On November 22, 1963, at about half-past-noon Dallas time, President John F. Kennedy was shot as his motorcade passed in front of the Texas School Book Depository … and thirty minutes later was pronounced dead. On November 24, the President’s alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was himself fatally shot by local nightclub operator Jack Ruby as a nation sitting glued to their TV screens looked on in horror.
But what about the forty-eight hours separating these two America-shattering events?
Playwright-director Christian Levatino and his gangbusters theatre company* let us be flies on the walls of the Dallas Police Headquarters where Oswald spent his last two days under police interrogation in Levatino’s gripping new play Sunny Afternoon, now getting its official World Premiere following its Best-Of-Fringe-winning workshop at last June’s Hollywood Fringe Festival.
Primarily fact-based, Sunny Afternoon would be an edge-of-your-seater even without the bit of conspiracy-theory hypothesizing Levatino throws in for spice, making us eyewitnesses to history being made and giving us a closer glimpse into a man most of us know only through frustratingly brief newsreel footage.
We witness one Oswald denial after another, delivered with such Southern politeness that we could easily find ourselves believing this seemingly sincere young man.
Did you kill the President? No, sir, I didn’t. Do you own a rifle? No, sir, I don’t. Is this a photo of you holding a rifle? No, sir, it’s a fake. Who is A.J. Hiddle, whose forged draft card you had in your possession when we arrested you? You know as much about it as I do.
Chief among those involved in questioning Oswald (Andy Hirsch) are police captain William Fritz (Darrett Sanders), FBI agent James Hosty (Patrick Flanagan), district attorney Henry Wade (Michael Franco) and assistant DA Bill Alexander (Justin Welborn), and Postal Inspector H.D. Holmes (Janellen Steininger). Also present are detectives Elmer Boyd and Dick Sims (LQ Victor and Dustin Sisney) and FBI agent James Bookout (Jim Boelsen). A pissed-as-hell Police Chief Jesse Curry (Gil Glasgow) bursts in briefly, as does African-American janitor Clarence Shoemake (Marvin Gay).
Completing the cast is Mark St. Amant as (E.) Howard Hunt, and if you’re wondering what one of Nixon’s White House “plumbers” is doing in Sunny Afternoon, recall that Hunt’s deathbed confession (as reported in Rolling Stone) has the co-engineer of the first Watergate burglary claiming to have been approached by the CIA to be part of a JFK assassination team.
Reality occasionally gives way to fantasy in sequences that take us inside Oswald’s mind, most intriguingly when hypothetical parallels are drawn between Oswald and the character Lawrence Harvey played in John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate.
Regardless of whether you buy into Sunny Afternoon’s Manchurian Candidate theorizing (and I for one actually preferred the fact-based scenes), Sunny Afternoon proves the theatrical equivalent of a page-turner from the first moments of Oswald’s police questioning to the muffled gunshots heard soon after his being escorted out of the interrogation room on his way to the county jail he never reached.
Sunny Afternoon is jam-packed with topnotch performances, the absolute best of which is Sanders, who so disappears into the speak-softly-but-carry-a-big-stick “good ol’ boy” Police Captain Fritz that you might want to pinch yourself to believe what you’re seeing is a brilliant actor at work and not the real thing.
Director-writer Levatino lucked out too in casting as Lee Harvey Oswald Best Featured Actor Scenie winner Hirsch, whose boy-next-door-with-an-edge quality makes the man whose alleged acts sent a nation into mourning an all-too-human powder keg capable of exploding when least expected. (It’s uncanny how closely Hirsch is able to replicate Oswald’s speech patterns as recorded on only several minutes of black-and-white film.)
Powerful work is done too by Smith as the secret service agent riding in the car behind the President’s, Welborn as the pistol-packing assistant DA who’d much rather be deer hunting this weekend, Flanagan as an FBI agent who could use a bit of Captain Fritz’s finesse when interrogating Oswald, Glasgow as a police chief so overwrought he seems about this close to a heart attack, and Franco as a prosecutor whose badge of pride is 23 death penalty verdicts out of 24 cases.
Gay and Steininger make particularly vivid impressions in their cameos, he as a soft-spoken African-American entirely of Sunny Afternoon’s place and time and she as the play’s sole female character, the feisty postal inspector who’d already had her eyes on Oswald for some time before his arrest.
Boelsen, Sisney, and Victor are quite good as FBI agent Bookout and detectives Sims and Boyd, though the latter’s suspenders and high-water pants may be bringing out a bit too much Steve Urkel in Elmer Boyd.
Finally, the always excellent St. Amant gives Hunt a just-right slippery-smooth quality that fits the play’s mystery man to a T.
From its bare, black-box Fringe origins, Sunny Afternoon has morphed into as finely designed a production as any writer-director could wish for beginning with David Mauer’s meticulously detailed police interrogation room complete with vintage phone, posters, Kennedy portrait, and assorted 1960s-appropriate paraphernalia. Matt Richter’s varied, arresting lighting (including several sequences illuminated by handheld flashlights and one by strobe) and John Zalewski’s suspense-heightening sound design (including some terrific music choices) are as good as it gets, with Kaitlyn Alward giving each actor a character-appropriate, historically accurate costume to wear (with the possible exception of Elmer’s “flood pants” ensemble). Mike Gratzmiller’s highly effective projections include the famed Zapruder silent 8mm motorcade footage made all the more electrifying by the addition of a single burst of sound.
Sunny Afternoon is produced by Corryn Cummins, Leon Shanglebee, and Matthew Quinn. Donald A. Smith is assistant producer. Zack Guiler is scenic builder and Marine Walton scenic painter. Alyssa Champo is stage manager and Daniel Coronel assistant director/assistant stage manager.
If ever there were a play tailored to fit gangbusters’ goal of “staging the imagined truth with speed and violence,” Sunny Afternoon is that play (though any violence taking place is entirely offstage). A prime example of the heights Hollywood Fringe can reach when gifted artists pool their talents, it looks to be one of Fall 2013’s most talked-about shows, and one well worth the word-of-mouth it’s sure to inspire.
*in association with Combined Artform
Theater Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Returning from January 10 through February 1. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 3:00. Also Thursday January 30 at 8:00. Reservations: 800 838-3006.
October 19, 2013
Photos: James Storm