KPBS AIRDATE: July 13, 1994
It’s shaping up to be a very theatrical summer. This week, there’s a run on comedy and nostalgia. It’s a broad expanse of terrain to cover, so let me just kick up a few stones for you, and you can explore further on your own. In the Comedy Corner, there’s “Beau Jest,” and in the Nostalgia Department, we have “Godspell,” “Street Theatre” and “Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll,” though all of them dish up highjinks and humor. Two of the productions are being mounted by Lamb’s Players Theatre — “Beau Jest” at the National City home-base, and “Godspell” at the Lyceum in Horton Plaza.
“Godspell,” you may remember, is St. Matthew’s Gospel, goosed up in every way imaginable. The Lamb’s production — its third in a dozen years — sparkles with ingenuity. The ensemble of nine is ultra high-energy; every cast member shows admirable vocal prowess and impressive versatility. The musical backup is hand-clappin’ super, and the choreography is non-stop exuberance. Thanks to director Robert Smyth’s rethinking of the piece, it has the ragtag, props-in-a-trunk exhilaration of street theater, surrounded by Mike Buckley’s kaleidoscopic collection of set pieces from the last 23 years of Lamb’s Theatre productions. What a kick!
While Stephen Schwartz’s music sings, it’s the Word that restrains the action. This show is far more preachy than its 1970’s Biblical-musical cousins, “Jesus” and “Joseph.” Nonetheless, the production is joyfully flawless; it just may be your path to theatrical redemption.
On the more ecumenical side…. actually, pretty far over in the opposite direction, Lamb’s is presenting James Sherman’s 1989 “Beau Jest,” a Jewish family sitcom with a message of interfaith tolerance. The setup is funny, though the outcome is predictable. Sarah loves Chris but he isn’t Jewish and her family would never understand. Sooner or later, she has to introduce him to her folks. Instead, she calls an escort service and gets Bob Schroeder, who is thankfully an actor, but name notwithstanding, regretfully not Jewish. However, relying on episodes of “St. Elsewhere” and a six-month stint in “Fiddler on the Roof,” he successfully impersonates Sarah’s fantasy Jewish doctor. Her boyfriend Chris doesn’t like it, her brother Joel doesn’t buy it, but Mom and Dad are thrilled and, of course, Sarah winds up falling for Bob and finally having to face her guilt-driven dishonesty and her parents.
There are lots of laughs in this play, and director Kerry Meads handles the situation with a light comic touch. Trina Kaplan and Daniel Mann are prototypical Jewish parents, although they don’t seem to have spawned very Jewish offspring. But Cynthia Peters’s Sarah is certainly neurotic and frenetic enough. And she really seems to connect with Mike Buckley’s Bob, an awfully nice guy, though how he’s gonna provide for her is any parent’s nightmare. But this production is a dream. Clearly, Lamb’s has two successes on its hands this summer. Both timeless stories.
On other stages, the happenings are more time-linked. Eric Bogosian’s “Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll” is, at its sarcastic core, extremely eighties, pitting the excessively over-privileged against the haplessly under-privileged.
The amazing thing about the piece was watching its multiple-personalitied creator metamorphose into ten different characters in ninety minutes. Barely walking offstage, just out of the spotlight, he’d turn around and be transformed, from a high-power lawyer to a can-and-bottle collector; from a burned-out British rock star to a mournful homeless panhandler. I was more than a little disappointed when I heard that the Fritz Theater was replacing one frenzied Bogosian with two local actors. Certainly, some of the theatrical magic would be lost.
But the piece works exceedingly well at the Fritz. You get used to the alternation, and you can’t wait to see who the next guy will be next. Some characters work better than others, even in Bogosian’s deft depictions. But in their self-directed portrayals, both Bryan Bevell and Louis Seitchik have dazzling moments.
Seitchik is the more versatile of the two; he is a chameleon who creates wonderfully colorful characters, especially the effete, hypocritical rocker and the scum-sucker of a lawyer.
Bevell shines brightest as the macho Italiano, though he unfortunately doesn’t play him very Noo Yawk I-talian. But the story of a stag party that includes excessive amounts of all the elements in the play’s title makes for a hilariously hellish monologue. “Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll” turns out to be a perfect vehicle for the Fritz, a company that thrives on weirdos, wackos and laughter laced with cyanide.
Another excellent match is Diversionary Theater and “Street Theater,” a play that provides a little slice-of-life history of the roots of the gay liberation movement.
The moon was full the night of June 27, 1969. It was only hours after Judy Garland’s funeral, when a police raid on a gay bar, the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, incited a 3-day riot that shook homosexuals out of their passive somnambulance and changed their lives — and ours — forever. We’d probably never have Diversionary Theatre if it weren’t for the Stonewall riots. And Diversionary wouldn’t have “Street Theatre.”
Written in 1982, the piece isn’t a retelling of the Stonewall story. It’s more like prolonged, sometimes repetitive and frustrating foreplay: two acts of buildup to a riotous climax that ultimately happens offstage. But we get a living-color snapshot of Christopher Street as it was, a place for cruisers and leather boys, dykes, closet gays, drag queens, flower children and undercover cops. They’re all here, a resplendent cast of 14 that resembles the Village People and represents every stereotype in Fairyland. They strut, they pose, they show some skin, they dish each other to death. That’s the way it was before the uprising. The play would have you believe that it’s all unity and harmony now. “Join us” they enjoin us at the end. ‘We are one,’ they seem to say. Would that it were so.
But Doric Wilson’s 1982 play, as directed by Bill Poore, is more about entertainment than agit-prop. A billion hilarious fag-jokes. A truckload of over-the-top performances. Chronologuing, as one character says, “the annals of anals.” Diversionary loves to boast of bringing amateurs onto its stage. It’s a communal, community thing, but the price is spotty productions that often don’t feel professional. Perhaps that’s the right sensibility for this play.
“Street Theater” doesn’t offer a very profound dramatic experience, but it’s fun and funny and topically linked to this year’s 25th anniversary of the Stonewall rebellion and this weekend’s 20th Gay and Lesbian Pride parade and festival. If it helps to open a few more eyes, a few more purses, a few more closets, then the struggle — and the production — will have been worthwhile.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.