By Pat Launer
Blanche always sets the night on fire
In Williams’ “A Streetcar named Desire.”
In “The Goodbye Girl,” nothing’s more absurd
Than an outrageously gay/fey Richard III.
Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, “A Streetcar Named Desire,” is a brilliant, complex study in dualities: repression vs. release, romanticism vs. reality, desire vs. betrayal, the carnal vs. the spiritual. Any production lurks in the shadow of the original, which opened in New York in 1947, featuring Jessica Tandy and Marlon Brando in heart-stopping performances. Also directed by Elia Kazan, the 1951 film version, though sanitized by the censors, was no less definitive (Vivien Leigh played Blanche; Brando reprised his super-charged, body beautiful Stanley). So it’s always with a bit of trepidation that one attends a performance of the play (especially one like me, who happens to adore it).
Well, I’m pleased to report that the UCSD production is outstanding. Second-year MFA director Joseph Ward, who last displayed his formidable skill helming the UCSD New Play Festival’s “Hopper Collection,” scores another hit, capturing the sweaty sultriness of New Orleans and the approach-avoidance animal magnetism of Stanley and Blanche. He doesn’t try to be ultra-clever or showy; he lets the poetry and power of the piece work its own magic. He’s cast well, and encouraged excellent performances from his ensemble.
Center-stage is Katherine Sigismund as Blanche, a fluttery, fragile, fading Southern belle whose veneer of refinement masks emotional starvation and sexual rapacity. She is much more blatantly flirtatious than some Blanches I’ve seen, and she unequivocally baits Stanley from the first minute she meets him. This blue-collar, Polish brute has bestial sexuality that attracts her and ultimately destroys her. Brian Slaten’s Stanley is a military kind of guy (there are references to his serving in “the 241st” with Mitch), down to his buzz-cut, buff-bod and machismo (he snaps Stella with a towel, whacks her on the butt and in one shocking scene — which is mirrored in a similar interaction between the upstairs neighbors — he slaps her hard across the face, knowing full well that she’s pregnant). He’s not one of those edgy, hyperactive Stans, nor does he have the steamy physicality of Brando. This Stanley seems controlled and controlling, biding his time, waiting for his moment to pounce. There’s a wild, feline, predatory sense in both these characters — he the virile lion, she the stealthy tigress. As Stella, Stanley’s ever-devoted wife, Genevieve Hardison is attractive, adoring, and palpably in love with her macho mate. The other characters do fine, and it’s a treat to see Spike Sorrentino onstage again (though he doesn’t do too much as the Doctor in the final scene).
Melpomene Katakalos has designed a spare, suggestive set, with metal steps and wooden platforms, wrought iron trim and a wood-slat floor. The apartment is furnished with a shabby icebox and cabinets, a lazy fan slowly rotating overhead. Emily Pepper’s costumes are lovely, especially for Blanche. And the sound design, by Joseph Sarlo (an electronic wizard concurrently pursuing a Masters in Engineering and a Ph.D. in Computer Music), is marvelous, a cacophony of street noise and streetcar sounds, angular jazz and bluesy undertones. Shirley Halahmy’s lighting maintains the mood.
If you love “Streetcar” as I do, if you haven’t seen it for awhile (or even if you have), this one gives you all the scorching intensity… and all the drama you need.
At the Mandell Weiss Forum Studio; through November 13.
So this arrogant, self-involved actor walks up to his new New York apartment and turns the key. The door is locked from inside, and he soon finds out that his fellow-actor friend has sublet him a flat that is still inhabited — by an ex-girlfriend and her 12 year-old daughter. The uneasy peace entails a reluctant sharing of the apartment — and other intimacies. Naturally, at the end, Boy Gets Girl (and Kid). Of course, you probably recognize the story. The movie of “The Goodbye Girl” (1977), written by Neil Simon, was a big hit, and it made Richard Dreyfuss the country’s youngest Oscar-winning male. So far so good. But it wasn’t, apparently, enough. In 1993, Simon reworked his screenplay, collaborating with composer Marvin Hamlisch (“A Chorus Line”) and lyricist David Zippel (“City of Angels” and Disney’s “Hercules” and “Mulan”), on a musical version that opened on Broadway to tepid reviews. In spite of the megawatt talents of Bernadette Peters and Martin Short (in the roles played onscreen by Dreyfuss and Simon’s ex, Marsha Mason), the show was a financial flop. Nonetheless, it was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, but it was up against heavy-hitters (with heavier subject matter) like “The Kiss of Spiderwoman” and “The Who’s Tommy,” not to mention Sondheim’s “Passion.” Most people agreed that the production, directed by Michael Kidd, was overblown. In 1997, a scaled-down version was better received in London.
It’s the revised, more intimate incarnation that Moonlight artistic director Kathy Brombacher has brought to her small Avo Playhouse stage. Design-whiz Marty Burnett has created a manually revolving set that quick-changes to an interior, a rooftop and various other locales with ease and expedience. The 5-piece band is wonderful (best in the jazzy, post-show exit improvisation) under the direction of Cris O’Bryon. Renee Kollar does her best to choreograph a chorus that really has amazingly little to do in the show (and the group she has to work with is less than consistently skilled as dancers — though Aaron Pomeroy and Marianne Nevitt are standouts).
The show is really all about the central trio, plus the cynical landlady, Mrs. Crosby, a stereotypical African American who’s just a foil until she gets to belt out one big, brassy number (“2 Good 2 B Bad”). Renae Mitchell doesn’t bring much character to her character, but her singing is terrific (she was a knockout in the long-running “Beehive” at the Theatre in Old Town). Marc Ciemowicz, one of the talented recent grads of the SDSU MFA program in musical theater, makes a hilarious cameo appearance as the wacko director of that ultra-gay production of “Richard III,” in which Elliot makes his disastrous (but unforgettable) Off Broadway debut. The outrageousness of that production is considerably toned down here, but it’s still funny (and Roslyn Lehman’s costumes are especially good in this scene).
As Elliot, Jason Heil is appealing (if a tad lispy at times) and charming, and Theresa Layne is credible as a wounded divorcee who’s more than a trifle tense and relationship-averse. Both are engaging, but there are no show-stopping or career-making performances here. Seventh grader Alexa Bergman (already a stage and TV veteran) makes the smartassed little Lucy a totally believable, if overly precocious kid. The main problem is the hokey corniness of the play, which is heightened by Hamlisch’s retro-sounding music. Zippel can turn a phrase, but he can’t hold a candle to Simon, and the disparity is noticeable. So the overall result is a somewhat sappy, bland, sweet puff-piece that seems dated and inconsequential. But it’s a pleasant diversion for an autumn eve.
At Moonlight’s Avo Playhouse, through November 21.
Gala, indeed! The Actors Alliance fundraiser was fantastic! It was my first time at Schroeder’s Cabaret in the Westin Hotel. And it’s a lovely venue — classy and intimate, with small tables and a full bar outside. The Silent Auction was fun; the highlight was Vally Flint walking off with the life-sized sheep from the Globe’s production of “As You Like It.”
The focal point of the evening, though, was the entertainment. The event opened with a set by singer/songwriter Todd Schroeder (the cabaret’s ultra-talented namesake). He is a charismatic presence, a fine singer — in his own style or covering anyone from Ray Charles (to/about whom he wrote a touching song, “No One Sings Georgia Like Ray“) to Billy Joel to Elton John. But it’s his piano-playing that really blew me away. Spectacular! Rock, blues, jazz, pop, ragtime — he’s a master of ’em all. His “Makin’ Whoopie” duet with the adorable Pixie Warren was great… and she brought tears to many eyes with her soul-stirring, a capella rendition of “Danny Boy.” Todd called on AASD leaders Jennifer Austin, Erin Cronican and Suzanne Oswald to serve as backup singers and they were cute, if unrehearsed.
Then the AASD fun began — with two numbers from North Coast Rep’s upcoming production of “The Last Five Years” (opening 11/20, directed by Peter Ellenstein, David’s brother). Erin Cronican and Jeremiah Lorenz got to strut their stuff and flex their musical muscle. There was plenty of Moxie in the house with a scene from the killer production of “Kimberly Akimbo” (soon to be reprised, at the Lyceum, under the Moxie banner and once again, the consummate direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, 12/4-24). Linda Castro, Matt Scott and Jason Connors were hilarious in their knife-edged car-scene. Delightful — and a little raunchy. Same could be said for Rosina Reynolds’ delicious little segment from “Shirley Valentine.” Director George Flint was laughing as if he’d never heard the lines before; everyone else was right there with him.
A great night all around. You’ll definitely wanna be there next year.
HOT STUFF, COMIN’ UP
Mark your calendar now…
… … January 10, 2005 — The 8th Annual Patté Awards (invitations should arrive early in December). If you don’t get in (we’re always wayyy oversold) you can catch it on KPBS TV in January (details and dates to follow).
… If you missed it in L.A. or on Broadway, you get another chance to see one of the most thrillingly unique musical productions ever. Deaf West Theatre’s “Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” returns to the Ahmanson Theatre for just two weeks in January — 1/11-23/05). The show, with music and lyrics by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman, premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse, and Des McAnuff took it to Broadway the first time (in 1985), where it won seven Tony Awards. But this bilingual English/ASL (American Sign Language) production brings incredible excitement and a whole new sensibility and depth to the show. I liked it better than any other version I’ve seen. The entire chorus engages in wonderful, Precision Drill Team signing, and in very creative ways, the deaf actors are given ‘voice’ and sign is provided for the hearing performers. It’s a glorious celebration of cross-linguistic interface, and it brings us the best of Twain, theater, sign language, musicals and hand-clappin’, foot-stompin’, feel-good entertainment — with a message of tolerance that would be well heeded right about now. 213-628-2772; www.ahmansontheatre.org.
… “Heroes and Saints,” a stirring drama about migrant farm workers, written by Chicana/lesbian/feminist playwright Cherrie Moraga, completes its run this weekend at the Centro Cultural de la Raza (2125 Park Blvd.). Talented actor/writer Sandra Ruiz says “it’s a beautiful drama … and director Megan Larmer has done a beautiful job. This is her last show in San Diego before she moves on to Chicago to become a star! I love the character I play in this play and would love to share it with you.” November 12 & 13 at 8pm.
NOW, HERE’S THIS WEEK’S ‘DON’T MISS’ LIST:
“A Streetcar Named Desire” — UCSD’s beautifully nuanced production, directed by Joseph Ward, features lovely, wispy Katherine Sigismund as a wonderfully fragile but steely and sensuous Blanche DuBois.
At the Mandell Weiss Forum Studio, on the campus of UCSD, through November 13.
“Macbeth” — Poor Players’ pared-down, bare bones production features a killer lead performance by artistic director Richard Baird.
At Adams Avenue Theatre, through November 14.
“Fit to Be Tied” — hilarious, dark, richly delicious. Director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and her excellent cast mine all the wacky, warped humor of Nicky Silver. Perfect holiday antidote.
At Diversionary Theatre, through December 4.
“Jersey Boys” — smash-hit world premiere musical, telling the rock ‘n’ roll, rags-to-riches story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Fantastic fun! Run, scamper, scurry — see it!
At La Jolla Playhouse, extended through December 5.
“A Dream Play” — gorgeous, riveting production that recreates a dream-state and turns reality upside down. Wonderful design work, compelling performances.
At Sledgehammer Theatre, through November 21.
“Dial M for Murder” — striking production of a Hitchcockian mystery. At Lamb’s Players Theatre, through November 14.
“Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” — LAST CHANCE to catch the Jack O’Brien-directed world premiere musical starring John Lithgow and the amazing Norbert Leo Butz. A little raunchy but very funny. hurry up; it heads to New York next week. At the Old Globe Theatre, extended through Nov. 14.
The leaves are officially falling (along with our political spirits) but you can put spring back in your step — at the theater.
©2004 Patté Productions Inc.