Zaniness reigns supreme in Peter Lefcourt’s screwball Café Society, now getting a terrifically performed, imaginatively directed, cleverly designed World Premiere at West L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre, the ever so “Westside” laughfest marred only by a jarring 11th-hour tonal shift that bears rethinking.
The café in question is your friendly neighborhood Starbucks, that is if your neighborhood happens to be around Pico and Sawtelle with locals including:
• Aspiring screenwriter Jeff (Eric Wentz), hard at work on his latest attempt to write the Next Hollywood Blockbuster when he mistakes aspiring actress Kari (Chandra lee Schwartz) for the hooker she’s just auditioned to play.
• Hotshot realtor Marilyn (Susan Diol), who combines phone negotiations for her latest sale with a blind date set up on Bark.com (whose members post their pet pooches’ faces in lieu of their own).
• High-power businessman Bob (Eric Myles Geller), there to meet Marilyn only to discover that she’s already taken … with the hunky Jeff.
• Café regular Anastasia (Ian Patrick Williams), a grizzled, bearded, tiara-sporting, taffeta-clad nutjob who fancies himself the Grand Duchess of Tzarist Russia, thereby inspiring would-be screenwriter Jeff to pen his answer to David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago.
Serving drinks to all of the above is barista Darnell (Donathan Walters), while baseball-capped, hoodie-sporting boy-next-door-type Martin (Nick Cobey) keeps popping in to use the restroom, duffel bag in hand.
As to why Martin seems uninterested in sampling Starbucks’ wares, well I’ll leave that surprise unrevealed. Suffice it to say that neither Jeff nor Kari nor Marilyn nor Bob nor Anastasia nor Darnell nor Martin himself will be leaving the corner café anytime soon.
Café Society marks the latest collaboration between playwright Lefcourt and director Terri Hanauer, whose brilliant skewering of Hollywood deal-making in La Ronde De Lunch (ten two-person lunches inspired by the Arthur Schnitzler classic) turned out to be one of 2009’s funniest comedies.
For most of its ninety-minute running time, Café Society gives La Ronde a run for its (lunch) money, though this time ronde the creative duo keep all seven players onstage throughout, and boy does their cast deliver on the razor-sharp timing and precision demanded by Lefcourt’s script.
Café Society’s high-concept premise is simple but brilliant. Every time a cell phone rings, or a text message arrives or gets sent, or Jeff types into his laptop, said verbiage gets projected on the Starbucks menu board: casting notices that send Kari into the restroom for yet another costume change, real estate deal-making texts that go on no matter the mayhem surrounding Marilyn, Jeff’s screenplay’s pseudo-Russian dialog, and so on and so forth.
A number of running gags add to the laugh quotient: Marilyn’s persistence in making her big-bucks sale even when there are far more pressing matters at hand, Kari’s growing dismay that no matter what role she’s up for, it will go to an actress of color, Martin’s irrational dislike of TV reporter Kelly Kahanahana, Hollywood’s propensity for casting big names regardless of whether or not they are the right age, race, or even gender for the role, etc.
Still, while one Café Society character in particular may have a point in finding fault with the abuses of power, pollution of the environment, mistreatment of workers, and other assorted wrongs committed by American big business, the play’s shift from outrageous farce to dead-serious drama is simply too abrupt and jolting to work.
Fortunately, Lefcourt and Hanauer find a way to bring things back to a satisfying if not entirely hole-free climax bound to delight anyone with memories of a certain Colonel Bogey.
There’s not a weak link in Café Society’s all-around stellar cast.
Broadway’s enchanting Schwartz is every bit as wickedly winning here as she was at the Pasadena Playhouse in Sleepless In Seattle: The Musical. Juilliard grad Wentz brings a Ben Affleck sexiness to Jeff along with terrific comedic chops. Diol is a delicious delight as Marilyn, Geller a smarmy treat as Bob, and Williams a split-personality scene-stealer as both Anastasia and the man she used to be. Charismatic newcomers Cobey and Walters complete the cast to perfection, the former revealing bona fide dramatic chops when called for, the latter clearly having done his Starbucks barista prep. Kailyn Leilani and Gabriel Romero make entertaining “special appearances” on video as Kelly Kahanahana and Captain Nunez.
High design marks go to sound designer Dino Herrmann for his multitude of ringtones and assorted high-tech effects and to Yee Eun Nam for her equal number of rapid-fire projections. Amanda Knehans’ set and props will have you convinced you’re in an honest-to-goodness Starbucks.
Jackie Gudgel gives each character a just-right costume, with special snaps to Kari’s nurse, hooker, and lesbian lawyer garb. Donny Jackson’s excellent lighting and Troy Hauschild’s expert videography complete Café Society’s Grade A production design.
Café Society is produced by Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners. Victoria Watson, Theatre Planners, is associate producer. Mike Mahaffey is fight coordinator. Casting is by Michael Donovan, CSA. Richie Ferris is casting associate.
Rita Cofield is stage manager.
I laughed hard and loud throughout all but about ten minutes of Café Society, so much so that I’m still smiling as I finish up this review at … where else but Starbucks, though truth be told, the Café Society created by Peter Lefcourt makes for a whole lot more entertaining (and better-looking) bunch than the folks surrounding me now. LOL
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.
August 22, 2015
Photos: Ed Krieger