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.

All-American Metaphors in Misfit and Buffalo

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When the first word in a play title is “American,” it usually means that the writer is working on a larger metaphorical scale than we might assume from a first glance.

This weekend I saw the new American Misfit at Boston Court and a revival of American Buffalo at the Geffen. One of the actors in American Misfit, Larry Cedar, was also the only actor in the extremely different American Fiesta last fall at the Colony. And of course American Idiot arrived earlier last year, much to the regret of many of us.

Eden Riegel and Daniel MK Cohen in "American Misfit." Photo by Ed Krieger.
Eden Riegel and Daniel MK Cohen in “American Misfit.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

In American Misfit, playwright Dan Dietz examines a chapter from the aftermath of the American Revolution. His chief subject is the Harpe brothers. These two men, from a Tory family, went wild on the Tennessee frontier in the 1790s, to the extent that they have sometimes been labeled as America’s first serial killers.

Metaphorically, however, the play becomes a wider examination of American revolutions in general, with brief glances at several other outbreaks of revolutionary spirit throughout American history.

Foremost among these is the revolution that shook up popular music in the 1950s. The play is presented within the scenic framework of a rockabilly dance hall, probably in the 1950s, as rock n’ roll tore apart the more genteel melodies that had dominated the charts. The leader of the band at the back of the stage, Rockabilly Boy (Banks Boutté) is the narrator of the story about the Harpe brothers.

But the actors who embody the Harpe brothers’ story are usually dressed in 1790s costumes, not the 1950s outfits worn by the band. So the concept of revolutions in different eras ricochets across the stage and across the play, which also finds time to include brief remarks from several figures who were engaged in other revolutions in other eras — George Washington himself, Robert E. Lee, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Ronald Reagan. The segues between eras are usually accompanied by the sound of a turntable arm being yanked off a record or by rumbling sounds and shaking motions, as if an earthquake were happening.

In the primary narrative, that of the Harpe brothers, the slightly older and considerably larger Big (A J Meijer) provides the brawn, while the slightly younger and considerably smaller Little (Daniel MK Cohen) provides the brains.  Little has worked out an elaborate rationale for the mayhem perpetrated by him and his brother. In the absence of the previous monarchy, which he professes to prefer to democracy, he figures that survival more or less comes down to every man for himself. He rejects the moderate attempts to form a new representative democracy by Washington and his cohorts.

He doesn’t attempt to organize a counter-revolutionary army, however. The Harpes and two young women acolytes (Karen Jean Olds and Maya Erskine), who are somewhat reminiscent of Charles Manson’s women although not quite as earnest in their devotion, simply go about killing anyone who might get in their way.

Maya Erskine, Karen Jean Olds, Daniel MK Cohen, Larry Cedar, AJ Meijer and Eden Riegel with Banks Boutte in "American Misfit." Photo by Ed Krieger.
Maya Erskine, Karen Jean Olds, Daniel MK Cohen, Larry Cedar, AJ Meijer and Eden Riegel with Banks Boutte.

Not surprisingly, this tactic isn’t just unconscionably wrong but it’s also ineffective as a revolutionary tool. When Little finally meets Sally (Eden Riegel), who’s at least his intellectual equal, he begins to re-consider what he’s doing — much to the dismay of Big and the two other women. The arrival of Sally is presaged in a stunning dream sequence that provides the first act finale.

If all this sounds somewhat abstruse or confusing, the rockabilly score by Dietz and Phillip Owen, with musical direction and arrangements by Omar Brancato, keeps everyone wide awake and eager to figure it all out. Boutté is an alarmingly seductive fulcrum of the production, playing a role that’s not too far, dramatically if not musically speaking, from the role of the emcee in Cabaret.

Much like The Government Inspector at the Boston Court last year (in a co-production with Furious Theatre), American Misfit doesn’t fit easily into the categories of “musical” or “non-musical.” Most of the actors other than Boutté don’t have to sing all that much, but the younger ones do have to dance — Nick Santiago’s set, after all, is a dance hall. And choreographer Lee Martino makes sure that all the actors who belong to the Harpe gang look as if they were born to boogie. In fact, dance is a central component of the final scene.

The older actors who play the cameos, Cedar and P.J. Ochlan, don’t have as much dancing to do, but they have to keep switching faces, costumes, personas and eras every few minutes. Most of these moments work well, but I had a little difficulty fitting the Oppenheimer monologue into the rest of the play — the atomic bomb seems to be a step beyond mere “revolution,” and the framing of Oppenheimer’s thoughts as a dream involving an unseen Marilyn Monroe further muddies the metaphorical waters.

A couple of shows come to mind as precedents for American Misfit. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, in its 2008 premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, also deals with a character from east Tennessee when it was still a frontier and also injects relatively modern music into an era nearly 200 years ago, but its particular musical genre — emo — isn’t as natural a match as rockabilly is with the same turf.

AJ Meijer, Daniel MK Cohen, Eden Rieger, Karen Jean Olds and Maya Ereskine with Banks Boutte.
AJ Meijer, Daniel MK Cohen, Eden Rieger, Karen Jean Olds and Maya Erskine with Banks Boutte.

Of course, the grand champion of musicals that sweep through American history while making larger points about dangerous elements within the national culture is Assassins, the Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman creation. American Misfit isn’t in that league.

The Harpes’ monarchist loyalties prevent us from making a direct connection from them to the McVeigh-style radicals who populate the right-wing fringe of our politics. Perhaps a more apt comparison might be made between the Harpes and the psychologically disturbed serial killers of today.

Still, no matter which brand of modern misfits the Harpes most resemble, their story is a compelling one, as told by Dietz, Owen, director Michael Michetti and his entire cast. The violence, by the way, is made less excruciating by the use of Heather Ho’s puppet dummies. This is the most audience-friendly (at least for adults) Boston Court production since, yes, The Government Inspector.

American Misfit, Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, Wednesday May 8 8 pm. Closes May 12. www.bostoncourt.org. 626-683-6883.

**All American Misfit production photos by Ed Krieger.

After years of bad plays by David Mamet, Geffen Playhouse is finally treating LA to a revival of one of Mamet’s best, American Buffalo. In this “American” play, the metaphor is, of course, “business.” Mamet’s inept low-life thieves keep repeating the importance of following correct “business” procedures almost as if they were working on their MBAs.  I wonder if the contemporary Mamet, with his right-wing viewpoints, would place the same emphasis on “business” if he were writing the play today. Maybe he might write about some inept low-level government bureaucrats instead.

Ron Eldard, Freddy Rodriguez and Bill Smitrovich in "American Buffalo." Photo by Michael Lamont.
Ron Eldard, Freddy Rodriguez and Bill Smitrovich in “American Buffalo.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

Anyhow, the play is still a captivating comedy and occasionally touches the heart in a place beyond laughter. Randall Arney expertly directs a terrific trio of actors — Ron Eldard as the hothead who thinks that someone who tells him to “help yourself” to the leftover toast on a breakfast plate has just committed a heinous insult that’s worthy of death, Bill Smitrovich as the dim-bulb owner of a Chicago junk shop, and Freddy Rodriguez as the even dimmer junkie whose self-protective lie is a nearly fatal mistake.

American Buffalo, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. Closes May 12. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.

Those who are hankerin’ for a show about frontier America that doesn’t involve serial killing might want to check out La Mirada’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. After searching my memory, I’m pretty sure I had never actually seen a stage production of this Johnny Mercer/Gene De Paul/Al Kasha Joel Hirschhorn/Lawrence Kasha/David Landay musical, and I didn’t want to miss Kevin Earley’s return to LA musical theater, especially when matched with Beth Malone.

Eric Stretch and Brian Steven Shaw in "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers." Photos by Michael Lamont.
Eric Stretch and Brian Steven Shaw in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” Photo by Michael Lamont.

For those who were as uninitiated as I was, let me advise you that while there is no serial killing here, Seven Brides does depict a serial kidnapping of young women by young men. These women unanimously decide — after a few months — that they not only like their kidnappers but want to marry them. It’s set in the 1850s, before anyone had identified the Stockholm syndrome. Even the women’s previous boyfriends join in the rapturous celebration of the marriages of the kidnappers and their victims.

All right, let’s not ask any further questions about the story. If you want to hear Earley and Malone sing and watch them fight and then reconcile, as I did, or if you just want to see some some roof-raising dancing from the company under the choreographic guidance of Patti Colombo and direction of Glenn Casale, this is your show.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, La Mirada Theatre, 14900 La Mirada Blvd., La Mirada. Wed-Thu 7:30 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm. Closes May 5. www.lamiradatheatre.com. 562-944-9801. 714-994-6310.