Music Makers. Erection Fires Blanks. Road’s Rage Rep.

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Burbank’s two midsize theaters are alive with the sound of music. The West Coast premiere of Damian Lanigan’s Dissonance at the Falcon Theatre opened one week after the Colony Theatre opened its revival of Jon Marans’ Old Wicked Songs.

These are not musicals. Both plays employ “classical” music (in the broad, colloquial sense of the word), but Dissonance is set just a few years ago and Old Wicked Songs is set in 1986.

Skip Pipo, Elizabeth Schmidt, Peter Larney and Daniel Gerroll in “Dissonance”

LA theatergoers are not likely to have seen Dissonance. However, they might have heard that it’s about a string quartet and might then confuse it with another play about a string quartet — the play that the Fountain Theatre produced to considerable acclaim in 2010. But that one was Michael Hollinger’s Opus.

While the Fountain’s Opus was the first time that many of us saw a play about the backstage backbiting among the members of a string quartet, not all plays about the backstage backbiting among the members of a string quartet are the same.

Dissonance is the better play — its narrative turns don’t feel contrived in the same way that some of those in Opus did.

Lanigan is a British writer who now lives in Brooklyn, and his subject is an apparently British-based quartet now preparing for its New York debut. The group is named after and run by the first violinist James Bradley (Daniel Gerroll). The violist Paul (Skip Pipo) is also British, but the second violinist Hal (Peter Larney) and the cellist Beth (Elizabeth Schmidt) are younger Americans — former students of the boss.

Daniel Gerroll and Peter Larney

James is a witty but cruel tyrant, and Paul his most submissive target. Hal, on the other hand, talks back, immediately challenging the tempo of the group’s rendition of Mozart’s “Dissonance” Quartet in the first scene after the first (recorded) music stops. It’s the first indication of the many sources of tension that swirl below the surface of this seemingly well-coordinated unit.

Both James and Hal have a previous romantic or sexual history with Beth. This old wound suddenly gets scratched when Beth gets a side gig as a tutor/consultant to a rock star, Jonny (Jeffrey Cannata), who has left his own group to begin a more introspective solo career. He’s interested in adding a cello — or an entire string quartet — to his arrangements.

Another issue is whether a former mentor of James will attend the concert. James feels that he hasn’t quite reached the level of his mentor and he’s sensitive about it.

As in Opus, the quartet’s playing is mimed. But in Dissonance, one additional musical number is performed live — Cannata sings and plays a song from Jonny’s repertoire (actually by Warren Malone, with new lyrics by Lanigan).

Whether recorded or live, the music reflects and reinforces what’s happening in the play, with a dose of Britten near the end eloquently expressing the apparent imminent dissolution of the group. Crispin Whittell’s staging is in harmony with Lanigan’s script at all times. Gerroll repeats the role he played in the Williamstown premiere and later in New York with total command, but the others rise to his standard. I can’t remember a better non-Troubie production in the history of the Falcon.

Dissonance, Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. Wed-Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm. Closes March 4. 818-955-8101.

***All Dissonance production photos by Chelsea Sutton

The script of Dissonance contains a few references to the mixed emotions that often surge through great music, and that’s also a topic of Old Wicked Songs, the Jon Marans masterpiece at the Colony. This play hasn’t been seen much in LA County since it was introduced to LA at the Geffen Playhouse in 1997, and it’s well worth either a discovery or a re-visit.

John Towey and Tavis Ganz in “Old Wicked Songs”

A brilliant young American pianist, Stephen Hoffman (Tavis Danz) who already feels burned out at age 25, arrives in Vienna in 1986, hoping for new inspiration from a master teacher. However, the (offstage) teacher requires this consummate solo technician to first study accompaniment for a few weeks with Josef Mashkan (John Towey), whose methods involve making the pianist sing as well as play — perhaps in order to get him to think more clearly about the broader context of the music he performs. Stephen, whose arrogance is on the level of the much older James in Dissonance, isn’t happy about this assignment.

But Old Wicked Songs is about much more than music or about the familiar arc of the old-timer and the young whippersnapper who finally learns that he doesn’t know it all. It’s set against the context of former Nazi Kurt Waldheim’s campaign for the Austrian presidency in 1986 and the fact that both of its characters are, at first, pretending not to be Jewish. The play is at least somewhat autobiographical — as was explained in an LA Times interview with Marans in 1997.

Tavis Danz and John Towey

For a play that isn’t explicitly about the Holocaust, Old Wicked Songs packs considerable power in dealing with its indirect subject. And, once again, the music is — pardon the pun — both instrumental and vocal in accomplishing this goal. Near the end of the play is a riveting scene in which Mashkan finally speaks about his experiences from decades ago, but we don’t hear his words or even see his face. We hear the music while we’re watching Stephen’s face. I would say that this is an unforgettable scene — if I hadn’t, in fact, forgotten it. But in retrospect I’m glad I forgot about it, because its power in this production was more of a revelation.

The Colony’s director, Stephanie Vlahos, is a former professional opera singer herself, and her knowledge of the interplay between teacher and student is probably more authentic than you’ll encounter in most revivals of Marans’ work. She has found two actors in Towey and Danz who convincingly play and sing their own music without relying on recordings — and they are no less convincing in their spoken dialogue.  This is a remarkable revival of a play that appears to be close to achieving classic stature.

Old Wicked Songs, Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St, Burbank. Thur-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. 818-558-7000.

***All Old Wicked Songs production photos by Michael Lamont

Perhaps I shouldn’t have referred, above, to Old Wicked Songs as Marans’ masterpiece without having seen all his plays, but I have seen his The Temperamentals (last year at the Blank Theatre), Jumping for Joy (at Laguna Playhouse) and now his latest, The Cost of the Erection, at the Blank. I liked The Temperamentals, but I can’t say that either it or the other two is likely to be remembered as a masterpiece.

Robin Riker and Michael E. Knight in “The Cost of the Erection”; photo by Michael Geniac

It’s possible that Marans is still working on The Cost of the Erection. Besides the Blank Theatre’s just-opened production, a concurrent version in Pennsylvania has a different title — A Raw Space. So perhaps it’s still a raw script. Whatever it is, it’s nowhere near the level of The Temperamentals and it’s a far, far cry from Old Wicked Songs.

In Erection/Space, architect Mark (Michael E. Knight) and his wife Susu (Robin Riker), who is an independently wealthy publicist for architects, have just bought a Manhattan apartment with a spectacular view but without any interior design — in other words, a raw space. For reasons that are never sufficiently explained and never approach a threshold of plausibility, Susu asks over rival architect Rod (James Louis Wagner) and his wife Brenda (Kal Bennett), with whom she has bad blood — and then she asks both men to come up with designs for the space in what amounts to a competition.

Kal Bennett, Robin Riker and James Louis Wagner in “The Cost of the Erection”; photo by Rick Baumgartner

Marans also tosses in a dead child, infidelities, an unlikely scene in which Brenda is caught snooping in Mark’s office, and a shower in an area of the apartment which had been considered as a possible shower site but which we thought was still “raw.” Scenes are played twice from different perspectives, and the raw stage is eventually filled out with curtains as dividers and a couple of brightly-colored pieces of furniture — but without any increase in credibility or any well-expressed larger point.

The two couples are cast here by director Daniel Henning as being at least a decade apart in age, but any generational differences hardly crop up in the actual script. The West Coast title is a pun — get it? — that’s about on the same level as Marans’ naming a character Rod and then giving him a low sperm count and eventual impotence.

It’s time to go back to the drawing boards.

The Cost of the Erection, Blank Theatre, 2nd Stage, 6500 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 323-661-9827.


Speaking of designing a raw space, you should see what Desma Murphy did with the Road Theatre Company’s little venue. She designed one extremely realistic, detailed set that serves equally well for two plays that aren’t connected by author or characters.

They are connected, however, by a little more than the rustic lakeside setting, with a back porch of a house on stage left and trees on stage right, and the lake itself unseen off the stage right side.

Chet Grissom and John Gowans in “Finding Fossils”

Both plays are also about fathers and their children.

The off-night play, Ty DeMartino’s Finding Fossils, is mostly about an middle-aged son (Chet Grissom) and his distant, crotchety and recently widowed dad (John Gowans), who lives out at the family’s lakeside summer home. The son, who is a director of TV soap operas in Manhattan, is gay, but the father-son alienation apparently started long before anyone realized that. A third character, one of the father’s friends (Mark Costello) who never married, tries to mediate.

The play is predictable but also poignant, with authentically lived-in performances by all three men, under the guidance of Suzanne Hunt.

The main weekend attraction, Theresa Rebeck’s The Water’s Edge, is as much about the mother as the father. It’s a modern take-off on the ancient Greek story that featured Queen Clytemnestra even more than King Agamemnon, with their surviving children Orestes and Electra resenting their father’s long absence and his role in the death of their sister Iphigenia.

Nicole Farmer, Paris Perrault and Patrick Rieger in “Water’s Edge”

In Rebeck’s version, Richard (Albie Selznick) returns to his family’s country home in the hills above New York, after 17 years of absence in the wake of the drowning of a young daughter in the lake. It was entirely an accident, he maintains, but his wife Helen (Nicole Farmer, alternating with Stephanie Michels) won’t accept that. She’s distressed by his homecoming, as is daughter Eric (Paris Perrault), but son Nate (Patrick Rieger) appears more open to the idea — and to the fact that Richard is accompanied by a younger girlfriend (Lauren Birriel).

Although anyone who knows the original knows how badly this is likely to end, Rebeck’s dialogues and Sam Anderson’s staging keep us interested anyway. Although some have interpreted this 2006 play as a case of male-bashing, I was impressed with Rebeck’s efforts to make us understand Richard’s point of view — in fact, it’s more comprehensible than Helen’s ultimate act of revenge.

The depiction of the two adult children features some new wrinkles. Nate displays behavioral tics that might indicate some kind of mental illness, perhaps as a way of preparing us for the horrific final scenes. But despite his halting speech patterns, he also comes across as awkwardly appealing in his own way. His conversation with his father about his job at a bookstore is, strangely enough, one of the play’s most compelling moments. Meanwhile, Erica — although memorably bitter — is almost totally free of guilt in the play’s final moments. This is one of the best Rebeck plays I’ve been — clearly on a level above the Taper’s Poor Behavior last year.

Road Theatre’s rep, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Finding Fossils plays Wed-Thur 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Closes March 25. The Water’s Edge plays Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes March 24. 866-811-4111.

***All Finding Fossils and The Water’s Edge production photos by Chris Goss


A TV SERIES ABOUT CTG? By the way, Rebeck of Water’s Edge and Poor Behavior fame is now the writer and most active producer behind Smash, the new NBC drama series about the making of a Broadway show. She also was the interviewer to whom Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie offered his unforgettable exclamation, “Fuck subscribers!” last year.

With the ratings success (last week, that is) of Smash, perhaps Rebeck’s next TV series will examine the behind-the-scenes drama at a Hollywood-adjacent non-profit theater company, with a dashing artistic director who resembles, say, ex-presidential candidate Jon Huntsman?

Hey, NBC, it’s right under your nose. You can send the finder’s fee to my agent.

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.