Stephanie Beatriz, David Kelly, and Terri McMahon in American Night: The Ballad of Juan José
at the La Jolla Playhouse / Craig Schwartz
As sleep-deprived Juan José, a Mexican national seeking legal status in the U.S., crams for the next day's citizenship exam, the history in his handbooks comes alive in a series of hallucinogenic vignettes. In a wild revisionist ride, American Night: The Ballad of Juan José goes behind the myths for a sketchy, warts-and-all portrait of our nation's rise from colony to superpower.
A few years back, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned Culture Clash, the anarchic stage-comedy trio, to create a show for its "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle." Working with director Jo Bonney, the Clash developed American Night for a 2011 OSF premiere. It now arrives at the La Jolla Playhouse (through February 26) in a co-production with Center Theatre Group, which will present it next at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
American Night bears Culture Clash's trademark assets and liabilities. Starting from a position of strength, the writing again goes to member Richard Montoya, whose previous solo writing credit was Water & Power, the group's greatest theatrical success, and has been adapted to film under Montoya's guidance.
Next, Bonney is one of the most dependable directors working today. Her hands are firmly on the reins of a production with more moving parts than a traveling carnival. The design is grounded by Neil Patel's set, draped with an ungodly number of fantastic costumes by ESosa, lit by David Weiner's targeted cues, energized with plenty of sound cues by Darron L. West, and, most notably, held together by the epic projection design of Shawn Sagady. Ken Roht provides the choreography.
Bonney also benefits from Rene Millan's centering performance in the subtitle role, a talented ensemble that brings a vast array of characters to life, and especially the performance(s) of Stephanie Beatriz. Beatriz' ability to instill dramatic heart into a gallery of distinctly comic individuals borders on sorcery. Among them are Juan's wife, Lydia (also the name of her title role in the recent Octavio Solis play), and the teenage Sacajuwea, whose geeky spectacles and orthodontia harness add poignancy to her angelic rendition of Billy Rose's "Tonight You Belong to Me."
Though Bonney holds the reins, her hands are tied. Culture Clash, understandably, wants to ride the horse that got them here: a brand of fourth-wall-dashing, top-of-the-head spontaneity that fuels breakaway interaction with the audience. They are masters of it and it blows out the stale stuffiness that can choke a theater auditorium. Anything from the day's headlines to a latecomer to a celebrity in the audience can spark an aside from Culture Clash members Montoya, Ric Salinas, or Herbert Siguenza–though only Montoya and Siguenza are in American Night. But the same freedom that lets the hot air out of a stilted house, risks deflating the build of dramatic impact.
We begin with Juan José (Millan) trudging before a moving montage of projections as Montoya, Siguenza (on tuba), and Beatriz sing the title ballad en español with subtitles. Soon, he is studying for his exam, sometimes helped by two Mormons (David Kelly and Daisuke Tsuji) with their own spin on events. Visions of his wife back in Mexico both inspire him to pursue his dream, and tug at him to return to la familia. Soon, however, the pressure of memorizing facts fractures his focus and his scattered thoughts play out on stage. We see his experience as a Mexican policeman resisting bribes from fellow cops flush with Narco money. Soon, he's skipping through America's untold history, including comic encounters with Lewis and Clark, labor union organizer Harry Bridgers, a black Florence Nightingale in West Texas named Viola, Jackie Robinson, and residents of the Manzanar Relocation Facility in the Mojave. In culminates in a wild, house-lights-up Town Hall meeting of sharp-tongued whites, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans.
It's a bumpy, debunking ride. We're out to de-mythify American history, with a particular accent on inequities put upon Native Americans and minorities of color. It's all valid, if predictable. Still, the great cast–which also includes Rodney Gardiner, Terri McMahon, Kimberly Scott, and Daisuke Tsuji–are so strong, and the production so exciting, that–along with Beatriz' contribution, it becomes a theatrical event, if not an overall achievement. Congratulations to Randall K. Lum and Tarin Hurstell for a flawless opening night without a technical flaw (at least not one noticeable to the audience primarily made up of press and flesh-pressers).
Kelly McAndrew, Keiana Richàrd, Devon Abner and Roger Robinson in the West Coast premiere of Horton Foote's Dividing the Estate / Henry DiRocco
It took roughly 20 years for Horton Foote’s Dividing The Estate to move from its world premiere in New Jersey to its New York premiere Off-Broadway. However, empathy for the financial straits of the (over)extended Gordon family could only have deepened between its debut during the 1987 recession and the 2007 Primary Stages production at the dawn of the "Great Recession."
As it arrived on Broadway in 2008, the threat of economic collapse outside the Booth Theatre cast a shadow across the stage that darkened the drama in Foote’s genial portrait of a quirky family behaving badly. Ultimately, what would be the Pulitzer Prize-winner’s last Broadway opening before his death in 2009, achieved success on its own terms, as a warm entertainment, and as a reminder that beyond Wall Street, or even Main Street, the crisis would be merciless on Rural Routes.
Foote again takes us to Harrison, Texas, the town he created for a lifetime of characters and tales drawn largely on the real folks of his hometown of Wharton. We’re inside the large, century-old family home (designed by Jeff Cowie) of the widowed Stella Gordon (Rosina Reynolds in for Elizabeth Ashley). Like an increasing number of Americans, Stella will pass on less adjusted wealth than she inherited. But that is only part of the problem.
Because two of Stella’s adult children have been borrowing against future proceeds from its sale, the dividing has already begun. Mary Jo (Hallie Foote) has run up a $300,000 tab to allow her family – unsuccessful scheme-dreaming husband Bob (James DeMarse) and spoiled daughters Emily and Sissie (Jenny Dare Paulin and Nicole Lowrance) – to live beyond their means. Her brother Lewis (Horton Foote, Jr.) has run up a $200,000 tab to pay for his drinking and gambling losses.
Eldest Lucille (Penny Fuller) is the only one on a solid footing, in part because she and her son – Son (Devon Abner), who manages the farm – continue to live there and draw salaries. But, changes are in the wind. Son and girlfriend Pauline (Kelly McAndrew) may marry and choose to get a place of their own. And, not only is Stella advancing in years, 92-year-old Doug (Roger Robinson), who has worked there his whole life now shakes so he is asked not to serve. That has Mildred (Pat Bowie) and Cathleen (Keiana Richàrd) thinking about their futures.
Among the cast, the actors handle the mix of Southern restraint and sudden agitation. Mary Jo provides the most room for a range of expression, and Ms. Foote satisfies with an sense of unpredictability that provides an edge. Her brother, Horton Jr., is not able to make Lewis as interesting as he should be. Another standout is James DeMarse, giving Mary Jo’s parasitic husband the bluster of one who’s all show and no go. But on this day, the kudos mainly go to Ms. Reynolds, who easily passed muster as an eight-show-a-week veteran.
Given the unusual chemistry of a day when the star at the center of a production is out, it is still clear that Wilson’s direction has found the right balance for Foote’s play. He makes no attempt at underscoring big meaning, or forcing the laughs. All the pieces fall into place naturally, with all the naturalness of an afternoon spent watching the travails of the townsfolk from a shady porch.
Cassie Beck and Katrina Lenk in Elemeno Pea by Molly Smith Metzler / Henry DiRocco
There is an echo of great Depression film comedies in Molly Smith Metzler's Elemeno Pea, now receiving its West Coast premiere at South Coast Repertory (through February 26). Those old movies briefly pulled Americans out of soup-lines and hard times for a peek inside a world of unimaginable wealth.
The black-and-whites had it both ways. They gave hungry audiences the guilty pleasure of salivating at mansions and estates, polo games and shopping sprees, but made sure to include some idealistic intruder to help with their re-entry to the glaring reality outside the theater. This representative of the working class inevitably exposed the shallowness of excessive wealth in a stirring speech about the moral superiority of the common man.
Things aren't so black and white today, and Metzler's script, in which the sister of a wealthy couple's personal assistant finally visits the Martha's Vineyard compound where her sibling has worked for a year, tones down the rhetoric while hinting at more complicated characters.
Keeping the right balance on the play's mix of comedy and commentary is SCR Artistic Director Marc Masterson. His five-member cast helps produce an entertaining hour-and-a-half from the rich mouse-poor mouse playbook, keeping the comedy within the bounds of character.
For starters, Metzler has made her idealistic intruder, Devon (Cassie Beck), a 35-year-old loser with an inflated sense of the value of her insight into other folks' lives – especially that of her sister Simone (Melanie Lora). If self-righteousness were a commodity, Cassie would be on the Board of Trade and out of her mother's basement, where she sleeps alone after long shifts at an Olive Garden.
The play is set in the guest house of Peter and Michaela's vacation home. Ralph Funicello designed the vast main room with a bank of sliders opening onto a balcony overlooking pastel bars of sea and sky. The owners are away, having left Simone with a duty-free weekend in which to show Devon the buttah into which her ass has landed – room and board, travel to exotic places, a six-figure salary, and wealthy suitor Ethan (Jamison Jones), a 42-year-old fashion plate out of the pages of Idle Rich Quarterly.
Soon after arriving and imbibing some $750/bottle Scotch, Devon tries to make 28-year-old Simone feel guilty about forsaking the iffy prospects of the unpublished novelist for a chance to meet members of America's ruling class and sock away a lot of money.
Devon's tendency to bully is likely an unconscious reaction to being shunned and teased as a child. Costumer David Kay Michelson helps Beck look a little heavy, supporting text about her insecurity around the exotic beauty Lora gives Simone. We also learn that she was endlessly teased for mistaking the sing-song sequence L-M-N-O-P to be one five-syllable letter. When she was old enough to know she in fact had a high IQ, she translated those letters into words and engraved them on the pendant she wears around her neck, inches from the accompanying chip on her shoulder.
Devon has done little more than make her sister angry when Michaela (Katrina Lenk) arrives unexpectedly. Peter, she reports, abandoned her by the side of the road after announcing that he will soon divorce her, within weeks of their fifth anniversary – the nuptial equivalent of canceling a series before it can reach syndication.
Michaela is clearly a sleek, high-performance model whom Lenk endows with both society glamour and the hard edge of a troubled past. We also gain some second-act sympathy after learning of a personal tragedy. It all adds up to her being high-maintenance even on her best day. Before she discovers that Peter has destroyed the documents that might have earned her a fair settlement, she expects – and needs – to keep the personal assistant she counts on as a friend.
And so begins the battle for the heart and mind of Simone. Devon's case gets moral support from the compound's all-purpose handyman-gardener, José (Jonathan Nichols), who adds to Michaela's woes by going rogue: drinking from the champagne bottle with his feet on the coffee table; telling her how much he has always hated her. The gauge-indicator on whether Michaela's or Devon's lifestyle has the greater value will be the direction Simone takes. But Simone plays it close to the vest until a dénouement in which she unfurls her true colors, to the dismay of both of the competing women.
There are many interesting sidetracks that could turn this divertissement into a substantial work, but they zip by like so many IRT platforms. The show is well-cast, with Beck keeping Devon's complications partially obscured by self-denial, Lora keeping us guessing, and Lenk playing the toppled trophy wife with surprising dignity amid the humiliations. The men do their part, bringing poise to roles designed for fun and plot twists.
This is fine light comedy for the recession-weary. A block from the county's citadel of conspicuous consumption, Devon's pot-shots at the aristocracy will fall on deaf ears. It would take an idealistic character on the order of Macaulay Connor to win the hearts of these well-heeled. But for those non-profits investing in Metzler futures, it's a good indicator of things to come.
Evan Todd and Brandon Gill in the World Premiere of Jonathan Caren's The Recommendation at The Old Globe / Henry DiRocco
In the pocket
Jonathan Munby's engaging staging, built around three powerful performances and a muscular production design, held the audience throughout the Super Bowl Sunday evening performance of Jonathan Caren’s The Recommendation, now in its world premiere at The Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre (through February 26). We were caught off-guard, however, when the play seemed to fumble on the final line, grounding its narrative arc short of its goal.
Cast members Brandon Gill, Evan Todd, and Jimonn Cole were all onstage when the lights dimmed, then came up on an audience still in the dark about what happened. We applauded tentatively as the trio slipped offstage, but gave them a loud standing ovation when they returned for a second bow.
According to veteran stage actors, such bewilderment is rare and indicates a problem. It could be an ill-timed delivery, a rushed blackout, or a script with a missing button. Someone at a subsequent show reported that the same thing happened at that performance.
So what went wrong? Why the disconnect?
Caren is clearly a playwright to watch and for the most part The Recommendation is a play to catch. However, there is confusion over who is at the center of the story, just exactly what it was he encountered, how he responded to it, and what it means for him.
After an intriguing first act with interesting directions available for plot and character development after the break, the plot did move towards its anticipated climax, but in a way that had the characters wandering as they moved downfield. Their definition grew grainy and lost distinction.
Iskinder (Gill), or "Izzy," is our direct-address narrator for a story covering his past 15 years. A brief inspirational appearance by Izzy's immigrant father (Cole) before he heads to college further marks this as his story. His father recommends that he protect, and listen to, the heart beating in his breast pocket. Izzy develops a friendship with his freshman roommate, the charismatic, carefree Aaron Feldman (Todd), who has a knack for quickly acquiring friends, lovers, and admirers. He may also have grabbed the role of the play's protagonist, making Izzy Nick to his Gatsby.
They become best friends and help each other score women, drugs, and, for Izzy, a recommendation from Feldman's lawyer father that gets him into UCLA Law School. He will go on to join a prestigious Westside firm while Feldman goes where he believes his easy charm will bring easy money – Hollywood. But, without talent or discipline, he gets stuck as a film producer's personal assistant. During a beer run after an afternoon of drinking, he arrested and ends up in a holding cell with Dwight Barnes (Cole), an articulate, highly intelligent manipulator being held on an assault charge he denies. His questionable claims to celebrity contacts and university degrees go unchallenged by the terrified Feldman. In fact, Barnes believes he could cozy up to Hollywood's power brokers if he could only meet them, and Feldman tells him of a popular high-end athletic club, Feldman then promises to have his father get Barnes released if he will protect him after they are moved to county jail
But in Act 2, Feldman forsakes his promise. Why? This is at the heart of the play, the character flaw with universal, Shakespearean resonance. Here, it caroms into a side pocket. If we are given clues, they are pretty vague. Feldman tells Izzy about jail and Barnes, but not his pledge to help. Five years later, when Barnes' pro bono case lands on Izzy's desk, he decides to help the man who helped his friend.
Barnes' conviction is overturned, and he gets a job at the club Feldman recommended. Soon, Izzy and Feldman are in the club's sauna when Barnes, after a shift as janitor, takes advantage of the facilities. He recognizes Izzy and thanks him again, then sees Feldman, remembers him. and appears forgiving. He offers Feldman a chance to alleviate his guilt by giving him a job, but Feldman compounds his mistake by instantly refusing to do anything. After Izzy steps outside, Barnes' fury finally gets the best of him and he beats Feldman until Izzy returns to stop the assault. Barnes begins to leave as Izzy kneels down to comfort Feldman, who begs him not to leave, pleading that he remain his friend, which Izzy promises to do.
It's not surprising that these fine actors find their audiences wanting more. They gave their characters energized first interpretations, birthing them at the border between documenting reality and creating art. The problem lies in character clarity of Barnes and Feldman. They are men who have commanding charm in their separate worlds, and yet their interaction isn't explosive, compelling, or even interesting..
Meanwhile, Jonathan Munby makes a big splash, integrating an exciting physical production that includes Alexander Dodge's abstract metallic set, Linda Cho's authentic costumes, Philip S. Rosenberg's varied lighting design; Lindsay Jones' great music and sound, and movement and fight choreography from Tony Caligagan and George Yé, respectively.