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Fri05242019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

It’s about math.

Oh no! Math was my worst subject in school, and here we are confronted with Proof, a play about real mathematical geniuses—the kind you see standing in front of an entire blackboard filled with incomprehensible squiggles. The Desert Ensemble Theatre Company has brought Proof to the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club—but even if you are as bad as I am with numbers, there is nothing to fear.

Proof, written by David Auburn, won the Pulitzer and the Tony in 2001. The setting, here designed by Lauren Bright with lighting by Ashton J. Bolanos, is a modest Chicago home’s back yard. The house is inhabited by a math professor and his adult daughter, whom we meet in the first scene.

Robert (Larry Dyekman) emerges from the house to find his daughter Catherine (Kelley Moody) has fallen asleep outdoors at 1 a.m. She is dressed (by costume designer Frank Cazares) in awful moth-eaten sweat pants, bedroom slippers and an oversized cranberry cardigan. Her sulky attitude and slovenly appearance, however, can’t hide Moody’s flawless complexion and bountiful hair, and she gives us a finely tuned interpretation of her role. Dyekman, in a well-thought-out and underplayed performance that shows off his skills, is a believable father and mathematician. The two converse about their relationship, his “illness,” her inherited math aptitude and, oh yes, the fact that he is … how shall I put this … dead.

In the next scene, we meet Hal, played by a perfectly cast Sam Benson Smith; Hal is a former student of Robert’s who is now a math professor himself at age 28. He is the quintessential nerd, with all the assets of a genius—for example, he’s also a drummer in a rock band with other dweeb mathematicians by night, and he wears a red T-shirt with the symbol for pi emblazoned on the front. “I owe him,” Hal says about Robert, ferreting through the great man’s countless notebooks that were left behind, trying to discover what he was working on in his final years. The audience sees Hal only in profile for about 99 percent of the time he is onstage—an unusual choice. (See how I used numbers there?)

Fireworks explode between Hal and Catherine when she accuses him of theft, and we begin to unravel the story of her battle with higher education. (She dropped out.) There are many references to that unanswerable conundrum: How much of genius is inherited, and how much of it is affected by education and environment? And what, besides our brains, do we inherit from our parents? Their problems, too? Also: How insane do you need to be to warrant being locked up? Where does a savant’s eccentricity leave off and incomprehensibility start? What pushes brainiac people over the line into actual mental illness?

Enter Claire, Catherine’s sister now living in New York, to take charge, smoothly played by Lee Rice. Contrasts between sisters are endlessly fascinating, and director Jerome Elliott—also the company’s artistic director—has, with assistant director Sierra Barrick, made the most of the comparisons here. You will particularly like one scenario in which the two girls assume the exact same arms-folded position (always the default stance for Claire), with both staring forward like ancient Egyptian statues as they converse. Rice offers a masterful performance, with crisp gestures, keen focus, great diction, clever use of her eyes and some excellent “takes.”

Mathematicians, we are told, peak at about the age of 23, and feel it is all downhill from there. It is a closed community with plenty of jealousy and childish behavior … but they apparently really love to party, too! Each one is desperately searching for that special equation, formula or theorem that will help make their name historic. Their lives revolve around that search and discovery, and its “proof.” That, apparently, is the Holy Grail in this field—when all other mathematicians must accept and agree with your new truth. In this vein, Act 1 ends with possibly the best cliffhanger ever.

In Act 2, we are treated to a flashback from four years before—so Dad returns, bringing with him a couple of actual laughs, as opposed to the rather grim mood of Act 1. Robert is a silver fox with an expressive face and natural gestures—but Catherine dreads having to pay the same price that her father did for his gift. “The machinery,” he calls his mind. Yet how many of his issues might just be sleep deprivation, or other ancillary problems?

We wonder a lot about this very cerebral play. For example, why is the wife/mother never mentioned by Claire or Catherine or Robert—even once? Why are there so many F-bombs dropped? Although Claire is apparently a currency analyst, which would certainly require smarts, why did she not inherit the same size gift for numbers that Catherine did? What is the cost for each IQ point? Is it better to forgo the big gift and be better adjusted, more stable, in “real” life? “Mathematicians are insane,” declares one character.

There is very little action in this play; it all takes place above the neck. So the actors are given lots of difficult lines, which they all manage well. However, there are some errors being made onstage, such as shuffling feet—not a good idea on this stage’s squeaky floor boards—or pretending to drink but forgetting to also pretend to swallow, or dropping the volume at the end of a sentence.

Proof is a well-acted play—and you don’t have to be good with numbers to enjoy it.

Proof, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 24, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $25, and the play runs about two hours, with one intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

A play set in a 1940s radio station in Chicago—now, how much opportunity for fun is that?

Playwright Tony Padilla is directing the world premiere of his The Thespian Radio Hour at the Pearl McManus Theatre at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, on behalf of the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company. Padilla has been lauded for his plays, receiving the Desert Theatre League’s Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Writing and the Joan Woodbury Mitchell Award for his impact on local theater—and he’s received international recognition as well.

The writing here is solid. Padilla uses the stereotypes of early radio personalities to make his case. Linda Cooke, for example, plays crusty producer Agnes Cohen, who fusses and worries about everything, endlessly bossing everyone around. Her sidekick, the youthful Steve Randy, played by Nick Wass, is the unappreciated kid who directs the actors and narrates the broadcast and writes the scripts and commercials (while trying to date every girl in the cast) … because that’s how it was done back then. Larry Dyekman is Hamilton Sterling, the suavely aging debonair matinee idol, complete with ascot. Bonnie Gilgallon (an Independent contributor—my fellow theater reviewer!) is Ellen Haze (not Helen Hayes, as everyone has to find out), a voluptuous but fading femme fatale actress with the greatest legs who is battling the passing of the years, but who has learned bags of showbiz tricks along the way. Kelley Moody is cute and perky newcomer ingénue Lilly Darling—talented, ambitious and untroubled by scruples that might prevent her from forging ahead in her career. Hal O’Connell very believably plays a serious businessman, Waldo Burns, whom we don’t meet until the second act—but he is the great hope of the rest of the cast, as he is considering sponsorship of the show which would save all their jobs (and sponsorship is still a huge concern in radio even today). 

While the writing in this world premiere play is indeed solid, Padilla missed a great opportunity for comedy through revealing these radio actors’ real names. Some can be terribly funny. Perhaps the best example ever was author Paul Gallico’s character, a wannabe actress called Pamela Penrose, but whose mail still came addressed to “Enid Snite” (say it out loud). It’s no secret that most of our old movie stars changed their names to WASP pseudonyms. We all know that Tony Curtis was Bernie Schwartz, Kirk Douglas was Issur Danielovitch, John Wayne was Marion Robert Morrison, Cary Grant was Archibald Leach, and so on. Plus, in the world of radio, it was (and sometimes still is) customary for announcers to use “air names” rather than their real names, so they could change monickers when they changed jobs.

Just a thought—because we need more from this cast. The characters need to be more vain, self-obsessed, selfish and ruthless if they are to excite our horror at the way they all try to seduce their possible sponsor. But here, we got the feeling that this was business as usual, ho hum. There was a lack of depth in these portrayals—which is too bad, as this new play is rife with possibilities.  Maybe the cast needs to research some old ’40s movies like the “film noir” ones that gave us such unforgettable performances (think Bogie/Bacall). They need more and brighter colors in their palettes. Because now, the play’s only real surprise comes from something that happens to Gilgallon’s character. Well, that and Waldo’s little secret …

Another thought: Back then in radio, a professional actor’s diction was hugely important. Actors enunciated every word super-flawlessly, even in their real lives. However, in this play, some of this actors’ pronunciations were inconsistent, and occasionally just lazy lipped.

My most serious question about this script is the use of vulgarities which would surely have gotten a radio station turfed off the air back then. To call someone an “old bastard” on the air would have brought the screaming censors running … and to say into a microphone that someone was “talking out of your ass”—besides it being an anachronism—would have shut down the station immediately. WC Fields once got a radio station permanently closed for saying something like that. (Don’t ask.)

Other concerns: Could a woman really have been a producer back then, in what was an almost completely male-dominated field? Also: Why was the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile” included? It added nothing to the plot and it interrupted the timing. Moody did it nicely, but, try as we might, we can’t find a reason for its inclusion.

It’s important to note, again, that this show is a premiere—meaning there’s time and room for this brand-new play to be tightened up and improved as it moves forward. There are some clever and delightful comedic touches in this script. For example, the name of the former sponsor of the radio show is SHM, or Still Here Mortuary. Yikes! And the title of the play these actors are performing is The Last Nail in His Coffin, which is perfect melodrama. More, please!

Also, gratitude goes to Tony Padilla for choosing to not having his characters smoke, which apparently EVERYONE did in the mid-1040s … cough, hack, gasp … although with these new e-cigarettes the actors could possibly have strutted the look without suffocating the audience.

So what this play needs more of is what’s called “comedic attitude.” Director Padilla may have to surrender his famously laid-back style and lean hard on his cast to bring out the silliness and fun in them that would enhance playwright Padilla’s script. Right now, they’re taking themselves seriously, when what they need is to find the funny.

This play has so much potential, and I hope the actors can rise to the challenge of doing the work to take it from “amusing” up to maybe even “hilarious” on the comedy scale.

The Thespian Radio Hour, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, March 18, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $20. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

Given the hatred and divisiveness our country’s socio-political climate has stirred up, Desert Rose Playhouse’s current production, Southern Baptist Sissies, seems timelier than ever.

Del Shores’ play, which won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding L.A. Theatre Production during its original run in 2000, skillfully illustrates the painful conflict faced by homosexuals of faith who long to remain part of a church community that rejects the very essence of who they are.

The play tells the stories of four young men coming of age in Dallas. Each boy is trying to come to terms with his burgeoning homosexuality while also remaining an active member of the congregation at Calvary Baptist Church.

Mark (Joseph Tanner Paul), who also serves as the narrator, is sarcastic and bitter over the church’s narrow-mindedness about gays and its rigid rules for life—“So in God’s eyes, eating shrimp is just as bad as sucking cock.” Mark is a pivotal role, and Paul nails it. He’s a strong presence onstage—funny, acerbic and angry, yet often incredibly vulnerable.

Mark is strongly attracted to T.J. (the charismatic, well-built Cody Frank), who is in major denial about his own preference for men: “I am living a normal life with a woman—the way God intended, and I am happy!” T.J. spouts Bible verses and feigns interest in women, while brushing off a youthful sexual encounter with Mark as insignificant. Frank makes T.J.’s inner turmoil quite believable.

The sensitive, guilt-ridden Andrew (German Pavon) is the first of the quartet to accept Jesus as his personal savior. He prays fervently by day and secretly explores gay nightclubs by night. Andrew’s nightly fantasies are not of sweaty sex, but of caresses and a gentle male voice assuring him that he will always be taken care of. Pavon’s acting is quite effective; he makes the audience want to wrap him in a giant hug.

By far the boldest of the four boys is Benny (the amazing, androgynous Ben Heustess), who wholeheartedly embraces his gayness, dressing in drag and lip-syncing to Shania Twain songs with great glee. I cannot imagine anyone else playing this part. Heustess is riveting—you cannot take your eyes off him. He excels not only as a female impersonator, but also at revealing the character’s deep inner pain.

Calvary’s preacher (the perfectly cast Larry Dyekman) holds forth with typical fire and brimstone, adamant that obedience to God is always the answer.

Local favorite Joey English is effective and holds her own as the mothers of each of the four young men. She has some of the show’s best lines. When discussing her trailer-park neighbor with the preacher, she quips, “She’s Catholic, you know—just one step off from them Jee-hovah’s Witnesses.”

Throughout the play, we are treated to brief scenes at a gay-themed bar called the Rose Room. There, we watch the growing friendship between the alcoholic Odette (Linda Cooke) and the equally booze-loving Peanut (Hal O’Connell). Both have many regrets in life, and there are some serious moments—but most of their interaction is a hoot. Odette repeatedly refers to “an unfortunate incident I’d rather not discuss right now” and admits that “when you give head like me, word gets out.” Cooke and O’Connell have fabulous chemistry and provide some of the show’s biggest laughs.

Rounding out the superb cast is Douglas Wilson as both church organist Brother Chaffey and lounge-pianist Houston.

Steve Fisher’s direction deserves special mention. He brings out the best in his cast. There are some profoundly emotional moments in this production, and each actor hits just the right notes without going over the top. It’s worth noting here that there are simulated sex acts and some nudity in this play—not an unusual occurrence in Desert Rose productions. The set, lights, sound, hair and makeup (particularly Benny’s drag get-ups) are all spot on.

Desert Rose Playhouse’s production of Southern Baptist Sissies is not just a play about homosexuality and religion. It’s about the universal fear of letting others see who we really are. At one point, Mark recalls that while his mother taught him to love her, his father, Jesus and Elvis, “I guess she forgot to teach me to love myself.” What a different world this would be if we all learned that lesson early on.

But perhaps Benny sums it up best late in the play when he muses: “Maybe the world is just the way it should be. … Maybe we are ALL right … the gays, the Baptists, the Muslims, all of us.” What a different world, indeed.

Southern Baptist Sissies is performed at 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 9, at the Desert Rose Playhouse, 69620 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $32 to $35, and the running time is about 2 1/2 hours, including a 15-minute intermission. Contains nudity and adult situations. For tickets or more information, call 760-202-3000, or visit www.desertroseplayhouse.org.

Published in Theater and Dance