Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: Seamus Mulcahy

Not New News: “Above the Fold” at Pasadena Playhouse

Taraji P. Henson and Arye Gross in "Above the Fold" at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Jim Cox]

Taraji P. Henson and Arye Gross in “Above the Fold” at the Pasadena Playhouse [photo: Jim Cox]

The fact that playwright Bernard Weinraub spent most of his life working at prestigious newspapers obviously informs his work in the theater. Indeed, although nominated for awards in its off-Broadway run, his first play, “Accomplices,” met with mixed emotions among critics. Ostensibly detailing the U.S. government’s thwarting of attempts to rescue Jews from Europe as World War II began, it was hailed by some, but was labeled by other critics as more of a lecture or an expose´ than a play. Now his second work, “Above the Fold” hits closer to his personal and long-time professional home. Yet, there is the same sense of mixed emotions.

Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, “Above the Fold” examines the modern ethics of journalism in a time of shrinking print venues. It speaks to the value of a good story, over a right or balanced one. Such discussions have happened before, in books, in films as far back as the 50s (an example would be “Ace in the Hole”), and in examinations of modern media. The message of journalism and journalists as tools of the powerful is a recurring theme in modern times as well, as anyone knows who ever watched “The West Wing,” much less anyone paying attention to politics these days.

That which may be new in this play is more a matter of style and acting skill than some shocking revelation, or some great message of doom or hope we have not yet heard.

The story appears loosely based on the case of those Duke University LaCrosse players in 2006 wrongly accused of attacking a local African-American girl. It centers on Jane, a young New York Times writer sent to cover the story of three white fraternity brothers accused of raping the stripper engaged to perform at a frat party. Jane, anxious to get the more choice overseas assignments, plows into the middle of the tale when she arrives to cover the candidacy of a young southern district attorney. He hands her exclusive information about this potentially explosive rape story, and she is quick to run with it.

Jane ends up with a series of front page articles which feed the stereotype: rich white boys filled with entitlement, young and struggling African-American single mother abused by them, righteous district attorney determined to defend the local community against the university outsiders, etc. That she is African-American herself may make her even more ready to believe it all. Certainly, she gains a great deal from the notoriety of the story, as it grows. But the closer she looks at the situation, the more she begins to wonder about that story itself. Soon, she is faced with tough personal and professional choices.

The characters, except perhaps Jane herself, prove comparatively predictable. Still, they are played with fervor and care. Mark Hildreth’s earnest district attorney, soft-spoken, charming, and apparently without guile, gives plausibility to the reporter’s eagerness. Kristopher Higgins, Joe Massingill, and particularly Seamus Mulcahy make the three young men both suspicious frat boys and sympathetic human beings at turns. Kristy Johnson does what she can to develop the boys’ victim, with her erratic attention shifts and aura of addiction, beyond the elements of either two-dimensionality or stereotype. Arye Gross hits all the right notes as he plays the classic newspaper editor, nurturing to young talent while responsible to the publisher upstairs.

Taraji P. Henson and Kristy Johnson [photo: Jim Cox]

Taraji P. Henson and Kristy Johnson [photo: Jim Cox]

Still, what makes this play worth watching, predictability, and stereotypical situations and characters notwithstanding, is Taraji P. Henson as Jane. Her ethical wrestlings prove very real, as does her outrage as the story she is telling slips out of her grasp and becomes larger than she can possibly control. Watching the character’s move from what she at least sees as detached professionalism to passionate care, to angry disillusion keeps the audience’s focus and brings a certain gravitas to what might otherwise be a Movie of the Week.

“Above the Fold” may not be a great play, but it has performances worth watching. Director Steven Robman keeps the intensity at a heightened level, and – in concert with Jeffery P. Eisenmann’s fascinating set pieces – intensely immediate. Costumer Dana Rebecca Woods provides instant definition for each character. It’s all done in grand style. Just don’t go expecting to learn something you did not know, and you’re fine.

What: “Above the Fold” When: Through February 23, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave in Pasadena How Much: $38 – $72 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org

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Personal and Powerful: “Rabbit Hole” finishes a run at La Mirada Theatre

Loss hits each person differently, yet there are similarities which bind all of humanity together at such times. Even those who consider themselves straightforward, logical people can be so thrown by tragedy that the universe must shatter – at least for a while – and then rearrange itself into a new pattern of living. To bring this onto a public stage without turning it into a cliche or a Lifetime movie proves the greatest challenge, but one playwright David Lindsay-Abaire has overcome.

Which is why “Rabbit Hole”, now finishing a run as part of the McCoy Rigby Entertainment Series at La Mirada Theatre, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize: it approaches the universal qualities of personal grief in an understated, and thus far more realistic way than most dramas, and also offers a keen portrait of a couple whose individual heartaches are balanced by an underlying, tenacious, mutual bond.

Becca and Howie, a fairly typical middle-class couple, wrestle daily with the aftermath of the accidental death of their 4-year-old son, who chased his dog into the path of an oncoming car. Their normalcy has edges, into which bump Becca’s flighty, irresponsible, and now pregnant younger sister, and her wry, quirky but observant mother. The strains between all of these people are evident, as they bounce off each other and wrestle with the process of moving forward. Yet, the connections seem to hold.

Deborah Puette is Becca, maintaining a stiff, almost obsessive normalcy amidst an increasing internal isolation. Michael Polak’s Howie moves between supportiveness and anger – some of it misplaced, but all of it sincere. Kristina Johnson gives Becca’s sister the oblivious and self-absorbed qualities which make her both an active irritant and a casual observer.

Lori Larsen’s entertainingly straightforward turn as Becca’s mother adds a certain kind of wisdom and patience into the entire environment. In a short, but important turn, Seamus Mulcahy creates a disarmingly innocent immaturity as the sincere teen who was driving on that fateful day.

All of this has been pulled into a natural, flowing cohesion by director Michael Matthews, who takes what is essentially a very episodic tale, and aided by Stephen Gifford’s modular, open set, turns it into a single story. And believe it or not, that story ends up not in grim detachment but in what actually happens, usually, in cases like this: the eventual movement back into life – peace, if not yet joy.

“Rabbit Hole” is funny, wrenching, sad and hopeful by turns. It holds a mirror up to relationship under stress, and a particularly intense aspect of the human condition in a way which is human, warm, and filled with connection. It is most certainly worth taking the time to take in.

What: “Rabbit Hole” When: Through November 17, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m., and 2 p.m. Sunday Where: La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Blvd. in La Mirada How Much: $20 – $70 Info: (526) 944-9801, (714) 994-6310 or http://www.lamiradatheatre.com

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