Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Bellflower Sessions by Andy Bloch

Stephanie Erb and Rob Nagle - Photo:  JD Murray

By Joe Straw

In the novel “The Stranger” or “The Outsider (l’Etranger)” by Albert Camus, the protagonist Meursault is mentally perceptive of the inner and outer moments of his own lackluster life.  His mother dies (it’s not his fault), he wishes he could love his girlfriend but he doesn’t.  And in the dramatic moment of his life, spot lit under the bright light of a scorching sun, he, indifferently, shoots and kills an Arab man and then, without emotion, fires four more bullet into his lifeless body.

And even in the outrageous act, Meursault is rather indifferent to the life he has just taken.  No, that is not a fair statement.  He is not reacting in the way others want him to react. And, to observers of life, that is just, unethical.

In The Bellflower Sessions we have a man, with idle hands, who is living in the devils' playground.  (Severe unemployment will do that to a man.) And with that idle time he recognizes he needs help.  Unfortunately, because of a chain of events, his life ends behind the bars of an insane asylum after a dramatic crime of passion.  (This is the beginning of the play so I’m not giving this away.)

The world premier of The Bellflower Sessions by Andy Bloch and directed by Bryan Rasmussen at the Whitefire Theatre, in repertory, is a comedy, which left me feeling very disturbed. It is tough to watch the male species in all of his inglorious imperfections, surviving in an insecure environment, and making his way through the precarious unchartered territories of life.  But, it is also a lot of fun and very funny. 

As the play begins, in the bright light of a scorching spotlight, we meet Jack Calvin (Rob Nagle) decked out in a white prison jumpsuit trying to explain how he got there.  He is mild mannered, has control of his wits, and is such a pacifist that it is hard to believe he is in there because he, mistakenly, connected some dots and killed an acquaintance. But, oddly enough, he seems to be the only sane character in this play, the only one with a modicum of decency, of trying to understand the difference between right and wrong. And yet, there is an edge to this being, not quite mollified with prescription drugs.  

“I don’t know about you but I’m tired of standing in lines fifty deep at he bank with three tellers on the job.”

Jack is frustrated.  He is frustrated with the bank, frustrated with his life, and even frustrated with parking signs in Los Angeles that no one can decipher. He is going off the deep end; and is an emotional waking volcano, rumbling, and ready to explode.

His wife, Molly (Marshelle Fair), interrupts his complaining letters time at the computer and tells him they are going to dinner with Derrick (Kevin Benton) and his wife.  She tells Jack to get ready even though his spirits are just not into this event and he doesn’t see the point. That doesn’t stop her from telling him what to wear, and when to be ready, down the minute detail.

“That in addition to checking the classifieds you were going to make an effort to not be such an overwhelming prick.” – Molly  

These things haunt Jack as he commiserates with his drinking buddy and friend, Grant Lerner (Michael Monks).  Jack tells Grant that he is thinking of being single again.  His marriage with Molly is not working.  She is blaming him for all of their financial troubles. But it is a desperate call for help.  He needs help.  His life is falling apart. And this dinner with Derek and his wife did not go well.  

“Have to hear all about Derek and his promotion.  I wanted to stick my shrimp fork in his larynx.” - Jack

Meanwhile at home Molly tells Jack that she is not getting many catering jobs and he has to get out and support the household rather than sitting around writing angry letters to companies that annoy him.  She tells him that he has the smarts and ability to get a good job despite his age. (While she waits for someone to call her to do some catering. The hypocrisy!) Molly tells him her college friend Derrick will help and she is going to call him.  Jack does not like the idea or charity for that matter and he has suspicions about Molly’s friend.

Later Jack and Grant are at the bar again.  Jack recalls a conversation of a therapist Grant used.  Jack has decided to see a shrink. Grant says it will cost him one hundred dollars.  Jack, boiling, is ready to explode and screams for the name.   

Seeing that Jack is desperate, Grant gives him the name with one condition.

“Bellflower.  Don’t mention my name.” – Grant

Jack discards “the name” thing and mentions Grant twice for the record. And right away Dr. Wendy Bellflower (Stephanie Erb) jumps into Jack’s problems in a rather acute fashion, that is, straight to the point.

“They say seventy percent of marriages go south when the sex bites the dust.  So, wink wink, what’s your contributions?” – Wendy

Jack is caught off guard.

“I don’t sugarcoat it, friend, not here you want a ‘lolly and a pat on the back join the Special Olympics.” – Wendy

Jack tells Bellflower how he met Molly, at a ski lodge.  Both of them hated skiing so Jack caught Molly putting on makeup under the mounted moose head on the wall.  And scaling the glittering heights of the lodge to meet Molly he sealed the relationship.

Bellflower suddenly ends their meet and greet, when she asks how he wants to pay for the sessions.  Jack doesn’t want the bills to be sent to his home.

“Counseling under the cover of dark, eh?” - Wendy

Later, at the bar, Grant is pissed because Jack tells him that he has mentioned his name.

Now Grant feels it’s imperative to explain why he had to see Bellflower.  It was because he got into trouble with someone who was underage.  And somehow he thinks his actions were justified because of what his wife told him about herself: how many men she slept with during the course of their engagement, acting in porn films, and doing the mailman all while the wedding cake was still moist. Grant says that Bellflower may have saved his marriage.    

“An affair is the easy answer. What’s hard is doing nothing.” - Grant

This information sends Jack straight to the couch.

“Forgive me for saying this, but it doesn’t appear you’ve made a lot of swell decisions in your life.” – Dr. Wendy Bellflower

“I have my moments.” – Jack

“Debatable.” – Dr. Wendy Bellflower

Dr. Bellflower pours Jack and herself a drink.  Jack tells Wendy his wife’s friend, Derek, is coming over that night to offer him a job.

And, at home, Molly thinks the assistant V.P. job, selling drugs to clinics and hospitals, is a great opportunity.  But Jack is not having any part of it.  Still this doesn’t stop Jack for asking for a starting time, and company car with a satellite radio all of which Derek has agreed to. But in the end Jack says he will think about it and leaves.

“He doesn’t want to work for me.  It’s not the end of the world.” – Derek

“It’s ludicrous, isn’t it, the things we allow ourselves to put up with?” – Molly

Molly and Derek are a couple that seem to be comfortable talking about very private issues including divorce. Derek convinces Molly to step around the corner to the local bar while Jack is away.   

Jack tells Dr. Bellflower that Derek is married to Beth who is a drug addict.  Gin and OxyContin are her drugs of choice.  Jack does not completely understand Derek and Molly’s relationship and he is suspicious.

Suddenly Wendy asks if she can smoke and while she is rummaging through her purse, she pulls out tons of prescription drugs and a gun.

“Want to hold it?” – Wendy

“Is it loaded?’ – Jack

“What good’s an empty gun?  Go on, Jack.  Give me your hand.  Touch my pistol.” – Wendy

The moment sounds so magisterial, rigid, and sexual.

Later Jack meets with Grant, which culminates with Jack accusing Grant of messing around with his wife.  But, who can blame Jack?  Grant sleeps with everyone, or at least he says he does.

Things are getting a little trickier, Jack calls Wendy, who is alone and drunk lying on her desk, and tells her that he doesn’t want to see her anymore.  Wendy thinks it the “gun” thing and as they are speaking Molly calls and tells Jack that their relationship is over.

And so, Jack walks meditatively, a lonely rage burning within, looking for an outlet to release his frustrations whether it is with his hands or some other weapon.   

The Bellflower Sessions is thoroughly enjoyable with a very fine cast.  Andy Bloch’s play is so offbeat the moments are like a wakeup from a glass of cold water.

Rob Nagle as Jack Calvin does a fine job. Nagle has a very nice voice and captures Jake’s sardonic way of life.  Depression and unemployment make nasty work of his emotional life.  The foundation of happiness is crumbling around him and eats at him like a cancer.  Jack knows he needs help. He finds it. But the kind of help he finds is not what he needs.  In fact he should run away. But he finds something he needs in those relationships, some bond, or bondage that keeps him coming back for more. There is more depth to this character especially as the out-of-control events accumulate in his life. And his attempts, to keep from losing what he has, doesn’t go far enough, is not menacing enough, and does not give us clues as to the final outcome. Nagle could add this connection.  And I would not fault him if he brought more humor into the role. Also, as his life spirals out of control, I believe we need to see the element of danger in his being.  And it needs to build.  One can only take - hands to the face in disbelief – so many times.  Still, there were a lot of nice things in this performance.

Stephanie Erb as Dr. Wendy Bellflower does a fantastic job. Her moments are specific and her objective is clear. As the character she believes in a non-traditional approach to therapy.  But it is so out there one would have to understand (in the first meet and greet) that she is certifiably insane.  Not only is her therapy unorthodox, with dramatic expressions, she would like her patients to respond in kind, sexually, and violently. It’s no wonder she carries a gun. Bellflower has a softer and gentler side and Erb gives it to us in a very dramatic fashion.  Her performance is whacky, humorous, and a lot of fun to watch.

Marshelle Fair as Molly Calvin is a stunning creature that does an equally nice job.  As the character, Molly, her objective is to convince her husband to find or take a job given to him so they can be enormously happy.  But there a problem, she doesn’t have a job, or children for that matter.  She runs a catering business out of her home but because of the economy is bad no one is calling and she expects her husband to carry the load.  She enlists her college “friend” to give her husband a job that he doesn’t want and that is exasperating.  Her relationship with Derek could go farther if only to give us one more element. Fair did a very good job but needs a little work in strengthening her stage voice.

Michael Monks plays Grant Lerner.  Monks does a fine job of bringing truth to a character that is despicable and does an amazing job justifying his existence.  Monks is fascinating to watch because you simply do not know what outlandish thing is going to come out of his mouth. As the character Grant finds it fascinating to live a kind of existence where sleeping with everyone is exciting and fixing those problems even more satisfying.  It is very interesting to watch but very uncomfortable. Monks does an outstanding job with the characterization and breaths life into a very demanding role.

Kevin Benton is the college friend, Derek Coles, and is very expressive in the role. As the character Derek manages his life with the confidence befitting his role in life.  But there is this oddity.  He is not the confident man he appears. His wife is a drug addict and he is looking for other amorous avenues.  He has kids to support but he manages to find time to find someone on the side including his relationship with his college “friend”.  In the end, I’m not sure why he confesses.   He wants “things” to be clear and he makes those things clear to send Jack on his way. Maybe because he feels threatened? Benton gives a very enjoyable performance.

Overall, I like Andy Bloch’s play. And I believe I would go insane if I met up with any of these characters. The characters manipulate just for the sake of watching the others react. Jake never says to Molly: Why don’t you get a job?  And while scoffing at Dr. Bellflower’s ideas he keeps coming back.  But with no job, how in the world is he able to afford therapy?  And, with so much time on his hands, he accuses all male acquaintances of sleeping with his wife until he cannot take it anymore.  And why does Derek confess all of his deep dark secrets when there is little conflict to make him do so?  Also, there are a lot of off stage characters we don’t see and sometimes that gets to be confusing when wrapping this all up.

Bryan Rasmussen, the director, does a nice job in finding the material for part of his 2012 repertory season at The Whitefire.  And like Firehouse by Pedro Antonio Garcia, The Bellflower Sessions is very satisfying.  From the opening moments of the play we know one thing: Jack is incarcerated for murder and it is up to us to discover whom Jack has killed during the progression of the play.  So the play is made up of moments that lead us in that direction.  There is not an accumulated moment; a frenzy that takes Jack to do the unspeakable, in fact there is the opposite.  The frenzy is somewhat dissipated when Jack gets information that leads him into another direction. It confuses at times by leading us in other directions until moments are explained.  Still, some moments, need further exploration.  All in all Rasmussen did a incredible job.

The Whitefire Theatre has a fantastic production crew that has given a life to this creation.  They are as follows:

Set Design: John Burton (A very fine job of three separate settings.)
Light Design: Derrick McDaniel  (Effective, although I believe lighting could play and important role in this play when going from scenes that bring him out of a celadon fog into a reality where life is just not that wacky.)
Sound Design: Ryan Vig
Costume Design: Paige Russell
Casting:  Ricki G. Maslar CSA
Fight Choreographer:  Brian Danner (The choking and fight scene were fantastic!)
Stage Manager: Carole Ursetti
House Manager:  Neda Gajeh-Tabe
Graphic Designer: Lexilu

Run!  And take a great friend you know who is only taking mild sedatives and is not dangerous to you or the community.  


Info: 818-990-2324

Whitefire Theatre
13500 Ventura Blvd
Sherman Oaks, CA  91423

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