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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

Theater Review: A Monument Comes to Life

July 21, 2010 Leave a comment


By Cynthia Citron 
  

Cynthia Citron

CALABASAS, California –  Picture the Blue Man Group covered in mud.  That’s a first impression of the Orto-Da Theatre Group,  a sensational ensemble of actors from Israel making their American debut last week at the International Theatre Festival in Calabasas.  Their presentation is called “Stones,” and, like the Blue Men, they work without words, completely in mime. 

“Stones” was created and directed by Yinon Tzafrir, who was inspired by a monument erected in Warsaw in memory of the Jewish warriors of the Warsaw Ghetto.  Sculpted by Nathan Rappaport in 1948, the stones have an interesting provenance.  They were ordered originally from a quarry in Labrador by Adolph Hitler, who intended to use them for a personal monument to celebrate himself and the triumphant victory of his Third Reich.  Fortunately, that was not to be, and the granite stones languished until Rappaport conceived his tribute to the men and women who fought in Warsaw. 

So how do you build a performance piece around a monument?  With great imagination and spectacular lighting (expertly designed by Uri Morag).  The five men and one woman comprising the monument are seen first motionless and grubby, some in heavy relief, others melding into the background.  Then slowly, very slowly—so slowly, in fact, that you think it’s a trick of your eye—they begin to come alive. 

Moving like robots, a little bit clunky, as you would expect from people made of granite, they begin to reprise the 20th century history of the Jewish people.  To the overwhelming sounds of trains, shouting, and gunshots, they mime arrival at the concentration camps, the showers that dispense gas rather than water, the smothering of a baby to keep it from wailing. 

But from this horror-filled beginning they move on to Israel and the fighting and drama connected with the founding of the Jewish state.  (The actual roll call of the nations ratifying the establishment of the new state is heard in the background.) 

And there is even a bit of humor as we move into the late 20th century and the age of technology and the six individuals take turns changing the television channels with a remote control.  In all these maneuvers there are appropriate sound effects and music, designed by Daniel Zafrani and Yinon Tzafrir. 

According to the Festival playbook, this play is meant to celebrate the inevitable triumph of the human spirit.  But there is an additional connotation to the concept of stones.  It’s traditional, when visiting a Jewish cemetery, to leave a small stone at the gravesite to let the dead know you were there.  Just as these large monumental stones in Warsaw remind the world that the Jews were there. 

The third annual International Theatre Festival was held in Calabasas from July 17th to the 27th.

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Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World

A riveting performance by Laurence Fishburne

July 11, 2010 Leave a comment

Laurence Fishburne as Thurgood Marshall

 By Cynthia Citron

Cynthia Citron

LOS ANGELES–At the same moment that Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan was being chided by the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee for having clerked for the suddenly demonic “activist judge,” Thurgood Marshall, Marshall himself, in the person of actor Laurence Fishburne, was enthralling audiences in a dynamic nearly two-hour monologue at the Geffen Playhouse in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles  Interesting timing!

Fishburne, in his bravura performance, takes us through the life of this iconic lawyer and judge, from his terrifying experiences with Jim Crow racism, through his most pivotal legal cases in the fight for civil rights, to his history-making service on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Folksy and charming, Fishburne begins with a litany of the “distinctive names” in his family, such as Isaiah Olivebranch Williams and someone named “Fearless.”  Marshall himself was named Thoroughgood, but by the time he got to second grade he had decided it was too long to spell, and so he changed it to Thurgood.

Marshall was born in Baltimore, which at that time was called “up South” because it was where slaves from the Deep South went when they ran away from their owners.  Marshall’s great grandfather was one of those slaves.

His father was a railroad porter and for a time Marshall worked as a dining car waiter,  but his ambition was always focused on the law, with special emphasis on the Constitution.  (As a child, he had been “punished” for misbehavior by having to memorize a portion of that document, and by the time he finished high school he could recite it all by heart.)

At Lincoln College, an “all Negro college with all white professors,” he was pinned to seven coeds at the same time.  But he also spent time with his friend and classmate Langston Hughes, the poet and writer who made his mark during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.  It was Hughes who inspired in Marshall the belief that “one person can make a difference.”

Having graduated from Lincoln,  Marshall applied to the University of  Maryland’s Law School, but was turned down because of his race.  So he went to Howard University, which was known as “the dummies’ retreat” and graduated at the top of his class.  (Many years later, as a famous practicing lawyer, Marshall had the satisfaction of winning the case that forced the University of Maryland to accept Negro students.)  But it was at Howard that he met the man who would be his lifelong friend and mentor, Professor Charlie Houston.  It was Houston who taught him that “the law is a weapon,” and that he could use it to obtain justice.  “A man who is not a social engineer,” Houston said, “is a social parasite.”

And so Marshall used his love affair with the 14th Amendment to win some of his most outstanding cases.  It is the 14th Amendment that broadens the definition of “citizenship” to include blacks and introduces both the Due Process Clause, which requires substantive due process before an individual or corporation can be deprived of  life, liberty or property, and the Equal Protection Clause, which provides for equal protection for all citizens under the law.  It was by citing this amendment that Marshall won first, equal pay for his mother, a Negro school teacher, and later, the famous Brown v Board of Education case by which the U.S. Supreme Court mandated the end of racial segregation in the schools.

As Chief Counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Marshall traveled some 100,000 miles a year to change the laws that prevented Negroes from voting.  “Without the ballot a man is not a citizen,” he insisted. And as a civil rights activist he won his first case before the Supreme Court at the age of 32.

Appointed Solicitor General by President Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1965, he served only two years before LBJ tapped him to be the first African-American to sit as an Associate Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.  He held that post for 24 years.

All this history is presented with much emotion and humor by Fishburne, and even though the setting by Allen Moyer is relatively static, the story is consistently engrossing.  Director Leonard Foglia keeps Fishburne bouncing around, modulating his enthusiasms and disappointments and rendering Marshall’s actual arguments simply and effectively.

But the prize goes to playwright George Stevens, Jr., who authored this demanding stage piece.  Stevens won an Emmy for the miniseries ‘Separate but Equal,’ which told the Brown v Board of Education story, and is the founder of the American Film Institute, and creator and producer of the Kennedy Center Honors.  He has won 12 Emmys, eight awards from the Writers Guild of America, two Peabody awards, and was named by President Obama as co-chair of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.

Thurgood is a must-see for history buffs.  It will continue at the Geffen Playhouse,  10886 Le Conte Avenue, in Westwood, Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through August 8th.  Call the boxoffice at (310) 208-5454 daily between noon and 6 p.m. to order tickets.

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Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World

‘A Shayna Maidel’ seems manipulative

June 22, 2010 Leave a comment

By Cynthia Citron

Cynthia Citron

LONG BEACH, California –Is it too soon to pan a play about the Holocaust?

Sadly, 65 years after the stories from the death camps shocked and horrified the world, the shock and horror revealed in Barbara Lebow’s 1989 play A Shayna Maidel” (Yiddish for “a pretty girl”) seems somewhat manipulative.

The play is about a family from Poland, split by circumstance, in which the father and younger daughter fled to America while the mother stayed behind with the “big sister” who was ill with scarlet fever.  Reunited as adults, after the war, the sisters are strangers to each other.  Raizel, now Rose, is a self-confident American woman, while Lusia is still a ragtag, haunted victim.

Liza de Weerd gives Lusia a luminous dignity, especially in the scenes where she remembers her husband Duvid (a vigorous Charles Pasternak), her girlhood friend Hanna (Erin Anne Williams), and her beloved Mama (Julia Silverman).  Laura Howard, in contrast, plays Rose as pathologically perky, chirping her way through the role almost to the point of inappropriateness.  It may have been meant to cheer up her tormented sister, but it was, in fact, terminally annoying.

As the girls’ Old World father, Mordechai Weiss, Larry Eisenberg is the pitch-perfect example of that stubborn, opinionated, overly proud breed.  The sort of man who wouldn’t accept a loan that he wasn’t sure he could pay back, even if it meant leaving his wife and daughter in Poland to perish.  (Of course, he didn’t know at the time that he was leaving his wife to perish and his older daughter to barely survive the camps, and he is condemned to live with that unspoken guilt for the rest of his life.)

Of the many tear-jerking moments, however, there is one terribly authentic scene in which Mordechai stoically reads aloud his list of erstwhile relatives and Lusia responds with a cold, deadly numbness, revealing what had happened to each of them.  THAT scene left me with chills.

Barbara Lebow has written other plays and has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Award in the Arts from the Governor of Georgia, among other awards.  She is obviously a gifted playwright and is adept at writing moving dialogue.  The problem is, there is just too much of it.  At two and a half hours A Shayna Maidel is way too long and needs extensive cutting (and a little lightening up).  And, ironically, while you are meant to feel sympathy for Lusia and her friend Hanna, they remain somewhat inaccessible, since playwright Lebow leaves to your imagination what happened to them in the camps, how they survived, and how they became the women that they are.  In fact, once your imagination has done its worst, Lusia’s prevailing optimism and her certitude that her husband has survived becomes almost inexplicable.

And, as always in plays with a Jewish theme, the question of when to translate the Yiddish phrases and when to leave them for the audience to grasp at their gist is always present. Too much translation makes the play seem like a visit to Berlitz; too little makes the audience feel like outsiders.  A Shayna Maidel straddles this question and sometimes misses the mark.

The play is directed by Shashin Desai, founding artistic director and producer of the International City Theatre of Long Beach.  The set design, vintage 1946, is by Stephen Gifford, the light and sound by Chris Kittrell, and costumes by Kim DeShazo.

A Shayna Maidel will continue at the International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 East Ocean Blvd. in Long Beach Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 through July 3rd.  Call (562) 436-4610 for tickets.

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Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief for San Diego Jewish World