Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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Playwright A.R. Gurney’s best work has revolved around the upper-middle class New England of the early to mid-20th Century, either by placing his plays in that space, or among people reminiscent for that time and space. As such, his works become a window on an entire society, with its structures, standards, and mores, which has essentially evaporated in the intervening societal upheavals. Never is this more true than in “The Dining Room,” a set if interlaced vignettes revolving around that once-formal space in a more formal era.
Now finishing a short run at Whittier Community Theatre, “The Dining Room” offers a small group of 8 performers a chance to become a wide array of people, current and historical, inhabiting, reminiscing about, or even rediscovering the value of a home’s formal dining room. If this sounds rather silly, it isn’t. Instead, it is a window on a particular kind of intimacy, observed even in the breach.
Director Candy Beck has brought together a particularly skilled cast, and her near-choreography of their comings and goings makes the transitions from scene to scene and character to character both seamless and easy to follow. It’s a neat piece of direction, as well as a nod to the quality of the versatile performers.
The characters shift quickly, and Keith Bush, Michael Durack, Allison Hicks, Jay Miramontes, Jonah Snyder, Nancy Tyler, Randi Tahara and Veronique Merrill Warner produce a wild collection of family members, visiting professionals, servants and observers. Their interactions, which range from an aged father giving funeral instructions to his son to a little boy sad to hear that his favorite maid is going to stop working for the family, from a college student whose surprise visit home uncovers a family scandal to a couple of teenagers stealing from the liquor cabinet, create a communal portrait of a room and its purpose. The standout among this crowd of fine performers has to be Tahara, most particularly as the aged woman with dementia who doesn’t recognize her own house or her own sons, and as a woman watching her marriage fall apart.
The stories are often poignant, sometimes very funny, and always contain the kind of conversations which tend to happen in this specific room’s formal surroundings. Director Beck has also designed the set, which allows the flow of persons on and off stage, including a number of quick changes, and gives the feel of a large house’s formal dining room.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to see “The Dining Room,” do so. It provides a unique kind of window on a disappearing formality of finger bowls and live-in cooks, table manners and fine china, which is a part of Americana, even if out of reach for most of us. And it will give anyone a greater appreciation for that formal dining table which has been passed down the family. WCT have done themselves proud, making this particular production worth seeing.
What: “The Dining Room” When: through November 19, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general; $12 seniors, students, and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
In 2012, a send-up of the mystery genre by famed comic playwright Ken Ludwig, “The Game’s Afoot, or Holmes for the Holidays” won the Edgar from the Mystery Writer’s of America for Best Play. Ludwig, best known for delightfully ridiculous farces like “Lend Me a Tenor,” took that same approach to the classic whodunit, peppering it with references to Sherlock Holmes and his creator, and to Shakespeare. The resulting mashup is now on display at Whittier Community Theater, as the closeout to their 94th season, and it’s a hoot.
Based, in some measure, on the historic figure William Gillette, a famed American actor who became synonymous with Sherlock Holmes around the turn of the last century, the play is set in his castle-like estate in Connecticut. It’s a dark and stormy night, of course, and Christmas Eve. Members of his “Sherlock Holmes” company have come to join him for the holiday, as he recovers from having been shot at the end of a production his iconic play, by a still unknown someone in the audience. Then a most unpleasant theater critic/columnist arrives, sparking ire, unwrapping secrets and generally turning the house on its ear. What will happen next?
Norman Dostal makes a jovial Gillette, relaxed and carefree until the various disasters strike. Kathryn Hunter has fun as Gillette’s fussy and overprotective mother, while Justin Patrick Murphy vibrates with a kind of macho frailty as his fellow actor and best friend. Kensington Hallowell offers a somewhat brittle but practical rendition of this friend’s actress wife. Jay Miramontes and Amanda Joyce round out the house party as the young, recently wedded members of the troupe who carry secrets of their own.
Kerri Malmgren seems to be having the most fun of anyone in the company as the snotty and totally obnoxious columnist, whose mishap sparks much of the action and all of the best comedic moments. Candy Beck becomes the unexpected and rather distractible female detective who descends upon them all as the plot unfolds. All these characters not only deal with a genuine mystery, which has layers itself, but in the farcical silliness which ensues when there is a need to hide a body.
Indeed, under the direction of Suzanne Frederickson, the mystery – though interesting – takes a back seat to those farcical elements, as the piece is often very funny. The pacing is good and the director’s own elaborate stage design offers all the right bits to heighten the humor and move the story along. Costumer Nancy Tyler’s dependence on rather generic formalwear may not be exactly period (the piece is set in 1936) but isn’t exactly out of period either. In short, the whole thing works pretty well, right down to the startling, and very funny surprise ending.
Also possibly interesting to a theatrical historian, the production makes use of elements the real Gillette introduced into the American theatrical landscape: a realistic, fully working set, and sound and lighting effects (in this case, lightning and thunder) to contribute to the sense of drama. Gillette, a friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, who actually retired from acting in 1932, was considered the first realistic American stage actor. This creates a bit of extra humor for those in the know, as farce as a genre is never very high on realism, nor can its characters be.
So, go take a look. “The Game’s Afoot” is a lighthearted romp, with a couple of interesting plot twists and a lot of humor. It will make a good, and economical way to entertain oneself on a warm summer night.
What: “The Game’s Afoot” When: Through June 18, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
For people of an age, the title “Tom Jones” immediately brings to mind the 1963 British “adventure comedy” film of the same name, which so titillated and tweaked the censors with its nudges of licentiousness. For scholars, “Tom Jones” is the short name of the 1749 novel by Henry Fielding, also rich in adventure both in and out of the bedroom.
Oddly enough, playwright David Rogers chose that novel as the foundation for a send-up of the classic American melodrama. Now at Whittier Community Theatre, his “Tom Jones” simplifies the tale (which does it no harm) but also removes the comic juxtaposition of traits which has made the novel so popular for over 250 years.
In the book, Tom is profoundly naive and even noble, even as he is willingly pounced upon by the women of his time. His nemesis, Mr. Blifil, is as nefarious as they come, yet sanctimoniously “pure” according to standard social behavior. Therein lies the social commentary. In Rogers’ version, Tom is pure of heart and behavior, with thoughts only for his dear (and apparently unreachable) love, Sophia Western. Blifil sneers with the best, but as a much more cardboard villain in that he doesn’t have anyone particularly complex to wrestle against.
Be that as it may, director Eric Modyman has pulled out all the stops to make this oddly minted melodrama as silly as possible. Servant girls constantly carry cue cards for the audience to boo, cheer, or even sigh for the various characters. Indeed, those signs become so much a part of the action, they are sometimes used as serving trays. The main characters are played with conviction and even glee by a solid group of performers, and with a cleverly mobile set and (with one exception) costuming which evokes the correct time period, it has much humor to recommend it.
“Tom Jones” is the story of a foundling left on the pillow of a bachelor squire in the English countryside. Raised alongside his sister’s son, the jealous Blifil, Tom is treated as gentry but really has no fortune to speak of. When he falls for Sophia, the daughter of the neighboring gentleman, he is tossed out of the family and Sophia herself promised to Blifil. Tom must make his way to London, dreaming of a life with Sophia he knows will never be. What he doesn’t know is that Sophia sneaks out to go after him.
Jay Miramontes makes Jones sweet and somewhat dim, both honest and pure, and dedicated in body as well as soul to his love Sophia. Tom Royer, has a fine turn as Squire Allworthy, who raises Tom. Patrick Peterson has a truly inspired time as the evil Blifil, and has the costume to match. Chelsea Caracoza gives Sophia a lovely sense of selfish importance and naiveté, though she is also unfortunate in having the only costume which doesn’t work: satin and somewhat spare, and minus the wig all other women in the company wear, she ends up looking more like a Disney princess than a young lady of the 18th century. It’s actually quite a distraction.
In a huge cast, at least by WCT standards, there are a number of other standouts. Among them, Matt Koutroulis has a wonderful time as Sophia’s father, the oblivious outdoorsman. Andrea Stradling makes much of the mature Lady Bellaston, who wants to take Tom far more under her wing than he is ready for. In two separate parts, but particularly as an innkeeper, Nancy Tyler has great comic timing. Also with multiple parts, Jesse Ornelas hits his stride best as a very funny, charmingly inept highwayman.
Which is all to say that, taken just as a faux melodrama, “Tom Jones” comes off pretty well. Just don’t go expecting, well, “Tom Jones.” There is no subtlety here, in that melodrama virtually doesn’t allow for anything subtle. Still, it’s fun, it’s silly, and it has the same happy ending. That can be quite satisfying all by itself.
What: “Tom Jones” When: Through March 5, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 2:30 p.m matinee on Sunday, February 28 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $12 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
In the long and impressive line of theatrical comedies by Neil Simon, few really qualify as farces. To be a farce the story isn’t really about rounded people, but about the silly juxtaposition of persons in compromising situations with unforeseen events. For Simon, the comedy was usually more organic, even when the results were very silly: the people and their personalities underscored the humor. Indeed, as his career progressed, it was much more about the people than the laughter and the plays became more real, more nuanced, and more powerful.
However, Simon did write one genuine, door-slamming, mistaken-identity-filled farce. Now that play, “Rumors” is at the Whittier Community Theatre, and the results are – for the most part, anyway – just as funny as they should be. The actors play the over-the-top characters with great energy and style. The setting is as fraught with exhausting drama as it should be, and the results are very funny. If, on occasion, the pacing of the comedic lines slows a bit, that is something that can be overcome.
Four couples arrive, in stages, at the home of a fifth couple having an anniversary celebration. Mystery ensues, as the help has disappeared, as has the woman of the house, and her husband is found upstairs, offstage, stunned and bleeding from a gunshot wound. As the first couple to arrive tries to cover for the disaster, gradually aided or thwarted by the rest as they arrive, the misconstructions, fabrications and frustrations wrap the eight guests in a series of ridiculous situations. And then the police arrive.
This whole silliness is led in every way by Jay Miramontes and Michelle Pedersen as the Gormans, first uncovering the mystery then balancing hair brained schemes with careful coverups, aided on occasion by more than enough vodka and a real sense of performance polish. Kerri Malmgren and Jason Falske provide the next comic element as a calm society woman and her husband, so obsessed over the accident which has damaged his brand new Mercedes the house’s mysteries are just an additional frustration.
The warm and homey Cleta Cohen and Richard DeVicariis provide the practical element, comparatively nonplussed by the silly situation and focused on more basic needs of the rest of the thwarted party-goers. Michael Moore and most particularly Lindsay Marsh provide yet one more layer as the politician who can’t be associated with the obviously developing scandal and his paranoid wife devoutly sure her husband is full of scandals anyway.
Under the direction of Justin Patrick Murphy, this silly piece starts just a bit slow, but seems to rev up as the stage fills. Every once in a while someone, particularly Moore, seems to wait just a bit long in a play whose lines must consistently appear with whipcrack speed, but the comedy definitely wins out and the characterizations are strong and a lot of fun. Kudos to Amy Miramontes for gathering clothing just right for the kind of evening these characters are expecting and the kind of people they are. The costumer doubles, along with Andy Kresowski, as the stern and precise police duo who show up trying to sort out the craziness.
In short, this “Rumors” is a lot of fun. I admit to being rather a fan of farces, as a particularly carefree way to slough off the pressures of the everyday. This one is definitely worth a look, and, in the hands of this company of players, stays satisfyingly silly to its unpredictable but equally funny end.
What: “Rumors” When: Through June 13, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sunday, June 7 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theatre, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $15 Adults, $10 seniors (62+), juniors (18 and under), students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
Over the past couple of years, one of the last of the strongly supported community playhouses, the all-volunteer Whittier Community Theatre, has produced several spunky productions of American musicals. Most particularly, their “Into the Woods” was quite stunning, and shows like “Quilters,” and “The Pajama Game” have garnered worthy praise. Thus, when I saw that their new production of the spoof of classic westerns, “Johnny Guitar,” leaves much to be desired, it does not come from the company’s amateur status, but from a misread on the part of those organizing the production.
“Johnny Guitar,” by Nicholas van Hoogstraten, Joel Higgins, and Martin Silvestri, takes the standard western formats and, if done right, plays them all with tongue firmly in cheek. Even the story sounds like all the B-westerns from the heyday of such things. Miss Vienna, a bad girl gone good, owns a bar outside a small western town – a town operated in tandem by Emma, the daughter of the founder of the town bank, and McIvers, the area’s largest landowner and rancher. Emma, holding a secret passion for the outlaw The Dancing Kid, is out to destroy Vienna for her supposed romantic connection to the Kid. Into all of this rides a man of height and heart bearing a guitar instead of a gun. But does he have a more violent past? Will he help Vienna?
Yes, it’s just that silly, and the staging should add more. Sound effects must be huge, choruses should appear from behind rocks, furniture, curtains, etc. Everything must be played large and melodramatically, resulting in almost constant chuckles and some significant outright laughter. Visual comedy can be emphasized, like constant references to Johnny’s being so tall, when the actor is not. It should be fast-paced, and moderately ridiculous. That’s what makes it work.
The production at WTC can’t seem to make up its mind whether it is going to play the thing straight, and thus awkwardly, or live up to the wry humor of the script. At the start, it shows promise, when the opening ballad has the chorus suddenly pop out from behind the saloon bar, and continue singing unphased when one of their number is gunned down. The sound effects are right, and the minimalist set has just the right elements. Some of the cast – most especially Jonathan Tupanjanin, as the youngest of the outlaws – can really sing up a storm, and for the most part all sing with enough energy and conviction to make it work.
But it’s uneven. They get serious too often, and that seriousness slows things down. Sometimes the chorus sings from offstage, when having them appear, sing, and disappear would have given more stage business, and more comedy to something which begins to feel drawn out.
As Vienna, Mallory Kerwin has the heart for the thing, and a powerful voice, but is visually wrong. She should look like a slightly more risqué Miss Kitty (for old “Gunsmoke” fans) but spends much of her time in an outfit more suitable to Dale Evans. Matt Berardi has great potential as Johnny. He has the swagger and the overly cool delivery down. There could be much comedy, though, as in his “playing” of a guitar which obviously has no strings, which is otherwise just kind of awkward.
Lindsay Marsh is solid – that is, slightly overdramatic and intensely repressed, just as she should be – as the vicious Emma, while Greg Stokes makes a stolid and gruff McIvers. Jay Miramontes truly enjoys his role as The Dancing Kid, though the dancing should be emphasized more, particularly if it’s going to be as intentionally unimpressive as it appears when he finally performs. Justin Patrick Murphy, Andy Kresowski and Richard DeVicariis have a lovely time playing henchmen, posse members, bartenders and the like, and, joined with Tupanjanin, becoming the chorus for song after song.
The live band accompanying them is small but good. The mics need to be balanced more, as some (especially Kerwin’s) are cranked up too high while others are very hard to hear. Special kudos to the stage crew who utilize the elements of Mark Frederickson’s very facile set design to change scene quickly and keep the pace going.
In short, this is good enough that it should have, and could have, been better. Consistency in the over-the-top melodrama of the piece would have let to more laughter (though there definitely were some funny moments) and made it all feel more cohesive. Director John S. Francis is experienced enough to know that this. What this show needs is real tongue-in-cheek everything, as the story line is just as light as the old Saturday serials, and the music is memorable more as a satire on musicals and westerns than as great art. Still, this company deserves the community’s support. Community theater, where volunteerism is prized, is always worth supporting.
What: “Johnny Guitar the Musical” When: Through March 7, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, March 1 Where: Whittier Community Theatre at The Center Theater, 7630 Washington Ave. in Whittier How Much: $20 general, $15 seniors, students and military with ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org
Ah, “Noir”. The works of the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, with their cynical gumshoes and fatalistic romantic tone, stand apart even today as a special part of American culture. Of these, none is better known than “Laura,” which began life as a story, a novel and then a play, all by Vera Caspary, before becoming an Otto Preminger film.
Now “Laura” returns to the stage in Caspary and Geoge Sklar’s original version at the Whittier Community Theatre. It’s a solid performance – well cast and strongly directed – which shows the polish often-maligned community theater companies can achieve. And there’s that good old mystery to go along with it.
For anyone who doesn’t know somehow, “Laura” is the story of a murder investigation. The detective in charge, Mark McPherson, finds himself fascinated by the victim whose portrait hangs in her apartment. In a story filled with peculiar twists and turns, this detective’s determination to find out the truth both of the murder and of the obviously complex character of victim Laura herself, make for fascinating watching.
Director Suzanne Frederickson has the feel for this piece, and it shows all the way down to the costuming and furniture. She has amassed a cast which manages to fit the various stereotypes required of this kind of story, and with talent enough to make them all human.
As McPherson, Steven Sullivan is the picture of a solid Irish cop, from his sharp eye, a crisp loyalty, and a subtle tugging of the heart. As the man who feels he “created” Laura, Norman Dostal manages the somewhat soft and slimy panache required to make Waldo a disturbing character. Jay Miramontes gives Laura’s fiance an interesting balance of acquisitiveness and fondness, while Candy Beck fusses with great warmth as the loving maid Laura hired and befriended.
Also worthy of note, the mysterious “girl” gets rounded treatment by Amy Anderson, Kieran Flanagan makes nice work of the rebellious teen from down the hall, and Julie Breihan bristles with genuine indignation as his frustrated, heartsore mother. John Francis makes a short, entertaining, but somewhat less believable appearance as a beat cop.
Considering the generally somewhat “low rent” nature of community theaters, which survive on tiny budgets and volunteers both in front of and behind the scenes, this production proves quite delightful. The pacing is good, the tone is right, and the mystery appropriately mysterious. If you’ve never seen “Laura” nobody telegraphs the ending. If you have, it’s a lovely and inexpensive chance to spend time with an old friend.
Although this run is almost over, stay tuned for this company’s next offering: “Charley’s Aunt”, due at the end of May.
What: “Laura” When: 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28 and Saturday, March 1 Where: The Center Theatre, 8730 Washington Ave., in Whittier How Much: $15 general, $10 seniors, students, and military ID Info: (562) 696-0600 or http://www.whittiercommunitytheatre.org