SAN FRANCISCO—American Conservatory Theater started the new year off auspiciously with Freyda Thomas' loose adaptation of late-17th century French playwright Jean François Regnard's comedy of manners, Le Joueur, or The Gamester. An irresistibly frothy confection in rhymed couplets, Thomas' version features a compulsive gambler (an agile and charming Lorenzo Pisoni) forced to choose between his addiction and his sweetheart (an impish, smitten Margot White). Staged in quasi-commedia, presentational style by deft director Ron Lagomarsino, the production was a witty, giddy, raunchy delight, featuring a flawless cast (Gregory Wallace, Joan Mankin, and Anthony Fusco were standouts in an altogether outstanding ensemble) and borderline-outrageous period costumes by Beaver Bauer. That, my friends, was entertainment.
So is another, equally frothy, equally Frenchified, but more idiosyncratic comedy, Fêtes de la Nuit. This is Charles Mee's chaotic, non-narrative love letter to all things quintessentially Parisian: erotic passion, baguettes, cigarettes, existentialist gloom. World premiering at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, it's a wildly imaginative ride, directed by Les Waters in a production that spills out into the audience as though unable to contain its joie de vivre. Some scenes play out in movement only, others form monologues and two-person dialogues, and characters are suggested rather than developed. Although I'd have liked more substance, it works on its own terms. In a gifted cast, Lorri Holt's lovelorn lesbian is especially rich and funny. Christal Weatherly's outlandish costumes are magnifique.
Yet another new but less entertaining comedy was TheatreWorks' West Coast premiere of Ken Ludwig's Shakespeare in Hollywood. Robert Kelley's production couldn't have been livelier, but the script is forced, despite a nifty premise: Oberon (Don Carrier) and Puck (Rebecca Dines, delightfully fey) materialize on a 1934 Hollywood set during a shoot for Max Reinhardt's (Gerry Hiken) A Midsummer Night's Dream. Victor Jory and Mickey Rooney are no-shows, so the baffled time travelers step in to play themselves, as it were, leading to wacky merriment and interspecies romance. Lucy Owen is particularly amusing as the ambitious but chuckleheaded B-movie star who plays Helena, but Ludwig's plot is contrived and not as funny as it thinks it is.
How many ways can playwrights devise to write two-character romantic comedies about oddball, lonely souls who initially clash and ultimately connect? Deborah Zoe Laufer put a charmingly gimmicky spin on the age-old plot in yet another new comedy, Fortune, world premiering at Marin Theatre Company. Grumpy Madame Rosa pines to be a simple secretary but is destined through heredity to see the future. When she reads the palm of a new client, a suicidally depressed CPA, she sees imminent death and, despite herself, tries to save him. The characters are frustratingly underdeveloped, and director Lee Sankowich emphasizes broad comedy at the expense of inherent poignancy. But Julia Brothers and Darren Bridgett are such fine actors that, even when they're hamming it up, you love them.
Playwright Steve Galluccio also borrowed a hackneyed plot—in this case, a gay man finally comes out of the closet, and all hell breaks loose—for his bittersweet comedy, Mambo Italiano, at the New Conservatory Theatre. It's less quirky than Laufer's script, but with fuller characterizations, the twist being that it's set within a loud and emotional Italian family. Director George Maguire emphasizes the play's humor at the expense of its poignancy. The result is some comic acting that's strong, some that's gratingly heavy-handed, and not nearly enough depth in the serious bits.
More intriguing is the work of Adam Bock. The Typographer's Dream, staged at Encore Theatre Company, is a three-character comedy about emotional and geographical boundaries, the nature of truth, the search for identity within a career, personal relationships, and, well, the kitchen sink. Like Bock's other plays, it's spare, nonlinear, and all about language. Characters talk in interwoven monologues directly to the audience and eventually interact. But there are so many strands of ideas here that it's hard to follow any one of them. Still, under Anne Kauffman's assured direction, it's a comic delight. On opening night Encore Artistic Director Lisa Steindler subbed for a sick performer; she, Jamie Jones, and Michael Shipley comprised a sharply focused, harmonious ensemble.
Amid the plethora of comedies is Irish playwright Conor McPherson's poignant Dublin Carol. On Christmas Eve, a lonely, alcoholic undertaker regales his assistant—who, as it turns out, has problems of his own—with seemingly inconsequential tales. When his estranged daughter appears, trying to persuade him to visit his long-abandoned, now-dying wife, the guilt and shame catches up with him, but it also opens a door to a fresh start. However, script-wise, that first, talky scene failed to be engaging, despite fine acting by a suitably bluff, emotionally connected Gary Armagnac as the alcoholic, and Nicholas Pelczar. Nor were Armagnac's booze-saturated confessions to his daughter (a convincingly uptight Holli Hornlien) moving. The problem is in the writing, not Joy Carlin's cleanly unsentimental Aurora Theatre Company production.
Acting-wise, nothing could be sweeter than Word for Word's ensemble. The company's recent double bill of period short stories—performed verbatim—consisted of Guy de Maupassant's ironic The Necklace and early 20th century feminist Susan Glaspell's A Jury of Her Peers, the latter a slow-moving, subtle, exquisitely detailed scene involving three frontier women (Delia MacDougall, Stephanie Hunt, and Patricia Silver) and a murder. Both stories were rendered so beautifully that the actors' eloquent performances seemed to surpass the text. David Dower directed sensitively.
Finally, kudos of the month go to Barbara Pitts for her subtle, nuanced portrayal of a neurotic artist in the American premiere of Rebecca Gilman's The Sweetest Swing in Baseball at the Magic Theatre; and to Lois Grandi for her complex, multilayered turn as an adulterous woman in Michael Weller's What the Night Is For at Playhouse West.
Imperfect but Successful
SACRAMENTO—Inevitably, as the second act nears its climax, the reviewer will begin composing a critique in his head. Is it thumbs up, or thumbs down? Does it warrant one, two, three, or four stars? Is the little man in the theatre seat dozing or standing on the armrests clapping wildly? You run the checklist: Did the story ring true? Were the actors in the moment? Then you realize your cheeks are wet, your nose is runny, and it becomes obvious that the actors now in the midst of taking bows—as well as the playwright and director—have, indeed, succeeded. Sure, the set may be poorly designed, the wigs obvious, and the staging a bit clumsy, but, in the end, these elements are easily forgotten if what you've just witnessed has not only tapped into your own experiences but also has resurrected and heightened the emotions associated with your memories.
Delta King Theatre's production of Jack and Jill is not perfect. Patience is required to wade through author Jane Martin's overly talky, predictably precious initial scenes, and some of director Peter Mohrmann and his creative team's production choices are questionable. However, the fairly flat early encounters between the title characters (Jonathan Rhys Williams, Stephanie Gularte) soon give way to a heart-rending trip up and down the relationship hill that is honest and compelling. Do the omnipresent and overpowering bathroom symbols representing men and women work as a backdrop for this touching and frequently very funny romantic dramedy? No. Are the way-too-upbeat onstage set-changers distracting? Yes. Do the leads need to be lit so you can see them even when going for "natural" nighttime lighting? Yes. But these are forgivable sins when the emotional payoff is so great. Passionately playing everything from flirtation to frustration, Gularte and Rhys Williams fetch tears and laughter as their young yuppies in love struggle to find their timing.
Timing is everything in the B Street Theatre's staging of David Lindsay-Abaire's Kimberly Akimbo. The title character in this sweetly poignant comedy is a smart and funny high school sophomore, who was born with a medical condition that causes rapid aging. If recently relocating with her oddball family wasn't traumatic enough, Kimberly (the amazing Cec Levinson) is facing a bittersweet 16, an age which is the statistical end of her lifespan.
Her parents—the alcoholic Buddy (Greg Alexander) and his dimwitted wife, Pattie (Elisabeth Nunziato)—offer none of the normalcy that the very special Kimberly longs for. Mom is obsessed with her current pregnancy, and dad is the king of denial. Instead, Kimberly finds acceptance and appreciation in attention from new classmate Jeff (Travis Beaty) and a familiar face, her ne'er-do-well aunt Debra (Anne-Marie Petrie).
From the young Beaty to the veteran Levinson, the cast of Kimberly Akimbo is a model of ensemble acting. Director David Pierini, a master of comedic timing, stages a nonstop series of memorable moments, from Kimberly's terminally embarrassing ride to school with Jeff and her father to a 3 am family game night. An imaginative set by Ron Madonia that seems to double the B Street's space, appropriately white-trash costumes by Nancy Pipkin, and Sara Newell's seamless lighting—which keeps the action moving across the stage—contribute to the show's excellence.