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The Glass Menagerie at ANW: Their Best Work, Mostly

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Deborah Strang as the demanding Amanda and Rafael Goldstein as the increasingly detached Tom in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie” at A Noise Within in Pasadena. [photo: Craig Schwartz]

One of the seminal works of American theatrical literature is Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” the play which vaulted him to fame. It was in my high school English textbook, in the equivalent for that preliminary English course everyone has to take in college, and one of the great plays studied in my theater lit course. It appears on stage with remarkable regularity, and has been on television more than once. A sad and introspective tale, it can be taken as Greek tragedy, as a statement on America’s disconnect, as one of several Williams’ treatises on the tawdry aftereffects of Southern culture, or simply as a character study.

At A Noise Within in Pasadena what seems to win out is character study. Perhaps this is because the four-person cast contains the strongest performers in the ANW membership stable. Co-Artistic Director Geoff Elliott has given these performers space to create far more rounded and interesting characters than on some occasions, and there are haunting moments in the production worthy of special note. If only there wasn’t an over-literal tacked on ending to annoy a Williams aficionado at the play’s close.

Deborah Strang makes comparatively (and interestingly) subtle work of the unsubtle Amanda, a faded Southern belle whose desperate hold the youth she enjoyed before marrying the wrong man has poisoned any possible connection with her only son. As that son, Tom, Rafael Goldstein radiates with resentment, thwarted ambition, and an edgy empathy for his disabled sister.

Erika Soto makes Laura,  the sister, more complex than is often seen. The touchingly memorable moment – shared, thanks to a particularly apt bit of direction, with the audience – when she looks in a mirror and can actually see herself as beautiful for a moment will stick with the observer long after the play ends. Likewise Kasey Mahaffy as Jim, the “gentleman caller,” gives a nervous edge to the part which intimates a connection that just almost comes off. It makes the pain and the depth of their scenes worth the entire production.

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Kasey Mahaffy as Jim and Erika Soto as Laura

Fred Kinney’s scenic design is clever, but the adaptability it has to have is mostly due to the one weird twist in the direction at play’s end. This is a memory play. Memory plays have to stop where the memories end. The fact that Laura’s memory will not leave Tom alone, and the underlying question mark about the people/lives he left behind is the lingering fog which gives the play some of its power. Here, that question is answered, nullifying Williams’ point.

Why Elliott chose to do this – answering a question which is aways left for the audience to surmise – is an abject mystery. Frankly, it seems a sign of distrust, either in his audience or in his performer, or (even worse) Williams himself. In any case, it proves moderately insulting, and fudges what is otherwise a fine, fine production of an American classic.

Still, given everything which leads up to that moment, this version of “Glass Menagerie” is worth taking a look, my sincere, rueful “if only” qualifier to the ending notwithstanding.

“The Glass Menagerie” plays in repertory with Shakespeare’s “Othello” and Mary Zimmerman’s “Argonautika”.

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What: “The Glass Menagerie”  When: through April 26, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. March 30, 2 p.m. April 20, 7 p.m. April 14, 7:30 p.m. April 4 and 25, 8 p.m. April 5, 20 and 26  Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena  How Much: from $25, Student Rush with ID one hour before performance $20, On April 14 all remaining tickets $25 (available online with the code SUNDAYRUSH) or at box office Info: http://www.anoisewithin.org or (626) 356-3121

The Taper’s “The Price”: The play may have issues, but the acting’s a treat

John Bedford Lloyd and Sam Robards square off in Arthur Miller's The Price at the Taper [photo: Craig Schwartz]

John Bedford Lloyd and Sam Robards square off in Arthur Miller’s The Price at the Taper [photo: Craig Schwartz]


It depends on what matters to you in a theatrical production as to whether Arthur Miller’s “The Price” at the Mark Taper Forum will meet or disappoint your expectations. If you enjoy watching peak-quality actors create and run around in characters created by one of the rarest talents of the 20th century, you’re in for a treat. If you’re looking for greatness in the script itself, well, there is a reason “The Price” isn’t the play which trips off the tongue at mention of Miller’s name.

The tale has two vastly differing segments, divided by an intermission. Both take place in the apartment of a once-influential, rich man who lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Now, in the mid-sixties, he has died, his whole apartment building is due to be razed, and his sons – one the disappointed career cop who helped to support him, the other a successful surgeon who left him behind – must either take or sell what remains of his household goods.

Alan Mandell provides the comedy in The Price [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Alan Mandell provides the comedy in The Price [photo: Craig Schwartz]

The first segment is high on a kind of practical comedy, as Walter, the cop, must joust both with is frustrated wife and with the clever, if ancient Gregory Solomon – the furniture appraiser he has called to bid on the apartment’s contents. The second opens raw wounds, as the surgeon, Victor, appears radiating a sense of command and of the rightness of his more youthful actions. Through it all, Walter’s wife underscores the importance of money in all of this, and in her evaluation of them both.

The true star of the Taper production is Alan Mandell, whose Solomon radiates with the practical combination of earnest wisdom and manipulative coercion which makes for a good salesman. He makes the comedy this character represents organic to the play, a seamlessness far harder than it looks.

Kate Burton is the long-suffering wife [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Kate Burton is the long-suffering wife [photo: Craig Schwartz]

John Bedford Lloyd gives Walter the earnest solidity one expects from a lifelong cop and the seething resentment of a man who feels forced to abandon his own dreams by those who would not abandon theirs. Sam Robards’ Victor embodies the confidence of a man broken by his own success, yet still radiating with an inner focus which makes him appear unbending even as he reaches out. Kate Burton, as the disappointed Esther, makes her a dreamer with practical roots, trying hard to find meaning in a life she did not choose.

Matt Saunders’ surreal yet fascinating set design allows the stage area to shrink into a tiny space where all the characters collide not only with themselves but with the dead father whose innate presence and actions are the elephant in the room. Director Garry Hynes acts as choreographer, moving characters in and out of center focus with the precision of a gavotte, and keeping the whole thing both earnest and to some extent underplayed – a great way to feel the tensions rise.

Still, “The Price” as a play has its flaws, seeming almost two one-acts kind of sewn together. Even so, the performances are so strong they become worth the adventure all by themselves. In particular, a chance to catch Mandell is particularly worth the trip. Last seen at the Taper in “Waiting for Godot,” in a part he originated for Samuel Beckett, he is a remarkable talent proven over an 80-year acting career.

What: “The Price” When: Through March 22, 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 Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave in downtown Los Angeles How Much $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org

Passion is Still Stupid: In “Stupid Fucking Bird” Chekhov’s “The Seagull” speaks to a new age

The cast confronts the audience

The cast confronts the audience

This show has now been extended through August 10

Playing with classics has become part of the theatrical landscape. One can either go for staging, say, Shakespeare or Moliere or Sophocles in an alternate time period or social reference, or one can take the conceptual theme of the original, and the main characters, and turn the play on its ear. For example, several years ago The Theatre at Boston Court produced Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” reset (with distinct cultural adaptation) in a China on the verge of revolution – a shift which worked startlingly well.

Now, once again at The Theatre at Boston Court, this time in concert with Circle X Theatre Company, one finds a revision of another Chekhov classic, “The Seagull.” “Sort of adapted” by Aaron Posner, the play “Stupid Fucking Bird” highlight’s Chekhov’s essential ethos – the idea that people who become so wrapped up in themselves create their own tragedies – and places it in a modern framework. It works, absolutely, and for several reasons: Chekhov’s theme was an essential human one which transcends time, the adaptation is clever, concise and passionate, and the direction and performance are done with complete conviction and absolute craft.

The script trims down and adapts the character list, but the story is still the traditional angsty knot. Conrad, the bitter son of actress Emma Arkadina, is a creator of dubious performance art his family belittles. He lives on his mother’s estate, working with and worshiping a young actress named Nina, who does not return his affections, while the woman who runs the house, Mash, holds her grand passion for Conrad close to her despairing heart. Dev, the slightly dim, good-hearted friend of Conrad’s, adores Mash but knows he has little chance there. Emma fears encroaching age, and fights it off by keeping famed author Doyle Trigorin on a short leash, at least until he notices Nina. All the while, aging uncle Dr. Sorn, watches with a combination of kindness and frustration. And so it begins.

If all of this sounds like a soap opera, you are correct, except for the essential Chekhovian concept that all of this internal wrangling, despair and high feeling is elementally ridiculous – a product of each of the characters’ emotional myopia. In the hands of director Michael Michetti, that rings through all the drama, as it plays out in a tight production with a strong and engaging cast. Add to this the extra thrill of Posner’s Thornton Wilder-style dissolving of the fourth wall, including actors stepping into and out of character, and you’re looking at something compelling and genuinely fun.SFB_lead

Will Bradley leads the cast in every way as Conrad, vibrating with intensity and a kind of emotional impotence. In both energy and engagingly dark approach he is matched by Charlotte Gulezian’s habitually depressed Mash. Adam Silver creates Mash’s and Conrad’s ultimate foil in the easy-going, upbeat, pleasantly dim Dev. Amy Pietz gives Emma a gentle undercurrent of desperation, and a grasping need which proves visceral.

Matthew Floyd Miller’s calm, detached, even opportunistic Doyle becomes physically and emotionally above all the petty commitments at his feet, while Zarah Mahler’s aura of fragility places Nina distinctly in both Doyle’s and Conrad’s crosshairs. Arye Gross gives the good doctor the air of a man weighed down by his own desire to be empathetic to these folk, like a huge, human sigh.

Under Michetti, this all moves quite rapidly, allowing no time for the dismalness to settle, and shifting in and out of the play’s supposed setting with the efficiency of a light switch. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s modular set pieces prove both realistic and representational, allowing for quick shifts in scene and mood. Sean Cawelti’s projections often provide that mood, and flesh out settings artfully.

In short, “Stupid Fucking Bird” brings the essential Chekhovian message to a new era, a new language, and a new immediacy without losing those elements which give it something to say about the human condition: finely tuned characters wrestling with stunted emotions doing melodramatic things which get them nowhere, held up to a mirror that makes them look somewhat silly. Thus it proves both wrenching and humorous, visceral and cerebral. If you love to watch people play with classic themes, you’ll find this one engrossing.

One word of warning: as the name may suggest, this show is not for children, deserving at least an “R” rating on the standard scale for both language and nudity. Still, for most adults, i.e.: those willing to take that as integral to context, it is most certainly a show to see.

What: “Stupid Fucking Bird” When: Through July 27, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, with added performances 8 p.m. Wednesday July 16 and 23 Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34, with senior and group discounts available Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.BostonCourt.org

“Harmony” at the Ahmanson: fascinating true story a la Manilow

(L-R): Will Blum, Douglas Williams, Will Taylor, Matt Bailey, Shayne Kennon and Chris Dwan in“Harmony,” a new musical, with music by Barry Manilow and book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

(L-R): Will Blum, Douglas Williams, Will Taylor, Matt Bailey, Shayne Kennon and Chris Dwan in“Harmony,” a new musical, with music by Barry Manilow and book and lyrics by Bruce Sussman. [Photo: Craig Schwartz]

With much fanfare, “Harmony,” the new musical by Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman has opened at the Ahmanson Theater. A long-held dream by its creators, it offers up charm and history, pathos and laughter, and a lesson we should have all been aware of, about a group of men who broke barriers just before that became impossible. And it works, with one moderately irritating exception.

The story is incredible and, allowing for a bit of artistic license, true. It concerns the Comedian Harmonists, a group of six close-harmony singers who took Germany, then Europe, and then the US by storm in the 1920s and 30s. The composition of the group was eclectic in many ways, including the fact it had both Jewish (including a former rabbi) and non-Jewish members. Their style was a combination of the close-harmony jazz which grew out of barbershop, the like of which one hears in early film recordings, combined with the silliness of the Marx Brothers. Their art was amazing, including their political satire, and they were as wildly popular in their day as the Beatles were in their own.

Then the Nazis rose to power, and even their popularity could not save them from the consequences.

Sussman’s book handles the necessarily episodic tale with enough flow to make it seem like one story instead of a series of vignettes. Even as you pop from place to place and time to time, you get to care a good deal about the six men and the women who loved them. Director Tony Speciale has gathered a cast of fine comedic and musical talent, and the result is a treat to watch. It’s a visual treat too, as Darrel Maloney’s projections onto Tobin Ost’s angular period-evocative sets and costumes pull you into place and time.

Matt Bailey is unemployed actor Harry Frommerman, the group’s optimistic and energetic founder, who placed an ad in the paper inviting others to join his group. Will Taylor is “Chopin” Bootz, his co-founder and the group’s talented pianist, whose love for a Jewish radical gets him into trouble at the end. Will Blum has a particularly silly time creating Bulgarian singing waiter Ari Leshnikoff, while Chris Dwan gives voice to Erich Collin, the medical student disappointing his upper crust Jewish family by going on the stage. Douglas Williams oozes profundity as operatic bass Bobby Biberti, and Shayne Kennon pretty much owns the stage as Josef Cykowsky, the Polish former rabbi whose story centers the tale. All these men sing, ham it up and connect with each other with a special kind of energy which makes the show work.

Indeed, the whole enterprise is a visual treat. Manilow’s music includes perhaps one or two too many angsty show-stoppers, but they are done very well, and the richly evocative “Where You Go”, sung by Leigh Ann Larkin as Cykowsky’s supportive, converted German wife and Hannah Corneau as Bootz’s more angry one, is a highlight worth seeing the show for. As for the performance pieces the Harmonists sing as a group, it is there that trouble follows. They sing them with great art, and sometimes great intentional silliness, but the style they are given is not quite the style that made the Comedian Harmonists famous.

In a recent interview, Manilow said he needed to adjust the kind of music they were singing, as the original seemed too close to the music behind Mickey Mouse cartoons. And therein lies the rub. One cannot escape the fact that the kind of music early animated films used was recordings of the popular song styles of the day – a sound similar to the Harmonists. To dismiss that sound is to dismiss what The Comedian Harmonists actually were (go listen on YouTube). Instead, in “Harmony” they sound at times like artificially antiquated Manilow. That’s not a bad sound, but it is not the Harmonists’ sound.

Still, and despite this distracting element, the story remains compelling. The choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter is goofy and creative, and the harmony on stage and in song that these characters achieve is impressive. In an era when the memory of that generation is fading, and the witnesses are mostly gone, it is also a uniquely personal look at what the Nazis did to German art and culture. Imagine what would have been, if the creative heart of that generation had not been declared degenerate. As a side note, today in Germany the Comedian Harmonists’ records and films are considered treasures. Time tells.

What: “Harmony” When: Through April 13, 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 downtown Los Angeles, at the Music Center How Much: $20 – $105 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Opening a Door: Sierra Madre Playhouse’s Spin on “Driving Miss Daisy”

The cast of SMP's "Driving Miss Daisy"

The cast of SMP’s “Driving Miss Daisy”

This production has been extended through March 20, 2013

Once seen mostly as a sweet, sometimes fascinating character study, Alfred Uhry’s “Driving Miss Daisy” has gradually become a subject of controversy, in much the way that “The Help” has. The genre, which tends to view the segregated south through the lens of the humanity created by personal interaction between the traditional white elite and their patient African-American domestics, has kind of had its day. That is, if one still plays those parts with that tendency to pigeonhole its participants.

What seems to set the new rendition of Uhry’s play at the Sierra Madre Playhouse apart from some others is the essential maturity of all the characters. This Daisy is terrified of being alone and covering it with bravado. This Hoke is a shy but manly figure whose deference is more to infirmity than color. This Boolie genuinely loves his mother, “gets” Hoke, and is personally cheered by the relationship his mother has with her confidante.

Director Christian Lebano, realizing this may not be an easy show for some, has even included in the program a set of questions for people to use as discussion starters after the play is done. It’s an acknowledgement of both the touching nature, and the baggage, of this play.

Still, “Driving Miss Daisy” remains, at heart, a play about distinct and interesting individuals. Impressive actors can make this piece what they will, and this is most certainly the case here.

Mary Lou Rosato ages with great physical accuracy as Miss Daisy, moving as an aged woman would while giving a refreshing balance of crochety-ness, underlying care, and subliminal fear to the part. Even the very end – a tough element of this play which is rarely done with subtlety – has a startling truth to it, which makes it particularly human.

Willie C. Carpenter gives Hoke more than just the usual dignity, but a kind of presence which lets him look Daisy’s son Boolie in the eye. These are not equals, perhaps, but these are both men who understand that the differences in their social standing are societal more than personal. Carpenter infuses Hoke with that manliness, and – once again – accurate view of the aging process, which make him Daisy’s rock as much as Daisy’s driver.

Perhaps most surprising is Brad Reed’s Boolie. Boolie is usually played as a classic “trying-to-fit-in Jewish Good Ol’ Boy.” Reed’s new spin on the part doesn’t humor or patronize his mother, but rather walks the delicate balance between his love of and identification with her and the realities of his business life in the Atlanta of his day. He gets her. He gets Hoke. He even sometimes seems a tiny bit envious of their ability to live honestly themselves. This portrait ties the whole piece together in interesting ways: a new view, if you will, of the entire proceeding.

Kudos also go to the show’s production values. Gary Wissman’s blissfully simple set keeps the pace of the play (which is performed without intermission) moving right along. Kristen Kopp’s costumes are accurate right down to Daisy’s shoes – impressive for such a small theater. Simple polish seems to be the hallmark of the whole production.

So, take a look at this “Driving Miss Daisy.” Though it remains admittedly controversial, a chance for a new window into such a piece is always useful. And that’s what this production offers: a new window, a new slant on something which has often gotten either too cosy or too disquietingly stereotypical. Whether you agree or disagree with the play or the interpretation, the discussion to follow can be a fine exercise all on its own.

What: “Driving Miss Daisy” When: Through March 9, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd. in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors (65 and older), $15 youth (13-21), $12 children (12 and under) Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Worth the Waiting: a glorious “Waiting for Godot” at the Taper

Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern in the Mark Taper Forum's excellent "Waiting for Godot" (photo: Craig Schwartz)

Back in the early 1980s, I was substituting in a local high school when a young lady I knew dashed in. “I have five minutes before my next class. Can you explain ‘Waiting for Godot’ to me?” I can tell that story in almost any company and have people laugh. Even those who don’t know “Waiting for Godot” know enough about it to consider the question ridiculous. Indeed, playwright Samuel Beckett, in keeping with the absurdism which crept into theater with this play, absolutely refused to do any explaining of the thing himself.

The play is, essentially, about waiting – a waiting where, as the first line pronounces, “Nothing can be done.” Often times, this becomes a tedious exercise in that process, but not at the Mark Taper Forum. There an exquisite production elevates the play to something like a wry dream – an essential look at human character, and the elemental humor and pathos of existence.

Central to this success are the duo of Alan Mandell and Barry McGovern, whose connection as the waiting men Estragon and Vladimir becomes a living thing. Their constant intertwining of line, of mood and even of whimsy gives an energy to the piece. This, in turn, keeps one connected to character and content in a play which has lots of both in place of a plot.

The tale, such as it is, is of two men – longtime wanderers – who have been told they must wait for the arrival of a man named Godot in a rather bleak spot on the landscape. So, they wait. Each day, as it ends, a boy (LJ Benet) arrives to say Godot will come tomorrow without fail. It is a fool’s waiting, but it is required, and so this is what the men do. The owner of the land harumphs by, accompanied by a nearly animalistic slave. Still, the men wait.

Hugo Armstrong’s beastly, inarticulate and beleaguered Lucky and James Cromwell’s worldly and pompous Pozzo add to the mood and tone with a fascinating and disturbing physicality. Still it is Mandell’s sighing, fatalistic Estragon and McGovern’s negotiating, honor-bound Vladimir who make the piece as compelling as it is. The tight and active direction of Michael Arabian keeps the thing from devolving, as it sometimes has, into a kind of costumed panel discussion. That vitality proves key.

So does the absolutely remarkable, Dadaist set by John Iacovelli and by Brian Gale, whose projections and lighting effects tie in with the set itself brilliantly. Indeed, be sure you are seated early enough to see the Dali-like shadows which play upon the backdrop before the show begins. It sets just the tone necessary to start sweeping the audience into the mood.

I will admit leaving the theater gleeful. This production is what I always hoped “Waiting for Godot” could be. One thinks of those exceptional plays and playwrights who have arrived since (Suzan-Lori Parks and her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Top Dog/Underdog” come particularly to mind) and been given permission to have characters exist and be explorable, rather than having to live inside a story line. The legacy of this play cannot be overstated. It is a delight to go back and see, in such a powerful production, that initial inspiration.

As for the student who asked me to explain the unexplainable in five minutes, so long ago? The answer was – obviously – no. I have no idea how the essay she was supposed to write in her next class came out, but she was furious at not having a definitive answer. Don’t expect one from me now, either. That’s for you to explore for yourself, after you go see this particularly articulate incarnation of the thing.

And you should go. It would be difficult to find a better rendition.

What: “Waiting for Godot” When: Through April 22, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, in the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $65 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Weird Waiting: Polished, funny, disquieting “Vigil” at the Taper

Olympia Dukakis and Marco Barricelli in the American Conservatory Theater production of "€œVigil" at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum


Within the first few minutes of “Vigil,” the Morris Panych play just opened at the Mark Taper Forum, you are either laughing or deeply uncomfortable. Hold on to your hat, though, as you will soon seesaw between the two for the course of the show. This is the way it’s supposed to be. “Vigil” directly confronts the very things we least like discussing: familial obligation, death, child neglect and elder abuse. It does so with humor and pathos and a unique mixture of mystery and almost Sartrian self-imposed torment which is at once compelling and appalling.

Panych readily admits changes which appear in his play each time he directs it, based on the performers’ spins on the characters. In this case, one could not have a more impressive cast, and the artistry shows. Marco Barricelli delivers what is virtually an episodic monologue as Kemp, a guy who rushes to the side of his dying aunt out of a peculiar combination of rather abstracted care and personality-wrenching bitterness. Olympia Dukakis’ Grace, confined both by circumstance and by Kemp to her bedroom, suffers indignities with an almost humorous creativity. What makes the entire play palatable, even able to be funny, is this sense that despite its weird dysfunctionality, this relationship between Kemp and Grace works for them both.

Much of this has to do with the chemistry and artfulness these two bring to their roles. Barricelli displays Kemp’s inner turmoil in physically interesting ways which often seem a counterbalance to the intensity of his speech. This is a man turned in upon himself – useless and disconnected when in the world outside. Self-satisfied at his own agendas, he tends Grace’s needs even as he waits for her demise. Yet this is also a man so desperate for understanding that he spews his entire life story like a man bubbling with a perverse joy that someone is there to be audience. Creating the edginess of the character, yet keeping it in balance with Dukakis’ calm, makes for fascinating theater to watch.

Dukakis’ nearly pantomime performance proves endearing, but more than that. There’s something rumbling under all that docility. It becomes the work of the audience member to try and figure out what, before Kemp does. Dukakis’ economy of physicality, her pinpoint timing and the rhythm these two fine actors develop between them is a lesson in acting.

Which does not make this a simple play. Alan Brodie and Robert Hahn’s angular, cluttered set hints at both the decay and the chaos of life. The character studies leave one food for thought. Even the often humorous reference to modern man’s lack of attention to detail pokes at modern society’s levels of isolation and general lack of focus. It makes for good conversation on the way home.

“Vigil” moves an audience from that feeling of watching an accident happen in slow motion, to curiosity, to a slightly bent sense of empathy, all propelled by laughter. That makes for an unusual evening of theater. Put that together with a chance to see great artists making the extraordinary things they do look easy, and you can anticipate quite an adventure.

What: “Vigil” When: through December 18, 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: Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20 – $65 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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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