Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: MAY 15, 2009
Artists in crisis: A piano prodigy who lacks the passion to play, and a movie star who fears that coming out will destroy his career. How each resolves his existential dilemma is the stuff of theatrical innovation. One character lives in a slick, fast-paced comedy of Hollywood homophobia; the other, in a deeply-felt drama with dark anti-Semitic undertones.
“Old Wicked Songs,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist written by Jon Marans in 1996, was produced at the Old Globe nine years ago. The poignant, unforgettable play has now made its way to North County , with a gripping production at North Coast Repertory Theatre, directed by David Ellenstein. Tom Zohar , a Patté Award-winning actor and pianist-by-ear, is pitch perfect in the role of Stephen Hoffman, the prodigy who comes to Vienna to study with a master and gets diverted into a voice class with the crusty, cynical Professor Mashkan . The old guy makes odious remarks, as he forces Stephen to sing Schumann’s “ Dichterliebe ” – poetic love songs – in order to experience the extremes of sorrow and joy that are prerequisites to passion in art – and in life. Zohar is terrific as the arrogant young American Jew forced under the thumb of a demanding and demeaning teacher. Robert Grossman, a compelling Los Angeles actor, is a little too avuncular and humorous at the outset to make Mashkan’s emotional arc, his reveal and decline, truly shocking and gut-wrenching. Still, the two make for a riveting duet, and the beautiful, haunting play has a great deal to say about music, life and emotional integrity.
In “The Little Dog Laughed,” integrity is a nonexistent commodity. Set in New York and Hollywood , the sharp, smart comedy is all about artifice and deal-making. Douglas Carter Beane is a very very funny writer, and the Diversionary Theatre staging of his 2006 play, excellently directed by Robert Barry Fleming, is a very funny production, anchored by the stunning, fast-talking, charismatic Karson St. John. The recent San Diego transplant is a genuine gem, and she totally nails the soulless, smiling barracuda of an agent, who has a product she’s going to promote come hell or high water. That product is Mitchell, an up-and-coming actor who falls hard for a rent-boy who’s hooked up with a party girl. So, should Mitchell be true to his heart, or to his career?
The agent Diane narrates, punctuates, defines and controls, forcing everyone into a deal that makes pretty much no one happy – except Diane. And she wouldn’t recognize happiness if it slapped her in her perfectly made-up face. As an outstanding cast navigates these shark-filled waters, you’ll be knocked out by the killer dialogue and rat-a-tat timing.
Now your artistic dilemma is: Which do you see first, the comedy or the drama?
“The Little Dog Laughed” runs through May 31 at Diversionary Theatre in Hillcrest.
“Old Wicked Songs” also continues through May 31, at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach .
©2009 PAT LAUNER