Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: David Zinn

Extraordinary Intimacy: “The Humans” Excels at the Ahmanson

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L-R: Reed Birney, Cassie Beck, Jayne Houdyshell, Lauren Klein, Sarah Steele and Nick Mills in “The Humans” at the Ahmanson Theatre [Photo: Lawrence K. Ho]

The neatest trick to accomplish, when writing an intimate play, is to find that spark which ties the issues and personalties of a few people to something inherently a part of everyone. That very concept centers Stephen Karam’s “The Humans,” the Tony-winning play just opened with the entire original Broadway cast at the Ahmanson Theatre. Every single person, and virtually every single issue, has some element with which we are familiar. The problems and conflicts the characters have with each other are not on their own earth-shattering, but they are (as the playwright himself has said) the things which keep us up at night.

How these issues emerge, how they intertwine, and how these people – who essentially love each other – deal with them is the play. It is funny. It is wrenching. It leaves one with some curiosity about elements outside the frame. It is gently remarkable theater.

The Blake family has gathered for Thanksgiving at the New York apartment younger daughter Brigid is just moving into with her boyfriend Richard. Parents Eric and Deirdre come somewhat hesitantly from Scranton, bringing with them Eric’s mother – commonly referred to as Momo – who is in the later stages of Alzheimers Disease. Joining them is Brigid’s older sister, Aimee, a Philadelphia lawyer wounded by the breakup of her marriage, and by illness.

The apartment is almost a character – with a ground floor portion on entry and a stair down to a basement kitchen and dining area, and some very strange upstairs neighbor whose actions create enormous booming interruptions to the family proceedings. Trash compactors roar outside the lower door. The light bulbs seem to have a life of their own. And the furniture, with a couple of exceptions, has yet to arrive. As the family readies for and eats dinner, wrestles with issues of expectation, religion, aging, traditions large and small, and the nature of love, the audience is drawn in to sit with them, and to understand what it is driving some members’ lack of sleep.

Reed Birney has a feel for Eric’s combination of taciturn, teasing but loving care, and internal wrestling with a faceless fear. As Deirdre Jayne Houdyshell embodies that mother who fusses, radiates a specific sense of humor, wants to fix everyone’s problems, and yet wrestles with secrets of her own. Sarah Steele embraces Brigid’s combination of family loyalty and resistance, making her both a determinedly individual person and one connecting the varied personalities together.

Nick Mills gives Richard the semi-attached attitude of the observer looking in on a unit he is now becoming a part of. His attempts at connection are treated with the earnestness necessary to keep him on an edge but not rejectable. It’s a subtly tricky performance. Perhaps most remarkable is the performance of Lauren Klein as Momo. Late stage Alzheimers is tough to watch in real life, and even tougher to recreate, yet she makes the mumblings and particularly the moments of rage absolutely believable.

There is a reason this play won an award while still off-Broadway for ensemble performance. It is absolutely seamless, with characters as comfortable with each other as families are. Director Joe Mantello choreographs the thing as much as directs it, using David Zinn’s two-tiered set with real finesse. The sense of family, of separation and togetherness, of tension and softening, ebb and flow as such a gathering does. A nod also to Fitz Patton’s sound design, creating as it does the character of an upstairs neighbor we essentially never even see, but whose presence proves startlingly intrusive at oddly apt moments.

“The Humans” is fine, fine theater. It speaks to all the mistakes people who love each other make, all the expectations we have of each other and of ourselves, and yet does so by being small, intimate, and very character driven. This is not splashy fun, but it Is often very funny. This is not about the world’s problems, but it echoes a humanity full of flaws even if full of potential good. Its very familiarity is its strength, and will rest with you long after the play, which is performed without intermission, is done.

What: “The Humans”  When: Through July 29, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $130. Info: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org

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“Soft Power”: Politics, Music, Comedy and Manipulation

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L-R: Conrad Ricamora and Francis Jue in the world premiere of David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s “Soft Power” at Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

There is a moment in “Soft Power,” the new “play with a musical” which premiered this week at the Ahmanson, when the disquiet hits you. The  show has a lovely time acknowledging musical theater tropes, discussing the power of the musical to slowly convince people of an idea (this is what “soft power” is – gradual bending of minds), and expressing the outrage and increasing xenophobia which accompanied the 2016 election. However, it is also using that very soft power to behave like a propaganda machine. You become enthused, then disturbed by the fact you have been gently manipulated toward that very enthusiasm.

Which may be the point. David Henry Hwang, the remarkable Chinese-American playwright, and Jeanine Tesori, whose “Fun Home” was a highlight of the last Ahmanson season, have created a subtly complex theater piece in the guise of something far lighter.

As has been true in the past, Hwang makes himself a character in the piece – an American writer trying to work with Xue Xing, a television producer from The People’s Republic of China, without much success. The things which keep them at odds have a lot to do with differing views of family responsibility and love. In the midst of their attempted collaboration, Hwang, Xing’s American girlfriend Zoe, and Xing go to see “The King and I” and to a rally for Hillary Clinton. Only Xing, by line-jumping, actually gets to meet her, and even take a selfie.

Shortly after, a near catastrophe takes Hwang into a dream world. This dream is the musical, detailing how Xing would recount this episode of his life in later years, complete with a lot of spin. It is charming, tossing in all kinds of homages to the American musical form (including even the idea of using a dream sequence to advance the story).

In it, Xing and Hillary have a far less fleeting moment. She is seen as a commodity marketing herself in ways Miley Cyrus would approve of, and Xing’s condescending view of democracy seems underscored by the 2016 election outcome. Indeed, Hillary is herself romanced – at least for a while – by the description of order and intelligent leadership Xing presents as an alternative.

As Hwang awakes from this dream, he must wrestle with the images it carried. Though dealing with the rising xenophobia around him, he rises to a hopeful, emotionally satisfying musical conclusion. To an audience in California, where 2/3 of the voters picked Hillary and were as appalled as those onstage with the final results, this is an easy sell. Almost too easy. Songs bring people to their feet, exactly as they are expected to. Oh, how easily we are swayed.

Still, there is the fear, even in the show, that Xing’s version of events will win out, and as playwright Lillian Hellman pointed out in 1934, a lie repeated often enough becomes the truth. It is this which one should actually be wrestling with here.

In the process, however, one finds a clever script filled with high humor and the occasional low comedy, and with music which resonates after the curtain falls. A highly versatile cast makes this extremely episodic and somewhat fractured story work.

Most particularly, Francis Jue gives Hwang the tone and aspect of the wry observer, who must in the end come to wrestle with both truth and hope. Conrad Ricamora gives Xing a vibrating confidence which makes his message all the more powerful and his humanity all the more charming. Alyse Alan Louis, as the progressive Zoe and the dream Hillary, finds a humanity in both even as her portrait of the former candidate must by the very nature of this piece be completely over the top.

A remarkable ensemble brings all the other characters to life, from stuffy old-boy senators, to Chinese media stars, American street hoods, and Hillary campaign supporters. Perhaps the most pointed standout is Kendyl Ito, whose portrait of Xing’s daughter provokes great laughter of recognition simply by body language. Still, there is no weak link in the entire cast.

Director Leigh Silverman has used David Zinn’s mobile set pieces to keep this rather various and deeply episodic piece flowing, funny, and consistently engaging. Choreographer Sam Pinkleton creates a sense of culture and space, while offering strong nods to the musicals this piece honors as much for their ability to sway as for their art. The costumes of Anita Yavich, with hair by Tom Watson, allow the quick shifts in ethnicity, age and status. Music supervision by Chris Fenwick continues the polish

Indeed, this is all done very, very well. Which is the most unnerving. From the start “Soft Power” is out to display the ability of song, which goes to the heart without necessarily passing the head, to instill belief systems, and create rallying cries. And it does.

What: ‘Soft Power”  When: through June 10, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 pm. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added 2 p.m. performance Thursday, June 7  Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles  How Much: $30 – $130  Info: (213) 972-4400 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

 

Stunning “Fun Home”: A Musical Balance of Whimsey and Heartbreak

The three Alisons, Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan and Alessandra Baldacchino in "Fun Home" at the Ahmanson [Photo: Joan Marcus]

The three Alisons, Kate Shindle, Abby Corrigan and Alessandra Baldacchino in “Fun Home” at the Ahmanson [Photo: Joan Marcus]

It is rare to say that one has seen a musical without a flaw – or at least a flaw that doesn’t serve the purpose of the work – yet that is what must be said of the musical “Fun Home,” just opened at the Ahmanson Theatre. The winner of 5 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, the show is adapted from the award-winning, autobiographic graphic novel by Alison Bechdel. On stage, one watches the tale that Bechdel told in her book, while at the same time watching the artist wrestle with its creation. This all works with a wit and pathos which proves engaging from start to finish.

“Fun Home” (a family euphemism for the family business – a funeral home) is the story of Bechdel’s coming of age in a tiny Pennsylvania town, focused on two competing forces: her relationship with her autocratic, esthete of a father (whose life in the closet informs his connection with his family) and her coming to terms with her own lesbianism.

Utilizing three versions of Alison at the same time, it features the 43-year-old cartoonist Alison, the 19-year-old “Medium Alison” in her discovery-filled first year at Oberlin, and the 10-year-old “Small Alison” trying to figure out the hows and whys of her particular, peculiar world. These three, played quite brilliantly by a wry Kate Shindle, a wide-eyed Abby Corrigan and an extraordinary Alessandra Baldacchino respectively, center the piece in its convoluted but engrossing character studies as Alison bounces off the people who formed her understanding of self.

Alessandra Baldacchino, Pierson Salvador, and Lennon Nate Hammond in one of the funniest moments from "Fun Home" [photo: Joan Marcus]

Alessandra Baldacchino, Pierson Salvador, and Lennon Nate Hammond in one of the funniest moments from “Fun Home” [photo: Joan Marcus]


As musicals go, this one defies some of the usual conventions. The songs of Jeanine Tesori, who composed the music, and Lisa Kron, who wrote the lyrics as well as the book, prove organic to the tale itself, moving with ease from delightful silliness to deep introspection in ways which may not be immediately hummable but rather become emotional touchstones within the larger tale. In their lighter moments, the charm is radiant, as one realizes early on when Small Alison and her two smaller brothers (Pierson Salvador and Lennon Nate Hammond) create their own ridiculously upbeat commercial for the funeral home, after being caught playing inside a casket.

In darker moments, they provide the vehicle for understanding the interior wrestlings of Alison’s parents, as they sing their inexpressibles. As her father, a popular local English teacher with an obsession for antiquities which extends to his museum-like restoration of their home, Robert Petkoff’s every move evokes subtle hints of the man’s internal struggles. Susan Moniz gives her mother, the ballast of this tense and exacting household, a particular form of rigidity rooted in both knowledge and anger.

As Alison’s college girlfriend, Karen Eilbacher moves with an ease which describes her comfortable self-knowledge, creating a door for Alison’s own. Robert Hager rounds out the cast, and underscores the father’s angst and sense of shame, as a series of separate and distinct young men who attract his illicit fancy. Which may give the impression that “Fun Home” is grim. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Though there are moments of deep sadness and guilt, this is essentially the story of self-discovery, and the joy to be found in being oneself.

Director Sam Gold keeps the thing fluid, as David Zinn’s costumes and sometimes minimalist sets make one able to look backward and forward at the show’s critical moments. Danny Mefford’s choreography utilizes the children’s gifts most remarkably, while Chris Fenwick’s musical supervision, and Micah Young’s musical direction of the onstage orchestra, links the real and the fantastical into a most satisfying whole.

“Fun Home” is, in the end, a whole-body experience. Played in 90 minutes, without intermission, its slow build keeps one enthralled until the shock and understanding of ending – one which tends to propel the watcher to his or her enthusiastic feet.

What: “Fun Home” When: Through April 1, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with added 2 p.m. performance March 30 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, in the Music Center 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $125 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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