Saturday, June 21, 2014

Land Line by Stephen Dierkes

L - R Peter Larney, Peter James Smith - photo: Kevin Riggin

By Joe Straw

Theatre is like this: 

I didn’t think I would have children but there she was, my sweet little one-year-old girl, living supremely in the living room while watching Bear In the Big Blue House. Instinctively she came, without me calling. She crawled on top of the chair, sat in my lap, and quickly fell asleep. The memory, of that loving moment, plays upon an emotion so deep that it will stay with me forever.   - Narrator

Thinking in the abstract, Land Line can best be described as falling in love again.  The wonderfully written play by Stephen Dierkes will bring a smile to your face and a tearful yearning for the one you let go, quietly, into the night. An exceptional cast brings inspiration to his words and William Charlton, the director, entreats us, with a wonderful sincerity that strikes at the heart and accentuates the comparisons of those who are witnesses, and those who carry on.    

Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles presents the world premiere of Land Line by Stephen Dierkes, directed by William Charlton and produced by Mina Sharpe now playing at the Speakeasy at Atwater Village Theatre through July 21, 2014. The Artistic Directors are Gates McFadden and Tracey A. Leigh.

The most miserable indignity for this vibrant male was moving back in with his parents; back to a place he thought he had long forgotten.  Moving from lovely California to Grand Rapids, Michigan, the home of his mother and (evil) stepfather.  And sleeping down in the basement no less, where God only knows the existential critters that are scurrying about. 

And this is all topped with an exquisitely absurd land line as his telephone of fiscal practicability.

As the play begins, almost if capturing the sights and sounds of Brazil, we get a glimmer, a notion from António Carlos Jobim’s Agua de Beber, patiently waiting, san sol, for Garota de Ipanema (The Girl from Ipanema).

But, not tonight, there are more important issues at stake.

And there lays Terry (Peter James Smith), sitting up, with the telephone in his lap.  It is his only contact to the outside world.  Not that his disagreeable self wants to speak to anyone beyond his best friend in California, John (Peter Larney).

John, arriving from an enervated job, has a package from Terry.  And no sooner has John walked into his apartment when he gets a phone call from Terry who is excited and waiting in anticipation for the opening; a book Touch Me:  Poems by Suzanne Sommers.  Only these two wordsmiths can get the irony of this book and that is why they enjoy being in each other’s company.

“She is a smart, witty person.” – John

As John begins to disrobe, he tells Terry to wait while he connects his wireless to his ear.

“I never thought I would be here with cancer.” – Terry

But Terry’s not sure what is going to kill him first, the brain tumor, or his mother’s burnt raw frozen hamburger.

“What are you doing?” – Terry

“Ironing.” – John

L - R John Dennis Johnston, Katherine Cortez  Photo : Kevin Riggin

Meanwhile, upstairs in Terry’s parents home, Tammy (Katherine Cortez) and Amos (John Dennis Johnston) are going at it.  There is some kind of confusion about a TV program not being on when it’s supposed to be on.

“Up Your Ante isn’t on channel 2 at 2:30.” – Tammy

“Get the TV Guide.” – Amos

“Terry needs it.  He has a brain tumor!” – Tammy

Tammy really doesn’t want to disturb Terry despite the seriousness of his situation.  (One gets the impression she’s afraid of going downstairs and finding the worse.) On top of the cancer, Terry has broken his kneecap and is now bedridden.

But, despite Terry’s condition, the worse part of his existence is the pile of medical homework he has to do in order to survive his current situation and all of that is in a huge box at the foot of his bed.

“I have more homework than in college.” – Terry

Terry, reading get-well cards, says he’s doing a lot of visualizations.  He’s visualizing his golden Brazilian boyfriend, as they speak, but he wants to know about John’s boyfriend as well.

Not interested anymore.” – John

This is a subject Terry wants to know more about but Tammy enters with a plate of piping hot mac and cheese with sliced franks.    Oh, the delighted look in Terry’s eyes!  Terry says he’ll call tomorrow.

And Terry calls the following day.  But, John is hesitant to pick up the phone for unexplained reasons, but finally does.  John’s not truthful, saying he just got back from the store.  But one gets the feeling that Terry is not buying it. The conversation turns to “last words” and Terry lets John in on some juicy gossip saying that George Gershwin’s last words were “Fred Astaire”.

Suddenly, someone starts punching numbers on the phone, Tammy’s on the line, wants to know if he’s talking to someone, hangs up and then brings the vacuum cleaner downstairs, along with Amos, and starts to work.

“I’m doing my best not to die, but you two are killing me!” – Terry

Terry doesn’t want them cleaning up and especially doesn’t want Amos to move his box because he’ll never find anything.  Amos takes the position that he’ll do whatever he wants because he’s paying the bills.  Terry manages to get rid of both of them and continues his conversation with John.

Moments later he has a seizure, an augury, and as John realizes what has happened, he yells at Terry to hang up the phone.

This is some of the finest acting you will see in Los Angeles.  Each actor is in tune with the other as the characters manage their lives on stage. The actors execute simply and those moments collectively are heartbreaking as they are worked to perfection.

L - R Peter Larney, Peter James Smith, Katherine Cortez - Photo: Kevin Riggin

Peter James Smith does a grand job as Terry, a man who is living with cancer, and giving every ounce of his being of staying in the game.  He is not one for impotent despair. Unfortunately, things start crumbling around him.  The one thing that keeps him going is his desire to get to Brazil, but conflict gets in his way. First his parents, mother and stepfather, and most importantly his best friend who is simply not giving him the truth, and he is implacable when he seeks the truth.  Smith gives a grand physical life to the incapacitated Terry, especially after he has had a stroke, when he takes on the manner of a stroke victim.  Just fantastic, realistic, and a performance not to miss!

Peter Larney presents John with a very quiet intensity to the character. The acting is very straightforward and sincere.  But John has one problem.  He is hiding a secret from his best friend and he doesn’t know how to go about telling him, or when to tell him.  He can be pathetically mendacious when there is no eye contact on the phone. So he travels to Michigan to meet his parents and to see him for the final time.  (Best friends do that.)  It is now with certitude his friend is going to die and his conflict is finding the words, giving him the truth, because that is what they do for each other. That is how their relationship worked. Larney has a strong voice and has a marvelous presence on sage.

Katherine Cortez is Tammy and does an excellent job in her characterization. Cortez is caught speaking upstage at times (shades of Stanislavsky’s The Seagull) but manages to project so all is heard. Everything Cortez does is fine but one thinks she might treat her son as though he were going do die the next minute to give the performance an added punch to the characterization, when she brings him food, when she lovingly vacuums his room, when she visits him in the hospital.  There might be an emotional moment that is not quite there yet. Still it’s a small thing to add to a very fine performance.

John Dennis Johnston is remarkable as Amos. Possibly contemplating the end of his life, his dying stepson moves in and creates conflict, something he’s not will to tolerate. But they’ve been together since he was seven and it’s extremely evident this man has strong feelings for his stepson despite their differences. And those feelings are physically evident in the second act. Johnston gives a strong and very moving performance.

Stephen Dierkes has written a remarkable play.  It is a story of two gay men who are not lovers but love the interaction of their verbal play.  They are characters that are honest to a fault with each other and possibly the reason for their grand connection.  But then someone gets very sick and the honesty doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, which creates a very unusual and dramatic conflict on stage. This is a play about letting go, and thankfully Dierkes alleviates us the pain of the tempestuous dawn.

William Charlton also does some solid work as the director. The work on stage is downright tremendous and the actors move flawlessly from one moment to the next. There is room for slight improvements.  Funny, but I don’t recall a physical relationship between John and Terry, a hug, handshake, nothing. Still, this is a wonderful new work of art and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Other members of the production team are as follows:

Sound Design/Original Music – Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski
Costume Design – Catherine Baumgardner
Stage Manager – Marissa Drammissi
Set Designer/Lighting Designer – William Sammons
Graphic Design – Mina Sharpe
Props/Intern – Joe Faragher
Press Representative – Ken Werther Publicity

Run!  Run!  Run!  And take someone you don’t want to let go.

or by calling (323) 644-1929.

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