I spend too much time sitting at my computer, as I write this column and also edit other people’s writing for LA STAGE Times. Lately, as the media picks up on the ominous catchphrase “sitting is the new smoking,” I’ve also become more aware that I spend hours sitting in theaters and driving to theaters while sitting.
It’s an occupational hazard for someone who writes about theater. But although I write about drama, I’ve never thought of my routines as being dramatic — especially all that time I sit alone at my computer.
Last Saturday, however, I saw two staged dramas in a row about men who sit at their computers as part of their work. In the afternoon, I saw Samuel D. Hunter’s poignant The Whale at South Coast Repertory, and in the evening I saw Doris Baizley’s provocative Sexsting at the Skylight Theatre.
The two online wage slaves in these plays have very different occupations.
Charlie (Matthew Arkin) in The Whale teaches an online writing course from his home. Most of the drama in his case arises not from his work but from the fact that he weighs 600 pounds and is apparently on death’s door as a result of his girth.
In Sexsting, FBI Agent Richard Roe is creating his own drama at the computer by posing as a 14-year-old girl in cyber-conversations with a geographically distant man who has been hanging out in unsavory chart rooms. Richard is trying to preemptively catch a sexual predator.
Fortunately, my online occupation is much more like Charlie’s in The Whale than it’s like Richard’s in Sexsting.
Let’s look at The Whale. Parts of this play will remind many dedicated LA theatergoers of the same playwright’s A Bright New Boise, which was produced at Rogue Machine last year. Both plays feature men in early middle age who are trying to re-connect with a difficult teenaged child, after years of separation. Both plays are set in Idaho (The Whale in a small town, as opposed to Boise). Both plays have characters who wrestle with spiritual issues and others who are turned off by anything remotely religious (but while the religion in Boise is primarily Rapture-believing fundamentalism, in The Whale it’s Mormonism). Although the main character in Boise works in a hobby supply store, in his off-hours he also sits alone at his computer, writing — in his case, a novel.
Still, The Whale and Boise are sufficiently different from each other that fans of Boise should immediately make plans to see The Whale. Both plays are so involving that it’s safe to say that Hunter’s work should be seen as widely as possible.
In an interview in the program, Hunter says his original inspiration for The Whale “didn’t start with the obesity” of the central character. It stemmed from an expository writing course Hunter taught to apathetic students at Rutgers in 2009. “And the obesity came in because I felt like I was at such a distance from these kids — it was like I had three heads — and I wanted to create that distance not only between Charlie and the other characters on stage but between Charlie and the audience so that we had to break some of those barriers and come to accept him despite his appearance.”
The play begins with a scene in which Charlie is reading from a dreadfully inadequate non-analysis of The Great Gatsby from one of his students. Judging from some of his students’ online comments that Charlie reads, it’s clear that they feel as distant from him as he does from them. He is careful to use only a microphone, not a camera, when he interacts with them, so as not to appall them by his looks and build an even higher barrier.
Still, the students are not simply Charlie’s or Hunter’s punching bags. One of them, years ago, became his gay lover, we learn as the play continues. In the present day, his hitherto estranged daughter Ellie (Helen Sadler) also becomes a student, in her own recalcitrant way. He hasn’t given up on believing that his students have something interesting to say, even if they don’t know how to express it.
As for himself, however, he more or less gave up long ago — after his lover died. His lover’s sister (Blake Lindsley), a nurse, is his only friend, and her attempts to provide care for him are mixed with her habits of smoking in his apartment and providing him with junk food. He’s interested in a Mormon missionary (Wyatt Fenner) who knocks on his door primarily because he hopes the young man might be able to find out why Charlie’s lover became virtually suicidal after he briefly returned to the Mormon Church in which he had been raised.
Charlie mixes guilt over leaving his daughter and his wife (Jennifer Christopher) in the lurch with a beguiling optimism that at least his teaching efforts might make a difference in someone’s life, perhaps even his daughter’s, before he dies.
Martin Benson stages the play’s West Coast premiere without one false note. Kevin Haney’s prosthetics and Angela Balogh Calin’s costumes create a shocking apparition of extreme obesity. Yet as Charlie, Arkin makes us notice every little glance and wince despite the layers of fat that encircle him.
Occasionally the character of Ellie seems a little over the top. The references to literary whales verge on becoming distractions, and the final moment of the play feels a bit abrupt — it’s not as polished as the final moment of A Bright New Boise. These are minor quibbles I have with the script, not the production.
But they don’t diminish the importance of seeing this play from this strong new voice. And this production — on the heels of SCR’s The Motherfucker With the Hat and Chinglish — also underlines the importance of having South Coast in our neighborhood. OK, it’s on the outskirts for most Angelenos, and my drive on Saturday — haunted by guilt over all that sitting and three separate traffic jams — was one of the most difficult drives to Costa Mesa I’ve experienced. But it’s worth the effort when the results are as moving as what I experienced at The Whale.
The Whale, South Coast Repertory Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tues-Sun 7:45 pm, Sat-Sun 2 pm. Closes March 31. www.scr.org. 714-708-5555.
Sexsting isn’t as moving as The Whale. But it is a sad and ironic — even occasionally funny — glimpse into two men who have more in common than they might realize, despite their adversarial relationship.
One of them, Richard Roe (normally Gregory Itzin, understudy Carl Weintraub at the performance I saw) is a San Diego-based FBI agent who’s under pressure from his younger superior to rope in more potential sex abusers more rapidly. His online target, Johnny D (JD Cullum) is a frustrated husband and father in Illinois, with an uninspiring job, who walks on the wild side by entering online chat rooms, where he might meet underage females — or male FBI agents his own age.
Johnny would probably prefer just to flirt. When Richard (aka Sandybythesea) becomes more aggressive, Johnny tends to back off. But eventually he’s roped in to faking a “business trip” that takes him to San Diego, with a box of condoms in his luggage.
The potential stasis of watching two men pretend to type at their desks while speaking the words they’re typing is varied with a background trio of other, usually silhouetted chat room participants of different ages and genders. Two of these actors also double as Johnny’s teenage children.
Baizley’s meditation on moral ambiguity, as directed by Jim Holmes, is a small but memorable reminder of potential explosives hiding behind the wall of cyber intimacy. It’s set in an era a half-dozen years ago when Facebook had yet to rule the world; now, even if the medium has changed somewhat, the potential force of those explosions is even greater.
Sexsting, Katselas Theatre Company at Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Closes March 31. www.katselastheatre.com. 702-582-8587.
VERINI’S STILL HERE: I’ve seen a lot of Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle ceremonies, and I’m still here (although I’ve missed some of the more recent ones). At this year’s, yesterday evening at LATC, I was especially impressed by two performances of award presenters who are members of the LADCC.
First, a nod to Sharon Perlmutter’s signing (as well of speaking) of her remarks about the Deaf West/Fountain co-production of Cyrano. I can’t read ASL, so I can’t vouch for how well she did, but I salute the attempt.
I feel no such uncertainty about how well the event’s producer Bob Verini performed his own rendition of “I’m Still Here” — with re-written critic-specific lyrics. To quote an old Variety phrase (he writes for Variety), it was boffo.
He has given me permission to re-produce the lyrics here, to be sung to the Stephen Sondheim melody from Follies:
Good shows and bum shows,
We’ve seen ’em all, and my dear,
We’re still here.
Improv and dumb shows,
39 stabs at King Lear,
And we’re here.
We’ve gone to Shakespeare staged in tents,
Cross-dressing Fiddlers, high school Rents.
Memorized Same Time, Next Year, and we’re here.
(“George, it’s Doris, happy anniversary, darling”)
We’ve been to Annies where even Sandy was bad,
And we’re here.
Seen naked fannies people would pay to keep clad,
And we’re here.
We’ve stood outdoors with all of you,
While the director fixed the loo.
Then someone scores an acting coup, and we cheer.
You make our cares disappear, so we’re here.
We’ve suffered through eight hundred twelve Hello Dollys,
They stopped amusing at two.
When people don’t get what you loved about Follies,
What is a critic to do?
(And then all the one-person shows, oy)
Kids hooked on smack, crack and beer,
And we’re here.
Straight guys suspecting they’re queer,
And we’re here.
Our jobs are hanging on the ropes,
While all the bloggers call us dopes.
We should’ve stuck to reviewing soaps for a career.
But we all love the-ay-ter, so we’re here.
We’ve made it through “hey, you’re that guy in the paper–
You called my daughter’s play junk.”
Or better yet, “I read your piece in the paper””
I gotta tell you it stunk.”
Good shows and great shows,
We’ve seen ’em all and my dear,
We’re still here.
Like, love or hate shows,
All give us something to cheer.
So we’re here.
We have a need for all of you,
But let’s concede you need us too.
You’re craving feedback that’s smart, fair and clear.
Even should print disappear,
We’d be here!
Look who’s here!
We’re still here!