Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.

A New Play Harvest, an LA Times Shakespearean Drought

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The summer harvest of  new (or new-to-the-area) American plays in smaller theaters is at its peak. Four Places, Opus, Yellow and Procreation have been extended. Becky’s New Car deserves to be extended. Fabric is about to close but merits a passing nod, primarily for its subject matter.

First, let’s look at the new works by Justin Tanner and Del Shores. They’re  L.A.’s most consistently popular home-grown playwrights from the ’90s. And their new plays offer three of the same components — a troubled gay teenager, another teenaged boy who’s bedridden (albeit offstage in Tanner’s play), and an incompetent and deluded mother.

Other than that, however, the two plays could hardly be more different.

Tanner’s Procreation is shorter, snappier, more focused, funnier — and ultimately despairing. Shores’ Yellow is more poignant — and ultimately hopeful. Procreation is set in huge, confusing L.A., while Yellow is set in small-town Mississippi.

<br />Michael Halpin, Melissa Denton and Kody Batchelor in Procreation
Michael Halpin, Melissa Denton and Kody Batchelor in Procreation

Tanner gets points for continuing to write about the city where we live — and about L.A.’s desperate lower-middle-class. His Procreation characters live in Highland Park, as opposed to the more frequently dramatized denizens of Hollywood or the West Side (not to mention New Yorkers or Texans).

At the same time, this is the first Tanner play that has opened on what is unquestionably the West Side – at the Odyssey, instead of his previous hangouts in Hollywood, Burbank and on Melrose. It’s the first time that I can recall a Tanner premiere that’s a co-production with a company as established, prolific and eclectic as the Odyssey. In most of Tanner’s previous haunts, he was more or less the reigning house auteur, who usually directed his own work. Procreation marks a return to L.A. of the ’80s wunderkind director David Schweizer.

It might sound willfully contrarian to describe Procreation as focused. The characters include a 65-year-old mother, her former and current husbands, four adult children, one grandchild, and five spouses, lovers or other acquaintances of the adult children. Most of them are addicted to one thing or another; most of them are scrambling in a down economy. Tanner paints unsparing portraits of nearly all of them, in only 1 hour and 20 minutes.

Too superficial? Perhaps, but it’s somewhat refreshing after drawn-out family epics like August: Osage County that are usually loaded with long monologues. Regular theatergoers have witnessed so many dysfunctional family scenarios that we instantly recognize many of the nuances, even if they’re delivered in shorthand.

The primary focus, however, is signaled by the title Procreation, which is more satirically pointed than most of Tanner’s titles (Pot Mom, Voice Lessons, etc.). Who isn’t in favor of creation? Yet the connotations of the word procreation take much of the magic out of the usual homilies about childbirth and parenthood. The play is a fevered warning to anyone who’s considering having children but hasn’t thought through the difficulties as well as the possibilities.

While the characters in the play are exhibit A about the consequences of ignoring such advice, exhibit B is waiting in the wings, as the grandmother (Danielle Kennedy) makes plans with her new, younger hubby (Jonathan Palmer) to become the next octomom.

Sometimes Tanner’s plays fly by so quickly that there isn’t enough time to laugh out loud, at least not without missing the next line. However, after the play ended, I laughed out loud while thinking about it. And again I guffawed, several weeks later, while reading a copy of the script, especially at some of Tanner’s brief offbeat asides that betray characters’ delusions and aspirations. In the end, this is a funny and bleak play, in equal measures. The irascible Tanner refuses to sentimentalize these people.

<br />Luke McClure and Matthew Scott Montgomery in Yellow
Luke McClure and Matthew Scott Montgomery in Yellow

Shores’ play, on the other hand, is one of his most sentimental scripts, effectively yielding a few tears. It includes one scene that is noticeably more tear-worthy — and powerful — than any single scene in Tanner’s play – a quiet moment of communication between the two teenaged boys. It also includes a scene that is noticeably weaker than anything in Procreation — a confusing and over-heated exchange about a married woman’s confession of a long-ago affair with a now-dead and unseen character. This is the kind of scene that demonstrates why directing your own work, as Shores has done here, can be a mistake.

Yellow also gets its laughs, primarily in Shores’ masterful depiction of a teenaged drama queen, her gay cohort and her long-suffering parents. In the age of Glee, however, this element loses much of its distinctiveness. If Tanner can be accused of veering too close to sitcom, as some critics have done, Shores can be accused of veering too close to the relatively new high school musical genre, as well as conventional weepies.

Neither of these plays is especially original. But Tanner is intensifying his unblinkered vision of contemporary L.A., while Shores is extending his formerly Texas-based gays-and-God obsessions into Mississippi but diluting it somewhat, in the process. Tanner’s course is the more interesting.

Fabric, also by an Angeleno (Henry Ong), examines the famous case of illegal Thai immigrants who were enslaved in a garment factory in El Monte and finally liberated in 1995. The story is compelling enough on its own to carry act one, but the legal maneuvers recounted in act two feel anti-climactic. The story requires a style that’s more artful than Ong’s just-the-facts docudrama.

Procreation, Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, West L.A. Fri, 8 pm; Sat- Sun, 7 pm. Tanner will appear in the role normally played by Michael Halpin, Aug. 6-8. Closes Aug. 22. 310-477-2055. www.odysseytheatre.com.

Yellow, Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Fri-Sat, 8 pm; Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes Sept. 5. 800-595-4849. www.yellowtix.net.

Fabric, Company of Angels, Black Box at the Alexandria, 501 S. Spring St., downtown L.A. Fri-Sat, 8 pm; Sun, 4:30 pm. Closes Sunday. 213-489-3703. www.companyofangels.org.

And now, briefer glances at three plays by non-Angelenos, all of which (sad to say) are more original than the three Angelenos’ plays.

Michael Hollinger’s Opus takes us behind the scenes of a professional East Coast string quartet, which is certainly an arena I’ve never seen dramatized. The conflict arises from a personnel shift, an illness, sex, the custody of a rare violin, accompanied by the inherent drama of the music the group plays. Until a grand finale that almost collapses under the weight of contrived plot strands, it looks like a minor masterpiece under Simon Levy’s direction.

 

<br />Joanna Daniels in Becky's New Car
Joanna Daniels in Becky’s New Car

Becky’s New Car takes place in the Seattle area, where it was commissioned by A Contemporary Theatre. But with many of its scenes set in the car dealership where middle-aged Becky (Joanna Daniels) works, it’s not difficult to think of it as occurring closer to home, in Cal Worthington country. Playwright Steven Dietz and director Michael Rothhaar pull off an even more complicated plot than the one in Opus with aplomb — and with a wink toward the traditions of screwball comedy. Dietz shows that it’s possible to like even those characters who indulge in the most foolish behaviors.

Joel Drake Johnson’s Four Places has familiar subject matter — aging parents whose behavior is causing consternation in their middle-aged children. We’re not that far removed from the issues in Procreation. But the setting and structure of this play are very enterprising. Johnson rejects the common locales of living room and kitchen and a customary time frame of, say, 24 hours. Instead, the play is set during one period of several hours, as two siblings escort their mother to a restaurant, with the action taking place in the car, the dining room, the restaurant bathroom – and briefly, the curb outside the family home (are these the titular “four places”?) Through all of this, the father remains back home, offstage.

Most of the time, the characters are suppressing instead of expressing their turbulent emotions, which of course increases the tension. Three of the indelible images of this summer are the faces of Roxanne Hart, Tim Bagley and Anne Gee Byrd as they try to get through lunch without exploding. Kudos to director Robin Larsen and the ingenious set designer Mark Guirguis.

Opus, Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., east Hollywood. Thur-Sat, 8 pm; Sun, 2 pm. Closes Aug. 29. 323-663-1525. www.FountainTheatre.com.

Becky’s New Car, Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd., Venice. Thur-Sat, 8 pm; Sun, 3 pm. Closes Aug. 15. 310-822-8392. www.PacificResidentTheatre.com.

Four Places, Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., L.A. On hiatus, will re-open on Aug. 19. Thur-Fri, 8 pm, Sat 5 pm, Sun 7 pm. Closes Aug. 29. 323-960-4424. www.roguemachinetheatre.com.

Circle of Will is not a new play. I first saw a version of it in the ’80s. But fortunately I had forgotten the tricks that it has up its sleeve. For the benefit of those of you who haven’t seen it, I won’t remove them from the sleeve.

But please understand that this is not a play about the relationship between the aging Shakespeare and Richard Burbage, as you might have been led to believe. Nor is it a play about the young Shakespeare and Burbage, which is what it looked like, at first glance, back in the ’80s (apparently Shakespeare’s age has been altered, not always in perfect coordination with some of the references in the text, to accommodate the desire of co-author Jack Grapes to continue appearing as Shakespeare).

Instead (slight spoiler alert), it’s a clever meta-play set in today’s L.A.. Which makes me happy.

Circle of Will, Macha Theatre, 1107 N. Kings Rd., West Hollywood. Thur-Sat, 8 pm; Sun, 7 pm. Closes Aug. 15. 323-960-7822. www.Plays411.com/circleofwill

THE LA TIMES CIRCLE OF WILL-NOT-COVER: Othello, Independent Shakespeare Company’s first production in its new and bigger Griffith Park space, attracted 5400 theatergoers but closed last weekend without an LA Times review. Fortunately two reader comments, posted after a Times review of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in La Jolla, drew attention to the Times’ strange practice of ignoring big-venue Shakespeare in its own back yard — but covering it in New York and La Jolla. As previously noted, the Times also has so far neglected the Theatricum’s Botanicum’s Hamlet. Meanwhile, the Times gets a second chance to cover an Independent Shakespeare show this week, as Much Ado About Nothing opens in Griffith Park.

If it’s any consolation to Independent Shakespeare and the Theatricum, the Times also failed to cover Shakespeare Orange County’s Two Gentlemen of Verona. SOC is  the biggest professional summer Shakespeare operation in the county with the second highest number of Times subscribers.

And so far the Times hasn’t covered this summer’s Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival in Thousand Oaks, which is about to close its season’s final production, The Winter’s Tale. Kingsmen is the longest-running professional summer Shakespeare company in Ventura County, which I would guess is the county with the third highest number of Times subscribers.

However, the Times did review a Winter’s Tale in Ventura County that was even farther from L.A. — Theater 150’s production in Ojai.

So apparently the key to getting your alfresco Shakespeare reviewed by the L.A. Times is to stage it at least as far away from L.A. as Ojai. Maybe next year Independent Shakespeare should forget Griffith Park and produce free summer Shakespeare on Catalina Island.

Death Valley, anyone?

Procreation photo by Ed Krieger.

Yellow photo by Rosemary Alexander

Becky’s New Car photo by J.J. Jetel.

 

 

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