"I like to think of this as a comedy," said playwright Bernard Velinsky, whose "Liars Poker" opens Tuesday at the Cast Theatre.
"There may be a dispute about calling it that," added the writer, whose other works include the plays "Cold Cuts," "Mothers and Husbands" and "Two-Run Double" and the 1984 Goldwyn Award-winning screenplay for "Warning Track." "But if it's staged and performed properly, it should be funny. I describe it as a comedy about the nature of defeat."
The seven-character story (which was developed earlier this year in the Cast's Foundry series) involves the regulars of a New York saloon, whose lives are thrown out of whack when one of their number comes back and tells a very bizarre story. How bizarre? "I think it'd be better if you came to the theater and found out."
As for the physical mounting, "in the Monday-to-Wednesday slot at the Cast you have to share a set," Velinsky explained. "We share ours with 'Savage in Limbo,' another New York bar play. But theirs is a dark, underground, punkish club; ours is Murphy's, a typical Irish saloon. So one big problem was staging our play around those restrictions--and also giving the set a much more homey feeling. After all, these characters come into the bar every day."
"It's about obsession, honor, the old Italian world versus the new one," noted director Jackie Cowgill of Arthur Miller's "A View From the Bridge," which recently opened at Nosotros. "A man has fallen in love with the niece he raised--and that obsession leads to his demise. It's tragedy in the Greek tradition."
Yet the staging is purely contemporary. "I've created a (racial) mix," said the multiple Drama-Logue Award winner. "Some of the characters (Italian-Americans living in Brooklyn) are played by Hispanics, some by non-Hispanics. Like other plays we've done here, we try to put Hispanics forward in non-stereotypical roles."
And still, she stressed, "This is a mainstream Equity house, not just for Hispanic audiences. I do have the responsibility of giving Hispanic actors leading roles--if they're ready. But race is irrelevant; I'm totally blind to that. And I don't adjust to their being Hispanic. It would be nice if the industry could start seeing them that way, too."
CRITICAL CROSSFIRE: Czech playwright Milan Kundera's "Jacques and His Master" (1968) opened recently at the Los Angeles Theatre Center to cheery press.
Said The Times' Sylvie Drake: "The overriding assets of Kundera's 'Jacques' are its light heart and lighter hand. Its humor sparkles unostentatiously. Its interweaving tales of lust and friendship are morally invigorating, yet the bending of the truth at their root is more enlightening than the truth itself. Curiously, this tasty comedy is a modern morality play."
From Jody Leader in the Daily News: "As Jacques (played with bawdy, childlike candor by Larry Hankin) and his master (the subtleties of David Rasche's performances are delightful) swap tales during their journey toward uncertainty ("Forward is anywhere"), Kundera seems to be expounding on man's right to freedom. The stories are repeated, interrupted and overlapped, and as the narrators jump in and out of the past and present, a kaleidoscopic, multilayered reality is created."
Noted the Herald-Examiner's Richard Stayton: "Like all great humorists, Kundera is a profoundly serious humanist, meaning he tells the best jokes. The result at LATC is a bold, exhilarating, hilarious coup de theatre . It's not merely a refreshing celebration of ideas and irony at play. . . . We're escorted by translator/director Simon Callow into a compelling stage landscape that isn't quite like any other, one sublimely punctuated by Timian Alsaker's museum detritus."
Thomas O'Connor of the Orange County Register wrote that "beneath the leering surface, there are serious issues of who is or is not master of his own fate, questions wrapped in ironic allusions by the two heroes to their omnipotent (and not necessarily kind) author. 'The history of mankind,' the servant sneers, 'has been rewritten so many times, no one knows what to believe anymore.' Director Callow's translation is lively, and his staging witty and aware."
Said Drama-Logue's Polly Warfield: "Kundera's play is based on, or rather adapted from the classic novel 'Jacques le Fataliste' by philosopher/encyclopedist Denis Diderot, and is admittedly an homage to the master, Diderot. Callow's translation in turn pays homage to Kundera. The play's picturesque central character Jacques pays homage to his aristocratic master. The master in fact pays homage to his faithful but impudent servant."
A sour note was sounded by the L.A. Weekly's Maryl Jo Fox: "Such irreverence needs a tonic bounce, spontaneity and airy mental energy in order to work; LATC's performers are guarded, tentative and heavy-footed. Traveling vaguely somewhere, Jacques and his master simply swap bawdy stories of betrayal and revenge with an innkeeper (Madge Sinclair). The stories overlap and intersect contrapuntally as does Kundera's musical approach, but so what?"