Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
June 1, 2012
You’ve got to burrow below the surface to find what’s real. Beneath the bleached hair or the absurdist situation, there may be a person or relationship on the brink.
These are the harsh realities of three diverse theater works: “Two by Pinter,” a pair of plays by groundbreaker and Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter, and “Dirty Blonde,” by Claudia Shear.
The “Dirty Blonde” of the title is Mae West, legendary actor, playwright, screenwriter, sex siren and self-promoter. The framing device of the 2000 play is a couple of modern-day devotees, Mae West fanatics who meet at her gravesite in Brooklyn on her birthday. In the 2003 production at the Old Globe, they were nerdy, sad-sack losers who broke our hearts with their cheerless lives and pathetic obsession.
At Cygnet Theatre, they seem to be regular, everyday folks with a touch of eccentricity. We care for them, but we don’t ache for them. The focus here is more on Mae’s story, how she “found what worked – and froze it,” pushing her raunchy, seductive, “Come-up-and-see-me” persona into every entertainment medium, well past her prime, still vamping at 85, in 1978. That late-life public exposure should be gut-wrenching and pathetic, but director Sean Murray aims more for humor than heart.
And humor there is a-plenty, thanks to often hilarious performances by a talented, malleable and musical trio: Melinda Gilb , Steve Gunderson and David McBean . Most fun are the quick costume and character changes that morph one era into another. Bravo to designer Sean Fanning for his suggestive and dramatic set, and to costume wizard Jennifer Brawn Gittings for her sumptuous sartorial sex appeal.
Sexy and dramatic defines the dangerous games in Pinter’s 1962 one-act, “The Lover.” From the opening line, when a husband nonchalantly asks his wife, “Is your lover coming today ?, ” to the unraveling of multiple seductions culminating in a disturbing crescendo, we’re titillated and enthralled.
Mark Pinter (no relation to the playwright) makes a welcome return to North Coast Rep, and in-demand Chicago actor Elaine Rivkin is superb as his mate, a zillion subtle emotions playing out on her face.
Shades of Beckett echo in the antics of the two hired assassins in “The Dumb Waiter.” Frank Carrasco and Richard Baird are perfectly attuned, orchestrated and choreographed by director David Ellenstein. Holed up in a squalid basement, they await orders for their next job, their comical moves offset by a mounting sense of absurdity and menace. The twist ending could be more shocking and intense. But no quibbles with the work of ace scenic designer Marty Burnett, whose set magically transforms from prim, middle class living room to crummy, shabby cellar.
What these plays prove is that icons are always in season.
“Dirty Blonde” runs through June 17 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
“Two by Pinter” continues through June 17 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
©2012 PAT LAUNER