Sunday, July 15, 2012

Plays In The Park by Brian Connors

Ed Asner - Mark Rydell

It saddens me to hear that Peter O’ Toole recently announced his retirement at the tender age of seventy-nine.  

“However, it’s my belief that one should decide for oneself when it is time to end one’s stay…, so I bid the profession a dry-eyed and profoundly grateful farewell.” – The Marvelous and Magnificent Peter O’Toole

I like the idea of play readings – the evolution of an idea fleshed out to create the perfect form, the perfect moment, the one thing that hits you so hard you want to stand and cheer, the perfect words to convey a moment.

But, generally I try to stay away from play readings because it is not the complete commitment, the laying everything out on the line, for true imperfection perfection, that moment that tears at the heart, that make you laugh so hard, that make you tilt your head a full ninety degrees wondering why characters do the extraordinary things.

So, why a four week playing reading?  Well, okay, why not?

A Plays in the Park written and directed by Brian Connors is playing at the Santa Monica Playhouse through August 12, 2012 and presented by George Schott, Gavin Corey and Rudy Hornish.   This delightful evening of themed readings, with couples in the park negotiating their moments through life.  

The first reading is Park Strangers about a couple of actors Maureen (Beege Barkett) and Dottie (Susan Ateh) who are thrown together because they have been cast in a pharmaceutical commercial.

Dottie is absolutely psyched about working with Maureen, a highly respected actor and in Dottie’s eyes a legend. And although the compliments are backhanded, Maureen lives the part and takes it all in stride until she finds that she cannot do the commercial because a big tobacco company is sponsoring the ad.

Dottie tells her that it is a national spot and they could make a lot of money on this ad. But Maureen doesn’t want to do this despite the people it may hurt who are employed on this shoot. Still, she sits quietly on the bench.  

Dottie, seeing her paycheck disappear before her eyes, wants none of this.  Dottie tells Maureen that she has to move to get away from her needle-injecting drug addicted boyfriend. And if the shoot gets cancelled she won’t be able to get away.

But Maureen has her own motives for not doing the shoot. She also needs the money, but her husband of 25 years recently died from lung cancer cause by smoking and she is not doing the shoot for that reason. Still, she sits.

Dottie tells Maureen the reasons she has to move and implores Dottie not to walk off and although events may not turn out the way they want them to turn out they find out a lot about each other during the course of this diminutive one act play.

Susan Ateh does a marvelous job as Dottie.  She has a wonderful presence on stage.  If this were a full-scale performance I would say the character needs to try a lot harder to keep her partner from walking off the set and to get her back in front of the camera where she needs to be.

Beege Barkett is equally marvelous as Maureen, too marvelous for words. A striking actress with the emotional grandee that accompanies all actors at that stage in her career. It is a wonderful reading and if it were a full-scale performance I would like to see her try to leave the shoot but brought back by her partner.

Swans is the story of a couple that just can’t get it together.

And like swans, they sort of appear out of nowhere so that we can gaze upon their beauty.  But upon closer inspection, these two swans are not speaking to each other and they glide their own little paths across the murky waters of life. Typical swans.

Suzanne (Dahlia Waingort) is not speaking to her partner Bill (Esai Morales).  It seems she has had it. Their relationship has run its course but it was not always like this.  They met at the tender age of 17 and although many years have passed, doing their life things, they’ve only been living together for three years.

So what’s the problem?  It’s a beautiful spring day to have a simple picnic in the park.  They brought pie, cherry for her and apple for him and they can’t agree who gets which slice of the pie.

But what is the root of the problem? They are both artists.  She’s a Rockett (God save him.) and he’s an “arteest”, a struggling painter (unemployed) which all makes for a fantastic relationship when there’s scraps of food in the small apartment, which they share with her mother. And to top things off there are the swans all over the apartment.

“Because they are mologanous.” – Suzanne

“You mean monogamous.”  - Bill  

Suzanne says she wants the apple pie, but Bill wants the apple pie.  Bill says she always loved cherry and doesn’t understand why she doesn’t take the cherry pie. In a fit of anger the pies get thrown into the garbage.

Boy, these two love swans do not get along.

Suzanne’s had it and she moving out.  She’s moving in with her friend, Shirley.  She is leaving her swans with Bill and her mother.

But Bill convinces her to come back for the time being and they nuzzle up and talk about their future. Suzanne confesses that she wants a baby and she lets him know that she has been off the pill and there’s been no pregnancy.  She says it’s him and she wants him to take his sperm in a cup, under his armpit, to the clinic so they can test it.  She also says that she’s been taking a fertility treatment.

“You have a fertility doctor?” – Bill

Esai Morales, Dahlia Waingort

Dahlia Waingort as Suzanne is superb as the not so smart Rockette, a mumpsimus of the ultimate order, and high maintenance chick. But beneath this fractious façade there is a thinking caring conniving woman who has got it all planned out if only she could convince her soon to be husband that it’s in his best interest to marry her.  The meaning of the name Suzanne is “a very sexy woman, possessing extreme intellect and taste” and Waingort is all of the above. As the character Waingort hits all the right moments and has a sublime serenity and sensibility accompanying her presence.

Esai Morales is charming as Bill, a comedic ne’er-do-well who does well at times. He is in a ravelment for which there is not escape.  (Think praying mantis after sex.)  This is a planned momentous occasion and it just doesn’t go right for him. Typical for a man who thinks he has all of the answers and is thrown off by the slightest curve. And if this was more than a reading I would suggest making more of the pie in the trash because, as a man, that’s all he got to hold onto, the trash.  Morales does a fine job and is always a pleasure to watch.

The last play in the trilogy is “Oxymorons” a very delightfully serious comedy.

Joe (Mark Rydell) a youthfully aging man sits in a dilapidated pristine park bench staring at an invisible polar bear in the zoo.  Lost in his thoughts he is accosted by his brother Jay (Ed Asner) who thinks something is horribly wrong.

They are alone together with very little going on as Joe sits peacefully waiting for Jay to catch his breath.  Thinking out they wait to see what the other is up to.

“Life sucks.” – Joe

“Only some of the time.” – Jay

As the play goes this particular segment of life is about Joe, who owned a citrus farm in chilly season of sunny Florida and lost everything he had and then some. His business acumen betides his current state of poverty. It’s a pretty ugly event with which Jay is extremely concerned.

“Take my advice…never be a fruit salesman.” Joe

It turns out that Jay did not have insurance and life on this park bench is nothing but constant change. Joe must think about his wife, his life, and all that he has lost.

Jay is there to offer some hope but he is drawing a blank and can only offer a couple of twenties to his brother Joe who has lost millions. In reality, Jay is brilliantly dull, but has enough smarts to understand the predicament Joe has got himself into.  It is a fine mess they have got themselves into, this thing they call life, and they must find a way out of this laborious idleness, stop quickly, and find the solution to their problem.

This was a grand opportunity to see Ed Asner and Mark Rydell live at the Santa Monica Playhouse.   Unfortunately Mr. Asner will not be coming back due to other commitments, “Hawaii Five O” and then on to Broadway.  And so, while Peter O’Toole has thrown in the sponge, Ed Asner will continue to make his presence known on stage and elsewhere. At eighty (something) we should all be so lucky.

George Segal will be replacing Ed Asner in the coming weeks and Allan Miller will be taking over when George Segal leaves.  And Stephen Collins steps in on August 4th 2012.

Ed Asner as Jay plays the not too wise brother who is, in fact, very wise.  He looks up to his brother and looks after this iniquitous creature. The specific circumstance of this meeting is not lost on this character.  Jay knows what he must do in order to save his only sibling. Still it takes time from the moment they re-create the life they had from the Lincoln Logs to the time they shared the same girlfriend.  All of these moments are laid out on the line in order to save a soul from destruction. Asner is marvelous, his moments ring true to the core of his desperation. “Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay.” he mutters until he gets it just right to make that important moment ring true and for him to get his point across. His performance was so simple, superb, and a pleasure to watch.

Mark Rydell as Joey lives hard.  He doesn’t play by anyone’s rules except his own.  He has an arduous time-sharing toys, women, or anything else for that matter. But what he will share is his end.  That’s why he sits in the zoo looking at the polar bears waiting for his brother to witness his last act. But Joey is not remorseful, he doesn’t look back, he just marches to his own drummer, and when the music stops playing, he is caught with his pants down and little money in his pocket.  It is tragically a fitting way to die with no one to come to the rescue except the one that loves him the most.  Rydell was fantastic and if it were not a reading I would add the gun metaphorically closer to your heart and never forget that it is there for use at any moment.

Brian Conners has written three delightful comedies and certainly a staged reading is only the beginnings to material that already has a lot of depth. All the stories have strong characters that desperately need each other. Even in Park Strangers they are desperate.  In the beautiful Swans they are intimates but can’t get beyond their own self-doubts to make their relationship pliable.

Conner’s aphotic plays have a sense of bringing light to brighten the darkness of the given circumstances.  The white swan, the polar bear, and even the white wrappings of a pharmaceutical coat are images holding on to a concept of light being right when in fact taking a look at the comedic darkness opens the doors to magnificent possibilities.  

Stage Manager:  Rudy Hornish
Production Manager:  Sandra Zeitzew
Publicist: Phil Sokoloff
Casting:  Donna DeSeto
Graphic Design:  Victor Juhasz

Go and take a friend who doesn't really understand you or your complimentary remarks. 

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