NOVEMBER 2012

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CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS by Donald Margulies | Geffen Playhouse
CYMBELINE by Cymbeline | A Noise Within
THE DOCTOR'S DILEMMA by George Bernard Shaw | A Noise Within
HOW TO WRITE A NEW BOOK FOR THE BIBLE by Bill Cain | South Coast Repertory
SEMINAR by Theresa Rebeck | Ahmanson Theatre
TEA, WITH MUSIC by Vela Hasu Houston and Nathan Wang | East West Players



Angela Paton and Grace Kaufman in Coney Island Christmas at the Geffen Playhouse

Christmas present returns

A play commissioned from Donald Margulies might as well come with a money-back guarantee. Coney Island Christmas is a smart investment in Christmas Futures for the Geffen Playhouse. Its world premiere (through December 30) should cheer American theaters hungry for holiday fare that owes nothing to Scrooge.

The play adapts "The Loudest Voice," a Grace Paley short story from 1959 in which 12-year-old Shirley Abramowitz is cast as "the narrator" in her school's Christmas play. Jewish literature scholar Janet Ruth Heller praised Paley's story for its humorous "oppositional view of assimilation" as practiced by America's Christian-dominated public schools. Margulies takes the broader view, allowing the intervening half-century of hard-won social evolution to cast a revisionist hue over Paley's 1935 Brooklyn. Shirley, now aged, proudly looks back on her Temple Beth Shalom as part of a "city of churches."

Margulies further distances Paley's setting with a framing device that begins and ends in contemporary California. Now Shirley is the first-generation immigrant, echoing her parents. "Thirty years since I left New York and still this place makes no sense," she says. "Eighty-degrees at Christmas? It’s mishugeh."

The play opens with 90-year-old Shirley (a spry Angela Paton) at the bedside of her 12-year-old great-granddaughter Clara (Grace Kaufman). Clara is relieved that a sore throat will prevent her attending the following day's school Christmas play, which includes Kwanzaa rituals she swears were copped from Hanukkah. Shirley tut-tuts the tot's protectionism and offers a distracting Christmas memory of when she was 12. Concealed within it will be the message of inclusiveness with which Margulies and Director Bart DeLorenzo season Paley's story.

In a twist on Scrooge's reluctant return to boyhood, Shirley giddily escorts Carla back through her story. As she nostalgically describes Coney Island's whirling Ferris wheels and carousels, set designer Takeshi Kata's turntable (under Lap Chi Chu's lights) moves Clara's bedroom off and Shirley's childhood home on. Rotating into place like mechanical clock-jacks are Shirley's parents, Misha (Arye Gross) and Clara (Annabelle Gurwitch). From behind the pickle barrels and soup cans emerges the tousle-haired, 12-year-old Shirley (a winning Isabella Acres).

Coney Island Christmas, which Margulies dedicates to the late Geffen Producing Director Gil Cates, is also a love letter to theater. Misha reminisces about Yiddish Theater, Shirley yearns to be an actress (not unlike Jakie Rabinowitz burned to be The Jazz Singer), and children's theater is celebrated in two lengthy but wholly entertaining school plays. Even Shirley's dream sequence is stocked with carnival stage imagery.

Shirley's story begins as she is cast in the minor role of the Turkey in a school play about the first Thanksgiving , again echoing the immigration message. Dressed in one of Ann Closs-Farley's many delightful costumes – with a hint of "found art" in the turkey's oven-mitt wattle – Shirley gobbles with such gusto that her drama and music teachers, Mr. Hilton (John Sloan) and Miss Glace (Lily Holleman), ask her to play the narrator of the upcoming Christmas play. Unlike Paley's play, whose narrator is offstage, Margulies' narrator will be Jesus, and onstage for the entire show.

Clara insists that Shirley decline the role. Christmas in public school is part of "a creeping pogrom that eats away at us slowly," she says. "So slowly we don’t even notice what it’s doing to us, and makes our children forget who they are and where they come from." Misha will go behind Clara's back to allow Shirley to attend rehearsals, but Mother will find out and forbid any more participation, forcing Shirley to disobey and perform with only her father attending. The happy ending comes when Mrs. Abramowitz slips in late, watches, and reluctantly approves.

The secular holiday music of John Ballinger's pre-show sound design gives way to traditional ethnic music for our exit, suggesting the production feels it answers one character's observation that there are no Hanukkah plays for schools. Even with its title, Coney Island Christmas could have been that play with just one short speech or bit of dialogue. And, at an intermission-less 90 minutes, it could stand it. The speech would go to Clara, who desperately needs something to be positive about. Right now, she's dangerously clichéd – and Gurwitch isn't rounding out the character. If Clara spoke to the deeper meaning of Hanukkah, and why it must be treasured and protected, there'd be enough to qualify as Hanukkah play, and Clara could be more than the play's inflexible martinet.

The large cast is uniformly solid, with Acres' performance a particular stand-out. She displays fine range, great comic timing, and the rare gift – even with adults – to deliver her lines in character without stepping over or overreaching.

DeLorenzo's adult ensemble creates the spectrum of child actors–from over-earnest to utterly distracted –we thought only a mother could love. They will have both the children and parents in the audience laughing in recognition. The students are played by Kira Sternbach (particularly funny, last seen in End Days), Andrew Walke, Joe Gillette, Julian Evens, Maya Erskine, Elitia Daniels, Ty Freedman, Rachel Hirshee, Sequoia Houston, Jim Kane, and Richard Realivasquez.

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CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS

by DONALD MARGULIES
based on the short story
'The Loudest Voice' by
GRACE PALEY
directed by BART DELORENZO

GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE

November 20-December 30, 2012
(Opened 11/28, Rev’d 11/28e)

CAST Isabella Acres, Elitia Daniels, Maya Erskine, Julian Evens, Ty Freedman, Joe Gillette, Arye Gross, Annabelle Gurwitch, Rachel Hirshee, Sequoia Houston, Lily Holleman, Jim Kne, Grace Kaufman, Angela Paton, Richard Realivasquez, Joohn Sloan, Eileen T'Kaye, Kira Sternbach, Andrew Walke

PRODUCTION Takeshi Kata, scenic director; Ann Closs-Farley, costumes; Lap Chi Chu, lights; John Ballinger, music/sound; Jill Gold/Kyra Hansen, stage management

HISTORY World Premiere


Angela Paton and Grace Kaufman
Michael Lamont
Helen Sadler and Adam Haas Hunter in Cymbeline at A Noise Within, photo by Craig Schwartz

In character

It appeared in the First Folio as Shakespeare's Tragedy of Cymbeline and has occasionally been classified by scholars as one of the Bard's problem plays. In his first A Noise Within staging (through November 18), Bart DeLorenzo has no problem setting the record straight: Cymbeline is a romantic comedy.

A year ago, A Noise Within opened its new theater with a staging of Twelfth Night that honored the writer who helped get them there and the resident actors who performed so well in good times and hard. While not an artistic triumph, it was rewarding to see so many familiar faces treading Illyria's shores in the glow of a grand opening.

On his maiden voyage to open the new facility's second season, DeLorenzo was allowed to cast away as he saw fit. The mix of resident and guest artists is thrilling. In the title role, Joel Swetow brings numerous ANW credits, including the resident artist triumph of Andrew J. Traister's superior Waiting for Godot. The other Equity actor with ANW experience is Francia DiMase as the Queen. She was in The Way of the World, 21 years ago, apparently as a child actor.

During pre-show it's already clear that we're celebrating theater-making here. A Noise Within's thrust stage has been disguised by Keith Mitchell as one belonging to a modest outfit making the most of its resources. Simple moveable flats of shrubbery wait unpretentiously beyond a lonely ghost light. A reusable painted-fabric proscenium arch is both ornate and economical. An array of ancient props litter the edge of the stage to suggest the production hasn't opened yet: This company is not expecting company.

The first actor to arrive moves the ghost light backstage as characters from Shakespeare's most popular plays enter: Bottom, Richard III, Hamlet, Romeo, and Juliet among them. Are these actors wearing the wrong costumes? Or, are they actually the characters themselves? Either way, the point is clear. A half-dozen plays have become the choice of artists and audiences. Tonight, our actors will find suitable costumes for a less-appreciated work, and the result will be appreciable. Once the characters have sorted themselves out, DeLorenzo turns the opening exchange between two gentlemen into an introduction of the dramatis personae, by parading each character downstage as he or she is discussed. Like a pre-show pageant, it helps familiarize us with the contestants.

Cymbeline is inspired by historical references to a Celtic British King Cunobelinus, who ruled sections of Southeast England during Jesus' lifetime and had good relations with the Romans. The action moves between Briton and Rome with a side trip to Wales and a dream in which Jupiter rides a giant eagle. The familiar themes, none of which dominate, include the overbearing father whose independent daughter must emerge from under his control, a virtuous male of low birth who must prove himself, the ill effects of greed, and many, many references to disguise and deception, including their use to hide womanhood while on the road.

The disguise theme resonates in DeLorenzo's employment of double casting, something directors occasional use. Here it plays into the director's concept of a modest troop having to fill all the roles as it underscores the play's ideas about the duality of human behavior.

Shakespeare gives Cymbeline two sons and a daughter by a first wife who died, making way for a second Queen (DiMase). Her grown son, Cloten (Adam Haas Hunter), is from her previous marriage. Because Cymbeline's sons were lost as children, it is assumed his grown daughter, Imogen (Helen Sadler), will marry Cloten and insure the line's nobility. However, strongly independent, she has already taken the commoner Posthumus (Hunter again) for her husband.

Not only does Posthumus have Cymbeline's court against him, among the Romans he visits is Iachimo (Stephen Rockwell, in for Andrew Elvis Miller), who also wants Imogen. He bets Posthumus that he can bed her and prove she is not virtuous. While Imogen sleeps, Iachimo slips into her room to steal the bracelet Posthumus gave her and a glance at the birthmark beneath her breast. Returning with these spoils he easily wins the bet, destroys Posthumus' faith, and sends our hero into the jealousy that fired Othello.

Unaware she's been compromised by Iachimo, Imogen resists Cloten, claiming she finds Posthumus' empty clothing more manly than him. That prompts Cloten to obtain some of those clothes from Posthumus' friend Pisanio (Time Winters) and set off to prove himself irresistible. After he is rebuked, he insults a man and his sons. They are the long-banished Belarius (DiMase again) and Cymbeline's missing princes, now full-grown: Guiderius (Jarrett Sleeper) and Arviragus (Paul David Story). The insults lead to fighting and Cloten is decapitated, which allows Imogen to mistake him for a headless, posthumous Posthumus. In an echo of Romeo and Juliet, she imbibes poison.

Fortunately, the "poison." is merely a potion that knocks her out. Meanwhile, Posthumous has proven himself selfless in battle and earned the gratitude of the King. Imogen is revived, news that the Queen is dead arrives by messenger, and all are reconciled.

DeLorenzo is comfortable with American Shakespeare, sparing us attempts at British accents. The comedy is occasionally broad but never out of control or overdone. Hunter provides the most memorable performance – changing from a noble, straight-laced Posthumus to an outrageously silly Cloten with the kind of kinetic, interactive energy one gets in a Matt Walker performance.

All the performances are memorable, with DiMase, Swetow, and Winter keeping their sets of characters distinct. Story and Sleeper have several incarnations that are well-rendered. It's one of the best top-to-bottom Shakespeare casts, which supports the idea of double casting and keeping the artistry high. Kudos to Rockwell for stepping in and keeping up with everybody, who, this late in the run, are used to flying along.

And, a special nod to Costumer Angela Balogh Calin, who really helps DeLorenzo realize all the many levels of his concept. It is amusing, and somehow heart-warming, that the earnest company he imagines in this modest theater, must be content to wear Roman togas in a scene with Renaissance finery, and need trousers beneath their Roman tunics. It reminds that at the core of great theater is writing and acting. And, for their sophomore season, the new blood A Noise Within is bringing into circulation, can only enliven the hearts of those on both sides of the footlights. A Noise Within shows it is ready to secure its place among the region's best.

CYMBELINE

by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, directed by BART DELORENZO

A NOISE WITHIN

September 22-November 18, 2012 (Opened 9/29, rev’d 11/10e)

CAST Francia DiMase, Adam Haas Hunter, Andrew Elvis Miller (out for performance, replaced by Stephen Rockwell), Helen Sadler, Jarrett Sleeper, Paul David Story, Joel Swetow, Time Winters, with Annalise Aguirre, Kevin Angulo, Jessie Losch, James Ferrero

PRODUCTION Keith Mitchell, set; Angela Balogh Calin, costumes; Ken Booth, lights; John Ballinger, music/sound; Ken Merckx, fights; Monica Lisa sabedra, wigs/hair/make-up; Meghan Gray/Vanessa Cortez, stage management

HISTORY In 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae told the story of Kymbelinus (based on King Cunobelinus, who lived during the time of Christ). Geoffrey's kind was a powerful Briton with ties to the Roman court, whose sons were Guiderius and Arvirargus. Holinshed's Chronicles (1577) picked up the story, and that is surely the version that inspired Shakespeare's free adaptation.


Helen Sadler, Adam Haas Hunter
Craig Schwartz
Geoff Elliott and Jules Willcox in The Doctor's Dilemma at A Noise Within, photo by Craig Schwartz

Scoundrels, heal thyselves!

The Doctor's Dilemma, a rarely produced comedy by George Bernard Shaw, proves itself relevant and rewarding in the Damaso Rodriguez' staging at A Noise Within (through November 24). Members of the classic theater's resident company create a comic clique of old guard physicians pitted against two seductive young idealists, played by two winning young actors.

Here the playwright shakes a bony fist at petty "crimes" that prevent an ideal society. Compared with the real threats he goes after in major works like Major Barbara and Arms and the Man, these are but behavioral ticks–insincerity, guile, self-delusion. But, Shaw would argue that self-deception in the service of self-aggrandizement is at the root of war, exploitation, and other forms of barbarism.

Rodriguez' pace is unhurried yet quickly establishes Shaw's battle lines. His stony signatories of the Hippocratic oath, well delineated in both writing and performance (and in costumer Leah Piehl's nicely varied suit rack), casually talk about the life and death of those they treat. Science and medicine are changing the world. But Shaw makes clear that these are men of "commerce": "patients" are those who can pay. By contrast, Blenkinsop (David LM McIntyre), the only doctor whose care for the poor fills his schedule but not his pockets, is not their equal. Half the group has been knighted, beginning with the respected Sir Patrick (Apollo Dukakis) and most recently Colenso Ridgeon (Geoff Elliott), in whose parlor the play begins. A newspaper profile about his success treating tuberculosis has prompted a visit from Jennifer Dubedat (Jules Willcox).

After winning the advocacy of Ridgeon's headstrong housekeeper (Deborah Strang), Ms. Dubedat is allowed an audience. She begs him to treat her husband's condition, which she believes is "consumption," but he insists that adding a patient would require removing another. To prove that her husband is a gifted artist who must be saved she shows several of his drawings, including one of her.

Ridgeon is interested. The drawings reveal genius. But, perhaps more importantly, his resolve has been melted by a sudden infatuation for the beautiful young woman. Rodriguez and Elliott suggest, in the way Ridgeon looks from Jennifer to her likeness, that the middle-aged medical professional may attracted to the woman because of the art, rather than the other way around. Could the artist finally cure his terminal bachelorhood.

To justify dumping a current patient, Ridgeon – and his colleagues – must agree that Mr. Dubedat be of a character superior to the man he is bumping. Convinced he will win the doctors' hearts as easily as he did hers, Ms. Dubedat agrees to bring him to a dinner party planned for the examination. He is indeed highly intelligent, provocative, and thoroughly charming. Not until the doctors gather to discuss their conclusions do they discover that he touched every one of them for a substantial loan. He is visited in his studio and, in a scene Shaw arranges to mirror a tribunal, Dubedat is unapologetic. When the surgeon Cutler Walpole (Freddy Douglas) asks where the gold cigarette case he borrowed has gone, the artist produces its pawn ticket. Even more damning is the artist's duplicity in regard to his wife, who has won the hearts of all the doctors. She knows nothing of the mounting debts or of a woman who surfaces, identifying herself as Dubedat's devoted wife!

It would seem a clear path to moral victory for the doctors. But Shaw takes subversive pleasure in the rational he offers for the anti-social scoundrel. Dubedat's defense at the "tribunal" includes his claim that, "I don't believe in morality. I'm a disciple of Bernard Shaw." While today, Dubedat's selfish independence might sound like Ayn Rand dismissal of community responsibilities, Shaw has Dubedat espouse an artistic life that rewards others in ways they cannot appreciate. Louie is in effect a one-man government enrichment program, "taxing" others through unpaid loans so he can create great art that will enrich the public for generations.

Still, this is the "Doctor's" dilemma, not the artist's prerogative. Ridgeon decides not to take on the patient and refers him – against Jennifer's protestations – his colleague Ralph Bloomfield Bonington (Robertson Dean). "B B" will haplessly oversee Dubedat's rapid decline and death.

Oh well. Ridgeon is not that concerned. Morally superior, he mistakenly felt a friendship has been built with young Jennifer, and that – in accordance with Dubedat's dying wish that she not be long a widow – Ridgeon can cut any widowhood to a matter of days or weeks. That self-delusion leads to a crushing blow as Jennifer dismisses the old man's foolishness and sets off with a new husband, a trunk of masterpieces, and a popular new biography she wrote about the 23-year-old genius she loved and lost.

Elliott brings an easy smugness and self-satisfaction to Ridgeon. For the most part he minimizes his trademark vocal embellishments and avoids cartooning. He and Rodriguez keep Ridegeon one of the group, often standing him upstage apart from the others, where he can analyze everything to protect his silent interests and maintain his options. Elliott plays that caginess well. Willcox, too, is a delight. Without any excess, she provides appropriate only-child certainty to her statements and her stance. She brims with such obvious love for her husband that the smitten doctors splash like sparrows in its reviving overflow. Dechert plays Louie with panache. They avoid having him show signs of illness until the end, and for a while we suspect Jennifer and he may be running a ruse.

Douglas offers another in his string of well-tailored performances and Dukakis is particularly good as the retiring elder statesman of the group.

Susan Gratch has collaborated well with the designer of the other rep production, Cymbeline [review] for a complementary set design. The fabric proscenium that gave the Shakespeare production its whimsical frame is traded for a girder-construction frame that supports Shaw's positioning of science and medicine as the structure against which his free-thinking, amoral-but-essential artist will heave himself.

THE DOCTOR'S DILEMMA

by GEORGE BERNARD SHAWdirected by DAMASO RODRIGUEZ

A NOISE WITHIN

October 13-November 25, 2012 (Opened 10/20, rev’d 11/17m)

CAST Robertson Dean, Jason Dechert, Freddy Douglas, Apollo Dukakis, Kelly Ehlert, Geoff Elliott, Rafael Goldstein, David LM McIntyre, Deborah Strang, Jules Willcox

PRODUCTION Susan Gratch, set; Leah Piehl, costumes; Brian Gale, lights; Doug Newell, music/sound; Meghan Gray/Gretchen Estes, stage management

HISTORY First produced at the Royal Court Theatre, November 20, 1906. Production support from Terry & Jeanie Kay.


Geoff Elliot, Jules Willcox
Craig Schwartz
Jeff Biehl, Tyler Pierce, Aaron Blakeley, and Linda Gehringer in How to Write a New Book for the Bible, photo by Henry DiRocco

The Book of Cain

With one of the most provocative play titles in a long time, Bill Cain's How to Write a New Book for the Bible could be anything from light comedy to apocalyptic tragedy. As it turns out, it's an inspired documentary of his and his brother's relationship with their parents, set during the six months Cain cared for his terminally ill mother.

Of course, it's much more, as one would expect from someone who, with just four plays in 20 years, is among America's must-see playwrights. Cain's handful of rich, literate, distinctive plays draw much of their depth from Cain's dual strengths – he is a fearless, muscular writer who is also a practicing Jesuit priest.

Here, with a direct-address narrator (Tyler Pierce) named Bill Cain, New Book is unabashed autobiography. And, with the other three members not only carrying a surname right out of Genesis, but key Christian names from the New Testament, they seem predestined for Biblical outsourcing. As he said in an interview with the dramaturg at the premiering Berkeley Rep, "The play focuses on three people: my father, my mother and my brother. These are exquisite human beings, and I wanted to ritualize in some way the wonder of their lives as a way of celebrating them."

Cain's first play premiered at the Taper in 1989, and won six L.A. Drama Critics Awards. His second, Equivocation, arrived three years ago at the Geffen, and the third, Nine Circles, was produced at the Bootleg just last year. In Equivocation, Cain had enough latitude to explore art, power, and religion in his fictional account of the Jacobean court's hiring of Shakespeare to write propaganda. Similarly, his look at the Iraq War through the lens of Dante's Inferno resonated across disciplines.

Here, ironically, the play is more earthbound. We feel Cain tugging to keep his story up in the artistic realm of universality, but the understandable return to detailing his mother's ordeal snaps the vehicle back down onto the rails it must follow to the end of the line. It's a balancing act that keeps the play from soaring. He continues to keep his worlds of theater and theology co-existing comfortably. Here, they offer compatible commandments: the narrator's opening monologue begins,"First rule of writing? Write what you know." Later, he defends the steadfastness that produces the play's one weakness with another commandment: "Honor thy mother and father."

Pete (Jeff Biehl) and Mary (Linda Gehringer) are worth celebrating. In fact, their loving, straightforward marriage seems a good candidate for, if not a Book of Cain, then a Biblical appendix or, at the very least, a chapter in a parenting handbook.

From the six months in which the play is set, we move back to the sons' competitive childhood, to brother Paul's (Aaron Blakely) damaging tour of Vietnam, and the earlier death of father Pete.

Director Kent Nicholson has a great cast. Pierce seems equally at home stressing over writing deadlines as he does shifting to the calm, practiced cleric who must do his level best to bring God's wisdom into answerless situations. Biehl, especially, finds the right tone for a play Cain wants to exist in a world of the writer's mind. Biehl remains solid and firm, yet somehow light and detached. As Paul, Blakely has the least to do and yet some of the most harrowing material to present. Shaken by the war and still rattled by his parents' open preference for his younger brother, he carries a lot of baggage and yet makes sense of Paul's eventual success as a teacher.

But, it is Gehringer, the only SCR veteran, who gets to really show off. Moving from death's door back to first dates with her future husband, to a motherhood that seems scattered and withdrawn, when in fact it proves open and aware, is beautiful. It is a great showcase for all the actors.

That Cain has had to compromise what might have truly soared were he not grounded by faithfulness to the story, does not mean that New Book isn't filled with wonderful elements and clever language. The use of King James English at one point, the parallels with the Epistolary books of the Bible, and the familiar role-reversal of a son who becomes the reluctant parent, are all beautifully written and make this another step forward for Cain.

The physical production is in sync, too. Callie Floor's costumes blend together in a muted palette of gray green, peach, mauve, beige, and pale blue, against Scott Bradley's restrained staging (in accordance the playwright's plea to resist realistic set). Alexander V. Nichols' lights also work beautifully with the needs of Bradley's set pieces – a single freestanding door, a rocking chair, a chest that serves as examination table, prop chest, and bench. Visible above are an array of hanging sources of illumination that fly in to help establish locale. These are neatly divided into natural souces (candles, a stained glass window), artificial (lamps, candelabra), and reflective (monuments and the moon). Finally, Matt Starritt's sound design is another fitting part of the whole. Sound cues sneak up like a choir at your window or an AM radio pulling up outside. The chosen songs, all Nat Cole hits, echo the themes of getting one's life together in "Straighten up and fly right," the Epistle as autobiography in "sit right down and write myself a letter," and the crazy concoction of universal order in "Paper Moon's" "It's a Barnum & Bailey world just as phony as it can be."

Ultimately, Cain's unique blend of theater and theology satisfies both disciplines. His faithfulness to the story is justified. The universal will emerge from the singular. As Cain the character says for Cain the writer-priest, "If you want to see God – says the Book – look at your family story."

HOW TO WRITE A NEW BOOK FOR THE BIBLE

by BILL CAINdirected by KENT NICHOLSON

SOUTH COAST REPERTORY

October 19-November 18, 2012 (Opened 10/26, Rev’d 11/4e)

CAST Tyler Pierce, Linda Gehringer, Aaron Blakely, Jeff Biehl

PRODUCTION Scott Bradley, scenic director; Callie Floor, costumes; Alexander V. Nichols, lights; Matt Starritt, sound; Kathryn Davies/Jamie A. Tucker, stage management

HISTORY Developed at the Ojai Playwrights Conference and at Theatre Works' (Palo Alto, CA) New Works Festival. Originally produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Seattle Repertory Theatre


Jeff Biehl, Tyler Pierce, Aaron Blakley and Linda Gehringer
Henry DiRocco
Aya Cash, Greg Keller,  Jennifer Ikeda, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Jeff Goldblum in Teresa Rebeck's Seminar at the Ahmanson Theatre, photo by Craig Schwartz

Mentor stress test

The prolific Theresa Rebeck is back in Los Angeles with her second West Coast premiere of the year. Though the first one, Our House, took three years to cross the country, landing on Theatre Row with a wicked thud, the second, Seminar (through November 18), is at the Ahmanson Theatre only months after the end of its Broadway premiere. And, it arrives with star Jeff Goldblum (who finished the New York run for Alan Rickman), director Sam Gold, and its designer team intact.

While the folks in our house clearly felt they got their money's worth attending Seminar, it's unclear whether the four characters in the play did. Their fiction writing seminar cost $5000 each for ten weeks with a well-connected, brutally dismissive Lothario named Leonard (Goldblum). At the meetings, their work is shared and critiqued by Leonard and their fellow writers. Leonard's insights and the others' input should help distinguish their raw talent from their crude ambition, ultimately move them – by either means – closer to appearing in a prestigious jourmal or publication. They only get through four sessions before a combination of seductions and secessions derail the seminar.

As a whole, Seminar is more likely to inspire writers' craven inclinations than their creative ones. There isn't a lot of healthy guidance for improving craft, not in Leonard's glib and ambiguous directives, and not in Rebeck's work, which feels rushed. These are chalk-outline characters motivated less by individuation created by the playwright, and more by the her desire to add sexual energy and intrigue to a story that doesn't really go anywhere. As it turns out, that's what makes Seminar entertaining, and may be the most useful lesson the seminar has to teach.

Of course, the production owes a good measure of its appeal to Goldblum, even as he plays against type. In fact, to his credit, he not only buries his trademark seditious twinkle behind flinty inscrutability, he participates as an ensemble member. We begin with the first of ten weekly meetings in the rent-controlled Manhattan apartment of Kate (Kate Turnbull). The incredible housing deal Kate has through her relatives shows two things: she has not achieved success on her own, and she is really not ready for the realities of the writer's life. (It also lets designer David Zinn create a fabulous set that fills the Ahmanson stage, and looks like a place Leonard would feel comfortable.) Joining Kate are Martin (Greg Keller), a gifted but cautious acquaintance from high school; Izzy (Jennifer Ikeda), a hormone-rich young woman with more craftiness than craft in her quiver, and Douglas (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), who has more connections and money than talent.

Actually, because we're never sure whether Leonard is goading people to fulfill their talents or pushing them to quit, we can't tell who among the four – if any – is a promising writer. In the end, a confrontation between Martin and the mentor is a showdown meant to end in mutual respect. Kate is the character Rebeck makes most sympathetic – with her regular descent into food excess providing both connections and comedy. Her seduction of – or by – Leonard is less understandable, except as one more way to jazz up the play.

Director Gold keeps things moving along. He gets his cast to make these characters seem real. Turnbull, in for the original Aya Cash, does well to create a well-rounded Kate. Near-Verbrugghe gives Douglas the right ingratiating pomposity that he needs to get the comedy started with a portrait of vapid superficiality. As it turns out, the others. As Izzy, Ikeda is just enigmatic enough to be mysteriously appealing. She can bed any of the three men, and nearly does. And Keller's Martin, whose vaguely platonic interest in Kate mysteriously turns jealous after she beds Leonard, tucks the loose shirt-tails of his character into a solid, linear performance.

Still, it is good to see Rebeck rebound from the clutter of Our House. Also, Goldblum's participation in the ensemble is commendable. Perhaps Rebeck, who is creator and executive producer of the TV show "Smash," and already shepherding another script, Dead Accounts with Katie Holmes, to a November 29 Broadway opening, needs a Leonard to say, "Spend a little more time." While her fingers are undeniably on pulse of public taste, they may need to spend a little more time on the keyboard.

SEMINAR

by THERESA REBECKdirected by SAM GOLD

AHMANSON THEATRE

October 10-November 18, 2012 (Opened 10/17, rev’d 11/10m

CAST Jeff Goldblum, Jennifer Ikeda, Greg Keller, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Kate Turnbull (replacing Aya Cash); u/s John Pollono, Jeanne Syquia

PRODUCTION David Zinn, set/costumes; Ben Stanton, lights; John Gromada, music/sound; David S. Franklin, stage management

HISTORY Opened at Broadway's Golden Theater on November 20, 2011 with Alan Rickman, who was replaced by Jeff Goldblum on April 1, 2012. The production closed May 6. West Coast Premiere.


Aya Cash, Greg Keller, Jennifer Ikeda, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Jeff Goldblum
Craig Schwartz
Ms. Cash did not appear in this performance
Joan Almedilla, Jennie Kwan, Yumi Iwama, Janet Song and Tiffany-Marie Austin in East West Players 'Tea, with Music'

A farewell reunion

Twenty-five years ago playwright Velina Hasu Houston reached back a generation to the story of five women in post-war Japan. They had fallen in love with men in the occupying U.S. Army, and then uprooted and relocated to a quasi-community beside a military base on the Kansas prairie. One of them was Houston's mother.

The resulting play, Tea, became a landmark for Houston's career and Asian-American theater. To mark its 25th Anniversary this year, she has teamed with composer Nathan Wang for Tea, with Music. Its world premiere at East West Players (through December 9), under Jon Lawrence Rivera's direction, is a well-paced chamber piece showcasing five fine actors with superb voices.

It's a natural marriage between Houston's lyrics and Wang's music, which they also are applying to The Freeways Project/Another Perfect Day for Los Angeles Opera. The songs sound out emotions deep in the substrata of the women's relationships with their husbands, their children, and especially each other. Giovanni Ortega provides choreography that accents somber sections, and adds to the energy of the livelier songs, taking advantage of popular dance gestures of the era and letting the actresses show their range.

As with the original play, this is about much more than how Houston's parents met, or how five displaced women cope in a hostile land. Their stories transcend the Japanese expatriate experience to touch on issues that remain among the most sensitive facing us today: acceptance of immigrants, lingering racism, and the second-class treatment of women.

The play begins in 1968, in the empty home of Himiko (Joan Almedilla). Following the violent deaths of her husband and daughter, Himiko took her own life. Now the four other members of the once-tight group are reuniting to share tea, reminisce, put their late friend's house in order, and try to reconnect. Himiko's restive spirit wanders among them undetected, visible only to the audience. She listens as they talk about her, filling in the blanks in their account, and joining them in flashbacks.

All the women arrived in America as part of interracial couples. Atsuko (Tiffany-Marie Austin), alone, feels her Japanese-American husband trumps the others' non-Asian spouses. Of the two who married Caucasian soldiers, Himiko was abused by hers, while Teruko (Jennie Kwan) had a safe and happy marriage. Compounding their own assimilation problems, the last two married men who were also the target of acute racism. Chizuye (Janet Song) was happily married to her Mexican-American husband, who died before the play begins. Likewise, Setsuko (Yumi Iwama) and her African-American husband, who represent Houston's parents, had a good marriage.

The limbo that now consumes Himiko's spirit is not unlike the one that enveloped the women upon arrival in Junction City. The small town beside the base was mainly military families composed of German and Japanese wives. By the time the play takes place, they were joined by "war brides" from Vietnam. Many of the women had followed their hearts right out of the bosom of their families, who had disowned them before they left their homelands. For the play's characters, the shared heritage represented by the tea ceremony will eventually bring them back together. Even the widow Chizuye, whose separation with Japanese culture is symbolized in her preference for instant coffee, will join the others as Himiko's spirit finally finds peace.

Houston's choice to revisit her mother's past has been worth the trip back. Given the addition of so much music to a play that is only 90 minutes, some dialogue has had to be sacrificed and it is possible there are areas that could be clearer. For instance, the transition from the story of Himiko's daughter, Mieko (Song), to the final resolution and reunification seemed jarring. Ten more minutes of such a moving piece would not be unwelcome.

Mylette Nora's costumes reflect the women's need for frugality as they accent each one's sense of beauty. Under Adam Blumenthal's lights they stand out against darkness of John H. Binkley's set of wooden walkways that simply define the various locales. Five compact video screens form a fan above center stage on which Adam Flemming's artful projection design complements the narrative.

As she did in Calling Aphrodite, which looks at the effects of the atomic bomb through the story of two sisters, Houston positions personal stories against the larger canvas. As a result, we can appreciate the details of the individuals as they are set in relief against the broad strokes of these big issues.

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TEA, WITH MUSIC

by VELA HASU HOUSTONmusic by NATHAN WANG
choreography by GIOVANNI ORTEGAdirected by JON LAWRENCE RIVERA

EAST WEST PLAYERS

November 8-December 9, 2012 (Opened 11/14, rev’d 11/16)

CAST Joan Almedilla, Tiffany-Marie Austin, Yumi Iwama, Jennie Kwan, Janet Song

MUSICIANS John Gentry Thompson, piano

PRODUCTION John H. BInkley, set; Mylette Nora, costumes; Adam Blumenthal, lights; Bob Blackburn, sound; Jaclyn Kalkhurst, stage management

HISTORY Based on the play, Tea, which premiered at Manhattan Theatre Club on October 6, 1987 World Premiere.


Joan Almedilla, Jennie Kwan, Yumi Iwama, Janet Song and Tiffany-Marie Austin
Michael Lamont