By Pat Launer
Halpern and Johnson have grieving to do,
Sharing a woman — and betrayals, too
But at least we can’t say it’s all Much Ado .
THE SHOW: Halpern and Johnson, the second play written by London-born playwright and novelist Lionel Goldstein
THE BACKSTORY: In 1983, the play became an HBO special, starring Jackie Gleason and Sir Laurence Olivier. David Ellenstein, North Coast Repertory Theatre artistic director, helmed the expanded stage version in its American premiere at the Coconut Gove Playhouse in Miami (starring Hal Linden and Brian Murray). But this time, for the second American production and the West coast premiere, he got to choose his own players – two of his long-time colleagues and friends. When I spoke to the playwright, who was in town during rehearsal (for text-tweaking), he told me on opening night that he didn’t really make up very much in this tantalizing story. But he wouldn’t divulge more details, or even if the story was autobiographical. But he did say that in reality, the two men never met.
THE STORY: The piece opens in a Queens cemetery. An older, stopped, yarmulke-clad man is obviously bidding farewell to his wife. Soon, he’s joined by another man, who also seems quite moved at the graveside. As the plot evolves, we find out that the ‘other man’ knew the wife (her earthy husband, Halpern , called her Flo ; the debonair Johnson refers to her as Florence ) for more than the 50 years of the marriage. As the history unfolds, Halpern is by turns furious, miserable, incredulous, remorseful ; ultimately, he reveals his own secrets. Johnson experiences a range of emotions, too. Both men fantasized an existence they never got to experience. They shared a woman, and a lifetime of regrets. Perhaps it’s a stretch to think they end up as friends and regular companions; the ending is a little too pat. But the piece is poignant and touching, often funny and definitely heartrending… all about loyalty and betrayal, honesty and fidelity.
THE PLAYERS: As he so often does, Ellenstein has cast astutely. And revisiting a play (as he did with The Chosen ) allows him to dig deeper into the characters, and encourage the same in the actors, punctuating their emotional forays with a little movement here, a bit of stage business there, to underscores the melancholy and minimize the sentimentality. (The deflated soccer ball in the fountain worked great; the doll in the trash, less so).
The New York-based Grossman, who has 40 years of stage experience, was magnificent in both his previous roles at North Coast Rep: the Italian Mafioso in Breaking Legs and the charismatic, tough-but-tender rabbi in The Chosen. He’s outstanding as the zhlubby Halpern , with his slobby habits and excessive talk about his personal plumbing. He gets most of the funny lines, and he delivers them with flawless comic timing. He plays off McMurtry with aplomb. This is a deliciously subtle, unfussy, precise performance from McMurtry, long a San Diego (and especially Old Globe) favorite. As the fastidious Catholic CPA, he is upright, uptight and pretentious, but there’s sadness in his eyes and disappointment in his demeanor. These aren’t just caricatures, or scenery-chewing performances that make you aware of the craft; you lose yourself in the characters just as the actors have, and you feel the grief and sorrow in both these defeated men.
THE PRODUCTION: Marty Burnett has created a suggestively verdant setting with a large stone fountain that rotates on a turntable, from the spare cemetery to a picnic bench in a park. Relying a bit too heavily on Bobby McFerrin/Yo-Yo Ma duets, Robert May’s sound design soars in the outdoor details (birds, children’s laughter, a helicopter) that anchor the locale. Lovely. And Jeanne Reith’s costumes are delightfully character-defining. A wonderfully disheveled look for Halpern , and dapper, elegant outfits for Johnson (love that swanky camel bowler and matching scarf!).
THE LOCATION: North Coast Repertory Theatre, through February 19.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
SPY vs. SPY…
THE SHOW: Much Ado About Nothing is one of Shakespeare’s ‘romantic comedies’, but it has dark undertones in the secondary love-tangle; it’s all about slyness, spying and subterfuge.
THE BACKSTORY and STORY: The play’s treachery and betrayal obviously made the British/American Aquila Theatre think of all those Cold War spy shows of the ‘60s (‘Get Smart,’ ‘The Avengers,’ ‘The Mod Squad,’ ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’), not to mention old shaken-and-stirred James Bond. So they glommed that look onto Much Ado, but though there’s plenty of meddling and machinations, secrets, betrayals, eavesdropping and lies, it really isn’t a very good fit. It all seems forced and unnecessary. The mini-Cooper that’s pushed around the stage nearly steals the show. It certainly outshines the final-scene singing of the surprisingly unmusical cast. The stylized moves and costumes (skin-tight leather jumpsuits for the three great-looking gals, suits and bowlers for the guys, which make each gender group nearly indistinguishable) are cute and clever, but they don’t add anything to the mix. Linguistic agility’s the thing here, especially in the nimble, rat-a-tat interactions between the brilliantly combative Beatrice and Benedick. Jessica Boevers and Anthony Cochrane handle the language extremely well (but do they really have to look like Steed and Mrs. Peel to do that?). There is a surfeit of silliness, which was also apparent in the 2003 production of A Comedy of Errors that Aquila brought to the La Jolla Playhouse. The one-trick/one-shtick conceit wears thin after awhile; it’s kind of like a ‘Saturday Night Live Skit’ that starts out with someone’s single great idea, but soon overstays its welcome and has nowhere to go.
As for the story, which is supposed to be set in 13th century Italy , the central focus is on the confirmed unmarrieds , Beatrice and Benedick, who get duped into falling in love. And on the night before his wedding, the Florentine lord Claudio is deceived (by the dastardly bastard, Don John) into believing (too willingly) that his virginal fiancée, Hero, is treacherous and two-timing (not to mention damaged goods). Then there’s Hero’s death-ruse and Claudio’s remorse and all’s well that ends well, more or less.
THE PLAYERS, THE PRODUCTION: The bare-bones, unit-set production allows the company to take the show on the road; all it requires is bringing a huge Union Jack for a backdrop and borrowing a mini-Cooper from a local (there were nearly a dozen displayed outdoors on opening night. Those things really look like circus clown-cars). There’s minimal costume-change, except for the chameleon Louis Butelli , who plays the villainous Don John, the dopey Dogberry (a role he fairly throws away; one of the least funny Dogberrys I’ve ever seen) and the sporadically loopy Friar Francis. There is unquestionably a great deal of talent in this group, but as precise as their productions are in terms of staging and timing (directed by Robert Richmond, who also adapted and co-created the piece, with Peter Meineck ), it all seems so … adolescent and unchecked. This production conceit is an odd choice; if a watered-down, dumbed -down Shakespeare is meant to appeal to young people, all the references are way beyond their ken. The ‘60s? They’re sick of it, and never watched any of those shows anyway. But if all this sounds like it appeals to your humor or would diminish your Bardophobia , you might want to join the throngs who saw this show during its (astonishing) six-month run Off Broadway.
THE LOCATION: 6th @ Penn Theatre, through February 5.
…It was a great week for readings.With the powerful lure of four hot prospects on Monday night, all I could do was to draw lots. And The Birthday Party won. This was an Actors Alliance On Book/ OnStage presentation, at Diversionary Theatre, directed by George Flint. I’m never sure exactly how much direction goes into these readings. There certainly isn’t much rehearsal (this one had three pre-show meetings, and never a full run-through). The skill is in the casting. And Flint brought together a lovely, lively group. Ron Choularton is always spot-on in Pinter, though he had a very small role here, as the taciturn husband of the loquacious Meg (Annie Hinton, extremely ditsy, playing for laughs). Liv Kellgren did a fine job in a small role (the hapless neighbor, Lulu). Overall, in this ‘comedy of menace,’ the production went more for the comedy than the menace. That’s not totally unfortunate, since most people treat Pinter, our most recent (highly and commendably political) Nobel winner, as deadly serious. Deadly he is, but also quite slyly comical. Of the six performers, only Joshua Everett Johnson and Matt Scott nailed the inherent danger. Johnson is a wonder, getting more forceful, compelling and convincing with every role. Ralph Elias, always solid, was a little too jocular as the ominous, threatening boss -man, Goldberg. As his sidekick/ hitman , McCann, Scott was scary, but often unintelligible (between the gum-chewing and the heavy, mumbled brogue, it was challenging). Though the timing was excellent, in terms of the dialogue, aggression and physical interactions, the head-scratching enigma of the piece was underplayed. And exactly who’s who and what’s what is at the heart of this disturbing 1958 drama that seems, like many other older works of threat and intimidation, more relevant than ever today, when people are being hauled off right and left, incarcerated without legal counsel, tortured, imprisoned or uncharged for extended periods of time. In this seedy English boarding house, we never do find out exactly what Stanley is hiding from, or why these two men have come for him. And there’s another undertone in the play that is basically ignored here. That is the Oedipal relationship between Meg and Stan. In this version, she was sort of innocently flirting and he wasn’t brutal enough in his rebuffs, but the text intimates that more may be happening in their afternoons at home than meets the eye. Meg was played as practically mentally deficient, smotheringly maternal rather than emasculating and infantilizing. But there were enough very strong moments to make you want to see another fully fleshed-out production. Because Pinter remains so timely he’s scary, so scary he’s great.
…The next night, January 24, back at Diversionary again for the reading of This is Our Youth, the play that established the reputation of playwright/screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan (The Waverly Gallery and Lobby Hero have been seen on local stages; his screenplays include “Analyze This” and the award-winning “You Can Count on Me”). This was Lonergan’s first play and it showed how brilliant he is with pitch-perfect dialogue and flawless rhythms of speech. His three disenchanted Upper West Siders in the 1980s (“like, whatever”) , children of privilege soon to become slacker Gen- Xers , aren’t exactly a lovable bunch. But they do have their moments.
The three performances, directed by Joey Landwehr , were absolutely mesmerizing. These ARE our youth, some of our most impassioned and most talented. Brandon Walker was heart-stopping as the pompous, edgy, abusive druggie Dennis, who takes advantage of the wretched, geeky Warren , also abused by his father, who’s just kicked him out of the house. Tom Zohar struck absolutely every right note as Warren – self-conscious, insecure, anguished over his sister’s murder, terrified of his interaction with the hottie , Jessica (Rachael Van Wormer), and like all these lost young soulless souls, hurting desperately inside. That hurt was repeatedly palpable on the stage. Van Wormer, looking delectably punked out from her Beautiful Thing gig, was perfect as the sometimes mature, sometimes infantile and petulant Jessica, the only one who’s in school (even if it is a trade school – Fashion Institute of Technology), and the only one with some semblance of a relationship with her parent (all these kids’ folks seem to be divorced). The parents are the misguided children of the sixties, most of whom have thrown out their hippie values and become money-grubbing, materialistic pigs of one stripe or another. And what’s ahead for their hyper-critical offspring? They didn’t exactly turn out to be the paragons of our society.
Every moment on that stage was so real you could taste it. I do have a few gripes with the last few minutes of the play, which become reductive and didactic. But Walker handles his final crazed outburst so well you forgive the writer for his excesses. A more interesting ending would have been after the coke hits the floor. But never mind. These actors were so passionately committed to this project that they totally became these characters, showing their pain, anger and supreme vulnerability. Brandon called the experience “exhilarating,” praised Landwehr’s direction to the sky (Joey soon takes over as artistic director of the J* Company), and confided that they’d actually had eight 4-hour rehearsals. Wow! That’s a LOT for a reading! On the night of the performance, they surprised themselves at how much they knew of the text; they rarely even referred to their scripts. Amazing. This piece should be seen – by everyone (except, perhaps, by the 10 year-old who was sitting in front of me with his mother; needless to say, with all the sex, drugs and raw language, they didn’t make it back for the second act!). Joey made a fervent plea for someone to pick this up as a full production. I wholeheartedly second the motion.
THAT PATTÉ KEEPS REPEATING ON ME….
For the first time, you can watch the 9th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence – any time! Go to www.patteproductions.com ), and click where it says “ The show can be seen HERE.’
THEATERMAKERS ON THE MOVE…
Two adorable and beloved local actors are moving into management positions… but we’ll undoubtedly still see them onstage… Jessica John has become the new Marketing Director of New Village Arts. Jessica, stunning in so many stellar productions—in her own Backyard Productions, at Cygnet, Diversionary and NVA — is about to play the leading lady, Pegeen Mike, in NVA’s Playboy of the Western World. ( opening March 11). And last year, she was singled out by San Diego Magazine as one of ’50 Faces to Watch in 2006. So watch her!!
Jeannine Marquie, who also had a great year in ‘05… with a life-changing opportunity to work with Théâtre de la Jeune Lune in The Miser at the La Jolla Playhouse, and a magnetic performance in the Patté Award-winning Munched at the Fritz Blitz of New Plays, among many other performances. Her latest role is as artistic manager of Mo’olelo Performing Arts Company. She’ll be working closely with artistic director Seema Sueko (they have comparable talent, diminutive cuteness and ultra-high energy) on company operations, including artistic programming, producing and fundraising. One of her first projects will be developing Mo`olelo’s technical theatre education program. Jeannine has a strong educational background, and besides being seen at the Rep, Starlight, Sledgehammer, Diversionary and the Playwright’s Project, she has served as the Master Electrician at North Coast Rep.
Onward and upward to both these gifted and gorgeous women!
David Ellenstein will be directing Sonia Flew by Melinda Lopez at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. The show, which opens April 23, will star Lucy Arnaz and her daughter, Kate Luckenbill . Then, in July, David will direct Honky Tonk Angels, by Ted Swindley , at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Hope he’s scoping out potential productions for North Coast Rep (see Halpern and Johnson, above)!
Speaking of Alabama, SDSU Musical Theatre MFA alum Merideth Clark, who’s been living and working in New York (you may remember her singing “Raunchy” at one of the Patté events), is off to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, too – for six months — to play Antonia in Man of La Mancha and Olivia in Twelfth Night. She recently had a solo gig at the renowned Bitter End on Bleecker Street , singing and playing guitar.
The National Comedy Theatre has been selected out of hundreds of entertainment groups to perform for the U.S. troops overseas. In February, they’ll start a 4-week tour that goes to Iraq , the United Arab Emirates , Qatar , Djibouti , Bahrain , Kuwait and Saudi Arabia . This is the fourth time that NCT has been selected to perform for the Armed Forces. “It’s just like Bob Hope’s tours,” says NCT artistic director Gary Kramer, “except for the dancing girls and the celebrities … and Bob Hope.” One of the local performers, David Tierney, is a former Marine who served in Desert Storm; this will be his first time back to the Middle East since then. “I dropped my keys in the sand when I was there before,” he says. “So this will be my opportunity to get back into my apartment.”
MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD
StoryCorps , a multi-year project sponsored by NPR, CPB and the Saturn Corp (yup, the car), is coming to San Diego . The idea is to take a Mobile Booth around the country to obtain an oral history of America . Here’s how it works; pairs of people (friends, lovers, family) step into the booth and one person interviews the other, guided by a trained facilitator. At the end of the 45-minute session, participants get a CD of their interaction, and with their permission, a copy will be sent to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, where it becomes part of a digital archive. KPBS and SDSU are co-sponsoring the local visit, and KPBS will air a selection of the local stories, some of which may also air on NPR. StoryCorps is a project of Sound Portrait Productions, a non-profit public radio documentary production company.
The StoryCorps Mobile Booth will be at SDSU from Feb. 9-20, and will move to Balboa Park Feb. 23-March 5. To make a reservation to record an interview, go to kpbs.org.
COMING TO A THEATER NEAR YOU…..
…Moxie Theatre is presenting a one-night production of Eve Ensler’s world-famous Vagina Monologues to benefit the Community Resource Center ’s Domestic Violence Program. Every year, Ensler makes the rights available to benefit productions around the globe that raise awareness and help stop the violence against women. Last year, more than 2500 V-Day benefit events were presented. The date is Monday, February 27 at 7:30pm at the La Paloma Theatre in Encinitas. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 at the door. VIP tickets, for $75, include priority seating, a V-Day T-shirt, and a commemorative V-Day book. For tix and info, contact the Community Resource Center ; 760-753-1156, ext. 304.
…We’ll be the special victims of Forbidden Broadway: Special Victims Unit, when the New York cast arrives for an exclusive 10-week run at the Theatre in Old Town, beginning March 31 (close on the heels of the extended Too Old for the Chorus…). This is a new edition of the long-running revue that is always the talk (and toast) of New York , Gerard Alessandrini’s clever and hilarious spoof of a long parade of musicals – both blockbusters and bombs. The show started in 1982 and has been going strong ever since, in various incarnations and permutations. From 1994-1995, the Old Town theater presented four of Alessandrini’s works – yes, four. And two of them were very, very good. That would be Forbidden Broadway and The Best of Forbidden Broadway. Forbidden Broadway Christmas was a holiday re-tread ,, with little new material. Forbidden Hollywood was pretty a dud; Alessandrini is definitely best with what he knows best. So, mixing a little TV with B’way musicals… well, we’ll see how it goes. The first FB visit to San Diego was a 17-week sold-out run. Better get your tickets now.
…The Coronado Playhouse is inaugurating its brand new theater space at 1845 Strand Way in the new Coronado Community Center, just south of the Hotel Del, with that blinding thriller, Wait Until Dark; Feb. 3-March 12; 619-435-4856. www.coronadoplayhouse.com .
…And, for a little change of pace, check out Shakespeare’s Sonnets, performed by the San Diego Ballet, February 10-12 at the Lyceum; 619-544-1000.
…The Chronos Theatre Group at 6th @ Penn will tackle the Japanese drama, Sotaba Komachi , by 14th century playwright Kwanami Kyotsugu , on February 20 at 7:30pm. This reading will use music and dance to help evoke the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
… 6th @ Penn is revisiting A.R. Gurney’s stalwart epistolary play, Love Letters as a fundraiser. This time out, it’s Kurt Reichert, paired with Mary Qualls. One performance only: January 28 at 4:00pm. All Tickets $25.00 (Or, as Dale says, “$15 if $25 is too much”).
…The La Jolla Playhouse is rolling out its annual POP tour( Performance Outreach Program) so the public can see it — Jan. 28 and 29 (12:30 and 3pm) and March 11 and 12 (12:30 and 3pm) in the new Play Development Center . This year’s play, a new work for young audiences (grade 2-6), is West of the 5 by Sunil Kuruvilla , directed by Jackson Gay. It’s the story of a young boy who moves from San Diego ’s Barrio Logan to a different part of town, on the other side of the world (oops, I mean freeway). Watching his mother weep about the move, he learns what it means to miss home and to make a new one. The show will tour local schools, libraries and community centers, through March 11. Tickets for the public performances are $8 for adults, $4 for kids; 858-550-1070.
At the same time, the Old Globe‘s “All the World’s a Stage” education program is presenting a touring production of Androcles and the Lion, written by Aurand Harris and directed by Old Globe Director of Education Bonnie Johnston. The wacky fable, set in ancient Rome , concerns a young slave who runs away from his master and comes face-to-face with a fierce feline. The production, which features Dana Hooley, Brandon Walker, Tom Papitto , Keith Reay , Sandra Ruiz and Ivette Salgado, tours schools through February 28, and culminates in public performances in the Copley Auditorium of the San Diego Museum of Art. Performed in the farcical Commedia del’Arte style, the production is an ideal complement to the Museum’s In Stabiano exhibit , which presents art treasures from the villas of ancient Rome ’s elite. Public performances are Saturday, March 4 and Saturday, March 11, at 10:00am and 1:00pm; tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for students; 619-23-GLOBE. Free tours of the Museum exhibit are available, by reservation only, with the purchase of show tickets. For tour reservations, contact the SDMA’s Education Department at 619-231-1996.
… and don’t forget to catch Laura Bozanich in her uproarious solo show, Eve’s Tale, two nights only, Feb. 6 and 7 at Cygnet Theatre.
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (Critic’s Picks);
(For full text of all past reviews, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
Halpern and Johnson – poignant story; perfectly paired, finely nuanced performances
A t North Coast Repertory Theatre, through February 19.
Beautiful Thing — excellent acting, accents and direction; flawed play, but the production is a beautiful thing.
At Diversionary Theatre, through February 5.
Biedermann and the Firebugs – wacky satire, deadly/fiery subject, hilarious performances.
At Cygnet Theatre, through February 12.
Ajax – 2500 year-old war-time play that’s still politically relevant
At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through February 5.
The Exonerated — dark stories, killer performances
At Lynx Performance Space in the Rose Canyon area, through February 9.
Too Old for the Chorus, But Not Too Old To Be a Star – Lively, funny, extremely well executed.
At The Theatre in Old Town , EXTENDED through March 19.
They’re selling irises in the supermarkets already… spring is on the way! But during those ‘cold’ winter nights, why not snuggle up in a theater?
©2006 Patté Productions Inc.