Stage Struck Review

Reviews for theater within the greater Los Angeles area.

Tag Archives: social comedy

“Native Gardens”: Do Great Performances Balance Uncomfortable Script?

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(L-R) Bruce Davison, Frances Fisher, Jessica Meraz and Christian Barillas in Native Gardens at Pasadena Playhouse. [Photo: Jenny Graham]

There is a fine line between humor which skewers privilege and prejudice by making its claims sound as ridiculous as they are, and writing which pronounces the same beliefs and then does a kind of wink to indicate that, really, it was said to be funny. One is reminiscent of, say, “All In The Family,” the other is not. That the latter appears as much as the former in Karen Zacarias’ “Native Gardens,” now at the Pasadena Playhouse, make it slightly uncomfortable to call the play funny, even though humor is definitely one of its elements. Still, as has happened before, one wonders how many in the audience will find affirmation of their own beliefs rather than what is intended to be laughable.
This is not the fault of the actors, who play the thing to the hilt and thanks to solid direction offer up both timing and structure intended to give the piece its place as a comedy. Still, one is left ambivalent about whether laughing is buying into things one would rather not, or actually an honest response to a good joke.
Pablo and Tania, a young and successful Latinex couple (he’s a lawyer, she’s finishing up her PhD), have just bought a somewhat run-down house in an upper crust neighborhood outside of Washington, DC. Their neighbors, Frank and Virginia, a late-middle-aged white couple with a grown son, have been in their home for a long time, and are stalwart elements of the neighborhood. Frank is semi-retired and an avid gardener. Virginia is a prominent engineer.
As they meet, there seems hope of an easy and neighborly friendship. Then Pablo discovers that the fence all have agreed should be replaced between their two back yards is actually in the wrong place. Some of Frank and Virginia’s yard doesn’t belong to them.
Christian Barillas, as Pablo, embodies the intensity of the young legal mind and the fighting spirit of the up-and-coming immigrant with a genuine sense of impetuous thrill at what he are achieving. Jessica Meraz, as the American-born Tania, voices the claim to nationhood so often necessarily heard by those of Mexican descent whose upbringing has been rooted in the US, balanced against a body language evincing a genuine niceness which wants a peaceful coexistence with those around her, at least most of the time.
Bruce Davison, as the alternately obsessed and unfocused Frank, has terrific and subtle timing which creates great humor even as he utters things which sometimes make one feel guilty laughing. Frances Fisher gives Virginia the intensity of the self-made professional, used to a fight and unwilling to concede as a matter of principle – a woman confident in knowing the people who will help get things done.
Binding these together, in a stroke of genius by director Jason Alexander, is the trio of Julian Armaya, Richard Biglia and Bradley Roa II as gardeners who both move stage elements as the border fight wages on, and provide immensely entertaining announcements of change of date and time of day. These characters’ joie de vivre helps to keep the light touch necessary in a play which becomes increasingly about race, age, and identity in a time when these are such a hot-button issues.
Looked at intellectually, this is a huge metaphor for this nation, its walls, its increasing xenophobia, its war between entitlement and access, and the easy condemnation of one age group by another. As such, it is potent, though the tacked-on ending seems yet another underscoring apology for everything it has otherwise been. Still, it is – on occasion – quite funny, it is beautiful to look at thanks to David Meyer’s terrific garden set, and nobody can argue it isn’t superbly acted. Now if only one didn’t have to wonder if laughing was affirming something one would rather not affirm.
What: “Native Gardens”. When: through September 30, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, with one 8 p.m. performance on Tuesday, September 25. Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. How Much: prices start at $29. Info: (626) 356-7529 or www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org
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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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