Saturday, November 26, 2016


Nate Corddry, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Keith Powell
in "Icebergs" at the Geffen Playhouse. Photos by Jeff Lorsch.

Hollywood is a magical word in the world of show business. It conjures up feelings of glamour, celebrity, and money…tons of it. And of course, when money enters the picture (pun definitely intended), powerful men and women cannot be far behind; and the gold mine at the end of the rainbow is Television.

Ask any budding writer in Los Angeles what his or her choice of a dream job in the industry would be, and nine times out of ten, the savvy ones will say ‘show runner’. If you’re the show runner, you’re the creative executive writer and the producer with immense influence and power that controls the syndicated/re-run market where the really big money gathers in piles in every room in your home or bank. Yes, the stage is the touchstone of the performing arts, and movies once were kings of the box office, but the mother lode now is television and everyone wants a piece of the action.

“Icebergs” is a Geffen Playhouse world premiere production written by Alena Smith, herself a TV writer, and smartly directed by Geffen Artistic Director Randall Arney. The Geffen has been the venue of choice for many of Los Angeles’ emerging playwrights due to the proximity to Hollywood and a steady stream of available quality actors thanks to nearby TV and movie production companies. LA is an ‘industry town’ and many Geffen productions are sprinkled with familiar faces from TV, stage and movies.

Nate Corddry and Jennifer Mudge in "Icebergs"
“Icebergs”, in short, tells the story of a millennial married couple who both work in the industry. Calder is an up and coming movie writer/director nicely played by Nate Corddry, and Jennifer Mudge is Abigail, his beautiful but neurotic actor wife.

Abigail is an established leading lady who is beginning to be aware that her biological clock is ticking away and that she and Calder must make some life altering choices. A career or children? They have been trying to get pregnant but without luck. Besides, they reason, with all the talk these days about “climate change”, maybe kids should be not on their radar screens just now.

Keith Powell in "Icebergs"
Into this flux-filled weekend comes Calder’s old college roommate Reed (Keith Powell), a paleontologist and science professor who is attending a conference this weekend on the subject of - you guessed it - climate change.

Rebecca Henderson in "Icebergs"
In addition to Reed, Abigail’s unpredictable, wisecracking tarot card-reading friend Molly (hilariously played by Rebecca Henderson) unexpectedly drops in. Abigail and Calder’s agent Nicky, played by Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, is spot-on as a schmoozing Hollywood agent looking out for his clients.

Jennifer Mudge, Nate Corddry and
Lucas-Near Verbrugghe in "Icebergs"
In one scene, the issue of whether Abigail should be given the lead role in Calder’s screenplay, which has not yet been cast, comes up. Nicky diplomatically says he thinks the studio may not green light it with Abigail in the part. Calder loyally tells Nicky it’s his movie and either Abby plays the lead or it’s no deal. That scene becomes a bit of a stretch in order to believe that this type of dialogue rings true in an industry where hard-nose executives wear flak-jackets under their business suits for safety and eat noble and loyal writers for breakfast.

“Icebergs” is a light, nice, TV sitcom-like play with plenty of laughs. The actors are solid, in their verisimilitude performances, but it’s not like they’re splitting the atom or solving world hunger during this weekend in LA’s Silver Lake district setting. It’s just a-slice-of-life peek into the up and down machinations of the television/movie industry, along with the decision of whether two millennial Hollywood professionals should plan to have children or not.

Anthony T. Fanning’s functional set design gives the actors plenty of space to roam, and David Kay Mickelsen’s costumes have the proper Southern California industry look. Lighting designer Daniel Ionazzi, and composer and sound designer Richard Woodbury, complete the creative team led by director Arney. The play is performed without an intermission and runs approximately 95 minutes.

“Icebergs” performs at the Geffen Playhouse on the Gil Cates stage and runs through December 18, 2016.
                                         -- Jack Lyons

Friday, November 25, 2016


Aisling O'Sullivan and Marie Mullen star as mother and
daughter in the Mark Taper Forum's "The Beauty
Queen of Leenane". All photos by Craig Schwartz

The Irish have the gift of the gab to be sure. In America, up until the 21st Century, the general image of Ireland and its people was mainlyshaped by Hollywood. Actors like John Wayne, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Barry Fitzgerald, Maureen O’Hara, and director John Ford, plus many more over the years, were responsible for setting the tone and image of the Emerald Isle.

As a result, we tend to view the Irish as charmin’, whimsical folk with a twinkle in their eyes and a ready smile and a quick wit with which to enliven social gatherings. Well, there’s more to the Irish than George Bernard Shaw, Irish whisky, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and a somewhat publicly held image concerning their rowdy, pugnacious nature along with the lilt of Irish laughter.

British-born Irish playwright Martin McDonagh has a much darker view of his heritage and their behavior (the IRA notwithstanding). McDonagh has said, “Theatre is never going to be edgy in the way I want it to be”. Which, for those who have not viewed his plays before, is a clue as to what one can expect to see in his dramady of rural, bleak, West Ireland existence.

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane”, a black comedy written by McDonagh in 1996 and staged on Broadway in 1998, returns in a riveting revival production at the Mark Taper Forum, solidly directed by longtime McDonagh associate Garry Hynes; both are veterans of the Druid Theatre in Galway, Ireland, as is the entire cast.

Marie Mullen in
"The Beauty Queen of
Leenane" at the Mark
Taper Forum
The story revolves around Mag Folan, an elderly mother brilliantly played by Marie Mullen, who is one of those maddeningly dependent and demanding women of a certain age who love to manipulate those about them under the guise of helplessness. Mother-daughter love/hate relationships are timeless and are always relevant for audiences.

Aisling O'Sullivan in
"The Beauty Queen of
Leenane" at the Mark
Taper Forum
Mag’s actions guarantee a miserable existence for her never-married 40 year-old daughter Maureen, sensationally performed by Aisling O’Sullivan, who grudgingly responds to her mother’s constant demand for attention. “Where’s me porridge bowl Maureen?” “Could I have another cuppa of tea dear?” In addition, Mag is nosy, a gossip, and self-centered. Maureen is Cinderella without any wicked step-sisters. She cleans, cooks, does the bills, and is expected to be on call 24/7. Not a recipe for a happy home life; however, Maureen is quite capable of living on her own if she has to and she’s a ‘looker’ too.

Marie Mullen and Aisling O'Sullivan in
"The Beauty Queen of Leenane" at the
Mark Taper Forum
A respite from her hell arrives in the form of her 40-something unemployed neighbor Pato Dooley, terrifically played by Marty Rea. Pato has had a yen for Maureen for some time but doesn’t quite know to how to broach the subject of dating. He is shy and careful not to offend or appear overeager, being almost obsequious in his moments with her. Pato’s letter in Act Two to Maureen from London where he is temporarily working, is a comedy monologue masterpiece. His plea for commitment to continue the relationship is a sublime comedy moment that is met with rousing audience applause at its conclusion.

Aisling O'Sullivan and
Marty Ray in "The Beauty
Queen of Leenane" at
the Mark Taper Forum
When the moment of their dating/mating dance finally does begin, along with too many drinks, Pato becomes Maureen’s sleepover bedmate as Mag discovers in the morning while getting her own breakfast for a change. No Maureen to wait on her and then Pato comes down stairs zipping up his trousers. The comedy exchanges and sly dialogue throughout the two act play speaks comedy, but those who are familiar with McDonagh's plays know he trends toward grisly denouements. He’s a fan of movie director Quentin Tarantino. Need I say more? However, no spoiler alerts here.

Aaron Monaghan and Marie
Mullen in "The Beauty
Queen of Leenane" at
the Mark Taper Forum
The brilliance of “Beauty Queen” lies in the performances of its actors: Ms Mullen, Ms. O’Sullivan, Mr. Rea, and Mr. Aaron Monaghan, who plays Ray Dooley, Pato’s young brother. Monaghan is the comic relief in the play, but I had a devil of a time understanding his heavy brogue, spoken at warp speed.

“The Beauty Queen of Leenane” is definitely a Druid company family affair. Set Designer/Costume designer Francis O’Connor renders a home that is bleak and dingy, with costumes to match the mood lighting of Designer James F. Ingalls. Sound Designer Greg Clarke and Composer Paddy Cunneen are also Druid associates of long standing.

The riveting comedy/drama revival performs at the Mark Taper Forum through December 18, 2016.
-- Jack Lyons

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Krystina Alabado and Daphne Rubin-Vega star as an
estranged mother and daughter in "Miss You Like Hell"
at La Jolla Playhouse. All photos by Jim Carmody.
The La Jolla Playhouse has a successful track record of sending its musical productions to Broadway and has a penchant for winning Tony Awards in the process. “Memphis” (2010), for one, springs to mind; the Best Musical Tony-winner was brilliantly performed and brilliantly directed by Playhouse Artistic Director Chris Ashley.

However, I’m not quite sure that the current World Premiere production “Miss You Like Hell” will find Broadway producers bold enough to challenge the bias against Southern California-set musicals, especially one revolving around Latinos. It would be a pity for our East Coast theatrical cousins and their patrons to miss it, as well as those audiences in regional theatres across the country.

The world has been devolving into dangerous and uncertain times since the turn of the 21st Century. Instead of becoming more inclusive as a society, the world appears to be increasingly more interested in becoming rabidly isolationist, even nationalistic.

Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes, a 2008 Tony Winner for the musical “In the Heights” and a 2010 Pulitzer Prize Winner for her potent and powerful drama “Water by the Spoonful”. She has once again hit the nail on the proverbial head with her musical “Miss You Like Hell”, creatively and deftly directed by talented Lear deBessonet.

The leit-motif running through many of Ms. Hudes’ plays deal with loss and forgiveness. In the case of “Miss You like Hell”, it’s a poignant story of mother abandonment and daughter estrangement and the coming to grips with forgiveness, and how hard it is to resolve it.

Krystina Alabado, Daphne Rubin-Vega

Ms. deBessonet is fortunate to have the services of casting directors Kaitlin Shaw and Tara Rubin, who have assembled a terrific ensemble cast of solid actors/singer/dancers to bring this timeless story to life. This time, the story of troubled mother Beatriz, sensationally played by Daphne Rubin-Vega, and her daughter Olivia, wonderfully sung and portrayed by Krystina Alabado, is set against the backdrop of Latino culture which is rich in mysticism and the myths of earlier native ancestors and story tellers.

Additionally, the libretto has elements that are reminiscent of the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his style of ‘magical realism’ and shards of the poems of famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. In the hands of these two talented actors, it is very easy to become enchanted by the entire production, regardless of whether one has ever heard of Garcia Marquez or Neruda.

The cast of "Miss You Like Hell"
The musical informs the story that illuminates the culture wars now taking place, not only in America, but also in Europe and across the globe. Ensemble casts are the epitome of what musical productions are all about. These actors are there to enhance the performances of the principals, namely Ms. Rubin-Vega and Ms. Alabado. But these dedicated, talented performers also shine in individual performances and should be acknowledged.

Krystina Alabado (center) and the
cast of "Miss You Like Hell"
In alphabetical order the ensemble cast includes: Cliff Bemis as Mo; Victor Chan as Castaway; Vanessa A. Jones as Lawyer/Waitress; David Patrick Kelly as Higgins; Julio Monge as Manuel; Cashae Monya as Pearl; Kurt Norby as Officer/Legal Clerk/A Guy at the Motel Desk; and Olivia Oguma as Mindy.

The creative team led by Ms. DeBessonet greatly benefits from the inventive set designs of Donyale Werle and the sparkling creative costume designs of Emilio Sosa that help sweep the audience along to the beats of ‘south of the border’ music and lyrics.

In addition to Ms. Hudes’ libretto and lyrics, and Erin McKeown’s music and lyrics, the choreography of Danny Mefford enlivens the stage action under the baton of music director Julie McBride, with sound design by Dan Moses Schreier.

This splendid production performs at the La Jolla Playhouse in the Mandell Weiss Theatre, through December 4, 2016. Don’t miss It!

-- Jack Lyons

Monday, November 14, 2016


Denis Arndt as Alex & Mary-Louise Parker
as Georgie in "Heisenberg". All photos by Joan Marcus
May-December romance stories are few and far between. For starters, storylines are usually predictable or implausible for most of the audience, to say nothing of the seat-squirming anticipation while waiting for that first onstage geriatric kiss - unless we’re watching Cary Grant plant one on Eva Marie Saint in the film “North by Northwest” which, when he does it, raises the act of kissing to the level of an art form. Ditto, with Audrey Hepburn in the movie “Charade”.

Which brings us to the play “Heisenberg”, written by English playwright Simon Stephens, produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC) at the Samuel J. Friedman theatre in NYC, and smartly directed by Mark Brokaw.

In his seventieth decade, Irish actor Denis Arndt, trim, fit, and much younger looking than his character, stars as Alex Priest, a 75-year old retired English butcher. Arndt is making his Broadway stage debut with this production, and it's hard to believe this fabulous actor hasn’t starred on a Broadway stage before this; and, in the bargain, he gets to woo Mary-Louise Parker, who plays Georgie Burns. Parker is one of the sexiest, intelligent, fearless and exciting actors working in theatre, movies and television today. Lucky devil.

Mary-Louise Parker in "Heisenberg"
Georgie is an aggressive, loud, conflicted American soul with the vocabulary of a grumpy stevedore. She is the type of person who needs to talk…to anyone. As the play opens, Georgie spots Alex sitting alone on a seat in a London train station and slowly walks up to him and plants a gentle kiss on his neck then quickly walks away, but she decides to come back and explain herself.

Alex, is a retired, reserved widower on his way home. He’s mildly surprised by Georgie’s action but doesn’t freak-out.  He has no agenda other to be left alone. No latent hormone rush is present. And they begin to talk. He sizes her up as one of those ‘force of nature’ American women who are so confident that they will approach anyone for the opportunity to engage in conversation, even with strangers. She finds him intriguing and worth more than just a brief encounter (with apologies to Noel Coward).

It’s a very talky play. The onstage scenes becomes a series of actions (her) and reactions (him) as to whether they should begin a relationship. Then the physical attraction for their budding May-December romance, which now spans a couple of months interspersed with separations and the need for one another, kicks in making the premise become more plausible. Besides, Georgie has a sweet tooth for older men. After all, Sinatra was thirty years older than Mia Farrow, and Ari Onassis was twenty-three years older than Jackie Kennedy, so it’s not that unusual. The only component missing in this relationship is the lack of really big money or family fortunes.

Denis Arndt as Alex & Mary-Louise Parker
as Georgie in "Heisenberg"
Playwright Stephens and director Brokaw weave an engaging obbligato of nicely nuanced performances by two terrifically talented stars who know how to draw the audience into their small, compelling story and make it sing. The onstage chemistry between Parker and Arndt is palpable. There is an old show biz axiom that says if you buy the premise, you’ll buy the bit. I bought all of it. The opening is a tad slow and the ending is ambiguous by design, but in between - ah, that’s where the magic happens.

“Heisenberg” is a light rom-com. The only big issue, other than their age disparity, is how strongly people have a need for companionship and closeness to prove their humanity and the raison d’etre for being on the planet in the first place. Georgie and Alex have past lives that are not similar. How they resolve their differences lies in the nuanced performances of Parker and Arndt, which are compelling and poignant at times. There is a lot of introspection, time to ponder the ‘what if' choices for each and for the audience as well.

One thing the audience needn't ponder is the meaning of the title, which seems disconnected from the play's theme. According to the program notes, German scientist Werner Heisenberg, the founder of quantum mechanics, posited a theory of the “uncertainty principle”. Playwright Stephens may have been drawing a comparison to the uncertainty of human relationships - or not.

Mark Wendland’s scenic design renders an almost bare stage, with two tables and two chairs, which are moved about by the actors. Costume design by Michael Krass is present day garb, and the lighting design is by Austin R. Smith with Sound design by David Van Tieghem.

“Heisenberg” is performed without an intermission (approximately 84 minutes) on the Samuel J. Friedman stage and runs through December 11, 2016.
-- Jack Lyons

Sunday, November 13, 2016


Samantha Sloyan, Harry Groener, Raimiz Monset and
Brian Georgestar in "Vicuna" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
All photos by Craig Schwartz
Some plays and movies get a little too “on the nose” and fall short of their intended target and audience. Not so with the current World Premiere satiric political poke in the eye from the pen of Jon Robin Baitz and his newest play “Vicuna”, now gracing the stage at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

There’s very little doubt that Baitz has been influenced by the antics and the three ring circus atmosphere of the 2016 Presidential Election campaign, led by ringleader Donald Trump. But then who hasn’t? As a result, Trump was the hands-down choice of the media, the pundits and campaign surrogates to be parodied. He’s his own worst enemy and he doesn’t even recognize it.  But he was great fodder and source material for playwrights and screenwriters to hoist him on his own petard.

“Vicuna” unfolds in the stunning and luxurious atelier of Anselm de Paris’s Manhattan location designed by Kevin Depinet, one of the outstanding scenic designers working today. When the audience enters the theatre, the set screams high style and higher prices. His creative set design for the 2015 Old Globe production of “Sense and Sensibility” is still fresh in my memory. 

Baitz’s wickedly hilarious satire is deftly directed by Robert Egan, formerly the Producing Artistic Director of the Mark Taper Forum. Egan is fortunate to have casting director Meg Fister on his creative team for this production. She has assembled a stellar cast of solid actors who know how to perform in a comedy/satire production when they find themselves in one.
Brian George, Harry Groener, Raimiz Monset in "Vicuna"
The story revolves around Presidential Candidate Kurt Seaman, an ego-centric, multi-millionaire real estate tycoon and businessman played by Harry Groener. Seaman wants a suit from the hands of master tailor Anselm Kassar for the final presidential debate in two weeks and he’s willing to pay extra to have it delivered in time. Groener delivers Baitz’s outlandish lines with impeccable timing and silky smugness. In short, he’s fabulous in a part he was born to play.

Brian George as Anselm Kassar the proprietor is a man who knows how to make extremely expensive suits - Kassar charges Seaman $110 thousand dollars for a vicuna material creation -while his clients enjoy the art of the deal in the haggling over the cost, without either going beyond the point of losing the sale.
Harry Groener, Brian George, Raimiz Monset
It’s a verbal tug of war between Kassar, his young progressive-thinking intern Amir, passionately played by Raimiz Monset who believes Seaman’s millions should be spent elsewhere where it could do some good and not be wasted on the body of a megalomaniac. The exchanges between Seaman, Kassar, and Amir, plus Seaman's daughter Srilanka (yes, that’s her character’s name) played by Samantha Sloyan, are right out of the current Trump campaign playbook. It’s impossible to miss the obvious parallels.

There is another character called Kitty Finch-Gibbon wonderfully played by glamorous veteran actor Linda Gehringer.  Kitty is the ‘agent’ representing a mysterious cabal who are intent on getting Seaman to withdraw as a candidate by dangling a two billion dollar carrot as the inducement. Oh, how candidate Seaman loves to be a player in the art of the deal.

Harry Groener, Linda Gehringer in "Vicuna"
“Vicuna” is a comedy rich in innuendo and roman a clef portrayals. I’ve seen several of Jon Robin Baitz’s plays in the past, but this one is a little different from his usually serious efforts as a dramatist. This play combines sharply written dialogue and terrific performances from a solid cast, all under the watchful and experienced eye of director Robert Egan.

The creative team led by director Egan includes the aforementioned Scenic Designer Kevin Depinet, Costume Designer Laura Bauer and that ‘$110 Thousand dollar suit’ that fits Mr. Groener like a fine silk glove. Lighting Designer Tom Ontiveros made the entire set sparkle, displaying the richness and warmth of the wood trimming and the various suit displays. Original Music and Sound Design by Karl Fredrik Lundeberg completes the technical credits.
“Vicuna” is a biting commentary on America’s Presidential Election process in democracy every four years. The 2016 Election results will already be known by the time you read this review, but you have to see the play yourself in order to determine if the 2016 Election was indeed ‘rigged’.
“Vicuna” performs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, CA through November 20, 2016.
-- Jack Lyons

Monday, November 7, 2016


Eric Charles Jorgenson and Anna Nicholas
star as Ulysses and Emma in "Annapurna"
All photos by Jim Cox
Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre (CVREP) kicks off their 8th season with the production “Annapurna”, written by Sharr White and nicely directed by founding Artistic Director Ron Celona.

In keeping with Celona’s promise to bring plays that address the 2016/17 season theme of Love, Marriage, and Life Changing Events, “Annapurna” is a bittersweet story of former married partners meeting after twenty years.

Emma (Anna Nicholas) tracks down her former alcoholic, poet/writer husband Ulysses (Eric Charles Jorgenson), to a trailer park in the middle of rural mountain high Colorado for a final reckoning. There are questions, deep hurts, and unresolved issues that force Emma to confront Ulysses after all these years.

Eric Charles Jorgenson, Anna Nicholas
The play begins with the disheveled, mountain man-like, bearded Ulysses getting ready to prepare breakfast in his man-cave digs when Emma, his long divorced ex, walks in the front door of his small, grungy trailer with two suitcases. He is not happy to see her despite a twenty-year absence. And she’s wondering if she made the right decision to confront him now that she sees him and his condition.

For starters, he’s dying of emphysema and has an oxygen tube in his nose and is in a weakened, listless condition. But, he hasn’t lost his ability to yell and shout at her like in the old days. Emma doesn’t push back against Ulysses’ boorish and bullying behavior. She appears calm and under control, going so far as to say this place needs a good scrub, and begins to clean up.

Eric Charles Jorgenson, Anna Nicholas
Then she opens up and tells Ulysses that she has permanently left her home and their twenty year-old son Sam (never seen, only referred to) in order to alert Ulysses that Sam is on his way here to see his father after discovering a cache of letters that Ulysses had been sending to him via Emma’s mother over the last 10 years.

The ‘backstory’ is a bit fuzzy and melodramatic as to what really happened to Sam when Ulysses, in one of his alcoholic blackouts, may have caused the deafness in one of Sam’s ears. This is one of the reasons why Emma wants to confront her ex. Does he remember striking his five year-old son? What happened? Ulysses says he has no recollection of anything that far back. He honestly can’t remember.

Eric Charles Jorgenson, Anna Nicholas
The narrative of White’s play is not its strongest asset. It’s the performances of the actors that win the day. There is good onstage chemistry between Jorgenson and Nicholas, and both are always in the moment. I won’t go so far as saying that some in the audience will find relevancy in the play’s subject matter, but parents in the audience might smile a bit as to the tug of war that goes on in all marriages, and especially where children are concerned when one parent is absent from the home.

Eric Charles Jorgenson, Anna Nicholas
There is light banter, however, between Ulysses and Emma once the thaw begins. Perhaps, some vocal modulation between Jorgenson and Nicholas might better blunt the effect of their yelling at each other all the time which becomes a bit off-putting. At times, less is better.

The technical credits at CV REP are always top tier. Resident Scenic Design wizard and multiple Desert Theatre League award winner Jimmy Cuomo never disappoints. His grungy trailer home is terrific, as is the lighting design by Moira Wilkie Whitaker (also a recent DTL award winner), costumes by Aalsa Lee, and sound design by Cricket S. Myers, Production Manager and Associate Set designer Doug Morris and Sound Tech Karen Goodwin complete the creative team. The 90-minute play is performed without an intermission.

The bumpy road of love, marriage, and everything in between, is often filled with potholes we call life passages. There are precious few rose gardens out there, promised or not, and some aren’t even worth taking care of. But hope springs eternal.

“Annapurna” performs at CV Repertory Theatre in Rancho Mirage through November 20, 2016. Call the box office for reservations and ticket information at 760-296-2966.
--Jack Lyons