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It’s not a new topic, but the superficiality of the film industry seems an easy and thus fairly constant pick as the foundation for an examination of modern ethics. The entire concept of what one is willing to sacrifice in the way of personal integrity for fame and a hefty paycheck plays well when focused on the heightened atmosphere of Hollywood. Now at the Douglas one finds this comparatively standard set-up paired with tragedy – a mixture which proves sometimes rather awkward.
Paul Ridnick’s “Big Night”, receiving its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, deals with the nerves and ethical wrestlings of a career actor suddenly made famous by an Oscar nomination. As such he is potentially in line for big money, but must now follow the kinds of rules agents and studios make when offering such opportunities. We come upon him preparing for the ceremony and being schooled on this by his very comic, but very direct agent.
Enter his nephew, a trans young man passionate about LGBTQ rights and insistent that his uncle speak to this issue in his acceptance speech. Enter his mother with news and a stand of her own, centered around a Pulitzer Prize-winning author she brings along with her. And then, just as they are about to leave for the ceremony, the actor’s partner – also a gay activist – is wrapped up in a tragedy which overshadows the Oscars, the actor Michael’s ambitions, and all the rest.
Brian Hutchison plays Michael as a man both startled by his own sudden fame and afraid of the balancing act he is now supposed to play. As such, he centers the action at several points. Tom Phelan gives the nephew that particular intensity of youth which cannot countenance compromise. Luke Macfarlane, as the partner who has been through a terrible experience, brings the trauma and the shock with him onto the stage in ways which are very moving.
Yet the most memorable performances come from Max Jenkins, whose flittingly gay agent spreads energy all around the room, Mendie Malick as the Michael’s commandingly stylish Jewish mother, and Kecia Lewis as the worldly-wise author who brings the aura of calm as a woman whose familiarity with fame balances the newness of Michael’s.
Director Walter Bobbie keeps all these people in motion on John Lee Beatty’s beautiful set, keeping this rather talky play as lively as one can. Still, the play needs to be worked on. As the storyline juxtaposes tragedy, the role of the famous, and the silliness of Oscar-based nerves, it never settles itself long enough on any one of these. Indeed, once the seriousness takes over – as it must – the playwright seems uncomfortable leaving it there, choosing instead to head back toward silliness just when the chance for a lingering profundity is possible.
Still, in its own occasionally silly way, “Big Night” has something to say, and the characters up on that stage are attractive and interesting to listen to. To some extent, it offers takes on issues which need to be noticed. Now, if only it could be comfortable going deep.
What “Big Night” When: through October 8, 8 p.m Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
There is a moment toward the end of a favorite documentary where people who grew up in the then-segregated African-American neighborhood around Central and Slauson in L.A. talked about the loss of that neighborhood with regret. Entrance into the mainstream was great, they say, but they lost those close knit community ties. I could not help but think of this while watching Lauren Yee’s funny, insightful “King of the Yees” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Only this time, the community beginning to fray was, and is, San Francisco’s Chinatown, with its antique buildings and firmly held traditions.
Indeed, focal to the entire piece is the impressive, beautifully carved, red door of the Yee Family Association, of which Lauren’s father in the play is the president. That door, situated center stage, represents the Chinatown which the onstage Lauren sees as archaic and dissolving. Or does she.
In this world premiere, what begins as a standard “let me tell you about my father and my heritage” play soon takes a far more engrossing, positively Thornton Wilder-like turn. Hovered over by this very traditional, and apparently powerful door, one ends up touching on several elements of the modern Chinese-American (and larger Asian-American) experience with wit, a certain mysticism, and an underscore of hope.
Central to the piece are the performances of Stephanie Soohyun Park as Lauren and Francis Jue as her father Larry. The other cast members, Rammel Chan, Angela Lin and Daniel Smith provide a wide range of other characters, from actors to mystical persons, which pepper this engrossing journey.
Jue brings to Larry a balance of confidence and apparent innocence, tonally idealistic yet rooted in the practicalities of his supposedly insular world. This provides the perfect foil to Park’s crispness as her character’s assimilated Americanism bounces against the traditions of her childhood. The chemistry between the two creates a specific energy which powers the rest of the piece.
And that “rest” also proves engrossing, from discussions of the stereotypes demanded of Asian actors, through an examination of ritual and connection, to a brief, humorous window on the secret world beneath the touristy elements Chinatown presents to the world. The play proves, all at the same time, goofy, tender, pointed, illuminating and tremendously fun to watch.
Director Joshua Kahan Brody keeps the production’s pacing necessarily crisp, creating the quick transitions between thoughts and characters so needed in a play this potentially convoluted, allowing the audience to follow along with ease. Another star has to be Mike Tutaj, whose projections (along with set designer William Boles’ big red door) stir the mysticism, and (along with Mikhail Fiksel’s sound design) add to the comedy.
Still, all of these arrive in service of a fine play. Yee has the ability to make pointed, apparently autobiographical commentary in a way which enriches, entertains, and affirms. This play never talks down to those for whom the conceptual details are new, and manages – at least in this production – to find a common ground in the ongoing American discussion of the balance between keeping one’s own cultural heritage and becoming, if not part of a “melting pot,” at least one flavor in the tossed salad that is this country at its best.
What: “King of the Yees” When: Through August 6, 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 8:30 p.m. Thursdays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City How Much: $25 – $70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
Which brings me to “Marjorie Prime,” a play by Jordan Harrison receiving its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum. In some ways it says things echoed in other quarters about the limitations of programming, in other ways it offers a new examination of the plusses and pitfalls of emotional interaction with humanoid machinery.
The given in the world of “Marjorie Prime” is that one can create a robotic version, physically anyway, of someone who has passed away. That “prime” version of the person must then be programmed through the process of human reminiscence to talk and behave in a way that will mimic the original person. According to Harrison, the effects of such a thing will vary, depending on the person and the circumstance, from therapeutic to destructive.Lois Smith is Marjorie, a woman with advancing dementia. We first meet a “prime” in the form of Walter Prime (Jeff Ward), a youthful-looking replacement for the husband she lost long before, whose programming by several people allows him to remind her of her own past, and – as in “The Notebook” – keep Marjorie more connected to her own history than would otherwise be possible.
Marjorie’s world is also populated by those who love her: her frustrated, sometimes bitter daughter Tess (Lisa Emery) and her gentle, empathetic son-in-law Jon (Frank Wood). As time goes on, Marjorie and later Tess become “prime” versions. What was therapy for someone without a memory becomes hauntingly incomplete and increasingly painful for those whose memories are intact but limited to their own perspectives, making it difficult to program the replacements themselves. Will programming a prime stave off loss? Did the programmer “get” the interior monologue of the lost person well enough to create an imitation with any kind of veracity?Smith makes the distinction between Marjorie and her “prime” version a symphony of subtleties. Her spot-on dementia persona drifts into a static, formula personality in ways which underscore the point of the play. Emery’s Tess moves from frustration with impending loss to frustration with the limits of imitation, to the blandness of imitation itself. Wood’s Jon, played as a man whose heart is big and often worn on his sleeve, curdles as his world is increasingly artificial.
And – in one stark statement of a scene – the three primes try conversing with each other as if they were real. The conclusions are all in there.
Director Les Waters moves the setting and tone of the piece into increasing isolation, just as the play does. Sometimes this makes the staging rather static – unfortunate in a work which is all underplayed to some extent, to maximize the few moments of great emotion. Mimi Lien’s minimal set, which moves at one point to make its own interesting statement, keeps the focus on the personalities (or, in some cases, the lack of personality) which make this play interesting to watch, but emphasizes their bleakness and increasingly spare environment.
“Marjorie Prime” moves slowly, and is performed without intermission. As a play it is a “ponderable,” and that balance between what has been said before and what is new may inspire many to dismiss it as almost cliché in its view of the potential advances of AI. To avoid that, one must focus on the human characters. One wishes there was a bit more chance to do so.
What: “Marjorie Prime” When: Through October 19, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 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-$70 Info: (213) 628-2772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
Case in point would be “Everything You Touch” by Sheila Callaghan, a coproduction with the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater which was nurtured into being by the Boston Court, and is receiving its world premiere run there. And who better to direct something steeped in the above-mentioned subtleties than co-Artistic Director Jessica Kubzansky. The results have proved so fascinating the run of the play has been extended until at least May 18.
“Everything You Touch” is grounded in the world of fashion. It centers on parallel plots. One is set in the 70s, following a self absorbed fashion designer’s gradual shift from outlandish and groundbreaking to popular and trendy – and the women who inspired the two versions of himself. The other, seated in the now, seems a polar opposite: a dumpy and disheveled young computer whiz whose wrestles with the demons of her own self-loathing escalate as she must travel from New York to Little Rock and her dying, judgmental mother.
At least, that’s where it all begins. From there the two stories weave in and around each other, creating some questions, answering others, blurring lines in time and space.
To add to the surreal, the set dressing and props consist rather heavily of live fashion models. They stride in, angle themselves, and become computer screens, telephones, gum dispensers, and all matter of props. What isn’t made of humans – a chair is the most startling example – is made of mannequin parts. In short, fashion consumes the set just as it powers the plot.
If this sounds convoluted, it’s not. Both Kubzansky’s direction and a spirited, richly expressive cast easily pull the audience into the puzzle.
Tyler Pierce is Victor, a womanizing fashion designer with a struggling boutique and a reputation for both callousness and an edgy, out-there creativity. Kate Maher gives her own sharpness to the former model who has become Victor’s artistic muse and occasional sexual partner. Amy French is the comparatively cornfed prize winner whose visit and discourse on comfiness strikes a surprising bell with Victor, initiating a sea change in all his relationships.
Kirsten Vangsness is Jess, the frumpy computer geek used to one-night stands and a life behind a computer screen. Her somewhat sarcastic sense of self leads her to meaningless relationships, all the while ignoring her work partner, Lewis (Arthur Keng), whose devotion she cannot see. Now she hears her mother is dying, and scoops up a guy – essentially an elongated pick-up – to go with her on the journey. Or does she?
The achingly white set by Francois-Pierre Couture, ingeniously crafted to allow for quick changes and a focus on the colorful clothing, Jenny Foldenauer’s startling, varied and very telling costumes, Adam Flemming’s evocative projections, John Zalewski’s original music, and those weird and wonderful props by John Burton all combine to guide the audience through the characters’ interior monologues and human conflicts. In the end, what appears just to be a conversation on self-image has much more to say about the human spirit and the nature of both success and art.
“Everything You Touch” delivers that remarkable combination of satisfaction and conversation starter that makes for one kind of excellent theater. And since shows that make you think are The Theatre at Boston Court’s bread and butter, it is no surprise that the show is being held over. The special efforts it took to make this world premiere happen certainly prove to be worth it.
What: “Everything You Touch” When: Through May 18, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays Where: The Theatre at Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave. in Pasadena How Much: $34 general, $29 senior/student Info: (626) 683-6883 or http://www.bostoncourt.com