Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
March 1, 2013
Hard-edged reality meets fuzzy-boundary fantasy. Two plays tread the fine line.
At several points in “The Boys Next Door,” one of the mentally or emotionally challenged residents of a sheltered group apartment experiences a dream sequence in which he’s whole, articulate, graceful – revealing the soul trapped within the damaged exterior.
In the case of James Thomas as Lucien P. Smith, the most heart-rending performance in the Oceanside Theatre Company production, he’s not intellectually deficient before a Senate committee that will determine if he can retain his benefits and remain a ward of the State. His responses in the momentary illusion, instead of a muddled singing of the “Alphabet Song,” are an erudite treatise on the inner core that makes a man. It’s equally heartbreaking when Norman, dancing awkwardly with his sweet, middle-aged squeeze, transforms, for an instant, from a bumbling hippo to a nimble gazelle, and then, sadly, back again. Tom Griffin’s 1987 comic drama makes these disabled adults courageous, multi-faceted characters, not caricatures.
This is Kathy Brombacher’s first freelance effort since stepping down as 32-year founding artistic director of Moonlight Stage Productions. On the preview night I attended, the cast hadn’t quite found the depth and distinctions in these colorful characters. The first act plodded along, with overly long blackouts and a paucity of comic snap. But the humor and heart kicked in with Act 2 and never let up, making the trip to this attractive, newly restored theater worth the drive.
Now, when it comes to the line between fantasy and reality, no one muddied the waters more than Nobel Laureate Luigi Pirandello, who died in 1939, but might as well have been born yesterday. He understood the slipperiness of lip-synching and Reality TV long before their time. “Tonight We Improvise” is not as well-known as his most famous work, “Six Characters in search of an Author,” but it’s also part of his play-within-a-play-within-a-play trilogy, sharing an impish delight in tampering with form and the fourth wall.
The director, or someone portraying him, addresses the onlookers, the actors step in and out of character, comments and heckling come from within the audience, a conflagration flares up in the lobby during intermission. And at the end, as a cherry on top of this whipped-up theatrical confection, we hear the voice of the actual director, Gabor Tompa , the internationally acclaimed Romanian who heads the UCSD directing program, telling to the actors he wants to give them notes on their performances. Life imitates art imitates life intimates art. What is reality, anyway? And whose reality are we talking about?
Head-spinning questions boggle the brain in the deliciously self-referential piece that’s just perfect for our times. Tompa creates stunning stage pictures. The performers – and the costumes are spectacular.
Consider these plays a double dose of dramatic reality – and illusion.
“Tonight We Improvise” runs through March 2 in the Mandell Weiss Theatre, on the campus of UC San Diego.
“The Boys Next Door” continues through March 3, at the Oceanside Theatre.
©2013 PAT LAUNER