By Pat Launer
A wild week of theater – what a range! —
From the pedestrian to the nude to the downright strange.
Adolescent angst brings us high school again
And there’s Mapplethorpe, Einstein and eight naked men.
Ballplayers have their hands all over each other. They regularly snap towels and slap each other’s butts. But they are not, I repeat, not gay. No professional ballplayer has ever come out. Sports is a testosterone-driven Man’s World, and it’s one boat no one wants to rock. Well, not until playwright Richard Greenberg stepped up to the plate. He’s a recent convert to the religion of baseball. And his first time at bat, he hit a home run: a Tony Award for Best Play (2003). Some guys just have the gift. Darren Lemming is one of them. In “Take Me Out,” he’s the superstar, the major league outfielder who’s at the top of his game, beloved by fans and teammates, the darling of the day. And then, he decides to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but. He calls a press conference and ‘outs’ himself. And his world (maybe even the world at large) is never quite the same.
Greenberg’s play uses baseball symbolically. In one extended speech, in fact, the game is viewed as “a perfect metaphor for hope in a Democratic society.” Equal opportunity. No stressful time-clock. Rules and enforcement of rules, with judges present at all times and appeals possible. Nuances, symmetry, even multiple trinities (it’s a game of threes). And there’s the potential for “turning the situation to your favor… down to the last try.” Best of all, “unlike Democracy, baseball acknowledges loss… insists on it.” “Democracy is lovely,” concludes the giddy, gay financial adviser who’s a new devotee of the game, “but baseball’s more mature.”
Greenberg has clearly inserted parts of himself into that nerdy new-baseball-addict accountant, Mason Marzac (funny/antic T. Scott Cunningham) and also into the narrator of the story, the New York Empires’ brainy shortstop, Kippy Sunderstrom (the delightfully engaging and appealing Doug Wert), close friend of the stubbornly naïve and sometimes spoiled Darren. No one quite realizes the impact Darren’s announcement will have. First, on the team, who, like Adam and Eve, suddenly recognize their nakedness (the towel-snapping and butt-slapping immediately cease). And on Darren’s friends, both black and white (he’s biracial). And on his nemesis, the relief pitcher Shane Mungitt (scary-looking, crotch-scratching, tobacco-chewing Harlon George), who’s a bigot and a homophobe. Then there’s the coach, the media and the public. And, well, the question arises in every viewer’s mind, whether right now, today, our country could handle this particular type of taboo-busting tearing-down of a sports hero, and the answer remains a resounding ‘No.’
Greenberg covers a lot of bases; he’s got plenty on his mind, and there’s a good deal to contemplate here, including race, class and sexual politics. The ending fizzles a bit and feels somewhat unsatisfying. But the play is both funny and provocative, and very well done in this touring production, directed by the gifted Joe Mantello , who helmed the award-winning London and New York productions, and like our own Jack O’Brien, won back-to-back Tonys for direction of a play (“Take Me Out”) and a musical (“Assassins”).
At the center, as Darren, is M.D. Walton, a recent graduate of the MFA Acting program at U-T Austin (who also happens to have worked with Daniel Sunjata , who originated the role on Broadway, on the TV show, “Rescue Me”). He seems, perhaps, a little less handsome and smooth than one might hope, and he has a tendency to swallow his words. But he makes for a winsome presence most of the time, deftly balancing the arrogance and ingenuousness of his character. The rest of the cast is appealing, too, both in clothes and out. This isn’t gratuitous nudity used for shock value. What is shocking though, is that there are no understudies; two performances had to be canceled on Sunday (with no immediate raincheck provided to disappointed patrons). At a theater the size of the Globe and in a production with this high a profile, it’s inconceivable that there’s no backup plan in case of illness.
But there is no disappointment in the much-ballyhooed shower scenes. One woman behind me gasped and said “Oh my! Oh my!” but no one walked out. It seems like the Globe is getting “more mature,” too! No more dim lights and bowler hat cover-ups. This really IS the Full Monty — over and over again. There were pre-show warnings, of course. The play is set, after all, in a locker room/clubhouse, where undressing is de rigueur and the shower heads drop down, all in a row, as eight guys line up across the stage and soap up. One particularly amusing moment occurs when, shortly after Darren’s public announcement of his homosexuality, someone drops the soap, and everyone freezes; no one dares make a bend-down move.
Greenberg goes a little light on the Latino team members (the one Japanese player does get to say his piece) and after death and tragedy, everyone learns a lesson or two in a too-pat fashion. But there’s a lot to think about (and to look at!) in this play. The production values are excellent; Scott Pask’s set recreates the locker room and the stadium, both vividly lit by Kevin Adams, backed by Janet Kalas ’ spot-on sound, aptly dressed by Jess Goldstein.
This is an award-winning play that’s rounding the bases, and we get in on an early inning. If you haven’t got four balls, run, don’t walk, to the Globe.
At the Old Globe Theatre, though February 20.
It was an Einsteinian confluence of events. David Ellenstein played Einstein in “Picasso at the Lapine Agile.” Marc Silver impersonates Einstein for kids in schools. When the two were involved in an L.A. production of “Hamlet,” they started speaking relativity and before you know it, the germ of an idea for a play was born. They’ve been working on the piece for four years, and now, “Einstein Comes Through” is getting its world premiere at North Coast Repertory Theatre.
The initial plan was to create a role that either of them could play, but as it turned out, the piece is enacted by Silver and directed by Ellenstein. When I read the script, I wasn’t at all sure they could pull it off and make it work. It’s mostly an off-the-wall, enigmatic stream-of-consciousness, and for quite some time, you aren’t sure where it’s going. Onstage, it played better than I would’ve imagined (admittedly, there had been some revisions and clarifications since the early draft I read). Marty Burnett’s imaginative set (a greenish combo of living room/kitchen/museum/hospital, is delightful. And like the lighting (Mike Buckley), sound (M. Scott Grabau ) and wonderful array of props (Bonnie Durben ), it helps to illuminate, and even foreshadow, the events to come. But I’m still not sure it would’ve worked so well for me if I hadn’t read the script in advance.
There we are, in a shabby/messy living room, with the shabby, messy Hank. His presence surprises him as much as us. His first words are: “Why am I still here?” Above the sofa is a larger-than-life-size picture of Albert Einstein, a comical shot with his tongue sticking out – Is he being examined medically? Thumbing his nose (so to speak) at his critics? Or at the universe? The audience? Whatever…
Hank is an Albertaholic . He can’t get enough of the guy. Suggestively, instead of ceiling molding, there are equations written on the walls. There are photos and models, sharing shelf and fridge space with a kid’s toys and drawings. Hank plays Einstein for elementary school children, teaching them about physics through the wise man’s words. He brings science to life for them (even if one youngster called him “phony Einstein”). He’s got a gig today, but it’s not clear that he’s gonna make it. He’s having weird dreams, he’s confused (he stumbles around; he blows his nose in a piece of white bread). He makes notes about his dreams, looks up their significance in a large Dictionary of Dreams. And he keeps working on his research — The Escape Velocity Experiment, by which Hank disappears into Einstein in a time-travel “altered personality replacement.” He’s a magician as well as a science-loving accountant-turned-actor, and this is his ultimate vanishing act. We get a sense that all is not right with his world; “I miss my boy,” he says. “I miss my wife.” It takes till almost the very end of the 80-minute play till we get the full story of who and where he is and why. It seems too long to wait for the payoff, but there are many delights, along with puzzles, along the way.
Silver is an likable performer (with the bug-eyes of Gene Wilder), who’s more engaging as Einstein (a far more interesting character) than as Hank (“Everyone thinks I’m depressing”). There is, of course, Hank’s re-creation of Einstein, and then there’s Einstein himself, which can also add to audience confusion. But Silver makes the Great Man come alive, with all his humor, obsessions, science, history and humanity. There’s also a bit of his inhumanity; he was less than an ideal husband or father. And that’s another thing the two men have in common.
The play tends to sermonize (“You have the moral obligation to act, to make your contribution,” Einstein admonishes Hank). I didn’t find this as inspirational as one young man, a 19 year-old who reportedly told the director, “This play changed my life. I’m gonna go out and do more for the world.” But I found it intriguing. It needs more work, more tweaking and clarifying and paring down, less lecturing (Fresher jokes? Better pronunciation of ‘kvetch?’ Less out-and-out physics lecture?). But it’s a start. A unique way of looking at grief and deep emotional pain, coming through heartache, disaster and despair and turning your life around. Using the words of your role model to heal yourself. In case you didn’t know, the play tells us, everything, including reality, is relative.
At North Coast Repertory Theatre, through February 6.
STRICTLY BLACK AND WHITE
Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) was a genuine original. He pioneered photographic techniques, viewed his photos as art and presented them like paintings. Both he and his subject matter became controversial and contentious. His photos (even his pictures of flowers) were blatantly homoerotic; he started out with provocative Polaroid self-portraits and went on to capture his friends, now-famous folks like Patti Smith, Andy Warhol and Deborah Harry, with uncompromising honesty. He focused his lens on porno filmstars and members of the S&M underground. Many of these confrontational photos remain shocking in content but exquisite in artistic merit and technical mastery.
In 1988, Mapplethorpe said, “I don’t like that word ‘shocking.’ I’m looking for the unexpected. I’m looking for things I’ve never seen before.” That sense of wonder, of the unexpected, is what you’d like to see in a theater piece about the artist. In “Mapplethorpe: The Opening,” we get a glimpse of Mapplethorpe the legendary networker ; he apparently never missed an opportunity to promote his work, and never failed to invite all his acquaintances – from all the different worlds he traveled in — to his gallery openings. We see the people behind the works. But we get little sense of the man himself.
Here we are, at a 1970s opening in New York . We never see the images; we never meet the artist. But we get two-dimensional snapshots, as it were, of some three dozen or so attendees – the family, the critics, the cognoscenti, the S&M crowd. They’re all there, but it’s hard to tell them apart without a scorecard. Was one of those Susan Sontag or Diana Vreeland , or were they just present by report? Were we supposedly hearing from Warhol? There’s little help given to the audience (this is an unfortunate directorial choice); it’s difficult to tell the women from the queens and transsexuals. We hear, in the minutest of detail, the backstories of some of the glorious photos that everyone ‘sees’ but us. More about the vagaries and permutations of anal intercourse (two fists, a rat followed by a snake, etc., etc.) and bodily fluids (warm urine drunk from Baccarat crystal, for example) than I’d ever want or need to know. But I learned little about Mapplethorpe the man or the artist. Except that everyone thought he was brilliant and creative, wild and maybe a little crazy. And a lot of people were envious of him. Interesting conceit, but we could use more info or insight about his work, his life, his technique or his motivations. Or even his words. And for a visual medium like theater, for a play about an innovative, ground-breaking, gallery-closing, incendiary artist, and one that not everyone knows intimately, it seems nearly criminal not to have even one image of or by the man.
What Mapplethorpe did was take the ugly and make it beautiful. This piece does just the opposite; it takes that beauty and subverts it, makes it ugly with sordid details that shock but do not touch or move, that turn the stomach but do not touch the heart, as Mapplethorpe’s photographs do. He made grotesquerie stunning. Here, we get more of the monstrous than we care to, and no one and nothing to care about. Mapplethorpe himself was a striking, often (in his many self-portraits) a beautiful man. But there’s no beauty here, no art. Brian Quirk plays all the roles with cheerful intensity, but not with the subtle grace and nuance of say, Jefferson Mays (in “I Am My Own Wife”). There’s a coarseness and a lack of precision to the whole endeavor. The actor enters barefoot, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. There is no set, no props or costumes; there are no projections, no sense of the stark beauty lining the walls that surround these speakers. Too much sex, shock and artifice, not enough art.
Off-hours at 6th @ Penn Theatre (Sun.-Wed. evenings and late-night on weekends, after with the not-to-be-missed “Of Mice and Men”), through February 23.
HIGH (SCHOOL) ANXIETY
High school setups and a sitcom mentality were the highlights of the second installment of this year’s Plays by Young Writers, the 20th anniversary of the statewide competition sponsored by the Playwrights Project. Once again, I attended a morning performance with an audience full of junior high and high school kids –and they loved it. Perhaps this wasn’t the most adult-themed series of plays in the competition’s history. But if the presentations can excite young folks, and make them feel that theater is relevant to them and their lives – then it’s well worth the effort. In years past, the youthful writers tackled some very deep, dark significant themes. This year, it was more about dating and zits than global warming or world peace. Actually, the youngest writer of the day (Marina Cook, age 13) had the most intense subject matter – a mother whose gambling addiction nearly destroys a family.
“A New Beginning” was a brief piece, presented in a staged reading nicely performed by Jo Anne Glover (who’s adorably in her thirties, but plays adolescence credibly and flawlessly), Fred Harlow as another of his many Playwrights Project good-guy fathers and Deb Salzer, the exec direc of Playwrights Project, as a compassionate grandma. Perhaps it was the age of the writer, or the short-format play, but the issues (divorce, addiction, a runaway mom, lack of money, lack of contact from the mother) seem to be far too easily and readily dispatched. A new life seems to begin with barely a backward glance. But this is a good start for a young writer, who’s not afraid to tackle themes of substance.
“Under the Hood,” by 15 year-old William Alden, seemed to run a bit longer than the situation warranted, and then ended quite abruptly and unbelievably. But Alden created some credible dialogue between a geeky guy (Tom Friedman) and a popular, hyper-social girl (Nicole Monet), locked for too long in a car. These stock characters had a few interesting quirks. Best in Show was the car itself, designed by Beeb Salzer, with clever use of ‘mechanics’ who rotated the vehicle for the arena stage and also served as the vehicle’s snarling and recalcitrant doors.
“Welcome to Me and Mine,” by 17 year-old San Diegan Patricia Ash, got the biggest audience response. They could obviously see themselves up there onstage, playing out, in short scenelets , the everyday angst of adolescence, from The Universal Zit (“ Mt. Fuji on my forehead!”) to essay-eating computers (“Error. The computer is not speaking to the printer because he called her fat”) to the suckiness of Math (“Math is the most boring subject on the face of the planet!” — a remark which drew laughter and rousing applause). There’s the torture of beauty (nose hairs, which need to be attacked with “Tweezers, the silver pincers of death”) and the perils of loneliness and individuality (“Misery is alone . .. Conformity is misery”) and the anguish of being neglected or ignored (“There has to be another way to get them to notice me” – besides pills or razor blades, that is). The final scene sums up the eternal high school quest for identity (“Who am I? What is Gay? What is Straight ?”) and concludes with the rhetorical: “How am I supposed to know what I am if the world doesn’t know what it is?” Good question. Overall, Ash isn’t breaking any new ground, but she has a keen eye, a finely tuned ear and a wicked sense of humor.
Comedy is hard to create; humorous people often aren’t too amusing on paper (and, for that matter, comic writers often aren’t that funny in person). But this year’s statewide winners show promise in airing personal and identity concerns in often off-beat ways. Here’s to continued efforts from all of them. And hail to the Playwrights Project, which continues to encourage and inspire young people to create for the theater – and attend it.
SET YOUR CLOCK, VCR OR TiVo …
… Don’t forget to watch/tape the re-broadcast of the 8th Annual Patté Awards for Theater Excellence airs on KPBS-TV, Saturday, January 29 at 11:30pm on channel 15/cable 11.
HOT FLASHES (of the NEWS variety)
Good news-bad news-good news from the La Jolla Playhouse. Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays,” which began at the Playhouse (under the direction of Des McAnuff) is a Broadway smash-hit. Ticket sales and audience responses have been so enthusiastic that the show is being extended for 55 additional performances, through May 21. The not-so-good news is that the Tony committee decided that the show doesn’t qualify for an award as a ‘play,’ only as a solo performance. Not fair, and not accurate. It is a play in two acts, with a story and an arc; it isn’t just a stand-up shtick. But so it goes. In other hot Playhouse-related news, playwright José Rivera, whose marvelous “Cloud Tectonics,” “ Marisol ” and “Adoration of an Old Woman” premiered at the Playhouse — and the 1998 POP (school touring) show, “ Maricela de la Luz Lights up the World” — just received an Oscar nomination for Adapted Screenplay for “Motorcycle Diaries.” Way cool!
And right next door, there’s news from UCSD. Alumna Chris Albright, the luminous actor who moved from San Diego to New York , recently reprised her role of Thomasina in “ Arcadia ” (first played at the Warehouse Theatre, and last month with the Invisible City Theatre Company). Now she’s in a new play, “Expectations,” at the Stamford (CN) Center for the Arts. She stars in the 3-person play with the legendary Eartha Kitt , and she says she’s having a ball.
AND NOW, FOR THIS WEEK’S ‘NOT TO BE MISSED‘ LIST:
“Einstein Comes Through” – a world premiere co-written by director David Ellenstein. Still a work-in-progress, but a puzzling if sometimes fascinating contemplation of healing through escape and ultimately, self-confrontation. Timed perfectly to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Theory of Relativity.
At North Coast RepertoryTheatre ; through February 6.
“Take Me Out” – funny, thought-provoking play about the coming-out of a sports superstar… Baseball, comedy, drama — and a big Bonus! — all those naked men!
At the Old Globe Theatre, through February 20.
“Of Mice and Men” – Renaissance Theatre’s searing production of the John Steinbeck classic. Marvelously acted, directed and designed. At 6th @ Penn Theatre, through February 12.
“Burn This ” – highly combustible theater. An offbeat love story that seethes at Cygnet Theatre; through February 13.
“Wrinkles” – three generations of high-powered, hard-nosed Southern women reveal secrets they didn’t know they shared. Outstanding performances. At Diversionary Theatre, through February 19.
“36 Views” a stunning piece of theater; beautifully written (by former San Diegan Naomi Iizuka ), gorgeously directed (by Chay Yew). At the Laguna Playhouse, through January 30.
There’s something for everyone on local stages – find your niche!
©2005 Patté Productions Inc.