Another subtly acted, superbly cast play graces the cramped Knightsbridge Theatre in Pasadena, and yet again, the theatre's lack of respect for production values and inability to make aesthetic choices to complement a play tarnish a would-be masterpiece inexcusably. Here are four actors with an uncommon chemistry that transforms the small room with unceasing tension, who have mastered thick Irish accents and complex themes, creating electric performances that remain meaningful well after we leave the room. Here is an actor/director, Miguel Perez, who understands the layers of emotion behind each scene and reveals them to us cleanly, gracefully. Here is pure transfixing excellence that deserves more than the Knightsbridge is apparently willing to give.
The story of an Irish farmer and his daughter who fight with their vices, their hearts, and their hopes for financial security, this is Eugene O'Neill's last and possibly finest play, given a rich, muscular treatment by actors who have made O'Neill's language entirely their own. The play deals with their relationship with a possibly corrupt landlord, who reveals surprising secrets and something intrinsic to human nature. These are gritty, colorful characters who thrive on droll insults, whiskey, and fast repartee. We have the coarse Irish pig farmer Phil Hogan, wily yet possibly well meaning, given a spirited, tour-de-force portrayal by the talented Perez, whose timing and sense of the music of the Irish dialect is deeply satisfying. As his buxom daughter Josie—or, as her father terms her, the "overgrown cow"—we have the captivating Margaret McCarley, who summons up all the warmth, vulnerability, and anger her part requires. As Jim Tyrone, their drunken landlord of questionable character, Charles Butler nimbly wears a variety of intriguing masks—the opportunist of dubious morals, the guilt-ridden child whose heart begs for salvation.
They are performances that scream for, say, props (I believe the play requires about six relatively common objects: a letter, a club, potatoes, a pitchfork, a bottle of whiskey, and a few glasses.) The set is stripped open in the back, adding an extra dimension that allows us to peer through wooden slats to the theatre's bare brick wall, successfully creating a small farmhouse feel. Yet the curious decision (of director Perez? of producer Joseph Stachura?) to paste blown-up headshots of the actors all over the walls makes for a rather gauche panorama. Why not spend the money on props? While perhaps the choice was an attempt to stress the many faces and facets of each character, it seems entirely unnecessary and distracting—better a bare wall, which would be more in keeping with Perez's spare staging.
One hopes the Knightsbridge will someday take a cue from the many L.A. theatres associated with the Big Cheap Theatre group, which constantly prove that good taste is not synonymous with a big budget. The enormous potential so often seen on this stage proves that the sky's the limit, if only someone would pray recognize it, and dedicate the kind of attention to set and ambience that these gifted actors have devoted to embodying their roles so beautifully.
"A Moon for the Misbegotten," presented by and at the Knightsbridge Theatre Pasadena, 35 S. Raymond, Pasadena. Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Jan. 13-Feb. 11. $12-18. (626) 440-0821.