|By Don Shirley
You've probably heard of the old gimmick of beginning an ad (or an article) with the word "SEX" followed by the words "Now that I've got your attention..."? Of course, I would never stoop to this cheap trick.
Yet I wonder if playwrights Erik Patterson and Bekah Brunstetter were thinking along these lines when they chose the titles of their plays that are currently on small Los Angeles stages. Echo Theater is producing Patterson's "Handjob" at Atwater Village Theater, and Rogue Machine is producing Brunstetter's "Miss Lilly Gets Boned" at Electric Lodge in Venice.
Fortunately, now that these two LA-based playwrights have our attention, they're keeping it - by venturing far beyond the referenced activities of their titles.
The premiere of "Handjob" begins with a gay man hiring a "shirtless" cleaner, ostensibly to tidy up his Manhattan apartment. But it then unfolds new layers every 20 minutes or so in an ingeniously structured and remarkably topical script. Yes, there is a scene in which the titular activity is depicted, using prosthetics, but the shock value of that scene is intentionally undermined as our frame of reference shifts.
Although I'm tempted to be more specific about what happens, the surprises are integral to this theatrical adventure, as we watch the characters try to navigate through contemporary cultural currents, creating plenty of rich, ironic comedy in the process. Chris Fields directs a fine-tuned cast (including the understudy I saw in one of the major roles).
|Tamarra Graham, Stephen Guarino and Ryan Nealy in "Handjob."
Photo (c) Darrett Sanders
Brunstetter's "Boned" is one of her earlier, more experimental works. Dating from 2010, it preceded her realistic "The Cake" (seen a year ago in its original Echo production at the Geffen Playhouse) and her wonderful "Going to a Place Where You Already Are" (seen at South Coast Repertory in 2016). "Boned" isn't as up to the present moment as "Handjob," and it breaks out of the shackles of realism more often, not always successfully.
The leading character in "Boned" is a small-town virginal Sunday-school teacher, but one entire wing of the stage is dominated by...an elephant. In fact, after the "Boned" title in the script is this subtitle - "Or: the Loss of all Elephant Elders." The elephant is played by a puppet masterfully crafted by Sean Cawelti and manipulated by three actors. Fortunately, the two parts of the story eventually find each other. "Boned," like "Handjob," takes its audience on a wild ride, and Robin Larsen's cast is up to the challenge (although again, I saw an understudy in one role).
Speaking of the Geffen, its new season began in September with two exceptional ensemble comedies, the now-closed "Witch" and the still-running "Skintight."
As with "Handjob" and "Boned," the title of Jen Silverman's "Witch" was somewhat misleading, but not for the same reason - it's because Maura Tierney's title character really wasn't the play's central focus. The play would be more accurately called "Scratch," because that's the name of its devil character (brilliant Evan Jonigkeit), who goes through the most dramatic character arc, interacts with more of the other characters than the "witch" does, and get the play's final words.
I slightly prefer the still-running "Skintight," by Joshua Harmon of "Bad Jews" fame. Occupying the Geffen's larger theater, it's an exquisitely amusing comedy about the problems cause by the worship of youth among the one-percenters. It's mildly darkened by a family history that goes back to the Holocaust in Hungary, but the emphasis is on the ever-so-modern fractures within the contemporary family members.
"Skintight" has often been promoted as a star vehicle for Idina Menzel, but the roles of three other actors - Harry Groener, Will Brittain and Eli Gelb -- are just as important as Menzel's. All are superb, as is LA's celebrated musical chameleon Jeff Skowron in a relatively minor non-musical role. Daniel Aukin's staging is a vast improvement over the production in this space that opened Geffen artistic director Matt Shakman's first season a year ago ("The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona").
The recent Geffen fare has been substantially more interesting than Center Theatre Group's early-fall trio of productions. The CTG's season opener in the Mark Taper Forum, Ethan Coen's "A Play Is a Poem," consists of five small plays, or maybe "sketches" would be a better word, that go nowhere slowly. This production clearly owes more to Coen's screenwriting credits than to his talents as a playwright. It's easy to sympathize with all the actual playwrights or makers of musicals whose careers might have benefited from a season-opening slot at the Taper.
Strangely enough, although the current productions in CTG's other two theaters are more successful than Coen's anthology, they're not actual plays or musicals, either. John Leguizamo's "Latin History for Morons" is a skilled but excessively long one-man standup comedy act, which ought to be in a hall smaller than the Ahmanson. It isn't exactly fresh - a slightly more compact version is available on Netflix. An almost-solo show occupies CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City -- "On Beckett," a mildly entertaining lecture and acting showcase for the gifted clown Bill Irwin.
Farther afield, South Coast Repertory's new artistic director David Ivers has opened his first season in Costa Mesa with an ambitious crowd-pleaser, not yet seen in LA - "American Mariachi," by Jose Cruz González, directed by Christopher Acebo. It's a breezily enjoyable comedy infused with notes of Latinx feminism - often in the form of musical notes, as it charts the course of a group of 1970s Chicanas who want to break into the mostly male-dominated world of mariachi. "American Mariachi" is not a musical per se, but the script's several formulaic or contrived moments are redeemed by the joyous sounds performed onstage.
Pasadena Playhouse has opened its season with a real musical - a revival of the Ashman/Menken "Little Shop of Horrors" that comes with a fresh look at the design and the casting. The avaricious Audrey II, the talking plant who plans to take over the world, is now represented visually by puppets (from Sean Cawelti, mentioned above for the "Boned" elephant) and aurally by a backstage woman (Amber Riley) instead of the growling men who usually provide her voice. Mj Rodriguez, a transgender actress, plays the original Audrey opposite George Salazar's Seymour.
Mike Donahue directed this satisfying if not-quite-revelatory production. Let's see - what might have made it connect even more viscerally to what's happening in 2019? Here's an idea - slap a Trump wig on top of Audrey II.
Actually, LA theater doesn't offer much of anything right now that reflects directly on the daily trauma/drama/satire from DC. The Wallis has a DC play about another era in "Sisters in Law," which traces the relationship of Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg over decades, featuring reasonably convincing performances by Stephanie Faracy as O'Connor and Tovah Feldshuh as Ginsburg. But the Supreme Court pioneers are so cordial with each other, and Jonathan Shapiro's script covers so many years so quickly, that any whiff of dramatic tension quickly dissipates.
Don't forget, however, that CTG brought us a play ("Vicuña") loosely based on Trump even before the 2016 election and that as early as March 2017 the Fountain Theatre brought us a dystopian drama ("Building the Wall") about possible Trump-era detention camps. Perhaps LA playwrights and producers are already planning scripts about not only Trump but also about the saga's LA players -- Stephen Miller, Adam Schiff, Marianne Williamson. Bedroom scenes? Call Michael Avenatti.