Thursday, February 19, 2015

Hellman v. McCarthy By Brian Richard Mori

By Joe Straw

“Is he just a left-winger? Is that his problem?” – President Richard Nixon

“I guess so.” – H.R. Haldeman

“Is he Jewish?” – Nixon

“I don’t know; doesn’t look it.” – H.R. Haldeman

“We’ve complained bitterly about the Cavett show.” – Charles Colsen

“Is there any way we could screw him? That’s what I mean.  There must be ways.” – Nixon – The White House Tapes

With few honest humans left in media and print these days, Dick Cavett can be considered one of the most trusted men in America.

I mentioned to someone that I was going to see Dick Cavett in a play.  My uninformed confrère thought Cavett was dead. I assured this individual that I wasn’t in the habit of watching deceased actors work on stage – what with the smell and lack of movement.   

Theatre 40 of Beverly Hills and Michael J. Libow present Dick Cavett in the West Coast Premiere of the Acclaimed New York Production of Hellman v. McCarthy written by Brian Richard Mori, directed by Howard Storm, and Produced by David Hunt Stafford through February 28th, 2015.  

Dick Cavett has lost the golden locks and the long sideburns that once accompanied him back in the day but he has not lost his appeal, affable wit, and timing.  One might call him nimble at this point in his career.

There is no mistaking Cavett’s dulcet voice along with his dapper appearance. The green sports coat suits him well this night.  He is nicely tailored, and except for that little tuff of hair protruding from the back of his scalp, he was perfectly coiffed.  That must a comedian trick, serious but funny in the front, and slightly offbeat in the back.  

A quick casual observation about Cavett is that he listens, or appears to listen to everything others have to say, without judgment, and then provides his own commentary with a nice little glib and blithe remark. It is certainly a trademark of his character that we have come to thoroughly enjoy over the years.

Cavett brings his fine acting chops on stage doing a few impersonations, narrating the story, and telling a few jokes along the way. The night was a very pleasant evening.

“I hope they don’t clap when he enters the stage.  That would be so sit-com and really not the rules of theatre in Los Angeles.” – Narrator  

Okay, so this cue card guy comes out, begging us to applaud as Cavett from The Dick Cavett Show strolls out on stage to tell a few jokes.  It is in the moment, I tell myself, and I can live with that, so I break all my rules and begrudgingly clap.

Following Cavett’s wonderful opening monologue, the play starts in earnest with a couple, upstage right, sitting at a small dinning table. A cantankerous old bird, Lillian Hellman (Flora Plumb), and her too-eager-to-please gay nurse Ryan (M. Rowan) are in a stirring game of Scrabble.  Despite Hellman’s egregious cheating, with lettered tiles flying here and there, Ryan manages to get the best of her.

And, oh my, Hellman hates losing, at anything, so she unceremoniously quits the game, tiles dropping off her every being. She turns to find out what is on TV but there’s not much except The Dick Cavett Show on PBS, and with guest author Mary McCarthy, a woman Hellman personally knows and holds exiguous regard.

Already stewing from the recent Scrabble loss, Hellman wants to see what that “witch”, Mary McCarthy, is doing. 

Cavett goads McCarthy into some reckless gossip about good writers and bad writers.  McCarthy latches onto the bad writers bit and mentions Hellman. Suddenly, Hellman is horrified by the slander spewed forth from McCarthy’s lying Irish lips.  

“Every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the.”  - Mary McCarthy

Repulsed violently, Hellman’s ceremonious inclination is to dial her attorney, Lester Marshal (John Combs).  If only she could pick up the phone and dial.  Shaking the thick black receiver of the telephone, she demands that Marshal sue Cavett, WNET-TV, and McCarthy.

Marshal doesn’t think it’s a good idea and tells her so because they “are friends.”  And she should listen to her friends.

“I don’t pay my friends.” Hellman


Despite McCarthy’s stinging remarks Marshal does what he is paid to do and employs the argument in court that Hellman is not a public figure.

Notwithstanding, there is a great deal to like in Brian Richard Mori’s play.  At first glance one wonders about the complexity of the drama.  But looking back, after taking a deep breath, one finds a fascinating play dealing with the gradations of truth; moments that are part of the record, moments that may have happened, and moments that are outright fabrication.

One of the finest parts of this play is the scene when Hellman and McCarthy meet.   Hellman is looking for an apology but verbally dukes it out with McCarthy.   Moments later, Cavett, the most trusted man in America, says that scene never happened.  

It is with certitude that playwriting can only give us a fair representation of the actual truth. That’s fair to say.  But what are we to make of an entire scene that is completely false but so much fun? And while Mori’s drama does not take us deep into the psyche of the characters, there is enough here to make it an enjoyable evening. Yes, it most certainly was.

Dick Cavett does an impressive job this night.  And it’s really not much of a stretch to play Dick Cavett if you are, in fact, Dick Cavett. There is also that mischievous grin of his when he is caught in an erratic boat of comment unpredictability, floating in unchartered waters, without a paddle, now leaking like a sieve, and wondering how he is going to get out.  He takes everything in stride, comments with a wry sense of humor, and exits, stage left.  Mostly, he brings the background of his character and with him that rich history of his entire being. Also, Cavett is also open for a few questions after the performance and I enjoyed every minute of it.

Flora Plumb is delightful playing Lillian Hellman. The truth plays out in grand fashion in her portrayal.  Her performance moved in the direction of her dying which was the overriding characterization of her persona.  But Hellman finds enough life in her bite to rise above her current ills and sue her counterpart.  And watching McCarthy squirm must have delighted her to no end but we see little of that choice in Plumb on this night.  Fighting the pain of age, a subdued stoicism was a part of her character but offers her little opportunity to do anything else. Also, the Betty Davis slap to her nurse does not progress the scene, the relationship, or the play, and seems slightly out of character for a woman who let her words devour her enemies to death.  On this opening weekend, Hellman’s relationship to the nurse needed work and hopefully a happy medium will be found by the time you see the play. Hellman’s reposeful expression should not be evident until the final victory is hers. The character work is excellent.  One wishes she wasn’t dying through the course of the night. Also, and as an aside, Plumb is much too attractive to play Hellman who wasn’t known for turning heads.  

Marcia Rodd, as Mary McCarthy, has a very strong voice and commanding presence that she maintains throughout the play.  McCarthy, a former Vassar College student, writer, critic, and educator, kept her on-camera persona throughout.  Giving her an off-screen persona will have provided Rodd with more nuances to the character. Finding ways to bring her history on stage would help to define her character. Also, McCarthy must be in the lawyer’s office for a reason, maybe she is running out of money or she is trying to find a way out without losing her sanity. The suit is destroying her life, and her way of life.  She says it in words, but the pain in Rodd’s performance does not appear deep, and she is not desperate to end the lawsuit, even though it is killing her character emotionally and financially.  That aside, Rodd has an incredibly strong voice and is very likeable on stage.  

John Combs plays Lester Marshal, Hellman’s attorney and does a fine job. Combs is affable and in the moment. As Marshal, he finds a way to attack giving his client a reason for being. Marshal can be sinister in the ways he deals with others around him and maybe he could go a little farther with the intimate details of the character.

Martin Thompson is enjoyable as Bert Fielding, McCarthy’s attorney.  He is the low-budget attorney of the group but really doesn’t get much mileage in the relationship to the high power attorney counterpart. Still, there were some nice little exchanges between the two.  

M.Rowan Meyer is very likeable as Ryan, Hellman’s nurse.  Other than taking care of Hellman, Meyer’s approach to the character didn’t find the right connection on this particular night. There must be a reason that he is there, that he puts up with her, that he stays with her through thick and thin and it just can’t be the money. The difficult task for this actor is to find out why he is there and why he is attracted to stay in the relationship.  Finding a creative objective would give him more mileage.  Love is a great equalizer and Ryan must find way to love her, despite the fact that he is gay, to care for her emotionally, physically, and mentally.  And Ryan being gay didn’t move the play in any direction.  He could have easily been straight, another race, female, transgendered, and that would not have changed the objective of the character on this particular night.  That said Meyer is a very engaging young man with a very strong appeal and in the emotional moment.  His scene with Cavett was spot on and extremely funny.  

Howard Storm, the director, gives us the moments we so desperately need when venturing out into the theatre night air. The “slap” is a moment that needs reworking.  There is a little bit of creativity and ingenuity needed for the scene when McCarthy and Hellman discuss their previous relationship with each telling the exact story.  Having them intertwined, and in each other’s space, would have brought more life into that scene.   Also in the apology scene, having them on opposite ends of the table lessened the degree of the dramatic conflict needed in that scene. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen two attorneys in a room who haven’t exhausted civility, and are on the edge of trading blows, in words or in emotional deed.

David Hunt Stafford is the wonderful Producer of this show and a guiding light at Theatre 40.

Other members of the valuable crew are as follows:

Rhonda Lord – Assistant to the Director
Bill Froggatt – Stage Manager
Richard Carner – Assistant Stage Manager
Jeff G. Rack – Set Designer
Michele Young – Costume Designer
Ric Zimmerman – Lighting Designer
Joseph “Sloe” Slawinski – Sound Designer

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who loves talk shows.  

Theatre 40
In the Reuben Cordova Theatre
241 S. Moreno Drive
Bevely Hills, CA  90212

Reservations: 310-364-3606
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Monday, February 9, 2015

Annie, Jr. Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Martin Charnin, Book by Thomas Meehan

Photos:  Andy Coon

By Joe Straw

The kids work hard while their cerebral mass tries to keep up.

They work to focus.  Small minds racing all over the place, hither and yon, but physically coming together as a cohesive whole for a common good, period.    

The small things usually done around Christmas and New Years are put on hold because they are in a musical and, of course, working hard to concentrate in tiny increments.   

Annie, Jr., well, she says it’s really Annie with some stuff left out – except the heart – and the lovely things – mostly all of the unexpected awe-inspiring intangibles.  

Bounce, bounce, flitter, bounce, and off she goes.    

Oh, they grow, on the nightly stage. Not taking a minute to think so.

(Okay, a slight exaggeration, but yesterday I was holding my daughter in my arms, crying at the loveliness of this tiny little bundle of joy.)

Yes, and now, after just crawling right out of our arms, they are up on center stage, performing, and screaming loud when it is all over, which has become a tradition of sorts at dee-Lightful, and hardly manageable for my sensitive ears. 

(“…And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” – The End – from the album Abbey Road - The Beatles)

But, in the end, when the curtain closes and their little eyes get really big, it’s almost like Beatlemania all over again, or dee-Lightfulmania, signifying a right of passage, hands to little cheeks, and the screams do fly.  

Do they really have to scream?

dee-Lightful Productions presented Annie, Jr., Music by Charles Strouse, Lyrics by Martin Charnin and Book by Thomas Meehan January 15-17, 2015 at the Robert Frost Auditorium in the Culver City High School, directed by Allegra Williams and Produced by Dolores Aguanno.

So the higgledy-piggledy thoughts flutter about their heads, hardly unable to control their limbs. But their physical lives, trained in this production, are their first point of entry into this world of art, in a manner of speaking. 

dee-Lightful teaches the actors the songs, the physical actions, and the necessary tasks to complete the show.  And the scattered minds that first enters the rehearsals, find time to focus, to move from one moment to the next before the rehearsals end and everyone flitters home.

There is a lot of talent here in Culver City, where kids work at their craft, making their objectives clear, their nuance subtle, (very subtle at times), all in the hopes of making their mark.   

The interesting thing is watching them work on voice, movement, and character – the sum of which features some very strong voices and accents – and a craft, because they take pride in their craft.  And on that proper observation, one has to take a deep breath and watch it all happen.   

dee-Lightful has a huge following. I was there to see the Subways Cast on Thursday evening and the Taxicabs Cast on Friday night along with 200 of my closest friends.

Each night got progressively better. And each cast had their own uniqueness.  The Taxicabs soared onto stage and never gave up, but it was a night fraught with minor mistakes, a flashlight left on stage, an apple tray left backstage, an imaginary bite of an invisible apple, an arm or a leg of a doll left downstage center for someone to pickup.  All minor but memorable mistakes that put a big smile on everyone’s face and a solid memorable stamp on the night.   

Mistakes happen all the time and everyone learns from their mistakes. Still, there were some terrific performance and moments that would lift you right out of your seat.

Allegra Williams, the director, did a fitting job of putting this all together. And with Ben Ross did some outstanding work on the choreography.  The servants number was excellent as well as the dance numbers with Warbucks and Annie.

With a cast of about 40 actors, there are tremendous amounts of people working behind the scenes to help in the production.  It is a community effort, a lot of hard work, and a boatload of people wrangling actors.

Aine Lee and Isabella Veale both gave pleasing performances as Annie and each had their vocal métiers. 

(But my younger daughter groused that one Annie had brown hair.  I mentioned Annie, in the newspapers, had black hair Monday through Friday and red hair only on the weekends. A little matter lost in its nuance.)  

Katelyn Coon as Miss Hannigan has a wonderful voice and Jessie Grimaldo gave a grand performance as Miss Hannigan as well, each creating a wonderfully functional and emotional life for the character.  

Max Lianos was Oliver Warbucks, a Republican with a serious purpose in mind.  Lianos gave Warbucks a lot of flair and the dance scene with Annie was a magnificent moment in the musical.  Merrick Padilla also played Oliver Warbucks and has a very strong stage presence especially as FDR.  Both gave Lt. Ward a very strong New York/Brooklyn accent.

Mirabel Armstrong did a great job as Grace Farrell and looked to be in the moment throughout.  And Samantha Spector gave Grace Farrell another type of grace and marvelous poise.

Lindsay Gross and Joe Call each played Rooster Hannigan the evil-minded brother to Miss Hannigan. Both were exceptional in the song “Easy Street”.

Both Jules Henderson and Charlotte Ceugniet played Lily St. Regis and each had their own version of the character and wasn’t that nice.  

Other members of the fantastic cast are as follows first by Character and then Subway Cast actor and Taxicabs Cast actor.

Molly – Ruby Addie – Elliana Lilling
Pepper – Socorro Park – Evyn Armstrong
Duffy – Renee Story – Uma Kolesnikow
Toughie – Martin Pentchev – Cosette Okker
April – Ava Allred – Maya Gonzalez
Kate – Izzy Kessner – Cate Schilling
Tessie – Mia Story – Camille Ceugniet
July – Cali Kimura – Brooke Rosenbloom
Drake – Ben Sanderson – Ian Warfield
Cecille – Elena Hilger – Emma Snyder
Annette – Bella Hilger – Samantha Spector
Mrs. Greer – Sophia Martin-Straw – Olivia Andrews
Mrs. Pugh – Jessie Grimaldo – Katelyn Coon
Featured Servant – Lindsay Gross – Lindsay Gross
Bundles McClosky – Joe Call – Sophia Martin-Straw
Appleseller – Arden Malsin – Taye Reiss
Dogcatcher – Aili Poinsett-Yoshida – Olivia Andrews
Sandy – Ayla Moses – Martin Pentchev
Lt. Ward – Merrick Padilla – Max Lianos
Star-To-Be – Charlotte Ceugniet – Socorro Park
Usherette – Jessie Grimaldo – Katelyn Coon
Radio Announcer – Mirabel Armstrong – Lindsay Gross
Burt Healy – Arden Malsin – Jules Henderson
President FD Roosevelt – Merrick Padilla – Max Lianos
Louis Howe – Ian Warfield – Ben Sanderson

dee-Lightful Production needs a home.  They also need updated sound equipment to smooth the edges when the sound doesn’t work as it should. dee-Lightful works in collaboration with Culver City Department of Parks, Recreation & Community Service and is a service we desperately need for the sake of our community.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Clean Start – by Kathy Fischer & Josefina López

By Joe Straw

Normally, there’s a sizeable crowd at Casa 0101, but on this particular night, there were oodles of patrons.  In fact, the lobby was almost bursting shoulder-to-shoulder, and suddenly, in the theatre, it became standing-room-only. This was the opening weekend of a world premier play. Rarely do you get a packed house - so something was a little out of the ordinary. The tarot cards could not have predicted this outcome.  

Am I out of the metaphysical/witchery loop here?   

Casa 0101 Theater presents the world premiere of Clean Start, a new comedy written by Kathy Fischer & Josefina Lopez and directed by Kathy Fischer through February 15, 2015.

This is Casa 0101 at its best. There is so much fun in this presentation of Clean Start, a raucous, snappy, and fast-pace comedy. You had better run fast and reserve your tickets because Casa 0101 shows do not have a long theatrical run.   

In a very modest home, where the tile does not meet the grout, somewhere in East Los Angeles, are the incessant sounds of helicopters flying overhead, police sirens, and Chihuahuas barking angrily.   

Doña Maria Rodriguez (Marina Gonzalez Palmier) sits actively, watching a novela, and is getting downright upset by the smooth dialogue from a charming gigolo-like male on the show.  Her forward inclination means to take it out on this terribly despicable character. To that end, she pulls out a reasonable facsimile, a Ken doll, lays him on a mocajete bowl, and chants for his blond hair to fall out, in clumps. (She has some male issues!)

Rosario Rodriguez (Ingrid Oliu), Maria’s daughter and homeowner, comes home early from her job secretly holding a plant while she puts her stuff away.  Something has happened at her maid cleaning job in Beverly Hills and she was told to go home.

“Never trust a gringo.” – Doña Maria Rodriguez

Rosario responds that Mrs. Parker Reed (Kim Chase) has been good to her and that it has been all a terrible misunderstanding. In the meantime, she can work a swap meet or something to earn money.
And while she is out of work, Blanca (Maria Russell), her sister, can get a job and help the family out, the way some families do. 

Maria, with little regard to her daughter’s active slumber, says that Blanca hasn’t even gotten out of bed yet.  She needs her fourteen hours of beauty sleep.  

Rosario has had it and starts the vacuum cleaner. 

“Ma, you woke me!” – Blanca Rodriguez

Blanca, an out-of-work aspiring model/actress, runs into the living room and, looking in the mirror, checks for any wrinkles in, on, or around her face.  Nope.  Enchanted by her reflection, the stunning creature stares at her voluptuous beauty.  Not a wrinkle anywhere, upstairs good, downstairs even better.

Maria asks Rosario if she got her last paycheck.  No, because as it turns out -  and here is where she is living in her own novela -  Mr. Reed (not seen) was the mastermind of a Ponzi scheme and the authorities have taken swift action to freeze his accounts.  In a gracious bit of action, Mrs. Reed told her employees to take anything out of the house as payment of their last paycheck.

Rosario opted to take a plant – and not even the kind you can roll and smoke – groused her mother.

“Mrs. Reed was good to me.” – Rosario   

So now there’s a problem. Blanca has been waiting for her Quinceañera party for twenty years and she wants it, despite being thirty-five years old. This former Miss Rosarita Bean model is on the edge of the age precipice, in a time where nothing has dropped or cracked, she definitely needs her Quinceaña, and the husband can wait, but not too much longer.

Vladimir (Robert Jekabson), a Russian, wearing socks, underwear, and a utility belt, emanates from the basement where he lives to plug a leak in the bathtub. Blanca ogles his half naked body and  molds herself into a half dozen provocative poses.

Maria looks at Vladimir with distain. She’s decided that Vladimir is not a good match for Blanca.  She had this dream that Blanca would marry a “Juan”.  And just like “no I in team” there’s no way you can get Juan from the name, Vladimir.  But there is no Juan within a suitable marriageable range on the horizon, or even in this universe.

And aside from Vladimir, there is no man within a puffy dress range for all of these ladies.   Rosario is divorced from her French husband, Blanca is looking, and Doña Maria Rodriguez has given up entirely.

Every single moment at this point is turning into a disaster for this family so Maria is forced to go to the tarot cards to foretell their future.   She pulls one and up, and just their luck, the devil appears.

And wouldn’t you know it, the doorbell rings and in walks Mrs. Reed, a gratuitously impertinent rich woman, with her suitcases in tow.  Mrs. Reed, who does not travel east of Robertson, tells Rosario she needs a place to stay until things around her home settles down. And this quaint little home, reminiscent of a third world country home, fits the bill.  Rosario, true to her spirit, offers her the master bedroom, draws her a bath, and a Tanqueray to calm Mrs. Reed’s raw nerves.

Vladimir steps back into the living room now that the bathroom is unplugged.  He is introduced and has a private conversation with Mrs. Reed, speaking in his native Russian tongue, emphasis on the tongue.   Now Blanca wants Mrs. Reed out!

The Quinceañera is not looking too good for Blanca right now.  With no money, she will need to put her Quinceañera dress back in the box, ship it back, and have Rosario make her a dress from the used picnic tablecloths.

Casa 0101 has pulled out their A-List actors for this one. They blend and work magnificently with each other. The actors are true to the spirit and their objectives.

Kim Chase as Parker Reed provides us with a very physical character on stage.  She is slightly despicable, commanding the house as though she owned it, and she does so very well. There is a turn in character when we find out who and what she is and what she is made from.  Chase is wonderful in the role.

Ingrid Oliu as Rosario Rodriguez is the older sister and, for the most part, the straight woman to everyone else’s character. The words did not come easily on this night, possibly due to opening week jitters. Still it was a wonderful performance by a woman who really cares for her family and will do anything for them, and anyone else who walks in, so that they have a home. The plant, especially its role at the end, reminds me of “A Raisin In The Sun”. 

Maria Russell as Blanca Rodriguez does a fine job with her character that desperately wants a Quinceañera.  Russell is an extremely funny and gifted actor who pulls no strings to get what she wants. Gambolling playfully seems to be the order of the day for Blanca and all of it is all in good fun.

Marina Gonzalez Palmier plays Doña Maria Rodriguez, the matriarch of the family.  She has got a sharp quip for anyone who ventures within her earshot. Maria’s relationship with her two daughters appears the same and could use additional treatment. Palmier is a wonderful actor who is always in the moment.

Robert Jekabson is Vladimir and does a nice job as an unsuspecting, or suspecting, love interest.  There is more fun to be had with this character, in his manner, and his off stage antics.  Jekabson, a former golden gloves boxer and personal trainer, totally fills the bill for this character.

Josefina López and Kathy Fischer, the writers, must have had a great time writing this play, which is filled with humor throughout. No laugh track needed as the actors gave a lot of life to the characters. The dialogue is supremely filled with a discourse that rings true to both east and west of Robertson Boulevard. And there’s just enough social conscience in a humorous way to give regular theatregoers that which they have come to see. That said, the Quinceañera scene needs work. The offstage antics, possibly because of the character’s costume changes, is a bit odd and does nothing to further the play along. It might work better to have the dressed-up actors walk out of the door to the party, change lights, then walk back in.

Kathy Fischer, the director, has done a marvelous job keeping the pace moving briskly along.   There is a lot of strong physical comedy work here.  Because of Fischer’s background as a situation comedy writer, the play looks and feels much like a situation comedy. Nothing wrong with that, in fact this a very strong beginning for possibly a new show, and for more Latinos working in television. The dancing maids work wonderfully during the scene changes.

Dandi Dewey does a delightful job with the costumes and props.

Celina Lee Surniak is the Stage Manager.  

Sergio Leal is the Choreographer.

Other members of this crew are as follows:

Vincent Sanchez – Sound Designer & Casa 0101 Facilities Manager
Kay McCarthy – Associate Sound Designer
Chris Clary – Graphic Designer
Suzanne Linares – Co-Producer
Rees Pugh – Set Designer
Sohail e. Najafi – Lighting Designer & Casa 0101 Technical Director
Catalina Adragna – Stage Hand
Julius Bronola – Stage Hand
Emmanuel Deleage – Casa 0101 Executive Director
Mark Kraus – Webmaster, Casa 0101 Administrator
Jorge Villanueva – Casa 0101 Maintenance
Ed Krieger – Production Photographer

Steve Moyer Public Relations

Run!  Run!  Run!  And takes someone who loves to have a good time! 

Reservations:  323-263-7684
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