Non-Registered Critics: Willard Manus

WILLARD MANUS has been a Los Angeles-based theater reviewer since 1980, writing for such publications as L.A. Weekly, The Outlook, Northeast Newspapers and Pasadena Star-News. He also served as West Coast correspondent for Playbill.com. For the past ten years he has covered southern California theatre for Total Theatre.com. Manus is also a much-produced playwright whose recent credits include FRANK AND AVA (winner of a best-play prize at the 2014 Hollywood Fringe Festival); JOE AND MARILYN: A LOVE STORY; BIRD LIVES!; and PREZ–THE LESTER YOUNG STORY. Manus writes novels as well, the best-known of which is MOTT THE HOOPLE, thanks to the British rock band which took its name from his book. A member of Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), his film reviews are carried in lively-arts.com.
Feb

Witness Uganda

itness Uganda does not shy away from telling hard truths about life in Africa, but that’s not to say the show is a downer. On the contrary, it emphasizes the humanity, courage and potential of most Ugandans, a people ground down by one dishonest, brutal regime after another.

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Feb

LINDA VISTA

Bullard’s deft direction and Todd Rosenthal’s revolving set keep the action flowing seamlessly, but the play is mostly a character study, a portrait of a 21st-century anti-hero, a guy who can’t stop hurting other people and himself, no matter how many times he apologizes.

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Feb

An Inspector Calls

An Inspector Calls has important things to say about predatory capitalism, but unfortunately Daldry’s direction ruined the play’s message. A charter member of the Louder School of Acting, he has instructed his key characters to keep shouting their lines at each other. Their strident, unmodulated voices began to grate on my nerves and made me want to flee the theater long before the play ended.

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Jan

A Misunderstanding

His four-person cast is to be commended for the way it has handled his complex but basically static play; with the help of director Elina de Santos, A Midsundersanding’s many long speeches are delivered effortlessly and impressively, making for a thought-provoking experience.

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Dec

LOVE ACTUALLY LIVE

All the nonstop talk and songs about love became, for me, a bit cloying over a 2 ½-hour-long stretch; I felt as if I had eaten one dessert too many at Thanksgiving. But the sold-out crowd at the Wallis stayed happy as the show went on, cheering each scene with increasing, even delirious, enthusiasm. Obviously, folks are still madly in love with “Love Actually.”

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Dec

BUS STOP

Because Bus Stop is more comedy than drama—there are lots of wisecracks and songs to brighten things up—the ending must be happy, of course. Inge, though, is such an accomplished and skilled playwright that I left the theatre feeling good about the play and everyone in it.

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Dec

COME FROM AWAY

Come from Away was first co-produced in 2015 by La Jolla Playhouse, whose artistic director Christopher Ashley directed the show. Ashley, who won a Tony when the musical was done in New York, is still with the show, which is undoubtedly one of the main reasons for its success.

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Dec

The Big Event: King Dick

It’s all very manic and mad, but the lampoon works because it’s rooted in reality: such a meeting between Presley and the President did take place.

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Dec

The Big Event: …meantime at HoJo’s

The challenge of dealing with the break-in from the vantage point of a nearby Howard Johnsons Motel proves to be insurmountable for the playwright/director.

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Nov

Hughie & Krapp’s Last Tape

Beckett knows how to dramatize stasis and create his own special, grotesque, and yet heart-breaking world. He’s done all of that and more in Krapp, and while I’m not sorry I saw the play, I left the theater thinking that I never wanted to see it again.

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Nov

Finks

Both the playwright and director of Finks are the children of blacklisted parents. They have done their forebears proud by mounting a vibrant production of the play, one that brings the contentious fifties to life in a hard-driving, impressionistic way… Finks may be a historical play but the history it deals with has come full circle on us. We are living in a similarly highly-charged political environment, one in which right-wing powers have mounted an attack on democratic values and beliefs. That makes the piece even more relevant than when it was first produced back East in 2008.

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Nov

VALLEY OF THE HEART

Valdez’s sweeping historical tale takes place on John Iacovelli’s rustic, multi-layered set which is framed by David Murakami’s video projections and tall, upstage Japanese screens. The playwright directs the talented ensemble with his customary skill and bravura.

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Nov

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

Working in a tight circle of light in a creepy setting designed by Dane Laffrey and lit by Ben Stanton, Mays commands the stage from the onset and proceeds to dazzle with his storytelling gifts… Thanks to Mays and his talented team, this holiday show is one to remember.

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Nov

Cost of Living

The actors bring Majok’s play to life in fearless, bold fashion. The director, John Vreeke, and the Fountain Theater itself, are also to be commended for the way they have supported diversity in theatre with this splendid production.

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Nov

Steambath

How we act in the face of death is what Steambath is all about. Could we have postponed our demise had we been a better person? What have we done in life to deserve such an ignominious end? These are the questions the playwright raises in his offbeat, irreverent play, but the way he goes about answering them, with shtick replacing story, is unsatisfactory and disappointing. Hats off, though, to the hard-working and talented cast, and to director Ron Sossi for his inventive staging.

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Nov

The Marriage Zone

Although I went to the play hoping for some badly needed laughs, I was sadly disappointed. Very little that happened on stage tickled my funny bone. I simply sat there wondering why the play wasn’t working for me, feeling more bewildered and disappointed by the moment.

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Nov

QUACK

Quack has a lot to say about the war between the sexes today and about our celebrity culture. There are some serious and touching moments in the play, but most of the time its issues are played for comedy of a snappy, wise-cracking nature. The big obstacle that playwright and director Neel Keller face is in making us care about these mostly unpleasant, unsympathetic characters. But such is the vitality and pizzazz of the two-hour story—and above all the cast’s wonderful work—that we somehow get caught up in its flow.

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Nov

VIETGONE

Nguyen’s play has an epic quality; its story goes back and forth in time in non-linear fashion, and it often breaks into song at unexpected times (just like an opera.) But such is Nguyen’s gift as a writer, I was always caught up in the flow of his tale and in the struggles of his conflicted characters to find a place in a strange new world. I was also much impressed with the work of its five-person cast (three of whom play multiple roles) and of its director, Jennifer Chang, who kept this speeding-train of a play from going off the rails.

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Nov

WINTER SOLSTICE

There are, I should point out, many positive things to say about this production of Winter Solstice, especially the superb acting of the cast, which also included a seventh character, Konrad (Rob Nolan), a painter and Corinna’s secret lover. Frederique Michel’s clockwork-like direction of Schimmelpfennig’s tricky, provocative play and Charles Duncombe’s atmospheric stage design also deserve the highest praise possible.

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Oct

Radiant Vermin

Ridley’s all-out assault on capitalism’s predatory values keeps heating up as the play goes on, aided by the tour de force performances of Talwalker and Harris, who dazzle as they handle the playwright’s rat-tat-tat dialogue with amazing skill and ease, sometimes firing it at each other, other times directly at the audience.

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