"Good People" Lacks "Fuse" But Abounds In Acting Talent

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L to R: Tyler Meridith, Kia Hellman, Laura House, Marsha Morgan in "Good People" at the Hudson. Photo: Lily Kravets Photography.

Post cards from home. That’s the feeling one derives from David Lindsay-Abaire’s “Good People” now at the Hudson Theatre.

But before going into that aspect, let’s talk actors.

There are, in case you never noticed, a gazillion of them in L.A. 

One result of this fact is known as the actor-driven production, and this staging has the feel of one to me.

Now at the low end of such undertakings you have “vanity-productions” which tend to be pretty painful affairs. 

I once turned down two actors who wanted me to direct them in a “vanity production” as the two doomed mountaineers in the play “K2”, but refused to appear on stage without their hair perfectly coufied.

At the high end of these efforts, if smart actors are involved, you will see as impressive a collection of talent on stage as you could possibly wish for, and this is certainly the case with Good People.

The story is that of a mini tragedy of the type too common and mundane in our society to concern anyone, well except those falling beneath the grind of fate’s wheel and the unfair burden of economic exploitation.

Margaret (Kia Hellman) has been fired from her job by Stevie (Tyler Meridith), an old friend who is only covering his own ass as the manager of a local market in South Boston.

For Margaret, who lives check by check and supports her grown but disabled daughter, finding a job is a matter of keeping the apartment she rents from Dottie (Marsha Morgan) her bingo playing landlady or winding up sleeping on the street.

She’s seen it.

A last resort is turning to Mike (Shayne Anderson), an old high school boyfriend who got out of the neighborhood and is now a doctor living with his beautiful wife Kate (Keiana Richàrd) up town. 

Knowing how desperate Margaret is another friend Jean (Laura House) dares to suggest Margaret resort to a little bit of blackmail, and claim her daughter is his.

And thus, Good People, is on a number of levels, a morality play for the times.  

Performed without any of the customary frills, like a set, this is a bare bone production. Whatever work director Christine Dunford did with the actors, and whatever the merit of that work, she must shoulder the responsibility for the interminable scene shifts she allows in both acts which hamper the evening considerably.

But despite everything lacking from this production, one thing that is not missing is acting talent. 

Hellman is outstanding as Margaret, the blue collar Mother Courage of the play.  

Anderson and Richàrd are excellent as well as Margaret’s ex-boyfriend and the boss’ daughter he married.

And rounding this review with a few more “excellents” are Meridith, Morgan and House.

It is a fine cast, whose only fault may be that they have taken from the play what they needed to give admirable performances, but have not given to the work what it needed to be regarded as an admirable play.

This is not a badly written play, but while many plays suffer from being overwritten, here is one whose flaws lie in being somewhat underwritten.

Playwright David Lindsay-Abaire is best known for Rabbit Hole winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and as a screenwriter (Oz the Great and Powerful).

Good People opened on Broadway in 2011 and won Frances McDormand the Tony for best actress.

It is an homage to South Boston, the home of his youth.

The dialogue rings with that authenticity that only comes from a deep relationship with both a locale and a people, and Lindsay-Abaire’s affection for both is apparent in the writing.

But this connection with South Boston is simultaneously a source of the play’s strength as well as its underlining flimsiness.

There is a difference between telling a story and writing a drama, one that transcends the old adage of “cutting out all the boring parts”.

When we tell a story it is generally a construct of individual events that we relate:

Frank went to New York.

He fell in with a bad crowd.

They involved him in a bank robbery.

He was caught and sentenced to 17 years behind bars.

His wife left him.

These events all have an aspect of drama to them, some of them relate dramatic events, but they do not constitute a drama.

What is missing, and what denies a list of events the designation of  drama is the intertwining connection of those independent events that culminates in the conclusion of the work 

In the above example “Frank went to New York” and “His wife left him” these are isolated occurrences.

“A ghost is seen on the battlement” and “The prince succumbs to poison”, are events within the play Hamlet but these have been forged as links into the narrative chain.  It is in that linkage of incidents which makes the separate parts into a complete statement of the whole, which is called drama.

Or to describe it another way, in both the examples, the final statement has an explosive quality to it.  “His wife left him” and “The prince succumbs to poison”; both go “boom” as things are broken.

What Hamlet has is a fuse. It is lit shortly after the curtain goes up, and we hear the fuse spitting and burning throughout the next following five acts until the big boom and then “the rest is silence.”

That “fuse” is the essence of drama. It provides the narrative with an arc and the actors with subtext, each of which contributes mightily to the punch of the final bang.

Perhaps that fuse is here in Linsay-Abaire’s play but I don’t believe so, otherwise it would have been present in the performances.

This absence is reflected in a lack of building tension, as Margaret finds herself moving closer to having to make a hateful choice, and as Mike denies that how far he’s come is in direct proportion to what he left behind.   

Very often writers, even very good ones, in attempting to pen a piece drawn from their actual lives are betrayed by the immediacy of the story.  

Dramatic incidents from life, unless invested with that “fuse” by an author does not a drama make.

What you are left with then are post cards from home.

The difference here is that of Horton Foote’s 1918 and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

One you can watch again and again.

The other once.  

Lindsay-Abaire’s play displays wonderful dialogue and an array of characters whose reality you never doubt.  But his failure to thread his story with a narrative arc lessens the work’s impact reducing it to post cards from Home.

Albeit very well penned post cards.

GOOD PEOPLE

April 29 through June 5, 2016; Fridays & Saturdays 8:00 PM; Sundays 3:00 PM

General Admission: $20; www.plays411.com/goodpeople or 323-960-5770

Running Time: Approximately 120 minutes; there will be one 10 minute intermission

The Hudson Guild Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90038


Groundlings' Action Playset is a Mixed Bag

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The venerable Groundlings have launched a new sketch comedy review, utilizing seven regulars (Matt Cook, Allison Dunbar, Chris Eckert, Heidi Gardner, Ryan Gaul, Patty Guggenheim, Greg Worswick) culled from its 27-member Main Company, helmed by Groundling alumna Holly Mandel. Following the well-worn path of interspersing prepared sketches with audience-suggested improvisations, opening night proved to be a mixed bag, featuring an array of inspired playlets, some pedestrian fare and a pair of woefully undernourished improv attempts (a third scheduled improv was dropped), all punctuated by the Groundlings excellent and surprisingly under-utilized three-member house band, led by keyboardist Willie Etra.  

High on the success list were scenes that pitted sane people attempting to deal rationally with zanies. “Your Night” featured the domestic tranquility of a cozy couple at home—Patty Guggenheim and Matt Cook attempting to watch an episode of Game of Thrones—obliterated by their woefully needy neighbor, Heidi Gardner. In “Fat Little Mouse,” Guggenheim projected calm-and-collected very well as a Sephora customer being hilariously bombarded by a near demonic makeup lady, once again portrayed by Gardner. Ultra wholesome Cook and Guggenheim team up again as a couple attempting to enjoy a free “Movie Night” in the park, invaded by the relentlessly gross and hyper sexed antics of Chris Eckert and Gardner.     

A highlight of the evening was supplied by Ryan Gaul in “Leftfield,” portraying a deadpan old school baseball manager, matter-of-factly dealing with off stage reporters Guggenheim and Cook, who are attempting to get the manager to explain the arrival of a UFO landing on the field during the game. Allison Dunbar was certainly attention-getting in #1, portraying a no-nonsense motivational speaker, working the audience, emphatically proving that no one will ever be Number One but her. And Greg Worswick was deliciously over the top as a French teacher escalating the conjugating of verbs into a Gallic romantic thriller. The show opener, “Berning Love,” featuring Gardner, Gaul, Cook and Dunbar, offered an impressive display of Pinter-esque couples sparring.   

Cook is a master at portraying a normally low-keyed gent whose patience is being tried to the max. He is superb in his restraint as a waiter in an upscale French restaurant (“After Dinner”), attempting to collect the final check of the night from two dawdling pseudo effetes, Worswick and Gardner. In “Emerald Smile,” Cook displayed a different persona entirely, portraying an aged Irish pub regular having some impish fun with a hapless American tourist, portrayed by Worswick. In this same scene, Eckert gives new meaning to the concept of being “drunk on his feet.”             

What didn’t work are the large cast scenes that were all feeble in their comedic payoffs; the find-the-clue Shakespeare class, “Escape Room;” the injurious game show, “Legends;” and the incomprehensible, show-closing, NDBC. The two improvised scenes were actually embarrassing in their ineptness, which was surprising since improvisational skill provides the foundation for successful sketch comedy. 

It was also surprising that the adroit house band was only utilized to play the scenes on and off, not being employed at all to enhance any of the scene work. Whenever music was required, it came from a pre-recorded sound track. What’s with that? The Groundlings always provide entertaining fare, although there seems to be an avoidance of barbed social or political commentary during these comment-worthy trying times. It would be nice to watch these talented folk stretch the boundaries a bit.      

Groundlings Action Playset continues Fri (8pm) & Sat (8 & 10pm), Indefinitely. Groundlings Theatre, 7307 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles. For tickets call 323-934-4747 or online: www.groundlings.com.


Promising "Brothel" Can't Overcome Uneven Direction

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Writer/director Thomas Prosser chronicles the life ‘n times within a high-end house of prostitution in Manhattan during the delusional, high-living days leading up to the stock market collapse of October 29,1929. Prosser has created an interesting menagerie of folk who gather nightly in the red plush  parlor of the Mockingbird, operated by comely but no-nonsense Madame Tremaine (Genia Michaela), modeled after real life madam, Polly Adler. But Prosser’s stage play—in which he also performs—would have been better served by bringing in a director with no other distractions, who might have addressed the problem of the ensemble’s uneven performances and the production’s often awkward staging and turgid pacing. An outside eye might have also observed that Prosser has wrapped up this Big Apple melodrama in too neat a feel good package by play’s end. 

Prosser’s range of characters is impressively diverse, including the working girls: well-seasoned pro, Fanny Sweet (Terry Finn); debutante-turned opium addict, Duchess (Brittney Levine); bible-loving farm girl, Grace (Lindsey Waguespack); and alcoholic singer-wannabe Cindy (Nora Yessayan, alternating with Michelle Danyn). The men who use them include: handsome but ruthless young thug, Kid Twist (Scott Pretty); honest-to-a-fault bootlegger Windy Finn (Dennis Delsing); shady but fun-loving Wall Street tycoon Birdie Goldbird (Prosser); long-time wise guy Blackie Shannon (Rick Barreras); seedy and unscrupulous vice cop, Holland Williams (Mark Del Castillo-Morante); and Tremaine’s philosophical, all-purpose house man, Albert (Philip Sokoloff).   

(The ladies of the Mockingbird Brothel: Lindsey Waguespack as Grace Lackey, Nora Yessayan as Cindy St. James. Genia Michaela as Madame Tremaine, Brittany Levine as Duchess, Terry Finn as Fanny Sweet.)

The underlying motivation and back-story of each of the characters is adequately realized, if hampered by a bit too much exposition and uneven delivery. What works quite are the occasional thematic side trips the playwright takes—such the “Wizard of Wall Street” fantasy game the ladies indulge in to entertain Birdie, whom they mistakenly believe to be a sage-like benefactor. There is also Albert’s intermittent throwing of his voice to make it appear that the house parrot is making fun of Kid Twist and vice cop Holland. A poignant highlight of the production is the Christmas Eve tableau wherein the ladies reveal a childhood that painfully underscores just how far each has ventured away from her original ideals.  

Michaela is a stand-out as the scrupulously ethical businesswoman plying an illegal trade. She exudes an endearing ambivalence, at times revealing Madame Tremaine’s suppressed longing to actually give in to her longtime beau, Windy, who would like nothing better than to leave the illegal booze trade and make an honest woman of her. Finn, who is impressive as heart-of-gold hooker, Fanny, is particularly notable as the only member of the ensemble who seamlessly picks up her cues, giving evidence of how much more entertaining the thematic throughline of the play could be.

What is particularly distracting is the range of performance styles that inhabit the stage. Castillo-Morante’s vice cop is relentlessly loud and bombastic, whereas Sokoloff’s Albert is understated to the level of sometimes being inaudible.  The three young ladies of the night—Levine’s Duchess, Waguespack’s Grace, and Yessayan’s Cindy—are all guilty of appearing to contemplate their lines before actually speaking.  And Pretty’s Kid Twist occasionally jumps his cues. 

The occasional awkwardness of movement can be blamed in part on Eclectic’s woefully limited stage area. But that is the director’s job to overcome. That said, Barrera and Steve Green have wrought a quite suitable brothel setting, complemented by Barreras’ lighting and Thomas Foxx’s mood-enhancing musical underscoring.         

Brothel

Continues Fri & Sat (8pm), Sun (2pm), through Apr 3, 2016.

Eclectic Company Theatre, 5312 Laurel Canyon Blvd., Valley Village.

For reservations call 818-508-3003 or online: www.eclecticcompanytheatre.org


The War in Heaven

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Angelo Michael Masino and William Goldman in The War in Heaven

War, famine, Antichrist – with the exception of John the Revelator, who seems to have relished the idea, everybody has depicted Apocalypse as a big downer. Sure, there’s black comedy in the Francis Ford Coppola version, but technically the Vietnam War was only an apocalypse for those involved, and their families, and their friends…sundry proxy nations…anyway there’s no Antichrist there unless you count Robert Strange McNamara, and he’s not in that movie.

Antichrist is the most interesting character in Christian end times, a paragon of evil variously depicted as a monster with mismatched eyes, a humanist peacemonger, a warrior king, Satan incarnated as a dragon, and in American horror movies as an extremely naughty little boy, the son of the fallen angel Lucifer. He causes all manner of problems, from false-prophet temptation to the destruction of Israel. His mission to confuse and doom mankind makes him a dynamic figure when contrasted with his diametric opposite: Jesus Christ, the son of God, portrayed in his Second Coming (at least since the Council of Nicea) as a rather static judge of souls.

In Angelo Michael Masino’s new epicomedy The War in Heaven, playing through March 19 in Hermosa Beach, Jesus Christ (Austen Michael Rey) is the more arresting personality from a dramatic perspective. Damien (Dave Buzzotta), the son of Lucifer (William Goldman), slinks and sneers but it’s standard mustache-twirling. Jesus, apparently having wandered the earth for the last couple thousand years, is now an American drunk who can barely walk or slur “hello,” let alone perform miracles or give sermons from elevated places. As his own antichrist, or at least anti-hero, Jesus says he smoked a lot of pot in the 60s, which looks credible, and talks of enjoying sex with his camp follower Mary M. (Loree Sobrito), though his level of inebriation makes this unlikely. Now, as the war for the future of humanity escalates, he’s got to sober up and lead the people. Or something. What he has to do is as unclear as the scenario itself. But it appears important to everyone onstage that Jesus get his shit together.

He gets brought home by Michael (author, director and producer Masino), an old friend he runs into outside an AA meeting, I think, although most of the actors in this show can’t consistently be heard from the second row. Michael shares his home with son Joseph (Michael Panarello) and Joseph’s girlfriend Mary (Phylicia Wissa), a couple who despite enthusiastic sexuality can’t conceive a child. Joseph is annoyed when Michael starts talking about the coming Armageddon, and about how he’s an archangel who has to go back to Heaven pretty soon and fight Lucifer. Mary gets annoyed with Joseph for getting annoyed with his dad, although she’s a little worried, too.

Then Michael actually does ascend, and while the fighting is only talked about and represented by a couple of guys standing with swords, he clearly is supposed to be the archangel Michael. Which raises questions about the nature of the last 30 years with his kid. What has Michael been telling Joseph – why is his supernatural status such a surprise? Given that Joseph has grown up in a house with one of the most powerful forces in the universe, why do he and Mary have a hard time believing that dad’s toasted pal is Jesus Christ? And why don’t they appreciate the danger in the gathering storm outside? One might gather that Michael hasn’t been much of a father: perhaps insufficiently communicative, certainly not persuasive enough. He’s in AA (again, as far as I could tell), so he’s on some sort of comeback, but from what?

Lots of questions go unanswered in this show, which nonetheless packs a great deal of strange information into 90 minutes. The angel Gabriel (an actor simply named Koushik) comes to a fleshly existence on earth, but only if he trades places with Michael, who goes to heaven. How this works and why are not as evident as Gabriel’s purpose in this play: to provide comic relief as an incompetent foil to Michael and a drinking buddy for Jesus.

So Gabriel’s character has a definite dramatic purpose. Mary, too, once she gets pregnant – you can’t be surprised – serves a function, as does Lilith (Yasemin Isil), who in this play is maybe a spirit or a damned soul (I couldn’t tell you) but is definitely Michael’s old flame who wavers between the dark and the light. The other characters talk a lot but do little, so despite the play’s big ideas and generous low humor, it’s hard to know what it’s all about. As an audience member, I’m waiting for who to do what?

Masino’s direction does not employ much kinetic or visual technique; all the information comes verbally, a common vice of playwright-directors, and actors tend to stand in a line. The bare-bones set, found costumes and up/down wash lighting aren’t a problem of themselves, but it’s in what you do with ‘em. And whatever the auteur’s intentions for mood and mode, stylistically the actors are in worlds of their own. Everybody involved in this production is earnest and trying hard, but not toward the same end and not with equal success. Wissa is among the most accomplished actors here; she has a great voice and a lovely way with a comic line, but she never plays the immense gravity of the circumstances - the world on fire outside the house is of little moment to Mary. Rey’s commitment to Christ’s fuddled senses is laudable, and his hazy, wandering characterization makes sense in the play’s more surreal scenes; much less so during the matter-of-fact parts, in which he looks like he staggered in from another art form.

A bigger problem is that the text has not yet defined a concrete, comprehensible story; it’s now several concepts in search of a form. Drama comes from obstacle, a character’s high-stakes attempt to achieve a specific goal. If I can’t comprehend, believe, or invest emotion in that struggle, I find narrative difficult to follow despite, and eventually because of, endless exposition. This play has tonal issues too, with many short choppy scenes of little value to the plot highlighting that the slapstick-and-silly banter stuff is really at odds with the deadly-serious no-contractions bible-talk speechifyin’.

Masino is a veteran Southern California intimate-theater actor and playwright, and I get the impression that it’s entirely under his impetus that his shows are staged. A driving force is an example to us all. Expressing himself through the medium of theater means a lot to him, and it shows even in his outsider tendencies. Carrying a giant sword through the house while shaking hands with customers before the show, or sitting onstage in costume just prior to curtain and telling the story of how he came to write the play: these are not things you see at South Coast Rep. There are reasons for that, entirely good ones, but there’s something charming in seeing them ignored.

And there are fascinating potentials in the mess of narrative Masino has spilled at the 2nd Story Theatre. I’d love to see a play about the character of Faded Jesus and his struggles getting sober, or coherent, or useful; but in such a play he’d have to have something actual to do. I’d love to see a play about how Lilith’s spiritual and carnal lives conflict within her. In those potential plays, Masino’s biblical scholarship, which has obviously fired him up for this one, could take a back seat to story and character.

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THE WAR IN HEAVEN

Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through March 19, 2016

2nd Story Theatre at the Hermosa Beach Playhouse

710 Pier Avenue, Hermosa Beach CA 90254

Tickets $20; reservations: (310) 374-9767


Incomplete Journey of "Etty Hillesum: A Voice Outside the Camp"

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Alex Bartley and Jazmine Ramay portray two sides of Etty.

Theatre Factory Studio artistic director Elena Vannoni reveals in the program notes that her 70-minute sketchily realized portrait of Holocaust victim Etty Hillesum is incomplete. A six-member ensemble offers merely “the first etude,” an introduction to the transcendent life of a Jewish woman who lived in German-Occupied Amsterdam, producing over 900 pages of writings, testifying to the need for resolute life-affirming compassion while striving to survive in the midst of the human devastation inflicted on her people during the years 1941-43.

Vannoni finds Etty’s persona so complex, she has divided the portrayal between actresses Alex Bartley and Jazmine Ramay. Bartley’s Etty (clad in grey) projects the clear-eyed vision of an ultimate pacifist. In a disagreement with her other self, Bartley’s Etta affirms, “To humiliate someone, two people are needed: he who humiliates and he who allows himself to be humiliated. If the passive party is immune to any humiliation, this (humiliation) evaporates into the air.” Ramay’s much more sensually earthbound Etty (clad in red) can only hold these cerebral musings for so long, admitting, “It’s true however that every so often one can be also sad and abated from what is done to us.”

Both Bartley and Ramay strive to be word-perfect in their portrayals, but fall short of realizing complete characters. Bartley, who has the responsibility of carrying most of the play’s text, too often appears to be explaining a lesson plan for life, rather than having a conversation. Ramay strives to be more emotionally connected to her environment but also fails to actually connect with the people around her. In truth, Vannoni has not really been given that much to do.

However, one of the highlights of the evening occurs when Ramay’s Etty ruminates over her decision to bed down her young Jewish lover Max (Adam Stanton) and then finish off the night in the arms of her older German suitor Han (Alexander Wells). Ramay appears utterly human and vulnerable as she concludes, “Maybe I have some kind of advantage, going from the arms of one to the arms of another.  What kind of life am I conducting?”  

The most vivacious portrayal in the production is turned in by Ivette Michelle Badgley as Kathe, a local house servant to Etty, who strives to be sympathetic to the plight of Etty and the Jews, while truly sympathizing with the Germans. She actually delights in the acquiring of the ever-scarcer food supplies for Etty and her family as a kind of game, never comprehending or admitting just how dire Etty’s situation really is. 

Within the sketchiness of the play’s dramatic throughline, it is impossible to know what to make of Etty’s friend Liesl, portrayed with conviction by Katarina Fabic, who cannot be faulted for sounding more like a sounding board than a real character. She simply is written that way. A lack of real information also inhibits the character advancement of Stanton’s Max and Wells’s Han. It is hoping that Vannoni’s program note, Second act coming soon, will rectify this.

What does show great promise is Vannoni’s imaginative staging, utilizing a series of moving doors on wheels that seamlessly evolve into any environment called for, even the walls of Auschwitz, where Etty Hillesum’s life ended in 1943 at age 29.

Etty Hillesum:  A Voice Outside the Camp:

Thursday, February 11 & Friday, February 12 at 8:00 pm

Theatre Factory Studio @ Son of Semele, 3301 W. Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles 90004; tickets available at www.sonofsemele.org