Friday, November 29, 2013

Light Up The Sky by Moss Hart

By Joe Straw

Allegory:  a representation of an abstract or spiritual meaning through concrete or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.

I worked with Yul Brynner on the “King and I” at the Pantages and boy did that guy have a lot of superstitions.  

Me, practically straight out of the backwoods of Tennessee and working backstage, I was caught whistling as I walked to the backstage door. 

Yul stuck his head out of his dressing room door and screamed, “Stop whistling!”

And I thought to myself, “Was that Yul?” 

I found out moments later that whistling backstage was considered back luck and actors are sensitive to these omens of doom.  - Narrator

Light Up the Sky by Moss Hart, directed by David McClendon, and produced by David Hunt Stafford at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills has a very predictable story and is a heck of a lot of fun. And if you’ve ever been attached to theatre in some form or another you will get the predictability.  All the more reason to love Theatre 40’s presentation with some terrific acting and the finest wardrobe, by Costume Designer Michéle Young, you will ever see on any actor, on any stage, bar none.  

David McClendon’s direction was almost flawless.  But there were two scenes on this opening night that cause a stir, a borborygmus of sorts, a mingling that caused me to question the intentions of those actors in the scenes.  I have more to say on that later.  

The play takes place in 1948 at Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston, Massachusetts.  It is Miss Irene Livingston’s (Stephanie Erb) room, a leading actress, and wouldn’t you know it but the only sounds you can hear is a parrot, Orson who injects glib theatrical sayings, and Miss Lowell (Cathy Diane Tomlin) banging on a manual typewriter typing a manuscript.

“S. R. O.!  No seats till January.  Bless you, darling!” – Orson, the parrot

Miss Lowell doesn’t like the goings on from this parrot and she covers him.  And in this theatrical world of luck and fortune, this was not a very good thing to do.

Carlton Fitzgerald (David Hunt Stafford), the director, enters the suite and cries about the magic hour and the show going on in a few hours. In fact he cries at “card tricks”.

“I bought a ticket.  I’m going to see what good that does.” – Miss Lowell

Carleton tells her of the restricted rehearsal last night.  He had to move back because he was crying and he didn’t want the cast to hear him sobbing.

“I’m sitting in the balcony.” – Miss Lowell

Undeterred by Miss Lowell’s monetary misfortunes.

“I saw them all from the balcony, Miss Lowell – all the great ones.” - Carleton

Enmeshed in his story, Carleton cares little for this little, young woman, and gives diminutive thought that she bought her own ticket and is sitting in the nosebleed seats. Instead, he recounts the emotional wonderful story of his youth, when as a small boy he pressed his tiny boyish chin against the rails, staring at each performance. But, looking out the window, his mood is suddenly transformed.

“That sign’s not lit yet, Goddamit.  Well, they’re not going to save current while we’re here. “ – Carleton

Not the sweet little cherub we thought, Carleton says he’s going to come back later with a talisman for Irene and asks Miss Lowell to call the theatre to have “those bastards” turn on the lights. (How quickly we turn from joyful childhood experience to a triggered adult angst.)

Meanwhile Francis Black (Meredith Thomas) former ice-skating star turned the producer’s wife enters dressed to the nines.

“If Sidney can sink three hundred thousand bucks into a play, I can shop – and when I say shop, honey, I ain’t kidding.” – Frances

Later, former playwright to Miss Livingston, Owen Turner (Martin Thompson) arrives and Miss Lowell introduces herself. She is aware of his reputation and gloats that she is “that repellent literary invention – a ghost writer.”

“Is a new play of yours opening up here, Mr. Turner?”  - Miss Lowell

“No, I have no new play this year.  Thank God.” – Owen Turner

“Oh?” – Miss Lowell

“Are you very new to all this, Miss Lowell?” – Owen Turner

“Very.  The literary world is my bailiwick.” – Miss Lowell

“I’m afraid you wouldn’t understand then.  It’s almost like trying to explain music to someone who was born deaf.”- Owen Turner


Moments later Stella Livingston (Flora Plumb), a fresh breath of foul air, enters and immediately sets her claws into Owen.

“Not fifteen minutes ago I walked into the Ladies’ Room downstairs and your name was on the tip of my tongue.”  Stella

Leave it to Stella to say the wrong things at the right time but she is stopped in her tracks when she sees Orson covered. Bad luck. Miss Lowell, realizing her mistake, apologizes.

“Oh, it doesn’t matter.  Nothing can hurt this one.  Just the curtain going up is enough.” – Stella

And Stella knows because on the previous night, in sleuth mode, she confides to Miss Lowell and Owen she saw the performance at a rehearsal, dressed as a cleaning woman watching from the balcony.  She recommends seeing this show on an empty stomach.

“Well, it may be that I’m crazy, but it may also be that this is the biggest bunch of crap ever put on any stage.” - Stella

Peter Sloan (Nick Denning), the wide-eyed optimist and writer of the play, arrives for a good luck toast.  He speaks to Owen about being as sick as a dog because of his show going on later that night. 

Sidney Black (Arthur Hanket), the good natured and anxious producer, arrives for the toast.  But, Sidney thinks he has interrupted something important: two writers who make prodigious words work.  

“Me, I’m just a crepe paper moon over the Taj Mahal, waiting for Scheherazade to start the entertainment.” – Sidney

All this commotion and no one have seen Irene. Sidney figures she’s asleep but Sven (William Murphy), the masseuse, suddenly slithers out of her room, as though he was caught doing something he should not have been doing, says “Good evening.” and makes a hasty retreat through the front door.

Irene, the star, comes out crying and everyone wants to know why.  She says she fell asleep during the massage and in the dream she started saying everyone’s lines in the first act for which she has no lines.

But Irene is over that for now, but not over her superstitions. Owen, slightly stricken, by what Irene has just said has one gnawing question.  

“I’m mulling over the fact that you don’t speak a line for the first act.  What do you do, my dear-bark?” – Owen

Moments later Carleton comes back with the talisman for Irene.  He presents to Irene the necklace worn by Eleanora Duse.

“Mother, look!  The necklace Duse wore on opening night!” – Irene

“How long did the show run, dear?” – Stella

Others filled with optimism for opening night proposed a toast including Carleton who thanks the scrubwoman, the harridan, with greasy hair, and hapless bag of bones who witnessed the performance the previous night.

“To an unknown and unforgettable bit of human wreckage, who found beauty and a moment of rapture in out play.” – Carleton

Later in the night, and after the performance, Stella said she heard a patron say: “This play is either an allegory or the biggest joke ever played on the City of Boston.”

And now the fun really starts and the blame games gets really dicey when the characters go to vast extremes to blame each other.

By all accounts this is a remarkable cast, doing a job well done on opening night and wonderfully directed by David McClendon.

Bryan Bertone plays Tyler Rayburn a stockbroker who is Irene Livingston’s husband. Not a bad job in a supporting role, and takes a pop in the face in the second act to boot, but one thinks there must be more to this role than staying out of the way.

John Combs does a wonderful job as Shriner/Businessman once a former amateur actor now wanting to be involved with the wonderful world of entertainment if only he would stay out of his own way and demand a piece of the action with his money.

Nick Denning plays Peter Sloan, the writer and former trucker is strong and steadfast in his resolve.  Denning has a very nice voice and a very committed objective that suits his purpose and does a splendid job.  So determined is Peter Sloan that he has them crawling back to him on their hands and knees as it should be for any writer.  

Stephanie Erb plays the star Irene Livingston and does a marvelous job with the role.  Irene handles her relationships with her compatriots and her mother with a grand uniqueness and with great distinction.  Walking around in a negligee in the first act begging all men to love her, to come to her, and to love her for who she is and who she will become, despite her minuscule dramatic faults.  Erb gives a terrific performance.  

Arthur Hanket gives a remarkable performance as producer Sidney Black.  It is one of those rare performances you hope to see when going to theatre. His mastery, technique, and voice were impeccable as he figuratively danced crossed the stage floor, giddy and with a delightful manner. Oddly enough, I heard a trace of an accent, an accent from the Deep South, Louisiana, or possibly Atlanta, Georgia, and that accent, came through his wonderful dialogue in an amazing tour de force.  This is a performance not to miss.

Flora Plumb, the prognosticator of doom, does a nice job as Stella Livingston and because of this her relationship with her daughter is not as strong as it could be.  But she has her daughter’s best interest at heart. She also believes in good luck.  The character could take it up a notch when she sees the parrot Orson covered which one believes is the ultimate kiss of doom. Also, the start of the second act needs more umph!  Stella must tell her counterpart that she is in a lot of trouble when discussing the realties of failed theatre ventures and she needs to do it with conviction.

William Murphy is delightful as Sven, Shriners and Cop.  Each role was decidedly different and each performance was on the mark. Murphy is a marvelous actor.

David Hunt Stafford plays Carleton Fitzgerald with a simple elegance and a lot of tears. There is a lot of good work going on here.

Meredith Thomas is Frances Black and plays her with a lot of pizzazz.  The start of the second act needed work, because her life is falling apart, the vast amount of her wealth is threatened and possibly all those clothes she bought and the Topaz ring will have to go back.  That should give her enough of a reality to jump-start that scene. This is a character that can go to extremes believing her husband one minute and doubting him the next and acting on those extremes to reach her objective.  

Martin Thompson plays Owen Turner and while he did a marvelous job smoothing things over for all of the characters in the cast, he is in fact, an out of work writer and it is at this point in life, everything bothers him to some degree.  Obviously he is there to see that the writer fails miserably.  He goes so far to usher him out of town in the third act.  Why?  Because he is hungry. Also, I did not see this character with a lot of conflict, emotionally, or physically.  I saw a lot of people criticizing him but he passes that off as a casual remarks.  These are not choices with a lot of strength, conflict, or character conviction.  Still the manner with which he presents himself is more than adequate, one wishes a little more from this character. How is he affected by the word bailiwick? Also, the dialogue suggests he has a biting tongue, and he is not afraid to use it.    

Cathy Diane Tomlin plays Miss Lowell and has a very good look for this type of comedy. But as the character Miss Lowell makes a lot of mistakes.  Covering the parrot is one mistake, a big one. Trying to gain sympathy from the director is another with the ticket thing. (You’ll get not sympathy from him.) Also, digging at an out of work writer is another.  Despite these mistakes Miss Lowell really needs this job.  Her job is on the line and entertainment people are the first to throw you out on your butt. But there’s never a reaction from any of these mishaps.  Which is not to downplay the work but to add to an already delightful performance.

Elain Rinehart will be playing Miss Lowell December 19 – 22, 2013 but did not perform the night I was there.

David McClendon, the director, does an amazing job with cast, especially with the supporting players (the Shriners, the masseuse, and the cop).  The opening scene with Owen and Miss Lowell needs a fine adjustment as well as the opening scene in act II.  Problems are possibly the result of opening night jitters.  These two scenes gives us a flavor of what we can expect, they carry us forward, letting us know what kind of people we are dealing with and what we can expect. Also the work between Frances and Stella should give us an idea of how desperate and grave the situation is in Act II.  But, overall, a terrific job.

David Hunt Stafford, the producer, has done a remarkable job putting this all together.  It is his finest work, that I have witnessed, to date.

From my perspective, my seat, the press section, the gin game was lost and the action on the couch facing forward was lost. Hearing was fine during those times but the facial expressions were nonexistent.

Jeff G. Rack, Set Design, has created a beautiful set with which the actors can perform their magic.

Other members of the crew are Don Solosan the Stage Manager, Ric Zimmerman, the Lighting Designer, and Bill Froggatt, Sound Designer.

Run! Run!  And take someone who makes an exceptional effort to cut off a black cat before it's too late. 

In the Reuben Cordova Theatre

WHEN: November 21- December 22, 2013. Thurs.- Sat. at 8:00, Sun. at 2:00. The performance on Friday, November 22 is by invitation. Dark on Thanksgiving Thursday, November 28.
ADMISSION: Thurs. & Fri. $24. Sat. & Sun. $26.
RESERVATIONS: (310) 364-0535.

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