THE Twisted Hipster BEST OF LOS ANGELES THEATER 2017

As 2017 winds down, I think it's inevitable that we ask ourselves: what was that all about?

There were expectations we had - some were met, most weren't.  There was money made - or not.  Or maybe a windfall, who knows?

There were a series of events... things that happened with parents, children, friends, lovers, business associates, strangers... mostly they were the same things that happened in 2016 and 2015, but with some slight variations.  Or maybe this year was uemarkably different. Who knows?

For the Twisted Hipster, the end of this year marks the end of my year-long return to journalism - something I pursued for 10 years in the last century (or last millenium) for The New York Times, Village Voice, New Republic, New York Newsday, American Theatre, In These Times, and many others.   I returned to journalism only once this century, 16 years ago, when I wrote a piece for the New York Times "Arts and Liesure" section about the effect of 9/11 on Downtown New York theater.  But I really appreciate the opportunity that Enci and Steven Box of Better-Lemons gave me to take up the journalist's pen again, and the freedom to write what I wanted to.  I've learned a lot about my adopted city, and the dreamers who are drawn to the Dream Factory, as well as the Dreamers being threatened with exile.

Of course, the theme of the moment is it's good to be rich.  Those with money keep making more and will get that windfall I mentioned with this disgusting new Tax Bill.  Those of us without wealth hang on more perilously than ever.  But we do hang in there, yes we do.

No art form is more perilous these days than the theater - as analog as it gets, with no rewind or fast-forward buttons, no collectible value, and completely dependent on the kindness of many strangers (the audience) - especially hard in a TV/Film town like Hollywood.  I attended as many plays as I could last year, which isn't easy with the bad traffic and the worse parking - I'm still fighting a few parking tickets I got at the Fringe.  I'm not sure that most people understand how difficult it is to make good theater, which budgetary restrictions keep making harder.  After a year of watching other people do it, I'm more impressed by this than ever.

Here then are the 25 best shows I saw here last year - the TOP 12, and then 13 others that were excellent too.  It wasn't a spectacular year in Los Angeles theater - or maybe it was, and it just didn't seem that way at the time.  Certainly there is a great deal more stage brilliance here than the world (or the non-theatergoing population of Los Angeles) gives us credit for.

So, going backwards (as I so often do), 3-12, in no particular order:

33 VARIATIONS - Here a remarkable play by Moises Kaufman received the remarkable production it deserved by director Thomas James O'Leary and the production team at the Actors Co-op.  Nan McNamara, playing a musicologist and Beethoven expert stricken with ALS, was simply phenomenal.  As good as Jane Fonda was in the role at the Ahmanson (in a production directed by the playwright), I was far more deeply affected this time, and the many levels of the play were much clearer to me.  Kudos to designer Nicholas Acciani for his evocative and wonderfully functional multi-level set.

BOB'S HOLIDAY OFFICE PARTY - The fun has been going on for 22 years, but this is the first time I caught it, and I was laughing so hard that it was difficult to write down any notes.   Joe Keyes and Rob Elk have developed a certain formula that features the talents of some wonderful comic actors working off each other with perfect timing.  I'm not sure I would have been as swept away as I was in other years, but this felt like the perfect entertainment for the first (and hopefully last) year of Trump.  The comedic masterminds seemed to sense this too, and their romp was filled with explicit references to Trump and his denigrating way of referring to "outsiders," meaning all those people who aren't on his side.  It was a perfect blending of the past and present for this show, and as far as I'm concerned, they should keep distracting us as much as possible from the heinousness of our political nightmare.

ROTTERDAM - This is one of the only shows on the list still running, so I urge anyone who hasn't been to the Skylight Theatre yet and caught this excellent play to stop right now and make your reservation.  This is another example of a wonderful play (by John Brittain) receiving an equally wonderful production, care of director Michael Shepperd and his deeply relatable cast.  What makes this play about a transgender woman of color and her gay girlfriend so memorable is how human-size all the problems are, how they are trying to figure out the riddle of their lives in just the same way the rest of us are - without knowing any real answers or how it may or may not work out.

RULES OF SECONDS - This play by John Pollono was seen by far too few when it debuted at LATC downtown. Featuring Amy Brenneman and one of the best casts I've seen on any LA stage, the play delves deeply into the all-too-relevant subject of toxic masculinity as memorably exemplified by Jamie Harris in this 1855 Boston setting.  "A 21st century comic melodrama set in the 19th century," Charles McNulty wrote in the LA Times, and we agree that Jo Bonney staged it with great panache and technical mastery.  What impressed me most was the play's constant inventiveness and refusal to settle for easy answers.  It was produced by the Latino Theater Company. As their first offering, it bodes well both for their future and for ours.

SOMETHING ROTTEN - This is another show that's still running, though for only a few more performances.  If you love musicals and you like to laugh, then this is a show for you.  To quote my own review:  "Yes, it owes a large debt to Mel Brooks - not just The Producers, but also the musical number at the end of Blazing Saddles - but this show has its own brand of historical and parodic zaniness, and it does a masterful job of keeping a sense of real stakes while continuing to move the story and characters forward.  To my mind, every element of this production is brilliant, top-tier, and yet they all come together to form something that is greater than the sum of its wonderful parts.  This is so rarely achieved, and I am in awe of the many talents at work at such a high level here."

Alex Alpharoah

WET: A DACAmented Journey - This is one of the pieces I saw this past year that affected me most profoundly and stayed with me the longest. As I wrote at the time:  "It is simply a great piece of theater - deeply wrenching and compulsively interesting - that also has more to say than anything else I've seen about the situation in this country with regard to people who come here from other countries "yearning to breathe free."  We often toss around words like "the immigrant crisis" and "illegals," which just become ways to distance us from the human tragedy that these words purport to describe.  Alex Alpharoah is the human face of that tragedy, while also being the best example I know of someone who has managed to triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles by making art out of it, by converting his anxiety and suffering into beautiful word-music."  Kudos to EST-Los Angeles for helping Mr Alpharoah to develop his work and then supporting it with an ample production run.  Mr Alpharoah's monologue is nominated for an Ovation Award for Best Play, and he would be a deserving winner.  Again, a good example of what a difference small theaters can make in the cultural landscape of our large and sprawling city.

MASTER CLASS - As I wrote: This is the first production of the Garry Marshall Theatre (formerly the Falcon), but I have to admit that I didn't have high expectations.  The play Masterclass was first produced in 1995 - right here at the Ahmanson,  then on Broadway - and it has been revived several times. Was this really how you want to kick off a new theater?  Well, the answer is Yes.  This is a stellar revival.  In fact, it's so alive, so strong moment-to-moment, that it doesn't feel like a revival, it feels like an Event.  This is thanks largely to Carolyn Hennessy, who simply seems to BE Maria Callas.  She inhabits the play, she comes to life as a creature of the stage, full of joy, sorrow and many contradictions.  Credit must go to director Dimitri Toscas, who is also co-director of the Garry Marshall Theatre (GMT).  He clearly has a passionate connection to this play and to the character of Callas.  He deeply feels her pain - the pain of dislocation and loneliness.  "You know the only place where Callas truly fit in? On stage. In the opera house," Toscas writes in the program notes, and he wonderfully dramatizes this on the GMT's stage.

George Wyner and Sharron Shayne in "Daytona"

DAYTONA - This fascinating play had a brief run at Rogue Machine and was forced to close down just as word of its excellence was starting to get around.  There is word that it may be coming back soon - here's hoping that's true.  As I wrote:  There are so many great older actors in Los Angeles, and far too few plays that really give them anything to perform.  But Daytona by Oliver Cotton has three terrific roles, which are inhabited to the hilt by George Wyner and Sharron Shayne as a long-married couple and Richard Fancy as Mr Wyner's long-absent brother, under the pitch-perfect direction of Elina de Santos.  The play takes place in Brooklyn in 1986, where Joe and Elli are preparing for their dance competition the next evening, a hobby they've cultivated for the past 15 years.  Then Elli goes out to pick up her dress from her sister. Suddenly the downstairs buzzer sounds.  Joe is shocked to hear the voice of his brother Billy, whom he hasn't heard from for the past 30 years, and whose entrance will shake up the easy-going world of Joe and Elli.

THE GARY PLAYS - These 6 plays (there are 8 in the entire series) are a real anomaly in the American cannon – epic in length and scope, yet intimate in feeling.  Directed with great imagination and a spirit of generosity and compassion by Guy Zimmerman and presented by Martha Demson and her tireless team at Open Fist.  Director Zimmerman describes Mednick's plays this way: “The series is uniquely the product of the LA theatre community – it could not have been created anywhere else.  And Gary, an unemployed actor struggling with grief and self-recrimination after his only son's murder, is an iconic LA character.”  There's so much more to it – and Jeff Lebeau's depiction of Gary in the first 3 plays is so remarkable, so memorable, he simply crawls into the character's skin.  For my money, Part II is the best evening of theater I can remember seeing in Los Angeles, it just buzzes with emotional intensity.  These are plays about LA Theater that achieve the kind of universality that all playwrights crave.  These plays should be celebrated, as should those who have lovingly brought them back to such vivid life.

UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL: An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences - I had seen this monodrama by Glen Berger several times before, but this production at the Geffen Playhouse made it all new for me.  This strange but compelling play introduces us to The Librarian, who has rented this hall in order to present his "Lovely Evidences" about a book that was turned in several decades late, and the offender whom he has become obsessed with tracking down.  Arye Gross played The Librarian here, and he may well be as close to perfection as anyone can be in the role.  Sporting a huge beard, he reminded me of aother lonely castaway, the main character in Dostoievski's Notes from Underground.  But unlike that man, filled as he is with self-loathing, the Librarian finds a sense of purpose and triumph in his discoveries, even if they lead him further away from human affection than ever.  Under Steven Robman's inventive direction - much more theatrical and detail-oriented than the one I saw in NYC in 2002 - Arye Gross attained a level of joy and excitement - even exuberance - which was infectious.

My two favorite shows from 2017 (drum roll, please):

2. LES BLANCS  - If you missed this production at Rogue Machine, you may 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 more value now 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.  Huge kudos to 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 mosquito-swatting 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 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 s0 compellingly.

1. MR BURNS -  One of the great things about the Sacred Fools production of Anne Washburn's dystopian fantasy was that their theater has 3 separate spaces, and they were able to make use of a different one for each Act.  This was absolutely ideal for Washburn's play, and I can honestly say that the Sacred Fools production was superior in every way to the one I saw in New York.  More than that, I understood the play this time in a way that I hadn't before.  That is, I saw how Ms. Washburn assembles the pieces of a broken civilization in Act I and gradually starts putting them back together again in what amounts to an heroic effort of mankind to recover our soul.  It documents a great triumph of the imagination.  Which was, quite simply, what this production was as well.  A triumph for Sacred Fools, for director Jaime Robledo, and for the pitch-perfect company of actors, as well as for the production team under the leadership of Brian W. Wallis, with assistance from Alison Sulock and many others.  It's unfair for me to single out any performances in what is truly a group effort, but I'm going to anyway.  Tracey A. Leigh as "Bart" and Eric Curtis Johnson as "Mr Burns" just kept topping themselves in the final section in ways that I didn't think possible.  All that I can say in return is "brava!" and "bravo!"  You completely blew my mind.  And tickets were only $15!!! Amazing.

Other Extraordinary Productions from this past year in Los Angeles - thanks for the memories:

The cast of ZOOT SUIT in the revival at the Mark Taper Forum

WOODY'S ORDER by Ann Talman, directed by John Shepard, at EST-Los Angeles, Atwater Village Theater

CAUGHT by Christopher Chen, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskander at the Think Tank Gallery

ZOOT SUIT, written and directed by Luis Valdez, at the Mark Taper Forum

KING HEDLEY II by August Wilson, directed by Michele Shay at the Matrix Theatre

PLASTICITY by Alex Lyras, directed by Robert McCaskill at the Hudson Guild

THE SECRET IN THE WINGS by Mary Zimmerman, directed by Joseph V. Calarco, presented by the Coeurage Theatre Company

SO LONG BOULDER CITY by Jimmy Fowlie and Jordan Black, directed by Jordan Black, at the Celebration Theatre

Katy Owens in "Adolphus Tips"

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

946: THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS - adapted from the book by Michael Murpurgo by Britain's Kneehigh Theatre, directed by Emma Rice, at the Wallis Annenberg Theatre

WHITE GUY ON THE BUS by Bruce Graham, directed by Stewart J. Zully at the Road Theatre

And from the Fringe:

MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT by Stephen Adley Gurgius, directed by Tony Gatto

THE GIRL WHO JUMPED OFF THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN by Joanne Hartstone, directed by Vince Fusco

EASY TARGETS by the Burglars of Hamm, presented at Sacred Fools


KEMP POWERS AND THE PLIGHT OF THE AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT (LA Version)

It's become a given that "you can't make a living in the theater," at least not in this country.

And for the most part it's true, especially for playwrights.

Playwrights typically receive 5% or 6% of ticket sales for a full-scale production, which in a six week run of 7-8 shows a week in a 1000 seat house can amount to as much as $15,000.  But only a handful of playwrights ever experience such a windfall in their careers, much less count on it as a yearly yield.  And of course that's before taxes.  The resulting amount would still be well under the poverty level.  And, as I said, most playwrights only dream about receiving such a return on their investment of time and talent.  More typical is the $500-$1,000 that playwrights receive for a four-six week run at a 99 seat theater - an event, again, that seldom happens more than once or twice a year (if at all) for most playwrights.  There used to be subsidies and grants that playwrights could hope would give them some breathing room (and writing time).  But most of these have gone away in the new century (and it's sure to get worse under Trump with this new tax plan).  The ones that still exist are largely tied to production grants to specific non-profit theaters, which playwrights only receive when their plays get produced at those theaters.  So, again, not development grants, and only received by those few playwrights who already have been fortunate enough to have their plays chosen for major productions.

Dael Orlandersmith

And even then... I am reminded of a chance encounter I had a few years ago with the highly successful playwright/performer Dael Orlandersmith.  Her one-woman show Forever was then playing at the Center Theater Group's Kirk Douglas Theater before going to New York Theatre Workshop for a full run, and then on to Long Wharf in New Haven.  This was a trifecta of productions that, again, most playwrights can only dream about.  I congratulated her on this remarkable achievement.  She shook her head, saying, "Yeah, and I've never been poorer."  (And that's with her also getting paid as the only actor!)

To the actors out there who are reading this, yes, it's true that most of you receive even less than the playwrights  - in many cases, much less.  And that's not fair.  But your performances are also your best way of promoting your talent.  This enables you to invite casting directors, agents and producers and increases your opportunity for paying work.  This is especially true in the SoCal area, where two actors from my first production here booked national commercials based on their performances (or so they told me).  Just a few months ago, an actor from a reading of a screenplay I co-wrote was signed by an agent based on that reading and ended up being cast in a new pilot. While such good fortune can also befall playwrights, my experience is that it's far less likely.  The few industry folk who do attend theater here mostly come to scout actors, not writers, directors or designers.

"I love theater here, but it's very actor-driven," Kemp Powers told me over lunch at Hugo's in West Hollyood. "There's no other reason to be doing it except passion.  That is, if a writer has something that needs to be expressed - and can only be expressed as a play - then go ahead and write it.  And don't let anyone dissuade you from doing so.  Any other reason and you're just setting yourself up for disappointment."

Kemp's passion project (and first play), One Night In Miami,  has been anything but disappointing.  After premiering to great acclaim at Rogue Machine in 2013, the play has gone to hugely successful runs at Center Stage in Baltimore and at the Donmar Warehouse in London, where it was nominated for the Olivier play for Best Play.  The play has been optioned for the movies, and Kemp is currently writing the screenplay.

Ty Jones, Matt Jones, Kevin Daniels (photo: John Flynn)

Kemp described how he came up with the idea for the play in an article he wrote for the online magazine This Stage.  "I was reading a copy of Mike Marqusee's excellent Muhammed Ali book Redemption Song when I came across this paragraph: "On 25 February 1964, Cassius Clay defeated Sonny Liston to become heavyweight champion of the world. After the fight, Clay chose to forgo the usual festivities at one of Miami's luxury hotels and headed instead for the black ghetto, where he had made camp during training. He spent a quiet evening in private conversation with Malcolm X, the singer Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown, the great Cleveland Browns running back and an early champion of black right in sports. The next morning, after breakfast with Malcolm, Clay met the press to confirm the rumors that he was involved with the Nation of Islam."   Boom. There you had it. My four most inspirational people were friends. Bigger still, they spent the night of Cassius Clay's victory alone, together, in a hotel room. And the very next morning, Clay made the most important announcement of his life.  My imagination went wild as I started connecting the dots."

Kemp Powers grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where he was an Honors student at Edward R. Murrow high school, raised by a single mother.  He was on course for worldly success when something shocking happened, something completely out of context with the rest of his life: at 14 years old, while goofing around with one of his mom's handguns, he accidentally shot and killed his best friend, Henry. Henry's parents refused to press charges, and Kemp went on with his life, going to the University of Michigan, where he received a Knight Journalism Fellowship. He became a respected journalist, a Business writer for the Reuters chain, but he was haunted by this tragic event. Then 9/11 happened, and it roused him from his personal hell and prompted him to write an article for Esquire about his friend's death.  The article got him a book contract, and in 2004 The Shooting: A Memoir was published.

But none of this explains how Kemp became an award-winning playwright.  As he told me, "There were two main passions on the soundtrack of my growing up in Brooklyn: Hip-Hop and Theater".  But while Hip-Hop was something that he and his friends felt comfortable fooling around with, "no part of me ever saw myself being involved in theater."  Edward R. Murrow High School had an excellent Theater Department, and Kemp loved the productions of musicals like Cabaret and West Side Story that they presented.  But he wasn't an actor, and how else did anyone find a place in the theater?  Kemp ended up getting a job with the Guthrie Theatre in Minnesota as a Public Relations assistant, where one of his tasks was driving around August Wilson when the Guthrie produced Fences.  Kemp said that he was too in awe of Wilson to have any meaningful conversations with him, though he does treasure the memory.

As Kemp made clear to me, it wasn't until he came to Los Angeles for a business-related job that he saw a place for himself in the art form he loved so much. "The only reason I'm a playwright is because I happen to live in Los Angeles, where there are no rules about making theater."  He explained that this is a result of a lot of people coming here to do TV and film, but bringing with them "a certain maturity and understanding" about how theater is made.  Kemp stressed that because theater is something that these "practitioners" love but not something that they have any expectation of making a living from, it removes a lot of the pressure to "be perfect" and allows the creativity to "flow more freely."  Kemp's gratitude to Rogue Machine and its Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn is enormous.  "I've been nurtured within that community, and this born-and-bred New Yorker would never have become a playwright if not for the opportunities I found here to experiment and discover my own comfort level.  I'm very militant about that."

Kemp with Star Trek's George Takei

While Kemp has moved on to writing several new scripts - his play Little Black Shadows will receive its premiere at South Coast Repertory in April - he has also found a new day job as a staff writer for Star Trek Discovery on CBS All-Access, where he was credited with story and teleplay for last season's fifth episode, "Choose Your Pain."

I first met Kemp at the final performance of his friend John Pollono's play, Rule Of Seconds, at the Los Angeles Theatre Center - a show by the way which will be on my TEN BEST List, coming out next week.  Kemp was the lead producer on Pollono's play, which was, in turn, the first production of The Temblors, a 7-member self-producing playwrights group emulating other groups such as The Welders in Washington DC.  By all means, check out their website for future productions.

"There's no part of me that believes that sometime in the near future people will be saying that one of the top three reasons they've come to LA is to see theater, as it often is when people visit New York or London.  This is not a diss, it's just the reality of living in Hollywood, which casts a long shadow. But if we in the LA Theater could develop a real infrastructure, then we could maybe become a Seattle or even a Minneapolis.  That is something worth aspiring to, and I for one am prepared to do whatever it takes to help make it happen."

 

 

 


Last Chance to Catch Two FUNNY and ENTERTAINING Shows!

The Twisted Hipster is in his last few weeks of employment at Better-Lemons - yes, out with the old year, not coming back with the new.

But, while I still have this platform, I want to let you know about two wonderful shows with just a few performances left.

One is a new show, the other is a holiday staple.  One is family-friendly for older kids, the other should probably not be viewed by anyone under 30.

THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD by David Farr, Directed by Gisli Orn Gardarsson and Selma Bjornsdottir

Everyone knows the story of Robin Hood, the valiant thief who robs from the rich to give to the poor.  This ambitious show is an attempt to craft a new origin story for our time, showing how a common thief named Robin Hood grew into his myth.  The production casts Luke Forbes, a dashing actor of color as Robin, which already causes the audience to re-examine our preconceptions.  Further, Marion is now a noblewoman who hates being royalty, seeing her privileged life as a prison sentence that she longs to break out from.  In addition to Robin's Band of Merry Men and Marion's privileged family connections, there are also two children in peril - brother and sister, 12 and 8 years old - and an onstage band fronted by silken-voiced Salka Sol, who sings several songs in the course of the show.  There is also a slanted hillside set, that members of the cast are constantly sliding down with evident glee.

It all adds up to a very entertaining show that's a great deal of fun.  Because of its length (over 2 hours) and some feigned violence, I wouldn't recommend it for kids younger than 10.  But the cast is wonderful, especially Christina Bennett Lind as Marion, who infuses everything she does with emotional commitment and purpose.  While this is not a holiday show as such, there are so many different kinds of talent on display that it does feel like a festive occasion, almost a theatrical circus.  And visually, this show is a feast for the eyes.

Linda Miller, Joe Keyes and Maile Flanagan do "The Butt Dance"

BOB'S HOLIDAY OFFICE PARTY by Joe Keyes & Rob Elk, Directed by Matt Roth

While this was my first time experiencing Bob's Holiday Office Party, this is the 22nd year for the show, and many members of the audience I saw it with had evidently seen it several times before.  Each time one of the actors entered, he or she would be greeted with the kind of applause that beloved TV show characters often receive.  It was like seeing The Bob Newhart Show performed by great sketch comedy actors - The early SNL cast or SCTV troupe.  The show is lewd, crude and drop-dead hilarious.  They have apparently adapted some of their routines to the Trump era, with the Johnson sisters - LaDonna and LaVoris - being ardent Trumpers, who often chirp about "Fake News" or "Lock her up" or other slogans of our times.  But the brand of comedy is really apolotical in nature, which aims to be as offensive and politically incorrect as possible.  I'd describe it as sentimental anarchy, and I'd recommend it as a great cure for the blues.

While there's a plot and some twists and turns, this is really character-based comedy executed by maniacal sketch comedians.  While everyone seems at the top of their game, I was particularly blown away by Mark Fite as as the town's DUI champion and Sirena Irwin as a hooker with a heart of silly putty whose eagerness for sex knows no bounds.

If you like your comedy brilliantly vulgar and boundlessly funny, then this is the show for you.  And this is the last weekend to see it.

 


SEX, LOVE, DEATH AND LEON RUSSOM

Deep Red Face by Alison van Pelt

BOY by Michael Lindsay-Hogg

SHANE GUFFOGG'S GROUP EXHIBITION: 

PORTRAITURE

Portraiture curated by Shane Guffogg, featuring artwork by Don Bachardy, Xander Berkeley, Jeff Britton, Laura Hipke, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Doro Hofmann, Deborah Martin, Ed Ruscha, Paul Ruscha, Vonn Sumner, Alison Van Pelt as well as Guffogg himself, opened on November 11, 2017, at Orange County Center for Contemporary Art. ​ It closes on December 22.

Art. It can be seen, felt, and heard. It can tickle our senses. It can be jarring, challenging our ideas of beauty. Art can be exhilarating, giving us the key to the universe.  What was the purpose of art throughout the ages and what is it now? It is a reflection of who we are, like a 2-way mirror, and depending on what side your standing, defines what you see. My name is Shane Guffogg, and I am an artist. Join me as I look at and try to define this elusive thing called Art.   -  SHANE GUFFOGG

LOST ICON #2 by Doro Hoffman

WHO DO YOU SAY I AM? by Laura Hipke

I highly recommend this exhibition, which features so much strong work, it will restore your faith in contemporary painting.  And it's free!  Definitely worth the drive. - Steve F

JOIN THEM FOR THEIR FIRST SATURDAY ART WALK AND ART RECEPTION 

Saturday, December 2, 2017,

from 6 PM - 10 PM

Orange County Center

for Contemporary Art 

117 North Sycamore Street, Santa Ana, California 92701

 

ROTTERDAM by John Brittain, Directed by Michael A. Shepperd

Ashley Romans and Miranda Wynne

The critics have weighed in on Rotterdam, and they are unanimous in their praise.  All I can say is that it is well-deserved, both for the play and for Michael A Shepperd's winning production.  The play is simply a breakthrough in dealing with issues of gender and sexual identity.  (It is not concerned with racial identity, even though one of the two major characters is a person of color.  It works here, though I wonder if it would if the play took place in Richmond VA rather than Rotterdam.)  While it will be described as a "transgender play," the truth is, it is simply a play about people struggling with difficult situations - flawed human beings trying their best to find happiness. The play does a wonderful job of giving us the feeling of real life, in which people have no idea how things are going to turn out and can't understand why it's so difficult.  I loved this absence of melodrama.  Michael Shepperd and the actors make it all flow.

THE SECRET IN THE WINGS by Mary Zimmerman, Directed by Joseph V. Calarco

Audrey Flegel, Leslie Murphy and Kate Pelensky (Photo: John Klopping)

In the last few years, I have seen Leon Russom play King Lear, the patriarch in Sam Shepard's Buried Child, and as French Stewart's bff in Padraic Duffy's Past Time - all deeply-felt performances that stayed with me long after the curtains came down. In Mary Zimmerman's enigmatic and haunting Secret in the Wings, Leon plays an ogre named Leon Russom who is asked by deeply self-absorbed parents to babysit their terrified teenage daughter, who is certain that Leon is going to eat her.  And when they've been left alone, that seems entirely possible. Instead he starts telling her stories - very grim fairy tales that go the heart of human darkness: brutality, incest, cannibalism, war,  In one story, a princess declares that no man can make her laugh. Her father the King offers her hand in marriage to anyone who can.  But if they fail, watch out.  A procession of stand-up comics try their best, but the princess's funnybone proves very difficult to locate.  But in another story, there is the possibility of redemption - something that the play offers us too.  In the end, Leon Russom (the ogre) shows us that we are all under a spell, and that if we can just break through, there is love and forgiveness on the other side.  This production is lovingly staged by Joseph Calarco, with a great "attic" set by JR Bruce, beautifully lit by Brandon Baruch, with evocative sound design by Calarco and costumes/masks by Kumie Asai.  The actors are fully-committed to the surreal world they find themselves in, and that they draw the audience into.  And then there is Leon Russom, very much one of a kind.


LA STAGE: A Royal Dilemma and Lots of (Crazy) Comedy Tonite!

Quote of the week: "Trump said that Latinos are rapists and criminals.  So when I meet him, I plan to rob him and fuck him." - George Lopez

I saw something last night at a performance of Something Rotten at the Ahmanson Theatre that I'd never seen before in my 21 years in Los Angeles.   In the middle of the First Act, after the killer musical number, "A Musical," the crowd went wild - wild - and clapped wildly for a full five minutes, then a man spontaneously stood up and gave the show a standing ovation!  A mid-Act Standing-O!  Unheard of!

Anyway, the point is that actors on LA stages are crushing it this holiday season!  Crushing it!  And it's not too late to get in on the fun.

Caitlyn Conin, Kendra Chell and Dylan Jones. Photo by Justin Szebe

Before I get to it, though, I want to wish Theatre Movement Bazaar a great week in Beijing, China!  A full  house at the Bootleg were fortunate enough to catch their parting performance of TRACK 3, their brilliant interpretation of Chekhov's Three Sisters.  Better, funnier, fuller, more precise than I recall from the time I saw it before.  Why not run it here again for a few weeks?  If the audience at the Bootleg was any indication, there is a lot more happiness to be had with this show about the search for happiness.

CLOSING THIS WEEKEND:  KING CHARLES III by Mike Bartlett, Directed by Michael Michetti

Jim Abele as King Charles III. Photo: Jenny Graham.

I have to start with this caveat, that whatever the opposite of a Royal Family watcher is, that's what I am.   I know who Kate is, but the name of her kids? Have no clue.  Prince Harry and the Markle sparkle?  No thanks, I'll pass. So I'm not the ideal audience for this "future history play" about what could happen after Queen Elizabeth dies and Prince Charles finally becomes king.  Now I do know who the Prince of Wales is, and he's always seemed to me like a comedic figure with his rubber face and big ears.  But not here.  As played with great earnestness and dignity by Jim Abele, Charles is a learned man, deeply versed in the ways of monarchy, who intends to make the most of the royal position that he has waited so long to assume.  I must admit that the First Act seemed overly long and self-serious to me, but most of that paid off in the Second Act, which succeeded in making King Charles III into a memorably tragic figure.  Given all the current hubbub about another Royal Wedding (yawn) and the fact that this 16-actor play needs to be done on a majestic level, you'd better rush down to the Pasadena Playhouse this weekend if you have any hopes of catching this play.  Michael Michetti directed with great assurance, and Abele and Laura Gardner (as wife Camilla Bowles) stand out.

A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM, Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim - Directed by Joseph Leo Bwarie 

Nicole Kaplan, Michael Thomas Grant and Paul C. Vogt

This musical, based on the plays of the Roman satiric playwright Plautus, premiered in 1962.  It has the distinction of being the first musical to feature both music and lyrics by musical theater god Stephen Sondheim, along with a book co-written by Larry Gelbart, a comedy genius.  With such an illustrious heritage, I suppose it's no surprise that this is a rollicking laugh machine, featuring three wonderful Sondheim songs that have been imitated in hundreds of lesser musicals: "Comedy Tonite," "Lovely" and "Everybody Ought To Have A Maid."  This production, directed by Joseph Leo Bwarie, co-artistic director of the Garry Marshall Theatre, is highly entertaining, using a nicely-spacious Roman Square set that is beautifully-lit by Francois-Pierre Couture.  The show was well ahead of its time in the tongue-in-cheek way it plays to the audience, and Paul C. Vogt leads an agile and talented cast in bringing this farcical concoction to vivid life.  (Joey McIntyre replaces Vogt until Dec. 10, when Vogt returns to the show.)

SPAMILTON: An American Parody, Created, Written and Directed by Gerald Alessandrini, at the Kirk Douglas

Zakiya Young, Wilkie Ferguson III, William Cooper Howell, John Deveraux and Dedrick A. Bonner

Like everything connected to the phenomenon of Hamilton, this parody is selling out the Kirk Douglas Theatre like no other production before it.  While Spamilton is funny and barbed, it does not re-invent the parody form the way that Hamilton has apparently done with the musical.  (That's right, I haven't been able to get a ticket either.)  As long as it sticks to spoofing Lin-Manuel Miranda, his show and its now-famous performers like Daveed Diggs and Leslie Odom Jr, this evening is on solid comedic ground.  When it strays into parodies of other current Broadway shows, the energy level definitely takes a dip.  But the performers are absolutely first-rate, especially John Deveraux and Zakiya Young (whether she's spoofing Renee Elise Goldsberry, Audra McDonald or J-Lo).  The choreography by Gerry McIntyre is straight-up brilliant, with some of the wittiest and most unexpected comedy movements I've seen.  I have to commend CTG also for the post-show Broadway karaoke in the theatre lobby, which is a wonderful idea, and really carried over the fun from the show.  It was inspiring to hear all the talented young performers belting out not only the score of Hamilton, but of many other Broadway shows.  But like I said, good luck getting tickets.

SOMETHING ROTTEN!, Conceived by Karey Kirkpatrick & Wayne Kirkpatrick, Book by Karey Kirkpatrick & John O'Farrell, Music and Lyrics by Wayne Kirkpatrick & Karey Kirkpatrick. Directed/Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw

Blake Hammond and Rob McClure

Hopefully it was clear in my opening paragraph to this article that I think Something Rotten! is anything but rotten. The truth is, I didn't see the Broadway production, and I'd heard so many mixed and unenthusiastic things about it that I set my expectations fairly low.  And, my word, I was simply blown away by the inventiveness and exhilirating lunacy of this musical!  Yes, it owes a large debt to Mel Brooks - not just The Producers, but also the musical number at the end of Blazing Saddles, where the characters from the movie all go spilling into each other on a Hollywood soundstage.  But this show has its own brand of historical and parodic zaniness, it does a masterful job of keeping a sense of real stakes while continuing to move the story and characters forward.  To my mind, every element of this production is brilliant, top-tier, and yet they all come together to form something that is greater than the sum of its wonderful parts.  This is so rarely achieved, and I am in awe of the many talents at work at such a high level here.  The cast is all strong, but Blake Hammond as the soothsayer and Scott Cote as a Puritan leader are simply off the charts in their musical comedy mojo.  This show is around for the entire month of December - you owe it to yourself not to miss this. It left me feeling positively giddy.

 

 


TO ACCUSE OR NOT TO ACCUSE, PART 3: Something to Feel Good About

Going into the new year of 2018, has there ever been a more confusing and troubling time in our 21st Century lifetimes?

Sure there have been, you say.  Remember the Bush years?  The 9/11 attack?  The Iraq attack, ostensibly to find WMDs that never in fact existed?  The financial meltdown in 2008?

These were far and away more terrifying events than anything we're dealing with now, when the stock market keeps breaking records and the economy seems to be in better shape than any time since 9/11.  Yet for many of us this has only underscored the wealth gap in this country that seems to be getting wider all the time.

But hey, let's face it, the problem starts and stops in one place - with the sleazebag-in chief, who is remaking the country in his own toxic image, repealing Obama's protections, stuffing the courts with radical conservatives, blundering through the world making horrific foreign policy mistakes and generally poisoning our daily discourse.

And what can we do about it?

Just sit around and dream about Robert Mueller's investigation undoing the wrongs done by the outmoded electoral college system.

At such times, it helps to think of reasons to feel good about living right now.

Think of ice cream - so much better now than it used to be!   So many more excellent flavors than in the bad old days, such wonderful texture, with ingredients not even imagined in the '70s!

Think of cars - so much more streamlined and efficient now than the gas-guzzling, fume-spewing models of the 1970s and '80s!

Think of sexual abuse allegations - sexual abuse allegations?   Yes.  The country is much better-informed now, the difficulty of coming forward is so much better understood, and the accuser is so much more likely to be believed, and not vilified and shamed as before.

 

Photo by Matt Baron/BEI/Shutterstock (5622538dr)  Rose McGowan

I should know, as I certainly experienced the consequences of our previous ignorance.

It was the year 1970, I was a Junior at Horace Mann high school in NYC, and while on a 5 day school trip to Washington DC, the supervising teacher had snuck up on me in my hotel room, spun me around and stuck his tongue down my throat, then threw me down on the bed.  When I scrambled away, the teacher claimed that he was only doing what I had wanted him to do.  I walked out of the room and nothing more had been said about what happened.  But I was in a state of shock and didn't know what to do.

When I came back to school, I felt like I had to tell someone, but who?  The headmaster was an old man who I didn't feel any affinity towards.  I went instead to the assistant headmaster, who was younger, a gruff practical man who I found more approachable. "Sit down," he said, doubtless expecting me to talk about some course that was giving me trouble.  Instead I told him that the teacher had touched me in a sexual way.  "Sexual?  How?" he asked, sitting up, paying closer attention.  I described what had happened as unemotionally as I could.  It was surreal, the words coming out of my mouth reluctantly, as if embarrassed to be associated with such a tawdry event.

"What evidence do you have?" the assistant headmaster asked.  "Like what?" I asked.  "Any witnesses?"  "No," I told him.

He informed me that, in the absence of compelling evidence, the school's policy was to side with the teacher.  And that if I made my accusation public, that the school would advise the teacher to sue me for defamatory comments.  "And he would win," the assistant headmaster told me, "and your parents would have to pay him a lot of money."

This prospect was terrifying to me on so many levels.  Still, I tried one more time, talking to the school guidance counselor.  He was even more emphatic, telling me to drop any thought of going public or "you will only tarnish yourself and destroy any chance you have of getting into an Ivy League college."

And so I did.  I dropped it. And I did get into an Ivy League college.  And then I dropped out.  Not telling anyone what had happened almost destroyed me, causing me to lose my sense of confidence, my sense of purpose, my sense of self.

So yes, I am overjoyed that there is more understanding of how difficult it is for victims of abuse to come forward, and a greater willingness to accept the victim's story as truthful without judging the victim.

Now if we could only give the women who were sexually abused by our president a chance to be heard - and the kind of understanding and empathy that we've extended to other victims - well, that would really be something to celebrate, wouldn't it?

 

 


TO ACCUSE OR NOT TO ACCUSE, PART 2a: Constitutional Predators

Hey, I was up writing Part 2 of this series until 6:30 AM, and, before getting to Part 3, I want to elaborate on something I wrote there: "This so-called populist champion [Trump] is actually there to roll back all of Obama's social reforms and consolidate a ruling class among the wealthy elite."  In true Trumpian fashion, I want to double-down on that statement.  The fact that Trump is now supporting child predator Roy Moore just reveals how devoid of moral values he really is, and how focused he is on one Priority.

So, at the risk of sounding like Tom Steyer's little brother, I want to state the obvious: that nothing else matters to Trump and his cohorts except their money.  It is the only thing they have that makes them special, it is the substance of their selves, their identities - take that away, and they are just a bunch of old farts who couldn't get laid by their own wives.  Proof?  Every single thing that Trump has done since siezing power.  Just look at the cabinet that he put together, comprised entirely of wealthy people, most of whom have zero expertise in their respective fields.  Just look at the rollback of all Obama's protections of individual rights.  Just look at the new Tax Bill, a blank check for millionaires and corporations.

This is NOT politics as usual.  Forget that I've been a voter in 12 Presidential elections, and before that I was active in protesting the unlawful War in Vietnam, getting tear-gassed in the March on Washington in 1969, getting locked up at Fort Knox for trying to help soldiers find out about their rights. I come from a political household, my mom was co-chair of the Liberal wing of the NYC Democratic party, I grew up with Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch and that entire cast of characters in my living room.  What's happening now is something else completely.  If you view our current situation as a play, then the instigating event was the near collapse of the world economy in 2008.

I believe that this was a wake-up call for a certain class of multi-millionaires, who looked in the mirror, saw their big paunches and small dicks, and realized that something had to be done to safeguard their power.  When Trump was actually able to bamboozle the underclass into making him their champion - like something out of Brecht's Threepenny Opera - then the power imbalance already happening here was expedited into full-scale class warfare.  All of this may sound very melodramatic - after all, how much has really changed in our daily lives since Trump's election?  Well, you see what's happened to the Dreamers, Mexican illegals and now the Haitian immigrants.  It's not a big jump from that to you and me.  The only recourse we have are upcoming elections. The majority of white men are a lost cause - they will sit in their Lazy-boys, stroking their guns and watching NASCAR until Hell has frozen over.  My hope is that enough of the 53% of white women who voted for the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief will have their own wake-up call and save us at the 11th Hour.  If Trump-Pence gets re-elected, they will have no incentive to play by Constitutional rules, and this will become a dictatorship - all undoubtedly in the name of protecting the Constitution.


TO ACCUSE OR NOT TO ACCUSE? PART 2: How We Got Here

Another day and another one bites the dust.

This time it's Charlie Rose, morning TV anchor and talk show host for the smart set.  Several women who worked for him have come forward to report what was apparently another "open secret" - that this "toxic bachelor" liked to employ young women as his assistants and then would try to seduce them after blurring their boundaries between work and life.  That is, serving the needs of the show would eventually mean serving the needs of Charlie.  But now there is no show - no morning show, no talk show, nothing.  And the bloom is definitely off this rose.

(There goes another dream - being interviewed around that circular table! Though honestly I gave up that one 10 years ago, when he interrupted the dying Harold Pinter one too many times, and I swore I'd never watch him again. And I didn't.)

Scrolling down the various articles about this latest downfall, I read the comments that readers left.  "It's a witch hunt, a goddamn witch hunt!" was a frequently repeated refrain, especially by men of a certain age.  Women tended to be either angry or sad about how many "liberal" men turn out to have abused their female employees.  Though honestly, the majority of comments seem to have been left by lonely men of various ages, with a somewhat bitter edge to many of their comments.

Many of them ask the question: where is all this going?

A better question might be: how the hell did we get here?

Anita Hill and Kerry Washington. While "Confirmation" is an entertaining movie, it doesn't come close to capturing the shock of the real thing.

"WHO PUT A PUBIC HAIR ON MY COKE CAN?"

It's all part of a 36 year cycle that began in 1991 with the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

The hearings were already a strangely public display of partisan conflict - definitely foreshadowing the current dilemma we find ourselves in - when Professor Anita Hill was introduced as a witness against Clarence Thomas.  She had worked for Thomas at the US Department of Education and then at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and she testified that he had sexually harassed her on numerous occasions, often using bizarrely pornographic images in his harrangues, including the immortal sentence quoted above in all caps.  The televised spectacle pitting an attractive and educated black woman against an educated and nominated black man whose white church-going wife was clutching her rosary beads just a few seats away was almost more than the psyche of the country could handle.  It sent out bolts of crazily repressed sexual angst into the atmosphere that came to an equally crazy fruition three years later with the arrest of O.J. Simpson for killing his white wife and the Jewish waiter returning her sunglasses.  A different case, yes, but once again with the racial and sexual component, with the violent imagery of the Thomas-Hill conflict now blooming into actual violence.

But to get back to the main question.  David Mamet's play Oleanna - written in response to the hearings - took that issue of male/female conflict and sexual harassment/abuse, and he dramatized its complexities in such a way that the play itself became a lightning rod for discussing the issue.  (The next play to have such a massive public impact, capturing that lightning in a well-made bottle, was Tony Kushner's Angels in America a few years later.  I don't believe there's been a single play of such magnitude since, unless one includes the entirety of August Wilson's 10-play cycle.)

Certainly the issue itself of male/female power plays had existed for centuries - the Trojan War itself could be seen in those terms, with the Greeks' abduction of Helen of Troy, she being "the face that launched a thousand ships."  Shakespeare had written a great play of sexual abuse of power, Measure for Measure, in the 17th Century, and August Strindberg had dramatized the psychic war for dominance between men and women 300 years later in such plays as The Father and Miss Julie.   But I believe that it wasn't until Mamet's play in 1992 - his last good play, by the way - that the issues of workplace harassment and sexual abuse of power were really brought together and crystalized for the American public.  (And oh what a great time Mamet had talking about it on the Charlie Rose Show - not that he could get many words in between Charlie's sycophantic paeans of praise.)

"I DID NOT HAVE SEXUAL RELATIONS WITH THAT WOMAN"

It was only five years later that these two issues of workplace harassment and sexual abuse of power exploded into public consciousness again with President Clinton's sex scandal with intern Monica Lewinsky while wife Hillary was just a few rooms away in the White House.  Again, no matter how well any movie or TV series might dramatize these events, the shock of these revelations from the highest seat of power could never really be captured.  It was the tawdriness of this melodrama that boggled the mind, as captured in pedantic and smelly detail by The Starr Report.   And again, the issue of sexual harassment was all over the news, seemingly discussed everywhere, with a particular concentration on the corporate environment and the frequency with which powerful men used their positions to force women who worked for them into sexual subjugation.  Attention started being paid to the fact of "the glass ceiling," and how few women were being given the chance to lead.  But Hillary Clinton stood by her man, Bill survived (barely) the impeachment proceedings against him, and then George W. Bush was elected, signalling a return to a shaky status quo.

The Obama years looked like they were going to be about revolutionizing the system from within, which included reevaluating gender stereotypes and the inequities of workplace politics.  And some of that did go on.  More women than ever were appointed to positions of consequence within the administration, and the passage of health care reform was a major step in establishing the equality between the sexes - as well as between the classes and the races.  That is, if everyone's health was of equal value under the law, then, to some extent, so was everyone's importance as human beings.

"CAN'T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?"

Of course, Obama was primarily elected to save the country's financial system, which was brought to the brink of collapse in 2008 by the machinations of the banking industry and the white men who ran it.  And he did that - largely by bailing out the failing institutions, who then went right back to doing what they had done before, without a single investment banker being arrested for almost destroying the world.  As the patchwork solutions held up in the short term, the Obama years became about Acceptance.  Accepting people in their differences, in their quirks, in their excesses.  The prevailing ethos of the Obama years had been voiced many years before, in 1992 - that year again! - by another black man, Rodney King, with the words that supply the heading for this section.  And we did get along, and nothing fundamentally changed, and that was not necessarily a good thing.  It's possible that if this society had completely hit rock bottom that we might have had to make some major changes in how we viewed each other, how we depended on each other.  Or it could have been much worse, who knows?  As it is, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer and the improving technology enabled the greedy element of this society to globalize their assets while creating a permanent underclass largely consisting of the people who built this country in the first place.  An underclass who, ironically, did the bidding of the super-rich by electing Donald J. Trump as president.  This so-called populist champion is actually there to roll back all of Obama's social reforms and consolidate a ruling class among the wealthy elite.

"YOU CAN DO ANYTHING YOU WANT.  YOU CAN GRAB THEM BY THE PUSSY."

I certainly see this recent spate of sexual harassment and abuse allegations - as well as the @ME TOO movement - deriving directly from the now-infamous Trump Access Hollywood tape, in which he uttered the immortal words quoted above.   That tape aired only 11 days before the election, and its impact was muted shortly thereafter by the specious claim by FBI Director Comey that he was re-opening the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.  But its impact was and is huge - huuuuuuuge - spurring women everywhere into taking forceful action against such abusers, often with the help of men who were also outraged by the election of a man who boasted about being an abuser himself.

The scales had actually started to tip in Obama's second term, when the revelation of systemic abuse of students at elite prep schools brought a renewed understanding of the prevelance of such crimes at even the most sacred American institutions.

That is, if it could happen at Choate and Andover and Horace Mann - where I was among the victims who came forward into the public spotlight - then it could happen anywhere.  And anyone could be the perpetrator, even the most beloved TV dad of all time, Bill Cosby, Dr Cliff Huxtable.  These public recognitions of the validity of sexual abuse claims by victims who were too traumatized and powerless to speak their pain in the past were key events in clearing the way for other victims to come forward now.

Does this mean that all claims of sexual abuse are necessarily true?

And is there any acceptable definition of what constitutes sexual abuse - or is it simply anything that makes the "victim" feel uncomfortable or disrespected?

Well, I could tell you, but we've come to this lovely full circle from Clarence Thomas to Cosby, and you wouldn't want me to mess that up, would you?

 

 

 


ME AND "SALVATOR MUNDI" DOWN BY THE SCHOOLYARD

Here is a twisted tale, a true story for all of you who believe in a world where good will triumph and evil will get the punishment it deserves.

By now you have probably read that "Salvator Mundi," a painting currently attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, has been sold by Christie's for over $450 million, which is the largest amount ever paid for a painting by 250%.  I have a special relationship with this painting (as do a few other people, some of whom I know), and this caused me to stop into Christie's for a close-up viewing on my recent visit to NYC.  In fact, here's a photo of the painting I snapped in the black velvet chapel in which the cash cow was ensconsed:

If you check out the Wikipedia listing for Salvator Mundi (Leonardo), you will find the sentence "In 2005, the painting was acquired by a consortium of art dealers that included Robert Simon, a specialist in Old Masters."  The name "Robert Simon" is of course a common one; as I recall, there was an excellent 60 Minutes reporter named Bob Simon who died recently in a car crash.  But this Robert Simon will be familiar to those readers of my memoir The 13th Boy , as well as (and even more likely) of Marc Fisher's landmark report "The Master" in The New Yorker.  Yes, careful readers of "The Master" will recognize Robert Simon - now one of the world's major dealers in Renaissance Art - as the longtime companion of his former English teacher, Robert J. Berman.  And readers of my memoir will certainly recognize Robert J. Berman as the name of my abuser, who - when he couldn't seduce me - tried to drive me to suicide.

I have not seen Robert Simon since a bizarre encounter in Mr Berman's apartment 47 years ago, but according to Fisher's article - and to friends I made during the 2013 mediation with Horace Mann School - Simon does not make a move without clearing it first with Robert Berman.  (Asked by his sister what he would do if Berman wasn't around anymore to give him advise, Simon told her: "I would just ask myself what Mr Berman would do, and I would do that.")  All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that, while Robert Simon may be credited with discovering the "lost" Leonardo painting underneath the sloppily-painted copy (which had sold shortly before for around $60), it is my belief that Robert J. Berman is the real sleuth behind the discovery.  And I am not alone in believing that.

So my phone rang yesterday afternoon, and it was Gene on the line.  Gene was another former student of Berman's, younger than me by two years, who had gone further down the road with him than I did, and who consequently has had a more difficult time than me in getting past him.

"I'm just so bummed by this art auction today, so bummed, because I know how happy it's making him," Gene said, adding that he needed to speak about it with someone who would get where he was coming from.

In point of fact, though - at least as far as I understand it - Berman and Simon and the rest of their "consortium" will not be benefitting from yesterday's windfall.  They first tried to sell the painting to a museum in Dallas, that exhibited the painting for a few months, but refused to offer more than $90 million, claiming that the painting had been damaged by "over-restoration."  The painting was then leant out to the National Gallery in London for a few months in 2011-12.  It was subsequently bought in 2013 by the Russian collector Dmitry Robolovlev for $127.5 million.  But alas, Mr Robolovlev's wife sued for divorce the following year, and she was awarded one of the largest settlements on record.  I imagine this might have something to do with why he turned around and sold Leonardo's "Savior of the World."  Or maybe he's just a great businessman and knew that the painting had been undervalued.  In either case, he reaped a huge profit.

Of course, so did Berman and Simon.  I've been told that they've been building yet another wing on their already-enormous mansion in the gated community of Tuxedo Park, New York, where they live beyond the reach of the law for Berman's many transgressions, thanks to New York's highly restrictive Statute of Limitations.

Me, I'm just trying to gather enough sheckels to make the rent for next month.  Yes, I'd rather be me than them any day, but I could sure use some of that money.

Then again, I look into the eyes of this Salvator Mundi and they tell me: "This too shall pass."

And so it will.

And Gene and I and countless others will do our best to hang in there as it does.

 

 


"TOXIC MASCULINITY" IN HOLLYWOOD (Onstage)

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: [email protected]  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!


BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITIES - Don't Count Out LA Theater!

BREAKING NEWS: The Sacred Fools production of MR BURNS: A Post-Electric Play has been extended to DEC. 9th!!!

New York City.  London.  Los Angeles.

All great cities, right?

Two of the three are known as great theater (or theatre) cities.  Which ones are they?

"Duh," you say.   London has the West End, New York has Broadway, LA has... the Ahmanson, the Geffen and a lot of 99 seat theaters that require street parking.

But hey, not so fast.  There's more to the story than that.

15 months ago, a play I c0-wrote was produced at a Fringe theatre in London.  It was exciting to have a play in London, but the truth is that 99-seat theatre there is not all that different from 99-seat theater here.  The big difference is how much theatre mattered there, how seriously people took the art form.  There were ads in the Underground for literary fiction and experimental plays!  No one in the tube looked at his or her phone; instead they read actual newspapers and books!  The run of our play was sold out, and audiences seemed to take the subject matter very much to heart.  I was delighted to find how both professional people (doctors, lawyers, academics) and regular folk (shopkeepers, salespeople) made going to theatre a part of their daily routine.  I found this to be true of the older generation in New York City too.  In Los Angeles, not so much.

On the other hand, the critical establishment in London seems to be a carry-over from the 19th century.  Literally.  The Irish playwright Conor McPherson has written a brilliant one-man play, St. Nicholas, in which a powerful theatre critic falls in with a group of vampires. I always took this as fiction, but maybe there's more to it, as there are SO MANY critics, and several write as if they still live down the street from Dickens and must protect the King's English from the incursions of the modern world.

An art supply store not far from Picadilly Square

The truth is, the British theatre is in terrible trouble because of the terrible British economy (Brexit, remember?).  I sincerely hope they find their way out of their present dilemma... and are able to whip up a new batch of critics.  Maybe some women for a change?  And some men with a modicum of humility and a sense of humor about what they do.  Regardless, the spirit of creativity lives on in London, and I look forward to having another play there someday soon.  But the idea that the British have some kind of superior knowledge of how to make theatre... no.  The one play I was able to afford to see there was LABYRINTH by Beth Steel at the Hampstead Theatre, a dark comedy-thriller depicting a Wall Street banking firm in the 1970s hoping to make a killing by buying up Latin-American debt.  The staging was dazzling, the energy was unflagging, and it worked well on the level of spectacle.  But it was difficult to care much about any of the bankers or the journalists who covered them, as both were equally corrupt.  I thought the playwright made a mistake in portraying some of the bankers as literal devils, seducing the innocents into their own cozy version of hell.  It made judging them all too easy.

The Company of Junk. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

In his play JUNK - which started at the La Jolla Playhouse and recently opened on the Lincoln Center mainstage in NYC - Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright Ayad Akhtar was able to avoid allowing the audience to make any such easy or simplistic moral judgments as he moves the story forward a decade to the mid-1980s, dramatizing the rise and fall of Junk Bonds in the character of Robert Merkin (reportedly based on the trader Michael Milkin).  Merkin is young and brilliant and eager to elbow his way to the top of the investment world.  He has discovered how to do so using the weapon of "debt" instead of net worth.  The production, again, works best on the level of spectacle, as director Doug Hughes makes brilliant use of the huge theater space at the Vivian Beaumont.  But the people in this drama, while not reduced to stereotypes of good and evil, are still playing out a story that becomes more familiar and predictable as it goes along.  That is, it succeeds as a thesis about how the values of capitalism have been undercut by the manipulators of Debt to the point that money itself has lost its meaning, its purpose.  But it hasn't made this feel particularly interesting or original.  This is an important story, but I'd honestly rather read about it in a book.  While Akhtar certainly knows how to communicate the dramatic issues using the banker's lingo, I'm not sure he's telling us anything we haven't heard said more memorably in Caryl Churchill's Serious Money or in Jerry Sterner's Other People's Money.  

Scott Golden as "Homer"

While Los Angeles may not have the artistic heritage of London or the Wall Street-inspired sense of theater as big business that New York City can boast, it does provide an excellent environment for a company of actors to create the kind of instant sense of community that Off-Off-Broadway used to specialize in (for example, The Open Theater's production of Jean-Claude van Itallie's The Serpent) before it priced itself out of such experiences.  But witness the Sacred Fools production of Annie Washburn's brilliant, MR BURNS - A Post-Electric Play for a 2017 update of such an experience. Director Jaime Robledo starts out by putting us, the audience, in the center of a post-apocalyptic tragedy along with the actors, and his inventiveness never relents as he and his actors bring this key work of our time to vivid life.

Tracey A. Leigh and Emily Clark

This play originated at the Wooly Mammoth Theatre in Washington DC and then went to Playwrights Horizons in NYC, which is where I first saw it.  The play received an ecstatic review in the New York Times, so there was a great clamor for tickets.  But the Playwrights Horizons stage is a proscenium, which proved far from ideal.  Also, the play is written in three very distinct sections, which had to be presented there with two lengthy intermissions, so that set changes could be made.  I recall having an argument about the play with a well-known actress (who shall go unnamed) who was sitting next to me and couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.  "This is boring as crap," she kept murmuring.  She stayed through the first intermission but then headed for the hills (or Joe Allen's bar) at the second intermission.  Which was a true shame, since the last section is among the most remarkable writing I've seen from any play in the last decade.

Eric Curtis Johnson and Tracey A Leigh

One of the great things about the Sacred Fools production is that their theater has 3 separate spaces, and they are able to make use of a different one for each Act.  This is absolutely ideal for Ms Washburn's play, and I can honestly say that the Sacred Fools production was superior in every way to the one I saw in New York.  More than that, I understood the play this time in a way that I hadn't before.  That is, I saw how Ms. Washburn assembles the pieces of a broken civilization in Act I and gradually starts putting them back together again in what amounts to an heroic effort of mankind to recover our soul.  It documents a great triumph of the imagination.  Which is, quite simply, what this production is as well.  A triumph for Sacred Fools, for director Jaime Robledo, and for the pitch-perfect company of actors, as well as for the production team under the leadership of Brian W. Wallis, with assistance from Alison Sulock and many others.  It's unfair for me to single out any performances in what is truly a group effort, but I'm going to anyway.  Tracey A. Leigh as "Bart" and Eric Curtis Johnson as "Mr Burns" just kept topping themselves in the final section in ways that I didn't think possible.  All that I can say in return is "brava!" and "bravo!"  You completely blew my mind.

The production has just been EXTENDED to Dec. 9!  Hurray!  I cannot even begin to describe the pleasures that await you in (click here) this production.  And unlike all those bankers, I wouldn't give you a raw deal.  (And even if I did, tickets are only $15 - less than a movie!)

 


THE WANDERING PLAY WANDERS BACK TO WHERE IT BEGAN (LA)

Okay, so, speaking of Jews and the theater - which I'm about to do - I recently posted the following photo on Facebook and described it as coming from the Bar Mitzvah of Robert Brustein--

--which it obviously isn't.  First, Robert Brustein is 90 years old and in all likelihood had a bar mitzvah 77 years ago.  Second, Robert Brustein is the preeminent theater educator, essayist and critic in America, in which capacity he's received pretty much every award that can be presented to such a personage, including the National Medal of Arts.  (He's receiving a medal here from the Alliance of Jewish Theatres for "Distinguished Service to the Theatre" or something like that.)  I just want Bob and everyone else to know that no disrespect was intended by my little joke, but this photo did illustrate what for me has been the most surprising aspect of Brustein's talent: the emergence, with his klezmer musical Schlemiel the First and its successor The King of the Schnorrers, of Robert Brustein's Jewishness.  Now my own acqaintance with Bob Brustein is slight.  I wrote a few pieces for The New Republic back in the 1980s when he was their theater critic, and he was kind enough to give me some guidance and some support when my pieces kept being postponed.  We knew some actors in common, and I found him to be very warm-hearted and generous whenever the names of these actors came up in our correspondence.  I subsequently attended his debate in 1997 with August Wilson over multi-culturalism - a remarkable event which deserves more attention than I can give it here.  I went up to him afterward and found him to be cold and distant, and, well, kind of snobbish; very much the detached intellectual, with no trace of the warm-hearted fellow I had come to know in his letters.  I doubted that he was even Jewish (despite the "stein" in his last name); or if  he was, then he was Jewish in the way that Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun were,  preeminent scholars and critics for whom any lapse into sentimentality (much less antic cavorting!) was simply unthinkable.  But no - in addition to creating two of the greatest theater education programs in this country, at Yale and at Harvard - Bob Brustein is also an actor, musician and theater-maker, as well as a klezmer-loving Jew.  I am glad to report that he seems in good health and good spirits at 90, and I wish him several more years of confounding expectations.  Meanwhile, I recommend everyone who hasn't read at least some of his 16 books do so.  Especially The Theatre of Revolt, Making Scenes and Reimagining American Theatre.

 

UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL: An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences by Glen Berger, Directed by Steven Robman

Underneath The Lintel... qualifies for me as one of the worst titles ever for anything while also being one of the best monodramas I've ever seen.  (For what it's worth, a "lintel" is a doorway - in this case, a special doorway, where a very special character is encountered; but it still sounds like "lentil.")  The play depicts a Librarian - most often a man, though it can be portrayed by a woman as well - whose name we never learn, but who has "rented this hall" (the theater space) in order to present us with his "lovely evidences."  Evidence of what? you may ask.  Well, evidence of a mystery almost as old as Christianity itself, dating back before the year one AD.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

The librarian, played superbly at the Geffen  by Arye Gross in what constitutes a tour-de-force performance, has found in his stack of overdue books one that is 113 years overdue.  Yes, you heard that right, 113 years.  And this both angers and intrigues him.  He vows to make the villainous borrower pay for his or her crime and proceeds to relate to us his pursuit of the criminal, using the scant evidences that an inspection of the book has yielded.  Without giving the twists and turns that his investigation takes, it's fair to say that this takes over his life, obsessiing him to the detriment of his other duties while also giving him a greater pleasure than he's ever known before.

This is a very strange play, but one which you may find growing on you and getting under your skin in much the same way as the long overdue book has gotten under the Librarian's skin.  This piece had its premiere at the Actors Gang in Los Angeles in early 2001, with Brian T. Finney playing the Librarian.  It then went on to the Soho Playhouse in NYC later that year, starring T. Ryder Smith.  I missed both of those productions, but I caught up with the play in late 2001-early 2002 when my friend David Chandler replaced Mr. Smith in the role.  I was also friends at that time with lead producer Scott Morfee, and in the way of such collegial friendships, I saw the show 4 or 5 times.  I remember that attendance was spotty, but Scott ended up running the show for 450 performances, whether audienes came or not.  Then again, it was right after 9/11 and the theater is in downtown New York, so attendance was spotty everywhere.  There was a certain analogous relationship between Scott's insistence of keeping the show running no matter what and the Librarian's pursuit of the mystery behind the overdue book, even if it cost him his job.  But it also says something about Glen Berger's creation that it can inspire such loyalty and love in its adherents.  The play has gone on to be produced all over the United States and all over the world.

Arye Gross as the Librarian (photo by Chris Whitaker)

This is the first time I've caught up with the play since 2002.  I'm really sorry at having missed Richard Schiff (Toby from The West Wing) in the role in New Brunswick, NJ and London, as he always brings such intelligence and depth of feeling to whatever he does, but Arye Gross may well be as close to perfection as anyone can be in the role.  Sporting a huge beard, he reminded me of aother lonely castaway, the main character in Dostoievski's Notes from Underground.  But unlike that man, filled as he is with self-loathing, the Librarian finds a sense of purpose and triumph in his discoveries, even if they lead him further away from human affection than ever.  Under Steven Robman's remarkably inventive direction - much more theatrical and detail-oriented than the production from 2002 - Arye Gross attains a level of joy and excitement - even exuberance - which is infectious.

While the play's opening section may seem a little slow, I urge you to stay with it.  I left the theater feeling thrilled by the collaborative brilliance of Glen Berger's words, Steven Robman's direction and Arye Gross's performance for the ages.  Don't miss it.