“I got my first real six-string, bought it at the five-and-dime, played it till my fingers bled, was the summer of ’69.”

What would contemporary fiction, drama, music, and art be had the summer of 1969 never happened? Bryan Adams would never have written “Summer Of 69,” nor would Robert Downey Jr. have starred in the movie 1969, nor would playwright Damon Chua have written his recent dramatic fantasy 1969: A Fantastical Odyssey Through The American Mindscape. Summer of ’69 brought us the Stonewall Riots, the release of The Who’s Tommy and Midnight Cowboy, Ted Kennedy’s car crash at Chappaquiddick, the three-day event that was Woodstock, the beginning of the trial of the Chicago 8, and most memorably, the night Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon.

For playwright Richard Martin Hirsch, Summer of ‘69 was the year he turned 19, the year his alma mater Palisades High School won the Los Angeles City High School Basketball Championship, and the year he and his two best friends from Pali High traveled across the country in a VW bus.

 Three years ago one of these friends died, a friend Hirsch had been long out of touch with, and one whose death set the Scenie-winning author of The Quality Of Life (and London’s Scars, The Monkey Jar, and The Concept Of Remainders) to thinking about the nature of friendship, and about how and why the best of friends can end up like ships who just happened to pass in the summer of ’69.

The result of all this is Hirsch’s latest drama, The Closeness Of The Horizon, one of his best works to date and one certain to send anyone of average L.A. theatergoing age on his or her own nostalgic journey back to that oh-so significant summer. (It certainly did this reviewer, who was born the same year as Hirsch.)

 Flashing back from its “present” in the year 1995 to that youthful summer twenty-six years earlier, The Closeness Of The Horizon focuses primarily on Hirsch stand-in Paul (Bruce Nozick), married for the past twenty or so years to Annie (Shauna Bloom), but still pining a bit for Nissa (Mandy June Turpin), with whom he once shared a single kiss that he still can’t unstick from his mind. Nissa was then the girlfriend of his buddy G (Daniel Kash), and has recently become his widow, G having succumbed to a brain tumor following years during which he and Paul had gotten rather inexplicably out of touch. Completing the trio of high school friends is Stein (David Starzyk), who parlayed his skills on the basketball court into a successful professional career.

 Flashing back and forth in time from that roadtrip summer to the weeks preceding and following G’s death, and featuring fantasy sequences in which several of the characters appear in Neil Armstrong astronaut garb to palaver with Paul, The Closeness Of The Horizon is part nostalgia, part soap opera, part mystery, and part commentary on life, elements which add up to an entertaining, thought-provoking evening of theater.

Memories take us back to those three 19-year-olds on the road in their VW van and camping out under the stars on that moonwalk night. Another flashback shows us that illicit kiss, and provides us with a significant bit of information that Paul himself has remained blissfully unaware of over the past sixteen years. There’s also an uncomfortable reunion between our still hale-and-hearty hero and a wheelchair-bound G, rendered virtually paralyzed and mute by brain surgery, and a later meeting with G’s widow (and Paul’s onetime crush). And throughout it all remains the question posed by Hirsch in his program note: Why have some of the friends he has cared about most seemed to have drifted away from him, and with such apparent effortlessness?

 As is the case with any World Premiere production, The Closeness Of The Horizon ends up a collaborative effort, and one that benefits immensely from its team of co-creators, beginning with director Darin Anthony, who once again elicits all-around terrific performances from some of L.A.’s finest actors. Scenic designer Tom Buderwitz’s fluid, phantasmagoric set design transports us back and forth in time and from place to place, with a special tip of the hat to his non-literal VW bus, and to a desert sequence in which a particularly vivid moon on the horizon morphs into planet earth to breathtaking effect, particularly as lit by Leigh Allen with accustomed finesse. Sound designer Bob Blackburn’s effects are mood-enhancing, and the same can be said for his soundtrack of nostalgia-inducing ’69 hits, including “Sugar, Sugar,” “My Cherie Amour,” and most significantly “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Costume designer Sherry Linnell’s bevy of character-appropriate outfits are winners too.

The roles of Paul, Stein, G, Annie, and Nissa have been cast to appear more or less the characters’ ages circa 1995, letting our imagination airbrush them for flashback sequences. Nozick’s powerful, introspective performance as Paul is the production’s lynchpin, with dynamic support provided by Starzyk and Kash. Though at first I found the latter’s far more youthful appearance disconcerting for a character supposedly the same age as his costars, it later occurred to me that this may have been a conscious choice, reflective of the fact that Paul has remained in contact with Stein over the years, but not with G the past decade and a half. The women do memorable work as well, both Turpin’s not-too-grieving widow and the always marvelous Bloom’s not-too-contented wife.

 David Youse is assistant director, Deidre Works stage manager, and Leia Crawford production manager.

One of our finest Los Angeles playwrights, Richard Martin Hirsch is also one of the least easily pigeonholed, as each new work reveals an unexpected something up the writer’s sleeve. In The Closeness Of The Horizon, Hirsch has taken real-life events, both those shared with his fellow Boomers and those of a more personal nature, and created a work of fiction that resonates with the ring of truth.

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 18, 2012
Photos: Ed Krieger

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