist/playwright Lillian Hellman , with music by the esteemed composer, Leonard Bernstein. When the show opened on Broadway in 1956, expectations were extraordinarily high. The lyrics were written by the young, promising John Latouche , as well as the renowned Algonquin Roundtable wit, Dorothy Parker, and the celebrated American poet Richard Wilbur. The production was staged by the esteemed theater/opera director Tyrone Guthrie and the cast featured two of Broadway’s best voices – Barbara Cook and Robert Rounseville . Alas, both audiences and critics were disappointed. The humor seemed strained, Hellman’s book was considered to be convoluted, and the show closed after 73 performances. But the cast recording immediately became a classic.
The 1973 revival by director Harold Prince and librettist Hugh Wheeler, with some additional lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim, also failed to satisfy theater purists. The “comic operetta” currently performed is an amalgam of the two prior incarnations, but there is still no ‘definitive’ version of the show. Yet, it retains many charms, as was evident in the PBS ‘Great Performances’ staged concert version that aired last week. Director/adaptor Lonny Price spiced up the staging with lots of comic bits, cute contemporary jokes and an expanded role for the Old Lady – wonderfully played by Patti LuPone . As Cunegonde , Kristen Chenoweth brought down the house with her gloriously operatic soprano and her endless onstage wit. As the love of her life, Candide , Paul Groves was all wide-eyed innocence (he also had great calves – and a voice to match!). Jeff Blumenkrantz was hilarious as the fey, foppish and spoiled Maximillian , Cunegonde’s whiney brother. Overall, a really fun, upbeat, fast-moving, well-sung production. Catch it if it comes around again!
Saturday was the La Jolla Playhouse open house… introducing the new arts complex (the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Center ) to the public. It was a great event – with tours of the facility, activities for the kids, and performances from upcoming productions. Excerpts from the straight plays were performed by Playhouse regulars Kim Walsh and David Fenner , and the musicals by the ever-delightful Joy Yandell-Yricko , along with SDSU MFA alums Matt Weeden and Kristen Mengelkoch . After all these sneak-previews, it still seems like the most exciting offering of the upcoming season will be the return of the Tony and Pulitzer-winning “I Am My Own Wife.” Molière’s “The Miser,” brought here from Minneapolis by Théâtre de la Jeune Lune , promises to be highly inventive and visually stunning, if their “Children of Paradise: Shooting a Dream,” presented at the Playhouse in 1993, was any indication.
The new Potiker Theater is state-of-the-art, an incredibly flexible black box that can hold up to 450 people (on the ground and up on the catwalk). What a delicious playground for McAnuff and company! The windowed rehearsal halls are also impressive. And I can’t wait for the café/restaurant to open. That’ll really finish the place off. The architecture is provocative and the views from the back are lovely. The event was excellently attended – there were at least 500 people there, or more. But I had to wonder, with an extra theater on the campus, where oh where is everyone gonna park?
Besides seeing the new theater space, the highlight of the day, for me, was Des playing with the Red Dirt Band (all of whom perform in “Jersey Boys” – and appeared at the Pattés). They had some new numbers in their repertoire, including “When Will it be Written?” a favorite of mine from a favorite show – “80 Days” — that the Playhouse produced and Des directed in 1988… with music by Ray Davies of The Kinks. Based on “Around the World in 80 Days,” the musical was technically elaborate and thoroughly delightful. I never understood why it didn’t go far; maybe it still will. The “Tommy” medley was as roof- rockin ’ as ever; it was funny to hear dynamite singer/guitarist Steve Gouveia introduce “Tommy” as “the second biggest musical in La Jolla Playhouse history.” “Jersey Boys” rocks! And, over its three-times-extended run, it was seen by more than 60,000 people!
MARK YOUR CALENDAR…
… Just in case you missed it – a re-broadcast of the 8th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence airs on KPBS-TV, Saturday, January 29 at 11:30pm on channel 15/cable 11.
….. Get ready for the musical theater concert of the year, with a musical theater Dynamic Duo, two of American’s most acclaimed song stylists: the Broadway legend Barbara Cook and the electrifying Brian Stokes Mitchell.
Cook, who starred on Broadway in such musical hits as “ Oklahoma !, ” “Carousel” and “the Music Man” (for which she won a Tony Award) has been dubbed “the greatest singer in the world.” ‘Stokes,’ as he’s called, who was magnificent as the original Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in “Ragtime” and wowed audiences recently in the Broadway revivals of “Kiss Me, Kate” (for which he won a Tony) and “The Man of La Mancha ,” grew up in San Diego and got his start at Junior Theatre. He is an incredibly charming, captivating performer, with a zillion-dollar smile. He has been named one of People magazine’s 50 most beautiful people. No argument from me on that score! Should be quite a show – and it’s only up the road a piece…
At the Orange County Performing Arts Centre in Costa Mesa , Jan. 28 at 8pm, one unforgettable night only.
THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED‘ LIST:
“Of Mice and Men” – Renaissance Theatre’s searing production of the John Steinbeck classic. Marvelously acted, directed and designed. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through February 12.
“Burn This ” – highly combustible theater. An offbeat love story that seethes at Cygnet Theatre; through February 13.
Plays by Young Writers – the Playwrights Project’s 20th annual presentation of new works by writers age 13-19. This year’s crop leans heavily on comedy and adolescent angst- lite . See the writing stars of tomorrow today. At the Cassius Carter, through January 23.
“Wrinkles” – three generations of high-powered, hard-nosed Southern women reveal secrets they didn’t know they shared. Outstanding performances. At Diversionary Theatre, through February 19.
“36 Views” a stunning piece of theater; beautifully written (by former San Diegan Naomi Iizuka ), gorgeously directed (by Chay Yew). At the Laguna Playhouse, through January 30.
The theater season is heating up — warm yourself by its fire!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.