Given how much "toxic" masculinity there is around these days - just this morning, some jerk in Northern Cali joined the growing list of lethal shooters, at a children's elementary school, no less - well, I thought I'd begin with a memoir from a non-toxic Hollywood male.

BORN STANDING UP: a comic's life by Steve Martin, published by Scribner's

"I was not naturally talented - I didn't sing, dance or act - though working around that minor detail made me inventive.  I was not self-destructive, though I almost destroyed myself. In the end, I turned away from standup with a tired swivel of my head, until now," writes Steve Martin, in the first chapter of this fascinating self-analysis of his 18 year career as a standup comic.  Martin adds: "I was seeking comic originality, and fame fell on me as a by-product."

This is not a new book - it's been out 10 years already - but it has sat on my shelf for some-time now, unread.  I am suspicious of celebrity culture of any kind, and self-analysis is usually of the most superficial variety with such folk.  But Steve Martin has been more unpredictable than most, branching out to playwriting, literary fiction, painting, musicals.  And I found his book to be unexpectedly and delightfully insightful, both into the formation of "Steve Martin, standup" who became the first comedian to play stadiums, and into the art of standup comedy itself.  Steve Martin spent years as a standup failure, bombing hard and often.  He lost managerss, he lost lovers, he had no money. His father never believed in him and was clearly hoping he would call it quits.  Even the months before his stardom were filled with gigs with small audiences and loud hecklers.  How and why did it change?  Read the book and find out.  I was deeply impressed with the honesty and humility with which Martin was able to view his own development as an entertainer and creative force.   He comes across as a flawed but genuinely good guy, a private person from Orange County who is well aware of the demands of celebrity, keeping it at as great a distance as he can afford to.

STUPID KID by Sharr White, Directed by Cameron Watson

Joe Hart, Taylor Gilbert, Rob Nagle, Allison Blaize, Ben Theobald (Brian Cole)

There are sometimes when the opening scene of a new play is so original and mind-blowing that I worry about how the rest of the play is going to be able to continue on this level, much less top it.  Such was the case with Sharr White's Stupid Kid at the Road.  The play opens with a knock on a door - suddenly Chick (Ben Theobald), a wayward man in his late 20s, is facing his father Eddie (Joe Hart) on the threshold of the run-down family home.  "Who are you?" Eddie keeps asking, and he seems unable to comprehend that this stranger at his door is actually his son.  Soon mother Gigi (Taylor Gilbert) joins the fray, and things only get more wildly out of control.  What's so winning about this opening scene, from a playwright's point of view, is that the three major characters are established and we begin to get a glimpse of the terrible tragedy/media event 14 years earlier that changed their lives - all without ever slowing down the play or compromising its reality to give us any exposition.  The play has raised several intriguing questions without giving away any crucial information.  Soon after this, the "toxic masculinity" in the play is introduced in the character of Uncle Mike (Rob Nagle).  Uncle Mike was the town sheriff, until he was unceremoniously removed.  Now he's running for town judge to get his revenge.  Uncle Mike has moments of greatness, but his character ends up raising more questions than the play is able to answer, chief among them: why would a man so concerned with power and domination rent a boy's room in his sister's run-down house for the last 14 years?  Given the depth of sadism, maybe he needs people to dominate; but other questions emerge that simply prove to be too big for this play to deal with.  Still, it's a terrific production, with great costumes by Kate Bergh and a wonderfully-detailed set by Jeff McLaughlin.  It has six more performances and is worth catching.

LES LIASON DANGEREUSES by Christopher Hampton, from the novel by Choderlos de Laclos, directed by Robin Larson

Reiko Aylesworth and Henry Lubatti in the Libertine cast (Geoffrey Wade)

This would seem to be the perfect play for right now, dealing as it does with the sexual misdeeds of two 18th Century aristocrats, La Marquise de Merteuil and Le Vicomte de Valmont, who conspire together to pray upon the more vulnerable members of their society.  There's even this quote from a mother to her teenage daughter in the early moments of the play, regarding why Valmont continues to be received in polite homes, despite his tawdry history: "You'll soon find that society is riddled with such inconsistencies, we're all aware of them, we all deplore them, and in the end, we all accommodate them."   As Jenny Lower pointed out in her Stage Raw review, this could be a description of how Harvey Weinstein's uncouth behavior and violations went unpunished for so long.

Antaeus is famous for having two separate casts for each show - in this case, The Libertines and The Lovers.  I saw The Libertines cast, with Reiko Aylesworth and Henry Lubatti in the lead roles, and the production simply didn't work for me, because Mr Lubatti didn't make me feel the emotional devestation that Valmont causes by rejecting his true love, La Presidente de Tourvel.  In her Stage Raw review, Jenny Lower raves about how well this worked with the actors in The Lovers cast.  Something to think about.

REDLINE by Christian Durso, directed by Eli Gonda, presented by IAMA Theatre at the Lounge

This father-son play about the consequences of a 5 second outburst of toxic masculinity has all the emotional devestation I found missing from Liason Dangereuse, and much more.  It is the culmination of a two year development process in which playwright Christian Durso continued to work on his play with director Eli Gonda and actors James Eckhouse and Graham Sibley, having readings, making changes. The play is still finding its levels and filling in a few details, and the ending still feels a bit tentative, but this is an example of what small theaters can do that major institutional theaters rarely can.  The collaborative elements here are outstanding, and IAMA Theatre deserves huge kudos for helping to bring about such a powerful theatrical experience.  Every family will be able to relate to the central event in the play - an argument between mom and dad on a skiing field trip that gets out of hand and ignites a moment of chaos that results in a tragedy for many people.  Further, the play shows how the emotional damage is compounded and passed along from father to son, resulting in another heartrending and entirely preventable tragedy.  Eckhouse and Sibley are two of SoCal's best actors, and both are at the top of their games here.  But, again, the brilliance here is the result of a great collaboration between all aspects of theater, including the flexible steel set by Rachel Myers and the excellent lighting by Josh Epstein.  Kudos also to producers Tom DeTrinis and Jen Hoguet for their contribution.  There are only 3 performances left with available tickets: this Saturday at 2 and 8 pm and this Sunday at 2.  Grab one fast.


HIPSTER Tips for Musicals in NY and LA - from a Critic who is NOT Charles McNulty

So the word is out on the street - THE BAND'S VISIT by Itamar Moses (adapted from an Israeli film), music by David Yazbek, directed by David Cromer is a great night in the theater and will be a huge hit!  If you haven't read about it yet, it's because you can't be bothered to read theater reviews.  But Ben Brantley of The New York Times is "in love again" and David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter has been moved to writing poetry again by the 90 minute evening.  And on and on and on.  And the Tony race is on!

Well, I saw THE BAND'S VISIT while I was in NYC 10 days ago.  I had to buy a ticket (!) and sit in the nosebleed seats because Molly Wyatt, the show's publicist, couldn't grasp that Charles McNulty is not the only theater reviewer from Los Angeles.  Here's Molly's email address: molly@polkandco.com.  I would really appreciate it if you would write a letter of protest on behalf of all critics from LA who are not Charles McNulty.

Oh, and the show?  Terrific.  Even from a few miles away, I was entranced by Katrina Lenk, Tony Shalhoub (always brilliant) and everyone else involved with this bewitching evening.  I think it captures the deep wish in our hearts right now for compassion and understanding to replace violence as the order of the day between humans who are different from each other.  But does that mean I forgive Molly?  Ha!

BREAKING NEWS: The Sacred Fools production of MR BURNS: A Post-Electric Play has been extended to DEC. 9th!  MR BURNS is this critic's choice for LA production of the year.  With tickets at $15, this is a deal that can't be beat!

Speaking of Charles McNulty - who is of course the lead theater critic for the LA Times (you knew that, didn't you?) - he wrote a brilliant review of BRIGHT STAR, the bluegrass musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell.  Seriously, it was brilliant - here's a link, check it out if you missed it the first time.  I agree with everything that Charles (is it okay if I call you Charles, Charles?) wrote, and I loved his image of the audience doing a jig in our seats.  I saw the show and I can absolutely confirm that I was jigging like a crazy man in my seat.  Could not stop jigging.  Charles goes on to point out that the musical's story is pretty lame stuff, which it surely is, and that Steve and Edie (harking back to an earlier Steve and Eydie for all those old enough to know what I'm talking about) are novice creators of musical theater, and that it shows.  He's right, it does.  Nevertheless, I loved the music, the musicians, and, most of all, Carmen Cusack (the star), who is tall, short, fat, thin, loud, quiet - simply everything you could ask for in a nearly impossible-to-act role.  She is a force, magnificent, and you will lie awake nights cursing Charles McNulty if you let his justifiably negative comments convince you to miss this show.  There is none of Steve Martin the tongue-in-cheek wiseguy here, only Steve Martin the bluegrass-playing banjo picker who loves this roots music with his entire soul.  That love comes through, and you'll be so glad to experience it first-hand, because it's highly doubtful that this big-hearted musical will come through this town again in the near future.  And man, it feels really good to dance like that in your seat!