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Opening the Curtain
4 minutes | Apr 13, 2020
KCRW's longtime producer, host and cheerleader, Matt Holzman, who died Sunday, only texted me once about my reviews.But the time he did it was at 4:48 p.m. and it was in ALL CAPS.The all caps part you probably get but 4:48 p.m. was important because it meant that Matt had listened to it live. My pieces are on air at 4:44 p.m. and usually last about three and a half minutes ... so 4:48 p.m. meant that something so struck Matt that he texted immediately.That panicked me.Matt Holzman is the reason I'm at KCRW.It was his call out-of-the-blue that started this amazing journey. Here was a guy I'd never met calling me and asking me if I wanted to be KCRW's theatre critic!?! What did I know about radio?Thanks to Matt, I was going to learn a lot. Not just because of his call but because he was going to teach me. Matt was going to produce my piece ..."produce" is probably the wrong verb for what Matt did. Matt taught me to write, really write every single week an hour at a time. Matt warned me about this in that same direct, wry tone you've heard him use to tell you about the latest Matt's movies or a KCRW podcast. "Look, you'll come in every week and we'll work on it. Maybe 45 minutes? An hour tops ... then after a while you'll just come in and record. Easy"That's what he said. That's what he meant.Each week he sat with me. And every time I wrote a clever, theatre-guy sentence with a piece of jargon I'd picked up — Matt's head would move backwards and to the side just a bit, his brow and cheeks would scrunch up towards his eyes as if the world had become unintelligible for a second — and he'd say "What?? What does that mean?"He knew what it meant but he also knew good radio copy — and that wasn't it. So he'd sit with me and make me make it better. That's what he did for a year.I'd never worked in radio or with a producer so I didn't know how special this was. I thought this was just the way it was done. Matt made it seem so simple that I didn't really recognize what an extraordinary gift I was being given — every week.So when I got Matt's text at 4:48 p.m., I panicked. There, in all caps, it read "DID YOU JUST TELL PEOPLE TO WALK OUT OF A PLAY AT INTERMISSION?"Now, in my defense, I still think this was the right call. The play itself doesn't matter but just so you understand — act one was amazing and expansive asking all kinds of philosophical questions about the nature of language and love ... And act two? Act two was a mess. I didn't want people to miss act one but I didn't think they needed to suffer act two. So that's what I said.But that's not what I texted Matt because I was worried I'd broken some rule or made his face scrunch up again. So I just texted back "yup" and waited while Matt typed out his response,"THAT'S FUCKING AWESOME"Matt, you're f-ing awesome. Thank you. I'm going to miss you.
4 minutes | Mar 16, 2020
What do we do in the theatre when there is no theater?
At the most fundamental level, the theater connects artists with an audience at one time, in one space. That's about presence. You show up at eight o'clock, the lights come up, you see a show. We are together. Dig deeper and the connection gets vastly more rich and complicated. Connecting with an audience means understanding the moment in time we are living in; appreciating the particular place where you are making theater. What is happening here and now? Theater must do more than simply reflect our moment. It must care for its audience's soul through that moment. So what do we do when the first part of that equation is severed? Our theaters are closed(along with our stadiums and our bars and our restaurants). We in the theater are not alone...but we are not together. Our time is scary and our space is shut. How do we go on when the show doesn’t go on? Well first, we must take care of ourselves and our audience. The big decision has been made, now make all the others that support everyone’s health. Take care of your people, you will need them. Take care of your audience, they still need you. Second, listen to a drag queen. In "A 24 Decade History of Popular Music" Taylor Mac's oft repeated refrain was "this is going to go on a lot longer than you want it to." It will. Taylor Mac used the experience of a different plague, the AIDS epidemic, to forge a community from a theater full of strangers. Mary Shelley used her plague quarantine to write "Frankenstein" and Shakespeare jotted down not just "Lear" but "MacBeth" and "Antony and Cleopatra." Time is not the enemy of art but loss of connection is. Third, stay connected. While we are physically apart remain socially connected to your artists and to your audience. The best theaters and the best artists will recognize this need and connect across this pandemic fourth wall. If you want to support those artists, let them know. Buy a gift certificate for next season. If you can, offer support. Send an email about that show last season you are still thinking about and the plays you can't wait to see. The paradox of this moment is that while we are being told to be apart we are all strangely connected - we just need to find one another. Fourth, remember it’s best to solve an act five problem in act one. This drama will come to a close ... eventually. We will return to the theater and the bar and the stadium. We will be changed but we will return. Take this time to plan for that return. As an audience member: find a new theater to add to your list; find a new friend to take to the theater; read a new playwright. As a theater maker: learn from this moment, listen, recognize our theater will be different from how we left it. Our audience's souls will need care. We will need to remember how to carelessly laugh, how to be together. We will need to be back in the same time and the same place. And fifth, as Lady Macbeth reminds us - wash your hands!
4 minutes | Mar 9, 2020
‘Home’ review: domestic magic and the fleeting American dream
The show "Home" begins with a magic trick. When you walk into the theater, you see an empty stage. As the show begins, an unassuming man, played by the show’s creator Geoff Sobelle, walks from the audience to the stage to survey things. After placing a couple of halogen work-lights, he fumbles to stretch plastic over some wood. It kind of looks like a bare stud wall that a construction worker might staple Tyvek to. After a couple awkward staples, he stands the stud wall up. He moves it around the bare stage and suddenly, magically, there's a simple bedroom. The man, exhausted from his labors, gets into bed and pulls the sheet over his head. Poof, when the sheets move, we see a young boy. It goes on like this, with one magical transformation leading to another until a giant piece of plastic flies down onto the nearly bare stage. After a little construction hocus pocus, the plastic falls to reveal a two story stud house in construction, they type you probably see sprouting up in backyards across LA. It's a stunning piece of stage magic. Empty stage to two story set that might become a home. But it's not really more amazing than the magic almost everyone does in their own lives. Think about the empty spaces that you have filled since you were a child. Think about the unfurnished four walls that slowly, through your own personal enchantment, became a home. Think about how an anonymous space transformed into a place where maybe you fell in love — or fell out of love — where children were born or maybe parents died. Where birthdays transformed into holidays and celebrations. A place that felt safe and magical and then — maybe before you were ready — you had to leave. That's what Geoff Sobelle's brilliant piece "Home" is really about: that domestic magic, the stuff of the fleeting American dream — making a house into your own home. What begins as a magic trick, turns into a almost a dance piece as three or four different families inhabit the same home at different times. That bare-stud two-story house evolves to have an upstairs shower complete with curtain and at one point there's a wonderful parade of four people, worthy of Moliere farce, rotating in and out of shower half naked — as if the time of everyone who ever lived in this particular house could be compressed into a single morning dance. As one person steps in, another steps out. The towel discarded by one is grabbed by another. After all, every space that was ours will be, someday, someone else's. With this magical stage house built and inhabited, it's time for a house party — and the guests are the audience. At first, about 30 people are welcomed onstage but by the party's height there's a brass band, a Santa Clause, a grim reaper, and a conga line. It's joyous. The most emotional moment of the show for me was when two audience members were pulled from the party and mic'd to talk about their own childhood homes. It sounds so simple, but think, for a moment, about the house you grew up in. And then, in a little under two hours, it's all gone. We lose this magical house that we saw built and grew attached to. Itss covered in plastic perhaps to be torn down for some new home. And then just as quickly, the show “Home” itself is over, really over, because it’s off to play in another theater in another city. But it leaves us with a reminder to cherish the magic of our own homes and just maybe with a little more empathy for those that may have lost theirs. "Home" played at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica this past weekend.
4 minutes | Mar 2, 2020
Four Larks’ creepy and gorgeous ‘Frankenstein’ will punch you in the gut
When you walk into the theatre for Four Larks' "Frankenstein," there's an eerie harpsichord playing in the background and you see shelves of old curiosities: skulls, globes and hourglasses, parts of old mannequins — and lots of tiny cages. It's creepy but it's also gorgeous: lit with an amber incandescent glow. You know you're in for a treat and the show hasn't even begun. "Frankenstein" is a play but it's also a concert, and at moments an opera, at others a musical and a dance piece. Imagine if some theatre nerds befriended some classically trained musicians at the home of an installation artist who happened to be a choreographer — and then they made a show. "Frankenstein" is all of that. You'll recognize the story in a literary way, not in a monster movie way. As the show begins, we're somewhere in the blustery, snowy north. A Victorian explorer is singing about his desire for a particular type of immortality when he stumbles upon our fated scientist whose Frankenstein creation haunts him. There's a tale to tell so off we go, back to where the story begins. The story unfolds across three acts and 75 minutes: a coming of age tale that feels like it could fit in a Victorian novel; then a section on the deeply sympathetic creation himself — watching the monster discover humanity; and for the final act, the creature's revenge. Then things get even darker and visually stunning. As the creature demands a companion, the production turns to a bit of projection magic that's visually and aurally breathtaking — and terrifying in equal measure. "Frankenstein" is a major work and a major leap for Four Larks. It's a jump from being a self-producing company to being supported and presented by a well-funded presenting house like The Wallis. That's a big deal. But even more significant are the leaps in the work itself. When I first saw the company in a warehouse on the edge of downtown in 2014, you could see all the elements of this work: the striking visual aesthetic, the classically trained technique, the unique orchestrations and a mixture of opera and new folk accessibility. All the pieces were there but they were, to borrow from "Frankenstein," like distinct body parts: the orchestra was over there, the actors over here; here's the theatre, there's the dance. In "Frankenstein" they've brought it all together. The seven-piece orchestra is an integral part of the acting of the piece. The lines between musician, actor, and dancer are blurred, if not erased entirely. And even more importantly, Four Larks have found the darkness in their work. Where there earlier pieces lacked a gravitas, “Frankenstein” will punch you in the gut. It's exciting to see a company break through and grow. The most frightening thing? You don't want to be haunted by missing this show. "Frankenstein" plays at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills through Sunday, March 7th.
4 minutes | Feb 24, 2020
‘Found’ Review: Finding a musical in scraps of paper
Every couple of years LA's intimate theaters produce a musical that gives the big theaters a run for their money. Right now it’s IAMA Theatre Company's "Found: A New Musical." It starts off a little awkwardly. We're in a bar in Chicago with some disgruntled 30 somethings. Denise, the bartender, went to art school but can't find a better gig than slinging shots. She's got a punk vibe and a bruised heart — so you can sense the setup there. Mikey doesn't have a job or a lover but he's got his old friend Davy who pays the rent and generally keeps him afloat. Davy's our protagonist and — at least at the top of the scene — he's got a job but not one he likes. Davy looks around the bar and beefs that everyone is on cell phones; no one is really connecting with one another. He makes a half-hearted attempt to get everyone in the bar to put down the devices and be together. It sort of flops. Moments later, his own phone alerts him, via text of course, that he's been fired. This is an epiphany for Davy. Tired of this crap, he sings to Denise: “I wanna do something that I love, and do it with people that I love.” Lo and behold, on the way back to his car, he discovers that what he thought was a parking ticket is actually a pissed-off little love note that mistook his car for someone else's. Let's just say someone named Amber is angry at someone named Mario — and the note is kinda great. Next day, the three friends reconnect around this note, imagining all the different personas that could fit Amber and Mario. Then they discover that this *found* note is their future: They’re going to start a zine! (Remember those?) "Found" is not only the title of the musical, it's the title of an actual magazine that was started by Davy Rothbart. The magazine — and book that followed — published all kinds of found notes: humorous "to-do" lists, love notes, sad notes, folks looking for love. The musical is loosely based on the creation and near demise of that publication. The musical was first produced in 2014 by New York’s Atlantic Theatre Company. Now, at first, this seems like sparse material for a musical. Yes, we've got our vaguely "Rent"-y group of friends sans a plague (or maybe the plague is social media disconnection and student loans?). We've got our two lovers who can't be lovers and their charming gay friend. But our plot is based, literally, on scraps of paper. These notes come to life as songs performed by the surrounding quirky and lovely cast. Suddenly, a wanted ad becomes a musical number. It's a little odd … but fun. But as the musical finds its legs, it grows on you. Perfect for LA, the plot complication of the second out involves selling out to get a TV pilot and by then, these little found notes become quick sardonic commentaries on the action. But the real charm is seeing a musical brought to life with this much gusto in a space this small. Yes, you get ahead of the love story and, yes, it feels a little thrown together but there's such joy to it that you'll find yourself forgiving those faults. This is a good one to see with friends and maybe a drink or two, after all, it's set in a bar. And pay attention to whether "Found" finds an LA audience. If it does that’ll be a positive sign not just for IAMA Theatre Company but for great work in small theaters across LA. "Found: A New Musical" plays at LATC in downtown LA through March 23rd.
4 minutes | Feb 17, 2020
'Revenge Song' review: Geek theatre rules!
Did you ever have a nerdy friend in high school? Or maybe you were the nerdy friend? Someone who was super into anime, comic books, sword fights; always had a corny joke or a geeky pop-culture reference; totally into cosplay; also super-smart and knew really weird but cool stuff about history? Maybe queer? Maybe not? Super creative, super self-aware but also sort of a mess which kind of bugged you but at exactly the moment you were going to give up on them you realized they had a heart of gold and were doing the right thing? If you could roll all that up into a play, it'd be Qui Nguyen's world premiere work, "Revenge Song." Like that friend, there's a lot to this play. So let's start with the core story. The inspiration for "Revenge Song" is a real-life 17th century queer, opera singing, sword-fighting, generally badass woman named Julie d’Aubigny. The known details of her story are remarkable. It's her life that drives us through the story and on the simplest level it's a coming out story — if that coming out story also included puppets and sword fights and spitting rhymes and rock ballads and bad french accents and... you get it, this is neither your traditional historical drama nor your straight narrative (in all senses of that word). Instead, it's the quirky creation of Nguyen and director Robert Ross Parker's company Vampire Cowboys. The Geffen Playhouse commissioned the play and then partnered with Vampire Cowboys on this world premiere. That in itself is reason to see the show. It shouldn't be notable but one of our big theaters doing the premiere of a new play that also is breaking the traditional mold is a rare and promising sign of hope. While Vampire Cowboys is a New York company, this is a play built in LA. There are cheesy jokes about horse and buggy traffic on the 405 and references to In-N-Out and the Hollywood sign. I get that those are small details, but they matter. When this play goes on to other cities, and tweaks those references to match the place, it's important that this show was made for LA. It's a play that's diverse — not just in its casting and characters but in its modes of storytelling and theatrical devices. We get sweet simple dance numbers, and fight scenes (lots of fight scenes), and over-the-top corny musical numbers, and touching ballads, and raunchy puppets, and live video that somehow combines all of that with an action-movie-if-made-by-theatre-geeks-in-a-basement vibe. It's all sort of dazzling ... but it's also a lot. If you're expecting same old, same old - you'll be disappointed. Even if you're up for the ride, there are moments when you'll lose patience but right before you give up, I bet, like that geeky friend, you'll recognize this is a sweet show. It's a show that's having fun and laughs at itself and let's face it: when's the last time you saw a show about a 17th century queer badass? "Revenge Song: A Vampire Cowboy Creation" plays at the Geffen Playhouse through March 8th.
4 minutes | Feb 10, 2020
The loss of the LA Weekly will drive you nuts
In the first scene of playwright Steven Leigh Morris' new play "Red Ink," our protagonist makes a cri-du-coeur: "What was he thinking?...Why would a successful business man do to his own property?" Here’s the backstory. For over 25 years, Steven Leigh Morris worked for the LA Weekly. It's not an overstatement to say that at the height of his influence as their theater editor and critic, he was the champion of LA's intimate theatre scene. Most weeks, the Weekly ran not only his front-of-section review but substantial reviews of another half dozen shows. It was the go-to paper if you wanted theatre coverage in LA ... or music coverage ... or to read Jonathan Gold's food columns. Like the Village Voice in New York and alt-weeklies across the country, the LA Weekly was a cultural force that you grabbed free every Thursday. So when Steven Leigh Morris' newspaper man protagonist agonizes about the destruction of an institution, that institution is a broad amalgam of alt-weeklies. Our protagonist is the newly promoted editor of New York free paper. You could read it as the Village Voice or the LA Weekly or a dozen other newspapers. It's a stand-in for all of them in one way or another. The play's machinery is built around flashbacks that take us to a time before the paper's demise and that urgent question. In that earlier timeline, our fresh editor has just been installed when the paper was bought by the "Our Times" chain out of Florida. Our antagonist is Earl Glory, the brains behind this debt-ridden takeover effort of all these papers. He's the "he" from the question "What was he thinking?" Now, you should know that when our protagonist asks this dire question, it is from the inside of a mental institution. That's where our play is set. This editor of an alt-weekly is so destroyed by this assault on journalism that it literally drives him crazy. The action of the play is actually the other inmates of this particular asylum playing the characters as part of an elaborate drama therapy scheme. Score one for self-awareness. The challenge with Mr. Morris' script is a bit like a battle between a dramatist and a journalist. The dramatist senses the need for theatrical gestures like conventions broken and dramatic metaphor. The journalist wants to get to the bottom of the story. Unfortunately, neither really succeeds. The play's question, "what the hell happened to the LA Weekly?" is a powerful one that's worth chasing and telling. It feels like that's what the play wants to be about until an unheard editor's voice recognizes that's not fresh news. Fresh news, or as it's often called these days "fake news," is the assault on the press more generally. It's not just the weeklies, it's paywalls and ever shrinking newsrooms and new non-profit models. That's what the play tries to shift to about two-thirds of the way through but at that point we've lost the story. Go see this play to pay homage to Mr. Morris and the cultural institutions that we lost with the demise of the alt-weeklies. But don't go thinking you'll get an answer to why it all happened. That, for now, is still a tragic mystery.
4 minutes | Feb 3, 2020
Are we listening?
Dael Orlandersmith's one-woman show "Until the Flood" is set in and around Ferguson, Missouri. It's 2014, immediately after Michael Brown was shot 6 times by a police officer. Ferguson erupted in protest. The following year, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis commissioned Ms. Orlandersmith to write and perform a solo show to give voice to the city's racial divide. "Until the Flood" is based on interviews she did across Ferguson and St. Louis and boiled down to 8 poetic composite characters. We hear from black residents who are scared and angry. We hear from white residents who are angry and scared. Remarkably, Ms. Orlandersmith gives voice to it all. The form, and maybe even the content, is familiar but essential. Through these eight characters and a final poetic coda of her own, Ms. Orlandersmith is giving voice to the deep historic racism that fuels these tragedies. Her portraits are empathetic and unflinching. We hear from a black barber shop owner who carefully dissects and dismisses two college girls (one white, one black) from up North who want to see him as a victim - he won't be infantilized by these ill-informed saviors. We hear about a friendship between two teachers (one black, one white) that ended when the white woman lamented the impact all of this was having on the white police officer, Darren Wilson. We hear a heartbreaking plea from a black 17 year-old boy with a passion for Art History - who realizes he could be Michael Brown and he still has one more year in public housing, one more year to get out, to stay alive. Tragically, the performance at the core of "Until the Flood" feels as vital and necessary today as it must have in St. Louis in 2016. This is a story that still needs to be told; this is a tragedy that keeps repeating itself. But "Until the Flood" sits differently in Los Angeles now than it did four years ago nearly 2000 miles to the east. You can feel parts of the production that were built for a different time and served a different purpose. Ms. Orlandersmith's monologues are separated by little video interludes and a composed score. Where her performance has a stripped down, bare stage aesthetic - just a performer and the words - the surrounding production elements have a gauzy feel that almost dissipates the heat generated by each monologue (like lifting a lid off a pot before it boils over). I can only imagine that in 2016 when the play opened at the St. Louis Rep a mere 14 miles south of Ferguson - this release of pressure was essential and as necessary as the anger and fear Ms. Orlandersmith captured. The audience likely needed these interludes to process and to hear. I wonder if we need them in 2020? I know we need Ms. Orlandersmith's performance but in the 4 years since she first brought this show to life, I wonder if we've seen enough to do without the distraction. I wonder if as an audience, as a country, we can hear what Ms. Orlandersmith's characters are trying to tell us? You need to - we all do. "Until the Flood" plays at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through February 23rd.
4 minutes | Jan 27, 2020
What does the constitution mean to you?
You know how the constitution has a preamble? "We the people of the United States ..."? Okay, before you go see the play "What the Constitution Means to Me" (and you definitely need to go see this play) - you should probably imagine a preamble to the play … not a disclaimer exactly, just an explanation for what you’re about to see. Something like this: "Hi my name is Maria Dizzia. The story you're about to hear is another woman's story, Heidi Schreck's story. It's her play. It's her story. She's a woman in America. I'm a woman in America...so it's my story too." You need the preamble because this is an autobiographical show, performed by a woman who didn’t write it. "What the Constitution Means to Me" is playwright and actress Heidi Schrek's story of being a 15 year-old and traveling the American Legion halls of America competing for college scholarship money by giving speeches about the constitution. But it's also the story of a 40-something playwright coming to terms with the women in her own family, and their brutal history of domestic violence. And it's about what it means to have a female body, or identify as female, in America. And it's an incredibly cogent history lesson on how the Constitution thinks about women and their bodies - about the magical penumbra of rights it can confer; how, in Ms. Schrek's words, the 9th and 14th amendments came together with "wonder-twin like powers" to create a woman's right to choose. Perhaps most importantly, it's a play that taps into theatre's ancient role to engage and prepare its community. We, the people, are hearing a lot about our constitution right now. We are hearing about Article II powers and what Article I does and doesn't do. We hear about an oath to a constitution under attack. What Ms. Schrek's play brilliantly does is make the constitution personal. She reminds us of its profound limitations and its greatest strengths. She takes the distant language of amendments and places them, metaphorically and insightfully, on her own life, on her own body. Abstract ideas and distant histories become tangible and present. Now, in the Mark Taper Forum's production, these words are brought to life by the actress Maria Dizzia (not Ms. Schrek who performed the play in New York). This confused the man in the seat behind me the night I saw it - at least until his wife set him straight. To be fair, it's a meaningful distinction because, right there in the play's title "What the Constitution Means to Me," there's a "me." This play is auto-biographical and, without getting too deep into the dramaturgical weeds, part of the machinery of the play is about stripping back artifice, about a play between personal emotions and performance. Having a different woman perform matters ... but not nearly as much as the constitution itself matters to every woman in America - to everyone who makes up that "we, the people." You need to go see this show. You need to take your daughters (and your sons) to see this show. You'll walk out with a more personal relationship to our constitution and that's something we could all use right now. "What the Constitution Means to Me" plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through February 28th.
4 minutes | Jan 20, 2020
What’s happening at REDCAT?
Miwa Matreyek’s work doesn’t fit neatly into a simple box. She’s an animator…but she’s also a live performer who’s in her animations. If you go see her work, it looks like a square screen onstage with her meticulous and, at times, playful animations projected on it. But you also see the real live shadow of Ms. Matreyek, standing behind the screen. (think shadow puppetry but instead of a puppet it’s the artist, herself, performing and casting that black shadow). At its simplest level, her work is the interaction of her animations with her shadow. So imagine an animation of a cat on a window sill. The cat and the window sill are black silhouettes. Now imagine seeing the shadow of the artist, also a black silhouette, walk into the frame and shoo that animated cat away. It becomes a magical dance between a recorded animation and a live performance. But that’s just the simplest level. Once Ms. Matreyek gets cooking, the play between foreground and background becomes more complicated. Ms. Matreyek pops in and out of her animations. Simple silhouettes become frame bending, shifting environments. We see her shadowed feet floating and somehow walking across a projected path. Her silhoutted black torso suddenly becomes filled with an animated skeleton and a pumping heart. Now, if this were just an animation, it would be beautiful, stunning even, but passive. Instead, Ms. Matreyek’s presence literally makes her an active part of the work, brings the work into the present and adopts the tension of theatre and dance. Her precise movements create the shadowed canvas where her work can exist. Her magical finger touches her animated background bringing it to life. You can’t help but recognize the human presence, the human agency. REDCAT, this past weekend, presented something of a mini-retrospective of her work sharing four pieces ranging back to her thesis piece as a grad student at CalArts to a world-premiere that finished the evening. The human agency and presence that was a magical force in the earlier work (innocently shooing away that cat or magically bringing her world to life) became in the final piece a force of apocalyptic destruction. Her most recent work begins innocently enough with a shadow puppet carousel of trees spinning - wildlife emerges: a hopping bunny, a leaping stag - then onscreen, this imaginary forest is consumed by flames. A parade of animals begins running desperately to escape destruction. Images of a world flooded by plastic bottles, sucked dry by fossil fuels, filled with cardboard deliveries and sweat shops - fill the screen. Ms. Matreyek’s shadow stalks along toppling trees and conjuring sky scrapers to erupt out of pastoral fields. It’s terrifying …and beautiful and horrific all in the same instant. That magical human presence is destroying its only environment. I’d love to tell you to rush out and see this show but like so much of the work that’s done at REDCAT and our other presenting houses - it was only performed this past weekend. Even more troubling, REDCAT, which for more than a decade has brought to LA the stunning work of the Wooster Group, Christiane Jatahy, Elevator Repair service and so many others - has precious little programming on their current season. Here’s hoping for LA’s sake that REDCAT rediscovers its soul in the same way Ms. Matreyek’s work seems to begging us to reclaim ours.
4 minutes | Jan 13, 2020
Roll with it
Stephen Adly Guirgis play "Between Riverside and Crazy" is one of those scripts that plays very differently outside of New York.If you're a New Yorker, it's a neighborhood play. You know these characters. You see them every day on the subway. Someone you know has an amazing rent-controlled apartment that costs them next to nothing. You get that that apartment lease is a bit like a lottery ticket. You also get that a battle with the landlord (or the city) is part of everyday life.It's not that the play doesn't translate beyond the five boroughs - it does - it's just different.That rent controlled apartment in "Between Riverside and Crazy" is one of the two cogs in the plot. It belongs to a retired, black New York cop. The circumstance of that retirement is the other cog.You see eight years ago, this cop was shot by another cop - a white cop. The details are a little murky but you discover them slowly - and they're the basis for a lawsuit against the city that our black cop, our protagonist, has been nursing as a punishing grudge.When the play opens, things have come to a head. The rent controlled apartment lease is being threatened by that lawsuit. It's good cop versus bad cop. The question is … which is which?What gives the cops who still have badges leverage over our protagonist are his kids. Well, they're not all his kids but they all call him "dad." Living in this multi-bedroom apartment off Riverside Drive, are his son (who's probably fencing stolen goods), his scantily clad girlfriend (who may have been a prostitute), and his son's convicted felon friend who's tenuously sober.The apartment is home to this scrappy group. And it's under threat because if "dad" doesn't settle his lawsuit against the police department - they'll take it all away. Now, if you're a New Yorker - this all makes perfect sense. The same way if a play about LA hinged around your favorite taco truck moving or how disruptive 3 days of rain is to your entire existence - would make perfect sense to an Angeleno."Riverside and Crazy" is still a great play outside of New York - it's just a different play because you start asking questions: "wait, what's the deal with this apartment?" "Why do the cops need to settle this lawsuit" et cetera, et cetera. Rather than just rolling with the play, you pause to interrogate it.That's tricky because, as good as it is (after all it won Stephen Adly Guirgis a Pulitzer)... it’s really good - still, it requires a couple of leaps of faith because Mr. Guirgis just assumes you get it: you understand the whole apartment rent-control/landlord issue. If you start poking at why exactly it's so important for one character to get another character to settle the lawsuit - you’ll get lost.And Mr. Guirgis is already playing with tone and character. What makes "Between Riverside and Crazy" a fun play is that you can't quite pin down if it's a gritty drama or a dark comedy or morality play - when in fact, it's all three.So even though the five boroughs are on the other side of the continent, go see "Between Riverside and Crazy" and enjoy great acting in a space that’s probably smaller than that rent-controlled apartment on Riverside Drive.“Between Riverside and Crazy” plays at The Fountain Theatre in Hollywood through January 26th.
4 minutes | Jan 6, 2020
Theater for a new year
Happy New Year! LA theater is all about women in the new year. There are one woman shows, re-imagining women from history. Here’s a quick list of the shows I’m looking forward to this spring. Let’s start with a hit one-woman show … that now stars another woman. Okay, that’s a little weird but so is the Mark Taper Forum’s production of “What the Constitution means to me.” The “me” in that title is, or was, playwright Heidi Schreck. She’s the one who as a teenager extolled the constitution at American Legion halls for scholarship money. The play is her story. But…she’s unavailable so … actress Maria Dizzia is taking on the role. Good news: she’s a great actress and let’s face it, like it or not, the constitution is all too relevant these days. The show plays at the Taper through February 23rd. In Culver City, another strong woman Dael Orlandersmith’s brings her play “Until the Flood” to the Kirk Douglas. Set in Ferguson, Missouri following the shooting of teenager Michael Brown, Ms. Orlandersmith’s one-woman show is drawn from interviews with community members. The piece has been praised for mixing documentary with the poetic. It plays at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through February 23rd. To round out the spring, here are two modern takes on historical women. Here’s a premise. A play based on Julie d’Aubigny, a queer 17th century French swordswoman and opera singer. Enough said. Qui Nguyen and the Vampire Cowboys were commissioned by the Geffen Playhouse to create “Revenge Song.” This sound like a whole lot for one show - fight scenes, hip hop, gender, sex, rock? But when’s the last time you saw a play about a queer swordswoman? It plays at the Geffen February 4th to March 8th. Echo Theatre Company’s “Poor Clare” is the story of St. Clair of Assisi, a simple noblewoman whose life is changed and eyes opened. While the setup might not grab you, Alana Dietze is directing, and she’s done a series of stunning plays giving voice to powerful women. This one isn’t to be missed. It plays in Atwater Village March 14th to April 20th. Now, if you simply must see plays about men, here are two I’m looking forward to. Every few years, LA audiences get a chance to see Alfred Molina on stage. Pasadena Playhouse has lured him to perform in “The Father”, a French play about an elderly man struggling with dementia. The play is deeply moving and the combination of Mr. Molina and director Jessica Kubzansky should make this more than worth the trip. It plays at the Pasadena Playhouse from February 5th to March 1st. Also in February, one of my favorite LA companies Four Larks tackles “Frankenstein.” Four Larks is known for their rich immersive pieces woven with installation art, theatre, and, what they call, junkyard opera. This production at the Wallis is exciting and a little scary - because this is a big leap for the company. Part of the fun of a Four Larks show was discovering some old warehouse transformed. Will that same magic translate to Beverly Hills? I hope so - this is a company that deserves to step up. “Frankenstein” plays February 12th through March 1st. That’s just some of the exciting work in LA to get your theatrical New Year off to a good start. For my picks every week, subscribe to the weekly KCRW theatre newsletter at kcrw.com/theatre.
4 minutes | Dec 30, 2019
Best of 2019 LA Theatre: the gender act.
Okay, Best of LA Theatre 2019 part two. Last week, I shared plays that tackled race head on. This week, one last favorite production that made an audience confront how race haunts our national drama from an unlikely source: The Getty Villa. With the Getty’s mission to only do Greek and Roman plays - you’d think they might hide safely behind the statue of antiquity but even though they are only producing one fully-realized production a year, the Getty Villa has offered complicated ways to cast the classics. With this year’s adaptation “The Heal” by playwright and director Aaron Posner, an old play that traditionally is populated by white men was reinvigorated by both race and gender. Mr. Posner re-wrote Sophocles classic and re-cast the white son of Achilles as a black daughter. Odysseus was cast as a black general and the chorus was a trio of races. Suddenly a stodgy old tale became vital. Gender was the other common theme to the best plays this year. Alana Dietze brought “The Wolves” to life at Echo Theatre Company. A girl’s indoor soccer team reveals the complicated lives of teenage girls through the weekly routine of pre-game practice. Like many of the plays on this years list, this play is just the latest chapter in a longer journey. Ms. Dietze has directed a string of plays at the Echo, including “Dry Land” and “A Small Fire,” that have provided tender, poignant and fierce windows on the female experience. If you don’t know her work, you should. Brazilian director Christiane Jatahy was welcomed by REDCAT for her take on cinema, theatre and Chekhov. “What if they went to Moscow?” was her take on Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” led by a trio of three amazing actresses. Ms. Jatahy was an artist that Los Angeles discovered through Mark Murphy’s vision at REDCAT. Like the Wooster Group, LA audiences got to know not just one piece but a body of work. I hope, as REDCAT changes leadership, Angeleno’s don’t lose this window to the rest of the theatrical world. Closer to home, the Odyssey Theatre produced Maria Irene Fornes’ classic “Fefu and her friends.” This isn’t an easy play. It took over the Odyssey and had an audience travelling backstage and experiencing the narrative as it unfolded around us. Director Denise Blasor filled the theatre with eight complicated female characters who brought Fornes’ poetry to life. It’s sad in 2019 that play headed up by 8 complicated female characters is noteworthy but it is. What tied the best plays of 2019 together was more than race, gender and politics. All these plays were part of a years long journey: whether it was Cornerstone partnering with community; or directors like Gregg T. Daniels or Alana Dietze or Nancy Keystone returning to the same subjects through a variety of plays; or even the Getty Villa grappling with bringing an ancient heritage into a new century - the best of 2019 filled LA stages with stories that helped us grapple with our challenging world. Let’s hope that LA theatre remains challenging in 2020 and maybe our world - less so. Happy New Year.
4 minutes | Dec 23, 2019
“Best of 2019 LA Theatre: the race act.”
It’s time for the best of theatre of 2019. Like last year, the best theatre in Los Angeles - the theater that spoke with the clearest voice this year - was political. But where last year the politics had to do broadly with who was leading who. This year, the politics were mostly about race and gender. I want to work backwards, and quickly, because one of my favorite show is still playing. “Jitney”, at the Mark Taper Forum through December 29th - is August Wilson’s grappling with the 1970’s. This production, which won the Tony award for best revival, brings Wilson’s words to musical life. This New York production of “Jitney” was made all the sweeter - having just gotten to see Gregg T. Daniels home grown production of “Gem of the Ocean” at A Noise Within. As I’ve said more than once, Mr. Daniels is building a stunning and undeniable body of work giving voice to the African-American experience across Los Angeles theaters. His “Gem of the Ocean” navigated this tricky, spiritual play, Wilson’s most formally daring, with grace. While sadly, unlike “Jitney” - you can’t see this one - put anything Mr. Daniels is directing on your radar. Now, let’s jump all the way back to the beginning of 2019. Back in January REDCAT shared the latest chapter in the Wooster Group’s multi-year residency. The play’s title is a mouthful: “The B-Side: “Negro Folklore from Texas State Prisons,” A Record Album Interpretation.” It also contains within it a complicated world of paradoxes. “The B-Side” was a sort of response to the Wooster Group’s “Early Shaker Spirituals.” Where that piece showcased a group of white women, “The B-Side…” was a trio of black men singing a-capella spirituals from a chain gang. As an audience, it was a complicated and layered experience. There was the stunning beauty of these men’s voices but there was also a reminder of our painful collective past. “Scraps” at the Matrix was also haunted by the past and the legacy of a black man killed by the police. Act one was realistic street corner drama circling playwright Geraldine Inoa’s complex characters. Act two, if I’m candid, was a mess… but the best kind of dramatic mess: a playwright breaking open their own play, shifting formal languages and turning realism into a nightmare. Act two of “Scraps” was hard to rap your mind around but no harder than imagining a son losing his father to police brutality. Like “The B-Side…”, “Scraps” was theatre that demanded a personal reckoning. Where these plays focused on the characters that filled them, Cornerstone Theatre Company and director Nancy Keystone made the *place* the character. In “A Jordan Downs Illumination”, that place is the public housing project in Watts - Jordan Downs. Cornerstone has long done pieces that share the untold stories of community but that usually takes shape around the people. With “A Jordan Downs Illumination” that had an audience rethink a place by walking us through it. In a city where we drive by and through countless communities we’ll never truly know, to take a moment to drive to a community and catch a glimpse of it’s history was a rare Angeleno gift that could only exist here in LA. That’s just the beginning of my list - next week the best of LA theatre tackles gender. (If you can’t wait to hear the rest, subscribe to the KCRW Theatre Newsletter for a sneak peak: kcrw.com/theatre).
4 minutes | Dec 16, 2019
A male swan’s spell
I have this fantasy about Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake.” I imagine this wonderfully wholesome and naive family wandering into the show in search of a little culture. It’s a ballet after all, and Tchaikovsky. They sit through the production almost in a sorcerer's spell -- transfixed and amazed. In the car ride home, the daughter asks, bewildered, “Why were all the swans men?” And almost in unison, teenage Timmy in the back seat and Mom in the front chime in, “And why were they so sexy?” Matthew Bourne’s “Swan Lake” is the production that 24 years ago catapulted Mr. Bourne’s work into the international spotlight. Famously, he reimagines Tchaikovsky’s ballet about women trapped as swans by an evil sorcerer's spell -- into the tragic and heroic story of a closeted prince discovering a secret world of male love. It’s easy to reduce the ballet to that gesture, or to see it as a remount of an old production whose time has passed. But Mr. Bourne’s work is still beautifully relevant and vastly more complex than a single idea. If you’ve never seen one of Mr. Bourne’s ballets, they are deeply theatrical and stunning wordless narratives. He tells a story almost in the mode of a silent movie, interspersed with dance. Though no one speaks, the storyline is crystal clear and accessible. In that sense, it’s almost dance-for-people-who-can’t-handle-dance. If ballet isn’t your thing, you can hold onto the plot and make it through. But my guess is that even the most ballet-resistant among you will leave changed by the dancers. Part of the show’s particular magic is that it resists a simple, singular story. This isn’t an easy, tragic tale of a gay prince finding his gay swan. Instead, Mr. Bourne explores this gender-reversing notion with a passion and complexity that banishes any simple binary. It’s breathtaking to see a stage full of bare-chested men competing and preening and seducing -- and, yes, dancing. Seeing “Swan Lake” here and now, in L.A. in 2019, the culture seems to have caught up to Mr. Bourne's ballet rather than passed it by. And, lest we all get caught up in a naive progressive fairytale, things still end tragically. So if you’re that wonderfully wholesome and naive family looking for a little high culture with your curious teens, what better way to have a conversation about gender and sex and evil spells than gazing at a stage full of half naked men? And if you’re looking for a work of art that’s as poignant and beautiful as it was a quarter of a century ago, this “Swan Lake” fits the bill. “Swan Lake” plays at the Ahmanson Theatre downtown through January 5. For info on the show, and to subscribe to the weekly KCRW theatre newsletter with my picks for what to see and the best theatre of 2019, check out kcrw.com/theatre.
3 minutes | Dec 16, 2019
A big play in a tiny space
This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW. A couple of years ago "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" was a big play. By big I mean it got a Broadway production, it won Tony awards, it went on a national tour - you know, big play. But here's the thing, it's not really a big play in a broadway sense. It's a really beautiful small play that found it's big-ness. At it's core it's a wonderful ensemble play where a small group of actors not only play a bunch of roles - they make a whole world. This is the magic of the production at the Greenway Court a 99-seat theatre. They rediscover the heart of the play in an intimate setting. "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" is a mystery that swirls around Christopher - a fifteen year-old boy who's probably somewhere on the autism spectrum. We experience the play through his senses - which is part of what gives the show it's power and unique charm. The play's mystery seems simple at first. That dog, from the title, is found dead, murdered. Our protagonist, Christopher, is mistakenly accused of the crime and after he's vindicated - he makes it his mission to solve this curious incident. Like any good whodunnit following the clues just leads to bigger questions. Structurally, the mystery of the dog’s death fuels most of act one until the deeper mysteries of family history take over. The Greenway Court production succeeds brilliantly with Christopher and that first mystery. In a small space the immediacy of Christopher's overloaded senses become all the more present. We experience viscerally what being in an overwhelming and mystifying world feels like. And that initial dramatic engine of who killed the dog drives us through act one. Where things feel a little less surefooted are when the play shifts gears from a solvable crime -- "who killed a pet?" -- to the more unknowable or uncertain questions... "what makes a family?" or "who do we love and at what cost?" What starts as a simple story told through the eyes of a boy becomes a more complicated family drama. That's part of what helped the play's unique voice find those big productions. Without giving too much away, the second half of the play is about watching a broken family try to heal itself. We see this story in little snippets but we need those tiny details to do a lot of heavy lifting. They are where the emotional payoff comes. For all the magic of the Greenway Court's production, these little details don't pack the punch they need to and don't ground the second half of the story. But if you missed "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time," this is a great chance to see a big play in an intimate space. "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" plays at the Greenway Court Theatre in Hollywood through December For info on the show and to subscribe to the weekly KCRW theatre newsletter, check out: kcrw.com/theatre.
4 minutes | Dec 2, 2019
Punk? Or Poser?
Remember being a teenager? If you are now or ever were a teenager, you've probably had to navigate some tricky social waters. Who's cool? Who's a poser? Who are your people? Those are some of the questions at the heart of Circle X's production of "punkplay" ... but in a very particular time period. It's spring of 1985. We're in the heart of the Reagan era. We're in some teenager's bedroom in some small town. Two boys are hanging out and trying to figure out what's cool. They don't want to be preppies - god forbid! - or meatheads. They're looking for something with an edge, something that feels real. What about punk? Playwright Gregory S. Moss writes a surprisingly sweet year-in-the-life play about two boys trying on the punk rebellion. It starts with the hair - a mohawk for one - a dyed pink shock of hair for the other. Then there's t-shirts, the posters, figuring out a sick name for their two person band - but that's just the image part. Then they've got to figure out everything else: girls, porn, the cool punks (or so they seem) that they are modeling themselves on, and being teenagers - there's dabbling with intoxication. In this case a bizarre cough syrup induced hallucination where the whole room starts talking and a disturbingly sexy Ronald Reagan wants to get nasty. Super weird.And, oh yeah, did I mention they're on roller skates? Yeah, they're on roller skates. Not because there's any roller skating per se but because what better way on a raised stage to capture the tenuous nature of the teen years than by walking around on wheels. If you happened to be a teen in 1985 - you'll recognize this world deeply. If you ever smashed a record album or dabbled in a garage band or were an actual punk - you'll probably adore this play. What's surprising about this coming of age tale is despite being terribly male - it's oddly sweet and innocent (well as innocent as being a teenaged punk can be). Circle X's production is brilliantly designed. The bedroom is captured with the bland gusto of an eighties generic food aisle (remember those?). It's a white drywall box that's perched on tiny 2x4 legs as if to echo the fragility of those roller skates. The lighting feels like a punk basement club so don't be surprised when a bare halogen bulb is blaring in your eyes. And sound design? Let's just say the prologue is delivered from a boom box with a cassette tape. Like punk music, you'll recognize the outer layers of this play. You'll get the teenage uncertainty, you'll shudder at remembering your own formative years. You'll get how these two boys fall into, and seemingly out of, a simple identity. But then the play pivots, it chases after something more profound and I'm not sure it makes it all the way there. If you grew up in 80's - go. If you had a thing for punk then or now - go. If you want to see a really gifted cast bring surprising depth to what feels like it could descend into poser hell - go. "punkplay" is at Circle X Theatre in Atwater Village through December 21st. For info on the play and to subscribe to the weekly KCRW theatre newsletter, check out: kcrw.com/theatre.
4 minutes | Nov 25, 2019
A holiday cab
I’m guessing the last thing you need is another “to do” on your holiday list…but I want you to add one more. You need to go see “Jitney” at the Mark Taper Forum. This is director Ruben Santiago Hudson’s revival that won the Tony Award last year and it’s outstanding. It’s easy to forget just how rich the worlds that August Wilson wrote are. “Jitney” is the 1970’s play in August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle.” We’re in a gypsy cab station and things are changing. The neighborhood is being boarded up for new housing that never seems to get built. Somewhere in the background the Vietnam war is returning young, changed men… that echo and recognize those who returned from Korea before them. The air is thick with history: local, personal and complicated. On the wall a pay phone is constantly wringing - either carrying our ensemble or drivers out into the community to grab a quick fare or bringing news from the outside world into our world. Adding import, as if that wasn’t enough, tomorrow’s the day that Becker’s boy gets out of the penitentiary after serving 20 years. Becker’s the big man who runs the jitney station. He’s the glue holding this world together. He’s the one everyone will listen to and follow. But Becker’s been done with his son for a long time - some betrayals cut deep. You could think of “Jitney” as a father and son play and it certainly is. But what will strike you is this a complex play about an entire world. In most plays, you’re lucky if you get a strong central idea with reasonably fleshed out characters surrounding it. With “Jitney” you’ll feel yourself slipping into the neighborhood. You’ll find yourself intrigued or infuriated by every character. Even the bit players have complexity and depth. They bring with them entire personal histories that speak to a richness of experience. This ensemble of actors support Mr. Wilson’s words and bring a personal poetry to each performance. You’ll be keenly aware of what passes between the hands of these men whether it’s money or a bottle of booze or even a punch. This is a world defined by the simple human gesture - for good or ill. You’ll find yourself weighing the complicated moral calculus that Wilson poses to us. You’ll ask yourself: who’s really honorable? Who can be forgiven? And is the only irredeemable sin committed by the guy who can’t stay out of everyone’s business? Most importantly, you’ll lose yourself in a play in the best way. I know a gypsy cab play set in the 1970’s doesn’t sound like the perfect holiday outing - but if you love a good story, if you want to think and feel and consider the weight of the truth and what honor really means - it’s great theatre. Don’t miss this one - we don’t get productions this good of plays this complex often enough. “Jitney” plays at the Mark Taper Forum downtown through December 29th. For info on the show and to subscribe to the weekly KCRW theatre newsletter, check out: kcrw.com/theatre.
4 minutes | Nov 11, 2019
Theatre tip: just use white people
There’s a problem with school Thanksgiving plays. But not in the particular high school drama classroom you can see onstage at the Geffen. Logan, the drama teacher, is finally getting to make her Thanksgiving school play and it’s going to right those wrongs. She’s gotten the diversity grant that’s going to pay to bring an actress all the way from Los Angeles. And not just any actress, an actual indigenous person (imagine that!). That’s going to bring a level of cultural authenticity and sensitivity to this production . . . or so Logan thinks. That’s the setup for playwright Larissa Fasthorse’s searingly dark satire “The Thanksgiving Play.” In the classroom on the first day of rehearsal things quickly take a turn for the worse. Yes, Logan’s got her partner Jaxton there with her. He’s a brilliantly stereotypical actor yoga dude. While he is a cis-white guy he is deeply aware of both his privilege and his chakras. Which is why he’s so excited to work with a professional from LA and someone who can speak to the Indian, no native American experience. They are just so excited to hold space for this level of diversity. But then… enter Alicia, the LA actress - who, turns out, isn’t indigenous at all! (Logan fell for her ethnic headshot.) This is terrible. How can they possibly devise a theatre piece that sensitively gives voice to the indigenous experience and tell the real story of Thanksgiving - with four white people! Ouch. Welcome to the American Theatre. Larissa Fasthorse skewers white allies, hollow diversity initiatives, educational theatre, and the Pilgrims in her 90 minute dark comedy. While it’s played as farce it cuts close to the bone. While the comedy is broad enough for a general audience, if you’re a theatre person - you’ll find yourself cringing with recognition. And it’s not just the theatre that’s laid bare. In between scenes of this quartet rehearsing their educational theatre piece the stage goes dark and suddenly a web address is projected from an elementary teacher resource website. The kind of place a teacher would look for class activities. Then the actors perform one of these fun little Thanksgiving songs - that turn out to be just as cringe worthy. As if that weren’t enough, Ms. Fasthorse quotes helpful little tips like “Teacher’s comment: For fun, try having students sing “Injun” instead of “Indian.” My students loved it.” Again… ouch. Ms. Fasthorse is adding to a disturbing but essential body of work by playwrights of color who have found success (and productions) by talking about race using only white actors. Think Branden Jacob Jenkins “Appropriate” or Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men” - to name just two. The plays serve as both condemnation and a sort of conceptual evidence. Not only do they explore the exclusion of representation and the dominance of white, mostly male, stories - through the actual productions they serve as another data point that quietly screams “see, you’ll do the play if it casts white people.” As good as the Geffen’s production is, and it’s very good, you’ll get ahead of the comedy and the characters will begin to feel like foils for an argument … but no more so than anyone playing an Indian in a school pageant in thousands of schools across the country in the next few weeks. “The Thanksgiving Play” plays at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through December 6th.
4 minutes | Nov 4, 2019
Comfort food comedy with a dark side
The setup at the center of Mike Birbiglia's one-man show "The New One" is not particularly new. In fact, it's familiar trope: the reluctant dad. As dad jokes go - it's practically required. Think of the sort of happy bachelor eating pizza on the couch who suddenly is beset by a wife who wants a child. He never wanted to be a dad but ... his love for his wife gets the better of him. After a quick promise that a child won't change their life one bit, they get pregnant and, so the formula goes, dark comic hilarity ensues. And, most of the time it does. Mike Birbiglia's show at the Ahmanson follows this archetype. You'll recognize the story arc with the same warm familiarity you encounter your favorite comfort food. Chances are, if you think back to your youth, there was another comedian faithfully charting this course: the outsider, hapless father clueless in the face of this new foreign member of the family who suddenly invades domestic tranquility to dominate the household. It's fertile ground, pun intended, because being a parent, especially a new one, is such a surreal and personal experience. Yet, at the same time, fundamentally generic. It's why "funny tweets from parents" works. We long to connect our unique, and sometimes dark, struggle with others. Mike Birbiglia's particular journey starts out promisingly enough. His is that strain of one-man show done by a comic where the jokes are spun from longer narrative chunks rather than quick jokes. You might recognize him from "This American Life" or his other comedy specials. He has that quirky, underdog tone and material from the first third of the show is self-deprecating fodder focused on his foibles. Here, he's charming and witty and you get to laugh at him. He makes himself the target. Things shift a bit once the actual pregnancy hits. We are no longer laughing at his lousy swimming sperm but instead at mother and child. Here's where things take a turn. (Like comfort food, that seemed like a really good idea - until you accidentally scarf down the whole pizza.) There's no denying that moms do the really hard work of child-rearing, or as he puts it "she was doing the physical, I was doing the clerical." The question is where do you find the comedy that will speak to a theater of 2000 people? Here, Mr. Birbiglia's show struggles a bit with tone. The show's being positioned, and clearly wants to be, a sort of touching emotional tale of the reluctant father. The final moment of most reluctant father tales is the redemptive reversal into grateful dad. Predictably, that's where Mr. Birbiglia ends up - but only in the very final moments. To get there, we get a bunch of punch lines that come at mother and child's expense. Now, this darkness is part of the joke's formula. We're laughing at those dark feelings that lurk just under the surface. So a new dad admitting he understands why dads leave their children, gets a laugh but it also leaves a mark. While the show is funny, it's never transcendently so. While it has sweet moments, it's not deeply emotional. And that final redemptive turn? You might find yourself questioning it later - just like that pint of ice cream at 3am. "The New One" plays at the Ahmanson Theatre through November 24th.
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