A quintet of 20something USC grads recall their journeys from childhood to adulthood in School For Suckers, an enjoyable program of five self-penned solo performances now playing mid-week at the Lillian.

Girls, The Final Frontier, written and performed by Ben Giroux, centers on the ups and downs of the writer/actor’s dating life, beginning with his elementary school infatuation with Holly Hoffenstein, a 3rd grade classmate who “came out of the womb with boobs!” To the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, a nine-year-old Ben informs us that “Today is a new day.  Today I begin my quest for love.”  Unfortunately, Holly’s response (“No”) to his multiple-choice question “Are you interested in me?” marks the beginning of a most unfortunate dating life. Despite emulating Captain Kirk in the “mysterious galaxy of dating,” young Ben ends up concluding that “I suck at dating.” Things still haven’t improved a year later when Ben finds himself watching Terminator with his father and a sex scene pops up mid-film. “You’re going to be doing that too, someday, son,” his dad informs him. Can a ten-year-old spell A-W-K-W-A-R-D M-O-M-E-N-T?

In West Side Story, Juliana Tyson’s multicultural upbringing (Jewish immigrant dad + a country girl turned 80s TV star mom + a Mexican cook) leads her to a transcendent experience only blocks from the USC campus.  It’s 3:00 a.m. and Juliana (aka Gringa McThespian) and her boyfriend David are out wandering one of SC’s rougher neighborhoods (I can’t recall why) when the sound of Mariachis draws Juliana to the source of the music. A voice inside her head cries out, “These people are your people.  Go to your people,” and before you know it, Juliana and David are being greeted by a 250-pound chola and shaking their booties (or at least her booty) on the dance floor…until the cops come.

John Dardenne’s God Is Adorable (which could just as easily have been titled It’s Not Easy Being An Atheist) begins at his birth with the primal cry, “I’ve got to get out of this womb!”  Like Juliana, John is the product of a mixed marriage, his mother an Irish Catholic accountant and his father a Jewish Republican lawyer.  Brought up Catholic, six-year old John suddenly announces, “Sorry Mom. I’m Jewish too,” not so much for religious reasons as because he’s found out that Jews are free on Sundays. Later, while attending an all-boys Catholic high school (called Catholic High School), teenage John comes to the conclusion that “I don’t believe in God,” an unbelief that is put to the test when his cancer-stricken about-to-be-operated-on Grandmother asks him to pray for her.

Next up is cute, raspy-voiced Sascha Alexander with Not Aloud. “I’m obsessed with talking … with everybody … all the time,” she informs us. Having been raised by “two of the loudest people on the planet,” it’s hardly a surprise when pre-teen Sascha loses her voice.  Unfortunately, her laryngitis just gets worse and worse, so much so that she has to undergo a stroboscopy, a medical test which probes the vocal cords.  The diagnosis: potentially permanent nodules. “I can’t have permanent damage,” she cries out. “I’m going to be an actress, like Jodie Foster!” Sascha’s “litany of medical treatments” over a ten-year period leads to a defining moment in the would-be movie star’s young life.

Finally, in Maturination, England-to-Brentwood transplant James Robinson talks about “the time my penis let me down—the first, but not the last, time.” It all starts back in England with one of James’ teachers, a man “born in Birmingham at the age of 48” who dispenses “little red books” to all the students, i.e. copies of the New Testament.  Not only is the teacher’s Birmingham accent a pain to listen to, Birmingham itself is apparently no picnic either. “People born in Birmingham see movies about Auschwitz,” James tells us, “and they don’t know what all the fuss is about.”  Young James’ life-altering moment occurs in his middle school’s boys’ toilet.  Tape spread across the two urinals (pronounced your-EYE-nals in Jolly Old England) convinces James that the school expects him to do number one in the ¾-full-of-piss bucket between them. Imagine James’ later surprise when the headmaster informs him that the bucket was not for peeing.

Each of School For Suckers’ five actors brings a unique energy and zing to the chapter in which he or she stars.  Giroux is an electric, almost manic presence on stage, and draws the audience in with his considerable charisma.  A very engaging Tyson scores points for her spot-on imitation of the family maid and the supporting characters in her tale. Of the five young thesps, Dardenne appears to be opening his heart the widest, revealing his doubts and gaining audience sympathy in the process. Alexander’s passion for acting shines through in her lengthy battle to find and maintain her voice, both literally and figuratively. Robinson is an utterly appealing stage presence who establishes a great rapport with the audience (and his charming English accent certainly doesn’t hurt).

Director Elissa Weinzimmer makes sure that all five performers make maximum use of the stage area, thereby insuring that the action never becomes static, though audience members on either side of the V-shaped seating may feel they’re not getting as much attention from the players as those seated in the center section.  An inventive lighting design by Dan O’Brien aids greatly in keeping each chapter lively and varied.  (School For Suckers uses Danny Cistone’s set for the concurrently running Block Nine.)

Though the performer telling his or her story is for the most part alone on stage, the remaining four actors do appear on a few occasions—as movie theater patrons in Giroux’s tale, as sombrero-wearing dancing silhouettes in Tyson’s, and (very cutely) as fellow students proclaiming “I’m Spartipiss!” in Robinson’s. The energy their brief appearances brings to those moments gives an indication of how even more exciting the production would be if, instead of solo performances, the full cast was involved in each chapter, bringing to life the various characters being described by the chapter’s narrator.  Given that an important part of acting isreacting, interplay between actors would give added energy and excitement to each chapter. 

Still, as it stands, School For Suckers is a very good writing and acting vehicle for its five talented young performers, and an entertaining one as well. 

Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
August 25, 2009
                                                             Photos: Zack DeZon

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