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Upscale and so trashy

July 31, 2009|Charles McNulty; Charlotte Stoudt; David C. Nichols

In "The Pain and the Itch," now at Boston Court, playwright Bruce Norris takes a baleful look at an upscale white family afflicted with spiritual and ethical scabies. Every time you think these cringe-inducing characters can't descend any lower, they discover a new mucky bottom.

All credit, then, to this co-production between the Theatre @ Boston Court and Furious Theatre Company, directed by Damaso Rodriguez, for not slipping into monstrous caricature. Even when we're laughing derisively, we can't help recognizing patterns in hypocrisy, denial, narcissism and greed.

It's Thanksgiving, and meek and mild Clay (Brad Price) has gathered his nearest and dearest. In attendance are his ticked-off wife, Kelly (Vonessa Martin ), carting their baby in her stylish papoose, and squealing toddler daughter Kayla (Ava Feldman at the reviewed performance), whose alarming genital rash has given rise to the play's title.

Clay's brash plastic surgeon brother, Cash (Scott Lowell), has brought along his vibrantly tacky Eastern European girlfriend (Katie Marie Davies). And Clay and Cash's mom (Jennifer Rhodes) is also visiting, which allows us to speculate on the origins of the sons' dysfunctional temperaments.

On the theatrical sidelines, Mr. Hadid (Kevin Vavasseur) watches a reenactment of what occurred on that fateful November day, when a family's festering grievances wound up poisoning his own life.

Bruising and biting, "The Pain and the Itch" belabors its shocking secrets. Rodriguez should have picked up the pace in the last half hour, though hats off to his cast for making the increasingly farcical momentum plausibly malicious.

-- Charles McNulty

"The Pain and the Itch," Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Aug. 23. $27 to $32. (626) 683-6883. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.

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The power of a couple's stories

The married tramps of Eugene Ionesco's "The Chairs" could be Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard, a few decades after "Modern Times": hard-luck cases still trying to eke it out on moxie. In City Garage's dynamic but uninvolving production, the shabby General Factotum (Bo Roberts) entertains his wife, Semiramis (Cynthia Mance), with tales of the past, while she reminds him of missed opportunities.

But all is about to change. After years of obscurity, the general will proclaim his worldview to an invited audience, his speech to be delivered by an acclaimed orator (Garth Whitten).

Charles Duncombe's elegantly dilapidated set features a series of doors and windows standing in empty space -- portals to nowhere. This 1952 absurdist classic doesn't exactly skimp on metaphor and can feel like an extended acting exercise: Performers have to relate to a string of invisible party guests and convey the sense of drowning in a crowd.

Director Frederique Michel deftly choreographs the players' manic party preparations, but the sense of mortality that pervades "The Chairs" never quite snowballs into the desperate euphoria it should. Mance and Roberts, possibly too vigorous to play a couple sliding into senescence, adroitly sketch a relationship kept alive through storytelling.

When they yield the floor to the orator, however, the rest is silence.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

"The Chairs," City Garage, 1340 1/2 4th St., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 13. $15 to $25. (310) 319-9939. Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

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A painful chapter in race relations

On July 17, 1944, two massive explosions ripped through the Port Chicago Navy Munitions base near San Francisco. Most of the 320 men killed were African American sailors loading weapons, as the Navy did not permit them to serve in combat. When a group of black seamen refused to go back to work under similarly volatile conditions, they were charged with mutiny.

This little-remembered but extraordinary chapter in American race relations is the subject of Paul Leaf's absorbing courtroom drama, "Mutiny at Port Chicago," now at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica.

The walls of Christina Silvoso's stark set are covered with phrases from enlistment oaths and the primary documents of American liberty. These estimable words surround the linguistic skirmish between Seaman Little (J. Teddy Garces), de facto leader of the striking men, and the Navy's prosecutor (Cris D'Annunzio).

What's unspoken, of course, is the diminished value the Navy put on black lives.

Leaf captures courtroom fencing with economical wit. But the play never quite gets inside its characters and retains the distanced feel of a history lesson. As Little, however, Garces gives a powerfully understated performance, while Maury Sterling's defense counsel is a wry hero straight out of Howard Hawks.

Leaf might consider revising "Mutiny" to give his juicy characters the dramatic space they deserve.

-- Charlotte Stoudt

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