Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.
Tag Archives: Mark Taper Forum
September 10, 2018Posted by on
The Pulitzer Prize for drama is given, when it is given, for a piece of theater which reflects something elemental to understanding an aspect of American culture. Rarely has that seemed a more apt designation than the 2017 prize handed to playwright Lynn Nottage for “Sweat.” A portrait of the disintegration of the traditional manufacturing towns of the midwest, it answers for the uninitiate multiple questions about the elements of malaise which have infected that part of the country, from amplified racism to opioid abuse. That it does so without preaching or reaching for easy answers, and with considerable humor, makes “Sweat” a gift to watch.
The play is set in Reading, Pennsylvania, where the struggles between union and management have led to at least one long-extended walkout, and – at another factory – tensions are simmering regarding the future of an industry which has generationally been a definition of life in the town. At the neighborhood bar, where both the longtime connections and current tensions are liberally amplified by alcohol, a picture of a town wrestling with coming to terms with crisis, looking for escape, and searching for someone to blame are narrowed down to a few shop-floor friends.
The powerfully ensemble cast ably peels gradual layers off their characters to illustrate the dissolving of veneer caused by the ripped expectations and sense of powerlessness the sea change in their community brings. Mary Mara, Portia, and Amy Pietz center the play as the three factory-floor friends whose unified sense of identity is tested and torn by issues of addiction, race, and ambition as the union-corporation conflict grows. As the sons inheriting the disaster, Grantham Coleman and Will Hochman create young men whose actions frame the storyline and thread the rest of the play together.
Michael O’Keefe, as the injured factory worker now tending bar, provides a link to the working man’s heritage. John Earl Jelks offers up the increasing degradation of a people too proud of that heritage to accept its lessening impact. Peter Mendoza creates the outsider character whose choices underscore what the others have lost, bringing out the casually ugly side of this insular community. Kevin T. Carroll, as a probation officer, becomes the occasional guide through the tragedies to come.
Director Lisa Peterson has created a pacing and a visual presence for the play which underscores the disconnect between the world of the characters and the world outside. Using Yee Eun Nam’s excellent projections and Paul James Prendergast’s evocative sound design and original music, drama happens on Christopher Barreca’s remarkably evocative set even when the characters aren’t onstage. The pacing is clean, seamless and keeps the tension building as it should, even as it makes room for the necessary and very human moments of humor which make these people real. Emilio Sosa’s costumes absolutely define character differences, sending messages in visual shorthand.
Still the best of this is that all the above operate in service of a truly important play. What one can hope is that many who see “Sweat” will finally have that “aha moment” when they begin to understand – not embrace necessarily, but understand – in a more visceral way the terrible boiling pot of racial tensions, abandonment sentiments, and destroyed expectations which have led to some of the ugliest current scenes in our country. There are no solutions offered up here, as that would be too easy, but the final scene does offer some hope if people can come back to their better selves. One can only hope that some do.
What: “Sweat”. When: through October 7, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays (no 1 p.m. performance Sept 30) Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles. How Much: $30 – $99 Info: (213) 628-2772 or www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
February 19, 2018Posted by on
Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Water By The Spoonful,” just opened at the Mark Taper Forum, continues the legacy of her “Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue”, now at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Elliott, honorably discharged from the Marines after being wounded in Iraq, has lost the woman who raised him to cancer – the woman he considers his mother – works a minimum wage job, and is haunted by the image of an Iraqi man uttering a phrase in Arabic. This is where we begin.
Elliot’s search for family connection, those family members’ search for roots or redemption, and the wider circle of people who influence those yearnings provide the story of this play. Clues to these people’s vital, and sometimes vitriolic, interconnectedness build gradually, and often painfully, in ways defined as much by the performers as by the script itself. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has her focus on their elemental isolation, and the devastating effect of the lost or sacrificed links to humanness.
Sean Carvajal plays Elliot as far more of a street kid than his counterpart at the Douglas – reactionary and emotional, and more youthful (which is odd, as it takes place a few years after the previous play). Still, it works as a contrast to the cousin who is also his closest friend. Keren Lugo’s Yazmin – an adjunct professor desperate to keep family traditions and connections – uses a scholarly calm to balance Elliott’s passionate intensity in ways which obviously set her up as the new family core, now that her favorite aunt is gone.
Nick Massouh provides the definition for the terrors Elliott can’t move past, as both the ghost of his dreams and the professor who translates the Arabic phrase the ghost repeats throughout the play.
Running a concurrent, then intertwined narrative with Elliott’s, Luna Lauren Velez makes understated work of Odessa, another aunt of Yazmin’s, and the web mistress of a chat site for recovering meth addicts. It works in a low-key way which heightens the tremendous angst at the play’s close. As another recovering addict on the site, Orangutan, Sylvia Kwan’s immaturity and conflict balance well against Chutes&Ladders, played by Bernard K. Addison as the calming, if overly self-protective member of the group.
As Fountainhead, the overblown nom de plume for the newest list member – a man still in denial of his powerful need for crack – Josh Braaten is awkwardly pompous, a trick in part of the script but greatly a matter of manner. This makes him difficult for the onstage group and the audience to connect to, which is, of course, the point.
Director Lileana Blain-Cruz has splayed these personalities across Adam Rigg’s broad and eclectic set. It works for the most part, until the last scenes, when the introduction of a bathtub seems disconnected from any of the spaces one has encountered, making it somewhat inexplicable.
Still, in the end, what one comes away with in this version of this production is almost a voyeuristic sense of watching train wrecks happen in slow motion. Secrets spew, fears capture, sorrows are huge, and disconnects are potent. That this is, indeed, a portrait of America (hence the Pulitzer Prize) says a great deal about the actual American experience. That this portrait is as recognizable as it is speaks to the undercurrent of our national identity in a way which is tragic, human and very real.
What: “Water by the Spoonful” When: through March 11, 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, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
September 30, 2017Posted by on
Every once in a while one comes across a performance which may outweigh the play it takes place in. In this case, a good play becomes greater because of one person who takes a playwright’s words and their own and their director’s understandings and makes of them something much more than the sum of those parts. This is Phylicia Rashad in “Head of Passes,” now open at the Mark Taper Forum.
In Tarell Alvin McCraney’s modern spin on trials worthy of Job, a woman’s plans for a quiet conversation with her children about her tenuous future implodes in ways she could never expect, testing her faith in ways that leave her arguing with God in a setting Noah might recognize. If all this sounds terribly religious, that’s not the only way to read the play. Still, the central character’s faith powers her responses, the affect she has had on those around her, and her eventual self-revelations in ways that would not be as palpable otherwise.
Rashad is Shelah, the matriarch of a family which has gathered at her house near the Head of Passes (where the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico) to celebrate her birthday, whether she wants a celebration or not. There, on an island in the delta, and with a storm lashing at the house, she had hoped instead to quiety discuss her assets with her children before her obvious illness takes over. Those who populate her world – a neighbor, a doctor, a helper and his son, and her own children – gather, fight, fuss over the house’s increasingly decrepit condition, anything but have that discussion. As the storm worsens, so do the revelations. And that is just the start.
As Shelah, Rashad creates that recognizable form of devout woman, talking to, appealing to, and venting anger at the God she has trusted to uphold her over a long life. When, in the end, she must confront her own failings and what they have wrought, the play becomes both riveting and gut wrenching. It’s a truly tour-de-force performance.
In this she is aided by a solidly ensemble cast. Francois Battiste gives the successful son, Aubrey, the kind of confidence of carriage to match a character quick to judgement, whether it be about his mother’s future or his sister’s past. J. Bernard Calloway, by contrast, plays Spencer, the elder but less successful son as a man who, despite bluster, is used to falling short, despite his physical capabilities.
Jacqueline Williams gives Shelah’s contemporary and neighbor the observer’s voice, trying to assess Shelah’s house of cards even as it falls, while – in a brief but deeply important moment – Alana Arenas, as the daughter, delivers a portait of pain and a reality check on her mother’s dreams whichc fuels all that follows. John Earl Jelks makes Shelah’s helper a man of considerable wit but little tact, while Kyle Beltran offers up youthful anger and observation as his son. James Carpenter rounds out the cast as the doctor, whose casual moments of white privilege bring both laughter and sadness.
Director Tina Landau truly gets these characters, and makes the nearly poetic language of McCraney’s script, and the amazing special effects of G.W. Mercier’s remarkable set, seem like normal life and conversation. The tensions never let up, and the symbolism, including the symbolic physicality of it all, is its own work of art.
Still, in the end, what makes all of this something one simply must see is the performance of Rashad, whose final, extensive monologue will stick with you, regardless of what or if you believe in regards to a higher power. There is much to chew over, followed by a step back to look at all the richness of idea and symbol the play has surrounded that powerful moment with.
What: “Head of Passes” When: through October 22, 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, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
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
February 21, 2017Posted by on
“Zoot Suit” is now extended until March 2, when it absolutely must close.
The return of Luis Valdez’s groundbreaking musical “Zoot Suit” to the Mark Taper Forum is less of a theatrical milestone than it is a major cultural event. Centered on the actual events revolving around the Sleepy Lagoon Murder and the Zoot Suit Riots – both “forgotten” parts of Los Angeles’ World War II history until this show opened in 1978 – the tale celebrates the culture of Mexican-American Los Angeles during that repressive time with a gravelly pride.
Still, one must stand back from the importance of the vehicle to also examine the production itself. Directed as before by its creator, Luis Valdez has worked to keep it true to the original in many strategic ways, from the carved newspaper opening to the iconic pose of El Pachuco – the symbol of Chicano masculinity which has remained central in Los Angeles’ Latino consciousness.
The blend of culture and language is also still central. Interestingly, this has always included a mixture of languages: Spanish, local slang, and English. For those who are familiar with all of these, and many Angelinos are, there is an immediate connection. For those who are less familiar, there may be a certain disconnect but also a chance to bump up against a vibrant part of the L.A. community in a most enthusiastic way. When the show was first produced, the program included a glossary of terms for the uninitiate. That is missing this time, but most of the audience may not need it.
Told through a combination of fact, fantasy and music, the story is elemental Los Angeles. During the period of World War II, a series of events led to the arrest of over 100 Mexican-American young men for the death of a single man near a reservoir euphemistically called Sleepy Lagoon. Their trial was less about a single murder and more about a condemnation of an entire people and an entire lifestyle, and is now well documented as a gross miscarriage of justice. The fight to defend the young men, and then to overturn their convictions, provides a backdrop for a love letter to a way of being and an innate toughness which carried a people through this very difficult time.
The cast divides into those playing the historical figures of the story, and those representing an elemental force which stood up against the inequities of the time period. Matias Ponce is Henry Reyna, the leader of a “boy gang” whose entire crew ends up arrested for something they didn’t do. As such, Ponce underscores Henry’s resolute sense of self, his sense of family, and his ability to keep himself together in the midst of a nearly hopeless situation. Standouts among Henry’s fellow zoot suiters include Raul Cardona exuding a particular maturity as the married father “Smiley,” Oscar Camacho as the impulsive Joey, and Caleb Foote as Tommy, the non-Hispanic member of the gang.
Melinna Bobadilla radiates with an innate innocence as Henry’s girlfriend, while Stephani Candelaria and Andres Ortiz make Henry’s siblings a study in contrasts. Brian Abraham gives a gravitas to the lawyer whose ardent defense of his young and mistreated clients seems as potent today as it does in its historical context. Tiffany Dupont, as the woman who coordinates communications between the legal team, walks that fine line for any woman of the period between femininity and official status.
But surrounding all of this, and more, are the more symbolic figures, and their presence ends up defining much of the action. Fiona Cheung, Holly Hyman and Mariela Arteaga form the singing Pachuca Trio, a multi-ethnic representation of L.A. itself. And, of course, there is Demian Bichir as El Pachuco, that central narrator and representation of the larger theme of the piece. Bichir has the moves and style down pat, though the directorial choice to have him speak in a gravelly voice (except when imitating others) has the side effect of making him often very difficult to understand. This is a pity as he is the glue holding the show and this production together.
The music, an eclectic mix of big band hits of the era with original songs and instrumentals by Lalo Guerrero and Daniel Valdez, and the upbeat swing choreography of Maria Torres add to the sometimes frenetic tone of the show, which proves energetic from start to finish. One should not really call this a musical, in the classic sense, in that there are no soulful songster moments but rather an undercurrent which creates the atmosphere of time and place.
All of which is not news to those who remember “Zoot Suit” from its first incarnation 39 years ago. For a new generation, reviving this story – which is simplified history, to some extent, but important nonetheless – puts modern struggles of identity and inclusion into context more startlingly than one would wish. However, despite a stated sense that this piece of theater is intended to speak to the larger issue of the Hispanic/Latino story in the US, it remains ultimately a story of Los Angeles and the particular consciousness of a large portion of our community. There it is received as golden, but one wonders how well that translates to the larger sphere.
What: “Zoot Suit” When: now extended through March 28, 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, 135 S. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $109 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
November 22, 2016Posted by on
There seems to be a pattern in modern Irish drama – one both constructed (in part) by and reflected in the work of playwright Martin McDonagh – of developing characters of great richness and charm, in situations which can appear darkly humorous until these same characters prove invested with fantastically fatal flaws. Such a work is “The Beauty Queen of Leenane,” just opened at the Mark Taper Forum.
This production by the Druid theater company of Galway, features essential elements of their premiere of the work in the 1990s: from director, and Druid Artistic Director, Garry Hynes (the first woman to win a Tony for directing, for the New York production of this piece), to award-winning actress Marie Mullen, who created one role in the original production and returns to play another. Add to this strong new performances by from Druid regulars, and you have a work steeped in modern Irish thought and culture, filled with unforgettable characters recognizable as funny, infuriating, and, on occasion, grippingly awful.
Maureen Folan, in her 40s, is the sole caregiver to her somewhat hypochondriacal and seriously manipulative mother, Mag. At a celebration nearby, she reconnects with the elder of two brothers from a neighboring farm, Ray, and begins to dream about a life outside of the drudgery of her current situation. Mag’s interference brings up implications both imaginary and real, as Ray’s immature younger brother Pato is called upon to act as go-between when Ray returns to work in England. Each of these connections, fraught with friction, may lead to either happiness or terror.
Central to the piece is Aisling O’Sullivan’s Maureen, edgy and consistently, sharply, seething with resentments. Balancing this sharpness is the wry charm, and devious maneuvering of Mullen’s Mag, the sort of full-body performance (oh, those facial expressions) one can easily recognize as remarkable. Indeed, she manages to make the audience like Mag and despise her all at once.
Aaron Monaghan creates, in Ray, an open, decent man whose straightforward nature provides a profound contrast to the roiling complexities of the Folan household. As the character often central to the comic relief, Marty Rea’s Pato radiates a constant restless energy and an obtuse, silly and selfish view of things which balances out the tensions and deviousness of the rest of the play.
Hynes knows these characters from long acquaintance, bringing an organic feel to the play as if it rises out of its very setting, Francis O’Connor’s decayingly gray country cottage. The aura of looming darkness and the moments of lighthearted humor seem likewise to have a sense of natural flow, and her respect for the language itself and the rich roundness of the characters brings with it a deep humanity which connects across all barriers of culture and framework.
Like other great works examining the affect of fatal flaws on humankind, from Chekhov to Miller, “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” reflects a potential truth far beyond its context, yet in this case uses the specifics of Irish life, accent and cultural framework to create something at once pointed in its beauty and disturbing in its implications. This is, in short, a true work of art, both as written and as performed.
This is the first stop on Druid’s U.S. tour of this production.
What: “The Beauty Queen of Leenane” 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. No performance on Thanksgiving Where: The Mark Taper Forum, at the Music Center 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.centertheatregroup.org
April 21, 2016Posted by on
A hallmark of fine modern playwrighting is the ability of a play to be enjoyed at more than one depth. Story and character can take an audience to one level, and a solid one at that. For those willing and/or able to look deeper, there exists another layer – symbolic, mythical, implied or even ancestral – which can make statements far larger than the comparatively surface scenario which appears most obvious. Such writing is elemental in the work of Suzan-Lori Parks, and one reason her works are held in such high esteem.
As case in point, take “Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3” currently at the Mark Taper Forum, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this past year (Parks won a Pulitzer for “Top Dog/Underdog” in 2002, becoming the first African American woman to do so). The play can be taken pretty much as chronicle, or it can become a fascinatingly layered look at the legacy of slavery’s innate messages to the African-American experience, and why dignity and selfhood were and are an uphill battle, defining and redefining loyalty, respect and self-image.
The play follows Hero, a slave on a small plantation in Texas who ends up assisting his master as he rides off to be a Colonel in the Confederate Army. Hero first must struggle with whether to resist going to support a conflict which keeps him in bondage, then with what it means to be in the middle of that carnage working for that master, and then with the changed world of the plantation – and the changes in himself – when the he returns long before the war is over. Yet, this is only the baseline for what an audience encounters in the play.
Director Jo Bonney gives hints of the greater universality of the piece from the start, as unnamed family slaves are costumed by ESosa not just the garb of the era, but with hints of the future (one wears a Washington Grays baseball jersey, for example). This kind of subtle nudge at the play’s more universal underpinnings continues throughout, in all aspects of the play and the production.
Sterling K. Brown proves powerful even as his character wrestles with himself, as he leads the cast as Hero: a man struggling with the nature of loyalty and his right to own himself. Whose promises are real? What makes him have value? Balanced against Hero are three central characters whose own understandings bounce off of his in often emotionally intense, even violent ways.
Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris makes Hero’s “wife”, Penny, ferociously real. Distressed he chooses to leave her and follow their owner, she waits with a loving anticipation even as she must live a life without news and find comfort where she can. Larry Powell, as the longtime friend whose escape Hero foiled (and whose punishment Hero was forced by the master to carry out) plays counterpoint to Hero’s acquiescence to his position in the world. Homer wants more, even while hobbled, and is willing to risk to get it.
Also a powerful counterpoint to Hero’s view of life is, obviously, his master. Michael McKean makes the Colonel absolutely settled in his understanding of his superiority – a superiority which entitles him to a particular, often subtle sadism to which Hero has learned to acquiesce. When this man shouts to the skies how grateful he is to be white, because no matter what happens he will never be as low as Hero is, the message is potent and one Hero unconsciously absorbs.
In the end, though, the voice of this tale and the icing on this fascinating piece is Patrena Murray’s portrayal of Hero’s dog, Odyssey. Accompanying his return, and speaking to all of the truths brought home with him, this character becomes the sage tying together loose ends, all the while defining the unwavering loyalty of a dog balanced against the loyalty Hero gave the Colonel and seems unable to give anyone else. Also integral to the production are Russell G. Jones, Julian Rozzell, Jr., Tonye Patano, Roger Robinson and Josh Wingate, all offering alternate voices to the one in Hero’s head.
Add to all of this the remarkable talents of Steven Borgonetti, who, accompanying himself on guitar, creates a musical landscape which sets the tone for some of the play’s most important moments.
“Father Comes Home…” is long, but so engrossing you really don’t notice. There is so much to absorb, and so many different subtle things being said about the long-term messages aimed at Black America and the coping mechanisms – some of which prove emasculating – that a people in and out of bondage have used to deal with those messages. And this production shines as brightly as the play, as Neil Patel’s simple, easily adjusted set design and Dan Moses Schreier’s evocative sound design inevitably prove.
Go see this. Expect to have to work, as there is much to discover, absorb and analyze. Still, that can be a major joy of watching a fine play: it leaves you with a lot to work over long after the show itself is done. This is one of the reasons for the art form.
What: “Father Comes Home From The Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3” When: Through May 15, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, 135 S. Grand Ave.at The Music Center in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
February 23, 2016Posted by on
If you’re going to write an “issue play,” it simply doesn’t work unless the characters are recognizable. If you’re going to write a truly funny, if also grounded, issue play your characters, rounded and filled with rough edges though they may be, need to also be likable. And that’s what makes “The Mystery of Love and Sex” work: you both recognize and, at least essentially like even the most screwed up of the four characters you meet.
Bathsheba Doran’s play, receiving its west coast premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, examines all the little (and big) prejudices evident even in the most liberal people, yet does so in such a way that is both funny – often very, very funny – and in a subtle way, loving. She likes these flawed people as much as the audience comes to, allowing them to listen to the lessons attached at an almost subliminal level.
Charlotte and Jonny, friends since they were 9, invite Charlotte’s parents to dinner in their college dorm. Parents Lucinda and Howard speculate on whether Charlotte and Jonny are an item, and yet as the evening progresses (and the question is answered for the audience) they also push all kinds of buttons for each of the younger people in turn.
This is just the beginning of the saga. Charlotte’s father is Jewish and from New York. Her mother is from the South and was disowned when she converted and married a Jew. Jonny is Black and was raised by a single mom. Their communal story flows from this initial dinner over a five-year span of deep friendship, love, deep hurt, discovery, and truth.
Mae Whitman centers the piece as Charlotte: impulsive, insecure, and cerebral, she is still figuring out who she is when the play opens. York Walker makes Jonny a quiet, thinking young man also finding his own way: the antithesis of stereotype and yet centered in a space of awareness about privilege even as he sinks into the long-standing, comparatively undemanding friendship he and Charlotte share.
David Pittu makes Howard likable in spite of himself. A successful if somewhat formulaic mystery writer, he doesn’t hear the prejudices he speaks and writes, and assumes commonalities which don’t always exist. Yet, he cares deeply for his sometimes troubled daughter, her life, and her friend. Sharon Lawrence, gives the agitated, sometimes snarky Lucinda a humanity behind the barbs which unfolds as the play progresses in rich and revealing ways.
One must also nod to Robert Towers, whose extremely brief walk-on as Howard’s father becomes one of the funniest moments in the show.
Director Robert Egan has a feel for these people, and their struggles and intimacies flow from very natural space as a result. Gifted with Takeshi Kata’s seemly plain but truly fluid and versatile set, the scenes move easily into each other, keeping the emotional continuity going. As a result, the thing is a joy to watch.
One caution for the fainter of heart: there are two totally appropriate instances of full nudity in the piece. And yes, this family has some impressive dysfunctions, yet even then the piece (and the characters) prove equally impressively un-grim: dysfunction does not equal dystopia. Thus we can recognize, perhaps even like what we see. Most certainly we can laugh heartily at what we recognize, even as – somewhere in the back of mind – we hear “oh, wait…”.
What: “The Mystery of Love and Sex: When: Through March 20, 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 at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
December 20, 2015Posted by on
There is a time-worn adage which says one should never discuss politics or religion. Particularly these days, as fractures within the largest faith in the US – Christianity – have divided people into liberal and conservative camps, mainstream denominations and evangelical start-ups, small worship environments and mega-churches, the danger of debate is evident everywhere from social media to political campaigns. Many works of theater have attempted to address the swirling issues involved: faith, money, salvation, adaptability (or lack of it) and practical business which define modern religion in the US. Few have jumped into the central argument with both feet as thoroughly as Lucas Hnath’s award-winning “The Christians,” now arrived at the Mark Taper Forum.
The plot proves deceptively simple. You are invited into the service of a massive mega-church to hear a sermon by Paul, it’s founder. In that sermon, he admits to having had to confront an essential tenet of the faith he has professed, and announces a change in belief, and thus direction, which he feels will be a more faithful interpretation of God’s word. And this is where the fracturing begins. As playwright Hnath states in an introduction to the piece, “putting… beliefs into words will always result in a misinterpretation of said beliefs.” And as his associate pastors, his parishioners, even his wife struggle with change, rift, and for some a sense of betrayal, the entire underlay of belief shows its raw, unfinished edges.
Andrew Garman makes Paul a man of deep sincerity whose sense of assuredness – of being able to take his followers with him on what they will see as a radical journey – shows you how the character gathered such a flock, at the same time it also makes him unable to see how fragile his hold really is. These same people may easily fall away from changes in something they consider their rock. As the antithesis to Paul’s belief, Larry Powell gives great heart to associate pastor – a man whose faith was formed at Paul’s feet, and whose more narrow passion for the mission of the church leaves him with no room for the sudden shifts in his personal foundations.
Exemplifying the terrible cost of change upon parishioners of any church which offers absolute answers to the questions of its followers is Emily Donahoe as a single mother torn between supporting her long-time pastor and a desperate need for a community she now sees moving away from him. Philip Kerr, as a church trustee, brings in the financial realities – what happens when the monetary base for a hugely complex ministry is shaken by dissent and rifts. And in a last, but particularly powerful set of scenes, Linda Powell brings the struggle of the supportive wife whose beliefs no longer sync with her husband’s. What are her choices in this situation?
Staged as a riff off of a classic mega-church Sunday service, thanks to Dane Laffrey’s evocatively stark set, the production balances the rather cerebral and pointed conversations with the uplifting music of a gospel choir led with style by Scott Anthony. Director Les Waters has a feel for this juxtaposing of the public and private, and the piece moves with the constancy of a well-oiled religious experience, even as it questions much of what that experience means. The play is performed without an intermission, letting the tension rise as expectations would have in a service. The very beauty of this show’s “construction” makes it particularly engaging.
Of course, even that pales next to the potential inner struggles one can hear within the audience itself, as some look in from the outside, some find themselves siding with one element or another of this potent and unfinishable argument. Most certainly it will offend some, satisfy others and leave many with a lot to talk about after the play is over. I strongly suggest (and I never do this) that one read the introduction by the playwright in the program itself, as it lays groundwork for openness and gives one more access to the play’s essential points just by setting a mindset ahead of time.
“The Christians” is powerful, in its intertwining of intellect and passion. As such, it does what theater does so well – make people think, ponder their own understandings, share with others and, regardless of viewpoint, become emotionally engaged in either the concept or the characters, or both. Don’t go to see an easy play, but go to see one which will stick with you.
What: “The Christians” When: Through January 10, 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 at the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $85 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org