November 25, 1999
at the Los Angeles Theatre Center
With its multi-ethnic cast, sweeping and specific local references, and lovingly, even slickly crafted, production values, Broken Hearts feels and looks a lot like a millennial summation of the Cornerstone Theater Company's nearly decade-long residency in greater Los Angeles. As such, it's an uncommonly well-heeled and auspicious effort from this groundbreaking, community-building company, which has taught L.A. performers and arts leaders at least as much it has learned about how to make theatre thrive in a mass media age (and in the belly of the beast, no less).
The sprawling meta-narrative of Los Angeles itself has often been the subject of Cornerstone's L.A. shows, but seldom so comprehensively as in Broken Hearts, which is what the company calls a "bridge show," bringing together collaborators from its last four community residencies--in Boyle Heights, Baldwin Hills, Chinatown (or "Broadway/Hill"), and Beverly Hills--for one big shebang. The company commissioned playwright Lisa Loomer (The Waiting Room, Expecting Isabel) to develop an original play through visits and workshops to these four "BH" communities, and Loomer went way beyond the call of duty, using a knockabout detective-story format to deftly weave a complicated plot about a mysterious wedding ring passed down over four generations of Angelenos in the four communities.
The panoramic result sprawls as far and wide as the 10 freeway, but in the diamond lane: Under Bill Rauch's taut, freewheeling, well-shaded direction, Broken Hearts skates smartly and fleetly through its two hours, imagining an alternative history of interconnectedness in a city known more for isolation than inclusion. It's City of Quartz meets Sesame Street--a serious-minded yet breathtakingly playful civics lesson perhaps only Cornerstone could pull off, let alone attempt.
The play follows an amiable, down-at-heels private eye, Joaquin Garcia (Armando Molina), hired by a mysterious Chinese-American femme fatale (Page Leong) to uncover the history of a ring pawned to her by a young man (Alex Miramontes). His pursuit memorably careens from seniors' homes to tony restaurants, from the city bus to a movie studio office, from a bowling alley to a tamale stand; Molina keeps this narrated action afloat with self-effacing snap and sad-sack sarcasm. When he gets characters to fill in their strands of the story, the lively flashbacks that unfold--on Lynn Jeffries' miraculously versatile set, as illuminated by Dauna Whitehead's definitive cityscape slides and Geoff Korf's sculpted lighting--become the show's true throughline, climaxing with a fateful poker game in the 1930s whose stakes feel primal.
Standout characters along his trail include Nancy Yee's keening grandma, Bruce Friedman's teasing, Billy Wilderish old crank, Dorothy James' appealingly frank realtor, Peter Howard's impassive plainclothes thug, Nickole K. Ivory's blithe dance instructor, Loraine Shields' shortsighted movie exec, and tiny Emily Hong's preposterously perfect drag turn as a Chinese waiter. The other players, including a spunky chorus, create the most seamless Cornerstone ensemble in memory, whether singing Michael Abels' tuneful, accomplished score or filling out the larger scenes with incisive character turns. Dori Quan's costumes tell the story as economically and wittily as the actors.
But it must be said that while this show moves well, it's not particularly moving. Perhaps inevitably, given its far-reaching mandate, Broken Hearts ultimately feels a bit glib and pious. Loomer has crafted the narrative to a fare-thee-well, folding in the pedagogy like a pastry chef, and Rauch and Molina give the show such an unruffled momentum it's almost frictionless. And while it may be heartening in itself that a serious play about L.A. can still have the fizz and fun of a rocking party, Cornerstone has shown itself capable of bigger game. Maybe the best sign here for the future is that Cornerstone, far from having its heart broken by L.A., looks smitten.
"Broken Hearts," presented by Cornerstone Theater Company at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Downtown L.A. Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Nov. 20-Dec. 12. $8-10. (213) 485-1681.