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Fri12062019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Frankly, I was uncomfortable going to see Clybourne Park, Dezart Performs’ latest production.

The setting for this “Black (and White) Comedy by Bruce Norris,” as the play’s poster says, is Chicago—in 1959 for Act 1, then fast-forwarding 50 years to the same house in 2009 for Act 2. The show won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2011, as well as the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012, and it requires a cast of eight—a sea change for Dezart, which until previous show Casa Valentina, always kept the cast size small (possibly because of those dressing rooms?).

The play deals with the always-awkward topic of race and real estate. My husband, Ted, was born in Chicago, and we have discussed the way his city divided up into enclaves dominated by Italians, Greeks, Germans, Scandinavians and African Americans. For those who can remember the bad old days of segregated neighborhoods and the “blockbusting” that took place, this play could serve as an unpleasant reminder. Yes, it’s important for the generations who have followed to be informed of this country’s often-dark history, lest we romanticize the past by forgetting how life really was back then … but I concede I was uncomfortable seeing a play tackle such an awkward topic.

But … what a surprise: This production is amazing! The writing is just astonishing. The conversation is completely realistic, with people butting in, cutting each other off, misinterpreting and talking when they should be listening. Clybourne Park is a magnificent example of playwright Bruce Norris’ magisterial command of the language and his shrewd understanding of people.

The direction by Michael Shaw is incredibly impressive, with his steady hand guiding the actors to performances even and strong throughout. He gets credit for total success with the extraordinarily difficult lines. (He confided to me afterward that the greatest part of their rehearsals was spent perfecting the speeches and dialogue, some of which require a language warning.) Each of the actors was allowed to develop his or her character(s) so the “voice” of each role is clarion clear. But it is the director’s prodigious talent and multiple skills that create the play’s consistency of tone. The blocking is also textbook perfection. Wow.

And the acting … oh my! Everyone is a “character”—well, actually, two. The whole cast (with one exception) plays two roles: One in 1959, and a different individual in 2009. One of the delights of this production is seeing the characters the actors have developed. We watch a complete person in each act—the good, bad and ugly. We see their pain, their tempers, their sweetness and their struggles. We glimpse their past history and get to know them more intimately than you’d think the time would permit.

David Youse opens the first act and dominates it; he’s a lit fuse we fear will explode—but when? His Russ is a man-in-a-grey-flannel-suit type, but we see so much more danger simmering beneath his surface. We search for a clue about his repressed anger, but dread finding it. His second-act role of Dan is a chameleonic contrast—he’s a blasé construction worker with a totally different voice, stance and attitude. What fun! Now THIS is acting.

Playing his wife, Bev, in Act 1 is Theresa Jewett. She’s a perfect product of 1950s-era women’s magazines and advertising—not just in her voice and appearance, but also in her dizzy attitude and even her belief system. But watch that heart-shaped face manage an enormous range of emotions—the way she handles a distancing husband, her black housekeeper, or her painful memories. She transmogrifies for Act 2 into Kathy, a feisty blonde lawyer with attitude—a delicious contrast, and equally believable.

Desiree Clarke in Act 1, plays Francine, a black maid who expertly balances the subservience of a domestic with her own dignity and her inborn sense of right and wrong. She is beautifully complex, and she gains our respect. In Act 2, Clark becomes Lena, a new-millennium woman with power and a strong sense of self which she asserts fearlessly but quietly. Her flawless diction is lovely.

Robert Rancano is Jim, a hapless cleric whose rigid adherence to his teachings and rather poor understanding of his parishioners makes him, despite his great voice, an ineffective and predictable minister. Rancano creates this memorable character by making him forgettable. In Act 2, he’s Tom, who is supposed to be leading this meeting about the contract, but is preoccupied and distracted. Rancano gives a subtle performance that required a lot of thinking.

Robert Ramirez creates the role of Albert, the husband of Francine, striving to appear at ease in this Act 1 white household. Ramirez gives a multi-layered performance almost entirely with his extraordinarily expressive eyes. He draws our attention with few words but plenty of reaction. In Act 2, he becomes Kevin, married to Lena, a smart and confident professional with nothing left to prove about himself. You like him in both of his well-developed roles.

Rob Hubler appears as Karl in Act 1, and earns our great admiration thanks to his willingness to appear foolish. A well-meaning bungler, his friendship is almost a liability, despite his sincerity and his fine voice. Hubler adroitly switches to Steve in Act 2, playing a stronger person who comes to surprise us—and his wife—with his odd and previously unexpressed views.

The extraordinary role of Betsy, played by Phylicia Mason, gives us a dear character who is not only pregnant, but deaf. She is very credible, including the gentle forgiveness she shows her husband, Karl, as he misspells his sign language (yes, I caught that), and to people who thoughtlessly turn away from her while speaking—or who stupidly yell at her, hoping to be heard. Lovely acting! In Act 2, she is uncomfortably pregnant AGAIN, but this time as Lindsay, married to Steve, and now is a very vocal, assertive and even sometimes shrill creature.

The lone character who plays just one role is Sean Timothy Brown, who is Kenneth. He appears as a perfect military prototype—handsome, tall and fit, looking fabulous in uniform. We don’t know him long enough to appreciate all of his subtleties, but he is hugely affecting with his air of tragedy in this flashback. Again, we are reminded how effective even a small role can be.

Kudos to the cast, the director the entire supportive crew of this play for a job superbly done. Clybourne Park is the surprise of the season, with its controversial, occasionally offensive and sometimes hilarious script. Don’t doubt that you will be surprised by it, too.

Clybourne Park, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25 to $30. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

It’s a very good thing that the latest production by Desert Rose Playhouse, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches, has settled in for a six-week run. That gives a large percentage of valley theater-lovers the chance to see it.

And they should.

The play, which won a Tony, a Drama Desk Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993, is an ambitious undertaking. The only way to do Kushner’s powerful script justice is with amazing acting—and director Jim Strait’s cast delivers.

The story is set in 1985. Ronald Reagan is president, and AIDS has begun ravaging the gay population. We meet two couples: Prior Walter (Nick Edwards), who is battling the disease, and his lover, Louis Ironson (Daniel Gutierrez); and Joe Porter Pitt (Alex Updike), a devout Mormon lawyer in denial about his homosexuality, and his unstable, Valium-addicted wife, Harper (Allison Feist).

Joe has gone to work for gruff, conservative Roy Cohn (Eliott Goretsky), who is also closeted and battling AIDS, but refuses to accept the diagnosis. Cohn believes gay men are weak and powerless; he refers to his illness as cancer instead. Meanwhile, Louis cannot handle the realities of the disease, and cruelly abandons Prior when the first Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions appear.

Interfacing with both patients is AIDS hospital-ward nurse Belize (the superb Robert Ramirez). Doing double duty as the fur-coat-wearing Mr. Lies, Ramirez is caring, campy, hilarious and viciously witty all at the same time.

When Joe finally comes out of the closet, his mother, Hannah (Adina Lawson), travels from Salt Lake City to try to push him back in.

Director Jim Strait (who also designed the set, sound and projections) brings out the best in each member of his stellar cast. Each actor is a standout.

Nick Edwards rips your heart out as the dying Prior. His depiction of what AIDS does to the body is wrenching. This is an award-winning performance. As his Jewish lover, Louis, Daniel Gutierrez ably portrays a mix of guilt and callousness. His performance occasionally seemed to lack just a bit of energy, but that may have been an artistic choice for the character.

Goretsky’s Roy Cohn (based on the real political figure) is fabulous: dark, cynical, condescending and yet charismatic as he spews profanity at clients and barks orders at underlings over the phone. Just as strong is Alex Updike as the conflicted Joe. Talk about issues: He has the ultimate glass-half-empty guy, Roy Cohn, for a boss; a pill-popping, delusional wife; and a sexual attraction to men that he refuses to acknowledge. Updike’s emotional pain is palpable.

As Joe’s beleaguered wife, Harper, Allison Feist is impressive. I’ve seen this young actress in a number of productions now, and she never disappoints. She’s got a long career ahead of her.

Loren Freeman—a standout in the recent A Queer Carol—is terrific here as well in several cameos (The Angel, Nurse, Sister Ella Chapter, A Homeless Woman in the Bronx). He exudes presence, which is something you cannot teach.

Rounding out the cast is the amazingly versatile Adina Lawson. She also plays multiple parts, hitting each one out of the ballpark. Unrecognizable as a rabbi in the show’s opening, she is also notable as the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a woman executed for being a Soviet spy. I can’t help but grin each time I go to a show and see her name in the program; I know the audience is in for a treat.

This play is challenging technically, and Desert Rose rises to the occasion. There are lots of quick scene changes, and they are executed quite well. Phil Murphy should take a bow for his prism lightning design during those changes; it is beautiful and quite effective. Designer Tom Valach creates just the right dramatic tone with the angel costume, and the other costumes, hair and makeup are spot on.

The Desert Rose Playhouse is producing Angels in America as its annual Gay Heritage Production. Desert Rose is the Coachella Valley’s only LGBT and gay-positive stage company, and most everything the playhouse does is edgy and often pushes the envelope. So be warned: This show does contain brief full frontal nudity and a fairly graphic depiction of gay sex. Also keep in mind the show is 3 1/2 hours long—although the time whizzes by.

This play is not for the faint of heart; it touches on love, sex, death, betrayal, greed, bigotry, addiction and the afterlife. It will shake you to your core—and might make you look at what you’re doing with the time you have left on this Earth.

It’s damn good theater. Don’t miss it.

Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 21, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Evening tickets are $33; matinee tickets are $30. Running time is 3 1/2 hours, with two 10-minute intermissions. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

October 1962 was a crazy time in the United States. The Cuban Missile Crisis had the world on the verge of nuclear war. Deadly riots after the first black student was admitted to the University of Mississippi had the country on edge.

Cultural change was afoot as well: Rock ’n’ roll was taking the country by storm, and some women, in some places, could gain control over their own bodies thanks to “the pill.” Oh, and kids were starting to wear sneakers to school. Yes, God forbid, sneakers.

This is the world in which the Whitebottom family of Worcester, Mass., finds itself in Duck and Cover, the dramatic comedy currently on the Palm Springs Womans Club stage, compliments of Dezart Performs. The organization’s mission is to present newer works of theater, and this is the West Coast premiere of Michael Kimball’s play. He should be proud of the fun, if flawed, production it is receiving from Dezart Performs and director Judith Chapman.

We first meet the Whitebottom family as the father, Hugh, is quizzing his 12-year-old son, Stevie, on state capitals and proper knot-tying. The mother, Claire, looks on, as the friendly neighborhood milkman, Mr. Rippit, drops by. We soon learn that Hugh served our country during World War II on a submarine, and that Stevie wants to be an electrical engineer when he grows up. The scene is straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting—at first.

We soon start to see small cracks in this all-American scene: Hugh chastises Claire for mentioning a financial matter “with strangers,” and makes Stevie feel stupid for dangerously leaving the door unlocked. Yes, Hugh’s a bit domineering—and we sense early on that this is going to become a problem at some point for the Whitebottoms.

The family’s relative peace is thrown into total disarray with the sudden arrival of Bunny, Claire’s brother. He shows up wearing tattered pajamas and holding a trumpet—the one thing he was able to save from the fire that has just destroyed his apartment. Hugh’s not a fan of his musician brother-in-law; he begrudgingly lets Bunny stay, but only until the end of November, and only if he pays $10 per week as rent.

A little later, the family is thrown into further turmoil when Eddie, a—gasp!—black man!—arrives. Turns out he’s a nice guy who is Bunny’s friend and co-worker, but his arrival sends Stevie fearfully scurrying into the bedroom, and leaves Claire wondering whether she’s ever seen a “negro” in person before.

Any play starring Yo Younger and Michael Shaw (Michael, I should disclose, is a good friend of mine) has a lot going for it; after all, they’re two of the best actors working in the valley today. True to form, Younger is amazing; she is, by far, the best thing about this production. She fully inhabits the role of Claire as she transforms from a put-on-a-happy-face housewife into a woman who decides she finally needs to put her foot down to protect her brother, her son and—most importantly—her own self-interests. This is a flawless, fantastic performance; Younger is so good that, at times, you may be tempted to race to the stage to give her a hug as she struggles to reconcile her needs with her reality.

Shaw, on the other hand, falls a bit short in his characterization of Hugh. The lines Hugh is given reminded one of my fellow play-goers of Archie Bunker—Hugh is a domineering bully of a man who declares repeatedly that in HIS house, and with HIS family, HE is the one who makes the rules. While Shaw brings plenty of bluster and frustration to the character, he doesn’t amp up the domination and anger quite enough; it’s hard to believe that Stevie and Claire would be so fully under the thumb of this Hugh. It’s only when Hugh shows off his lovable and noble traits—most notably in a scene near the end of the play when he cries out that all he really wants to do is protect his family from the turmoil of the world that surrounds them—that Shaw truly shines.

Local middle-schooler Stephen Lee is perfectly cast as the awkward, nerdy Stevie, while Scott Smith is good as Bunny; he’s especially good when expressing the adoration he feels for his dear sister, Claire. Hal O’Connell brings a lot of laughs as Mr. Rippit, the milkman who, we learn as the play progresses, is delivering more than dairy products to some of his customers. Robert Ramirez is strong in the first act as Eddie, although he descends a bit too far into stereotypes in the second.

All of the technical aspects of the play, per usual at Dezart Performs, are excellent, with one notable exception: The set. It’s a gorgeous, detailed, technically flawless piece of work, and may well be the best set that could have possibly been designed for the smallish stage at the Womans Club’s Pearl McManus Theater. Problem is, this play feels a bit too big for this stage: A living room, a kitchen and Stevie’s bedroom are all crammed in, and this leads to some awkward blocking by the characters, especially when four or more people are on stage at once.

Kimball’s script has some hilarious lines; I laughed out loud at least a half-dozen times. Still, the book could use some smoothing out. The characters’ transformations at the end seemed unrealistically sudden, and one moment—involving Stevie and Mr. Rippit—came off as downright creepy.

These issues aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Duck and Cover. It’s a funny and, at times, moving piece of theater that will leave you smiling as the talented actors take their bows. Don’t miss it.

Duck and Cover, a production of Dezart Performs, is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 8, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Womans Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $22 to $25. For tickets or more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit dezartperforms.org.

Published in Theater and Dance