If there’s anyone with whom most Los Angeles theatergoers would surely not want to change places, it would probably be Maude Gutman of Bakersfield, the heroine of Stephen Sachs’ impressive World Premiere comedy Bakersfield Mist, now playing at the Fountain Theatre. Not only would the mere idea of living without a hundred or more plays to choose from each week be eminently resistible, a mere glance at the rundown knickknack-filled trailer Maude calls (mobile) home would provoke a spontaneous urge to hightail it back to L.A. asap.
Maude’s life seems as grim as her surroundings. She’s a bartender who’s just been fired, a wife whose husband has long ago flown the coop, and a mother whose only child was killed in an accident while still in his early twenties. About the only things that give Maude any kind of pleasure are the cigarettes she chain smokes, the Jack Daniels she guzzles by the case, and the cheesy figurines and paintings of clowns and the like that fill her trailer’s shelves and walls.One painting in particular stands out in Maude’s eclectic “collection,” an abstract she bought for a mere three dollars on one of her many scrounging expeditions, a painting that the local high school art teacher is convinced is an undiscovered Jackson Pollock. That’s why Maude (Jenny O’Hara) has shelled out hard-earned cash to summon art expert Lionel Percy (Nick Ullett) to the Sagebrush Trailer Park to authenticate the painting, though as we soon learn, it’s far more than the tens of millions of dollars a real Pollock could net her that make its authentication a matter of life-and-death importance to Maude.
Maude and Lionel’s first encounter is as meet-cute as they come, a neighbor’s pack of dogs greeting the supercilious fuddy-duddy with a cacophony of howls matched only by a stream of four-letter words from Maude that would do a sailor proud. Talk about your fish out of water.
Since it takes only a blink for Lionel to determine that (in his expert opinion) the so-called Pollock is a fake, a real-life connoisseur would probably be leaving Bakersfield sooner than you can say “I’m out of here,” and there’d be no play. Fortunately, Sachs’ imagination finds ways to keep Lionel and Maude in the same trailer for another hour and fifteen minutes as Maude insists over and over that Lionel change his mind, provides the audience with ample laughter and a few tears, and gives the real-life Mr. and Mrs. Ullett the rare treat of playing two great leading roles written for characters well past sixty.
Sachs makes sure the deck isn’t stacked in favor either of redneck or of blueblood. Though Lionel may seem to lead a more successful or fulfilled life than Maude (he’s the retired former head of the New York Met, the author of countless books, and a member of one artistic Board Of Directors after another), he is a partnerless, childless, cold fish of a man whose main satisfaction in life seems to be in being right, as he insists he is about Maude’s painting.
On the other hand, though Lionel may have considerably more formal education than Maude, the Bakersfield denizen is hardly lacking in smarts. Give her a word like “provenance,” and once it’s been explained to her, she’ll come right back at you with an “I don’t even know the ‘provenance’ of this outfit I bought at a thrift shop”—with the identical la-di-da French pronunciation you’ve used so pretentiously.
As for the roles Sachs has written for his two stars, though O’Hara gets the saltier and more colorful one, the playwright has written Ullett a tour-de-force monolog in which Lionel compares Pollock’s creative process to an orgasm, and nearly achieves one on stage to rounds of audience applause. O’Hara later comes back with her own monolog, about Maude’s son’s death, one which may have you tearing up from its very first words. There’s even a hilarious knock-down drag-out that would tax the energy of artists half O’Hara’s and Ullett’s ages and which the duo execute to audience delight. No one plays blousy better than O’Hara and no one plays haughty better than Ullett, and here both actors are performing at the peak of their gifts.
In Bakersfield Mist, Sachs has written (and directed to perfection I might add) a play that a number of regional theaters are set to co-World Premiere one after another, a budget-friendly two-hander in the very successful tradition of Trying, Educating Rita, and Grace And Glorie. (I’ll bet the Colony is wishing they’d had first dibs on Bakersfield Mist.)
StageSceneLA Award-winning scenic designer Jeff McLaughlin (A Skull In Connemara, The Butcher Of Baraboo, A House Not Meant To Stand, The Train Driver, Grace And Glorie, La Ronde De Lunch, The Psychic) does his signature brilliant work once again, creating a Bakersfield trailer you’d swear had been transported lock, stock, and barrel onto the Fountain stage. Props designer Misty Carlisle shares credit with McLaughlin for filling Maude’s trailer with hundreds upon hundreds of the yard sale and dumpster memorabilia collected by its owner over the years. Ken Booth’s lighting design makes you believe the sun is actually shining through Maude’s dirty windows, in addition to heightening dramatic impact. Shon LeBlanc has designed only two costumes (Maude’s green and orange polyester pantsuit and Lionel’s grey woolen double-breasted model) but both are character-perfect fits. Peter Bayne’s sound design will have you believing (among other things) that a limo has indeed pulled up at Maude’s trailer only to be greeted by a half dozen barking dogs poised to attack its hapless passenger. Doug Lowry deserves high marks for the fight choreography which his 70ish stars execute as if they were seventeen. Terri Roberts is production stage manager and Scott Tuomey technical director. Bakersfield Mist is produced by Simon Levy and Deborah Lawlor.
Like Yasmina Reza’s Art, Bakersfield Mist poses questions about just what constitutes art, and you may well find yourself debating the topic with your fellow playgoers after O’Hara and Ullett have taken their bows. What you’re unlikely to be debating is what an absolutely captivating play Sachs has written. The definition of art may divide audience members, but on Bakersfield Mist, I’d venture to guess that sentiments are likely to be close to unanimous wows.
The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave., Los Angeles.
June 24, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger