Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Pasadena area.

Oh the Horror! : Candlelight Pavilion makes the most of “Jekyll and Hyde”

Michael Scott Harris, as he transitions from the peaceful Dr. Jekyll to the notoriously evil Mr. Hyde, at Candlelight Pavilion [photo: John LeLonde]

Michael Scott Harris, as he transitions from the peaceful Dr. Jekyll to the notoriously evil Mr. Hyde, at Candlelight Pavilion [photo: John LeLonde]

Ever since Robert Louis Stevenson first penned “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” its particular examination of the nature of good and evil, and the balance of these qualities in the ordinary person, have proved fascinating. Though many today are not as familiar with Stevenson’s complex novella as they are with the more than 123 films based on it, the term “Jekyll and Hyde” has entered the English language, as a way to refer to someone with vastly different behaviors under different circumstances.

The stage has not been immune to this fascination either, and in one of the more recent dramatizations, the musical “Jekyll and Hyde” made it to Broadway in the late 90s and stayed there for nearly 4 years. Like many of its counterparts on Broadway at the time, this version by Leslie Bricusse and Frank Wildhorn is operatic in style. Its focus stays mainly on the well-meaning Dr. Henry Jekyll, his experiments to remove evil from mankind, and the creation of the totally evil Edward Hyde – whose strength of personality gradually consumes the gentler but thus weaker Jekyll.

Now at the Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, this musical version is not without its issues. Though the production is tight and well performed, the music and lyrics sometimes leave a bit to be desired. Still, the essence of the story survives, there are some strong characters. The show’s hit song, “This is the Moment,” which proves so pivotal, remains as powerful as ever. Much of the production’s success comes thanks to a strong, vocally impressive cast and a particularly elaborate setting for this small theater.

Michael Scott Harris virtually carries this piece, as Jekyll/Hyde. The transformations he makes from carefully appropriate doctor to vengeful wonton are brilliant – changes of voice, of carriage and articulation which take the audience along seamlessly as he shifts back and forth. In this he is well supported by Amy Gillette as Jekyll’s understanding, upper crust fiancé, and Laura Dickinson’s warm-hearted, easily abused prostitute, each of whom holds their versions of this one man in their hearts and passions. The singing in all these cases, honed to fit the characters, proves rich and sophisticated, leading the story along.

Also worthy of note are Richard Bermudez as Jekyll’s lawyer and longtime friend – the man who pushes hard to figure out what is going on, and Bob Bell as Jekyll’s future father-in-law, loving but deeply concerned. Beyond this a large and versatile cast play everything from street urchins to bishops with fervor and intelligence. Director Jason James uses the complex stage well, and just about the only thing one could wish for is that some of the set pieces would not make quite so much noise, rolling in behind active scenes.

Janet Renslow recreates the choreography from the original with style – often as much movement as it is dancing, and by and large the thing looks and feels as edgy and mysterious as it should. In short, for someone looking for a different way to feel spooky around the Halloween period, this is a fun one to see.

Note: this story is essentially an adult one. A number of characters are prostitutes plying their wares, and the changes in Jekyll, which are often quite vivid, might be disturbing to younger children. Although there may be a dish on the dinner menu for children, I would think twice about bringing them below a more sophisticated age.

What: “Jekyll and Hyde: The Musical” When: Through November 23, doors opening for dinner 6 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays, and 11 a.m. for Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: (meal inclusive) $53 – $68 general, $25 children under 12 Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com

Late Night Catechism Las Vegas: More of same, but still fun

Maripat Donovan is Sister, in her 6th edition of "Late Night Catechism," where "Sister Throws the Dice".

Maripat Donovan is Sister, in her 6th edition of “Late Night Catechism,” where “Sister Rolls the Dice”.

In the six years since Maripat Donovan began her stint as Sister in “Late Night Catechism” people have been charmed by the humorous, though not bitingly satiric, homage to traditional Catholic doctrine this supposed teaching nun delivers. After the long initial runs of the original work, Donovan and her writing partner/director Marc Silvia have taken Sister’s evening catechism lectures in many different directions.

The newest of these, “Late Night Catechism Las Vegas: Sister Rolls the Dice,” involves Sister’s plans to fund-raise using a Vegas Night. First she wants to try out her newly minted magic and card trick skills on her evening class. Now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, thanks to the McCoy-Rigby Series, the new show has many of the qualities which have made LNC such a franchise: wry wit, sincerity and an atmosphere reminiscent of a particular kind of gleeful amateurism (though, of course, Donovan is no amateur).

All the most popular bits are there: the casual inclusion of elemental Catholicism (prayer cards are handed out, saints are invoked, and even the magic tricks have occasional flickers of iconography), the question and answer segments, the insistence on respectful behavior. And yet, as always, the show is more than the sum of its parts, in great measure because of Donovan’s ownership if Sister. She gets this woman – the way she thinks, the way she copes with mistakes or outrageous questions or even inappropriate clothing. As the character shows love of life, so the audience shows love of the character.

The Las Vegas theme is a bit free-form, however, made up more than usually of ad libs based on audience participation. This may add to the silliness quotient, but it leaves little for the “class” time – the wonderfully free-form interpretations of Catholicism which have been the trademark of earlier LNC renditions. Still, the fun is there, and by the time Donovan gives her usual pitch for funds for local nuns in retirement (the last time in La Mirada it bought a local nuns’ retirement home a van), the audience is ready to give back after an evening of light, airy, silly entertainment.

The night I saw it was particularly lacking in folks who were Catholic, which is really too bad. Those raised in Catholic schools, or in the church itself, are usually those who laugh the loudest. Still, those who were there were having a great time. One word of warning: if you sit close to the front be sure you’re wearing clothing you’d want the rest of the audience to see, as you are very likely to be asked to stand, or even go onstage. I’m sure at least one person so called upon, on opening night, wished they’d been warned.

What: “Late Night Catechism Las Vegas: Sister Rolls the Dice” When: Through November 16, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310, or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

Coming Attractions: Reviews to be posted on Thursday

It has occurred to me, now that I must postpone my own posts on reviews of shows I have also submitted to my traditional newspaper employer, that I should probably give out a list of the upcoming reviews which can be found here on the Thursday after the Monday submission. So… on Thursday, look for reviews regarding:

1. Late Night Catechism Las Vegas: Sister Rolls the Dice (McCoy-Rigby Entertainment, La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts)

2. Jekyll and Hyde The Musical (Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theatre)

See you then!

Marital Strife in Extremes: “The Dance of Death” at A Noise Within

Geoff Elliott and Susan Angelo in the love-hate relationship of "The Dance of Death" at A Noise Within

Geoff Elliott and Susan Angelo in the love-hate relationship of “The Dance of Death” at A Noise Within

Long before Edward Albee’s portrait of a manipulative, wretched, psychologically sadistic marriage in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” there was August Strindberg. A man whose view of matrimony can be gleaned from the 19th century playwright’s four unsuccessful marriages, Strindberg examined the twists and turns of relationship in several works, but never created a more mutually vicious version than that in “The Dance of Death.”

Now opened as the third leg of their three-play fall repertory, the production of this work at A Noise Within in Pasadena creates an equally stunning portrait of deeply psychological marital dysfunction, laid out in front of a guest who finds himself gradually swept up in the grimly manipulative human interactions there. A new translation by Conor McPherson, receiving its west coast premiere, brings this play out of the somewhat dated tonalities often associated with “classic” works into a contemporary language framework which makes the play both more accessible and more disturbing.

Co-Artistic Directors Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott direct this one “straight”, allowing the ferocity and isolation of the characters’ worlds to create movement without the unnecessary embellishments which sometime cloud their productions. The result is stark but continually interesting. Like watching a train-wreck, you just can’t look away from these two as they destroy the world around them. Even for the third character onstage, and certainly for us out there in the dark, that the point.

Elliott is Edgar, an aging misanthrope whose self-absorption and sloth have kept him a low ranking army officer assigned to a bleak island outpost. He has no friends, no money, possibly no food, but vibrates with a strangely concocted dignity nonetheless. Susan Angelo is Edgar’s wife of nearly 25 years, Alice. A former actress yearning for the life she could have led, she mourns absent children and concocts plots to overthrow her husband.

Into this world comes Alice’s cousin Kurt, played by Eric Curtis Johnson. An earnest man of significant rank, he has demons of his own to deal with, but soon falls into the clutches of these relatives who devour his finer sensitivities over the course of the play’s two hours.

Angelo and Elliott prove a fine match, with energy levels and intensities so similar the whole piece becomes an unpredictable fencing bout. Likewise Johnson provides an interesting counterbalance to all that ferocity, and proves subtle in his changes from compassion to an increasing loss of veneer. Indeed, this may be the most difficult part in the play – to change while those around you essentially do not.

Angela Balogh Calin has created an interesting set – at once solid and see-through. It makes for unique symbolism, but removes some of what would seem to be elemental claustrophobia implied in the script. Her costume designs, on the other hand, quickly and accurately evoke the needed elements of attitude, class and title, like visual shorthand.

“The Dance of Death” provides a fascinating character study, and – as with Albee’s later play – considerable meat for discussion. Its view of marriage as a death match, and its dismissal of the collateral damage are disturbingly timeless, making it surprising the play isn’t done more often. Perhaps this new translation will help change that, so that like “Miss Julie,” this Strindberg work becomes a part of the canon.

In the meantime, though not for the faint of heart, “The Dance with Death” is well worth seeing. Just don’t expect something Halloween-y. Sadly, its Poe-esque name has already led to some misconceptions in that department.

What: “The Dance of Death” When: in repertory with “The Tempest” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” 8 p.m. October 24, 25, 31, and November 15; 7:30 p.m. October 30; 7 p.m. November 9 and 23; 2 p.m. October 25, November 15 and November 23 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 general, $20 student rush with ID, group rates available Info: (626) 356-3100, ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

An Ode to Human Connection: “4,000 Miles” in Sierra Madre

Christian Prentice and Mimi Cozzens in "4,000 Miles," now at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

Christian Prentice and Mimi Cozzens in “4,000 Miles,” now at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

It is rare for a small, essentially community-based theater like Sierra Madre Playhouse to receive a chance for the Los Angeles premiere of a high profile play, but it has happened. Amy Herzog’s Pulitzer-nominated “4,000 Miles” has arrived at the small theater to much fanfare. The play, which looks at the interaction between an idealistic, somewhat immature young man who has bicycled across the country and the leftist grandmother he ends up staying with in New York City, offers a few statements on growth, on city vs small town activism, and on what the maturation process really means.

The tale starts with the arrival of Leo at the New York apartment in the middle of the night. Thrown by the rejection felt from the girlfriend he’d hoped to connect with (recently landed in NYC herself), he ends up staying with Vera, the wife of his late grandfather. As she teaches him focus and responsibility, he opens up about the horror of his cross-country bike journey, and gradually they both come to understand one another. It’s not that he will stay in the city, but perhaps now there is a link which will survive the distances.

Christian Prentice makes a great Leo – handsome if rough-hewn, overflowing with energy and opinion, slow to learn to listen. He makes a fine foil for Mimi Cozzens, as Vera, a woman used to being alone but gradually and increasingly glad of the comparatively non-standard company. Their best moment comes in a scene in which Leo introduces Vera to a bong, producing genuine laughter onstage and off.

Alexandra Wright makes fine work of Leo’s erstwhile girlfriend, displaying all the confident maturity and practicality he seems at first to be incapable of. In a brief, but very funny scene, Susane Lee has a great time with the Chinese-American girl Leo picks up one night, who cannot get over the fact Vera has “The Little Red Book of Chairman Mao” on display in her living room.

Director Christian Lebano has taken this rather talky play and given it as much legs as one can. John Vertrees’ beautiful set – complete with a background scene which got – and deserved – its own applause, makes a very realistic apartment for these folks to inhabit, though in some ways it becomes claustrophobic. But then, that may also be a point.

If there is any issue, it comes from Cozzens’ portrayal. Vera is to be occasionally forgetful, but Cozzens makes her, if anything, more so. Indeed, the hemming and hawing happens so often it begins to look less like the script and more like an actress struggling for lines. This is too bad, as the best moments are rich and filled with a special kind of wisdom and fatalism which comes with intelligent aging.

Still, “4,000 Miles” has a lot to say about adaptation, maturing, and the conflicting agendas of various generations. It’s worth a look as a picture of one corner of the American landscape. That is what made the Pulitzer folk take a close look. One note: the play is not recommended by the theater for children under 16, due to adult language and situations

What: “4,000 Miles” When: Through November 8, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87. W Sierra Madre Ave. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 youth (15-22) Not recommended for children under 16 Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Timeless Silliness: “The Importance of Being Earnest” at A Noise Within

Adam Haas Hunter is Algernon (aka Oscar Wilde) at A Noise Within

Adam Haas Hunter is Algernon (aka Oscar Wilde) at A Noise Within [photo: Craig Schwartz]“

Of all the works of Oscar Wilde, “The Importance of Being Earnest” remains the most commonly produced. This, in part, because the tale is so silly, and in part because it pillories pomposity and rigid morality with such complete delight. Making fun of vapidity, the class system, and the spoiled is always a hit.

Now in a very classy new rendition at A Noise Within, the show offers up some interesting choices, a beautiful setting, and all of that satisfyingly uncomplicated humor. It makes for a relaxing, entertaining evening.

The tale, for someone who somehow has not managed to bump into the thing before, is essentially this: Jack Worthing, a country squire with responsibilities for a young and impressionable ward, has created an alternate persona so he can be frivolous when in London: a fictional brother named Earnest, whose name he adopts upon arrival in the city. As such he becomes engaged to Gwendolyn, the daughter of a noblewoman, who states she cannot marry anyone whose name is not Earnest.

Carolyn Ratteray and Christopher Salazar as Gwendolyn and Jack [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Carolyn Ratteray and Christopher Salazar as Gwendolyn and Jack [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Jack’s closest city friend, Algernon, already adroit at telling tales to avoid social obligations, adopts the persona of Earnest in order to ingratiate himself with Jack’s ward in the country, Cecily. Indeed, he proposes to her. Then Cecily and Gwendolyn meet, and this becomes complicated, to say the least, as they discover they are both engaged to Earnest Worthing. Comedy ensues.

Adam Haas Hunter makes a most engaging Algernon, draping himself across furniture and radiating a rather dissipated innocence. By comparison, Christopher Salazar’s Jack, though engaging in the second act country setting, seems a bit underplayed as the supposedly dissolute Earnest (something not helped by the only uninspired costume in the show).
Cecily and Gwendolyn
Jean Gilpin gives the pompous Lady Bracknell a wry sense of humor along with the usual officiousness, which makes her far more fun to watch. Carolyn Ratteray as Gwendolyn, and Marisa Duchowny as Cecily utter the vapid piffle of their parts with such earnest and convicted intent as to heighten the comic aspects of their moments on stage.

Jill Hill makes a fussy and more than usually bemused Miss Prism, Cecily’s tutor, and Alberto Isaac leers with such innocence at her, as the country parson, that there is great charm in the result. Also worthy of note is Apollo Dukakis, taking on the roles of both Algernon’s and Jack’s household servants with a worldy-wise air in once case and a bemused confusion in the other.

Director Michael Michetti has brought an unusual but logical spin by turning the dilettante Algernon into Wilde himself, complete with flowing locks and moderately outrageous clothes. Operating on a set, by Jeanine A. Ringer, with the feel of a hand-colored pencil drawing, and with costumes by Garry D. Lennon which echo the color scheme and add their own little bit of the florid (with the exception of the instance noted above), there is a unified feeling to this production which does nothing but enhance the comic flow.

“The Importance of Being Earnest” is, frankly, difficult to kill, but is far more satisfying in the hands of experts. The production at A Noise Within fits that bill almost all the time, leaving one laughing and charmed by a silliness which has remained constant for over 100 years.

What: “The Importance of Being Earnest” When: In repertory through November 22 – 8 p.m. October 4 and November 8, 14 and 21, 7:30 p.m. October 23 and 13, and 2 p.m. October 5 and November 2, 8, and 22 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40, with student rush and group ticket prices available Info: (626) 356-3100 ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org

What. What? If you’re confused… so am I

So, as I wrote last week, when my print editor – the person responsible for the features sections of three papers which have carried my work for years – was let go, I was given to understand that all the critiquing associated with those papers was going online. My new editor, who was described to me as my “new, online editor” works from a paper owned by the same company, but located at the other end of the 710 freeway. Personal interaction would have an electronic distance, but then it was all electronic anyway.

Okay, I wrote about it, but felt that this was just one more adaptation one was to make in the modern world. I’ve gotten kinda good at adaptation.

Then I opened Friday’s Pasadena Star-News and saw, in print, two of my reviews (and one by another critic – usually of opera – whom I have known for many years). Okay…

I’ll be frank. I have no idea what’s happening. Did the critiques appear in print because of hue and cry? Did they simply have extra room? Or, was the information I was handed by those supposedly “in the know” (who were very close to, if not on top of, the decision-making) not particularly accurate.

So, apparently certain random reviews of mine will make it into print. Yay, I guess. In any case, they’ll all be here, including the ones that don’t appear anywhere else.

And the personal state of flux continues. On the other hand, I did see 8 shows in 10 days, and with the exception of those I must wait to publish so they can appear online at the papers first, they’re all up. Stay tuned for the installment of “had to be elsewhere first” material which will appear on Thursday.

As for the rest, it’s just wait and see and wait.

A Lesson in Acting: Cicely Tyson in “The Trip to Bountiful”

Cecily Tyson sparkles in "The Trip to Bountiful" at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Cicely Tyson sparkles in “The Trip to Bountiful” at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Every once in a while, a theatrical experience transcends the norm. Sometimes a single performer finds just the right interior space in a character to create what is lamely referred to as “theatrical magic.” At those moments, when that happens, one is once again presented with the reason live theater must exist: a moment of shared lightning unavailable in any other, less immediate medium.

Such a moment is the production of Horton Foote’s elegantly poignant “The Trip to Bountiful,” and, at its center, the overwhelming performance of Cicely Tyson. Miss Tyson, at 80, offers up a master class on how to create a character whose dignity, humor and vitality radiate into the audience with such intensity these watchers are pulled emotionally onto the stage.

Despite its setting in 1950s Texas, “The Trip to Bountiful” has a universality, as do all Foote’s works, in that they are as much character studies as historical tributes. His plays focus on what home means to the people who inhabit his worlds, and how that sense of home plays upon their sense of self.

Many may know the story line of “The Trip to Bountiful” either from prior productions, or from either of two filmed versions. Ludie Watts works in Houston, supporting his fussy wife Jessie Mae and his elderly mother Carrie. A constant worry is his mother’s attempts to escape their apartment, ostensibly to return to the tiny gulf town she grew up in, called Bountiful. One day she does manage that escape, and in the process she, her son, his wife, and a few folk she meets along the way all learn something important about themselves and about hope.

Tyson is Carrie, imbuing her with a tenacity, a faith and a humor which are absolutely infectious. From almost her first words, she has the audience on her side as Carrie’s clever planning outwits her pursuers and, despite elemental roadblocks, fights her way toward her goal. On the way, Tyson’s sheer energy makes it impossible to take your eyes off of her. Upon arrival, the peace Carrie finds makes one envious.

(l. to r.) Vanessa Williams (background), Cicely Tyson and Blair Underwood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

(l. to r.) Vanessa Williams (background), Cicely Tyson and Blair Underwood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

As the much-harrassed Ludie, Blair Underwood creates a man balancing two willful women while trying to find his own sense of his place in the world. Watching this escape and pursuit story, it is often easy to find Ludie less than sympathetic, but not here. His internal fight with his own dreams, his gradual unbending into the sense of his mother’s journey, and the warmth which flows between them help the play’s conflicts resolve. Vanessa Williams gives Jessie Mae all the snarky, controlling, self-centered frustration necessary to make one cheer for Carrie’s release. Still, there is just a hint of desperation under her constant energy, which gives the part a less two-dimensional feel.

Cicely Tyson and Jurnee Smollett-Bell [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Cicely Tyson and Jurnee Smollett-Bell [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Jurnee Smollett-Bell provides charming counterpoint to Jessie Mae’s edginess as Thelma, the young woman Carrie befriends on her journey. Her warmth and her regret at needing to move on touch the heart. Arthur French makes a truly sympathetic character out of the small town bus station attendant along the way, and Devon Abner creates the patient and understanding sheriff who takes Carrie the final leg of her journey.

Director Michael Wilson takes all these fine talents and wraps them around Tyson’s Carrie like a blanket. There is room for her to shine, and lovely people for her to play off of. The result is a play at once touching and funny, sad and revitalizing. The production is also beautiful to look at, thanks to Jeff Cowie’s evocative set designs, and the tonally rich costuming by Van Broughton Ramsey.

Yet, one always comes back to Cecily Tyson. This is the role she has waited years to play, and one can see why. When Carrie speaks, close to the end, about the way she is filled by the gulf air and wind off the land, you quickly understand that for Tyson that same richness comes directly from being on that stage, at this time.

So, run, don’t walk, to the Ahmanson and get yourself a ticket to “The Trip to Bountiful.” Inside you will find a great treasure, and leave knowing you have seen something extraordinary: a fine play graced with a remarkable performance by an extraordinary performer. This is why we go. This is why theater exists.

What: “The Trip to Bountiful” When: Through November 2, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays at 1 p.m., with extra performances 6:30 p.m. October 5 and 19 (and no 1 p.m. performance those days), and a 2 p.m. on October 30. Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center in downtown L.A. How Much: $25 – $125 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“Marjorie Prime” at the Taper: A speculation on human-techological interaction

Lisa Emory and Lois Smith square off as daughter and mother in "Marjorie Prime" [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lisa Emory and Lois Smith square off as daughter and mother in “Marjorie Prime” [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Some of the best science fiction of the past 60 years or so has revolved around the concept of artificial intelligence, and the potential for robotics to mimic humanity. As we get closer to the reality of such things, we begin to examine the powers, limitations, and emotional effects a human-looking electronic being could have on the human race.

Which brings me to “Marjorie Prime,” a play by Jordan Harrison receiving its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. In some ways it says things echoed in other quarters about the limitations of programming, in other ways it offers a new examination of the plusses and pitfalls of emotional interaction with humanoid machinery.

The given in the world of “Marjorie Prime” is that one can create a robotic version, physically anyway, of someone who has passed away. That “prime” version of the person must then be programmed through the process of human reminiscence to talk and behave in a way that will mimic the original person. According to Harrison, the effects of such a thing will vary, depending on the person and the circumstance, from therapeutic to destructive.

Jeff Ward and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Jeff Ward and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lois Smith is Marjorie, a woman with advancing dementia. We first meet a “prime” in the form of Walter Prime (Jeff Ward), a youthful-looking replacement for the husband she lost long before, whose programming by several people allows him to remind her of her own past, and – as in “The Notebook” – keep Marjorie more connected to her own history than would otherwise be possible.

Marjorie’s world is also populated by those who love her: her frustrated, sometimes bitter daughter Tess (Lisa Emery) and her gentle, empathetic son-in-law Jon (Frank Wood). As time goes on, Marjorie and later Tess become “prime” versions. What was therapy for someone without a memory becomes hauntingly incomplete and increasingly painful for those whose memories are intact but limited to their own perspectives, making it difficult to program the replacements themselves. Will programming a prime stave off loss? Did the programmer “get” the interior monologue of the lost person well enough to create an imitation with any kind of veracity?

Lisa Emery and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Lisa Emery and Frank Wood [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Smith makes the distinction between Marjorie and her “prime” version a symphony of subtleties. Her spot-on dementia persona drifts into a static, formula personality in ways which underscore the point of the play. Emery’s Tess moves from frustration with impending loss to frustration with the limits of imitation, to the blandness of imitation itself. Wood’s Jon, played as a man whose heart is big and often worn on his sleeve, curdles as his world is increasingly artificial.

And – in one stark statement of a scene – the three primes try conversing with each other as if they were real. The conclusions are all in there.

Director Les Waters moves the setting and tone of the piece into increasing isolation, just as the play does. Sometimes this makes the staging rather static – unfortunate in a work which is all underplayed to some extent, to maximize the few moments of great emotion. Mimi Lien’s minimal set, which moves at one point to make its own interesting statement, keeps the focus on the personalities (or, in some cases, the lack of personality) which make this play interesting to watch, but emphasizes their bleakness and increasingly spare environment.

“Marjorie Prime” moves slowly, and is performed without intermission. As a play it is a “ponderable,” and that balance between what has been said before and what is new may inspire many to dismiss it as almost cliché in its view of the potential advances of AI. To avoid that, one must focus on the human characters. One wishes there was a bit more chance to do so.

What: “Marjorie Prime” When: Through October 19, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 S. Grand Ave. at the Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25-$70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“Good People” in La Mirada – 21st Century Class Consciousness

Katie MacNichol, Sophina Brown and Martin Kildare in "Good People" in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

Katie MacNichol, Sophina Brown and Martin Kildare in “Good People” in La Mirada [photo: Michael Lamont]

Long ago, my sociology professor made much of the fact that there were not specific social classes in the United States: that, like the Horatio Alger model, everyone had the ability to rise. This has become more and more debatable in the last half-century, as social forces clamp some into specific spaces in our national culture , not all of which are related to race.

In illustration, find the McCoy Rigby Entertainment production of “Good People,” David Lindsay-Abaire’s examination of class and culture in Boston, now at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Lindsay-Abaire, whose powerful examination of the nature and collateral damage of grief, “Rabbit Hole,” was a signature piece of last year’s MRE season, looks at the issue through the lens of a “Southie” – someone from traditionally blue collar, Irish, South Boston.

Margaret is a middle aged Southie at the end of her rope. Having just lost her most recent job, in part due to her struggles to care for her disabled adult daughter, she’s desperate for work. Her lifelong friend bumps into an old classmate, briefly Margaret’s love interest, who escaped the life of South Boston for a career as a doctor. Margaret decides to push him to lift her up, at least as far as giving her a job.

Has he become a “lace curtain Southie,” thinking he’s better than everyone else? Is her anger toward him justified? Is the lifestyle he now lives the dream Margaret thinks it is, or does class create struggle even there? What, in the end, are these characters’ actual truths, as the two possible endings for a Southie kid come face to face.

Margaret with her own: MacNichol with Anne Gee Byrd (l.) and Gigi Bermingham (r.) [Photo: Michael Lamont]

Margaret with her own: MacNichol with Anne Gee Byrd (l.) and Gigi Bermingham (r.) [Photo: Michael Lamont]

Katie MacNichol creates a distinctly edgy, biting quality to the desperate Margaret: quick to assume, aggressively judgemental and painfully honest, yet gifted by a sense of community on her home turf. As her buddy Jean, Gigi Bermingham offers up the same cynically humorous view of their individual desperations, while Anne Gee Byrd makes Margaret’s upstairs landlady obstinately practical, but caring in her own distant way.

As Mike, the doctor, Martin Kildare gives subtlety to the divide of sensitivities inside a successful man with Southie roots. Sophina Brown, as his wife, offers the third element: a woman raised with greater sophistication, whose struggles to connect her husband’s present image with his past may loom as large as Margaret’s.

Though not touted as a comedy, “Good People” has many laughs in the midst of these tensions. The title of this play comes from the phrase, “He (or she) is good people” – an important valuation in South Boston.The rest of the play is, in the end, an examination of what it means to be, or not be, good people – a goodness which resides in there somewhere, apparently particularly among people in extremity.

Though not as compelling as “Rabbit Hole,” as a play, the performances make the thing worth watching, as does director Jeff Maynard’s handling of this episodic tale. He smooths the transitions from place to place, and makes great use of Stephen Gifford’s representational set pieces. Adriana Lambarri’s costumes create instant class separations, and underscore the central themes of the piece.

For us west-coasters, who may have only heard of Southies in relation to the more local arrest of Whitey Bulger, it’s a look at a part of the country where the turf wars are more distinct, and more ingrained in social history. It’s also a good examination of why, at least in certain parts of the country, my sociology professor was probably wrong.

What: “Good People” When: Through October 12, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20-$70 Info: (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

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