In this holiday time of America Striking Back, and Responding to Terror in the midst of Shopping, the revival of "Flower Drum Song" turned out to be just the thing for many L.A. theatergoers.
Continuing through Jan. 13, it's an anti-terror good time, something old (a 1958 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical) and something new (the book by David Henry Hwang), with many things borrowed and practically none of it blue. People are strolling out of the Mark Taper Forum humming bits of "Grant Avenue" or "I Enjoy Being a Girl," with visions of fan-flipping routines dancing in their heads. I saw it again the other week, after Jennifer Paz took over the lead from Lea Salonga, and Paz brought an unstudied warmth to the proceedings. (Salonga's charisma has its imperious side.) The revival is due on Broadway next fall. It could prove a success there as well.
"Flower Drum Song" capped the year with a song and a smile. And yet the evening of theater to which I keep returning in what I informally characterize as "my mind," staked out a darker corner of the world.
It was Murray Mednick's "Joe and Betty," staged by Padua Playwrights Productions at L.A.'s wee 2100 Square Feet space on San Vicente. Chief among its rewards was a performance by Annabelle Gurwitch (co-host of TBS' "Dinner and a Movie") unlike any I've seen. We've all witnessed our share of stage eccentrics and lost souls. But as Mednick's Betty--a 1951 Catskills housewife whose life is a dissonant symphony of regret--Gurwitch created a supple, superb characterization from the simplest elements. A runny nose. A mirthless laugh. Repeated requests for the only thing her loutish husband is good for: "Where's the money, Joe?" Without a speck of unnecessary pathos, Gurwitch fit "Joe and Betty" like a tailored glove, tattered but against all odds, still holding together.
Mednick's play, unrelenting in its staccato rhythm, wasn't for all tastes. (Gurwitch and most of the L.A. cast will remount the piece in February at the Chashana Theater in New York City.) But that's the thing about the wobbly vastness of L.A. theater: Nothing about it is for all tastes, perhaps because so much of what comes out of the dominant industries here, even in an increasingly niched market, is designed for a mythical Everyaudience.
Top 10, in alphabetical order:
"The Beard of Avon" (South Coast Repertory). Shakespeare's life, times and luck, as imagined by the antic comic sensibility of Amy Freed.
"The Circle" (South Coast Repertory). Paxton Whitehead, William "Biff" McGuire and Carole Shelley reveled in the old W. Somerset Maugham vehicle.
"Don Carlos" (Evidence Room). Friedrich Schiller's historical tragedy doesn't get around much; director Bart DeLorenzo's lean but stylish staging made it seem overdue indeed.
"Flower Drum Song" (Mark Taper Forum). Director-choreographer Robert Longbottom gave Hwang's raffish new version of the musical a nice sheen.
"In Real Life" (Mark Taper Forum). Charlayne Woodard's struggling-actress stories, energized in performance by none other than Charlayne Woodward.
"Joe and Betty" (Padua Playwrights Productions). A marriage corroded by secrets, lies and miscues. Mednick's pitch-black comedy dug deeply into the writer's life and came back with a winner.
"Red" (East West Players). Chay Yew's play, enlivened by three exceptional performances by Emily Kuroda, Page Leong and Jeanne Sakata.
"The Seagull" (Actors' Gang). Georges Bigot's expansive, resonant take on the Chekhov classic showed off the Actors' Gang ensemble about 15 times more effectively than the companion effort, "Mephisto."
"Twelfth Night" (Globe Theatres, San Diego). A lovely, painterly vision of Illyria, graced by director Jack O'Brien's flowing images.
"The Weir" (Geffen Playhouse). Irish ghost stories, delivered just so by a supple ensemble.
Best of the touring productions: "Dame Edna" (Shubert Theatre) and "Charlie Victor Romeo" (UCLA). One proved a guy in a dress really is a fresh comic notion; the other proved that, before Sept. 11, airplane disasters could make for uniquely unsettling theater.
Biggest noise on Broadway: "The Producers." No ticket price too high. No joke too cheap. It'll take more than Osama bin Laden to put a dent in this show's grosses.
Michael Phillips is leaving The Times to become chief theater critic at the Chicago Tribune.