THE PRIDE by Alexi Kaye Campbell at the Wallis Annenberg
In his review of the New York production, Ben Brantley called The Pride “sentimental,” and he may not be wrong. The play dramatizes two separate love triangles, 50 years apart. In 1958, Sylvia is a childless illustrator of children’s books who introduces her dapper husband Philip to Oliver, the author of the book she’s illustrating. It soon becomes apparent that Philip and Oliver have far more passion between them than Philip and Sylvia ever have, but theirs is a love that dare not speak its name, and it is filled with anger, guilt and painful silences. In 2008, two men named Oliver and Philip have just broken up because Oliver is “addicted to cock,” as he puts it. Sylvia is Oliver’s best friend, searching for her own authentic self and a man she can have an authentic connection with. There is so much self-hatred and misery in the 1958 triangle that love cannot possibly blossom; in 2008, however, there is the possibility of forgiveness and self-acceptance – and love and hope. And that’s where the sentimentality comes in – it’s much better to be “different” from some conformist societal norm in 2008 than it was fifty years before, and there is a certain amount of sentimentality in such a notion. Yet there’s more to this play than that – more emotional richness, more speculation on the human condition – and this is a smashing production. The actors are excellent, especially Jessica Collins and Augustus Prew (as Oliver), who make some remarkable transitions between characters and time periods. And the direction and set design – both by Michael Arden – do everything possible to obscure the more schematic elements in the script (that “sentimentality” again) and stress instead the journey that these characters are on towards some uncertain but hopeful sense of fulfillment. And Alexi Campbell is a very talented writer – the words flow beautifully and carry the audience along on its elegant rhythms. It’s a production and an experience to cherish.
LES BLANCS by Lorraine Hansberry at Rogue Machine
I’m actually going to start out with what would usually be my last sentence: This production has been extended until July 18, and, if you care about theater and what it means to live in the world, then see it! Go online and buy your ticket right now. Why? Because you will probably never get another chance to see this fascinating play from one of our great playwrights, Lorraine Hansberry, who died of cancer at age 34. Hansberry’s first play, Raisin in the Sun, is an American classic, deservedly beloved and frequently performed. Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, is very much an examination of social conditions in the late 1960s and has value now more as a social document than as a work of theater. Neither of her earlier plays give any indication of the ambition, scope and sheer theatricality that Les Blancs contains, as she depicts on a huge canvas – with 24 characters! – the unresolvable problems created by American and European colonialism in Africa. It is the presence of such a large cast, and the fact that Hansberry died before finishing her epic, which cause the play to be so rarely produced. Huge kudos to Rogue Machine Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn for having the determination and resourcefulness to give this truly important play its Los Angeles premiere. Director Gregg T. Daniels does an admirable job in bringing this world of a white-run mission in the heart of Africa to vivid and theatrical life. The set design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz is one of the best of the year – roughhewn slats of dark wood primitively lashed together – truly capturing the essence of this place, so far removed from European civilization and regarded with such condescension by the white American liberal journalist, whose arrival in this village signals the beginning of the drama. Jeff Gardner’s sound design is also one of the year’s best, bringing the surrounding jungle to auditory life. A percussionist, Jalani Blunt, brilliantly plays Gardner’s African compositions on a variety of instruments, and Shari Gardner’s African dancing is haunting and inescapably vivid. Yes, the play has scenes that go on too long and monologues that ramble; these are things that I’m sure Hansberry would have given better shape to had her life not been cruelly interrupted. But what’s here is so rich and complex, it must be seen. The fire that burns at the heart of this play – that burns a path of destruction through the lives of all these characters – is still very much with us today. And I know of no other play that brings it to life as compellingly as Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs. See it while you still can.