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'Birthday' Celebrates the Cycles of Life


It's their party, and they'll cry if they want to.

Cornerstone Theater Company is celebrating its 10th anniversary with "Birthday of the Century," Shishir Kurup's bittersweet and most unusual concept play about one Los Angeles family from 1902 to the present. The show runs through Sunday at the outdoor Watercourt Stage in downtown Los Angeles.

Inspired by Thornton Wilder's "The Long Christmas Dinner," "Birthday" checks in with its representative Angeleno clan every few years on June 30--which happens to be the birthday of one fictional family member and, not coincidentally, of Cornerstone itself. With characteristic ingenuity, the company has underscored the theme by casting in its 29-member ensemble a number of amateur and professional actors who share that birthday.

One always looks forward to a show at Cornerstone, if for no other reason than to see how director Bill Rauch will make bold use of some theater-hostile space (the company's signature is to invade such community venues as shopping malls and community centers). And "Birthday," which charges no admission, is likewise worth a trip, although it's a bit more downbeat and disjointed, not to mention less visually striking, than a Cornerstone fan might expect.

The story unfolds through four generations of the Angeles family, led by mother Ava (Page Leong) and father Oscar (Paris Barclay); the birthday parties for their child Lee (played by a series of male and female actors) provide a structural basis of sorts. The family is generally understood to be Latino, though they morph into Japanese Americans during World War II.

Confusing? Absolutely. Between the multiple casting and frequent time jumps, "Birthday" can prove very difficult to follow. And while it's not necessary for a play to adhere to the Aristotelian unities, suddenly switching characters' ethnicities midstream may be going a little too far.

But that's not to say that once viewers get their bearings, "Birthday" can't be appreciated, like Wilder's "Our Town," as a humble celebration of the life cycle. Indeed, at times the show seems more concerned with death than birth. Each character's passing is symbolized by his or her disappearance under a foreboding orange-and-purple mural, stage right. (A procession of nurses bearing June 30 babies passes under an opposite mural, albeit with less fanfare.)


One wishes that, in the end, the show amounted to a little more. The birthday motif, while interesting, is allowed to atrophy into a series of cliched generational spats about wars, politics and the like. Each time shift is signaled by a different musical cue, such as the Beatles' "In My Life." Meanwhile, the characters themselves remain curiously, perhaps deliberately, indistinct.

As director, Rauch is a more muted presence than usual. But he has still found ways to take advantage of the odd environment at California Plaza, where office buildings form a canyon surrounding the amphitheater. Kurup and other band members are perched on a platform in a nearby pool, like frogs on a lily pad. One favorite touch involved the stagehands, who don wading boots to slosh through the pool and deliver props to the actors.

* "Birthday of the Century," California Plaza (Watercourt Stage), 350 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Friday-Sunday, 8:30 p.m. Ends Sunday. Free. (310) 449-1700. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

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