EVERYBODY'S GOT ONE 

CURRENT REVIEWS from

TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER 

 

Metamorphoses 

Photo by Craig Schwartz

A Noise Within

After one incredibly disappointing reinvention of a classic last weekend, I was extremely nervous the following day to attend A Noise Within’s revival of Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, which takes ancient Grecian myths and delivers an imaginative contemporary spin on them performed in and around a giant onstage swimming pool.

Granted, I had seen the original production of the MacArthur “Genius” Grant’s brilliant multiple award-winning production, which was originally conceived at Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre in 1998, transferred here to the Taper in 2000, then finally debuted in New York two years later. Zimmerman’s enchanted retelling of Ovid’s mythological narrative poems made an enormous splash there with all the dramatic power of a storm at sea, winning its creator the Tony Award for Direction, as well as Drama Desk, Drama League, and Lucille Lortel honors as the Best Play of 2002.

I should have trusted that anything produced by ANW, with direction by the company’s co-artistic director Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and designed by Francois-Pierre Couture, would be spectacular. Within minutes of watching the castmembers reciting their well-known folk tales while bathing, playfully dangling their feet in the water, making slippery and sensual love, or soaking Gary Lennon’s shimmering gowns and revealing togas in the onstage pool under Ken Booth’s mysterious lighting, and my soul was happy cleansed of the horrific memory of the night before.

Featuring a cast of nine gifted and fiercely committed ANW resident artists taking on some 85 roles in the classic myths, Metamorphoses delivers mesmerizing new versions of the stories of Midas, Orpheus, and Aphrodite, among others, and does so with humor and breathtaking visuals as the cohesive team conspires to create a glorious celebration of the joys and heartbreaks of the human condition—something that hasn’t changed much over the last 2,000 years.

Adapted from David R. Slavitt’s free-verse translation of “The Metamorphoses of Ovid,” the play’s locations, like the actors, are also constantly evolving and transforming from one watery location to another, including the vast once-uncharted oceans of our planet, the River Styx, a quiet place where simple peasant women wash their clothes, and the depiction of a whimsical poolside therapy session played with the patient leisurely floating on an inflatable chaise lounge.

There are gods and mortals alike depicted, all with one unifying trait: the universal quest for love, the challenges of loss, and the transformations that unify us all. “It’s been said a myth is just a public dream,” a character tells us prophetically, “and our dreams are private myths.”

The original staging by Zimmerman was haunting and incredibly innovative as her graceful and athletic cast immersed themselves in the dreamlike water, the concept appearing to some critics at the time to be gimmicky but surely commercially foolproof. Having seen the play performed totally devoid of its lyricism and featuring performers unable to embrace the poetic dialogue, however, I can tell you it’s not.

Rodriguez-Elliott totally gets it and, on ANW’s often challenging thrust stage, she becomes more conjurer than director. Every design aspect is pure magic, from Couture’s simple but evocative set to Lennon’s Cirque du Soleil-like quick-drying costumes to Booth’s shimmering lighting which crawls up the walls on either side of the audience, as well as Robert Oriol’s enchanting original music and eerie sound design knitting it all together.

Just as in the original production, Rodriguez-Elliott’s ensemble is simply flawless, particularly Kasey Mahaffy in all his roles as he humorously distracts the audience from the play’s heavier themes, especially when portraying that nonchalant victim of modern psychotherapy bobbling away as he spills the family secrets.

ANW’s co-artistic director Geoff Elliott is also a standout as Midas, Poseidon, and even the sun, although he initially scared me making his first entrance talking on a cellphone, an echo of the dastardly presentation we sat through the night before and something definitely becoming a way too-frequent device when adapting classics into contemporary settings. Thankfully, Elliott won me over quickly as his Midas exhibited his distracted OCD conversation juggling business deals with his familial obligations—and we all know how that turns out.

There’s no doubt the most exotic feature here is Metamorphoses’ omnipresent water feature, which is somehow alluring in a totally elemental way. Just as drifting off to contented sleep with Alexa playing the sound of ocean waves on a continuous loop, the effect of the show’s onstage pool is something that calms as it appeals to our primordial senses, I suspect.

About a decade ago, an ambitious young LA theatre company made a bold choice by renting the Road Theatre Company’s former stage to present the first 99-seat theatre production of Zimmerman’s epic. The naïve best-laid plans quickly sunk into the lowest depths of circumstance when, as the renters loaded in, the Road’s Taylor Gilbert realized for the first time the producers planned on adding three tons of liquid to the set, something which surely wouldn’t… well, hold water… especially on the second floor of the aging Lankershim Arts Center.

Already geared for opening night, the show went on regardless, with the otherwise impressive multi-leveled structure still featuring desolately unused underwater lighting fixtures, filters and cables yet remaining dry-docked; any interaction with that missing life-giving element keeping us all alive was awkwardly pantomimed by the game cast.

It was as though there was a 10th character missing: that essential element guaranteed to pull the riddles of time and theatrical novelties together into a cohesive whole. As valiantly as the actors and members of the creative team toiled to make their beached efforts stay afloat, without its H2O, Zimmerman’s concept unfortunately didn’t make much of a ripple.

Mary Zimmerman’s captivating theatrical masterwork gently explains that we wander in the dark until we hopefully find true love. Wherever that love may go, there we find our soul—and if we’re lucky and let ourselves be blind and stop always craving more, our lives will be fulfilled. If I walked away from ANW’s unforgettable production of Metamorphoses with nothing more than that revelation stuck in the complex confusion of a life well spent rattling around continuously in my addled brain, I for one will be the richer for it.

THROUGH JUNE 5: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena. 626.356.3100 or anoisewithin.org

King Lear 

Photo by Jason Williams  

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

I actually googled the myriad of famous quotes from the works of William Shakespeare to see if there was something clever that would translate into “bloody awful.”

Modernizing and reinventing the famous works by the Bard once in awhile can prove thrilling but, in the hands of director John Gould Rubin, known for his “radical reconstructions” of the great classics, the current production of King Lear at the Wallis makes a charade of such an otherwise occasionally noble practice.

Some of Rubin’s inventiveness works but in general, the result is an overripe mess, pretentious and precious and downright silly. This is exacerbated by some almost unwatchable performances by some extremely talented artists. The director’s skewed vision totally overshadows the acting, not to mention the text, unfolding as though the ensemble had no directorial leadership whatsoever.

From the earliest moments, with Edmund (Rafael Jordan) delivering his opening soliloquy into his cell phone, his face projected as the ultimate selfie on two large panels on either side of the stage, portends what’s to come. The opening banquet scene unfolds more like a frat party with everyone emoting at such a loud fever pitch that it seems the actors think they’re projecting to the very back gallery seats at the Globe Theatre itself.

The play is billed nearly everywhere with “Joe Morton as King Lear,” something that is not a selling point. Morton is the biggest conundrum of all, making his poor mentally deteriorating monarch, dressed as if playing Nathan Detroit in a bus-and-truck tour of Guys and Dolls, so nuts from the very start he has absolutely nowhere to go before the final curtain—long time coming though it is.

Actors as admirable as Mark Harelik as Glouester and Emily Swallow as Goneril certainly deserve better, while Brie Eley as Regan, dressed in supertight skin-colored “pleather” pants, seems to be doing a streetwise Tiffany Hadish imitation, holding her cell phone as if she might break a freshly manicured nail.

The supremely interesting River Gallo plays both Cordelia and the Fool without one iota of differentiation between the characters, not even slipping out of the shunned daughter’s odd flowing white outfit that looks as though it should be worn by Amiee Semple McPherson and accompanied by a pair of white tigers.

Rubin’s much-anticipated King Lear is a sadly overwrought and insufferable fiasco, a live soap opera version of one of the world’s most enduring theatrical classics obviously meant to be performed for the hearing impaired. It gives a whole new meaning to the term Shakespearean tragedy.

THROUGH JUNE 5: Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, 9390 N. Santa Monica Bl., Beverly Hills. 310.746.4000 or TheWallis.org

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 

Photo by Justin Bettman

Geffen Playhouse

As someone who’s been obsessed with both creating and appreciating theatre for well over seven decades, as well as reviewing plays for the past 35 years, there are many worthy classics that are still “work” for me to sit through yet again. Still, there are about four or five enduring masterworks I could watch repeatedly over and over, including Equus, The House of Blue Leaves, The Shadow Box, the musicals Hair and Chicago, and of course anything and everything written by Tennessee Williams.

At the top of the list would also surely be the groundbreaking Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which to me is a close second to A Streetcar Named Desire as the best play of the 20th Century. Now in a slickly produced and lovingly mounted revival at the Geffen Playhouse, I am still as raptured by Edward Albee’s poetic theatrical evisceration of the American Dream as completely as I was back when the dinosaurs roamed the earth and I learned to sidestep them gingerly.

See, I was maybe 15 or 16 when I saw my heroine and mentor Uta Hagen originate Martha in Virginia Woolf? on Broadway in the early 60s and, without a doubt, it was one of the most pivotal experiences of my life as a young actor. After a childhood spent thinking being cute and loud for a living in musical theatre and crying daily on an early “Golden Age” TV soap opera was what life was all about, that one evening in a darkened historic Broadway house made that click happen—you know, that click that makes one realize what an honor it is to be an artist.

Over the past years I have seen many notable people play Martha’s initially passive-aggressive punching bag of a husband, including my favorite George, Bill Irwin, as well as Arthur Hill in the original, John Lithgow, Sheppard Strudwick, and Jonathan Pryce opposite Hagen at age 80 as she reprised her iconic role at a benefit reading at the Ahmanson nearly 40 years after the first spoke Martha’s infamous opening line, “What a dump."

When I myself played Nick opposite a charitably unnamed famous but dissipated star who should have been prosecuted for her destruction of an almost indestructible role—including opening night in front of a sold out audience entering the stage and, after a long sustained applause, looking around the stage and loudly but oddly still in character braying, “LINE!”—I wanted badly to one day play George, an opportunity that sadly has at age 384 now long passed me by.

I am comforted by this missed opportunity by seeing the absolutely most impressive George I have ever had the privilege to observe. Without a doubt, the singular most memorable thing about the Geffen’s impressively reverent and brilliantly designed revival of a Virginia Woolf? is the jaw-dropping performance of Zachary Quinto, who immediately proves Dr. Spock has some world-class chops guaranteed in the future to make his career live well and prosper.

Martha might in Albee’s once-shocking tale traditionally overpower her world-weary and continuously abused husband of 23 years but not in this mounting by any means. Without fading into the woodwork and dusty bookcases on Wilson Chin’s detailed two-story set, Quinto simply commands the stage at every turn without really trying. He surely could have overshadowed many of the celebrated previous post-Uta Marthas I’ve seen, including Glenda Jackson, Ruth Warrick, Kathleen Turner, Rita Gam, and especially the remarkable Bette Ford at Seattle Rep in the early 1970s.

Quinto is mesmerizing despite being far too young at age 44 to play George, especially working opposite an actress the right age who seems to be desperately trying to play younger rather than really connect with the actor. Late in Act Three when George shouts, “No! No! I’m running the show now!”, Quinto didn’t need to convince me.

Whether it be the actor’s choice or the visionary inspiration of director Gordon Greenberg (or hopefully a collaboration of both), I saw something in Quinto’s performance I’ve never seen before, something incredibly unique: there’s an inner longing and occasionally a little suspicious though delightful campiness in his poor George, as though the guy might have spent some brief happier times sneaking a few of his more hunky ambitious male students into the local Motel 6 for a little bartered upgrading of their final grade, partially just to spite Martha and her demonic father who has also contributed to George’s lifelong humiliation. It gives a whole new meaning to his “I have no sense of humor—I have a heightened sense of the ridiculous.”

And when Quinto’s George offhandedly admires Nick’s physique, there’s something a lot more loaded in the relationship of the play’s quartet of sparing partners, particularly evident when he occasionally tries to place a hand on his good looking young rival’s shoulder or back, something that obviously makes Graham Phillips’ Nick recoil in disgust—a clue that the director was in on or even generated this new interpretation.

Phillips is the perfect Nick, so Ivy League that he could have worn a football jersey and laurel leaves in his hair. He handles the play’s least flashy role beautifully, though I did miss a bit of the turmoil Nick suffers in his descent from stud to houseboy. When Martha screams repeatedly for him to “Answer the door, houseboy!” after his disappointing performance humping the hostess on the kitchen floor, the torturous dilemma Nick faces as he decides to swallow his pride and reluctantly start taking orders could be communicated with a clearer sense of sickening defeat.

As his mouse of a wifey, Aimee Carrero is this revival’s other great revelation. The “slim-hipped,” label-peeling Honey is a flashy and incredibly quirky role, one coveted by any young actress wanting to stretch herself to the limits and almost be guaranteed to garner a nomination somewhere for her performance. Unlike the wonderful Sandy Dennis in her Oscar-winning film performance, however, Carrero’s Honey is fascinatingly underplayed, making her occasional burst of inappropriate one-liners often so quiet and introspective you have to work hard to hear what she said—something I didn’t mind doing for a second. There’s a palpable power in her understatement, one many theatre actors will understand without further explanation.

Now, before I say too much about Calista Flockhart as Martha, the female actor’s equivalent to having the cajones to tackle playing Hamlet, let me say I’ve seen her onstage on three occasions in her pre-Ally McBeal days and she was spectacular. As Albee’s most complex anti-heroine, she is either grossly miscast or unwilling to go where Martha needs to go. If her character choices are Greenberg’s, I would be most surprised, since it instead feels more as though this is yet again an aging celebrity trying to hold onto the glamour that once was and possibly fighting her director to maintain it at every step along the way.

If her wig possibly worn by Doris Day in Midnight Lace and exaggerated Cagney-like “little person” body language was indeed part of Greenberg’s vision, he made a terrible mistake; with her bouncy, never getting disheveled hair and costuming that makes her seem as though she’s prepping for a revival of The Donna Reed Show, Flockhart is doing a perky, way too sunny one-man show here, never truly connecting with any of her three costars—a glaring flaw that Quinto works through smoothly. Then again, George does say that in his mind, his shrew of a wife is buried in cement up to her neck, so maybe this fine internal actor is inventive enough to use that.

Flockhart could be given the benefit of the doubt this was all a character choice until the top of the shattering anti-utopian Act Three, when the abandon-ed Martha’s heartwrenching, rambling monologue, meant to be shared with no one beyond her living room, is played directly out to the audience as if Flockhart is appearing in a one-night benefit reading of Love Letters. If I had any thought her performance as Martha in any way germinated from an intentional choice, the third act killed it. There’s obviously nothing beyond the fourth wall of George and Martha’s home except us.

Albee’s lyrical but measured dialogue is as brilliant as ever but it’s also full of terrible traps, as often his characters all sport the same hesitations, repetitions, even humor. It takes truly gifted actors to make it work but here, the last moving exchange between Flockhart and Quinto is painfully clumsy since she doesn’t appear to understand the rhythms or timing of the couple’s melancholy, distracted “Yes” and “No” exchange.

This is still a definitive Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? despite any such druthers, offering one rich, completely dynamic performance I’m thrilled to have seen before I croak. I never got to see Laurette Taylor’s Amanda Wingfield or Lee J. Cobb’s Willie Loman, but hey: I got to see Zachary Quinto’s star turn as George and, as badly cast (or directed) as his costar in this production might have been, without intentionally doing so, he “better, best, bested” her effortlessly.

THROUGH MAY 29: Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Av., Westwood. 310.208.5454 or geffenplayhouse.org

Hadestown 

Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Ahmanson Theatre

What could possibly be said about Anais Mitchell’s celebrated Hadestown, an acheivement so dazzling not even a devastating worldwide pandemic could snuff its light.

Now making its west coast debut at the Ahmanson (and returning to the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa this August), the groundbreaking dystopian musical, which sprung from Mitchell’s 2010 conception album after the singer/songwriter serendipitously met director Rachel Chavkin in 2012, was the winner of the 2019 Tony Award for Best Musical, as well as picking up the coveted and well-deserved trophy for Best Original Score, Best Direction, and five other honors.

Simply, Hadestown moves high in the ranks as one of the three or four best musicals I’ve ever been fortunate enough to experience. With its bluesy, raucous New Orleans-style sensibilities and one of the most inventively envisioned and designed presentations in the history of musical theatre, there’s absolutely nothing I can say about this production except that it gives me great hope for the future of the performing arts so stuck these days on commercial stage versions of every successful film over the past 20 years.

Mitchell’s Hadestown is an imaginative retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, that legendary couple so head over heels in love that Orpheus travels the tortuously difficult journey down to hell itself to rescue his love from the bondage of Hades, who after his wife Persephone has shown her unwillingness to return to the lower depths from her springtime break from fire and brimstone, dazzles Eurydice to join him instead.

The performances here could not be better or more totally committed to Mitchell’s incredible score or Chavkin’s sweepingly innovative staging. As Orpheus, Nicholas Barasch has a several-octave range that somehow is capable of sliding between Jackson Browne and Yma Sumak as he accompanies himself on electric guitar. His performance made even more winning with his sweet, innocent delivery as the young hopeful songwriter who falls in love while cleaning tables in Rachel Hauck’s wildly eclectic Tony-winning Bourbon Street-esque nightclub setting.

The performances are all golden. Morgan Siobhan Green creates a Eurydice anyone would want to protect, while Kevin Morrow and Kimberly Marable are brilliant as Hades and Persephone, giving the feeling they have both been lifted directly from a revival of Gershwin’s equally groundbreaking Porgy and Bess.

As the three weird sisterly chorus of Hades’ persuasive Fates, Belen Moyano, Bex Odorisio, and Shea Renne are creepily persuasive, slinking and hovering ominously as the tale unfolds, while the incredibly gifted ensemble of oppressed lost souls already delivered to Hades’ steampunk factory to toil forever marching repetitiously on Hauck’s smoke-obscured revolving stage, are each sensational as well—particularly a towering triple-threat performer named Will Mann, who looks as though he should be playing Lennie on Of Mice and Men until, despite his considerable size, he begins dancing as gracefully and athletically as any of his cohorts.

Perhaps the most indelible performance, however, comes from the amazing Levi Kreis (Tony-winner as Jerry Lee Lewis in Million Dollar Quartet), who totally aces the role of Orpheus’ mentor Hermes as he narrates the story along the way.

Hadestown is far more than musical theatre: it is opera, it is a concert at one of New Orleans’ historic storefront music venues like Tipitina’s or Chickie Wah Wah, it is emotionally jarring, it is pure theatrical magic. Hauck’s set is a masterpiece, especially as it morphs seamlessly from nightclub to Hades’ underworld factory of human misery.

The impressively angular and eerie lighting by Bradley King and monumental sound achievement of Nevin Steinberg and Jessica Paz also won Tonys, while both Michael Krass’ sultry and often gritty costuming and David Neumann’s mind-blowing choreography received well-deserved nominations.

Still, none of these unearthly achievements could have happened without the world-class, explosively ingenious inspiration of Anais Mitchell’s Grammy-winning score, elevated to life in a collaboration made in theatrical heaven with Rachel Chavkin and tremendously enchanced by keyboardist/musical director Nathan Koci and his onstage orchestra, all of whom play as though they could have been abducted directly from the floor of a dimly-lit club somewhere along NOLA's Frenchmen Street.

A few hundred years from now, if all us downward-spiraling members of our mess of a species aren’t sweating profusely ourselves as we turn endlessly in circles in Hades’ smoky underworld, I suspect Hadestown will still be performed alongside Verdi’s La Traviata, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, George Gershwin’s aforementioned Porgy and Bess, and anything and everything created by Stephen Sondheim to appropriately be heralded alongside those other revolutionary timeless classics that changed the continuously evolving face of music and the performing arts.

THROUGH MAY 29: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Av., LA. 213.628.2772 or CenterTheatreGroup.org

RETURNING AUG 9 - 21: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or scfta.org

Tootsie 

Photo by Evan Zimmerman  

Dolby Theatre / Segerstrom Center

The 1982 film Tootsie is certainly an enduring comedy classic, perhaps explaining why, in this era of cashcow theatrical musical adaptations of any successful property, it took 40 years to come to fruition. I’m sure it was not an easy transition considering our current #METOO-ed sensibilities that has sunk so many similar projects—not to mention clobbered the career of the original Dorothy Michaels himself, Dustin Hoffman.

I’m not sure which came first: the chicken or the egg or, in this case, the concept of handing over the duties of the adapting Tootsie to playwright/screenwriter Robert Horn and David Yazbek, composer of The Band’s Visit, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and The Full Monty. Whomever might be credited with the original inspiration for this quintessential collaboration should get a special Tony to accompany the one Horn picked up in 2019 for Best Book of a Musical—as well as receiving the Drama Desk and the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Awards. Tootsie was in total nominated for 10 awards that year, including Yazbek’s sprightly score and the direction and choreography of Scott Ellis and Denis Jones, respectively.

The national tour started out in 2020 and, of course, was soon abandoned as the world suddenly closed its doors and pulled up the welcome mat. It’s now on a whirlwind tour of the country and currently playing here for a short but welcomed run at the Dolby before heading off to play stopovers in Sacramento and Vegas before returning to the Southland and Costa Mesa’s Segerstrom Center in early June.

Truly, Horn’s book is the star of the show. The fact that the musical has cleverly altered the film’s soap opera studio setting to the world of the Broadway stage is a stroke of theatrical genius. The evening is filled with a delicious and continuous rapid rat-a-tat humor that keeps the audience howling throughout—or more accurately, through Act One before the obligatory conflicts in the second half overshadow the silliness. Akin to the Industry-skewering humor that ran through the film La La Land and gave anyone who’s been around the Biz for a few centuries an edge other folks in Omaha or Peoria would surely miss, there are continuous in-jokes here about auditioning, jokes about zip-zap-zop-type physical and vocal warmups, jokes about having to stand by at rehearsals while one self-indulgent actor commandeers the moment to indulge in discussing the motivation of his or her character at the expense of everyone else.

You know. There's always that one.

Such is the case at the beginning of Tootsie when struggling actor Michael Dorsey (Drew Becker) gets fired from rehearsals for a new show after arguing with the stereotypical eccentric director (Adam du Plessis) about why his character is reacting as he is—a character known in the script as “Guy who walks by.” Dorsey is 40 and working in a diner, having a hard time with his sputtering career not because of his lack of talent but because of how difficult he is to work with. His parents still reluctantly refer to him as an actor “but only in air quotes,” his girlfriend Sandy (Payton Reilly) is desperately codependent, and his unknown playwright roommate Jeff (Jared David Michael Grant) is around just because he lives there.

Although the wincingly untalented Sandy asks for help when she lands an opportunity to read for the Nurse in a modern Broadway-bound adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, Michael purdy much knows it’s hopeless. In frustration after giving her a line-reading for the audition and knowing he nailed it rather than her, he dresses up as a woman and goes in himself—winning the role.

Now, still in hiding as the new “Talk of New York” Dorothy Michaels, he’s no less impossible for a director to wrangle—and predicably it’s the same overdramatic director who fired him and now can’t quite remember why his new star is so familiar to him. Because of his adopted gender and the support of the show’s crusty producer Rita Marshall (Kathy Halenda), Michael/Michaels again stops rehearsals to offer suggestions. This time, however, everyone but the director stops to listen until the play is eventually retitled Juliet’s Nurse, a major reason why Tootsie is such a perfect property to update in these tense cancel-culture days.

The production is fast and energetic and Yazbek’s score is a delight throughout, particularly when Reilly launches in on “What’s Gonna Happen,” a showstopping solo sung with Gilbert and Sullivan rapidity not unlike a spirited hoochie-coochie-beat homage to Sondheim’s “Getting Married Today.”  Grant also makes a splash with “Jeff Sums It Up,” where Yazbek's lyrics prove how many things can rhyme with the F-word. Every big production number, with Jones’ original tongue-in-cheek choreography recreated by a wonderfully facile ensemble, is great fun to watch while the serious ballad “Who Are You?” is beautifully rendered by Ashley Alexander as Michael/Michaels’ costar and love interest Julie Nichols. 

Still, it’s hard to keep the energy fresh on a long road tour and sometimes, Becker seems ready for a vacation. He’s far more watchable when playing Dorothy than his less convincing Michael. The show belongs to Reilly and Grant, both exceptional as Sandy and Jeff, as are Halenda’s world-weary, whiskey-voiced Rita and Lukas James Miller as Max, the oft-shirtless intelligence-challenged fledgling actor (playing Romeo’s brother Craig) and former Race to Bachelor Island reality star who delivers his line as “A plaque on both your houses.” Like Becker, Du Plessis’ annoying over-the-top Nathan Lane imitation is a distraction; perhaps he and Becker could go off for that rest break together.

Speaking of distracting, one of the surprisingly unattended issues with this Tootsie is the condition of William Ivey Long’s once sensational original costuming. I’ll bet if Long popped in on a current performance at the Dolby, he’d have to be watched so he doesn’t jump off the Hollywood Sign. Although I am the very last person on the planet to criticize actors for how they look, the rigors of the road can be daunting—especially when all there often is to do during the day is catch up on sleep and, for nourishment, consume massive quantities of rich hotel food. From the look of this cast in photos taken when the tour started out, I’ll bet Long’s costuming then fit some of the actors far better than now.

This is not saying anyone should look differently from how they look, nor do I think how they look would in any way change the message here. To the contrary; none of the characters need to conform to standard body image casting. Still, there is a costume coordinator listed as traveling with this tour and it seems like past time to do some judicious rebuilding. Again, this has nothing to do with the actors, the characters they play, or the performance; it’s just that the costumes need a bit of attention before Tootsie arrives back in Costa Mesa and June will really be busting out all over.

NOW CLOSED: Dolby Theatre, 6801 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 323.308-6300 or broadwayinhollywood.com

RETURNING MAY 31 – JUNE 12: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. 714.556.2787 or scfta.org

The Play You Want 

Photo by Elizabeth Kimball

Road Theatre Company

My partner has an ear-piercing belly laugh that, when his funniest bone is really tickled, can induce migraines. If it is ever commandeered by the government, it could be used to warn the population of incoming missiles.

It’s been well over two years since I’ve heard Hugh release the kraken, but the Road’s welcoming debut of The Play You Want, the first piece developed in the lionhearted company’s year-long Under Construction program, did the trick. I probably should have brought along a bottle of Ibuprofen to pass out through the audience at curtain call if I’d known how hilarious—and brave, in our current pervasive era of cancel culture—the Road and playwright Bernardo Cubria's sparking new world premiere would prove to be.

Many celebrities are sent up in The Play You Want, most more mercilessly than Jeff Ross at one of those celebrity roasts, but none is poked as sharply as the playwright himself. Cubria’s leading character is a struggling New York playwright with enormous promise but unreasonable artistic desires if he wants to become marketable—named Bernardo Cubria.

All Bernardo (Peter Pasco) wants is to be recognized for his unstructured absurdist plays about clowns and one day become the “Mexican Samuel Beckett." Yet unless the income-challenged new father can write an in-fashion play about ethnic concerns and injustices in our underserved society to assure him a BIPOC production that white theatre patrons can patiently sit through to relieve their collective guilt and show how concerned they are with such things, his agent Chloe (Natalie Llerena) is gonna dump his ass. “Play the theatre game!” she rails. “Write one goddam Latinx issue play and I won’t drop you!”

Forced to leave his ideals behind, the threats of single parenthood from Bernardo’s whiny wife Vera (Chelsea Gonzalez) brings him to his knees and soon his first dreaded non-clown-themed issue play gets a reading at the Public—Cubria early on perhaps unintentionally reminding us that young artists already used to a diet of Top Ramen should avoid marriage as long as humanly possible, especially to a woman.

An instant success, Bernardo’s play is mounted off-off-off-off-off-off-off-off-Broadway (perhaps Cubria means LA?) starring Alfred Molina (Jonathan Nichols) and directed by Chay Yew (Christopher Larkin). As it begins to get press, he's asked to take a meeting with Scott Rudin himself (Stewart J. Zully), the megaproducer first depicted in silhouette in his swivel chair with shadows of octopus tentacles throwing ominous images across the stage floor. Rudin will produce his play on Broadway but only if he changes the title and rewrites it to add a new highly salable subplot. When Bernardo objects, Rudin tells him to get out of his office and “die in the Equity office with the rest of them!”

After many requests for chit-chats about activism in SoHo coffeeshops, soon The Play He Hates is in rehearsal with Sam Gold (again Larkin) replacing Yew as director since Broadway “needs someone with experience” and after all, Rudin has “great taste in white theatre,” something guaranteed to bring in the tourists from Iowa.

The name of the rewritten play? The Baby in the Cage Play.

At the beginning of the fastpaced 80-minute one-act, a spotlit monologue from a folksy shawl-draped abuela (Presciliana Esparolini) waxing nostalgic about her own grandmother's recipe for tamales leads into Bernardo in a visit to Chloe’s office where she tells him how much she loves it, to which he responds, “I wrote it as a joke while I was taking a shit!”

As The Play You Want unfolded I began to worry a bit, thinking it felt as though the actors were trying to project to the back bleachers at Theatricum Botanicum rather than the Road’s far more intimate space. It was surprising to see a play directed by Cornerstone Theatre’s amazing artistic director Michael John Garces, who more than proved his chops staging farce with the Geffen’s sensational The Thanksgiving Play sometime prior to our collective escape behind doors, performed so over-the-top.

Silly me. As soon at the play’s commedia style started to become apparent, my concern morphed into complete harmony with this exceptional troupe of actors telling the story, particularly Pasco, who not only had to find and personally honor the voice of the playwright but is also onstage literally throughout the play.

Everyone in the ensemble is brilliantly on the same page, with special moments coming when they make guest appearances from JaLo, Oskar Eustis, and Gloria Estafan as The Baby in the Cage Play grows into a commercial monster. Nichols is quite wonderful as Alfred (‘Call me Fred”) Molina, who defends his perpetual casting in Mexican roles besides being Italian and Spanish and raised in Paddington, England. The real Fred has yet to see the production, I’m told, but I’ll bet no one would find Nichols’ send up of him more hilarious than he would.

The final actor in this unique ensemble of fearless performers is Roland Ruiz, who basically steals every scene in which he’s included. Despite glorious drop-dead imitations of both Lin-Manuel Miranda and John Leguizamo, Ruiz also manipulates and voices Bernardo’s two-year-old son Pablo—who is depicted as a sweet-faced four-foot marionette created by Lynn Jeffries and controlled from behind like a Balinese stick puppet.

Derrick McDaniel’s intricate lighting plot perfectly compliments Brian Graves’ huge abstract revolving set pieces, something of which any Mexican Beckett would surely be proud. Moved throughout by the actors, something that recently bothered me in another otherwise well-mounted play I think because it was such a kitchen sink piece rather than one evoking “magical realism,” obviously a term the playwright has heard more than once in his life since it weaves throughout the play.

Not only was it good to hear Hugh once again discharge his best from-the-gut bullhorn of a laugh, but I can’t say how much I also adored this courageous and outrageously funny adventure that also slyly confronts the institutional racism pervasive in our American theatre without shaking a finger in our faces.

Bernardo Cubria and the unstoppable Road deserve heartfelt kudos for having the balls to mount this edgy and easily misunderstood play in our current culture where longtime and highly respected artistic directors of arts complexes are resigning in droves because, as a character in his biting satire observes, “Theatres across the country are scared shitless right now.”

Hopefully, things will even out and all artists can once again freely say outrageous things again without being scrutinized and in grave danger of disappearing from the landscape for not addressing every issue of the day in 80 minutes. As the timely The Play You Want reminded me, I miss the days before “theatres care a lot more about ideas than execution.” It’s a treat, post-pandemic, to still find an emerging playwright capable of entertaining while cleverly delivering an important but less accusatory message.

THROUGH JUNE 19: Road Theatre Ensemble, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., NoHo. 818.761.8838 or RoadTheatre.org

 

See? I’m an angel!