By Pat Launer
The theater week was more than pleasant:
Some trips to the past, a whiff of the present:
“Charley’s Aunt,” ever gay and grand,
Could be dragged right into “Falsettoland.”
And young “Fraulein Else” might get a kick
From the aptly-named wackos appearing in [sic].
So sit back, relax, and gather your minions
To check out my latest dramatic opinions.
Or should I say (to exhume a long-defunct phrase) where’s the beef?
It’s hard, when watching the venerable old “Charley’s Aunt,” not to think of the equally old, but far more brilliant, “Importance of Being Earnest.” There are the requisite foppish men and their vapid girlfriends, mistaken identities and a matriarchal drag queen (well, Lady Bracknell is sometimes played that way). But there isn’t a memorable line in Brandon Thomas’ “Charley” and there’s barely a forgettable one in Wilde’s “Earnest.” Thomas (1892) was three years earlier, but Oscar was Wilde-r (and better). And, despite all the sparkle and talent of the current North Coast Repertory Theatre production, it’s outshone by its own predecessor (the deliciously “Earnest” days of last summer). It seems an odd choice for new artistic director David Ellenstein’s inaugural production… but the audiences were howling, so I guess he knows what he’s up to. Crowd-pleasers bring the crowds… to see the new, expanded lobby (with restroom!), and a two-intermission show gives plenty of opportunity to sell refreshments.
That said about the play, I can go on report that this production is splendid. Corey Brill (an Equity actor who was recently terrific in “Angels in America” and “Edward II” at UCSD, where he’s a third year graduate acting student), is spot-on as the officious but indecisive Jack, while Sean Cox is a delight as his wimpy, whiny sidekick, Charley. The guys want to have tea with their gals (spirited Rachel Carey Holland and adorable Meghan Finn), but they can’t without a chaperone. When Charley’s titular (millionaire) relative fails to arrive from Brazil, the boys get their mate, Lort Fancourt Babberly (David McBean) to impersonate the aunt. And the antics begin. No one does drag better than McBean — or comedy, either. He’s a hoot in every scene, including his interactions with the audience. The stuffy, farty fatherly types (pompous, sputtering David Gallagher and Mark Petrich) both make delicious fools of themselves over the fake Aunt. When the real Donna Lucia d’Alvadorez (striking and imperious Susan Denaker) and her real-life daughter (gorgeous, talented Chloe St. James) arrive, the unraveling commences. Unflappable through it all (stopping repeatedly for a nip), Wayne Jordan is the quintessential butler. The cast is top-notch and very well directed, the costumes (by the gifted Jeanne Reith) are gorgeous, and set designer Marty Burnett seems to have had a ball with a twice-rotating set to give three suitable Victorian locations. It’s totally mindless fluff (is anyone else tired of well-dressed, well-bred 19th century slackers?) but it’s fine summer fun…
Which brings us to Falsettoland.
THE GAY NINETIES
William Finn is the gay, Jewish New Yorker who may go down in history for writing musicals about a guy dying of AIDS and a guy almost dying of a brain tumor. What a sense of humor! Amazingly, his works actually turn out to be quite funny at times. And in the midst of his comic/tragic musicals, he usually has something worthwhile to say. Not much dialogue here (book by Finn and the acclaimed director James Lapine), but some of the lyrics are to die for.
In “March of the Falsettos,” my favorite number is the opener, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” (though why, in the Diversionary production, those Jews are all dressed as rabbis is beyond me). In “Falsettoland,” it’s “Sitting Watching Jason (Play Baseball),” which has the immortal first line: “We are sitting and watching Jewish boys who cannot play baseball play baseball.” Finn obviously knows of what he speaks (bet he played right field).
“Falsettos” is the 1990 blending of those two earlier shows, though a lot more trimming would make it seem a lot less repetitive. Those love songs do go on — and return. But overall, the show is sweet and humorous, un-subtle but amusing. The story goes like this: Marvin, a selfish boy-man, leaves his wife and son for a good-looking, promiscuous chap named Whizzer (I don’t think I’ll speculate on the source of that moniker). He soon breaks up with Whizzer, and after hurting his lover, nearly destroying his wife’s sanity and his son’s bar mitzvah, he comes to accept that his ex has married his shrink, and ultimately, he’s forced (albeit a bit late) to grow up .
Director Tim Irving, a master of comic timing and stage antics, keeps the rhythm and pace humming along. His cast is great — especially Jon Levenson as Marvin, the self-indulgent infant who “wants it all,” Melissa Supera-Fernandes as his hysterical wife (smashing in her knockout, show-stopping number, “I’m Breaking Down”), Andy Collins as Mendel the sensitive, peace-making shrink and Sandy Campbell as the ditsy, cheery kosher-caterer/lesbian next door. As Jason, the bar mitzvah boy, Matthew Ira Bohrer hits the right notes in his acting, but not always in his singing (half those songs are way below his vocal range). He’s believably smart, though, and insightful, and often more grownup than his father (which isn’t too difficult). Warren G. Nolan, Jr. sings his heart out as the ill-fated Whizzer, and Susan Hammons makes a no-nonsense doctor/lover/lesbian neighbor. The musical direction (G. Scott Lacy) and accompaniment (Justin Gray) are lively, and Shulamit Nelson’s costumes get the early-AIDS timeframe just right. No matter how upbeat and tuneful the show, it’s always hard to revisit those days…. But they aren’t gone and they can’t be forgotten. “Falsettos” musically obliges us to remember.
ELSE AND THE [SIC]-OS
Sounds like a girl group, doesn’t it??
Well, I’m covering these two on KPBS this week (tune in to 89.5FM at 6:30 or 8:30a.m. Friday, or catch it at kpbs.org or on my website, patteproductions.com)… but I just wanted to say that you’re making a big mistake if you miss Francesca Faridany’s tour de force performance in her own adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s “Fraulein Else” (at the La Jolla Playhouse). She’s a real adolescent (as opposed to the cases of arrested development in Melissa James Gibson’s [sic]). But, as it was in the Vienna of Freud — and since time immemorial — high-strung women (or women in the throes of PMS) are frequently considered hysterical (hence, the term for the still-most-common female surgery, hysterectomy, the removal of the organ thought to be the source of hysteria). Poor Else, she’s just, as she says, “high-spirited,” but her society and her family conspire to bring her down. It’s a sad story, a sadder commentary, an engagingly breathless 80 minutes and a heart-stopping performance. A beautiful production to look at, too. Not to be missed. And on opening night, Des McAnuff was extremely gracious and generous in introducing and congratulating Jack O’Brien, who was in the audience, and rose to a standing ovation for his recent Tony Award for directing “Hairspray.” Des wisely recognized that Jack’s triumph brings honor to all of San Diego….
Now playing at Sledgehammer Theatre…. the West coast premiere of the quirky [sic], about artist wannabes who have failed to live up to their own expectations. These 30-somethings are flailing and floundering: Theo is a composer relegated to writing songs for a roller coaster ride called Thrill-O-Rama; Babette (whom he lamely tries to get to sleep with him again) is a writer working on a book about how tantrums precipitate cataclysmic events; and Frank is an auctioneer in training, who spends most of his stage-time practicing the rapid-fire tongue-twisters of the trade. Trapped in their lives and their tiny, contiguous apartments, they all seem to be dependent on the opinions of their landlord, Larry, who appears to have run off with Theo’s ex-wife. If you like a clear, linear plot-line, stay away. But if you love eccentric characters, overlapping dialogue and a funhouse mirror portrait of what we may actually look like as an overreaching, underachieving society, this is the show for you. Wonderfully acted — by Farhang Pernoon, Janet Hayatshahi and Jason Waller (with Robin Christ and David Tierney as an unseen upstairs couple) and superbly directed by Ruff Yeager. This strikingly designed show (sets by David Weiner, lights by David Lee Cuthbert, costumes by Mary Larson, sound by Paul Peterson) is a treat for lovers of language and off-center (and off-the-wall) theater.
So, onstage this week, there’s music, comedy, tragedy, cross-dressing and mental illness… who could ask for anything more? There’s gotta be something that’ll put a little drama in your life.
©2003 Patté Productions Inc.