Stage Struck Review

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Tag Archives: Michael O’Keefe

Powerful “Sweat” – Rust Belt Anguish on Tap


Mary Mara and Portia are shop floor pals facing an uncertain future in the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Sweat” at the Mark Taper Forum

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

The Brutal Truth: “Art” Scrutinizes Friendship

Bradley Whitford, Roger Bart and Michael O'Keefe argue over "Art" at the Pasadena Playhouse

Fast on the heels of Yasmina Reza’s controversial recent hit “God of Carnage,” which tore up the stage at the Ahmanson, an equally controversial but somehow more humane work of hers receives another L.A. run, this time at The Pasadena Playhouse. The award-winning “Art” uses the fight three disparate friends have over a painting to access the base elements of human connection. It may seem to be a discussion of taste and trend. Instead its central exploration becomes what defines a friendship.

Essentially, Serge (Michael O’Keefe), a reasonably well-heeled dermatologist, has bought a modern painting. His friend Marc (Bradley Whitford), an engineer, cannot see what makes it artful. Their childhood pal Yvan (Roger Bart), a ne’er do well about to wed, is called in to find the humor in this discussion and ends up yanked first to one side and then another. In the process, truths are told, stands are made, and at least one punch is thrown. Why do they all stay in the room to discuss this?

O’Keefe gives Serge, often with just a raised eyebrow, the innate pomposity of someone staunchly defending a passion: dismissive of those without the same spark. Whitford’s Marc exhibits the commitment to reason over emotion one expects of someone rooted in the provable, all with a kind of gee-whiz confidence which cannot help but make Serge frost up. Bart gives Yvan the sloppy honesty neither of the others can afford, vibrating with the air of a chastised puppy.

The balance of these three performances works. None becomes the star, and the ensemble allows one to listen to the nuances within the friends’ argument. Director David Lee manages to keep the energy constant, choreographing what could occasionally become a static discussion into a consistently lively, uninterrupted tale. This is aided by Tom Buderwitz’s deceptively simple set.

In short, “Art” does what Reza had become known for: strip the social veneer from supposedly civilized society to show its underlying animosity. Still, in this version there is a genuine friendship, however strained, to balance the ferocity, and considerable humor. Indeed, the central argument which sparks all the rest may be one you will continue with your companions long after the play is done. What is art anyway? Become the beholder, and see.

What: “Art” When: Through February 19, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: The Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $29 – $59 Info: (626) 356-7529 or

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