Southern Comforts

At first blush, Kathleen Clark’s Southern Comforts feels like it may end up being a little thin, but by the end of the first scene, you are utterly charmed by this December-December romance that’s gaining momentum before your eyes. The success of this play is, in part, due to the fine performances by Michael Learned and Granville Van Dusen and the playwright’s skill at telling an engaging two-person story that easily spans multiple decades.

Amanda Cross (Learned) is a fiery Southern widow from Tennessee visiting her daughter in New Jersey. One day, out on church business, she meets Gus Klingman (Van Dusen), a curmudgeonly widower who’s never ventured out of his hometown except to fight overseas during World War II.

Caught in a downpour, Gus invites her to sit out the rain while they enjoy a baseball game. In short order, they begin to have feelings for each other. She moves in, helps Gus install storm windows and, in a laugh-out-loud discussion about eternal resting places, they shop for headstones. As they slowly fall in love, they reveal their backstories, fleshing out this hilariously witty play. By the end of Act II, not even the somber reality of death can wipe the grin on your face.

Southern Comforts tackles many issues involved finding love late in life, arguing that even so, it’s never too late. Gus reveals that he had been in a loveless marriage for so long that it became comfortable to be unhappy. Amanda, in turn, offers a sober look at the war’s devastation to those left behind on the home front.

Settling into one another is not going to be easy but the playwright’s ear for realistic dialogue and her sense of humor keeps the complications that develop grounded and without sentimentality. This homage to love encompasses not only to those in their later years, but resonates easily with anyone who has ever had to make room (figuratively and literally) for another person in their life.

Learned’s Amanda is brash, outspoken, and demanding, and still she manages a sweetness that’s endearing and touching. Van Dusen’s Gus is nervous, put off, and completely loveable. The on-stage chemistry definitely buoys this affable production, skillfully directed by Jules Aaron.

Performances through April 10 at International City Theatre in Long Beach. For tickets and information, please call 562-436-4610 or visit www.internationalcitytheatre.org.

The Next Fairytale at Celebration Theatre

A workshop showcase in 2008 yielded a promising musical number from a young songwriter. The witty duet featured a fairy godmother and a gay prince. It was filled with clever innuendos that solicited a roar of laughter from the audience, including this reviewer. It made sense that Celebration Theatre might consider developing it into its very first fully developed in-house production.

Almost three years later, the finished product has been fleshed out, but it still needs work.

The story centers on a fairy godmother named Hazel (Rachel Genevieve) who is given a chance to redeem herself in The Next Fairy Tale after botching Little Red Riding Hood by arriving late, thereby allowing the wolf to eat up the nice little girl and her poor grandmother.

Aided by the headmistress fairy godmother Minerva (Gina Torrecilla), the next fairy tale turns out to be a prince-on-prince story, much to Minerva’s chagrin.

After her last outing in make believe land, Hazel lacks confidence, but the winsome Prince Copernicus (Christopher Maikish) has enough faith for both of them, convincing her that together that they can rescue the fair Prince Helio (Patrick Gomez) — that is, unless Minerva gets her way.

Brian Pugach has taken on a lot, writing the music, book, and lyrics. Even Sondheim avails himself of experienced book writers, and Mr. Pugach spreads himself dangerously thin attempting all three. He starts out well enough with the opening number, but from there, and aside from some highlights, the music falls into an everyday sameness that, while setting his lyrics adroitly, fails to distinguish itself compositionally.

The language of fairy-speak (“Holy toadstools” and “toad slime”) clashes with corny Friends-of-Dorothy winks at gay culture. The story is convoluted, mixing up different fairy tales while straying too far from the primary focus of the story. And what exactly is the story? Definitely the story is enhanced exploring Minerva’s arc (with Ms. Torrecilla’s star turn as the antagonist of this fairy tale), but the main story concerning the quest to save Prince Helio falls short. What we get instead is like the Yellow Brick Road with local stops and day trips.

The show borrows from other musicals, losing its soul in the process. It’s a mash-up of ideas that need sorting, focusing and arranging before anything resembling a cohesive play emerges. At times it’s hard to decide if the intended audience is gay adults, in which case the underlying theme of acceptance preaches to the choir, or adults in general — already a far more sophisticated audience than this work seems to target. That leaves it open for children’s theatre, but for that to happen, it would need some serious toning down.

The cast, however, is excellent. The actors attack their roles with much gusto. Director Michael A. Shepperd evokes an epic feel on the small Celebration stage. As for that witty song first heard in workshop – the one that showed the promise that this show was designed to deliver, it didn’t make the cut.

Too bad, it had such potential.

Women In Shorts at Working Stage

During the transition between the first and second play of this six-play collection, Women in Shorts some latecomers shuffled into the theatre to find a seat. Not soon enough. Joanna Miles had already started her scene and with a look of confusion she stopped the show and told the person in the booth that she was starting from the top.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” she said.

That statement sums up, to a large degree, the production as a whole. It’s confusing, perplexing, and something you wouldn’t expect to see an Emmy-winning actress struggle with.

Each play is approximately 10-15 minutes long, and each was written by a different member of the Actors Studio (West), of which Ms. Miles is a long-time member. The subjects range from an actor with AIDS (Park Strangers) to homelessness (Magic Rabbit), from divorce (Divorces R Us) to war (Ladies of the State).

As compelling as these playlets may be, they often meander, filling their pages with small talk and banter and leaving little time left over to make much of an impact on the audience. Ms. Miles is joined by Louise Davis in portraying the pair of characters of each play and the actresses do the best they can with what they’re given. Several times both of them seemed uncomfortable with aspects of their various roles. It leaves one to wonder, if both writers and actors are members of the same group, why did the plays sometimes feel as if they were written for different performers?

Only in the last play, “Ladies of the State,” do they feel completely in their element. Perhaps it helped that that particular writer is Ms. Miles’ son, Miles Brandman.

Scenic transitions are handled easily in that each play takes place in a park. The set, by Thomas Meleck, consists of a pleasant outdoor setting with trees and a generic city background and two benches down stage. The transitions from one play to the next are swift and effortless and costumes (by Betty P Madden) are simple with just enough variety to set up the milieu of each play.

The evening abounds in good direction – there are different helmers for each of the six playlets. Veteran TV director Asaad Kelada is joined by five others, each with considerable success in film and television. However a coherent, unifying voice would have helped bring structure to the evening.

It’s a shame, for the concept for Women in Shorts is a good one – showcasing a veteran Emmy-winning actress still in the prime of her career. She has wisely surrounded herself by talented artists from within the Studio, but such insularity might have argued for a few more workshops and public tastings to make sure the group recipe worked.

Overall there are just too many cooks in this kitchen.

Performances through March 20 at Working Stage Theatre, 1516 N. Gardner, West Hollywood. For tickets and info, call 800-838-3006 or visit www.brownpapertickets.com

A House Not Meant to Stand at Fountain Theatre

A House Not Meant to Stand, continues the themes that made Williams one of the most prolific of the Southern writers. Subtitled “A Gothic Comedy,” the West Coast premiere of Williams’ last full-length play is full of real-life counterparts in the characters of Cornelius, Bella, and Charlie McCorkle.

Director Simon Levy deftly navigates the many layers of this final effort of the great playwright to exorcise those ghosts. The result is not one of his best plays, but it holds up as an ambitious project for a writer who was looking to remain relevant in changing times.

Set Designer Jeff McLaughlin’s gothic setting is a decaying house with tattered and faded wallpaper exposing crumbling walls. Water drips from the ceiling in various places. This is the playground and a metaphor for a decaying society in which these characters play out their despairs. A storm rages outside.

Inside the dilapidated house, Cornelius (Alan Blumenfeld) and Bella (Sandy Martin) have just returned from their eldest son’s funeral to find that their remaining son, Charlie (Daniel Billet) upstairs with a woman – pregnant and born again Stacey (Virginia Newcomb.) Their daughter has been institutionalized and it is clear that Cornelius has caused all of his children to flee that home. In the meantime, he tries to get Bella, suffering from dementia, to reveal the location of a considerable amount of confederate money she inherited from her grandfather’s moonshine business so that he can continue his bid for political office.

As the night progresses, themes of sexuality, insanity, and time rage on as his horny neighbors Jessie (Lisa Richards) and Emerson (Robert Craighead) try to intervene on family and business matters.

All principle actors are formidable in their roles, but it’s really Ms. Martin’s performance that centers the play. She balances dementia and confusion beautifully with her lucid determination to care for her remaining children.

Naila Aladdin-Sanders’ costumes only add to the state of deterioration of the family and reflects their own image of themselves. These characters are definitely larger than life and at times the small Fountain Theatre stage barely contains them; the shouting matches can be a bit much at times. Still, the play washes over the audience in waves, building momentum.

When it works, it’s as beautiful as any of Williams’ previous works. When it doesn’t, as in the use of direct audience address, it just seems off. Not everything can be The Glass Menagerie.

Performances through April 17 at the Fountain Theater, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles. For more information and to purchase tickets, please call 323-663-1525 or visit www.fountaintheatre.com.

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