Monday, May 29, 2017

Separate Tables by Terence Rattigan


By Joe Straw

About the worst a person could do is to dine alone in the Beauregard Private Hotel in Bournemouth, England, which is southwest of London, nestled on the south coast, three minutes from the beach, near the English Channel.

The year is 1958, a settled time of postwar England.  Sitting and daydreaming in the dinning room, the diners stare off surrounded by the accommodations of a dreamier hotel with a loved one rather than at this single table in a lesser class lodge.  Still, they all make the best of a bad lot.

The tables are made for one, for sitting alone. And sitting alone means you may eat with or without impeccable manners. 

However, through meticulous observation, one notices of the diners that the meal is eaten carefully, placing the fork quietly under the medaillon or the goulash this night, taking small bleakly bites so as to listen to the conversation.  And then, waiting carefully for the opening, the diners may then join the intercourse at a comfortable or prescribe time. 

But for now, waitress Doreen’s (Susan Solomon) rattling’s words are suggesting servings for the patrons who are offering only impotent replies which are of little value for those wishing to jump into a tête-à-tête.    

Silence at the dinner table without the chinwag is something they are all accustomed to at this point in their sad lives, what with husbands died, lovers left, and divorces settled.  

But, do they dress! The ladies dine as though they are holding court, the finest dresses with bedazzling jewelry and furs. The one odd exception is a transient guest, Jean Tanner, who is wearing (shocking!) trousers, albeit nice-fitting Katherine-Hepburn-like brown slacks.  (All impeccably dressed by Michéle Young, Costume Design.)

Jean is, neither here, nor there, with a man, Charles Stratton (Caleb Stevens).  Both are buried deep in books not wanting to give away their relationship.  And they give the appearance they hardly know each other until they get up and leave, one following the other.   

If one were to sit in the dining room, and casually glance about the room, one would see Mr. Fowler (John Wallace Combs), a school master with a nervous hand, holding on to something to steady his nerves, wanting desperately to connect, but possibly more with someone of the same sex.

Miss Meacham (Michele Schultz), seated to the left of Mr. Fowler, is gruff and to the point.  She is bundled in an outfit meant to keep her warm in minus 20-degree weather, and she is engulfed in her book, Racing Up To Date, about dashing horses. She keeps a wooden horse with a furry tail on her table. Her coiffure is of an old un-styled blond wig, intended to make her look younger but with little success, not that she even cares.  But, the giveaways of age are those dark thick sole shoes. And she speaks in a gruff manner if only to make a strong point. Still, she is lovely in her manner.

Lady Matheson (Mariko Van Kampen) is to Miss Meacham’s left.  She is beautifully dark, her frame is politely petite, and she handles her food delicately as though it were some extravagant dish from an exotic hotel. Despite her appearance, she has little money living on her deceased husband’s annuity. She is sensible in manner and deed.

And to her left is Mrs. Railton-Bell (Mona Lee Wylde) a beautiful woman, dressed to the nines, but with an edge, and unforgiving in the fault of others.  She inserts herself into the lives of the other lonely guests if only to make them better individuals. Her mind is in everyone’s business whether she understands it or not.

The others speak about the woman joining them on this day being from a fashionable neighborhood in London – Mayfair – arriving that very morning with four suitcases and a hatbox. When Mrs. Anne Shankland (Susan Priver) arrives, she does not disappoint.  Something parted when she entered the room, she is tall and stunning, holding her purse with just a touch of a smile from her broadly painted lips, a model in the most stunning sense of the word, with perfectly painted nails, long flowing dark brown hair, and a silky taffeta dress that looked to be poured over her body.

Mr. Malcolm (Adrian Neil) rushes in for dinner hardly noticing Mrs. Shankland.  It has been a long day at the New Outlook, the paper he writes for, and possibly he has stopped at The Feathers Hotel bar.  But, the moment he sees her, his emotional repertoire reverberates with his needle in the red. Either she leaves or he does since they cannot both be there.

Jules Aaron, the director, is superb in his attention to details, which makes Separate Tables a magnificent outing and a wonderful night of theatre. The two acts are almost like two separate plays with the first act-taking place mostly at night and the other act, a lighter fare, happening during the day, eighteen months later. Aaron plays upon the memories of time and place in this play with music that highlights the entrance of the main characters and lights dimming for a supreme focus on character.  It’s almost like watching Hitchcock and getting that tingling sensation anticipating suspense.

Unlike the Burt Lancaster movie, the first act in the play only verbally introduces two characters – Major Pollack (David Hunt Stafford) and Sybil Railton-Bell (Roslyn Cohn) – while the second act highlights these two characters. It is better if they were accentuated in the first act so the audience expects them and the acts tie together.    

Jeff G. Rack’s Set Design is wonderfully meticulous in the design of a rotating set that turns from a dinning room into a lounge area and then back again to the separate tables.

Diana Angelina is Miss Cooper, the woman who runs the hotel. Miss Cooper is straight back, to the point, and tries to keep every customer satisfied and especially one in particular.  But things are not going according to plan.  She doesn’t get the man she wants.  Angelina should try harder to make that relationship work. There’s a lot to be said of Angelina’s performance, the way she controls her space, and the manner in which she holds her emotions in check. One wonders if there is another choice to bring that emotion of losing someone, her lover, to the forefront.

Roslyn Cohn does a terrific job as the lugubrious Sybil Railton-Bell.  Sybil is a character that is probably on the autism spectrum.  She loves infinitely and is betrayed by the smallest infraction. Maybe she is not able to process the circumstances of how she feels betrayed.  Sybil is a prisoner of her own mental constraints and breaking free of those feelings will release her from those bonds.  Cohn’s craft is excellent and curiosity added would move her more into finding that freedom.  

Melissa Collins has room to play Jean Stratton, a woman, a feminist, and a hell raiser given the chance.  Stratton has a wonderful imagination and a perspective on sizing individuals on a moments notice.  But Collins doesn’t size up the participants in the first scene and perhaps she should, given the nuanced description of everyone in her next scene. Stratton has a strong personality, and the ability to move in the direction of her own choosing. There is strong conflict building in their opening scene that is now played as a lighthearted encounter.  The second act reveals stronger disagreements and indicates that maybe this relationship is not going to work.  Collins is stunning, has a wonderful presence, and knows her way around the stage. 

John Wallace Combs is a very reliable and wonderful actor. In his role as a retired schoolteacher, Mr. Fowler, Combs hits all of the right buttons.  But maybe more urgency is needed in the first act when Mr. Fowler’s male friend does not show up.  Fowler sits at a table with little interest in the four women at other tables and yet he clamors for the art student that doesn’t show no matter how hard he tries to get in touch with him.   

There is a violent streak in Mr. Malcolm played by Adrian Neil. We never see the full extent of his violence; one that happens in the past and possibly gets him time in prison, and the other in the first act with his ex-wife. Mr. Malcolm’s hedonism, and with all of this other moral imperfections, chooses the woman that gives him a greater sense of conflict, a battling nuance, of discovering something new in a relationship.  He chooses diversity over substance. One would have liked a stronger definition of his relationship to Miss Cooper. But Neil’s work is solid in this outing.

Susan Priver does some remarkable work on stage as Anne Shankland.  She is stunning and manages to command the room with her beauty without doing or saying a thing. But Anne Shakland’s words get her into a lot of trouble.  Two divorces later, she brings her melodious lamentations to her table.  And now she is back to capture her first fling but conflict abounds in her relationship to that man, a man she so desperately needs now.  She seems to take pleasure in conflict, physical or otherwise in her loneliness. This is a tour de force role for Priver.

Michele Schultz does some amazing work as Miss Meacham. Despite being alone and never married Miss Meacham is smart and worldly to boot. She has a supreme realization of humanity and is quite the communicator when the time arises.  Schultz gives Miss Meacham a truly defined character, a strong sense of an objective, and a manner, which gives the character her place in the world.

Caleb Slavens has a grand method on stage as Charles Stratton.  There are no false moves in his portrayal.  Slavens plays Stratton sincerely and to the point. The first scene with his future wife is playful, possibly wanting to hold on to the relationship.  But he is focused on his work, studying to be a doctor. He tells his girlfriend to “shut up” and also implores her not to lose the page he is studying so there is a little more conflict to that scene. Slavens, at this point, must be questioning their relationship if she takes lightly his studying and that fits in nicely for a play about loneliness and finding happiness. 

In the written play by Terence Rattigan, Mabel is the waitress in the first act follows by Doreen.  In this viewing, Doreen is in both acts wonderfully played by Suzan Solomon, an actor, who has a strong craft. She is a superior actor, and everything looks easy for her.  Solomon is so spot-on in character. She is just being, and doing it extremely well.

David Hunt Stafford does not disappoint as Major Pollack. Stafford puts his own stamp onto the Pollack characterization.  Certainly one can see this character in uniform and wearing the metals he earned, marching when warranted, but this Pollack is a sensitive being, aged, sometimes forgetful, and mostly being an unreliable reporter. It is terrific work.

Mariko Van Kampen is Lady Mathison who is the softer side of humanity. But one is not really sure what this woman is about.  Mathison has a relationship with each of the characters but one doesn’t really get a sense of her objective. She is pleasant enough in the role but there must be more to her objective and the conflict must weigh heavily on her purpose.

Mona Lee Wylde presents a strong purpose for the character Mrs. Railton-Bell.  Certainly she must have things her way or it’s the highway.  Railton-Bell, is consistent in her constant mood of repugnance, accompanied by the lurid glares.  She presents her way of gathering incriminating evidence, or what she perceives as incriminating and then acting strongly against it. Wylde is solid in her craft.

Wonderfully produced by David Hunt Stafford in Theatre 40’s fifty first season. And, parking is free.  What more could you ask for?

Other members of the outstanding crew are as follows:

J. Kent Inasy – Lighting Designer
Paolo Greco – Sound Designer
Judi Lewin – Makeup/Wigs/Hair Designer
Don Solosan – Stage Manager
Richard Carner – Assistant Stage Manager
Jordan Hoxsie – Assistant Director

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone that you have seen dining alone!

In the Reuben Cordova Theatre

RESERVATIONS: (310) 364-0535.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Sweetheart Deal by Diane Rodriguez

L - R Peter Wylie, Linda Lopez, Ruth Livier, Valente Rodriguez - Photos by Grettel Cortes

By Joe Straw

"The land,
like the water
and the air,
should belong to the people"

"Better to die on your feet
than live on your knees..." – El Marcriado

We certainly got the flavor of El Teatro Campesino actos (skits) who got the capacity crowd waving UFW banners and shouting slogans.  There was no room for quiet meditation on this night, you were either with us or you moved down the dusty road with haste. – Narrator

Forgive this writer’s rambling mess, but I hope that something strikes an active cord to move – for humanity’s sake.  Narrator

The Latino Theater Company presents The Sweetheart Deal written and directed by Diane Rodriguez presented in Association with El Teatro Campesino and playing through June 4, 2017 at the Los Angeles Theater Center on Spring Street in Los Angeles.

Rodriguez’s work elevates the human spirit.  The characters costumed in masks and wigs visually jolt our slumberous moral reticence. And in this type of meretricious theatre, perhaps an offset of commedia dell’arte, we wonderfully absorb the meaning in unimaginable ways and in the manner of our own interpretation.  

Rodriguez implores us to recognize the struggle that continues in the workingman until the very last breath. And there is no room for being the passive observer because at the end of the day, and yes there will be one, regrets will fill the unnecessary void. For humanity’s sake, human injustice is the battle worth fighting even though the war is continuous and may last for many generations.

In any case, it makes for a great night of theatre.
That said, if there are hopes of moving the production to a larger venue, a slight alteration is needed to cover the seams.  More on those comments later.

When you see stories like The Sweetheart Deal, you know the lives of the characters are not going to be easy or, for that matter, end well.

The year is 1970. The place is Delano, California. We’re in the office of El Malcriado – The voice of the Farm Worker – underground newspaper.

This is the kind of place where you’d expect an underground newspaper to be, in a dark room, surrounded by majestic uniformed produce crates that serve all kinds of purposes, including privacy. But, most importantly Efren Delgadillo, Set Design, minimizes the size of the workers, small beings who are in a gargantuan struggle. 

Today Chon (Valente Rodriguez), a Cesar Chavez type leader, and Lettie (Linda Lopez), a muscular Dolores Huerta type, wait for the arrival of Mari (Ruth Livier) and Will (Geoffrey Rivas), a married couple, who are arriving to volunteer for the underground newspaper, El Malcriado. (Translation: ill bred or mischievous or children who speak back to their parents.)

Mari is not all that happy about volunteering but Will says they are going to be okay.  He previously worked for a neighborhood penny saver, a grand yellow rag in its own right. Will assures her that this will be perfect since they just trying it out for a year.  Mari scrunches at the thought of spending a year once again in the farming community of Delano, California.  In essence, they have come home, returned to the place of their youth, just as their son is starting his first year of college.   

Charlie (Peter Wylie), a progressive white man with bell-bottom jeans, agenda in hand, greets them. Charlie knows about Mari’s brother, Mac (David Desantos), and wonders if they can get Mac, a teamster, to join their side with the farmworkers.

Will says that he will ask and Mari will also do her part.  Mari hasn’t seen her brother in a while; their relationship is estranged because of what Mac did to their dad who died at 48 working the fields.   Although they are all in on the idea, they know convincing Mac will be an uphill struggle.

With the audience participation, this was an enjoyable night of theatre. But sometimes theatre needs structure and especially in this linear narrative.

Diane Rodriguez had a lot on her plate being both the writer and director. I won't fault her writing, it was beautiful.  But, as the director, I have a few notes for her. The introduction should keep the patrons involved as though they were the farm workers and never let that go.  Also, the reporters need to report the events of the day in the way they put the daily events on paper. We need to not lose sight of the reporters reporting and to see the paper produced.

Also, the group of actors representing the farm workers should be made clear.  The actors played as a commercial break rather than for a purpose.  We should know who they are.  We should also know why they are there.  And location is also key. Are we on the back of a pickup truck?  Are we on a dirt road?  What is the purpose for being there besides a backstage scene or costume change. A little more symbolism goes a long way in these moments.

L - R - Linda Lopez, David Desantos, Valente Rodriguez
David Desantos, as Mac has such a strong presence. But working as an actor in the El Teatro Campesino actos, takes away from the conflict of coming together.  If he is a Teamster, why are we seeing him performing skits? This Teamster wants nothing to do with the farm workers.  Also, he goes by the name of “Mac” and that should say something about the character hiding his roots. One really didn’t get the drunk scene, an excuse to confront his sister, and an excuse for him not to be on his hands and knees begging for forgiveness. Sober with a purpose is better. All that aside, Desantos has a remarkable presence on stage.

Ruth Livier, and Linda Lopez

Ruth Livier, as Mari, does some incredible work on the bench speaking to her husband.  This is what you come for in theatre, for that supreme and emotional connection to the character. This scene that brought me home to an emotional place so deep that my feelings were not kept in check on this night. 

Geoffrey Rivas, as Will, was also part of that scene. He has a strong craft and uses his hands to make a point. But his relationship with his brother-in-law was not a strong one, and it was almost too causal which makes the hurt scene not very believable. The relationship needs more work. Rivas has a quiet passion in his work and his craft.

Linda Lopez is enjoyable as Lettie. More needs to be added to this character to define her needs other than that of a supporting character.

The same holds true with Peter Wylie as Charlie who knows what he is after in the beginning but loses that momentum toward the end of the play.

Valente Rodriguez is a superior actor as Chon but this character needs to command the room in the way a leader does. Chon pushes the button and steps in only when everyone gets hot under the collar. Still, his work was fantastic, sometimes subtle, but very believable.

The costumes by Lupe Valdez, Costume Design are both colorful and wonderful.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Pablo Santiago – Lighting Design
Cricket S. Myers – Sound Design
Yee Eun Nam – Projection Design
Sage Lewis – Composer
Alex Meda – Associate Director
John Freeland, Jr. – Stage Manager
Antonieta Castillo – Properties
Natalie Morales – Assistant Set Designer
Emily Lehrer – Assistant Stage Manager
Gabe Figueroa – Production Manager
Dan Guerrero, Rosalinada Morales, Pauline O’Con, CSA – Casting
Lucy Pollack – Public Relations

Run! Run! And take a writer, someone who loves the truth and reports on it daily.   

514 S. Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA  90013

Tickets:  866-811-4111

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Foreigner by Larry Shue

L - R David Clayberg, Julianna Robinson, Tanya White, Mike Niedzwiecki - Photos by SM Rep

By Joe Straw

The Foreigner by Larry Shue, directed by Sarah Gurfield, and produced by Eric Bloom and Bart Petty is now playing at The Miles Memorial Playhouse through May 20, 2017.

The Foreigner is a delightful show, a comedy, with remarkable performances by a stellar cast. And really, being a southern boy from Georgia and Tennessee one can’t help but fall in love with this cast of characters.

It’s always raining in Tilghman County, Georgia, except when it’s not, and well it’s raining tonight when Froggy (Jon Sperry) hops into the door of a dilapidated log cabin turned into a kind of notel/motel.

This is the kind of night a frog would like.  

Staff Sergeant Froggy LeSueur removes his jacket – he is actually looking frog-ish, wearing military fatigues – as he welcomes Charlie (Mike Niedezwiecki) into the inn.  Charlie is dress differently – in a sports jacket – they both have English accents.  (Yeah, the kind they speak in England.) Froggy sounds a little cockney (like I know) and Charlie is a little more refined.

Froggy calls out for Betty (Tanya White) but there is no answer. So, that gives him a chance to pour drinks around the house and talk about their personal issues in frog like lily pad style.   

But, Charlie is mentally fatigued.  His wife, back home in England, is in the hospital dying.  She’s expected to live another six month and Charlie doesn’t know what he is doing in Georgia for three days while his wife is breathing her last breath.  

Froggy tells him to look on the bright side, that the doctors are sometimes wrong.  He says she might pull through.

But, Charlie filled with guilt confesses their relationship has been on a rocky road.  He blames himself. He says he’s boring – a proofreader for a science fiction magazine for 27 years – and he has found out that his wife has been cheating on him.

Froggy says cheating is okay – “One little mistake” - but Charlie says it has happened over twenty three times and even in front of him.

“She flaunted them at me.” – Charlie

Be that as it may Charlie doesn’t want to stay at the hotel. Froggy says he can’t take him on the base and he has to stay put in these fine accommodations in southern Georgia.

Stuck, pusillanimous Charlie says he doesn’t want to talk to people – “Even idle conversation – terrifies me.”   So Froggy cooks up a plan to tell everyone that Charlie is a foreigner who doesn’t speak English.

Coming around, Betty greets Froggy like a long lost friend, a hug and three jumps, in keeping with his name.   She accepts the gifts of spoons from around the world.  The spoon that makes a naked lady, she'll put in the drawer. 

Betty tells Froggy her woes. She says the cabin is run down – last winter got the best of the place – the foundation is plum rotten – or says Owen Musser (Troy Dunn), a two tattooed property inspector.

Betty just wishes that she had traveled more like Froggy, and had met more foreigners.

Froggy, off the cuff, tells Betty that she has got a foreigner right here in her cabin staying with her for the next three days.

“He ain’t – he ain’t a Communist, is he?” – Betty

“Wot, ‘im? Naaow. Naaow – ‘e’s got a stock of credit cards in ‘is wallet that thick.” – Froggy

Plan in place -  the one where Froggy drops off a complete stranger, a foreigner, who doesn’t speak a drop of English - is a good one.  Froggy says his goodbyes, hops out of the lodge, and bumps into Reverend David Lee (David Clayberg) a man with a sinister plan of taking over the lodge for nefarious purposes, from two sisters, his girlfriend - a recently pregnant Catherine (Julianna Robinson) and her not so smart sister Ella (Sara Mayer).

One was getting worried during the opening moments of Sarah Gurfield’s direction with the actors performing center stage and playing out to the fourth wall.  But things began to settle down and the show took off from there.  This is a wonderful show and the Santa Monica Repertory Theater Company triumphs once again.  

Julianna Robinson and Mike Niedzwiecki

Mike Niedzwiecki plays Charlie Baker, the foreigner, a character who doesn’t want to speak, can’t speak, terrified of speaking until he learns that he really doesn’t need to speak in order to communicate. Niedzwiecki is a terrific actor who often times performs miracles.   His craft is so meticulous, and his character’s wile so infectious that he makes his fellow actors look wonderful as well.

Jon Sperry is having a lot of fun as Froggy.  One doesn’t know if it was the camouflaged costume, his eyes, or his nose that personified a frog like character.  Whatever it was, it all worked.  Sperry was as funny as all get out.

One is really amazed by the work of Julianna Robinson as Catherine. Robinson gives this character a complete turn from someone who is confused and not likeable to someone who is smart and willing to open herself to see all around her.  It is a terrific performance and an equally terrific craft.  

Sara Mayer is Ella (changed from Ellard in the original play).  Ella is a simpleton, doesn’t think she knows much, but she is much more in tuned when given the chance.  The problem is that no one gives her the chance. Mayer is very amusing in the role and really has too much fun.  

Troy Dunn created a strong choice for the roll of Owen, a well-defined character with a lot of terrific mannerisms.  But, his character appeared to step off the Third Street Promenade – the kind of character shaking a cup for coins. How that fits as a pestiferous inspector living in Georgia is anyone's guess.  One is is not quite sure how anyone in Georgia would even give this character the job of inspector.  Still, there’s some quirky stuff coming from this actor that makes him enjoyable to watch.

Tanya White is terrific as Betty a naïve individual who has got a lot more on the ball than others give her credit for.  Betty is a very giving soul who takes her job and her customers at the lodge very seriously. White has got wonderful way on stage and a very beautiful craft.

Yes, I’ve seen this character before, the slimy but sincere pettifogging preacher from the south, preaching one thing and delivering another.  David Clayberg lives and breathes the character of Reverend David Marshall Lee, the strong jawed slicked back greasy haired guy, with a very sinister and ill flattering smile and with an interesting Georgia accent to boot.  He is the southern preacher that lived up the street, preaching one day, and gone the next. It is a wonderful performance, although he didn’t seem to be in too much of a hurry to ditch Owen to be with his girlfriend who is lighting a candle, waiting for him.  

Sara Patterson was the female understudy but did not perform the night I was there.

Hazel Kuang, Scenic Design, gave us a very functional set, with a lot of nooks and crannies, and a virtual playground for the actors.

Other member of the crew are as follows:

James Ferrero – Sound Design
Adrienne Johnson-Lister – Stage Manager
Lauren Wemischner – Lighting Design
Maddie Keller – Costume Design
Princella Baker Jr. – Scenic, Props, and Costume Assistant
Eden Mullins – Assistant Stage Manager
Davidson & Choy Publicity – Public Relations

Run! Run! Run! And take a country boy with you, someone who appreciates the great outdoor, and is not too slimy.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire

L - R Jordana Oberman, Toni Christopher, Michael Yurchak - Photos by John Geronilla

By Joe Straw

Winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize – This I had to see.  Had to. – Narrator

After working in legitimate theatre with the Netherlander Organization (The Pantages) I moved on to Equity Waiver Theater.  This was in 1980 and it was a painful downgrade. The Equity Waiver houses were very small, mostly rundown, the budgets were minuscule, but I worked where I could find work for little or no money.  I paid to be in one show, the outcome was not pretty especially to a nasty Drama Logue critic. But, mostly I went to theatre just to see what was going on out there.

Since that time there has been an enormous growth in intimate theatre spread all over the city from North Hollywood, to Glendale and Pasadena, to the theatres downtown, on to theatre row on Santa Monica Boulevard, each with their own flavor, adding their own spice to the theatrical life in Los Angeles.  

Equity waiver gave way to the AEA 99-seat theatre rule and with those accommodations, and over a period of time, the acting got significantly better. - Narrator

There are times I go to theatre to see a show that has someone I know or have seen from time to time. This show was different in that all of the actors were new to me, their work was unusual and their acting chops were significant.

The Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire directed by Eric Hunicutt and produced by JTK Productions is playing at The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood and has been extended through May 21, 2017.  

Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Eric Hunicutt is an amazing show that everyone should run to see!  It is brilliant in execution and flawless in hitting the moments that send a giant zing straight into the heart.

Hunicutt’s work was magic, out of the ordinary, and expressively exquisite. At some point during the course of the performance the lives of the characters enveloped this onlooker.  Such work of this magnitude is rarely seen in intimate theatres, with its rigorous simplicity, and in the way the characters gloriously blend in saudade making this a magnificent night.

Although Rabbit Hole is a comedy, it is a story of parental grief - the results of losing their small child in an automobile accident. And, it starts so unexpectedly.  One feels the family portrait, right there on the mantle, where there is none.  

Rabbit Hole is the story of smart ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances who are trapped - in a room of prodigious improbability - that maybe someone, someone at some time, will take a moment and share what’s in their heart. But when they do reveal secrets it is done in a most uncomfortable and unusual way. 

Izzy (Toni Christopher) can’t wait to tell her sister Becca (Jordana Oberman) the news about this obnoxious woman at the bar, someone who came up to her and started screaming.  The outcome was that Izzy hit her and knocked her to the floor.

Izzy blames it on coping with life and death.

“No, you’re not allowed to use him.” Becca

Danny’s death is the thing that no one can talk about; I mean, seriously talk about. (Although dead for eight months one did not see any kind of photograph of Danny anywhere.)

Also, things, important information doesn’t come out easily for Izzy who lacks the ability to be a reliable reporter. Who was the woman?  Why was she screaming?  What was she yelling about?

Meticulously Becca pries the information out of Izzy as though she were using the Jaws of Life.  

“People don’t scream in your face for no reason.” Becca

“Sure they do.  You should get out more.” – Izzy

“Were you sleeping with him?” – Becca

Leave it to the truth seeker, Becca. But, that’s not all, Izzy is also pregnant.

Later that night Howie (Michael Yurchak) and Becca get comfortable, talk about Becca’s pregnant sister, turn the lights down low, and turn up Al Green before things start falling apart.

“…For you to be roping me into sex when I don’t wanna have it? – Becca

“I wasn’t roping you into anything. Jesus.” – Howie

“No?  Al Green isn’t roping?” – Becca

Eight months after the accident Becca is not ready especially when she sees Danny all over the house, his toys, his fingerprints, and for all of that she wants to move, sell the house.   Howie can only consider it and when Becca walks upstairs, Howie turns on the VCR tape and watches his son on the television.

L - R Jordana Oberman, Toni Christopher, Darcy Shean

Just when you think things couldn’t get worse Nat (Darcy Shean), mother of the two sisters, celebrates Izzy’s birthday, by parlaying stories about the Kennedys and their tragedies, a circuitous route to make a point about death making sense.

Holding on to one last secret Becca enters Danny’s room and surreptitiously opens a letter from Jason (Rocky Collins).  It is a letter of apology.

Jordana Oberman brings a very nice simplicity to the character Becca.  She listens, and hears everything, asking questions when things don’t make sense.  And, with her family, a lot of things don’t make sense. Becca is living on the edge and she is about ready to explode only going so far to release some of that explosiveness. The clothes, the dog, the yelling lady only make sense when everyone gets the information. Oberman is quirky, slightly offbeat, and perfect for the role.  In short it is a wonderful performance that audiences should run to see.

Toni Christopher has this deep, kind of scratchy voice that is also powerful. Izzy is slightly offbeat and a matching pair with her sister.  Izzy at first glance doesn’t have clue, in her love life, her job life, and her family life. She’s made a lot of mistakes, a history of drinking, and getting into trouble the family constantly repeats. One would hope that Izzy would find a way to effectively communicate with her sister.  But the charm of it is that it is part of the makeup of that family, of not taking care of the metaphorical elephant in the room. Christopher’s objective is strong and her work is outstanding especially the small touches when she enters and leaves the room.

The women in his life over match Howie. They are a lot smarter when catching him at things he should not be doing. Michael Yurchak puts a lot of emotional life into the character, and as Howie he is probably the most emotional one of the bunch. No one really blames him for the accident but in the back of his mind he probably feels that pain everyday.  Yurchak brings it on this night, yes he does. And, it is an emotional tour de force.

Darcy Shean plays Nat, a mother who seems rich and slightly daft but is very lovable. Nat can’t get to the meat of the matter when discussing the emotional needs of her children. But she is more than willing to throw her money around when someone needs help. Except when it comes to the dog.  She must harbor some kind of resentment to buy the cheapest dog food on the shelf making the dog turn enormous during his brief stay.

Jordana Oberman, Rocky Collins

Rocky Collins plays the young man Jason who has, in effect, accidentally created this whole mess the family lives with. In his way he tries very hard to communicate with that family just to say he is sorry. He lives with the accident, everyday, and needs an outlet to express his apology. Collins has a very grand style rooted in simplicity, the uncomfortable feelings, taking his fists and rubbing his knuckles while expressing his thoughts, thinking onstage before moving on, trying his best to communicate his thoughts before his time ends with them. Collins has a wonderful and dramatic stage presence.  

Lily Bartenstein, Scenic and Light Design, creates a wonderful space for the actors.  The space is small for Larchmont, NY home but works well with the limited space.

Wonderfully produced by Kayla Cagan who is making her producing debut in a remarkable production.  

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Serena Duffin – Costume Design
Jason Whitton – Sound Design
Jeff Miller – Stage Manager
Mark Gokel – Stage Manager

Run! Run! Run! And take a friend who is confused by the complexities of life.
Information: (917) 407-3346.

Monday, May 8, 2017

The Awful Grace of God by Michael Harney

By Joe Straw

“Art, said Stephen, is the human disposition of sensible or intelligible matter for an esthetic end.” – James Joyce from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

I wondered why there were a lot of nuns in the audience.  It was probably to keep an eye on us heathens. Their quiet presence was in contrast to the godly winds on this night.  Winds that whipped metal shingles on the roof creating a terrible racket that produced both wonderful and strange metallic sounds. Beautiful sounds that made one terrific actor look up and absorb the noise that whipped back and forth.   

One suspects, through the awful grace of God, that these are compliments of misguided men who failed to hammer in that one extra nail.   – Narrator

Go The Distance Productions presents the world premiere of The Awful Grace of God, an evening of original one-act plays written by Michael Harney, Produced by Michael Harney, and directed by Mark Kemble at The Other Space @ The Actors Company in Hollywood through May 28th, 2017.

Off   (1972 – Flushing, Queens, New York)

Joe (Curtis Belz) cool wasn’t so cool sitting on the stoop of his Flushing Queens apartment. He had a beer at his side, well two actually, as he watched some kids play stickball.  They weren’t playing to his satisfaction and there was this smart aleck kid Jerry (R. J. Seikaly – not seen) who was always running his mouth.

Joe couldn’t do much about it, well not just yet. With his prosthetic leg, compliments of the draft, the US government, and Vietnam, getting up and down was harder and harder with each passing day. He must concentrate on the game and somehow avoid attention to his lifelong friend Stan (Bechir Sylvain).

Stan’s looking better theses day, not that Joe is actually noticing, but what’s up with the leather jacket, nice clothes, and extra money? Something going on and Joe wants to find out about it, eventually.  Yeah, what’s that deal? 

Stan says,  “Hey!” And Joe says nothing, sitting behind his shades, looking at nothing, until Stan moves closer, Joe takes a beer and flips the top inviting Stan to sit.

Joe, not satisfied with the game, starts yelling and the kids yell back. A lot of F.U.s are exchanged with Jerry until Joe pulls out a gun.  Stan has to jump in and control the situation.

Joe Jamieson (Michael Harney – not seen) tells Joe put his gun away.  Joe is someone in authority, possibly a cop, who is in everyone’s business and everyone in the apartment respects his views.

All around the acting is terrific.  The opening needs work to establish a credible relationship between the two men, one that intimates a bond from long ago.  With everyone trying to be cool, we lose a sense of what one wanted from the other and that needs to be defined.  Joe, I kind of got, but he needed to move in that direction long before Stan stepped on stage.

The Shaft song was terrific!   

Also Joe Jamieson, the godly voice, seems to be a policeman who lives upstairs and knows about these two men, what they are up to, and what they need to do to clean up their act. But, the vocal character is slightly confusing.  One would have liked to get a visual picture of the man.


The cold and snow in this New England cabin can play tricks on the senses if one is willing to surrender to the noise.  Dodge (Tim DeZarn) and Ellen (Janine Venable) come here each year for reasons that are made clear.

Ellen thinks seven years is enough time.  She wants to move on, to leave this place, leave them to her memories. She would love to go to other places, someplace warm for a change, like the Bahamas.  

But Dodge is fascinated by the rejuvenating sounds of the quiet, the noise from each passing movement, and the tracks that leave footprints to his doorsteps, a message to him perhaps if one is willing to take in all in.  

Dodge is out of coffee and when Ellen offers to go into the kitchen it gives him the opportunity to talk to his deceased son before time runs out. He searches for sounds first, and then shadows second, of who is out there, moving through the snow, breaking the brittle twigs in the crunching snow.   

“How are things? Making out okay?... Wonder how it is for you over there.” – Dodge

Dodge strains his eyes, searching for a sign, a shadow, hoping to see the image, the last time his son smiled, when he enveloped all the love and everything that moment offered.

(It is enough to openly weep! And I did.)

Ellen brings out the coffee – there’s too much milk in it – and starts labeling the fruit in Mason jars. She has a lot of convincing to do.

I loved this scene about two lovers who want different things but first have to surrender to each other, their emotions, and their dreams to recapture a moment. The quiet times are rejuvenating, when all things become clear, and this is how they go about finding closure.  

The opening, the first quiet moment, needs a purpose as the two characters are on opposites sides of the stage trying to find a way to connect, to be one with each other.

Willy and Rose

Okay, about the worst place you can be is in a fleabag motel room waiting for your boyfriend to show up, if he is ever going to show up.  The only thing she has to keep her company is a bottle of booze and a couple of glasses.  

Rose (Agatha Nowicki) waits, partially clothed, for her gruff boyfriend Willy (Johnny Whitworth) to show, if he’ll ever show up at all.

When Willy does show, he goes straight for the bottle, lays his gun down on the table and says he’s got a present for Rose, in a carrying case.

There’s money in there, and lots of it.  Rose first wants to leave and then she wants to know how Willy got it.  Willy, not entirely forthcoming, argues with Rose, which culminates with their lovemaking.

“You take away the dark, baby.” - Willy

Rose’s instincts, to leave before the lovemaking, would have been the better choice, but she stays. Willy’s explanation includes a justification for killing another man.

For the sake of making it look real, the fighting esthetics on stage can get a little worrisome and look a little out of control. Sometimes those actions work, other times they do not.  On this night, a glass broke as the actors fell onto the floor.  Fortunately no one was hurt.

The other character in the show was Infini (Joseph Bongiovanni) an assassin with a silencer. If what Willy says was true, then there is something very sinister about that support group. And, in saying so, the writing jumped three notches in my book.

The Long Walk Home

Joe (James Harvey Ward) comes home drunk. But before he makes it inside Joe greets his friend Charlie (Daniel Litz) and his partner Dee Dee (Rebecca Lidvan). Joe kisses Dee Dee on the lips and Charlie is not having any part of this.

Joe’s wife, Kate (Amelia Jackson Gray), a beautiful woman in a white and green Doris Day dress, hears the noise outside and Joe crawls though the door helped by Kate who has seen this too many times. Their two kids are in the back bedroom wanting a bedtime story. Joe keeps Kate from leaving instead he runs to the bedroom and hits the kids and then he comes back and hits Kate.

Joe awakens the next morning to find his mother, Ann (Janine Venable), with a cup of coffee for him.  She is disappointed and she wants Joe to get help.  But help does not come in the right package.  Joe’s dad John (Tim DeZarn) comes in the room in his wheelchair and tries to muscle Joe into doing what’s right.  

This 1950’s intervention of sorts ends without a significant resolution. The acting is terrific on all levels but there is a lot of information presented without explanation – a number of whys without completely understanding the relationships.  Why is John is in a wheelchair? Why does Joe come home drunk? And, why is the wife, Kate, so passive?  Also, why is John’s mother the first and only one to take care of John? What is special about their relationship?  Why is she holding the keys to his mental health?  (I know, I have a lot of questions on this one.)

Need (Shelter From the Storm)

Katherine (Marie Broderick), a therapist, is strictly professional.  The patient, Francis (Marshall McCabe), comes in tired.  Since the death of his parents he has been keeping himself busy with his new book. But he is finally happy, after extended sessions of therapy, grieving the loss of his parents, and the passing of time.  

But in the back of his mind, Francis is still despondent. Or, is there another reason he keeps coming back to see his therapist?

There is more on Francis’ mind. He is in love with his doctor and he lets it be known that she is the only thing that matters.

Again, in this scene, one person is pushing and shoving, not something one would see from two intellectuals. Despite that, there are two terrific actors in this scene who find a common core of truth, getting what they want, and also getting very emotional in the process. The actors are strong in their objectives.


Zip (Oscar Best), a black man, was strapped to a metal pole in a thunderstorm.  (Let me break some rules in giving you an idea of what I thought the scene was about.)

There is one hint given in the program, “Here – The Present”.

Zip didn’t know why he was there, strapped to a pole. He couldn’t recall, and really couldn’t speak.  He felt pained, like something injured him, perhaps a 2 x 4” board wacked against his skull that made him unable to speak, for reasons that were unexplained.  But now, here, he was trapped, chained against a metal pole, waiting for the inevitable. And it was coming, something he felt, inside. It was useless to try to escape, he lacked the strength necessary, and there was only one way now.   The end on this road was near.

He heard the voice, a woman, Presence (Janine Venable) to guide him to the next phase of life. And despite the pain, he listened for a sign of comfort, the one note, the last word to guide him, but she was saying things he couldn’t understand, poetic words, without purpose, or a purpose without meaning. 

Zip wondered how this was going to end, chained like a slave, and dying like the others before him. No need for him to look around for help, he was in an isolated area, in the woods, far away from any caring human being. And finally, this injustice act deserved a scream, a way of letting someone know that he mattered.

The Awful Grace of God by Michael Harney is a series of one-acts that must work in some kind of cohesive whole.  It is all under one title, under one label. As it is now, the acts do not seem connected.  But the acts work on an separate level and were fascinating with terrific actors playing the roles. Also, the time frame is scattered.  We go back and forth in periods, 1972, present day, to 1950, and then again back to present day. How the awful grace of God relates to any of the one-acts is up to anyone’s interpretation.  There are spiritual elements in each scene.

Mark Kemble, the director, guides the remarkable actors.  There is more to be had in establishing relationships, maintaining strong objectives, and giving each character a backstory to define the character’s motives. Still, this was a lovely night of theatre.  There must be a creative way to implement better scene changes. In fact that should be a specific job for someone.

Joel Daavid, Set Designer, always does terrific work and in this production gives us a layered background upstage, which accepts Fritz Davis marvelous projections. Wonderful work!

Ed Zajac, Sound Designer, adds an extra element of life, gunshots, passing cars, and crystal clear voice-overs by various members of the cast.  

So all I can think about is the first quote of the “esthetic end”.  What is our esthetic end?  If it is a showcase for actors, then it is a job well done. If all acts relate to the awful grace of God then we need that connective DNA to make it a cohesive whole.  

Other members of the production team are as follows:

Brian Foyster – Producer
Andrew Schmedake – Lighting Designer
Thomas Zoeschg – Stage Manager
Steve Moyer Public Relations – Show Publicist
Malyssa Lyles – Wardrobe Consultant
Jennifer Abel – Publicist for Michael Harney
Kaho Koinuma – Graphic Designer
Billy Pace – Music & Editing for Promotional Video
Bruce Nehlsen – House Manager
Ed Krieger – Production Photographer
Susan Rimel – Deck Crew
Emily Lewis - Deck Crew
Marien Walton – Charge Scenic Artist
Jody St. Michael – Scenic Painter

Run! Run!  And take someone who has overcome a great deal of adversity.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington by Clare Coss

Melanie Cruz and Ben Guillory - Photo Matthew Leland

By Joe Straw

The Robey Theatre Company, in association with the Los Angeles Theatre Company, presents the west coast premiere of Dr. Du Bois and Miss Ovington by Clare Coss and Directed by Ben Guillory.

Walking into the theatre, the first thing you notice is Thomas Meleck’s beautiful set design.  Golden lamp fixtures and art deco lights drip esthetically from the ceiling, the transom window, in the portal, pours lights onto the antique hardwood flooring, a silent gramophone sits high on a cabinet, wooden desks, a manual typewriter, pneumatic tubes that transmit capsules of exigent letters, and all of the other small touches that breathes life into this time and a place.  

The windows have wooden blinds; when opened, they look out into another downtown office building. This is a fitting office for the The Crisis, N.A.A.C.P’s official magazine, located on the lower 5th Avenue in New York City.  

But, at first glance, there is something peculiar about this office space, one side being cramped and slightly disheveled, the other side spacious and immaculate.

The spectator seats have been arranged to minimize the acting space into a small focused and compact view - sharing two rooms - for which the audience and office space become intimately involved.

On this fine morning, Miss Ovington (Melanie Cruz) makes her way into the office, turns on the lights, pulls the sprightly shades to allow an opening for ideas, sorts’ mail, and begins to type letters to individuals that mostly antagonize her.  She types with a purpose, and quickly, the typewriters keys stick and ultimately she decides that she might not want to send the letter.  She crumples it and tosses it in the trash.

There is one thing Miss Ovington knows she must do on this quiet office day.  But for now she is slightly distracted by a news items and takes a red pin and places it on the map.  As she sticks it in, we notice the map is littered with red pins; what offensives of human nature these pins represent will be revealed later.

The moon pulls and the tides shift causing an emotional response, the reasons why Miss Ovington must be in the N.A.A.C.P office, on this day.

Ben Guillory

Dr. Du Bois (Ben Guillory) steps into the office proudly, wearing a white seersucker suit, red bow tie, grey vest with a pocket watch and a gold chain.  His floriferous attire is his vestment of success.  He comes in somber as he stares at Miss Ovington.

“Why are you here on Sunday?” – Dr. Du Bois

“To save the N.A.A.C. P.” – Miss Ovington

Interesting that Miss Ovington should say that when there is possibly more at stake here considering circumstances that they are both familiar with. 

Dr. Du Boise, in his willful renunciation, wants to resign and plans to revise his letter of resignation.  This would be his fourth attempt at resigning. Miss Ovington will have none of that talk; she expressively forbids it because she “values the word of every human being.” 

Spoken like a true Unitarian.

“The association can’t exist without you.” – Miss Ovington

The day is warm and Miss Ovington suggests Dr. Du Boise remove his jacket. He politely demurs holding on what makes him feel fine feathered and important.    The focus shifts to a protest in the street outside. Miss Ovington, in a show of solidarity, grabs the flag, and places it in the holder, while Dr. Du Boise steps behind her and holds her by the waist.

“A man was lynched yesterday.” – Miss Ovington

This reveals the reason for the red pins as they walk to the map and stare at hundreds of pins placed intermittently along a large swath of the United States.  They react internally and for a long moment.  

Dr. Du Boise moves into his cluttered office and leaves the door open for Miss Ovington.  She thinks about it for a moment and then clutches the ledge of the interior casing of the window.  She holds herself back for fear of someone’s righteous innuendo. 

Melanie Cruz

Her wait is a stunning picture.  She stands alone protected by the soft stratum of her neck covering, held tightly in the caring layer of her blue vested garment, and covering of a matching blue skirt that floats below her ankles.  Her hand suggests a proprietary event, and yet it is only a piece of jewelry on her middle finger. 

Still, Miss Ovington waits, hanging on his every word, hoping for something more, unwilling to give in to the thought of entering his room.

Du Boise starts his gramophone, listening to the Fisk Jubilee Singers, something to relax him, and possibly her.  

This is a play by Clare Coss where one wants to focus on the love first, and to then admire the words as an afterthought.  Watching you almost forget; the color barrier of the time, the wall of black and white separation, and let two human being live their life.  Still, there’s much to be done, issues to discuss, and lessons to be learned. One kept thinking that someone has to win with some kind of emotional catharsis that carries the play, but I didn’t see it and maybe it was not that type of play. Still, on the subject of love and objectives, someone has to win the game, the cat and mouse game, or perhaps a chess game, where a winner emerges.  

Ben Guillory is outstanding as Dr. Du Bois, his second outing as this character since Knock Me a Kiss by Charles Smith. This Du Bois was much richer, the voice smoother and closer to recordings I’ve heard of Dr. Du Bois. The character Du Bois has an unconquerable obstinacy and is adamant about what he wants.  And, he will not give an inch in an effort to pursue his position in the N.A.A.C.P. But despite his unpleasant reflection with his righteous counterparts of the organization, he manages to keep his cool with Miss Ovington, notwithstanding their disagreements. Movement needs to be made for the cause of love and work must be set aside for injustices that must be made right. Also, Guillory needs to figure out how to play spoons to make that scene work. (smile)  

Melanie Cruz is equally excellent as the ubiquitous Miss Ovington giving us a woman who is more than a match for any man, and on any playing field.  Waiting outside the office struck a solid core, a truth that lifts one right out of their seat.  Miss Ovington knows what she has to do to keep Dr. Du Bois from resigning and she must go after it because there is only so much time left in their encounter.

Ben Guillory’s staging is excellent. But it may be helpful to have an extra pair of eyes to see if the moments gel.  At times, both actors were briefly center stage caught up in the moment working out their relationship without moving emotionally or physically in one direction or another. Barbs were thrown in Miss Ovington’s direction with hardly an infraction being recognized.  When one is hurt as part of the love game, one must come back energized to fight one more round.  In the end, and after their stormy vicissitudes, we are concerned for the characters, and we wonder if their eventual solitary destinies were the right course of action.

The wonderful Costume Design by Naila A. Sanders highlights the rules of the game, one of a social order that limits expressions of love, simply by the confining nature of the clothing where the physical emotions are held in check.

Run! Run! And take a Unitarian Universalist with you.  I did and it made all the difference.

Other members of this wonderful crew are as follows:

JC Cadena – Associate Producer
Antonieta Castillo Carpio – Production Stage Manager
Michaél David Ricks – Lighting Design
Ivan Robles – Sound Design
Jasmine-Joy Singleton – Properties Designer
Jason Mimms – Graphic Design
Chris Carnell – Web Master
Justin Sloggatt – Film Design Supervisor
Art Chang – Film Design
Michael Blaze – Photographer
Philip Sokoloff – Publicist
Douglas Allen – Video Archives

The Robey Theatre Company
514 South Spring Street
Los Angeles, CA  90013

Tickets:  866-811-4111