Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.
Category Archives: Review
August 20, 2017Posted by on
In 1949, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II opened the Pulitzer Prize-winning “South Pacific” on Broadway. Based on James Michener’s equally Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the silliness, boredom, and racial conflicts of “behind the action” stations in the Pacific during World War II, it featured some of the duo’s most memorable songs. At the time its relevance was both obvious and challenging, only 4 years after the end of the war. Fascinatingly, sadly, the new production at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater cannot help but remind us that it still has something rather pointed to say to a modern audience.
The tale centers on a US naval supply station and hospital located on a tiny Polynesian island in what most of its temporary occupants would consider the middle of nowhere. The more permanent inhabitants, both the French planters who came as colonists and the Polynesian native population, live in an comparatively relaxed coexistence the Americans have significantly disrupted one way and another. For many of the Americans, this is their first contact with foreign cultures, and the fallout can prove jolting.
This is especially true for Nellie Forbush, a nurse at the hospital in the process of falling in love with Emile de Becque, one of the successful planters. Her Little Rock roots soon clash with de Becque’s background in a number of ways. For Lt. Joseph Cable, a young Marine about to start a fearsomely dangerous assignment as an “Island spotter,” the struggle comes as he falls heavily for a Polynesian girl his upbringing tells him he cannot marry. For Luther Billis, an opportunistic Seabee, the goal is far more mercenary, and much more lighthearted, as he tries every trick in the book to get passage to the neighboring island upon which planters and natives alike have put their young women.
At Candlelight Pavilion the balance of lighthearted silliness and wrenching comings of age are balanced just as they should be, graced by strong performances by the leads and clever choreography which keeps the show rolling along. Katie Moya is Nellie, singing with confidence the iconic songs, and giving a strong sense of the cultural and ethical dilemmas which complicate her romantic life. Michael Scott Harris has the pipes to handle de Becque – a part originally written for an opera star – and the solid presence to make his status as a commanding planter convincing.
Marc Montminy makes Luther Billis just enough of a big galoot to make him lovable even as he connives with impressive lack of cultural understanding to gather souvenirs. Shane Litchfield manages to create a sense of youth, seriousness and self-awareness as Lt. Cable, and Candida Celaya gives just enough gravitas to Bloody Mary to make her distress later in the show make sense even as she provides delightful silliness near the start. She also handles the great “Bali Ha’i” fairly well – a song in a register too low for many singers.
The ensemble who provide the rest of the island’s inhabitants, from nurses and seabees, to natives and naval commanders back up these leading figures with energy and style. The choreography by Janet Renslow makes good use of the comparatively small chorus to provide various atmospheric moments, and Chuck Ketter’s direction keeps things moving on the excellent set he also designed.
Still, what becomes most potent at this time in our nation’s history is the show’s unsweetened look at the prejudices of the past. Indeed, as Lt. Cable sang with sorrow “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are 6, or 7, or 8, to hate all the people your relatives hate,” the night I saw the show, people were marching with torches in Charlottesville. It may be 58 years old, but “South Pacific” remains a mirror we really need to gaze into.
What: “South Pacific” When: through September 9, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and Thursday March 23, 5 p.m. Sundays, for lunch at 11 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $61 – $76 general, $30 – $35 children 12 and under, meal inclusive. Info: (909) 626-1254 ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com
August 20, 2017Posted by on
“Shout, Sister, Shout,” which has just ended its premiere run at the Pasadena Playhouse on Sunday, is supposed to tell her story. It does so by the creaky device of having Sister Rosetta stopped at the pearly gates, told to go save a sad-faced white boy from himself before she can go into Heaven. So, she goes down and recounts snippets of her story to him, sings a lot, and challenges the young man to reach into his own music. What the show really is is a collection of her best numbers, many of them her own, and occasional performances by those she encountered along the way, from church groups to Mahalia Jackson. The snips of life story are then thrown in for effect.
Sadly, the script is stodgy, and so episodic one rarely gets a chance to connect either with Sharpe or with those who interacted with her on the way – many of whom are given one or maybe two lines to indicate they ever existed. The wan young man is more a distraction than anything else, and his sudden heart-wrenching solo at the end, penned for this show by Melissa Manchester, does nothing to enhance Sharpe’s actual story, which should be the focus of the piece.
Tracy Nicole Chapman does bring spunk and zing to Sharpe herself, but she is called upon to play a series of guitars almost all the time, and – if the rather overblown (as in so loud you can’t hear the lyrics) amplification is telling the truth, she rarely actually plays them. This is a problem when one is representing a person especially known for her guitar stylings. If she does, it is simple strumming, rather than the blues guitar Sharpe was known for.
On the other hand, there are moments of great light from Yvette Cason, who manages to play Sharpe’s evangelist mother with a powerful voice and personality, then switch to the stylings of Mahalia Jackson without skipping a beat. Thomas Hobson, Boise Holmes and Armando Yearwood, Jr. form a powerful church-rocking trio, while Michael A. Shepperd (most memorable as the preacher briefly Sharpe’s first husband), and Angela Teek Hitchman (as the partner Sharpe toured with in her happiest period) round out the ensemble. Young Logan Charles, as the lost kid Sharpe is supposed to save, does a reasonable job, though his part is more spur to the next story than anything particularly rounded.
Still, they cannot overcome Cheryl L. West’s hopelessly episodic book, which jumps from image to image with just enough information to spur the next song. The music is good and the stage band makes it better, except that the amps are turned up so high much of the song lyrics – which, in several cases, are expected to move the story along – are completely unintelligible: okay if you already know them, but death to anyone who has come to the show to be introduced to Sharpe for the first time.
There is so much promise of what “Shout, Sister, Shout” could have been that the results proved deeply disappointing. Even the most solid performances seemed to be sitting on a very, very fragile framework. No argument that Sister Rosetta Sharpe was a powerful and fascinating element in the development of American music. One just wishes this show did her justice.
August 16, 2017Posted by on
As I have mentioned before, there is a danger in writing your own performance material. Never is this more true than when it is a form of memoir. Many an author I have known has pointed out that when you are writing anything intensely personal it takes time. First you must write it, then you must remove, gradually, all the things which may matter to the writer, but do not advance what the reader or audience needs for it to be art.
This is the only real problem with “It’s Only Lipstick, now finishing a run at the Whitefire Theater in Sherman Oaks. Claudia Di Martino, in relating her life story, has an interesting tale to tell. As a matter of fact she has about three different interesting tales to tell, and she does. Although each is able to engage the audience, that necessary trim would make them so much better, and avoid a sense of repetitiveness, and occasional disjointedness, that makes what could be fairly transcendent have less than the desired impact.
Di Martino grew up in a strict Italian Catholic family. Through dint of hard work she became a high ranking executive at a string of companies – mostly marketing cosmetics – all of which are detailed along with portraits of the variety of oppressive bosses. The life of a female executive wore her to a frazzle until she finally quit to follow her bliss and become a fairly consistently working character actor. In the process of this shift she details the religious conversion experience which now centers her life.
And believe me, that’s a lot to put into an hour and a half, at least if you are going to leave in as many details and personalities as she does, in the way that she does. To some extent, this last lies at the feet of director Jessica Lynn Johnson, who could have offered some editing advice, and tempered the way Di Martino goes about presenting it to the audience.
The thing is, Di Martino is obviously a talented actor. This is underscored by a video vignette at the end showing snips from the many filmed performances she has given in the recent past.
However, “… Lipstick” starts out almost over the top, with the high intensity health scare which convinces her to leave her executive life, deciding she doesn’t need it because “it’s only lipstick.” When you start that ramped up, however, it’s tough to give the play a climax later that goes beyond it, and that is what is called for. Instead, every other major life emotion is just paralleling the first.
With such intense emotional highs, the calmer moments need a lot of variety to keep the audience engaged. Here that’s a problem.
The bulk of the play covers her life in cosmetics marketing. In the telling, every male boss man-spreads his slimy way through her life. Each exchange involves DiMartino speaking in one voice, doing a 180 – 360 degree turn to speak as the other person, every time, acting out each conversation word for word, over and over. Some of the portraits are quite amusing, but there are so many, and so many are similar that at least a variety of approach to presenting them could make it less repetitive.
Her descriptions of coming to love acting again are fun, and could be central to her sense of self-discovery, if featured more. Her deeply profound religious experiences have the potential to be wrenching and profound, but her elation is played at the same level as her anguish at the start, creating an odd sense of emotional repetition even when that isn’t what’s really happening. Again, much of this is how she was directed.
And one is left wondering which is more important. Is it the shift we thought we were looking at from the start, from the corporate world to the acting world? Or is the religious experience which interrupts the story?
There is no arguing that Claudia Di Martino has had an extraordinary life. The number of times she has landed on her feet is impressive, and the variety of things she has proved herself skilled at – whether or not they gave her joy – is also worthy of note. If she can take a deep breath, and continue to edit her work (as good memoirists must), she could have something a lot more powerful on her hands to show us all.
In the meantime, seeing “It’s Only Lipstick” will give you a story to ponder, and a performer to get to know.
What: “It’s Only Lipstick” When: final performance 8 p.m. Thursday, August 17 Where: The Whitefire Theater, 13500 Ventura Blvd. in Sherman Oaks How Much: $25 Info: itsonlyliptick.brownpapertickets.com
July 21, 2017Posted by on
There is a moment toward the end of a favorite documentary where people who grew up in the then-segregated African-American neighborhood around Central and Slauson in L.A. talked about the loss of that neighborhood with regret. Entrance into the mainstream was great, they say, but they lost those close knit community ties. I could not help but think of this while watching Lauren Yee’s funny, insightful “King of the Yees” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Only this time, the community beginning to fray was, and is, San Francisco’s Chinatown, with its antique buildings and firmly held traditions.
Indeed, focal to the entire piece is the impressive, beautifully carved, red door of the Yee Family Association, of which Lauren’s father in the play is the president. That door, situated center stage, represents the Chinatown which the onstage Lauren sees as archaic and dissolving. Or does she.
In this world premiere, what begins as a standard “let me tell you about my father and my heritage” play soon takes a far more engrossing, positively Thornton Wilder-like turn. Hovered over by this very traditional, and apparently powerful door, one ends up touching on several elements of the modern Chinese-American (and larger Asian-American) experience with wit, a certain mysticism, and an underscore of hope.
Central to the piece are the performances of Stephanie Soohyun Park as Lauren and Francis Jue as her father Larry. The other cast members, Rammel Chan, Angela Lin and Daniel Smith provide a wide range of other characters, from actors to mystical persons, which pepper this engrossing journey.
Jue brings to Larry a balance of confidence and apparent innocence, tonally idealistic yet rooted in the practicalities of his supposedly insular world. This provides the perfect foil to Park’s crispness as her character’s assimilated Americanism bounces against the traditions of her childhood. The chemistry between the two creates a specific energy which powers the rest of the piece.
And that “rest” also proves engrossing, from discussions of the stereotypes demanded of Asian actors, through an examination of ritual and connection, to a brief, humorous window on the secret world beneath the touristy elements Chinatown presents to the world. The play proves, all at the same time, goofy, tender, pointed, illuminating and tremendously fun to watch.
Director Joshua Kahan Brody keeps the production’s pacing necessarily crisp, creating the quick transitions between thoughts and characters so needed in a play this potentially convoluted, allowing the audience to follow along with ease. Another star has to be Mike Tutaj, whose projections (along with set designer William Boles’ big red door) stir the mysticism, and (along with Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design) add to the comedy.
Still, all of these arrive in service of a fine play. Yee has the ability to make pointed, apparently autobiographical commentary in a way which enriches, entertains, and affirms. This play never talks down to those for whom the conceptual details are new, and manages – at least in this production – to find a common ground in the ongoing American discussion of the balance between keeping one’s own cultural heritage and becoming, if not part of a “melting pot,” at least one flavor in the tossed salad that is this country at its best.
What: “King of the Yees” When: Through August 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
July 14, 2017Posted by on
Perhaps the two greatest dangers in producing an original work of theater is either directing your own performance or directing your own play. In either case, the absolutely necessary second opinion – the critique where needed to make sure the thing is the best it can be – is lacking. Without it, many a good idea has gone down in flames simply because there was nobody in the creative process able to say “no.”
As case in point take “The Marriage Zone,” written and directed by Jeff Gould, and now receiving its premiere run at The Secret Rose Theatre in North Hollywood. The concept of the piece is actually quite intriguing, but with the necessary filter missing the result is impressively sub-par. The playwright’s choice to direct – in other words, to have to listen only to his own views on the script, stage movement, pacing, etc. – means that there was nobody left to push the play to its potential.
“The Marriage Zone” is, as one might guess, a potentially comic derivative of “The Twilight Zone”. Here a middle-aged couple with a 15-year-old son put their house up for sale, even though this is one more tension in their increasingly tense marriage. When a young, newly engaged couple show up to see the house, followed closely by a significantly older couple viewing the house out of nostalgia, it rapidly becomes clear the couple are looking at their own history. The potentially intriguing question in all of this is, is their story set in stone, or can it be changed from the current path?
Pursuing that question would have been fascinating, but it never really is. Indeed, the play is framed as a comedy, and a male-centric comedy at that. As a result, the more sophisticated issues breeze by unexplored. Instead, one deals with the superficial: does the Internet of the future let you see porn in your head? Is sex as fun later in a marriage? Are annoying habits of one’s partner going to be impossible to deal with over time? And then there is the constantly repeated emphasis on the importance of blow jobs.
What about the importance of honesty in marriage, and of communication? What about the balance of nurture and push in parenting? What about parenting at all – is it worth it to have done it if the results come out less than one hoped? All of these are sped through in favor of another sex joke. It is sad, because the result means there is little “there” there.
Which is not to say that the play is poorly acted. Anne Leighton and Jeff Pride, as the home owners, make the kinds of connection that a married couple who are willing but not particularly able would. Megan Barker and Ryan Cargill radiate youth and enthusiasm, and a certain implied shallowness, as the newly engaged. In the production’s best performances, Jacee Jule and especially Alex Hyde-White give an interesting edge and paternalism to the older couple.
Still, they all suffer from Gould’s direction. Jule and Hyde-White spend almost the entire play sitting in chairs, one way to the side, making comments. The only props on stage – cups of lemonade – are left sitting on the coffee table, to no purpose. The whole thing is remarkably static for such a potentially emotionally charged situation. The characters simply don’t have enough to do. It is not surprising that Ciaran Brown, as the couple’s son, also does little other than sit.
If “The Marriage Zone” was fall-down funny, one could forgive the lack of depth. If its dialogue was engrossing on the subject of time-bending revelation, it might excuse the fact people spend so very much of the play sitting in chairs talking. But since, in its best moments, this play falls with rather a thud somewhere in between these goals, it leaves much to be desired. On the other hand, a good workshop of this thing, with input and polish applied after significant feedback, could turn it into something one would truly wish to see.
What: “The Marriage Zone” When: through August 27, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays Where: The Secret Rose Theatre, 11246 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood How Much: $40 Info: (323) 960-7784 or http://www.Plays411.com/marriagezone
July 12, 2017Posted by on
The uncertainty principle of German scientist Werner Heisenberg states that the position and velocity of any object cannot both be measured exactly at the same time. In Simon Stephens’ much-celebrated play, “Heisenberg,” that theory is applied to people – two impressively dissimilar adults who meet awkwardly in a London train station and then begin a process of individual change – a change filled with immeasurables.
Now at the Mark Taper Forum, fresh from a much-celebrated Broadway run, the play proves very funny, intellectually engaging, and as rich in humanity as all of that implies.
Alex Priest, a stolid, elderly Irish butcher who lives alone in London, meets the significantly younger Georgie Burns when she impulsively kisses him on the back of the neck. Did she think he was someone else? We may never know, but her virtual stalking of him from that point forward, and her almost nonstop monologue on life, gradually shift Alex from his highly patterned, insulated isolation into a new view of the world around him.
The question, of course, is why she does this. What, in her constant speech, is the truth and what is fantasy? Is she a con artist, or genuinely fragile, or (as the British would put it) a bit mental? Does it matter, really, in Alex’s world?
This production has arrived in Los Angeles with the same two people who made it a sensation in New York. The chemistry between Denis Arndt and Mary-Louise Parker allows for the questions to fill the room, and yet not get in the way of watching two fascinating characters intertwine. Arndt’s Alex is delightfully underplayed, with small changes balancing well against the verbal and emotional abandon of Parker’s insecure Georgie.
The director, Mark Brokaw, who also created the New York original, has let these two extraordinary performances stand on their own. The performance is uniquely centered by set designer Mark Wendland in the Taper’s performance space, with only two easily-moved tables and two chairs to provide any necessary physical needs. Thus, the performances are literally everything, a piece brilliant stagecraft, as this is – indeed – all one needs.
Stephens’ script is delightful and wistful by turns, but never sentimental. There are moments of startling, delicious humor, and others of ponderable introspection. But most of all, in the hands of these two extraordinarily skilled actors, there is a particular kind of aching humanity – that delicate need for human connection that a modern social system makes easy to overlook.
“Heisenberg” is a fascinating exercise for many reasons. For someone who appreciates the things theater can do that no other medium does, the sheer sense of place and time expressed on a black block of a stage with minimal furniture is a treasure in itself. More than this, there is an elemental humanity at work in that space, not to mention two impressive examples of the actors’ art to savor. For all these reasons and more, catch this one with these actors, in this setting, while you can.
What: “Heisenberg” When: Through August 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
June 27, 2017Posted by on
You’d have to come from another planet, or be under the age of 5, to not know anything about “The Wizard of Oz.” For those of us who were not born in the earliest parts of the last century, it is the film we think of. In the pre-Internet age, the film’s annual appearance on television was a major family moment. At the dawn of the digitizing age, the film was even used to ridicule colorization (“If they had their way, they’d colorize the first ten minutes of ‘The Wizard of Oz'”). In my personal sphere, a dear friend’s mother is one of the last surviving cast members of the film, having played a munchkin as a child.
Few really stop to remember that “The Wizard of Oz” was originally a book – the first in a long series by L. Frank Baum (and, eventually, others). In its third life, the story has become a stage musical, using the material from the film, including a song left out of the original and the very 30s introductions once added to others. This musical has arrived at Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater in Claremont as a chance for kids on vacation, and their families, to beat the heat, eat a lovely meal, and be transported over the rainbow.
And, for the most part, that’s what they will get. The production, though there are a few creaky bits, makes the most of the small Candlelight stage, thanks in part to Chuck Ketter’s many, many backdrops and set pieces, and to the expansive performances – especially one – under the direction of John LaLonde.
The trick with any stage production of a musical film is to not try to compete with the movie. Here that’s hard, as so many have the thing virtually memorized. Still, Jaidyn Young, who shares the part with Sydney Dawn, makes an earnest and innocent Dorothy, singing the signature “Over the Rainbow” and holding her own as a dancer. Jesse Ashton Rhodus gives Scarecrow an appropriately loose-limbed quality, and a quietly positive air. Andrew Lopez, though handed the most unfortunate costume, becomes a very earnest and heartfelt Tin Man. Still, the best of this group is Austin Rea’s take on the Cowardly Lion, which eschews Burt Lahr’s Borscht Belt humor and Brooklyn accent for a deeply earnest innocence which plays beautifully and more originally with the rest of the group.
Also worthy of note are Jim Skousen’s apologetic wizard, Candace Elder’s concerned Aunt Em, and Michael J.Isennock in the dual roles of the Mayor of Munchkin City and Nikko, the captain of the flying monkeys. Sami Nye’s cheerful Glinda balances Courtney Bruce as the Wicked Witch of the West. As the show’s villain, Bruce has a great time, and handles the quick comings and goings with comparative ease, but sometimes gets so wound up by her own villainy she becomes difficult to understand.
There are a few technical issues as well, most particularly in the generally charming approach of Glinda’s bubble (oil that contraption – it shouldn’t squeak), and the decision to use blinking lights in the essential witch-with-a-firey-broom sequence (which don’t turn off when needed). Also, one wonders if it might be possible for the twister to be less static, though the way of presenting those things caught in it is clever.
Still, the choreography by Kim Eberhardt makes even the restored, if somewhat odd, “The Jitterbug” interesting. The magic of the Wizard and the disappearance of the Witch both prove quite effective, and the consistent use of a very competent children’s ensemble along with the usual chorus gives the thing a vitality and charm which proves the most important thing in the piece.
In the end, this “Wizard of Oz” has many more pluses than flaws. And, although you may find yourself repeating an awful lot of the words along with the actors – at least in your head – take the time to look around at the children in the audience. They are having as good a time as the kid in the balcony who waved at Glinda’s bubble every time it went by, on opening night. Note that there is a specific children’s menu for this show, complete with theme-based drinks.
What: “The Wizard of Oz” When: through July 29, doors open for dinner at 6 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, at 5 p.m. Sundays, and at 11 a.m. for lunch Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: Candlelight Pavilion Dinner Theater, 455 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont How Much: $61-$76 adults, $30-$35 children, meal inclusive Info: (909) 626-1254, ext. 1 or http://www.candlelightpavilion.com
May 12, 2017Posted by on
There are two ways to approach Dan O’Brien’s “The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage”. One can look at it as just that – a memoir created by gradually collecting as many as possible of the secrets a family never told. In this view, the show becomes an elaborate puzzle made up of the various reticent members of a deeply dysfunctional family which gradually come together to underscore the demons inhabiting the playwright himself. That works, after a fashion.
The other view, however, which can be far more intriguing, is to look at the entire play as the story of a quest: the kind of quest where the searching is everything. It allows for conjecture and obsession and self-affirmation, but is also a thing in itself which becomes integral in the quester’s view of the world. Now receiving its premiere at The Theatre at Boston Court, the play is far more interesting in the latter view.
Here it takes its place alongside other questing folk of story and legend who defined themselves by the search, not the finding. Like the unsuccessful search for the Holy Grail (sorry, Indiana Jones fans), the journey was the story all along. Finding the thing being searched for would (and is) almost pointless. The questing, and the questions, make the story.
O’Brien, according to this work, is the youngest of six children, none of whom (as the play begins) he has contact with. He has been cut off by his parents as well, and his aunts have been told not to speak with him. How a family could reach this state is one question, but as he pursues the whys and reexamines his own memories, it is the search as much as the purpose of it which is most interesting to follow. Is he looking for a verification of his own sanity in a family short on just that? Is he looking for a reason why his marriage is in trouble? Is he trying to reconstruct a sense of family?
Or, is he in love with the search itself as a symbol of his own identity as a seeker? This last begins to seem more and more clearly the answer as the tale unfolds.
All of this is presented on a nearly empty stage by two men. One, the Dan played by Brian Henderson, becomes the protagonist on the quest, narrating his own story as he calls, writes, visits and pieces together with private detectives and psychics the story of himself. The other, the Dan played by Tim Cummings, is sometimes the argument inside the protagonist’s head, as well as becoming all the people on the other end of the quest’s questions and investigations, at least as Dan remembers them. For both men this is a tour-de-force, performed without intermission in an inexorable forward motion rife with adventure, anger, frustration, and a certain joy of the chase.
Director Michael Michetti wisely allows this tale to play out with a minimum of distraction and a maximum of the actors’ art. The set by Sara Ryung Clement is two chairs and two screens upon which are projected a few photos – some out of focus, which makes its own point – as well as innumerable drawings which illustrate the remembrances and mental architecture that the protagonist constructs. Indeed, these projections, designed by Tom Ontiveros, become, themselves, a character in the piece. What is real? What is dim recollection? What is conjecture? What is pure fantasy?
There is no doubt that the production is splendid, or that the script is articulate, complex and compelling. Henderson and most particularly Cummings create scene after scene out of words and the air. Yet the argument still lies in the question: to what purpose? Audience members will have differing answers depending on which spin they take from the start. My contention, obviously, is that this is a quest story. Indeed, the singular note of regret in this work comes as the answers appear to be found. To say more is to lessen the moment’s impact, but the overall feel is “Now what?”
“The House in Scarsdale” was workshopped at several prestigious institutions, including the Center Theatre Group, while in the process of completion. The results are fascinating watching, even if the ending is, at best, a hanging one.
What: The House in Scarsdale: A Memoir for the Stage” When: through June 4, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with added $5 performance May 22 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $39 general, $34 seniors, $20 students Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com
May 7, 2017Posted by on
Note: Though this review appeared online and in print for newspapers of the Southern California News Group, it was not posted here – for various reasons (but mostly the day job getting in the way) – until the day it closed. So, here it is, just as informational writing.
In the opening moments of John Strand’s “The Originalist,” the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is addressing a large group at The Federalist Society. For those who care to look, this is an elegant shorthand about his background. (If you need to know more, check out Jeffrey Toobin’s article in the April 17 copy of The New Yorker, which discusses that organization’s agenda, and its foundational drive to train and raise up originalist conservative judges.) It is also an immediate line in the sand: this man is incredibly secure in his view of the role of the judiciary, and will not be swayed.
Now playing at the Pasadena Playhouse, “The Originalist” offers up a potentially interesting discussion. Scalia has hired a liberal law school graduate to be one of his clerks. Though dismissed by some as a token – liberal, female, and Black – there is some indication that he wants her there so he can hone his own opinion by bouncing it off of the opposition. The playwright assures us that it “is a play about hope.” What the play wants to argue for is the idea of returning to a sense of the middle ground, of compromise. Indeed, by the end of the play, Scalia has actually taken one piece of this intern’s advice on wording. Still, that is not what most of the audience will come away with, for two reasons.
First, the Justice Scalia in the play comes off as a confident, extremely well-versed constitutional scholar willing to use shock language to make his point as he writes dissenting opinions on court rulings with which he fundamentally disagrees. He is quick to skewer those whose opinions don’t match his, in part with intellect, but in great part with a snide quality he takes great relish in. For those within hearing who agree with Scalia’s conservative views, this play thus becomes confirmation of their own views, especially on issues of individual rights. For many who are opposed to his opinions this play may seem an advertisement for a path they see as destructive to progress. Few will actually spend time absorbing the one brief moment of compromise as having much impact.
Second, there is an attempt to humanize Justice Scalia which also seems to jar with the persona one faces through most of the play. His moments of kindness seem pasted on, rather than allowed to become integral to the point at hand – that of being able to hear views not his own without belittling them. Of course, there is some reason for this. This is the man whose tone has been critiqued over time by scholars – not his originalism or his jurisprudence necessarily, but his tone. In the play he acknowledges this, and refers to himself as a monster, satirically but even so there is meat there.
However, though one can argue with the play itself, one cannot argue with the performances. Edward Gero makes such a good Scalia it’s almost spooky. He radiates confidence and that satiric absolutism without ever turning into a cartoon. Jade Wheeler gives the clerk, Cat, all the warmth and complexity that the script’s Scalia lacks, as she reasons her way through a difficult job while also dealing with difficult side issues. Brett Mack makes the insufferable young Federalist Society member and SCOTUS clerk wannabe, Brad, as annoying, and clueless about American social issues, as that sounds. Brad is, perhaps, the play’s only truly two-dimensional character, but Mack gives it what character one can.
Director Molly Smith has given this extremely talky, episodic tale a sense of movement and life which flows seemingly effortlessly from start to finish. Misha Kachman’s minimalist scenic design allows for the quick shifts needed to accomplish Smith’s goals. Indeed, there is craft throughout this piece, which is performed without intermission.
Still, one must look at the takeaway. Antonin Scalia was a complicated man who ended up on the wrong side of many SCOTUS decisions which advanced rights and governmental power in ways he felt were unConstitutional, because he was an originalist. This play does not really explore that complexity, but neither does it achieve its agenda of pushing the viewer toward the view Cat seems to be leaning into: that compromise is possible and all sides should be respected and heard. Certainly, the audience reactions I heard came, rather, from internal confirmation bias in one direction or the other, which is the exact opposite of the play’s intent.
What: “The Originalist” When: This show has closed Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena Info for future shows at the Playhouse: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.pasadenaplayhouse.org