Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: JUNE 19, 2009
A year ago, acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally wrote “Unusual Acts of Devotion,” a comic drama about desire, dissatisfaction and the various permutations of love – for spouse, friends, neighbors, elders, even the borough of Manhattan .
Fifty years ago, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt penned “The Fantasticks ,” a small, intimate musical about one allegorical love, and it feels a whole lot fresher than the newer play.
“The Fantasticks ” actually made the Guinness Book, as the world’s longest-running musical – 42 years, 17,000+ performances. A half-century from now, we’ll still be intrigued by its bittersweet story of the innocence of first love and its inevitable journey from fantasy to hard, cold reality, from “scenic to cynic,” as the song goes. We will have long forgotten McNally’s trite trifle of a play, which trades in superficial sentiment and sophomoric wisdom.
“Unusual Acts of Devotion” premiered last fall in Philadelphia , where it featured a beautiful rooftop setting backed by a twinkling New York skyline. That same set, and the excellent lighting and sound design, are the most memorable aspects of this West coast premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, directed by Trip Cullman. The characters who meet on the Greenwich Village roof are not fully dimensional, so we never really care about them or their sexual secrets and entanglements. Even with five-time Emmy winner Doris Roberts and Tony Award-winner Harriet Harris, the piece fails to engage – or to tell a story – except for revealing the playwright’s own melancholy, nostalgia and premonitions of death. The final monologue, spoken by an old, derisive, dying woman, amusingly played by Roberts, is sheer fortune cookie philosophy. The play feels like a writer’s early, clumsy effort, with the world-weariness of age tacked on.
But at Lamb’s Players Theatre, “The Fantasticks ” feels young and refreshing all over again. Musical director Charlie Reuter , in collaboration with musical consultant Jon Lorenz, has jazzed up the score, and even made one number into a rap song. The four-piece band, including harp, is breezy and energetic. Under the assured and whimsical direction of Deborah Gilmour Smyth , the cast is outstanding, and the musical retains its original sense of magic, spontaneity and wonder.
As the bright-eyed and briefly disillusioned young lovers, Steve Limones and Courtney Evans are delightful. Lambs’ artistic director Robert Smyth gives a bravura performance as the comical, bloviating faux Shakespearean. John Rosen and Antonio “T.J.” Johnson make a terrific team as the two conspiring fathers, who build a wall between their yards to keep their children apart, even though they really want them to be together.
So, what’ve we got? A free-flowing, effortless fable and a strained, self-conscious semi-narrative. Choose the love story you’d most love.
“Unusual Acts of Devotion” runs through June 28 at the La Jolla Playhouse.
“The Fantasticks ” continues through July 26 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado .
©2009 PAT LAUNER