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‘Love, Sex and Violence’ more charming than name implies

September 13, 2010 1 comment

By Cynthia Citron

Cynthia Citron

SHERMAN OAKS, California — Sometimes a book of short stories is a welcome diversion from the usual industrial-strength novels.  Just as an evening of short one-acts can provide a satisfying evening at the theater.  And that’s just what playwright Helena Weltman and producer/director Pavel Cerny have brought to the stage of the Whitefire Theater in Sherman Oaks.

The six vignettes, collectively titled Love, Sex, and Violence Too is subtitled Or False Advertising, since there is mostly yearning for love, rather than love itself, and no sex or violence at all.

Although the first act gives sex a good college try as a young man (Allen Yates) brings home a waitress (Olivia Peri) from a nearby café.  He slips into a gaudy red dressing gown and plies her with wine in a paper cup.  But she is looking for a “meaningful relationship,” while he is just looking to get laid.

In the next scene a married couple (Lisa-Beth Harris and Joshua Grenrock) are having a late-night drink after a triumphant party celebrating the publication of her book on baking.  He is heaping her with platitudes, which only annoys her, and very soon their marriage is falling apart right before your eyes.  (Grenrock was the “brilliantly poignant” lead clown—the man with an air of desperation and a rubber face—in Circus Welt, which director Cerny adapted from Leonid Andreyev’s  He Who Gets Slapped, presented earlier this year.  Grenrock has been nominated for a 2010 Ovation Award for that role.)

Adrian Lee Borden and Desi Jevon are strangers marooned in a stalled elevator in “Boring,” the third vignette.  In contrast with the recent play Elevator, in which seven people are stranded in a large elevator, a situation that doesn’t seem at all frightening or claustrophobic, this elevator in “Boring” encloses the two actors in a very small square with little room to move around, and so their getting-to-know-you conversation is close-up, personal, and bizarre.

“Thirteen Months, Two Weeks” is how long Lacey Rae has been wasting the time of her psychiatrist, Robbin Ormond.  She lies, contradicts herself, and needles the doctor with confrontational personal questions, much to the psychiatrist’s consternation.  In desperation, the psychiatrist protests, “You hear my interest as a judgment…”

In the next scene Robbin Ormond plays the psychiatrist again, this time alone on stage talking to her own psychiatrist.  This vignette is the best of the lot, beautifully written and gloriously acted, as Ormond expresses her frustration and anger with her clients and deals with—and avoids—her own personal dramas.  “I can’t take life any more, it’s too painful,” she says.

And finally, ending on a lighter note, Lacey Rae meets a dancer (Eddy Hawks) in a hamburger joint and with headwaiter Ward Edmondson, the three “tap dance to survive,” as Eddy puts it.

While the six vignettes differ in tone and intensity, they make for an engaging mix—even though some scenes are considerably better than others (and sometimes make more sense).  For the most part, the overarching themes are loneliness, disappointment, and estrangement, but surprisingly, there is a good deal of humor in the midst of all the pathos.  And director Cerny has done a good job of bringing out the best in his actors.  Making it a very pleasant outing for a Sunday afternoon.

Love, Sex and Violence Too will be performed every Sunday at 2 p.m. through October 17th at the Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., in Sherman Oaks.  Call 866-811-4111 for tickets.

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Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief of San Diego Jewish World

‘Yellow’ tackles some bold issues

September 7, 2010 1 comment

By Cynthia Citron

Cynthia Citron

WEST HOLLYWOOD, California–At last, a family that isn’t dysfunctional!  A mother and father still romantically in love after 19 years of marriage.  A football hero son who is their pride and joy.  A young daughter, a high school drama queen with lots of the usual teen-age issues, and her best friend, a sweet, gay young man whom they shelter when his own mother disowns him.

The play is Yellow, written and directed by Del Shores, and currently extending its world premiere engagement at the Coast Playhouse in response to public and critical acclaim.  And it’s well-deserved acclaim, I might add.

The play itself is gripping, but it is made even more engaging by its actors, who are unfailingly terrific.  Robert Lewis Stephenson, as the father, Bobby Westmoreland, is a happy-go-lucky high school football coach.  His wife, Kate (Kristen McCullough), is a psychotherapist.  The kids, Dayne (Luke McClure) and Gracie (Evie Louise Thompson) are appropriately rambunctious.  But even in this talented ensemble, Matthew Scott Montgomery is a standout.  Playing Kendall Parker, the gay would-be thespian, he is charming, awkward, socially inept, and timid.  As the third kid in the Westmoreland home, he plays most of his scenes with his mouth hanging open in amazement at the family’s antics.

You can understand why when you meet his termagant of a mother.  A confirmed Jesus freak, she speaks only in Bible and pours pious venom on everyone she encounters.  She is toxic, especially to Kendall, whom she insists on calling “Matthew Mark.”  She also calls herself “Sister Timothea.”  As played by the excellent Susan Leslie, Sister Timothea is a hand grenade waiting to explode. 

But the Westmoreland family explodes first.  When a rare and life-threatening illness strikes one of them, it opens a Pandora’s box of secrets and lies, tearing the family apart.

Robert Steinberg has designed a dollhouse of a set: living room, dining room, bedroom and wrap-around ivy-pillared porch.  The costumes by Craig Taggart reflect the tastes of rural Mississippi: both Bobby and Dayne wear “Ol’ Miss” shirts, and Sister Timothea is respectably frumpy.  Drew Dalzell and Mark Johnson have also done well with the sound design: crowd noises and the offstage voice of the doctor move the plot along without diverting scene changes, so the house remains intact as the actors move in and out.

And Del Shores has done a superb job of directing his ensemble, making sure there is plenty of light humor along with the intense emotions.  All in all, a very satisfying visit to the theatre.

Yellow will continue at the Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., in West Hollywood, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 and 7 through October 17th.  Call 800-595-4849 for tickets.

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Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief of San Diego Jewish World.

‘Waiting for Lefty’ portrays Depression-era exploitation

September 5, 2010 Leave a comment

By Cynthia Citron

Cynthia Citron

LOS ANGELES — As a passionate piece of 20th century history, it works.  As a parable for the present day, not so much. 

Clifford Odets’ 1935 Depression-era play Waiting for Lefty is a rabble-rousing tirade against big business and its heavy-handed control of the “downtrodden masses.”  A situation that might resonate with Americans today, except for the out-of-date solution Odets offers: Russian-style socialism.

Nevertheless, Director Charlie Mount has assembled a truly committed and convincing ensemble—extraordinary actors, every one of them.  They represent a branch of the taxi drivers’ union, shouting their stories from the stage and from the audience.  And the stories themselves are, sadly, relevant today.

A young couple (Heather Alyse Becker and Adam Conger) can’t afford to get married.  A charity patient dies during routine surgery.  A man (Paul Gunning) is verbally attacked by his wife (Kristin Wiegand) for not standing up to his bosses.  (”You are stalled like a flivver in the snow,” she tells him.)  A doctor with seniority (Elizabeth Bradshaw) is “down-sized” because she is a woman and a Jew.  “You don’t believe a theory until it happens to you,” she says.  And another man (Jason Galloway) is rudely turned away when applying for a job.  He is comforted by a secretary (Sandra Tucker) who offers him a book that she suggests will help him.  It is Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ Communist Manifesto.

The vignettes are gripping and filled with pathos and elicit an emotional response from the audience.  As does Anthony Gruppuso, who plays Harry Fatt, the representative from Management.  If anyone can steal this excellent show, Gruppuso does.  He is a fireball, charging all over the stage, one moment cajoling, another shouting disputations, getting into a fistfight, and holding back the union’s decision to strike.  He is everywhere at once, and if the audience had been provided with eggs, he’s the one they would have bombarded.

In another telling vignette, a worker in a chemical plant (Donald Moore) is offered a huge pay raise by his boss (Roger Cruz) to spy on a fellow scientist who is working on poison gas.  True to Odets’ socialist philosophy about the goodness of “the common man,” the compromised worker refuses, even though it means he will lose his job.

Capitalism, the clash between the various classes, and the ever-present bigotry against immigrants and other outsiders, is what the play is all about.  It was a dark time, the ‘30s, when up to 25% of the American work force was out of work.  Almost makes the current recession, with just under 10% out of work, look easy.  But unfortunately, the roots are pretty much the same.

And I think that’s the point Director Mount is trying to make.

He does this on a nearly empty stage and with a few wooden chairs put together by Set Designer Jeff Rack.  And skuzzy outfits, including scuffed and battered shoes, as well as dramatic lighting designed by Yancey Dunham.

Just about the only things that don’t work well are the great billows of mist that are extruded periodically onto the stage in an attempt to simulate a “smoke-filled” union hall.  Since nobody on stage is ever seen smoking, the mist sort of misses the point.

But this is a small nitpick in a classic play about a time that older viewers will remember ruefully and younger people will learn about with astonishment and, perhaps, incredulity.

Waiting for Lefty will continue Fridays and Saturdays 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 through October 10th at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, in Los Angeles.  Call (323) 851-7977 for tickets.

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Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World

Audience becomes part of the action in ‘Waiting for Lefty’

August 23, 2010 Leave a comment

By Cynthia Citron

Cynthia Citron

LOS ANGELES–If you’ve always wanted to be in a play, you’ll get your big chance on September 3rd, when Director Charlie Mount brings Clifford Odets’ stirring Waiting for Lefty to the stage of Theatre West.  As an engaged member of the audience you’ll be expected to whoop and holler appropriately as the leaders of the taxi drivers’ union call for a strike for higher wages.

 “Many of the 16 cast members will be in the audience, too,” Mount says.  “And while we can’t force the audience to take part, we do intend to immerse them in the action.”

Written in 1935, Waiting for Lefty is an old-fashioned play full of outdated passion—or so it would seem.  But Charlie Mount thinks otherwise.  “It has its parallel in the present time,” he says, “when economic and political institutions are running amok and the people are calling for regulation.  We’ll be taking those universal elements and making them relevant.”

 “The audience knows that the Depression sucked,” Mount continues, “but this play personalizes that time by exploring the stories of different individuals: a couple who can’t marry because they can’t afford to, a woman who dies because her surgery was handled by an incompetent physician who happens to be the nephew of a Senator.”

The core of the play, Mount says, is “the choice between the dollar bill or a human life.”  (Could anything be more relevant in the time of BP?)  “It’s a look at democracy and capitalism from a different perspective,” he says.  “The taxi drivers want to change the world despite the fact that they recognize they might get hurt.”

He quotes Odets, who said, “A play is like shouting ‘Theatre!’ in a crowded fire…”  explaining “The theatre is a conflagration of ideas, and bringing life to that conflagration is what theatre is all about.”

The “Lefty” of the play’s title is the head of the union and, like Godot, he never shows up.  But “management” does, along with their gunman, to talk the drivers out of uniting and to label those calling for a strike “reds.”   It’s necessary for the union to prevail, however, as “It takes a village to make a revolution,” Mount says.

“We were told ‘It’s your fault!’ in the 1930s and we’re told that now,” he says.  “The rich have a vested interest in a system that exists to keep you where you are.”

Booms and busts are cyclical, and when there’s no work we’re told, “Go into the Army!  Go kill someone!” and those without work become cannon fodder.  “What power does the president actually have?” he asks rhetorically.  “At least the hippies had good music!”

Charlie Mount began his career as a cabaret clown and magician at the Magic Townhouse in New York.  “I was a cross between Harpo Marx and Penn and Teller,” he says.  He did stand-up in The Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village and in nightclubs, resorts and casinos, and had the first play he wrote, The Indecent Act of Jeff Zelinski, produced Off Off Broadway in 1987.

Coming to Los Angeles in 1994, he joined Theatre Geo as an actor and playwright and had his play Trumpets and Table-Tipping, about Harry Houdini and a clairvoyant, produced at Theatre 40.  His next play, The Junto, was mounted at The Road Theatre and dealt with a secret government conspiracy and the six people who actually run the country.

Mount joined Theatre West in 1996, teaching acting and improv, and started directing.  Gaslight, Waiting in the Wings, and Acting—The First Six Lessons are among his recent hits.  Six years ago he founded “Chestnuts,” a new wing of Theatre West designed to stage classic plays, and he currently serves as its Producing Director.

For the past 11 years he has also served as General Manager of the Classic Arts Showcase, a free 24-hour arts channel available in more than 50 million American homes.  “It’s like MTV for the classic arts,” he says.

Mount has been married for 19 years to actress Arden Lewis, whom he met at the Drama Project collective in New York.  She currently runs a website, Reel Housewives of Theatre West, which is seen on YouTube.  The couple also writes plays for kids, such as It’s Elementary School, Watson.

His latest opus, Waiting for Lefty, will open September 3rd and run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 2 through October 10th.  Theatre West is located at 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, in Los Angeles.  Call (323) 851-7977

Charlie invites you to come and bring your vocal chords.  And you don’t even have to audition!

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Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World             

Raucous, rambunctious and riotous, but not a rip-roaring revival

August 9, 2010 Leave a comment

Ann Noble and Scott Roberts in 'Bedroom Farce'

By Cynthia Citron

Cynthia Citron

LOS ANGELES — Whole lotta screamin’ goin’ on.  And it isn’t coming from the audience.  In fact, the audience becomes quieter and quieter as the evening wears on.  Not a good sign for what is supposed to be a rip-roaring comedy.

Sir Alan Ayckbourn has written 73 plays, so it stands to reason that not all of them can be smash hits.  Even Neil Simon has a bad day once in a while.  But I’m not sure if Ayckbourn’s 1975 play Bedroom Farce, now onstage at the Odyssey, should be blamed on him or the actors or the director.

Darcy Prevost has designed an interesting set—three distinctive bedrooms that reflect the personalities of the couples who inhabit them.  From left to right they are Nick and Jan (Scott Roberts and Ann Noble), Malcolm and Kate (Jamie Donovan and Kate Hollinshead), and Ernest and Delia (Robert Mandan and Maggie Peach).  And bouncing between them and creating havoc wherever they land are Trevor and Susannah (Anthony Michael Jones and Regina Peluso).

As the play begins, Malcolm and Kate are preparing for a housewarming party in their new flat.  Jan is preparing to come, but without Nick, who is laid up with a back problem and whose dialogue consists almost exclusively of groans and plaintive wails of “Why me?”  And Ernest and Delia, who are Trevor’s parents, are preparing to go to dinner to celebrate their umpteenth wedding anniversary.

Trevor and Susannah have a troubled marriage, which might be partially explained by the mantra that she repeats obsessively:  “I’m attractive!  And I’m not afraid of people!”  When she and Trevor arrive at the party—separately—they begin fighting immediately, and so viciously that all the other party guests go home.

Trevor and Jan have had a previous relationship and they eventually wind up in an impulsive and passionate kiss that the consistently overwrought Susannah oversees.  More screaming.

And so it goes.  The play, ostensibly, is about how four different couples handle marriage, with Ernest and Delia, the elderly couple, providing the template for successful companionship.  Delia is full of wisdom, giving her daughter-in-law Susannah pithy bits of advice, like “Don’t tell him anything you don’t have to,” and “Keep him well fed and his clothes clean.”

The play is too improbably farcical to be all that funny, but it might be more amusing if played well.  The younger actors, however, are uniformly screechy, with everyone continually exhibiting unmodified hysteria.  With a little less volume and more moderate pacing, more variety in delivery, the humor, such as it is, might have been better received.  As it stands now, only Ernest and Delia and the bedridden Nick do justice to their roles.  And, unfortunately, director Ron Bottitta doesn’t do justice to his.

And finally, you get a clue that there is something wrong with a comedy when the funniest things in it are the vintage ‘70s outfits put together by costume designer Kathryn Poppen.

Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce will continue at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Blvd. in West Los Angeles, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 through September 26th.  Call (310) 477-2055 for reservations.

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Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World

Trapped in and by ‘The Elevator’

July 31, 2010 Leave a comment

By Cynthia Citron

Cynthia Citron

HOLLYWOOD–Seven people stranded in a stalled elevator makes an interesting premise for a play, wouldn’t you think?

Well, almost.  In Elevator, a new play written and directed by Michael Leoni, seven strangers, fine actors all, twiddle through the first hours of the ordeal without really making contact with each other.  In fact, they don’t even have names; they are identified by their stereotypes: Business Man, Musician, Maintenance Man, Hot Girl, etc.

The pace is slow, as it probably would be in these circumstances, but in this case it is more stupefying than entertaining.

Moreover, the claustrophobia that one would naturally feel in such a confined space (in a set superbly designed by David Goldstein) is mitigated by the fact that the fourth wall remains open to the audience.  Of necessity, of course, but it serves to destroy the communal claustrophobia that the audience might otherwise share.

Eventually, as their confinement stretches on, the players finally open up to each other in a rather “truth or dare”-like manner, sharing their secrets, having epiphanies, and shattering their own stereotypes.  The brusque, pompous Business Man (Alex Rogers) reveals his sexual inadequacies.  The classy Hot Girl (Karlee Rigby) talks about her impoverished childhood.   The Goth Girl (Rachael Page), who has been practically catatonic throughout the proceedings, opens up.  The Maintenance Man (a finely tuned William Stanford Davis) explains his optimistic outlook on life.  The Musician (Mikie Beatty) passes around a joint and makes a play for the CEO Woman (Deborah Vancelette).  And Erica Katzin, who is somebody’s Assistant, reveals her powerful singing voice.

Because the elevator needs a part that isn’t readily at hand, the passengers are forced to wait, and their captivity is stretched to eight long hours.  When they are finally released, the audience is as well.  And it comes as a major surprise to discover that we’ve only been held captive for an hour and a half!

Elevator will run Thursdays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 and 7 p.m. through August 22nd at the Hudson Guild Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood.  Call (323) 960-7787 for tickets.

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Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World

Theater Review: ‘Engagement’ is, well, an engaging production

July 26, 2010 Leave a comment

Ellie Schwartz and Jeremy Radin in 'Engagement'

By Cynthia Citron
 

Cynthia Citron

BEVERLY HILLS, California – The actors are terrific and their characters are complex, varied, and funny enough to keep you entertained and engaged for two hours.  Unfortunately, the play goes on for three… 

The play, written and directed by Allen Barton, is Engagement, now having its world premiere at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.  And it starts off with a screaming tirade of profanity from Nicole (Audrey Moore) because her fiancé, Mark (David Crane) has taken her to a fast food joint to celebrate their first anniversary together instead of the romantic French restaurant she had in mind. 

But that’s not all they don’t see eye to eye on.  She is a non-political artist, while he is a right-wing Nazi (her words).  And so they argue about that a bit. 

She shares an apartment with a cynical, angry, overweight harridan called Rachel (Ellie Schwartz), who is the best thing in the play.  She has most of the funny lines, and she makes the most of them.  She also throws an unnecessary red herring into the works: if she is not a lesbian, why does she plant a passionate kiss on Nicole at the end of the first scene?  It’s a moment that is neither explained nor repeated. 

Mark’s roommate, on the other hand, is a sweet, funny, overweight geek, hopelessly pining for someone to love.  He, Dennis, (played by a perfectly tuned Jeremy Radin) is the sensible foil for the insensitive Mark.  While he and Nicole’s roommate Rachel spend a good deal of time pointing out their roommates’ personal flaws (“Get over yourself!” Rachel screams at Nicole, and Mark and Dennis engage in a contest of alliterative insults), the two ill-matched lovers struggle with commitment, connection, and communication. 

Communication, in fact, is the major theme of the play.  Each of the characters, plus Mark’s indefatigable mother (beautifully played by Brynn Thayer) deliver tart monologues on how communication has been co-opted and corrupted by cell phones and email and Facebook and Twitter.  “No one answers the phone anymore,” Mark complains.  “There’s no engagement between people.”  He also expresses indignation at being “unfriended” on Facebook by “liberals” who don’t agree with his political views.  But his mother puts it best: “We are drowning in the noise of useless communication,” she says. 

Meanwhile, Mark, who has finally acknowledged that he loves Nicole, struggles to become a better man.  “Nobody changes,” his mother advises him, “they just adapt.”  And usually that works, unless they hook up with a woman who is clever enough to see through them.  “She isn’t one of those, is she?” his mother asks. 

Unhappily, she is, so the course of their love does not run smooth.  Or quickly.  There is much repetition, points are made again and again, and there are several extraneous scenes that the play can do without.  But since in this case the playwright and the director are the same person, the director is unable to persuade the writer to part with a single thought.  Too bad, because Engagement  has all the makings of a very funny, even significant, piece of work.  And one that, tightened up, could become a staple of theaters around the country. 

Engagement presented by the Katselas Theatre Company, will continue at The Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 South Robertson Blvd. in Beverly Hills Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7 through August 22nd.  Call (310) 358-9936 for tickets.

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Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World