Pat Launer on San Diego Theater
By Pat Launer , SDNN
Thursday, September 24, 2009
THE SHOW: “Things We Want ,” the regional premiere of a dark comic drama by Jonathan Marc Sherman, at New Village Arts
When the lights come up on the first act, a young man is sprawled on a sofa, drunk as a skunk. At the start of the second act, his brother has replaced him, in the same pose. And if there were a third act, we can be pretty sure the youngest sib would be there, taking his rightful familial place.
The three have returned to the apartment of their youth, following the death of their parents who, in succession (after a five year interval) jumped out the 10th floor window. The window’s still there – always open — a constant reminder, warning and temptation.
The playwright, Jonathan Marc Sherman has called this his “dirty, sexy suicide comedy.”
He knows the subject matter well. Hailed as a wunderkind in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Sherman disappeared from the theater scene for a decade, which was spent in an alcohol haze. And oh yes, his mother killed herself when he was six (by asphyxiation, not jumping). But he isn’t copping to his darkly comic play being completely autobiographical, though it could be about trifurcated parts of himself .
Each of his trio of brothers is a classic case of arrested development. These 20-somethings haven’t yet come into responsible manhood; they make repeated references to Pinocchio and what it takes to be “a real boy.” Each is addicted and highly co-dependent: the middle brother, Sty, is a confirmed alcoholic, who trolls AA meetings looking for chicks. The oldest, Teddy, is a slavish devotee of a New Age guru named Dr. Miracle. The youngest, Charlie, is hooked on love. Since his girlfriend broke up with him and caused him to have a breakdown, “a heart breakdown,” as he puts it, he’s dropped out of culinary school, just four months before graduation, because “everything seemed pointless.”
But he’s immediately taken by the cute young thing who lives in the building. Their meet-cute is terrific. And then comes the second act, with its unexpected turns and superb seduction scene. Slick, sharp writing. Lots of snarky humor. But the play just peters out at the end. I suppose we can conjure up our own third act (see above), but it’s as if the playwright slacked off like his characters.
No complaints about the New Village Arts production, though, except that the silhouetted skyline doesn’t look all that much like New York, and the apartment seems awfully neat for a cluster of boozers and losers like these.
Under the excellent direction of Lisa Berger , the NVA Ensemble cast is outstanding. Adam Brick is funny as the wisecracking, often-intoxicated and well-intentioned Sty; Tim Parker is aptly lovelorn as poor, young Charlie, who finally thinks he’s gotten what he wants – happiness – when the rug is pulled out from under him. In the competitive world of males, and sibs, it’s his oldest bro, Teddy, the one who’s always taken advantage of him, who goes for the jugular yet again. Joshua Everett Johnson , who inhabits every role he plays with increasing ferocity (of the very best and most believable kind) is terrific as Teddy, easily taken in by the guru and willing to take his disappointments out anywhere. His scene with Rachael Van Wormer, also getting better, stronger and more sexy in every role, is superb. They are both smooth , hot, quick-witted and dangerous. A deadly (and delightful) duo.
The costumes (Kristianne Kurner) and lights (Becky Pierce) highlight character and action. Adam Lansky’s sound design features New York traffic noises far below – especially when that window is put to use.
The play should be especially attractive to the Gen Y crowd, but anyone would relish these performances, if not these characters and their somewhat sordid lives.
THE LOCATION: New Village Arts Theatre, Carlsbad . ( 760) 433-3245 ; www.newvillagearts.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $25-30. Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through October 11.
Trouble in Tinseltown
THE SHOW: “Speed-the-Plow,” a satire by David Mamet, at ion theatre
David Mamet is in season. Four of his plays are being produced in New York this fall, and there’s this one in San Diego, the same play that was revived on Broadway last year, and caused quite a stir when the star, Jeremy Piven (from TV’s “Entourage”) left the show prematurely and precipitously, citing mercury poisoning from eating too much sushi (earlier this month, an independent arbitrator determined that he hadn’t violated his contract). Seems kind of ironic that the local production of “Speed-the-Plow” is being presented at the Sushi performing space. But there’s nothing fishy about the ion theatre production.
Though it’s not among Mamet’s best or most celebrated works, “Speed the Plow,” written in 1988, has had far-reaching effects . In 1990, playwright Arthur Kopit wrote a sendup called “Bone-the-Fish” (later renamed “Road to Nirvana”). Mamet himself revisited his central character in the 1989 one-act, “Bobby Gould in Hell.” That’s pretty much where this soulless, slimeball producer belongs.
He represents the notorious Hollywood philosophy perhaps best expressed by the mother of my childhood friend in New York . As Shirley Feldman used to say, “In this world, it’s screw or be screwed.”
“Speed-the Plow” was Mamet’s first vivisection of the movie industry; he later revisited Tinseltown , in his inimitably brutal way, in the films “State and Main ” and “Wag the Dog.” He wrote a book on the subject in 2007, “Bambi vs. Godzilla.” He’s always had a penchant for low-level hustlers and hucksters, and what more fertile field than our neighbor to the North?
Bobby Gould, hyperverbal, controlling, hollow, power-hungry and surprisingly easily swayed, has just been made head of production at a movie studio. First day on the job, he’s visited by his lapdog/lackey Charlie Fox, a wannabe producer, something of a lowlife, who wants to suck up to Charlie and also suck up some of Charlie’s newly-acquired influence. Charlie has a ‘project’ to pitch (doesn’t everyone in L.A. ?). It’s a potential blockbuster, an action flick with a big name attached. Charlie wants in, big-time, with his name up there as co-producer.
There’s another screenplay lying around (the evocative, if bare-bones, ion theatre playing space is ringed by piles of scripts), a philosophical drama about radiation and the end of the world. On a whim, Gould hands it to his fresh, bright-eyed young temp secretary, Karen, to give it a “courtesy read.” Charlie bets Bobby five hundred bucks that he can’s nail the chick. So Bobby acts as expected when she comes to his house with her notes. But the twist is that she convinces him this is art; he should chuck commerce, save his soul and go for celluloid culture rather than crap. Bobby decides to scrap Charlie’s film and make this one. After Charlie gets wind of the turnaround, a spectacular scene of verbal pyrotechnics and violent sparring ensues.
It’s a sarcastic and acerbic piece of work. The characters aren’t that deep or multi-faceted. Some of the arguments are spurious. But there are definite kernels of truth, and a few mordant laughs. A theater company can have a field-day with the piece. And ion does.
Claudio Raygoza tries to give a little soul to cold-blooded, ruthless Bobby, and he succeeds in showing that perhaps the weak-willed producer has a moment of conscience; in a flash, though, it’s gone. Matt Scott is masterful as Charlie, the belligerent worm who can be sniveling and groveling at one moment and brutally violent the next. Plenty of rapacity and hypocrisy on hand here all around. Speaking of which, there’s Sara Beth Morgan ’s Karen, who seems shockingly innocent for a girl on the make in the Big City . But maybe that’s just her game. Morgan could look a lot sexier (Jeannie Galioto’s costumes are fine for the sleazy Fox, but Bobby would wear a much more upscale, tailored suit. And any woman in L.A., especially one working in a Hollywood studio, in whatever capacity, would have an appealing, if not arousing look; remember that Madonna played the role in the original Broadway production!).
The Sushi space is cavernous; with no sound absorption, just vast, naked walls and warehouse-high ceilings, words tend to float off into the ether. Many sharp, satiric lines were lost. Under Glenn Paris’ direction, the men’s interactions are marvelous; the fights, both verbal and physical, superb. The post-coital scene between Bobby and Karen is less successful; there’s no palpable physical connection between the two, and she’s a weakly conceived character at best. We can believe their intellectual/emotional link. But it’s the aftermath of that exchange, the battle royale , the final-scene fight to the finish that serves to expunge any trace of ethics or altruism, that’s more than worth the price of admission.
THE LOCATION: ion theatre performs at Sushi Visual and Performing Art, 390 11th Ave . , downtown San Diego . ( 619) 600-5020 ; www.iontheatre.com
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $10-25. Thursday-Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 6:30 and 9 p.m , through September 26.
THE BOTTOM LINE: BEST BET
A NOTE ON THE TITLE : Mamet once explained his play’s title in a Chicago Tribune interview: “I remembered the saying that you see on a lot of old plates and mugs: ‘Industry produces wealth, God speed the plow.’ This, I knew, was a play about work and about the end of the world, so ‘Speed-the-Plow’ was perfect, because not only did it mean work, it meant having to plow under and start over again.”
THE SHOW: “August: Osage County ,” Steppenwolf Theatre’s touring production of the award-winning play, at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles
It’s the most highly acclaimed drama in years, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play: big, bold, brash, expansive, epic in scope.
“August: Osage County ” is as sweltering as the Oklahoma season of its setting. In a large, three-story, cut-out dollhouse of a space (magnificent set by Todd Rosenthal, gorgeously lit by Ann G. Wrightson ), a family comes together and comes apart.
We first meet the pater familias of the Weston clan, a drunken, dissipated poet and professor, who’s hiring a young Native American woman to care for his spouse. They’ve struck a bargain in their marriage, he tells her. “My wife takes pills and I drink.” Next thing we know, he’s disappeared, and the whole family, three daughters with mates in tow, and an aunt, uncle and cousin, descend on the homestead to comfort the doddering mom, who could use a muzzle more than succor or sympathy. Turns out that Dad never turns up. The bruising reunion of damaged and damaging kinfolk is laugh-out-loud funny in its brutality. Nobody gets away unscathed, including the emotionally battered audience.
The philosophy of this toxically dysfunctional crew can be summed up in one line, spit out by the eldest daughter: “Thank God we can’t tell the future. Or we’d never get out of bed.”
Tracy Letts is known for his black comic sensibility. San Diego has already witnessed his bloody “Bug” (Cygnet Theatre, 2003) and “Killer Joe” (Compass Theatre, 2009). Cygnet is about to open “Man from Nebraska ” (10/3-11/1), just as New York prepares to premiere Letts’ latest creation, “Superior Donuts.” But L.A. has the killer of ‘ em all.
This is the touring production of the wildly celebrated show that originated at the Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre, where Letts is a long-time ensemble member.
You might think the playwright lays it on a little thick, soap-opera style: the aforementioned substance addictions are compounded by cancer, adultery, divorce, pedophilia and incest. One perpetrator, in flagrante delicto , even gets bonked on the bean with a frying pan. But the pain is so real, the confrontations so fraught, the acting so splendid, that it’s impossible not to get caught up in the madness of this lineage that seems programmed to injure, wound and self-destruct.
Violet is the monster matriarch from hell, with pinpoint, acid-tipped accuracy in her casually cruel pronouncements. She says she has a favorite among her three daughters, but it’s hard to tell; she undermines each of them with equally exquisite precision.
The “girls” aren’t exactly close. And after three ferocious acts, two intermissions and 3½ hours, they may never be in a room together again. The damage is irreversible; the legacy is irretrievable. But never has doom and destruction been laced with so much laughter. The biting one-liners whizz by like poison arrows. Even as you chuckle, there’s desperation and despair gnawing at your insides. This is “A Long Day’s Journey” as comic bloodsport . It’s not possible to come away unmoved, untouched by the scope and depth of this deliciously malignant creation and its 13 hapless, ruthless, hopeless inhabitants.
At the center is Estelle Parsons, an Academy Award winner who’s also in the Theater Hall of Fame. Parsons played the role of Violet on Broadway, replacing Deanna Dunagan , who won a Tony for her performance. She tears into the role with a sort of demonic, intoxicated glee, a zonked-out human bulldozer that mows down everything in its path. At 82, she’s amazingly spry, scampering — more like lurching, due to drug-induced balance problems — up and down the steep steps of the manse.
Her terrorized daughters, especially the oldest, ferocious, take-charge Barbara (magnificent Shannon Cochran) can give as good as they get. Mousy Ivy (Angelica Torn) and aggressively clueless Karen (Amy Warren, who originated the role) have gotten themselves into even more dead-end relationships than Barbara, whose marriage is falling apart, her academic husband having abandoned her for a pert, perky student. Their daughter Jean (excellent Emily Kinney, who appeared in “Spring Awakening” on Broadway) is a dope-smoking nymphomaniac who has a dalliance with her aunt’s boyfriend. That’s okay, cause Mom’s sister has a nasty little secret to share, too. It’s all too juicy, rich and satisfying to give too much away.
Long as the play is, the time flies by; you will be riveted, absorbed, taken in (and spit out) and thoroughly engaged. Guaranteed. Catch it in its pure form, as conceived by the original, gifted director (Anna D. Shapiro) and design team. Folks in Chicago are still kicking themselves for having missed the show when it premiered there. Don’t make the same mistake.
THE LOCATION: The Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles , 135 N. Grand Ave . ( 213) 972-4400 ; www.centertheatregroup.org
THE DETAILS: Tickets: $20-80. Tuesday-Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday 1:00 and 6:30 p.m., through October 18. Note: Additional matinees on Thursdays, October 8 and 15 at 2 p.m.; no evening performances on October 11 and 18.
NOTE : Also playing at the Center Theatre Group in L.A., in the Mark Taper Forum, is the dramatic, fact-based musical, “Parade,” which won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Book and Best Music. There are a couple of local connections in the cast: former San Diegans Karole Foreman and “Jersey Boys” Tony Award winner Christian Hoff. 9/24-11/15. www.centertheatregroup.org
THAT WAS THE WEEK THAT WAS
… Wet ‘n Wild: “Dive-in Theatre,” the “soft launch” of a planned annual event, presented by San Diego Actors Theatre, was conceived, written and directed by Patricia Elmore Costa. She requested no formal reviews, but I just wanted to say that it was a fun location – in and around the lap-pool at L’Auberge Del Mar — and there were some real standout elements: the water-themed music ( Scott Wood on sax, Nicholas Costa on guitar, with sultry vocals by Teresa Henning), which was jazzy and cool on a warm late-summer eve. The mellifluous singing voice of Jacob Caltrider , a performer who seems to be everywhere these days, was also excellent. Most of all, applause goes to Teresa Beckwith, who played the mermaid at the center of the action. Sporting a stunning costume (Ann Wickizer ), she managed to keep her sparkly hair and makeup intact throughout her many dives under the surface. The clicking sounds she made were dolphin-like and delightful. And her mien and moves were splendid; just what you’d hope for in a chick of the sea.
… The REAL Stars of the Theater Community: The setting was the historic Balboa Theatre, where 800 people, plus a cast of over 150, piled in for the 18th annual STAR Awards, presented by the San Diego Performing Arts League, to honor the volunteers who keep all our performing arts organizations alive and humming. Mayor Jerry Sanders kicked off the event, reminding us that “ San Diego can, and frequently does, produce world class talent,” as he introduced acclaimed pianist Gustavo Romero, who stunned the audience with his highly theatrical performance of “Paganini Jazz,” by the young Turkish composer Fazil Say.
Along with the 60 volunteers honored, there was a well-deserved tribute to the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture , which is celebrating a milestone anniversary this year. This wonderful, influential organization encourages and supports the broad diversity of arts and culture institutions in our community — with advocacy, public policy, education, programming and financial support. A bevy of current and former Commissioners (there have been 61 in all) came up onstage, to receive their own acclaim and to salute their esteemed and tireless executive director, Victoria Hamilton, who’s been at the helm throughout the 20 years of the Commission’s existence. Between the awards, there were presentations by ten performing arts groups, the highlights of which were: the San Diego Youth Symphony and the high-spirited dancers from Culture Shock and the Coronado School for the Arts. The musical hosts were an engaging trio from the Musical Theatre MFA program at SDSU: Kate Alexander, Brandon Joel Maier and Nancy Snow. Look for them soon in “Into the Woods” at SDSU (11/13-22).
NEWS AND VIEWS
… Opera Queens : As part of its Queer Theatre program , Diversionary Theatre will premiere “ Sextet ,” an intimate chamber opera by composer/librettist Nicolas Reveles , director of education and outreach at the San Diego Opera. Earlier this year, Reveles debuted an operetta, “ Rumpelstiltskin .” His new work contains six episodes on the theme of gay desire: for community, for power, for acceptance, for family, for sex and for love. This one-night-only event, directed by J. Sherwood Montgomery ( Reveles ’ collaborator on “ Rumpelstiltskin ”) features singers Enrique Toral , John Craig Johnson, Joe Pechota , Will Earl Spanheimer and Nick Munson. 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, October 14, at Diversionary Theatre. Tickets: (619) 220-0097; www.diversionary.org
… ARTS 4 U: October 2 is California Arts Day, celebrated throughout the state on the first Friday in October, during National Arts and Humanities Month. The theme for this year’s commemorative day, “The Art in Me,” is inspired by a song of the same name, composed by California Arts Council staff member Rob Lautz . Look for special prices and events at your favorite arts venue. The Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park , for example, is offering half-price tickets, and Cygnet Theatre is providing a $10 ticket for the October 2 preview performance of “ Man from Nebraska .” For more information about California Arts Day, go to http://www.cac.ca.gov/artsday/ or contact the California Arts Council at (916) 322-6555.
… Eclectic, Electric: The NWEAMO Festival (New West Electronic Arts and Media Organization) takes the stage at San Diego State University, with avant-garde composers and artists presenting works that blend DJ beats with invented instruments and electronic music. October 2-3, in Smith Recital Hall on the SDSU campus. www.music.sdsu.edu
… Being with Bening : Jill Renner, a former student in the Actors Academy at Mira Costa College , is now attending UCLA and has the good fortune (and talent) to become a member of the Greek chorus in “ Medea ,” starring Annette Bening . The buzz on the production is excellent. Jill came back to her alma mater this week to chat with Mira Costa acting students about her experience. “ Medea ” runs at the Freud Playhouse on the UCLA campus through 10/18. http://www.uclalive.org/event.asp?Event_ID=646
… Sample a Sonnet: The San Diego Shakespeare Society presents its 8th annual Celebrity Sonnets event, featuring traditional and unique presentations, by performers (Ron Choularton, Keith Jefferson, Vanessa Dinning , Victoria Mature and more), dancers ( Tangocentric , San Diego Youth Ballet) local theatrical families (Hollingsworth, Myers) and special guests (renowned motivational speaker Louise Hay, Dr. William Nericcio of SDSU, who will present a sonnet in Spanish). Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots will greet audiences, as music is provided by the Vox Nobili Madrigals. 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 12 at the Old Globe Theatre. www.sandiegoshakespearesociety.org
… Laramie Revisited: The La Jolla Playhouse will join with theater companies across the country in presenting a reading of the Tectonic Theater Project’s new work, “The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later.” This is an epilogue to the original groundbreaking play, which was based on interviews with the residents of Laramie , Wyoming , after the brutal murder of gay student Matthew Shepard . The new work, which considers the long-term repercussions of that senseless, violent act, will premiere at Lincoln Center and at 100 other theaters, spanning all 50 states, as well as Canada , Great Britain , Spain , Hong Kong and Australia . The La Jolla Playhouse was one of the first regional theaters to present “The Laramie Project,” in 2001. It went on to become one of the most produced plays in America , for two years running. The local reading will be directed by Darko Tresnjak, former artistic director of the Old Globe, once again on faculty at UC San Diego. The cast includes playwright Doug Wright, Pulitzer Prize-winner for “I Am My Own Wife” and adapter/director of the Playhouse production of “Creditors” (10/4-25); San Diego Repertory Theatre artistic director Sam Woodhouse ; and actors Robert Foxworth , Amanda Naughton , Mare Winningham , T. Ryder Smith, James Sutorius and others. Proceeds from the Playhouse reading will benefit the Hillcrest Youth Center , a program operated under the auspices of the San Diego LGBT Community Center . Tickets ($15) and info are at (858) 550-1010; www.lajollaplayhouse.org
… FREE THEATER! For the third year, the San Diego Performing Arts League is partnering with the Theatre Communications Group to take part in the national Free Night of Theater 2009. Across the country, 120 cities and 750 theaters will be involved. In the past, more than 75,000 free tickets have been given out. In 2008, 19 local music, dance and theater organizations distributed more than 1600 tickets to 50 performances. Eighty-three percent of those who took advantage of the program had never previously attended a performance by the company they patronized. And even better, 39% reported that after the free program, they went back to that company and purchased a ticket. That’s the whole point of the project: to develop new audiences. Thus far, 13 local companies, including the La Jolla Playhouse, San Diego Symphony, Cygnet, ion and Diversionary Theatres, Orchestra Nova San Diego and the San Diego Ballet, have signed on, with more to come. Free performances are offered between October 12 and November 8. Info is at www.sdwhatsplaying.com/FNOT.htm
FALL for Dance
…The Patricia Rincon Dance Collective, in association with the Lawrence Family Jewish Community Center, presents the sixth annual Emerge Dance Festival, a showcase of “the best of San Diego ’s Emerging Contemporary Dance Artists.” The evening promises work that’s “often edgy; raw and polished; always compelling.” 8 p.m. on October 3, at the Lawrence Family JCC in La Jolla . (858) 362-1348 ; www.rincondance.org
… Jean Isaacs San Diego Dance Theater’s annual Trolley Dances revs up this weekend, on the Blue Line, starting at the Bayfront Trolley Station in Chula Vista , traveling to the border in San Ysidro . A cast of 50 performs world premiere, site-specific works at stops off the trolley. 9/26-27, 10/3-4. www.sandiegodancetheater.org
… Malashock Dance has a busy month. This weekend, there’s the third annual Malashock Thinks You Can Dance, a pro-am riff on “Dancing with the Stars,” featuring local celebs. 8 p.m. on September 26, at Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall, 5775 Morehouse Drive . On October 6, they’ll give a sneak preview of new work at the Movement Performances Series (7-9 p.m. at 8Teen Art & Cultural Center, 3925 Ohio St.), and October 10-11 is the premiere production of “Surface Tension” at the Lyceum Theatre in Horton Plaza. www.malahockdance.org
… The 10th anniversary Choreographer’s Showcase of local, national and international hip hop troupes, will be hosted by Culture Shock San Diego. October 24-25, at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido . ( 800) 988-4253; www.cultureshockdance.org
PAT’S PICKS: BEST BETS
“Speed-the-Plow” – intense, sardonic, satirical; ion nails Mamet
ion theatre, through 9/26
“Things We Want” – snarky black comedy about damaged 20-somethings in deep distress; wonderful direction and performances
New Village Arts , through 10/11
“August: Osage County” – big, sprawling, spectacular family epic; the outstanding Steppenwolf Theatre touring production stars Academy Award-winner Estelle Parsons, who played the lead role on Broadway
Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles , through 10/18
“I’m Not Rappaport ” – outstanding production of a funny, touching, thought-provoking play
Scripps Ranch Theatre, through 10/10
“I Love You Because” – charming romantic musical (with a comic edge), delightfully presented
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through 9/27
“Drink Me, or The Strange Case of Alice Times Three ” – excellent production of a quirky, amusing and discomfiting mystery
Moxie Theatre at the La Jolla Playhouse, through 9/27
“ Godspell ” – inventive, energetic and inspiring
Lamb’s Players Theatre at the Horton Grand Theatre, open-ended
“Twelfth Night” – not perfect, but perfectly good fun
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory through 9/27
“Coriolanus” – political and provocative
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory through 9/27
“Cyrano de Bergerac” – stunning, magnificent production of a timeless, heart-rending classic
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory through 9/27
Pat Launer is the SDNN theater critic.
To read any of her prior reviews, type ‘Pat Launer’ into the SDNN Search box.