June 26, 2003  


THE WICKED STAGE and the gag reel


By Rob Kendt


Left cold by Brits: Two lauded productions of contemporary classics by living English playwrights recently won my admiration but not my awe, left me stimulated but unsatisfied. Director Harry Mastrogeorge had a solid cast for his recent production of Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 at the Hudson, but I found his direction staid and a little slack; the arch, African-set first act played a bit too much like slightly naughty Shaw. Churchill's themes here engage a wide load of Victorian imperial paranoia--the dread of corruption from within raging as strongly as the fear of external attacks on the Empire's prerogatives--but I just didn't feel the cut of this double-edged sword, despite two marvelously moving, finely shaded cross-gender turns, by Don Winston as a fluttery matriarch and by Ione Skye, convincingly boyish and confused. In the second act, set in England a century later but performed on the same set, Churchill's tone becomes almost scattershot, which requires laser focus and tight pacing to come off; instead Mastrogeorge and his cast meandered a bit and lost me, again despite a pair of sympathetic turns by Susan Savage and Blake Lindsley. Minus the right snap, some of these scenes feel dated; we may be too close to the mid-1980s post-sexual-revolution regrouping to see this act as a period piece, the way some plays of the 1960s or '70s already work on us. Unlike, say, the Pinter of that era, who wrote plays for a timeless, almost Beckettian world, even at her most fable-like and oblique Churchill was and is very specific about, and invested in, her cultural moment--a trait which, in mediocre writers, tends to consign their works to the scrapheap, but which, in a great writer, requires only a bit of hindsight to see their works' timelessness and universality. If it's too soon to fully appreciate the ways Cloud 9 is a classic of its time (it's certainly easy to see how its influence has been felt among playwrights in the intervening years, which is another way a once-groundbreaking work can seem to age poorly, until at last it towers, over time, above its later imitators), that can't be the fault of this production. Still and all, I would have wished for a sharper, more richly imagined one.


With International City Theatre's still-running The Real Thing, the problem isn't Jules Aaron's direction but, I dare say, the play. This is probably Stoppard's most popular work--with American audiences, at least--and it's easy to see why: It's smart and sexy, and it's teasingly doubtful but ultimately affirmative about the possibility of long-lasting human relationships. I'd say it cheats a bit too much, though, to bring its leads together, finally; Stoppard sloughs off the moral compromise of Henry, a playwright roped into rewriting a terrible political play, a little too easily by having his actress-wife make a confession and then humiliate the play's talentless original author. It's a sour climax that effectively tacks a crude Post-It on all the play's wonderfully pointed exchanges about the high calling of writers. Still, I do love the way Stoppard warmly but unmercifully nails the vulnerabilities of luvvie theatre folk, and these are lushly realized by Laura Wernette, Spencer Garrett, Joseph Sanfelippo, and above all the dusky Michelle Duffy, showing herself a most fetching romantic comedienne. Best of all, the production has Robertson Dean in the lead; Dean perfectly captures the intelligent self-absorption that can make writers simultaneously so attractive and so maddening. Like Chekhov's Professor Serebryakov, he's the sort who always gets the best women but can't relax enough to be satisfied with them. That is, until they beg for his forgiveness.


Speaking of Chekhov, I caught the final performance of Actor's Co-op's Uncle Vanya--a play I didn't think I'd want to see for a long, long time after the production I appeared in last year at the Met and Pacific Resident Theatre. It's among my favorite plays, but watching it night after night, in director Bruce Katzman's sharp, lean production, for two months was emotionally draining; our Vanya, Weston Blakesley, and our Sonya, Barbara Bragg, were so heartbreakingly depressed by play's end that I felt it rubbing off on me. I shouldn't have worried: The Co-op's version, directed by Simon Levy, was a lot sunnier, less anguished, than Katzman's. Ted Rooney's disheveled sad-sack Vanya delivered his share of heartbreak, but his was a childlike, petulant Vanya more prone to acting out than to sublimating the rage that eventually bursts out in the third act. Cameron Dye brought a naturalistic nerviness to Astrov that--a little like Rob Dean's distractedness in Real Thing--explained his attraction, but I found this approach a little too passive-aggressive for the confused, passionate burnout case that is Astrov. As Yelena, Nan McNamara caught the character's central paradox--Yelena's unavailability excites her in direct proportion to how much she's wanted, her prudery is fanned by never-quite-consummated temptation--but didn't quite nail Yelena's listlessness, the dangerous idleness that makes her so deadly; McNamara always seemed a bit too purposeful, but then boredom is hard to play. I was touched by Marianne Savell's Sonya, and her late-night tete-a-tete with Dye's Astrov (is there a better scene in any play?) was the production's high point, and one place where Dye's low-key interpretation made a beautiful fit.


Mark Savage's award-bejewelled queering of Gilbert & Sullivan, Pinafore!, just opened at Chicago's Bailiwick Repertory. We wish it happy--or rather, gay--sailing.


And speaking of Chicago, that's where a dear friend of mine--and, though you may not know of it, a friend to you, dear reader--is moving in August. I'm talking about Back Stage West's current managing editor, Scott Proudfit, who will begin doctoral studies in English at Northwestern in the fall. Anyone who knows him knows his warmth, conviction, erudition, integrity, and curiosity; the professorial calling seems a good fit for Scott, and I can rest a little more easily about the next generation of young minds if some will be in his rigorous but loving care. He will be missed here not only for his discipline, tenacity, and editing acumen, and for his incisive criticism and ambitious writing, but for his nurturing of promising writers, his patience with high-maintenance writers and subjects, and what we in the Lutheran church would call "good fellowship."


And he'll be missed well beyond the pages of the paper, since the relationships he's forged over the years with the local theatre scene--from Kim Weild's Suzuki/Viewpoints classes to the Actors' Gang and Cornerstone and various affiliates thereof--have been one of our greatest assets in recent years. He has brought a firsthand sense of the community, its ups and downs and struggles and triumphs, to the office. Well before I started getting roped into theatrical productions as a musician, Scott was the first Back Stage Wester to appear on local stages, in productions by the Factory Theater, the most memorable being the ridiculous breakdancing musical, Poppin' and Lockdown (which also featured the L.A. stage debut of our casting editor, Lori "Wiggles" Talley). Scott appeared in P&L as hip-hop granddaddy Boogaloo Shrimp, depicted in his latter days as a kindly, Boys Town-style priest overseeing the show's troupe of enthusiastic young breakers and lockers. When I try to imagine Scott's future, I like to think of that absurdly heartening image: Dr. Proudfit will be a little like that sage breakdancer-turned-clergyman, advising his eager charges with the wisdom of his own experience and the warmth of genuine affection.


It's not going be the same around these parts. May the road rise to meet you, man.