MAY 2008

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THE HIDING PLACE by Jeff Whitty | Attic Ensemble Theatre
TAKING STEPS by Alan Ayckbourn | South Coast Repertory
TWO UNRELATED PLAYS by David Mamet | Kirk Douglas Theatre


Megan Tropea and Brian Schnipper in 'The Hiding Place' at the Attic. Photo by Kevin Fabian

Cliff notes

Between writing the subversively funny book for Avenue Q and the literate black comedy of The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, playwright Jeff Whitty wrote The Hiding Place, a seemingly simple relationship drama. Workshopped by the commissioning South Coast Repertory weeks before the July 2003 Broadway opening of Q (which would earn Whitty a 2004 Tony Award), The Hiding Place premiered at the Atlantic Theater Company in January 2004. Now in its West Coast premiere at the Attic Theatre (through June 28), the play offers sly overtones about how we hide ourselves in our passion for art, for work, or for increasingly elusive passion itself.

Novelist Karl (Brian Shnipper), who also teaches writing, frequents a New York restaurant with friends George (John Szura), an aging painter whose work is represented by Karl's wife Katrina (Christine Stump), and Leon (Jan Munroe), a forgivably self-absorbed actor who has created a cottage industry of desk-bound, experience-based monologues ala Spaulding Gray. The restaurant's two waitresses, Myra (Megan Tropea) and Jean (Jen Kays), are pursuing lives of writing for and acting in the theater, respectively. Any career tips they can glean from the art, literary and theatrical pros they serve will be gratefully accepted.

When the beautiful, farm-fresh Myra bumps into Karl at a bookstore, she "aw shucks" her way into a kind of teacher's pet project, smiting the older writer to engage in a crafty take on Pyramus and Thisbe's exchanges: corresponding in written notes and poems left behind a loose brick in a wall. The actual "hiding place" mechanism is a maguffin, and Fabian, whether for technical or storytelling reasons, wisely minimizes the contrivance by hiding the hiding place behind a sidewall support.

The real hiding places Whitty wants us to consider are the ones we place ourselves in. It's no coincidence that Leon refers to the small theaters he started in as "closets," and George pines, semi-sincerely, for the days before homosexuality was as accepted as it is today. Though George doesn't say the word, he doesn't have to. It was a time when Gays were in the closet. The connection reveals both as hiding places. Going further, he asserts that the creative process, like love, begins in the imagination. But if it remains there, then it is another act of escape: "You never knew me," Myra tells Karl. "We hide behind imagination. That's how love begins."

Against this backdrop of people hiding in their work and being less than honest with their loved ones, Myra and Karl's "affair" – which achieved but one night's serving of carnitas – fades uneventfully until Myra – ala Lisa in Donald Margulies' Collected Stories - uses those presumed intimacies for her art. Her characters - performed by Jean and Leon (breaking from his dependence on parading his privates) – are too-thinly disguised for the clever Katrina to miss seeing Karl. She chastises and leaves him, not for indulging in fleeting fancy but for placing the incident in hiding, and lying to keep it there.

The performances are mostly fine, with both Munroe's Leon and Shnipper's Karl flirting too much with flatness. This serves the dramatic requirement of their being uninspired, but too often loses the leavening, not to mention wit, Whitty has lain in. One of a number of examples that should provide a laugh had Shnipper a better means of conveying irony, is when George bitches about a hideous gossip columnist. Karl's asks "Which one?," meant to indicate "They're all hideous." But Shnipper sounds as if he's actually trying to determine the name.

Tropea is particularly good, as is Kays (whose only previous TheaterTimes viewing had been the much lesser Bigger Man). Stump does well with the smallest assignment, and Szura manages to keep George animated while avoiding the caricature traps of the flamboyant Gay artist.

The brick that sits vigil at the foot of the stage suggests we're in the presence of disclosure, the uncorking of the genie's lamp, the challenge of remaining open, etc. It's one of Fabian's nice touches, as is the care his Props supervisor went to to monochrome all the props and frame-backings in black. The flat paint is appreciated. The flat acting is less so. However, Whitty's talents won't be hidden in the Attic. The production provides a good opportunity to see a writer who will continue to contribute to theater as long as he hangs out here.


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THE HIDING PLACE

by JEFF WHITTY
directed by KEVIN FABIAN

ATTIC ENSEMBLE THEATRE

May 23-June 28, 2008
(Opened 5/23, rev'd 5/24)

CAST Jen Kays, Jan Munroe, Brian Shnipper, Christine Stump, John Szura, Megan Tropea

PRODUCTION Dane Whitlock, costumes; Bosco Flanagan, lights; Tim Labor, sound; Blanche Ramirez/Luise Heath, stage management; Robin Roy, producer

HISTORY West Coast Premiere


Megan Tropea, Brian Schnipper
Kevin Fabian

One dimension flatland

In 1979, Alan Ayckbourn premiered play no. 24 of an intended play-a-year output that, according to his Web site, hit opus 71 this year. Taking Steps, a theatrical Exercycle built for six, is now outfitted in vintage '70s trappings for a season-ending South Coast Repertory staging by Art Manke (through June 15). You'll have to look hard for redeeming social relevance in Ayckbourn's thinly veiled message about taking the difficult step to change one's lot in life. But that's looking at the diaphanous wrap instead of the woman wearing it – especially misguided when she's been shaped for sheer hanky-panky. Instead, Ayckbourn and director Art Manke have built their comedy upon the imaginary steps that turn Ralph Funicello's single-story set into three floors. And, while the actors gamely bounce upon them to rise above the stage floor, rising above the thin material proves more elusive.

Kasey Mahaffey, Rob Nagel and Louis Lotorto in 'Taking Steps' at South Coast Repertory. Photo by Henry DiRocco

Manke and cast go after and get the laughs, with as much physical comedy as has been exacted on these boards since they bore their five previous Ayckbourn productions, which included a fall into a swimming pool by late great Steve DeNaut in Man of the Moment, food fighting in How the Other Half Loves with Paxton Whitehead, Robert Curtis Brown and Ron Boussom, and all manner of chaos in A Chorus of Disapproval starring Joe Spano and David Schramm.

This play's large, leaky home with the imaginary stairwells belongs to a Mr. Bainbridge (Louis Lotorto), who desperately wants to unload it onto its current tenants, recently married Roland (Rob Nagle) and Elizabeth (Kirsten Potter). Contracts are to be signed, coincidentally, on the night Elizabeth has chosen to leave Roland (leaving an illegible note to say she is gone) and her brother Mark (Bill Brocktrup) will attempt to reconcile with ex-fiancee Kitty (Emily Eiden), back for the first time since aborting their wedding.

The play is a whirligig of people misunderstanding messages, mistaking identities, or just missing each other as the move about the single floor representing the three-story home. Manke and crew have honed the timing to clockwork. The center post of this merry-go-round story should be, like Charlie in The Foreigner or Alice in Wonderland, the innocent who enters the crazy world and inadvertently goes through the biggest arc of anyone. Here, it's Kasey Mahaffy's Mr. Watson from the office of Roland's solicitors.

To keep him from appearing too normal, however, Ayckbourn gives Watson a nervous speech condition, which Mahaffy delivers haltingly, reminiscent of Monty Python's Michael Palin. Unfortunately, the affect prevents the character from being substantial enough to provide the needed fulcrum.

The other actors do better with the less developing characters. Nagle, the big delight of the show, helps the over-drinking Roland to his feet with great timing and accents, before being pressed into service in a painfully funny encounter with a rollaway bed. Lotorto, too, is spot-on without ever overstepping. Eiden, with the smallest role, keeps her energy up despite long stretches immobilized in an attic closet. And Brocktrup, the image of a dashing young Charles Nelson Reilly, has great fun as the smitten brother. Potter, making the most of a character who, despite taking great pains to leave her husband, returns to bed him, then fails to recognize a vital member of the household staff, shows her prowess by slyly showing Elizabeth's lack of it.

Angela Balogh Calin has fun recalling the era in costumes that scream quietly. Steven Cahill pumps up a nostalgic soundtrack that Manke the Choreographer can't resist turning into a fun, "Fever-ish disco curtain call. It's a well called show, too. Watch the perfect cuing of the creaking floor that "sounds" as the actors bounce on it.

Much effort went into a program timeline that helps set the play in its historical context. This is useful, since one isn't going to find context within the play. Audiences looking for solid silliness – and there was a matinee full of them when we attended – will be rewarded. Others will imagine the set's invisible floors easier than they will conceive of a story.


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TAKING STEPS

by ALAN AYCKBOURN
directed by ART MANKE

SOUTH COAST REPERTORY

May 16-June 15, 2008
(Opened 5/23, rev'd 5/24m)

CAST Bill Brocktrup, Emily Eiden, Louis Lotorto, Kasey Mahaffy, Rob Nagle, Kirsten Potter

PRODUCTION Ralph Funicello, set; Angela Balogh Calin, costumes; Geoff Korf, lights; Steven Cahill, sound/music; David Nevell, voice/dialect coach; Darin Anthony, asst. director; Julie Haber/Chrissy Church, stage management


Kasey Mahaffey, Rob Nagel and Louis Lotorto
Henry DiRocco
Michael Lerner and Harold Gould in 'Duck Variations,' one of ''Two Unrelated Plays' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Acts of desperation

Center Theatre Group and David Mamet, tired of waiting for the muse to serve up the seasons-delayed Waitress in Yellowstone, have cooked up a full-course combo-play out of two one-acts. Neil Pepe directs Two Unrelated Plays at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through June 8 with a Hollywood cast of stage worthy vets: Michael Lerner and Harold Gould work Mamet's 1971 two-hander, The Duck Variations, and a solid Ed O'Neill leads a deep cast through the merriment of the debuting Keep Your Pantheon. Together the half-premiere half-revival, while it may not wholly satisfy every Mamet fan, should either satisfy half or half-satisfy all.

Dominic Hoffman, Jonathan Rossetti and Ed O'Neill 'Keep Your Pantheon,' one of 'Two Unrelated Plays' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Both acts play inside a classy proscenium-within-the-proscenium frame, upon a board stage floor fronted with footlights. The reinforced theater conceit suggests the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist, back as a conquering hero of Hollywood, is relishing this return to the world that launched him. Mamet has been a more satisfying screenwriter and film director of late, with a growing roster of mystery-dramas and twisted comedies. (Among them, the brilliant, Barry Levinson-directed Wag The Dog, is not only among film's funniest political satires, but invaluable tonic for any presidential primary season.)

However, as last year's Geffen revival of Speed-The-Plow reminded, Mamet the playwright offered more to chew on in earlier work than the thinner, more farcical work of late – Romance and Boston Marriage, for example.

Pairing Duck and Pantheon shows a writer at the beginning of his career, before his voice was fully developed, and now, not so much a writer in decline as recline, again opting for farce over the fierceness that made him one of the most important playwrights of the past half-century.

In The Duck Variations, Lerner and Gould share a park bench over a series of scenes separated only by a brief dimming of the lights. They talk of nature's mysteries and its balancing act called symbiosis, by which living things fit together, all the while participating in it themselves, through a give-and-take dialogue that is the male version of mutualism. Lerner's George S. Aronovitz is the first informational alpha male, appearing as Hardy to the Laurel of Gould's Emil Varec. Emil is at first the willing student of George's suspiciously airy knowledge. But, after George explains the patterns of the wild duck, Emil assumes the tutor's role, offering first-hand knowledge of ducks raised on a farm.

In keeping with its Variations reference there is musicality to the exchanges. Pepe keeps things light, never gloomy. There is melancholy but the overall effect is comedic. The men remain balanced, deferring in turn to the other's apparent expertise, facing a lake that, given Mamet's Chicago origins, is likely Lake Michigan. That means that they face away from daily sunsets as they wrestle with the unavoidable approach of their own.

Pepe doesn't let them push for too much individuality, yet keeps chemistry just enough for better bonding, with George appearing the bigger windbag, drawing much of what he says, as Jerry does in Edward Albee's similarly existential The Zoo Story, on what he's read. Emil is happy to listen and learn, but will rebut when his personal experience suggests otherwise.

Mamet's park benchers are more in tune with Albee's than Herb Gardner's Tony-winning, but less interesting I'm Not Rappaport fellows (or, for that matter, the ruminative diplomats in Lee Blessing's Walk in the Woods). That is good, because after intermission it's silliness unbound.

Those who know Ed O'Neill primarily as "Married With Children's" rubber-faced Al Bundy, the man who makes Homer Simpson look three-dimensional, will find a rich comedic actor tuned in to Pepe's restrained direction. O'Neill, as Strabo, the self-important leader of an inconsequential theater troupe in ancient Rome, gets his laughs through sly, honest character, not mugging or histrionics. The entire cast, which for a 50-minute one-act is an embarrassment of riches, easily maneuvers the story's crazy twists of fate with great earnestness. The plot turns as much on the machina ex deux as it does on desires ad hominum. And, with homo the prevalent sexualis in this man's Rome, the play's punny title mines all available double-entendre meanings. Not only does Keep Your Pantheon translate to, You Can Have Your Rome, and What's your hurry?, it appropriately warns to "Cinch your toga tightly!"

True to its title, Keep Your Pantheon takes us back to the same ancient Rome of Sondheim and Gelbart's Forum and the upcoming Amy Freed comedy, You, Nero. Apparently, according to these perceptive writers, the City of Romulus and Remus was one big Vaudeville jamboree with houses built out of schtick.

Because Strabo has let his predilections determine his artistic direction, his company is losing favor with its patrons. Now four months behind in his rent and his only potential booking a tryout for a Sicilian theater festival, he needs to engage in some serious funny business with his creditors. What happens provides plenty of laughs, largely in the vein of the late, great Vaudeville joke, reminding us both why it was so great, and is now so late.

Still, Mamet has a sure hand and a wisdom about life that makes even his slight comedies worth seeing. And, with a cast that includes David Paymer, Dominic Hoffman, J.J. Johnston, Vincent Guastaferro and Rod McLachlan, to name a few, it's a chance to see a portion of Mamet's own actors Pantheon under the sure hand of Pepe, whose Atlantic Theatre Company grew to prominence thanks in part to the patronage of a prolific, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright.


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TWO UNRELATED PLAYS

The Duck Variations (1971) / Keep Your Pantheon (World Premiere)

by DAVID MAMET
directed by NEIL PEPE

KIRK DOUGLAS THEATRE

October 15 – December 12, 2010
(Opened, Rev’d 10/16)

May 11 ñ June 8, 2008 (Opened, rev'd 5/18)

CAST Jeffrey Addiss, Michael Cassidy, Steven Goldstein, Harold Gould, Vincent Guastaferro, Dominic Hoffman, J.J. Johnston, Michael Lerner, Rod McLachlan, Ed O'Neill, David Paymer, Jonathan Rossetti, Jack Wallace

PRODUCTION Takeshi Kata, set; Ilona Somogyi, costumes; Christopher Akerlind, lights; Cricket S. Myers, sound; David S. Franklin/Elizabeth Atkinson, stage management


Michael Lerner and Harold Gould, top; inset, Dominic Hoffman, Jonathan Rossetti and Ed O'Neill
Craig Schwartz