By Pat Launer
Theater’s strength, and its centrality
Is considering Man’s (and Woman’s) morality.
So, celebrate the local arrival
Of “Lobby Hero” and “Death by Survival.”
One of the sample essay questions on the new SATs reads as follows: “Is it more important to follow the rules exactly or to base your actions on how other people may be affected?” And whether the audience comprises full-grown adults or high school seniors, Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero” poses a similar moral dilemma. What’s fascinating about the local premiere of the much-heralded drama, which premiered Off Broadway in 2000 (and was developed at South Coast Rep, under the dramaturgy of incoming Old Globe resident director Jerry Patch), is that it’s really a modern morality play. Each of the four characters is faced with a serious ethical quandary: When is it acceptable to lie ? When is it necessary to tell the truth, no matter what the consequences? How do you live with the potentially damaging after-effects? Each one of the four – two police officers and two security guards – is neck-deep in a moral quagmire. It’s a delicious conundrum, beautifully crafted.
Lonergan , the acclaimed writer of “This is Our Youth” and “The Waverly Gallery” (which was just mounted in an outstanding production at New Village Arts in North County ), is perhaps better known for his screenplays: “You Can Count on Me ,” “Analyze This” and “Gangs of New York .” His money may be in film but his heart is in the theater. And he’s one of the few young writers to take up the Arthur Miller mantle, and confront real (incendiary, political) issues from our everyday lives, matters that have consequence for us as individuals and as a culture. Mostly, he takes his themes from his personal experience. So “Youth” concerned drugged-out slackers and “Waverly” focused on a family’s response to the encroaching dementia of its matriarch. Now he’s turned his fine-tuned ear, and his impressive gift for character and dialogue, to issues of honesty.
Jeff, the titular hero, is no saint, though he is basically good-hearted and well-intentioned. But he’s one of Lonergan’s loopy losers, someone who tries to do the right thing, but something always backfires. Jeff has had a string of bad times and bad choices, hasn’t been able to hold down a job, is living with his brother’s family (he’s in hock to his sib) and trying to save up to get his own apartment and hold down this dead-end, graveyard-shift job. He’s also persistently wisecracking and relentlessly inquisitive. And he’s hopelessly attracted to Dawn, the beautiful rookie cop, who’s already up to her own ears in trouble. As other characters come and go in the lobby of the high-rise hotel where Jeff peruses “A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and catches some Z’s, he learns, through his eternal/infernal questioning, about his supervisor’s brother, recently arrested for a heinous crime, about the senior cop’s scummy ways and misogynistic treatment of his young partner, and he is thrown into his own quandary about how much to say, how much to tell, how much to conceal, distort or reveal. Each of these complex, well-drawn characters has a credo for living, and each swears by it. And, over the course of the evening, each betrays his/her own beliefs – and someone else as well.
The tightly constructed play is tense and intense – and often quite humorous. But the situations aren’t basically comic; this is serious moral/legal/ethical business. And the ‘what would you do?’ scenarios pile up, and leave you talking and thinking long after the last blackout.
On the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, Nick Fouch has designed a wonderfully suggestive lobby-in-the-round, skillfully lit by David Lee Cuthbert. The costumes (primarily uniforms, designed by Mary Larson) are just right, though the sound (Paul Peterson), especially the interstitial music, is not always appropriate to the tone of the piece.
Under the confident, rock-solid direction of Kirsten Brandt (the former artistic director of Sledgehammer theater, who proves here, unequivocally, that she can do as well with fast-paced realism as with wild visual extravaganzas), the cast is uniformly excellent. Local favorite Nick Cordileone, who’s done increasingly skilled and convincing work (and sadly, is leaving soon for New York ), is excellent as Jeff, with his deadpan humor and good-hearted bumbling. His come-on scenes with Lauren Lovett’s Dawn are spectacularly uncomfortable. As his upright, uptight supervisor, J. August Richards is credibly conflicted about whether or not to provide an alibi for his brother, who as a troubled black youth, won’t get a break from the legal system if left to his own devices. But then again, he could be complicit in the rape-and-murder he’s accused of…. And then there’s Bill, the veteran cop who’s greased his way up the police ladder to snag a gold badge; he’s a pretty slimy, manipulative guy, even though he offers to help William get his brother off. Mark Espinoza’s Bill has all the right sneering, glad-handing swagger and machismo as one of New York ’s less-than Finest. The velocity at which these intense interactions unfold is exhilarating The genius of the play is its palette of shades of gray. There are no black-and-white solutions here. And though he sets up these moral quandaries, Lonergan has no intention of stacking the deck. In all his work, he shows just how messy and unpredictable people, lives and relationships really are.
In this week of revelations about the identity of ‘Deep Throat,’ what better time to consider questions of honesty, loyalty and responsibility?
On the Globe’s Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through June 26.
DESPERADOS AND DESAPERICIDOS
Playwright Elizabeth Ruiz met some of Argentina ’s Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in 1994. These were the most outspoken opponents of the “Dirty War” of the 1970s and ‘80s, the “Reign of Terror” that ‘disappeared’ some 11,000 people, many of them barely on the brink of adulthood. The Mothers, mostly angry, grief-stricken housewives, refused to give up or go away, and they continued to needle the bloodthirsty military dictatorship on behalf of their daughters and sons. Ruiz, a native New Yorker of Cuban ancestry, was profoundly moved by the stories, but it wasn’t until after 9/11 that she could write a play that would encompass all her complex, conflicted feelings.
The uneven result, “Death by Survival,” really is the two plays she originally conceived separately. There’s a strong narrative thread about two Argentine families, close friends whose young, college-student children become desapericidos , or disappeared. There’s an unnecessary side-story about the younger sister who’s sent away for safety, to live with an aunt and politically conservative uncle, who (for no particular reason in this play) paws (or molests?) her. We also meet that same sister as a grown-up, paranoid, agoraphobic New Yorker dressed in a hazardous waste jumpsuit, some time in the not-too-distant future. She’s now part of a group that’s planning to do something in revenge, but we never do learn who they are or what they’re about to do when the play ends.
The problem is , Ruiz is trying to cram every one of her political concerns into one overstuffed evening. And she does it in a choppy, episodic structure that whips from flashback to flash-forward, in an exhausting series of quick-scenes and cross-cuts. The piece feels far more like a film script than a stage play. There’s little time for many of the characters and plotlines to be developed. With 14 in the cast and 50 characters in the play, after awhile, it’s just so much bloat and overload.
In this co-production of Vantage Theatre and Centro Cultural de la Raza , the cast is variable in skill and credibility, but under the direction of Vantage artistic director Dori Salois , the pace keeps up with the ever-changing scenes and props, and things move along with alacrity. Karla Francesca, a UCSD alumna, is a luminous presence as Lili , the sister who disappears. Savvy Scopelleti does a fine job in the schizophrenic role of the surviving sister, who’s fascinating if persistently enigmatic. Celeste Innocenti and Nanci Hunter do quality work as the grieving mothers. Local favorites Rhys Green, Dana Hooley and Spike Sorrentino give commendable support, as does Robert Salerno’s excellent sound design.
I hope Ruiz re-thinks and revisits her play. There’s a really riveting story buried within it, and that story of a Reign of Terror, of unmotivated arrests and violent interrogations, echoes loudly in these days of Guántanamo and Abu Graib . The ‘Dirty War’ story is riveting and gut-wrenching, and its details are little known in this country. If Ruiz just told this tale (and at times, she does, quite effectively) then the parallels to our own perilous times would become obvious, without all the exposition, gesticulation and indication. She needs to trust the audience, even in these un-thinking, lemming times, to make the connections.
Vantage Theatre in co-production at Centro Cultural de la Raza , through June 5.
THAT’S FUNNY… YOU DON’T LOOK SHREWISH
A night off from the theater, and what do we do? Play theater games. Actually, our friends had a murder mystery party with the intriguingly hilarious title, “The Maiming of the Shrew.” When the characters were assigned, I was Queen Illicitbeth and John was (amusingly, since his name is Pryor) Costello, the Abbot. Other potential perps were: Lady MacDeth ; Spamlet , Prince of Hallmarke ; Ophelia Bottomsworth ; Gridlock, the Merchant of Tennis; CaliBan Rollon and Mary, Queen of Schnapps; and there was, of course, our ‘creator’ and host, William SheepShear . It was a hoot all around, and we made a big hit with ushers, audiences and passersby when we met for a photo op outside the Globe… ( see photo).
SUNDAY… SET YOUR TiVO OR STAY HOME!
San Diego once again has great representation and a high-profile presence at the Tony Awards. The 59th annual event will be broadcast from Radio City Music Hall on Sunday, June 5 from 8-11pm on channel 8 (CBS/KFMB). If you’re a real devotee, check out the red-carpet and pre-show coverage beginning at 3pm online ( www.tonyawards.com ) or from 7-8pm on the TV Guide Channel. The Old Globe’s production of “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” has 11 noms , including another one for our own Jack O’Brien. The big competition there is “Monty Python’s Spamalot ,” with 14 noms , and “The Light in the Piazza” composed by Adam Guettel (whose “Floyd Collins” played at the Globe a few years back). Billy Crystal ’s “700 Sundays,” which was originated and workshopped at the La Jolla Playhouse and directed by Des McAnuff, is a contender for the Special Theatrical Event Award. And if you’re a Hugh Jackman fan (and who isn’t?), he’s the host once again.
GREAT THEATER READ…
The winners of this year’s Theater Library Association awards for best books on the performing arts were announced this week at the Hudson Theater. For writing on live theater, the jury prize went to Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik’s “Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time.’ Well deserved. Wonderful, colorful resource (gorgeous pix and terrific anecdotes!). And equally exciting (and informative) is “Broadway, the American Musical” (by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon ), the companion to the six-part PBS series of the same name. It’s not too early to think about holiday gifts!!
NOW, FOR WHAT’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED!‘ (i.e., Critic’s Picks )
“Lobby Hero” – tense and intense, and often quite funny, this thought-provoking modern morality play is getting a superb production, under the assured direction of Kirsten Brandt.
On the Cassius Carter Centre Stage, through June 26.
“ Viburnum ” – First staged at last year’s Fritz Blitz, this poignant, often-humorous play features excellent direction and an outstanding ensemble.
At 6th @ Penn, through June 12,
“Looking for Normal ” – beautiful performances in a flawed but fascinating play that tests the limits of love.
At Diversionary Theatre, through June 11.
“Late Nite Catechism” – ‘class,’ whether Catholic or secular, with or without ruler-whacking, was never this hilarious. Three alternating ‘Sisters’ explain it all and interact with the audience. Be careful what you wear, say or do. Sister is watching.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, Monday and Tuesday nights, extended through June 28.
“The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron” – a fun date night, which shows both genders a few of their more amusing and infuriating foibles.
At the Theatre in Old Town , ongoing.
June is busting out all over…. and summer theater is in full bloom!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.