Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
February 18, 2010
THE SHOW: “An Inspector Calls ,” a psychological thriller and a Lamb’s Players Theatre revival
He shuffles in, wrinkled raincoat and all. Columbo with a British accent, a shambling sort of know-it-all nit-picker who works his wily ways on everyone under investigation. And in this play, that means everyone.
According to Inspector Goole (or should that be Ghoul?), he’s just seen a hapless young girl at the morgue, victim of an unsavory suicide. He just wants to ask a few questions.
The well-to-do Birling family is resentful of his intrusion. They’re in the midst of a family celebration: Sheila has just become engaged to Gerald Croft, already a successful businessman, a manufacturing competitor of Mr. Birling , Sr. Perhaps a merger may be in the offing.
So what on earth could this upstanding family have to do with a poor girl’s death? Well, quite a bit, it turns out. Every member of the family, wittingly or not, due to their superciliousness and class condescension, is in some way implicated in the dissolution of the young thing’s life.
There are morals to be learned here, and there may be a bit of preachiness . But that doesn’t make this any less an edge-of-your-seat mystery, with a neck-snapping twist-ending that leaves you hanging, trying to figure it all out on your own.
Written by J.B. Priestley in 1945, and set in a fictitious Yorkshire industrial town just before WWI, the play was a huge success when it premiered. But some naysayers accused Priestley of expounding a socialist (or perhaps more aptly, a liberal humanist) agenda. Oh, a terrible thing to be sure, though ‘socialism’ has once again become a dirty word. What the playwright/novelist/journalist was sermonizing about were heinous concerns indeed: hypocrisy, class inequity, social conscience, collective guilt and community responsibility. Tsk , tsk , tsk . In addition to this being something of a morality tale, it plays with with Time, like other Priestley works. ‘ Nuff said about that (it’s a mystery; I don’t want to diminsh the intrigue!)
Falling out of favor and taste, the play languished for quite some time. But it enjoyed a dramatic resurgence, beginning in 1993, when British director Stephen Daldry dusted it off, gave it a fabulous refurbishment (thanks to a magical set that nearly stole the show), and re-set it in the post-Thatcher 1980s. The play became a megahit all over again, winning 20 prestigious awards, including four Tonys on Broadway and three Oliviers in London .
Even before that revival, Lamb’s Players Theatre re-discovered the piece, and mounted a successful production in 1989. Given the current social-political climate, and the ever-widening divide between rich and poor, the timing seems just right for another revisit.
To underscore the continuing relevance of the play, Lamb’s set it exactly 100 years ago. The set ( Mike Buckley) is an attractively affluent drawing-room, with one notable eccentricity: the floor is packed soil, presumably a metaphor for digging up the dirt on all the residents. The costumes (Jeanne Reith) are period-perfect; the light (Nathan Perison ) and sound ( Deborah Gilmour Smyth ) add to the ambience. And the performances are delectable.
David Cochran Heath and Glynn Bedington are spot-on as the pompous and patronizing parents, who, like the arrogant young man who plans to wed their daughter (a haughty Lance Arthur Smith), never see anything wrong with what they’ve said or done, and show no remorse, even after all they’ve all been through ( kinda makes you think of Enron or Wall Street, the banks and insurance companies).
Only the offspring – the dissolute son (Jon Lorenz, first-rate) and disillusioned daughter (Colleen Kollar Smith, excellent) learn something from the harrowing experience. As befits their class, the family maid ( Jillian Frost , who also served as dialect coach) never figures into any part of the proceedings.
The ending may leave some folks a bit unnerved or confused. You have to puzzle it out for yourself. Which keeps you on your toes… through the conclusion and beyond.
THE LOCATION: Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave. , Coronado . (619) 437-0600; www.lambsplayers.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $26-58. Tuesday-Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through March 21.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Best Bet
THE SHOW: “A Delicate Balance” – the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by Edward Albee, at OnStage Playhouse
A delicate balance. It’s both the name of the play, the state of the characters and the description of how it must be done. Somehow, one has to make these desultory rich, filled with fear and loathing and liquor, deep enough, engaging enough and rich enough (in the character sense) to care about. There’s a reason the play isn’t presented that often.
Appearing in 1967, five years later and undeniably in the shadow of “ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” ( a far better play), “Balance” seems to have garnered the ‘consolation prize’ Pulitzer that was due to “Virginia Woolf,” after a skittish Columbia University overrode the Pulitzer committee’s recommendation. It’s not, as the OnStage Playhouse program notes state, that there was a “harshness of cursing” in Edward Albee’s masterwork. There were no swear-words at all in the original version of “Virginia Woolf.” The brutality was in the relationship, in the way George and Martha “went at it,” not in any frank use of four-letter words. Only when he revised the piece for the Kathleen Turner revival in 2005 did Albee put in the swear-words everyone swore Martha used in the first place.
“A Delicate Balance” is more directly autobiographical (each character has a real-life counterpart direct from Albee’s life, starting with the self-absorbed matriarch) and it’s pitched at a much lower key. All the venom and anger in these upper-crust , hyperverbal avoiders is beneath the surface. And unless a truckload of subtext is played, the drama isn’t going to work.
Kudos must be given to OnStage for taking on a huge challenge. Part of that daunting task is just mastering the lines, of which there are very, very many. (The play runs three acts, 2¾ hours). The lines weren’t always firmly in place the night I was there, though the lapses were covered well. What’s missing in this production is depth of character; we don’t sense a whole netherworld beneath the surface of the words and (mostly) unexpressed emotions. And without that, the play feels brittle, arcane and artificial.
These folks just seem too – nice – to exist in Albee’s venal universe. They don’t appear to be masking layers of pain, anguish, hostility, hurt and disappointment. They maintain a relative calm, with a few rare emotional outbursts. But under the direction of Michael Thomas Tower , the cast has gotten into the spirit of things, especially with the booze, which flows freely throughout the evening, serving as the ultimate deadener of feelings.
As Agnes, the ostensible fulcrum of the family, Loretta Haas displays a complaisance that belies the character’s fear of loneliness, madness and loss of control. As her laconic husband, Tobias, O.P. Hadlock (also the set designer) is aptly reserved and resigned, eager to avoid confrontation. He soars in what Albee called the third-act “aria,” an unexpected eruption of honesty. Lynn Zetta McAlister provides energy and (acid-laced) comic relief as Claire, Agnes’ ever-inebriated live-in sister, who professes to be an intentional drunk, not an alcoholic. Michelle DeFrancesco is fiery as the petulant 36 year-old adolescent who wants to return to the womb (and her old room) after the dissolution of her fourth marriage. But that room is being taken up by Harry (Mark Zweifach ) and Edna (Elaine Litton), Agnes and Tobias’ best friends, who’ve moved in to escape an unnamed, mysterious terror that’s panicked them into escaping from their own home.
The family balance is tenuous to begin with. Real feelings are kept in check; confrontations are avoided at all cost. Even alcohol can’t dull the sense of anger, entitlement, loss, frustration and disillusionment this time. The fragile net is about to give way. All the old assumptions about friendship, duty, loyalty and love are crumbling. Emotional flare-ups, tears, tantrums, gun-wielding and even some truth-telling ensue. This isn’t Albee at his best. But it’s a drama you don’t often see, so that should entice devoted theaterlovers. And to be sure, a good deal of effort and heart have obviously gone into this production.
THE LOCATION: OnStage Playhouse, 291 3rd Avenue , Chula Vista . (619) 422-7787; www.onstageplayhouse.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $13-15. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through February 27.
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Acting Nationally: MiraCosta College drama student Anyelid Meneses of Oceanside beat out 248 other student actors from college and university theater training programs across the Western U.S. , to win the prestigious Irene Ryan Scholarship at the Kennedy Center/American College Theatre Festival. Meneses , 33, was nominated for her ebullient performance as the dreamy, sensuous daughter, Marela , in last year’s MiraCosta production of “Anna in the Tropics.” The award typically goes to a graduate student; but Meneses was fortunate to have prior experience in telenovelas . Her skills, displayed with her scene partner Lyle Lucy, won her one of two $500 acting scholarships. In April, she heads to Washington , D.C. to compete in the national festival for a $3000 scholarship. Another MiraCosta student, Sassan Saffari , was a top five finalist in the Directing competition. Meneses is the second MiraCosta student to be selected to compete at the Kennedy Center . Sarah Kelley won the national Stage Management competition in 2006. “In terms of the educational theater world,” crows director and department chair Eric Bishop, “it feels like we’ve won the Super Bowl!”
… Luann Ages: Renowned cartoonist Greg Evans, a North County resident, is presenting another world premiere musical. His first was “Luann: Scenes in a Teen’s Life,” which was first presented locally in 2008. Now, he’s gearing up for “Wrinkles: the New OLD Musical,” which will be staged in association with Vista ’s Broadway Theater. Auditions, for adults age 25 to 70, are Monday March 1. The show runs April 16-26. For further information, call (760) 728-1002, or visit www.broadwayvista.com
… Jane’s Back!: The marvelously inventive improv company, Impro Theatre of Los Angeles, is returning to North Coast Repertory Theatre to present another go-round of “Jane Austen Unscripted,” which I called “hilarious and terrific… a delectably smart, tasty treat.” Of course, you won’t see the same show I did, since each one is made up on the spot, based on audience suggestions. The L.A. Times gave the show a 4-star rating. Monday, March 1 at 7:30 p.m. Other upcoming treats at NCRT: “Nevermore… An Evening with Edgar Allen Poe,” a celebration of the bicentennial of the frightmaster’s birth, with a story that chronicles his descent into madness. Performed by Jeffrey Combs (“Star Trek: Deep Space Nine & Enterprise”). Feb. 23-24. And another rendition of Tuesday Night Comics with Mark Christopher Lawrence (‘Big Mike ’ on “Chuck”), who’s currently doing a star-turn in “The Piano Lesson” at Cygnet Theatre. March 9 at 7 p.m. Tickets for all at (858) 481-1055.
… Performers Become Producers: Lily Tomlin and her long-time collaborator, Jane Wagner (their “Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe” played on Broadway in 1985-6), will join the producing team behind a one- man Off Broadway show, “My Trip Down the Pink Carpet,” performed by Leslie Jordan (‘Beverley Leslie’ on NBC’s “Will & Grace”); Jordan premiered his autobiographical piece in L.A. in 2008, before launching a national tour. The show is scheduled to open in April at the Midtown Theatre. Meanwhile, Elton John and his partner, David Furnish, are backing the play “Next Fall,” opening on Broadway next month. And rap star Jay-Z, along with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, are involved in the current Broadway musical hit, “ Fela !”
…V-Day extends into March: Still coming up: that ‘other’ V-Day, the one that, every year, thanks to playwright Eve Ensler , aims to stop the violence against women with worldwide performances of “The Vagina Monologues.” Once again, InnerMission Productions and Triad Productions are teaming up for activities and performances, the proceeds of which will go to a local charity — The Center for Community Solutions, dedicated to ending sexual violence — as well as to Ensler’s international organization, v-day.org. “The Vagina Monologues” will be performed on March 3, 5 and 6 and its male counterpart, “The MENding Monologues,” will be shown March 4, 6 and 7, both at Diversionary Theatre. Details at www.innermissionproductions.org
… Urban Dance: The PGK Project presents its annual spring season performance, a new work entitled “Concrete Jungle,” sponsored by the San Diego Youth & Community Services organization, which has donated its neighborhood facility, The Golden Hill Youth & Community Center. This world premiere is inspired by urban settings, driven by the music of Chicago ’s Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and backed by visuals from New York-based Mo Riza . The new dance piece is choreographed by PGK Project artistic director Peter G. Kalivas , and will be accompanied by recently premiered works including “Trappings” (commissioned by The Choreographic Institute Rio de Janeiro), featuring an original score composed and played by Daniel Ruiz of Brazil and Spain. February 26-27 at 7:30 p.m., 2220 Broadway; (619) 886-7924; email@example.com
… Dance in Progress: See a Studio Showcase at Dance Place San Diego at NTC, when Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater presents choreography and works-in-progress by Isaacs and ten other dance creators, with some numbers performed by student dancers from High Tech High. March 6 at 7 p.m. Tickets available at the door or at sandiegodancetheater.org/Calendar
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
v “An Inspector Calls” – razor-sharp production of a mystery/thriller classic
Lamb’s Players Theatre, through 3/21
v “The Wild Party” – wild, indeed! Cheeky, wicked and wonderfully sung/danced/acted
Coronado Playhouse, through 3/6
v “The Man Who” – an actors’ showcase, a hard look at the brain; something different and provocative (the subject matter may not be for everyone, but the performances are!)
New Village Arts , through 2/28
v “The Piano Lesson” –flawless production of August Wilson ’s provocative, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama
Cygnet Theatre, through 2/28
v “Whisper House” – a quirky ghost story, with music; world premiere, excellently executed
The Old Globe, through 2/21
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer,’ and the name of the play of interest, into the SDNN Search box.