KPBS AIRDATE: MARCH 10, 1999
There’s something to be said for the ballpeen hammer approach to playwriting plays: the audience can’t miss the message. Several recent openings are pounding their manifestoes into your brain. Not that they’re nefarious in intent; it’s heady stuff like ‘Love conquers all,’ ‘You gotta move on,’ and ‘Women should have control over their bodies and their reproductive destinies.’ And if the playwright throws in a few laughs, or maybe some teary moments, then everybody walks away satisfied…. and enlightened. Right? Wrong.
After an evening at the Fritz, I left feeling pummeled, and not at all amused. The curtain-raiser was a plodding, multi-scened, overly-fussy-for-a-one-act harangue on a woman’s right to choose. In Tim West’s “Female Problems,” a single woman has a nightmare experience in trying to deal with an unplanned pregnancy. The cast seemed poorly prepared and under-committed.
The main event was a short piece by Harry Kondoleon, who was deemed a New York wunderkind in 1983. His quirky works were caustic, even bizarre. But then he got AIDS, and his orientation changed. His newfound, less interesting though not untrue philosophy can be summed up in one line from his 1990 play at the Fritz, “Love Diatribe.” It goes like this: “If you don’t love people enough, they die.” His piece starts out funny and edgy enough, with a nicely dysfunctional family: a 30-something brother and sister moving back home, and having to deal with their hemorrhoidal father and disappointed and demeaning mother, not to mention a couple of nutty neighbors. So far so good.
But then Kondoleon had to go and spoil it with the entrance of a perky, adorable young thing to make everyone love each other and make everything all right – with herb tea, no less. Yuk. This kind of jarring 180 has to be handled just right. There’s a tiny turnaround at the end of “Female Problems,” too – but, as written, both plays are ham-fisted, and as directed and acted, they’re heavy-handed and amateurish. On the plus side, the set for the second, longer “Diatribe” was nicely detailed, and newcomer Roseanne Ciparick is a real find. But honestly, I left the theater feeling intellectually battered.
Now, up at Moonlight, the play gives more of an emotional pummeling. “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” has a two-hanky theme – a young wife/mother who died in an accident, a grieving spouse, a neglected daughter, a lovesick teen, and a well-meaning though intrusive aunt. Maybe you saw the movie, which added some extra sexual overtones to the original Michael Brady play. Well, it’s flawed, yes, and melodramatically manipulative, but it’s getting one helluva wonderful production at Moonlight in Vista.
Marty Burnett, on loan from North Coast Rep, has designed a gorgeously weathered Cape Cod beachhouse — sand, rocks, pampas grass and all — beautifully lit by Paul Canaletti. And it’s populated, for one end-of-summer weekend, by a charming cast of characters, marvelously played by Kathy Brombacher’s very capable cast. Her direction is outstanding, especially for the wifely ghost, ethereally played by Sara Tobin, the Gillian of the title who comes back on her birthday to see her husband one last time. As her melancholy mate, Howard Bickle is thoroughly, heartbreakingly believable. Also noteworthy are the two incredibly talented young girls – Lisa Maria Guzman and Charna Felthous. K.B. Mercer and Eric Anderson are funny as the no-nonsense, matchmaking aunt and her sorta redneck, henpecked hubby. As the weekend fixup, Erin K. Granahan never seems as comfortable or confident as she did in her semi-clothed glory in last year’s “Noises Off.” But all told, soap opera story notwithstanding, this one’s definitely worth a drive to Vista. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and then, as the playwright so explicitly advises, you’ll move on.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.