A superb cast, a brilliant design team, and above all the directorial genius that is Michael Matthews join forces to turn Coeurage Theatre Company’s Los Angeles Premiere of Failure: A Love Story, Philip Dawkins’ whimsical meditation on the fragility of life and the resiliency of those who live it, into one of the year’s most stellar 99-seat-plan productions.
Dawkins’ ubiquitous Greek Chorus (which Matthews divides into eight distinct voices) cues us in from the get-go that the lives of its Three Sisters protagonists will be all too short. (“Nelly was the first of the Fail Girls to die, followed soon after by her sisters Jenny June and Gerty Fail, in that order. Causes of death were Blunt Object, Disappearance, and Consumption, also in that order.”)
Then again, the girls’ lives had hardly been untouched by tragedy from their earliest years, their parents having been unwitting victims of Chicago’s real-life Eastland Riverboad disaster that took the lives of 844 passengers and crew on July 24, 1915 (in addition to killing the fictional Henry and Marietta Fail, who just happened to be motoring in their brand new Stutz Bearcat at the wrong place at the wrong time).
Failure: A Love Story then goes on to recount the last year in the very young lives of clock-loving Gerty (June Carryl), swim-loving Jenny June (Nicole Shalhoub), and laughter-loving Nelly (Margaret Katch), stirring into the mix the abandoned foundling who grew up to be their somber, animal-loving adoptive brother John N. (Joe Calarco) and the improbably named self-made millionaire Moritmer Mortimer (Kurt Quinn), who shows up out of the blue one day only to find himself loving them all, one by one.
Death may be ever-present in Failure as each of its heroines meets her end within the space of a single year. (No spoiler here as the play’s intro has made all too clear from the get-go.) This does not mean, however, that Dawkins, Matthews, and company ever let proceedings become maudlin. Tears may come often, but laughter is always just a heartbeat away, and never more so than in a scene involving the final moments of a beloved pet’s life that will have your cheeks wet even as chuckles keep escaping your lips.
Not everyone may respond as warmly to Dawkins’ brand of whimsy as I did. Take for instance when Nelly asks Mort Mort (“a man so successful he’s named after himself”) to tell her his dreams and he replies with a “Last night, I was on a great boat in the shape of a panda. I was dressed like a mummy and eating a moon pie.” Some might groan, but I just ate it up. (Dawkins’ brand of whimsy, not the moon pie.)
More seriously, at least for Failure’s first ten or fifteen minutes, is just how much information the play’s Chorus imparts lickety-split (the foretelling of the three sisters’ deaths, the disaster that took the lives of their parents, Henry and Marietta’s earlier arrival at Ellis Island, their daughters’ births and the opening of the family clock shop, a male child born dead only to be followed by the unexpected arrival of John N. like Moses in the bullrushes), making it easy to imagine audience members simply turning off at so many facts being thrown their way.
Also, given how much in Dawkins’ script is left up to a director’s inspiration (his author’s note suggests a seemingly infinite number of ways to divvy up roles and nary a stage direction in sight), heaven help a director who needs to rely on directions.
Fortunately, it is precisely this kind of script at which Matthews excels, and never more so than in his take on Failure, whose virtually nonstop feats of imagination and ingenuity are the very definition of inspired. (The capsizing of the Eastland and the mini-tsunami that costs the lives of the motoring Fails are just one example of the above. Having Nelly “swim” on a caster-based chair or suspended midair by muscular castmates is another.)
Performances are each and every one impeccable, from Carryl’s all-business Gerty to Shalhoub’s spunky Jenny June to Katch’s exquisite Nelly to Quinn’s stalwart Mort to Calarco’s oddly endearing John N.
Chorus members Cristina Gerla, Kristina Johnson, Denver Milord, Gregory Nabours, Brandon Ruiter, Neil Taffe, Gina Torrecilla, and Brittney S. Wheeler play everyone else to perfection, including various timepieces and pets (pooch, parrots, and python), never leaving the stage in as dazzling a display of versatility and physical agility as any cast or audience could hope for. (Matthews is to be saluted, too, for the textbook example Failure provides of non-traditional casting.)
If ever there were a play that comes close to being a musical, Failure: A Love Story is that play, with Nabours’ original music (and arrangements of classic American standards like “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” “Lover Come Back To Me,” and “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love”) vocalized by cast members both individually and in harmony and accompanied on assorted instruments by the selfsame cast, primarily Nabours on piano with Katch ticking the ivories too from time to time. (Nabours doubles vocally as “The Gramaphone” to melodious effect.)
Add to all this Janet Roston’s delightful “Johnny Weissmuller” choreography that has the entire cast kicking up their heels and you’ve got far more than simply a “play with music.”
Scenic designer JR Bruce’s supremely ingenious set surrounds the action with three latticework walls filled with lifetimes of accumulated paraphernalia (courtesy of props designer extraordinaire Michael O’Hara), a chest of drawers and several chairs filling in for everything from a Stutz Bearcat to a barge … and more. Allison Dillard’s highly original costumes combine period looks with contemporary flavorings. Matthew Denman has created a vibrant marvel of a lighting design. Erin Walley is scenic painter.
Alternate cast members Ben Campbell, Katie Canavan, Zach Kanner, Katie Kitani, Christopher Salazar, Danni Spring, Hannah Mae Sturges, Jack Sweeney, and Samantha Valdellon take over on Thursday August 20, and when needed.
I absolutely loved Michael Matthews’ take on Philip Dawkins’ Failure: A Love Story. If you don’t fret too much about TMI in the first quarter-hour, I’m guessing that you will too.
GTC Burbank, 1111-b West Olive Avenue, Burbank.
July 24, 2105
Photos: Matthew Denman, John Klopping