Stage Struck Review

Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years

Tag Archives: comedy

Hitchcock Spoof Hits the Spot

It was always a kooky, wonderful idea: take a dated but exciting Hitchcock thriller (based on an equally dated, equally exciting Patrick Barlow book), and turn it into a tongue-in-cheek farce. Make it an homage to the great film director. Give it a cast of four: two leads and two clowns playing absolutely everybody else in the story. And that is how “The 39 Steps” was born.

Now in a fast-paced, often laugh-out-loud funny production at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, courtesy of the McCoy Rigby series there, this “The 39 Steps” manages the careful balance between story line and silliness – a tightrope shows often have trouble walking. Much of this is due to an impressive cast, with the aid of a director strong enough to keep the reins on potential comedic excess.

Andrew Borba – the only cast member allowed one part from beginning to end – plays Richard Hannay, a British national recently returned from a long stint in Canada. Looking for entertainment at a local music hall, he encounters a mysteriously foreign woman who asks him to take her back to his flat, utters fantastical things about plots and spies, and then ends up murdered. From that point on, Hannay must follow the mystery woman’s leads not only to save the country, but to save himself from a murder charge.

Borba’s Hannay proves appropriately ruggedly handsome and innately charming, and his crisp timing plays well against the other cast members. Dana Green becomes his main foil, playing first the mysterious stranger, and then the young woman to whom he becomes literally bound in the process of his journey. Her balance of heart and sheer silliness powers the central storyline.

David McBean and Matt Walker, two consummate clowns, bring the rest of the story to life, sometimes playing several characters at once by shifting their hats. Walker studied with the best clown in the business, Bill Irwin, as well as others, and Irwin’s particular subtle physical technique powers his portrayals of everyone from a gleeful Scottish innkeeper to an underwear salesman on the train. McBean isn’t far behind, having a lovely time playing with and off of Walker.

All of this has been both nurtured and held in constraint by director Jessica Kubzansky, whose task is the difficult one of allowing the show’s humor without having it overwhelm the story. This is a tale which must be paced well, and this is another place where Kubzansky shines. She also does well as traffic cop, making sure that a set made up entirely of small bits of scenery and prop proves facile enough, and is moved quickly enough to take one through the story in seamless fashion.

“The 39 Steps” is a silly tale, but quite compelling in its way. If you want to watch fabulous subtle clowning, and people telling a good story in a highly entertaining way, this is for you. You will not come out with anything profound, but you will come out with an appreciation for the things live theater can do which no other medium can master.

What: “The 39 Steps” When: Through February 12, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays,, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $35 – $50 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

Let’s Get Noisy! A Noise Within Has “Noises Off”

Stephen Rockwell has an unsettled moment in Noises Off at A Noise Within


In what may be a very sensible move, A Noise Within, still settling into its polished new home in Pasadena, has resurrected a production done two times previously in their old Glendale space. Michael Frayn’s classic bit of silliness, “Noises Off” is a farce inside a farce. Done well, it guarantees belly laughs. Top drawer actors like those in this ANW production get a chance to chew the scenery with abandon, and show off the very timing their characters are supposed to lack. As such, it’s a sure crowd-pleaser and for many an old friend well met.

The story involves a rather shaky provincial theatrical company preparing and performing in a tour of a little sex comedy. The characters include an aging actress with questionable memory, and a collection of has-beens, second-raters and bimbos tied together by a director on his last nerve. We walk them through their final rehearsal, then follow them on the road as personal upheavals in the company “family” make performing the play each night more and more complicated.

The delight at ANW is, quite simply, the quality of the acting and the precision of the direction which lets the best of this silly play shine. Most of this company was involved with the two previous productions, and step into the parts with a familiarity and polish which allows every timing gag and every bit of outrageous silliness to shine.

Deborah Strang hits the right combination of befuddlement and intensity as the aging Dolly, whose production this is, and whose romantic entanglements fuel much of the backstage upheaval. Michael Salazar creates the perfect Garry – a man with the most imprecise conversation on record. Lenne Klingaman bustles about beautifully as Poppy, the competent actress and company gossip. Emily Kosloski gives the detached and by-rote bimbo, Brooke, the perfect tone.

Stephen Rockwell’s emotionally fragile leading man, Frederick, and Apollo Dukakis’ pleasantly earnest, hearing impaired, recovering alcoholic, Selsdon, add their timing and character precision to the general hysteria. Jill Hill and Shaun Anthony move much of the comedy forward as the comparatively non-ego-motivated backstage staff. Geoff Elliott becomes the binder to all of this as the desperately exasperated director who tries to hone this comedy into something saleable, all the while dreaming of his next gig directing Richard III.

Elliott, who along with Julia Rodriguez-Elliot actually is the director of “Noises Off,” has managed that impressive, pinpoint timing which makes this silly play so beloved by actors and audiences alike. One false move, one slow door or late action would blow the comedy apart, but one needn’t worry. The result has the precision of a clock, allowing every bit of comedy to come through.

“Noises Off” is one of the silliest of a silly genre. Each of its three acts offers yet one more layer on the humor, so don’t assume that once you have seen the first act you know what is going to happen. Rather, just sit back and enjoy. You’ll rarely see it done as well.

What: “Noises Off” When: through January 15, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m., with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd in Pasadena How Much: $42 – $46 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org

Oh Brother (and Sister)! “A Nice Family Gathering” comes to Whittier Community Theatre

The cast of "A Nice Family Gathering" at WCT


Despite the media packaging, Thanksgiving, like any other major family occasion, can be fraught with underlying tensions. Not all families meet the greeting card standard. Making fun of this potential for awkwardness and insanities can prove great fodder for playwrights.

One example of this is Phil Olson’s “A Nice Family Gathering” now open at the Whittier Community Theatre. The play itself is a multiple award winning comedy. As produced at WCT, there are still struggles to find the balance of quirky comedy and meaningful family message. The awkwardness, it appears, is not in their script, but in themselves.

As a story it’s sort of a modern “A Christmas Carol” meets “All in the Family.” The Lundeens are gathering at the family home in small-town Minnesota for their first Thanksgiving since the death of their father. For each, issues arrive too. The writer feels he never lived up to his father’s expectations. His older brother, the doctor, feels the pressure to continue following in his father’s footsteps. The younger sister, generally ignored, arrives with issues of her own. And their mother seems kooky: is it depression due to loss, or the onset of Alzheimer’s?

And then, in walks the ghost of their father, offered one day to – through his writer son, who can see him – tell his wife he loved her, something he never quite got around to doing while alive.

In this production the three adult children come off as interesting individuals. As the writer, Carl, Justin P. Murphy all but vibrates with personal frustration, and juggles well the subterfuge necessary to hold conversations with someone nobody else in the room can see. As his older brother, Michael the “good son,” John Warner becomes the stuffy image of respectability, melting just a bit as he explains how such rigid goodness is dooming his marriage.

Meghan Duran gives the ignored sister Stacy an aura of fatalistic acquiescence, which works up to a point, though it doesn’t explain the connections suddenly created in the second act. Greg Stokes plays the father’s old golf buddy Jerry with a genuineness, which helps dispel the father-ghost’s suspicions regarding Jerry and the ghost’s widow. Jerry Marble plays the ghostly father rather all in one key, but perhaps that would happen if you had one day to watch your family rearrange itself without being able to contribute.

Laura MacDowell is a harder sell as Michael’s wife. Supposedly hyped on hormones and desperate for a fertility that eludes her, her only way to show emotion is to face-plant into someone’s chest and make weeping noises. A more rounded characterization would have added to the comedy. Andrea Townsend, called upon to be both goofy and mom-practical does much better with the second act’s human interaction than she does with the more bizarre actions of the first act. It’s mostly that her timing, like MacDowell’s, is off from the rest of the piece, making jokes fall flat.

Director Karen Jacobson doesn’t seem to have talked her cast through their characters’ transitions much. Michael’s abusive behavior of his little sister is simply gone suddenly, and dismissed in the process. Carl’s abuse of Jerry is equally left at the “he’ll get over it” stage. Either the emotions and interactions on stage are far more intense than the script, or that transition is supposed to be telegraphed by actions that are missing. It leads to a sense that the first and second acts are not really the same play.

I also have to wonder a bit about the choice of this play for this particular audience. So much of the crowd at WCT plays is of an older generation. A show about kids sure that all quirks of their parent are oncoming dementia, not to mention ending up listening to the ache of a long-time spouse for a companion wrested away too soon, doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing these folks would laugh at. The resulting lack of feedback may also be a part of the timing problems for the performers.

In any case, “A Nice Family Gathering” has some cute moments, and handles some difficult material with humor and pathos. Still, as served up at Whittier Community Theatre, it has some significant flaws one cannot overlook. On the other hand, if you come with food for a local food bank, they’ll give you free goodies at intermission. That, and the support of the oldest community theater in the greater Los Angeles area are incentives for attendance all by themselves.

What: “A Nice Family Gathering” When: through November 19, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 13. Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $12 general, $10 seniors/students 18 and under Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org

Classic Farce Triumphs: “Noises Off” hits La Mirada

Lori Larsen and Rona Benson star in LA MIRADA THEATRE FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS & MC COY RIGBY ENTERTAINMENT'S production of NOISES OFF, now playing at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts in La Mirada.

Of all the variations on the classic farce I have seen over a long career, only two can, on stages large and small, with professionals or gifted amateurs, be guaranteed to be fall-out-of-your-chair funny. Every time. One is “Noises Off,” now receiving an especially polished, richly satisfying performance at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts as part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series. Once again, I was laughing until tears ran down my face. Believe me, this is rare.

The tale could be seen as a theatrical inside joke, except that everyone gets it. A second-rate provincial touring company is pulled together in small-town Britain to perform a modern French-style farce. From the final dress rehearsal it is obvious the beleaguered director cannot control the mental vagaries, the interpersonal squabbles, or the occasional idiocy of his performers. From this foundation, one follows their tour as the production and the performance gradually fractures under these interpersonal stresses. Still, saying all of that does not go half way toward explaining the absolute delight of precision timing and spectacularly physical comedy which ensues.

This play works if it becomes a truly ensemble piece, with nobody standing out above the rest. Director Richard Seyd has collected one of the most experienced casts in McCoy Rigby history, and it shows in every wave, every slammed door, and every moment of the slapstick which works so exquisitely well. It also shows in the ensemble spirit.

Lori Larsen’s memory-challenged veteran actress coping with a litany of prop moves sets the stage. Matthew Miller’s exquisitely vague leading man and Annie Abrams’ oblivious vixen accent the fun. Leland Crooke, as the aging veteran, Maura Vincent as the gamely competent performer and James Lancaster as the actor who does just fine as long as someone hides the bottle complete the onstage acting crew. Joe Delafield’s overworked and innocent carpenter and Rona Benson’s wallflower stage manager add particularly to the backstage mayhem, while Bo Foxworth rages and fumes as a director struggling between passion and despair as his show fumbles along.

One possible issue for someone who has not seen “Noises Off” enough to wait for the comedy to build is the necessary element of any French-style farce. Before the funniest portions of the story can develop, one must set the scene. The first act of this show, as per the form, shows that initial dress rehearsal, introducing the characters and their particular bumblings, and letting one know what the director expects the play within this play to look like. This is necessary for the second act’s humor, when it all goes terribly, comically awry. Sadly, on the night I saw this show, a significant number of audience members left before that hysterical second act, missing the reason to see this show at all.

John Iacovelli’s delightful, reversable set adds much to the general craziness. Rose Pederson gives the costumes an update, and manages in one case the odd combination of total coverage and intended titillation. It’s quite a feat. Indeed, this proves one of the most well-crafted versions of this play I’ve seen in a long time. Go see it and laugh unabashedly. I certainly did.

What: “Noises Off” When: Through October 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: $35 – $50 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310, or http://www.lamirada theatre.com.

Poor Behavior: Nuanced Incivility as Clever Comedy

Johanna Day and Reg Rogers in the world premiere of Theresa Rebeck's Poor Behavior

When “God of Carnage” made its west coast debut at the Ahmanson Theatre last year it was an instant hit. Still it’s popularity was, for me, somewhat of a head-scratcher. The play’s use of the interactions of two couples as condemnation of societal norms was so ferocious that, taken at least at face value it seemed to do little other than pound one over the head with the rather basic message that we’re all really selfish animals. Its humor seemed aimed at making the audience confirm we find vicious brutality funny.

Fast forward to today, and the Mark Taper Forum’s offering of Theresa Rebeck’s “Poor Behavior.” Once again two couples’ interactions make social commentary, but this time it’s all more subtle. In the steam of manipulation, suspicion, madness and sensual despair one’s views of the participants change constantly. As characters play mind games on each other, the often very, very funny script plays the same unpredictable games on the viewer. It’s so much more exciting, so much more nuanced, and what brutality surfaces proves frankly so much more intellectually satisfying this way.

In this tale Ella (Johanna Day) and Peter (Christopher Evan Welch) have invited their oldest friends, Ian (Reg Rogers) and Maureen (Sharon Lawrence) to spend the weekend with them in their upstate cottage. The “success” of this venture is evident from the outset. The opening scene has Ella and Ian engaged in a heated, multi-level ethical argument fueled by a great deal too much wine. From this evolves the heightened atmosphere of what is gradually revealed to be a complicated interrelationship. The edge never leaves, though one approaches it from several angles.

Questions abound. Ian is a narcissist, but how much of his action is manipulation and how much a desperate attempt to move forward? Is Ella and Peter’s gentle, settled marriage really as stable as offered? Are Maureen’s sudden shifts a matter of subject-changing or instability? What does all of this say about the nature of friendship, of monogamy, and of the vagaries of maturity?

Day creates the connective tissue, as a woman caught in in the headlights, in an unfair and untenable position. Rogers vibrates with, among other things, a self-protective intellectual pose that can’t help but be maddening. Lawrence’s fine tuning of Maureen’s sudden emotional shifts gives her funny ravings a darker undertone. Welch provides the foundation, neatly underplaying his character’s obvious emotional turmoil in order to maintain order.

Director Doug Hughes interweaves the threads of this play like the sophisticated tapestry it should be. Every character has been peeled down to its core, and the very real-ness of people speaking this artful speech and wrapping around each other’s lives makes the humor, the pathos and the depth accessible and engaging. John Lee Beatty’s stunningly apt set centers the action and emphasizes that same sense of reality.

Through it all come foundational discussions about the nature of goodness – whether it exists and what it may be. For those trapped in this story, where some people do exhibit (to say the least) “Poor Behavior,” this becomes a foundational argument. In the end the take-aways will be long conversations on marriage, relationship, and that essential definition – whether anything can be classified as good. And in the meantime, you will have laughed heartily at it all.

What: “Poor Behavior” When: Through October 16, 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $65 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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