Stage Struck Review

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Tag Archives: Neil Simon

“Rumors” Has It… Mostly… in Whittier

The men of Whittier Community Theatre's "Rumors" use hand games to try to cope with one very odd anniversary party

The men of Whittier Community Theatre’s “Rumors” use hand games to try to cope with one very odd anniversary party

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

Comic Timing Makes “Odd Couple” Shine at SMP

David Brad Reed and Jack Sundmacher in the classic "The Odd Couple" at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

David Brad Reed and Jack Sundmacher in the classic “The Odd Couple” at Sierra Madre Playhouse [photo: Gina Long]

I doubt there is a single offering from the prolific Neil Simon more recognizable than “The Odd Couple.” From the hit Broadway play, to the hit Hollywood movie, to the long-running comedy TV series, “The Odd Couple” has entered the language. Profoundly tidy people are called Felixes, and most Americans – at least those of a certain age – immediately know what that means.

Now Sierra Madre Playhouse has opened a new production of this time-honored play. Well done from start to finish, it highlights just how funny Simon’s play is, and how little it has aged – especially if (as this one is) it is set in its original timeframe of the mid-60s.

By now everyone knows the general idea. Oscar Madison, a determinedly slob by divorced man behind on his child support payments takes in his poker buddy, Felix Unger, when Felix’s wife kicks him out. Felix is obsessively clean and a meticulous cook, and soon the two opposite behavior patterns make their friendship fray. This, especially, when they plan an encounter with two silly British sisters from their apartment building.

The SMP production proves well cast from the outset, as the entire ensemble of poker-playing pals not only look just right, but sound just as they should. As one of the two central figures, Jack Sundmacher’s Oscar is a bit less oafish than sometimes, but that emphasizes the situational aspect of his sloppiness. Brad David Reed is a bit less comic in his moroseness than some versions of Felix, but it works into the comedy in a different, less derivative way. This is a good thing.

Highlights of the SMP cast are Kari Lee and Jane Lui as the giggly Pigeon sisters – the girls from upstairs. They are truly comic from first to last. The fascinating choice of making them Asian as well as British highlights the internationalism of New York, Britain and comedy in general – a good choice all around. As the weekly poker players, Vince DonVito, Joe Langer, Richard Van Slyke, and most especially Steve Bean, as Murray the policeman, provide the buddies who give this elementally male story its energy.

Director Alan Brooks has used the comparatively small SMP stage to the utmost, utilizing John Vertrees’ set design which artfully creates all the complexities of a NY apartment in that limited area. The costuming by Angela Nicholas centers the piece and – particularly in the case of the Pigeon sisters – emphasizes the comedy on occasion.

For those who somehow have never seen “The Odd Couple” this is a great place to start. For those who have, do not expect the characterizations here to be mirrors of the ones by Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon or Jack Klugman and Tony Randall. These actors have created their own sense of what Oscar and Felix should be, and that is one of the pleasures of seeing the production. So do.

What: “The Odd Couple” When: Through June 27, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, with one Saturday matinee on the closing day as well Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 general, $22 seniors, $15 students 13-21, $12 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org

Deep Laughter: The Sunshine Boys at the Ahmanson

Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch reunite in "The Sunshine Boys" at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch reunite in “The Sunshine Boys” at the Ahmanson [photo: Craig Schwartz]

One thing perhaps most interesting in wandering through Neil Simon’s remarkable career as a playwright has to do with the increasing sophistication of his plays. Originally, he wrote sweet human comedies, but even as he brought his talents to a wider range of human conditions, the humor remained underneath. Indeed, what keeps what are essentially dramas from being tragedies – in Simon’s hands – is the inevitable tension-breaking quip, or ironic sigh, which lightens the burden.

One is reminded powerfully of this very thing when watching one of his finest, “The Sunshine Boys,” at the Ahmanson Theatre. Most certainly, the small cast is just about perfect: a nostalgic reunion of comedic favorites in a play about the potential reunion of comedic favorites. The crisp direction, the evocative set, and those ever-present, tension-lifting quips which keep a tale of diminishment and bitterness from being maudlin, make for something most enjoyable to watch.

Central to the piece are Danny DeVito and Judd Hirsch as Willie Clark and Al Lewis – The Sunshine Boys – longtime vaudeville stars estranged for over a decade, and facing the struggles of advancing age. Now Willie’s nephew, reluctant guardian and agent has been approached about a TV special honoring giants of comedy. Can the Willie and Al do it? Will they? Can they still be funny after years of not speaking to each other?

DeVito has all the snappy quips and slightly crazed but diminishing aspects of a longtime professional clown losing definition. Hirsch’s grumbling, faded gentility offers immediate contrast to the scruffy intensity of his counterpart. Indeed, this defines unspoken elements of their relationship’s failure – an aspect Simon often explores in his work.

Backing up these two legends are Justin Bartha as the nephew losing his patience and his tolerance, and Johnnie Fiori as the nurse who has Willie’s number, as she looks after him late in the play. Also important are those who assist in filming the best known Clark and Lewis sketch, Matthew Bohrer as the intently patient television production assistant, Annie Abrams as a “nurse” right out of burlesque, and Gibby Brand as the fictional patient who becomes the butt of some of the best of the sketch’s jokes. Frank Kopyc’s voice adds to the silliness as the offstage television director.

Director Thea Sharrock has both honored the material and the quality of her actors as she emphasizes the more nuanced aspects of Simon’s characters. This is greatly enhanced by Hildegard Bechtler’s precise and evocative set, and appropriately disparate costumes. As a production, the details show particular care.

“The Sunshine Boys” are cantankerous and impossible. Yet they are also very human, and in exploring the failure of a partnership in some ways more intimate than a marriage, it offers a window – no matter how humorous on occasion – into the breakdown of all relationships. And that, in the end, is Simon’s greatest gift: make us laugh even as we see the grief the human race can bring to itself, one person at a time.

What: “The Sunshine Boys” When: Through November 3, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with added matinees at 2 p.m. Thursday October 24 and 31 Where: The Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. in the Music Center, downtown Los Angeles How Much: $20-$115 Info: (213) 972-4400 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

“Broadway Bound” – classic family dysfunction in La Mirada

The cast of La Mirada's "Broadway Bound"

The cast of La Mirada’s “Broadway Bound”

Considered the most famous living playwright in America, Neil Simon’s reputation was already assured when he began his semi-autobiographical trilogy in the early 1980s. Though it had been there before, this trilogy significantly changed public perception about Simon. His wry and self-deprecating humor was also acknowledged for depth – for using that humor to touch on the most sensitive aspects of people’s imperfect lives.

The last of the three, “Broadway Bound,” now in a polished revival by the McCoy Rigby series at La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, provides a fine illustration of this aspect of Simon’s work. The play touches heavily on aging, loss and the aches left behind when ambition, inflexibility, dysfunction and simply the passage of time disrupt the traditional family. Yet, all is done with a humor which often offers laughs as antidote to moments which would otherwise be tragic.

At La Mirada, a solid, comic, articulate cast directed with precision and intelligence keeps the story humming along, allowing the humor and potential tragedy to mix in ways which charm as they teach. The play is a series of portraits, and under the carefully choreographed direction of Jeff Maynard, an exemplary cast pretty much takes that task to heart.

The story holds echos of Simon’s own beginnings as a writer. Eugene, the narrator, lives at home but aspires to become a comic writer. His older brother and co-writer Stanley lands them their first gig. They face the dual struggles of coming up with material and living in a home full of people seemingly devoid of humor. And, just as they push for a success which will allow them to move out of the home they grew up in and into independence, their family is fracturing beneath them.

Eugene and Stanley struggle with a joke

Eugene and Stanley struggle with a joke


Ian Alda is Eugene, the burgeoning young writer, and the voice of Simon’s own wit. As such he must balance that element of observational humor with the immediacy of his character’s involvement in the storyline – a feat he manages with an almost casual seamlessness. As Stanley, Brett Ryback provides the almost frenzied ambition and creative anxiety against which Eugene’s own creativity blends or bumps. He must always vibrate with urgency, and Ryback makes that both believable and highly entertaining. Cate Cohen does what she can with her brief appearance as the comparatively two-dimensional aunt, whose second marriage to a wealthy man has left her happy, but a political anathema to her own father.

Yet, in truth, what makes this production are the character parts. Allan Miller’s grumpy socialist grandfather proves very funny, yet also unforgettable – a man achingly resolute, with an undercurrent of warmth which leaves him yearning for an affection he cannot bear to accept. Gina Hecht, as the dulled, long-suffering mother proves a wonder, particularly as she balances the tones of her current routine with the airy look back at her younger self. John Mariano’s version of the philandering father – part battle-weary trudger and part desperately wise – brings to him a sympathy not always readily present in productions of this play.

Bruce Goodrich’s set allows the entire house to be present at all times, bringing a seamless quality to this somewhat episodic story. Ann Closs-Farley’s costuming places the characters securely in their 1949 setting. Indeed, all the details blend into a must enjoyable whole.

So, go, but do not expect the tidy comedies of Simon’s early years. “Broadway Bound”, like it’s two brothers, “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Biloxi Blues” tell a very genuine tale of family, coming of age, comings apart, and foundations. That Simon makes you laugh as he tells it keeps the grimness at bay at times, but also underscores a certain survival skill which allows the Eugenes of this world to move up and out from difficult beginnings. Most importantly, in this production especially, you simply like all the people, even when they don’t particularly like each other. That is another aspect of classic, important Neil Simon repertoire.

What: “Broadway Bound” When: Through October 13, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (562) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

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