The Write Thing - San Francisco Tour de Force - Sacramento

SAN FRANCISCO—It was déjà vu at the West Coast premiere of The Last Schwartz at Marin Theatre Company: Deborah Zoe Laufer's seriocomic play about a dysfunctional Jewish family is reminiscent of works by Sam Shepard, Edward Albee, and others. Still, there's at least one fresh theme in this marijuana-and-Scotch–fueled evening of conflict and coercion at a family gathering: An autistic astronomer son (Mark Phillips) imagines a reality beyond the squabbling sibs—a surreal touch interspersed among disparate plot strands that provides a transcendent finale. But the script's flaws include some cheap laughs, too many theatrical contrivances and issues at stake, and a generally derivative feel. However, Lee Sankowich's crisp production boasted a terrific ensemble, featuring Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker.

In the case of John O'Keefe's self-directed drama, Times Like These, déjà vu was literal, as I'd seen an earlier, in-development version. The two-hander was recast for its triumphant run in Los Angeles; that production recently transferred to San Francisco's Traveling Jewish Theatre, on O'Keefe's home turf. As the show has already been reviewed quite glowingly in BSW, I'll only add that seeing the play again—this time with the L.A. actors Laurie O'Brien and Norbert Weisser—reminded me what I already believe: Great acting and great writing are interdependent. To rephrase the old adage about love and marriage, one can't have the latter without the former. This production has both.

It's sheer pleasure to watch Henrik Ibsen's late–19th century drama A Doll's House staged with the technically proficient and emotionally flexible Rene Augesen in the lead. Under Carey Perloff's solid direction at American Conservatory Theater, Augesen carefully limns an organic arc for the increasingly desperate Nora, a wife realizing her own powerlessness within a benignly oppressive marriage. Dramaturge Paul Walsh's smooth new translation, Annie Smart's set with layered walls that reflect Nora's mental confinement, and a generally strong ensemble enhance a cathartic theatrical journey.

Likewise, another classic—A Midsummer Night's Dream—is a revelation as performed, fairly intact, by Anne Bogart's SITI Company at San Jose Repertory Theatre. I've seen Dream many times, usually with the comedy emphasized. But Bogart focuses brilliantly on the supernatural elements. Neil Patel's stark, shimmering set; lighting designer Christopher Akerlind's abstract, evocative swirls of color; and the eight-member ensemble's superb vocal and physical skills, emotional intensity, and crystalline, lyrical delivery of Shakespeare's text make this Dream magical (although the hyped Dust Bowl setting turns out to be insignificant). I still see Ellen Lauren's vibrant Titania in my own dreams.

And then there are the surprises, such as the downtown arrival of Abydos, with its West Coast premiere of Los Angeles playwright Alexandra Cunningham's punchy, nonlinear drama, No. 11 (Blue and White). These Sonoma State University drama students—sensitively directed by their teacher, Paul Draper—turn in carefully crafted portrayals of a group of teenagers traumatized when their star football player is accused of rape. Scriptwise, the first act is overloaded, the second act underwritten, and the ending too abrupt, but Cunningham is an intriguing new theatrical voice, and this talented troupe does her proud.

If the writing is at times luminous, witty, and soulful in the premiere of Psychos Never Dream, by Campo Santo's resident playwright, the fiction writer and poet Denis Johnson, it's also more satisfying as literature than it is as theatre. Murder in a small Western town propels Johnson's four preternaturally eloquent characters—a mercury-poisoned bipolar chatterbox (John Diehl), a Vietnam vet (Cully Fredericksen), an unhinged farmer's wife (Alexis Lezin), and an ex-hippie cop (Catherine Castellanos )—to riff on existential questions and reveal intriguing secrets about their overlapping pasts "back in the day." This being Campo Santo, the cast, directed by Darrell Larson, is sublime. But Johnson's first scene is static, others are repetitious, and, despite many engrossing and entertaining moments, the script ultimately lacks momentum and—as is so often the case with new plays—a satisfying ending. Johnson's work is always provocative, though; indeed, he just won the Bay Area's Will Glickman award for an earlier Campo Santo play, Soul of a Whore, and deservedly so.

The writing is even more problematic in TheatreWorks' new, maybe-bound-for-Broadway musical, Memphis. In fictionalizing the story of the legendary Southern white disc jockey Dewey Phillips, whose "Red, Hot, and Blue" broadcast on WHBQ Memphis helped introduce America to musical styles that soon evolved into rock 'n' roll, writer/lyricist Joe DiPietro presents a formulaic and superficial overview of race relations in the early 1950s, including a cursory mixed-race romance. And by the end, the rock-like music by Bon Jovi's David Bryan feels generic. Still, there are some snappily choreographed scenes, and, directed with explosive energy by Gabriel Barre, the cast is vocally superb, with impressive performances from Chad Kimball as the hyperactive DJ, from J. Bernard Calloway, and from James Monroe Iglehart.

Writing problems bedevil another play that explores racism, although from a different angle: Dael Orlandersmith's Yellowman, a sober two-hander at Berkeley Repertory Theatre that traces the lifelong love between a "high-yella" man and a darker woman, set against abusive family relationships and Southern bigotry. If Orlandersmith intended an incisive look at "colorism" within the African-American community—a worthy topic—she didn't dig deep enough; Yellowman plays more like a coming-of-age saga. The characters never interact, at least in Les Waters' production; they sit and tell their life stories directly to the audience—not necessarily a bad thing, but the interlocking monologues lack the poetry and profundity to justify the barebones form. Kudos, though, to the actors Clark Jackson and especially Deidrie N. Henry, who bring a series of vibrant characters to life.

Finally, in the middle of the road alongside The Last Schwartz—neither an edgy experiment nor a freshened-up classic—is A Shayna Maidel, Barbara Lebow's drama in which two sisters separated by the Holocaust are reunited in postwar New York. Amy Hines directs with great sensitivity. But the women's performances—especially those of Sonja Starkovich and Rachel Martin-Bakker—are more multidimensional than the men's, throwing the characters' relationships somewhat out of balance. Nevertheless, this production by City Lights Theater Company of San Jose is both absorbing and touching.

—Jean Schiffman

SACRAMENTO—Take five versatile actors, 39 improbable characters, a quintet of continents, and one director comfortable with lunacy that moves faster than a locomotive, and you have the B Street Theatre's whimsical production of Mark Brown's Around the World in 80 Days. Although there is no balloon in this faithful, if flippant, adaptation of Jules Verne's classic tale, B Street Producing Artistic Director Buck Busfield's take is a high-flying effort that makes the inspired addition of a low-tech sound-effects person (Willy Busfield) just offstage. The story is essentially the same: The mysterious Phileas Fogg (Michael Stevenson) enters into a wager that, thanks to advances in late–19th century steamship and railway technology, a modern major traveler could circumnavigate the globe (creatively represented by designer Daniel Neeland's wall-to-wall map) in just 80 days. Stuart (Greg Alexander) and Ralph (David Pierini), the doddering members of London's Reform Club who take the bet, are just the first of many characters that the multitalented comic actors Alexander and Pierini inhabit as they chew up the worldwide scenery during the two hours of this riotous road show.

B Street audiences have come to appreciate this kind of twist on fine literature through B Street's sister company, The Fantasy Theatre, and the new show is a perfect fit. Indeed Around the World plays much like a Fantasy Theatre Show, with its frenetic pace, silly asides to the audience, multiple roles, and a near–G rating. Only an opium den scene—which is quite hilarious—keeps this show from being sufficiently sanitary for kids.

Though the B Street veterans Alexander and Pierini share an innate ability to generate guffaws just by making a silent entrance, it's their fellow B Street alum, Amy Resnick, who leads the laughter this time around as Fogg's resourceful right-hand "man," Passepartout. Resnick's diminutive stature and obviously feminine features—which are not entirely disguised, despite Abby Parker's fabulous costumes—are also the subject of well-placed lines and looks throughout the story. Resnick, an accomplished director in her own right, lends this show the natural zest that imbues her speech (a hilarious French accent), mannerisms, and body language. As good as Alexander, Pierini, and Elisabeth Nunziato (various roles) are with their quick changes and quips, it's Resnick who deserves the highest praise. As Fogg, whom a former servant refers to as "exactitude personified," Stevenson is the solid rock of the show, providing the center around which Brown's more comic characters circle like satellites. If only he'd have a bit more fun when handing out his trademark line: "Would you … for a handsome reward?"

Above all, this is an ensemble show, and that ensemble works extremely well together, thanks in no small part to the players' great familiarity with each other and trust in Busfield. This cohesiveness is obvious in Act One, when the cast pantomimes different parts of an elephant: It's definitely a whole that's greater than the sum of the individually funny parts. An Act Two scene in which the cast jumps a missing bridge in their train car also shows how good it is at physical comedy. When praising the ensemble, one must include Busfield, who supplies sound effects in lieu of real props. Although he is semi-obscured by a scrim, he provides a nice homage to the glorious bygone days of radio.

Around the World in 80 Days continues through Feb. 29.