EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE  

 

CURRENT REVIEWS 

From TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER  

 

"Critics are men who watch a battle from a high place then come down and shoot the survivors."   ~ Ernest Hemingway   

 

Fat Ham 

Photo by Jeff Lorch

Geffen Playhouse

I have to say even the thought of yet another contemporary adaptation of one of the plays of William Shakespeare makes me want to make a master’s mercy bid to run away and say goodnight ‘til it may be morrow. 

I’ve seen Romeo and Juliet placed in a mental institution for balletic teens, Macbeth set amid the turmoil of World War II, Twelfth Night rip roarin’ through the old A’murkin west, and then there’s that famous musical featuring juvenile delinquents with greased hair and tight pants dancing around New York’s Hell’s Kitchen in an effort to establish gang territory.

Except for the Taper’s brilliant take on Julius Caesar years back which was compete with skinheads, helicopters, and TV monitors picking up the assassination in a cramped backstage hallway, I must say I usually think the Bard should be left alone.

I first heard about James Ijames’ modern 2021 adaptation of Hamlet reset in a North Carolina backyard during a family barbecue in its initial run in Philadelphia even before it’s off-Broadway and then Broadway runs. Frankly, I didn’t harbor much conscious thought about following its progress. Curmudgeonly of me, I know.

When Fat Ham was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2022 and subsequently took the Big Apple by storm, first off-Broadway and then in its five-time Tony-nominated Broadway debut, my interest was piqued—but even as I journeyed to the Geffen to see its west coast debut featuring the original New York cast, I still must confess I did so with some reluctance.

Man, was I wrong. Fat Ham is the best thing to hit LA stages running this year and maybe for a few years. Without a doubt, Ijames’ meditation on toxic masculinity and how one African American gay man chooses to rise above it and find value in himself despite some overpowering odds is absolutely scintillating. I’ll bet ol’ Will himself would be thrilled.

Juicy (Marcel Spears) is a prince of his own domain, even if it’s only his family’s barbecued pork restaurant and their modest home in the rural south rather than the darkly austere Elsinore Castle in the late Middle Ages. As hard as he tries to not let his lot in life lead him to thoughts of self-harm or to listen to his father’s ghost (Billy Eugene Jones) demanding he avenge his death by murdering his uncle Rev (also Jones) on the day of his marriage to his mother, his environment and the way he was raised keep dragging him back down into the darkest of thoughts.

Ijames has brilliantly updated the 1599 classic without losing any of the themes presented, even craftily slipping in two of the Prince’s most notable soliloquies during the title character’s semester break from studying Human Resources online from University of Phoenix as Juicy “goes to school on his cellphone.”

His mother Tedra (Nikki Crawford) doesn’t see her late husband’s ghost occasionally popping up—one time from the billowing smoke generated from their industrial-strength outdoor meat smoker—nor does she believe her late husband's brother and new love set the guy up to be shanked in prison with an electric toothbrush on his way to the mess hall. Tedra wants to be loved at any cost, even if it means letting Rev talk her into using Juicy’s tuition money to remodel their bathroom.

Shakespeare’s Polonius is transformed into Juicy’s bible-thumping and former Tallahassee stripper Aunt Rabby (Benja Kay Thomas) and her children Ophelia and Laertes are now the eye-rolling goth Opal (Adrianna Mitchell) and Larry (Matthew Elijah Webb), a stiff-backed Marine on leave with both PTSD and a secret crush on his cousin.

Through all the outrageous behavior and continuous putting-down of Juicy, someone his late father calls a pansy and his uncle refers to as a “girly-ass puddle of shit,” he struggles not to tumble headfirst into the noxious maelstrom of the typical inherent belligerence of mankind—especially as it manifests in the male of our species.

His only real ally is the perpetually stoned Tio (Chris Herbie Holland), who like the original Horatio is loyal to his friend to a fault and believes there’s blood on the pulled pork. All of his childhood friend’s problems come from some kind of debilitating inherited trauma, he believes, having been raised in “pig guts and bad choices.”

“Your Pap went to jail,” he explains to Juicy, “and his Pap went to jail, and his Pap went to jail, and his Pap went to jail.” And what was before that, he asks? “Slavery.”

Juicy actually contemplates slitting his uncle’s throat, you see, even if it’s only to honor the father who was disgusted by his very presence as an overweight queer mama’s boy with little interest in learning how to slaughter a pig and take over the family business.

“Is this what grown up feels like?” Juicy asks us in one of the play’s frequent audience asides. “If so, it’s lonely and confusing and ghetto as hell.”

Still, the real heart of Fat Ham is the sweetly tentative relationship between Juicy and Larry, who are tortured in their hammered-in cultural edicts that keep them from exploring their feelings for one another.

Initially, Larry only speaks in respectful single syllable responses to his mother and the others, partially from being conditioned to be a dutiful son and partially from hard lessons in what it means to be a man perhaps learned from some terminally macho asshole of a drill sergeant.

When finally the two find themselves alone on the family porch, Larry sweetly, clumsily proclaims his love for his cousin, whose physical “softness’” most others would find repulsive but he finds intoxicating. It is a testament to the difficulties of overcoming the pressures of just being a man and of surviving the accepted cycle of male violence in our society, whether it be in a military situation or drowning under the constant judgment of others telling us all who we can or cannot be.

All of Ijames’ characters are richly multifaceted and must be a real joyride to perform—and playing them since even before Broadway has made this ensemble tight as a drum. Spears is quietly riveting as Juicy, especially when his lines suddenly segue from Ijames’ gentle ebonic-laced pronouncements into Hamlet’s “What a piece of work is man” speech.

He leads a dynamic tightknit troupe that could easily become the ensemble cast of the year in what could possibly prove be the play of the year for me. All aspects of design are excellent, with particular kudos to Skylar Fox’s magic tricks and Maruti Evan’s set, which transforms at the end of the play from a simple back porch to… well… you’ve gotta see it for yourself.

Director Saheem Ali’s original Tony-nominated staging is here recreated by Sideeq Heard and for me there’s the rub—and I’m not talking about barbecue sauce. As much as Spears was praised in New York, his performance seems a little undercooked at the Geffen, especially noticeable in his scenes with Jones as Pap, who could in turn take it down a tad. I’d bet this only comes from how long these actors have been playing these roles but one would think, as the play opens in an important new city, somebody would have been around to offer an easily actualized directorial note.

Still, this is a minor druther and nothing could dim James Ijames’ worthiness to have joined O’Neill, Albee, Williams, Kushner, Kaufman and Hart, Wilder, Saroyan, Miller, Inge, Cristofer, Letts, Shepard, Sondheim and Lapine, Wilson, Wasserman, Foote, Lindsay-Abaire, Nottage, Guirgis, Parks, and so many other great dramatists in the ranks of Pulitzer Prize for Drama recipients, an honor given to a distinguished play by an American playwright, preferably original in its source and dealing with American life.

Perhaps calling Fat Ham original in its source might technically be a stretch, but how Ijames has taken one of the world’s most time-honored 400-year-old classics and fashioned it into a morality play that could not be more appropriate for our times is an artistic masterstroke of pure genius.

THROUGH MAY 5: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood. 310.208.5454 or geffenplayhouse.org

Funny Girl 

Photo by Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Ahmanson Theatre

Everything is top drawer about this elegant, snazzy revival of the classic Broadway musical Funny Girl that began its rollercoaster ride on Broadway two years ago and along the way featured a well-documented musical chair selection of Fanny Brices before closing last September.

This precisely cloned national tour is once again impressively helmed by Michael Mayer, Tony winner for the revival of Spring Awakening and director of one of my favorite mostly overlooked films of all time, 2004’s A Home at the End of the World.

Still, even with a much-heralded reworking of the original 1964 warhorse that made Barbra Streisand an instant superstar, including a revamping of Isobel Lennart‘s flawed book by Harvey Fierstein, nothing much has really changed except who’s playing the title character, singing and dancing and emoting for all her worth dressed to the nines in Susan Hilferty’s spectacular costuming suitable for any diva.

So what makes this old funny girl funnier than ever before? Simply put, Katerina McCrimmon is absolutely the best Fanny Brice I’ve ever seen—and I’m old enough to have seen the original star-making turn of Babs herself before the film version cleaned her up a tad. Evoking Edith Piaf with a belt voice, McCrimmon is a revelation and might even have a surplus of those infamous “six expressions more than all them Barrymores put together.” Why, wonder of wonders, she even survives the musical’s dreaded Act Two.

There’s nothing in any vintage musical quite as charming and snappy as what’s delivered in the first act of Funny Girl and it’s especially exciting watching McCrimmon bring her own fresh spin on composer Jule Styne and lyricist Bob Merrill's indelible classics such as “I’m the Greatest Star,” “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” and of course “People,” accompanied by a knockout and suitably leggy dancing ensemble choreographed by Ellennore Scott.

As the early life of the great vaudeville star Fanny Brice is explored, from her teenage years living with her single saloon keeper mother (Grammy-winning singer-songstress Melissa Manchester) in the Hungarian Jewish ghetto of Manhattan’s Lower East Side to her beginnings in burlesque before becoming the biggest draw of any for megamaster entrepreneur Florenz Ziegfeld (Walter Coppage), McCrimmon is seldom offstage, confidently commanding the stage as though she’s already the major star I suspect she will become.

I had hoped since Fierstein refreshed the material, Act Two would be less of a slog, but even he couldn’t quite make that happen. Not even a few judiciously placed production numbers can keep Funny Girl from descending into Histrionic Girl as the story evolves from Brice’s unlikely meteoric success into the sad personal decline of her first marriage to gambler and almost Trump-sized conman Nick Arnstein (Stephen Mark Lukas).

The production is also greatly enhanced by the work of two of my favorite people on the planet: Manchester as Fanny’s mother Mrs. Brice and LA theatrical heroine Eileen T’Kaye as her friend Mrs. Strakosh.

I’ve known Melissa from the early days when, as Talent Coordinator for the Troubadour clubs both here and in San Francisco, I brought Bette Midler to appear at both venues in 1972 on her first west coast tour, with Barry Manilow as her accompanist and Melissa along for the historic engagement as one of her iconic backup singers, the Harlettes.

The following year as her solo recording career began to take off and the Troubadour North became the Boarding House, one of my first bookings at the newly renamed hotspot was Melissa appearing with my lategreat friend and disco diva Sylvester and, in 1975, she returned again for a wonderfully eclectic matchup with another “newcomer” named Tom Waits.

I believe the first time I saw Eileen T’Kaye onstage was as Adelaide in the classic Guys and Dolls at the Colony Theatre’s original Silverlake location, a company where she was a prominent member for several years.

In 2003, with her equally impressive producer hat firmly in place, she became founding producing director of the Boston Court Performing Arts Center, where as project manager she oversaw the creation of the complex from digging a hole in a former parking lot to the emergence of one of America’s most prestigious and smartly appointed regional theatres.

As an actor, it was there the following year that I had the privilege to play opposite Eileen in the Boston Court’s second production, the groundbreaking west coast premiere of Charles Mee’s Summertime directed by Michael Michetti, a production that led the way for T@BC’s sterling two-decade reputation for taking no prisoners and avoiding what's safe at all costs.

Every moment Manchester and T’Kaye are onstage, along with Cindy Chang in tow in the less flashy role of the characters’ equally nosy neighbor and poker buddy Mrs. Meeker, is a delight. From their early introduction in “When a Girl Isn’t Pretty,” it’s a treat every time they bring their classic Yiddish theatre and sweetly well-meaning yenta personas to the storyline and especially the musical numbers.

Manchester also quickly manifests her who-knew? acting chops in her “I’m the Greatest Star” reprise with McCrimmon and in a showstopping “Who Taught Her Everything She Knows?” with Iziah Montaque Harris as Fanny’s first mentor and lifelong friend Eddie Ryan.

Harris is also a charmer as Eddie, particularly when he starts to tap dance in two showstopping turns performing Ayodele Casel’s Drama Desk-nominated Gregory Hines-esque tribute choreography.

Despite some naysayers surprised to see Ziegfeld played by an African American actor, it’s takes about 30 seconds for that to fall away as Coppage quickly makes the role his own, once again proving the now established determination to make colorblind casting part of theatrical history could not be a more welcome augmentation to how art can positively impact the world.

Lukas makes a yeomen’s effort trying to bring the role of Fanny’s nemesis husband Nick to life but, despite a dynamic voice and smooth stage persona, it’s this role that always drags this musical into the realm of Hallmark Channel melodrama.

Anyone who can google images of the real Nick Arnstein might begin to wonder why the role is always played by a handsome, terminally dapper actor. Granted, in Lennart’s book Brice continuously refers to how “gorgeous” her first great love is but I have always wondered whose decision it originally was to concentrate on a sugarcoated version of the couple’s troubled romance, which to me is the major flaw that drags a potentially great musical down into the maudlin.

While googling those images of the couple, it’s not a stretch to realize that truly, as Merrill’s lyric tells us, the "groom was prettier than the bride,” but considering the actual physical appearance of Brice, that’s surely only in comparison—something that could be even more poignant and comedic if she is the only person who sees her suitor as a heartthrob.

It’s nearly impossible as written for Nick to be as smarmy and out for no good as the character should be presented, something somehow Sydney Chaplin persuasively aced way back in 1964 when the musical debuted but no one I have ever seen play the role since has managed to execute.

I was excited to see Fierstein was revitalizing the musical’s dated book and it’s not hard to potentially pick out when his signature humor surfaces, as when Fanny realizes how limiting her physical appearance might be in establishing her career and sincerely laments to Eddie, “Do you think beautiful girls will stay in style forever?” or when she revels in her first standing ovation even though it’s from one single guy in the balcony wearing a trenchcoat: “Today a trenchcoat, tomorrow wearing pants!”

I’ve never done Funny Girl and am not an expert on the script so I could be wrong, but I’m purdy sure those lines are part of what Fierstein brought to the party, but I wish it could have been more. Making Arnstein a role that could be less raffish and debonair could deliver a more captivating musical and might even save the second act from obliterating the excitement and promise of the first.

Still, this splashy new mounting of Funny Girl is a grand effort all around and the introduction to the enormous gifts of Katerina McCrimmon in what could have been yet another imitation of the first now-iconic performer to create the role, makes it something not to miss. Without a doubt, just like the day in 1908 when the 16-year-old Fanny Brice dropped out of school to begin working in a burlesque revue, a star is definitely born here.

THROUGH APR. 28: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

Just for Us  

Photo courtesy of Center Theatre Group

Mark Taper Forum

Standup comedian Alex Edelman possesses one of the most distinct and unique voices to emerge on the scene since the late Robin Williams.

Last November in the special engagement in the shuttered Mark Taper Forum, his hilarious and perfectly timed Obie-winning Just for Us became the recipient of my annual TicketHolder Solo Performance Award for 2023. Thankfully, after post-New York engagements in London,  Edinburgh, Melbourne, DC, and Boston, Edelman returned for a too-brief encore back at the Taper and his celebrated solo show lost none of its humor—nor its message.

There were serious discussions about postponing the LA resident’s two-week run last Fall considering the tensions and humanitarian horrors weighing on everyone’s mind right now, Edelman admitted at the start on his opening night here. “Lucky me,” he quips with more than a soupçon of sardonicism.

Still, the words of John Updike, who once noted that “sometimes the work you do can find itself in conversation with the times you live in,” helped Edelman and CTG to decide to move forward.

See, as a secular Jew, most of Edelman’s humor revolves around his upbringing in a very conservative family in Boston, a place where rampant racism while he was growing up was the norm and being anything but white for anyone wasn’t easy there “between the 15th century and 1981.”

Raised in a particularly ethnic and racially-intolerant area of Boston (“called Boston,” he adds), his family worked hard to help their three sons understand the history of their ancestral struggles, but not without also teaching empathy. This was something that led his mother, despite his father’s vehement objections, to one year create a Christmas celebration for a non-Jewish friend left alone in the world that opened Edelman’s young mind to a whole new set of traditions he never knew existed.

This is perhaps what first fostered his curiosity that one day, during his time living in Manhattan, made him decide to take his inquisitiveness one step too far. When he found a string of antisemitic rants crowding his social media feed after a post meant to promote the opposite reaction, he decided to accept an invitation inviting new members to attend a white supremacist “nerf nazi” support group meeting.

Despite a good friend’s dire warning that he might be taking his life in his hands, Edelman decided to head to the event—not in “Arkanssippi,” mind you, but in Queens, New York.

I personally identified with his need to understand why he was hated without much basis besides blame for the death of a fantasy deity over 2,000 years ago, although for me, as someone growing up with a small Danish nose and a shock of blond hair, I was privy to many ugly comments made against Jews in my presence that as a kid always encouraged the scrappy side of me to raise an index finger and say, “Excuse me, but…”

In its first run here, Edelman’s bravery humbled me, especially after I had made the decision last October, as global conflicts escalated and university campuses revealed their long-suppressed bigotry, to leave my ever-present Star of David pendant at home in a drawer while traveling to teach in Spain. I decided I liked my head right where it sits, you see. 

Sadly I have since determined not to wear it again until the monstrous Netanyahu and the rightwing Israeli leadership stop treating the Palestinian people in about the same way Hitler and the Nazis treated us—but that’s another story, right?

Still, sitting in rapt attention listening to Edelman’s tale, my own choice to go into minor hiding bothered me greatly last Fall, a feeling exacerbated by the storyteller as he recounted climbing those potentially ominous stairs to a nondescript third floor apartment and soon finding irony in snacking on “whites-only” muffins.

His memories of that night—which indeed ended up a tad more than scary—are the basis for Just for Us, but his “overmedicated ADHD generation” stream-of-consciousness performance takes many side trips along the way, all fueled by his frenzied energy and constant, seemingly exhausting physicality that leaves him jumping around the Taper stage like a jackrabbit on speed.

Several times, Edelman evokes the memory of the lategreat Robin Williams, including the fact that when ASL-savvy Koko the gorilla was told of the comedian’s passing in 2014, he signed to his handlers that he was genuinely sad. If Koko could “cross the species barrier,” Edelman conjectures, why shouldn’t a “distinctly unfamous” comedian try to connect and try to understand the motives of this Queens-based band of deluded good ol’ boys?

It’s interesting that Edelman should mention Williams and wax nostalgic about the comic legend’s signature genius, because there’s something very similar about what we see unfold on the Taper stage. Not that Edelman’s work is anything directly conjuring his idol’s, only that his delivery is as totally unique and individual to him as Williams’ was to him.

Under the direction of his late decade-long creative partner Adam Brace, who passed away suddenly a few weeks before Just for Us debuted on Broadway, Edelman navigates and almost instantly commands the stage as his own from early on, almost turning cartwheels in excitement on a manic mission to make us all buy into his quirky delivery and understand his passionate, hilarious spin on life. He tells us he was someone who, as a kid, was tested for autism numerous times and how it shocked his mother when doctors found nothing wrong with him.

If ever I felt I was experiencing the first sparks of what will surely be a long and celebrated career, sitting in the audience of Just for Us two times now has given me the sense that theatrical history was in the making before my very eyes.

“Bringing up politics changes the vibe,” he warns us, and although the laughs here are nonstop, the message is crystal clear: without each of us trying to empathize with and be compassionate towards one another in this terrifyingly confusing and brutal world, we’re basically all fucked. This is of course a traditional Jewish concept that, aside from the aggressively twisted machinations of the monster currently leading the state of Israel, is desperately needed right about now.

“As a Los Angeles resident,” Edelman notes, “it’s special that I get to do this show in the place where it was incubated. I performed the show in public for the first time at a Vietnamese vegetarian restaurant, Âu Lạc LA, just a two-minute walk away from the Taper, and so to be able to elevate the show from that little café space to the best performing space in Los Angeles is really beautiful to me.”

And it’s an unexpected and incredibly rare treat for us too, to have Just for Us here once again—although sadly only for such a short run when everyone in our community should see it, both to relieve the tension of our current world situation and to be able to laugh at ourselves and our concerned but too often helpless place in it all.

Silverlake resident Alex Edelman definitely feels the love, offering humble thanks to the enthusiastic opening night crowd for coming out and enduring the metal detectors to see him work. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it,” he writes in his program notes, as he relishes the serendipitous opportunity to perform his solo show in a place surrounded by a moat.

Just for Us unfortunately played back home in LA only through March 31, but beginning on April 6, you’ll be able to catch it in its entirety on HBO in a concert version taped right here at the Taper.

A Froggy Becomes 

Photo by Jenny Graham

Open Fist at the Atwater Village Theatre

Lordie, I needed this. Unlike so many new plays these days, the world premiere of Becky Wahlstrom’s delightfully silly A Froggy Becomes from Open Fist doesn’t bombard us with weighty reminders of the massive trials and insurmountable inequities plaguing our fuckedup world, yet it still manages to covertly have something uplifting to say while leaving us laughing ‘til it hurts.

The conceit of Froggy is that it’s meant to be presented as children’s theatre but it’s not—although any potty-humor-loving 12-year-old would be rolling in the aisles when the giant puppet depicting the leading character’s obnoxious tighty-whitey-clad father starts belching his Coors and lifting one massive leg to pass a loud crescendoing trumpet call of gas.

Bumpy Diggs (Sandra Kate Burck) is a typically overdramatic and traumatized puberty-challenged seventh grader who struggles at home with that ogre of a dad (Peter Breitmayer in Joe Seely’s phenomenal 8-ft. beer-guzzling, ball-scratching puppet costume) and a mousy mother who’s secretly schtupping their equally mousy parish priest (the hilarious Johanna McKay and Michael Lanahan), while at school she’s teased relentlessly and ignored by her dreamy first crush (a geewillikers-y Tom Sys, playing the role as though lifted directly from an Andy Hardy movie).

Remember the seventh grade? Everything a kid experiences in that difficult, awkward period of adolescence is always magnified a hundredfold and seems as though each daily ordeal is marking the end of our lives, but despite all the drama that descends on Bumpy, she is a feisty little thing and refuses to let it stop her from surviving.

Under the leadership of Pat Towne, whose own signature humor and precision comic timing permeates the entire production, his cast is uniformly committed to the material and thankfully devoid of concern about going too far. The actors playing the 12-year-olds are especially successful finding that age and behavior within themselves, led by the sweetly gawky and endearing performance of Burck and the growth-spurting Sys, as well as Kyra Grace, Kyle Tomlin, Bradley Sharper, Jeremy Guskin, Deandra Bernardo, Ana Id, and especially the ever-apologizing Carmella Jenkins as Bumpy’s sufficiently melodramatic friends and schoolmates.

Nothing ever goes right for Bumpy Diggs, from a nagging science class project that fails horribly to the heartbreaking aftermath of her first kiss, but what makes this contemporary fairytale hybrid such a refreshing and uplifting experience—not to mention offering an irreverent humor that permeates the tale and the performances—is Wahlstrom's forward-looking peek at the inherent resilience of the human spirit.

Although all but one of the poor doomed tadpoles don’t make it through Bumpy’s ambitious school project, that single scrappy amphibian escapee has hopefully hopped away to a better future—or at least an adventure or two before it croaks (pun intended). The road ahead can often be quite Bumpy for us all, but with a little steadfastness and determination there’s hope about what any froggy can become.

THROUGH APR. 13: Open Fist at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Av., LA. www.openfist.org

Faithless 

Photo by Tim Sullens

Victory Theatre Center

In the world premiere of the award-winning Jon Klein’s newest play Faithless, two adult siblings are called to the home of their stepfather to discuss what he sees as a family crisis. Their discomfort is obvious, especially when they realize the issue involves a drastic life-altering decision being considered by their teenage stepsister.

It’s been only a couple of years since Claire and Calvin (Melissa Ortiz and Jon Sprik) lost their mother to COVID, so there’s naturally some discomfort being thrust back into the world of her second husband and recent cancer survivor Gus (John Idakitis) and Rosie (Josee Guardine), the daughter the couple adopted late in life.

This is Klein’s fifth play to be presented in collaboration with the Victory Theatre Center since its inception in 1979, particularly poignant since the role of Gus was written for the complex’s late founder and co-artistic director Tom Ormeny, a dear personal friend and a giant in our scrappy little LA theatre community we lost last July after a valiant personal battle with brain cancer.

This is the first production brought to fruition by Ormeny’s widow and co-artistic director Maria Gobetti since Tom’s death and, as she readily admits, the journey to make it happen without her life and producing partner of 54 years by her side was not an easy one.

Not only is Faithless meticulously produced and smartly designed by the production’s co-producer and another longtime Victory collaborator Evan Bartoletti, under the precision directorial expertise of Gobetti, who keeps things moving at warpspeed when Klein’s subject matter could easily become bogged down in its own fascinating but long-winded rhetoric, it’s an impressive milestone in both her much-honored career and that of the theatre complex she and Tom so lovingly created and nurtured.

Faithless is a play about navigating family relationships in a family where no one is on the same page when it comes to religion. Calvin is a Presbyterian minister, Claire is a high school teacher who has a degree in comparative religion but has developed sincere doubts about her own beliefs, and Gus is a confirmed atheist who’s not afraid to tell his stepchildren why.

The reason the adult siblings have been summoned by Gus is a mystery, although Claire is purdy sure Rosie has been knocked up by one of her students, a lad she not so professionally refers to as “that little creep.”

When Rosie instead delivers the news that she has decided to convert to Catholicism and become a nun, her sister begs her to tell her she’s pregnant instead as that would be so much better. As she warns her, “It’s not all singing and escaping Nazis.”

Klein explores whether or not organized religion at this moment in the world’s evolution is something we really need or, as Gus (and I) believe, it’s been the cause of most of the world’s problems over the last 2000-plus years. “Faith and force,” as the otherwise deluded Ayn Rand once wrote, “are the destroyers of mankind.”

Although Klein infuses his sufficiently thought-provoking work with an abundant supply of much-needed topical humor, under less skillful leadership than that of Gobetti, long established as one of the best directors working in our town, quite honestly this could have been a dry and potentially difficult slog.

Clearly, the most obvious ally she had to work alongside to bring Faithless to life is Ortiz, whose performance as Claire, landing somewhere between the warmly compassionate delivery of Marian Seldes and the acerbic asides made famous by Eve Arden, is the anchor of this production.

Guardine makes a lovely LA intimate theatre debut as Rosie, spunky and real and completely endearing. Still, as much as I loved the women in the cast, I found the performances of both Sprik and Idakitis less successful.

Perhaps hampered the afternoon we attended by Sprik’s trials trying to get the theatre through the barricades and street closures of the LA Marathon that gave him about 20 seconds to get into costume and be thrust onstage, I have to admit I found his performance a major distraction.

Projecting as though trying to reach the far back bleacher seats while performing Shakespeare at some grand outdoor venue when the Victory is in no need of such blustery augmentation, while telegraphing Calvin’s reactions by employing continuous eye-rolling and biting his knuckles to show his character’s vexation, proved antithetical to the emotions he was assigned to convey.

Like Sprik, Idakitis understands his character’s journey intellectually but he simply just works too dang hard. And by beginning as ornery and irascible and grumbly as he could possibly muster, way too often pointing an angry finger at his dissenting family members I might myself have been inclined to bite off, he leaves himself with nowhere to go when Gus has even more reason to vent his frustrations.

Still, the efforts of Gobetti to set a fire under Klein’s compelling yet craftily neutral treatise on the nature of faith as something more than a flawed and rigidly demanding effort to “sell death insurance” at the expense of human connection with the world around us, is a remarkable achievement. I left the theatre with a lot of things to ponder about my own life and what could be better than when art makes us think about our own personal odyssey.

As much as I admire the notable achievement brought to fruition here by the partnership of Klein and Gobetti, who obviously share a palpable mutual trust for one another that infuses most everything about this production, forgive me if I feel the need to deliver a general rant about something that has been brewing within me for quite awhile—something that should not be considered a detriment to the appreciation for this beautifully mounted world premiere.

Granted, I attend a lot of theatre and all things theatrical have been my passion and my life for my seven-plus decades careening around this planet. As a critic, I do my best to keep my mind open and evaluate things as objectively as possible, to see things unencumbered by my own history and personal knowledge of the many other plays with similar themes that have come before it.

That said, I sure wish there could be some kind of moratorium on dramatic literature dealing with dysfunctional families bumping heads over their divergent beliefs and insisting on telling one another how they should live their lives.

Granted, veteran and much-awarded wordsmith Jon Klein’s newest play is well written, often achingly funny, and ultimately quite touching. It is beautifully constructed and sharply directed by the incredibly gifted Maria Gobetti, but there isn’t a lot new here to contemplate. It took me about two minutes to surmise by final curtain poor ol’ Gus would be in an urn being toasted by his surviving family members vowing to work at trying to better understand one another.

Again, as exceptional a production as the world premiere of Faithless definitely is, if the play’s themes were new and fresh to me, I might have been a lot more engaged by it. This surely might be my own world-weary perspective; if I hadn’t seen this kind of family conflict tale presented on a regular basis for most of my life, I might have been considerably more moved. Call it an occupational hazard, one that shouldn’t stop you from making up your own minds. There’s a lot of compelling themes introduced here for someone who won’t automatically see it as familiar and instantly predictable.

THROUGH APR. 14: Victory Theatre Center, 3324 W. Victory Blvd, Burbank. 818.841.5421 or thevictorytheatrecenter.org

Fatherland 

Photo by Jenny Graham

Fountain Theatre

According to Merriam-Webster, the second definition of the term "swan song” is:  “A farewell appearance or final act or pronouncement.”

Last month, just as his new play Fatherland was set to world premiere at the Fountain Theatre, the continuously groundbreaking facility’s artistic director Stephen Sachs announced his retirement from the pioneering 78-seat non-profit space he founded in 1990.

I proudly consider myself part of the Fountain family, having appeared there as the Witch of Capri in Tennessee Williams' The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore directed by the Fountain's producing director Simon levy, with Karen Kondazian and yours truly traveling on to play our roles at the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans, and in a special encore presentation of the award-winning Hollywood Fringe Festival hit The Katrina Comedy Fest by NOLA playwright Rob Florence.

Over the past 33 years, the Fountain has produced 36 world premieres and 54 U.S., west coast, or L.A. debuts, each chosen to reflect a unique cultural voice with a fierce determination to make waves and to serve our town’s incredibly diverse ethnic communities.

During that time, Sachs has directed dozens of award-winning productions at the Fountain and across the country, authored 18 of his own plays, including the comedy-drama Bakersfield Mist that has toured extensively and was presented in London’s West End, and among numerous other achievements gave a welcoming theatrical home to Athol Fugard where several of his newest plays were introduced to the world.

And so, Fatherland might indeed be Sachs’ crowning achievement while helming the Fountain and nothing could be more celebratory. Created as a “verbatim play,” meaning every word spoken and all situations presented in the script come from actual court transcripts and testimony, interviews with the real people involved, and public statements, it provides a riveting, unsettling experience that will hopefully (intentionally) haunt us all as we watch the current unconscionable election season unfold in our poor befouled country besieged from within.

Although the two leading pivotal characters are only listed as “Father” and “Son,” Sachs’ play is indeed written about Guy Reffitt of Wylie, Texas (where else?), the first defendant convicted and jailed for his involvement in the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol, and his son Jackson, who made the incredibly brave and heart-wrenching decision to turn his father in to the F.B.I.

As the blusterous deluded father in Sachs’ scarily cautionary tale, one of our community’s scrappiest and most prolific theatrical treasures, Ron Bottitta, is nothing short of magnificent in the incredibly demanding role.

From loving dad slinging burgers in the backyard to rabid conspiracy theorist ready to overthrow the government in a brief 80-minute ride, Bottitta brings an uncanny believability to the challenge, making his character alternately both pitiable and absolutely terrifying. It is a tour de force performance that, if I were currently back teaching the craft on a daily basis, I’d insist each and every one of my acting students attend to see a true master craftsman at work.

As his 19-year-old son, the trajectory of the Carbondale, Colorado native and LA newcomer Patrick Keleher’s journey from backpacking around 11 African counties, Asia, and Australia to his current incarnation being cast in Fatherland is the stuff of which, in a fair world, future legends could possibly begin.

Back in his hometown after reading about the Fountain’s search to cast his character, on a whim and with a lot of chutzpah Keleher flew to LA, auditioned for Sachs, and the next day while debarking back home from his brief trip, received a text that he’d been cast.

His performance is a gripping, amazingly multi-layered thing of wonder, quite unexpected from someone who hasn’t been around this nasty ol’ business long enough to have become disillusioned or have had time to doubt himself in any way. Resembling a kinda corn-fed, farm-grown version of a modernday James Dean, Keleher is the heart of this production as a sensitive kid torn between his love for his father and his family and what he knows is a twisted assault on the very fabric of democracy.

Guy Reffitt began his career as an oil worker and eventual rig manager before the 2016 collapse of the price of oil. Losing his $200,000-a-year position as an international oil industry consultant, he moved his family back to Texas and, as his savings began to dissipate, his interest in politics concurrently began to move dangerously right as he sucked in Trump’s laughably masturbatory The Art of the Deal.

To the horror of his son, he linked and quickly fell under the twisted spell of a virulently ultra-conservative Texas militia group called the Three Percenters—naming themselves that because they believed only three percent of A’murkins had the cajónes to stand up against what they saw as a police state.

“When tyranny becomes law,” Bottitta’s father bellows to his horrified son, himself turning in the other direction after the murder of George Floyd, “revolution becomes duty.”

This of course leads to him becoming instrumental in calling for 10 million equally deluded souls to join him and his ragtag tribe of racist fake Christians for the infamous storming of the Capitol under the spell of that orange-hued monstrous antihero unable to believe he lost an election and enjoy a brief almost orgasmic high that made him finally “feel like a fucking American.” Eventually, of course, his euphoria led to Reffitt’s sentence of 87 months in federal prison.

What Fatherland perhaps inadvertently exposes is what causes such a person to become radicalized. It’s not necessarily a "patriotic" rational calling for justice and change as it is a desperate need to be a part of something, to be right about something, to be better than others in a world that has continually left such people behind and their voice unheard. It’s what my partner and I refer to as Little Pee-Pee Syndrome, a far more dangerous version of souping up one’s car with oversized wheels and a sound system able to blast all those people who ignore you on that arduous and treacherous road we call life.

Under Sachs’ passionate leadership and sharply fluid direction on a nearly bare stage framed by Joel Daavid’s exquisitely simple set and Alison Brummer’s jarringly effective lighting plot, Bottitta and Keleher are mesmerizing as their characters’ relationship tragically devolves and their lives are forever changed by the boy’s commitment to help spare our democracy from his father and his twisted band of treasonous cohorts.

As the defense and prosecuting attorneys grilling the son in court, characters here utilized as conduits to present the material—again completely gleaned from actual testimony and other statements craftily manipulated by Sachs to become a play—Anna Khaja and Larry Poindexter are sufficiently serviceable in roles which by their very nature are rather thankless.

Kudos are especially in order for Khaja, who must introduce each of the play’s new thought by the questions her U.S. Attorney asks the boy. As I try to impart to every actor I coach, dialogue is best memorized by learning lines thought-by-thought but, as with the psychiatrist Dr. Martin Dysart in Peter Shaffer’s classic play Equus, Khaja must have had to learn her lines in some kind of sequence without the benefit of prompts from the lines themselves; one random question asked out of the proper scripted order and she could singlehandedly wipe out pages of dialogue.

To say that Fatherland is arresting and highly polished playmaking is a given but still, as brilliant and perfectly seamless as this production and its performances may be, it is by nature not something that can simply be referred to as an entertainment. It is incredibly disturbing and, as any such project sadly preaching basically to a likeminded choir, I wish there was a way it could be presented to a far wider audience. It might even change the minds of people we as left-coast liberals only began to realize existed and were about to crawl out from below their Morlockian rocks with the rise of that malevolent antichrist Donald J. Trump.

So, I mentioned Merriam-Webster’s second definition of the term “swan song” at the beginning. Actually, the first is:  “A song of great sweetness sung by a dying swan.” This in no way reflects the retirement of Stephen Sachs from the incredible theatrical space that has benefited immeasurably from the many projects he has championed into existence despite what must have been some thorny challenges and ups and downs over the past three decades.

One can only hope that, although Sachs has quite literally left the building, his new life will lead him to develop many, many more amazing artistic statements such as the world premiere of his remarkable Fatherland. This “swan song” isn’t sung by a swan on his way off to Valhalla by any means; it signals the flight of a great and unstoppably majestic creature with an enormous wingspan ready to travel off into new directions that will surely prove the betterment of everyone and everything in his path.

THROUGH MAY 26: Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Av., LA. 323.663.1525 or fountaintheatre.com

 

See? I'm an Angel.