Center Theatre Group opens Block Party, its three-play salute to the best of Los Angeles intimate theater, with an exquisitely expanded Kirk Douglas Theatre staging of Coeurage Theatre Company’s multiple-award-winning Failure: A Love Story, Philip Dawkins’ whimsical meditation on the fragility of life and the resiliency of those who live it.

Dawkins’ ubiquitous Greek Chorus (which director Michael 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.

Then again, the girls 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. 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. (When Nelly asks Mort Mort, “a man so successful he’s named after himself,” to tell her his dreams, he replies with a too literal “Last night, I was on a great boat in the shape of a panda.”)

Still, clever/whimsical script or not, if ever a play depended upon a director’s imagination and ingenuity, Failure: A Love Story is that play, and Matthews’ directorial choices are 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. Nelly’s “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, Theo Perkins Brandon Ruiter, Gina Torrecilla, and Brittney S. Wheeler play everyone else to perfection, including the Fail shop’s menagerie of clocks (from cuckoo to grandfather’s) and the family’s equally plentiful menagerie of 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 colorblind casting.)

Musical director/pianist/composer Nabours blends together original music, arrangements of classic American standards, and harmonious cast vocals. Add to that Janet Roston’s delightful “Johnny Weissmuller” choreography and Failure: A Love Story may well be the next best thing to a full-fledged musical.

Surrounding the action with three latticework walls filled with lifetimes of accumulated paraphernalia, scenic designer JR Bruce has expanded his supremely ingenious set to fit the much larger Kirk Douglas stage to stunning effect, and Matthew Brian Denman has lit it to vibrant perfection, 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.

Lindsay Allbaugh is Center Theatre Group associate producer. Emily Abbott is production stage manager and Maggie Swing is stage manager.

Failure: A Love Story received its Los Angeles premiere at Coeurage Theatre Company on July 24, 2015, Jeremy Lelliott, Artistic Director Nicole Monet, Executive Director.

I absolutely loved Michael Matthews’ take on Philip Dawkins’ Failure: A Love Story the first time I saw it and I love it even more at the Douglas. Center Theatre Group’s Block Party 2017 is off to one heartstrings-tugging, standing ovation-earning, rollicking wonder of a start.

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Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City.

–Steven Stanley
April 16, 2017
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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