Comedy-Drama – StageSceneLA Fri, 22 Sep 2017 23:26:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 26154209 BIG NIGHT Sun, 17 Sep 2017 17:58:50 +0000 Paul Rudnick flounders Big-Time in Big Night, a World Premiere comedy-melodrama likely to prove a Big Letdown to fans hoping for more of the same hearts-and-minds-changing comedic magic that made Jeffrey and In & Out such crowd-pleasing delights.

It’s Academy Award night and Best Supporting Actor nominee Michael Stratford (Brian Hutchison) is about to head over to the Dolby Theatre and quite possibly accept an Oscar as pay-off for years spent either toiling regional theater or snagging an occasional TV guest spot or movie bit.

Not only is this a big night for Michael, it’s a big one too for his firecracker of a new agent Cary (Max Jenkins), who’s so gay he’s got fifteen pairs of eyeglass frames (and he doesn’t even wear glasses); for his political activist boyfriend Austin (Luke Macfarlane), about to arrive at Michael’s deluxe Beverly Hills hotel suite from a stop at the Gay Center’s LGBT youth Oscar party; for his trans nephew Eddie née Erica (Tom Phelan), a UCLA queer studies major raised in the most traditional of homes; and for his mother Esther, who we know must be absolutely fabulous if for no reason but that she’s played by Wendie Malick.

Sill, from the start there are indications that Rudnick in political activist mode won’t be the writer we’ve come to know and love for his ability to poke fun at contemporary gays (whether the out-and-proud Jeffrey or Kevin Kline’s In & Out closet case) without ever becoming strident and preachy.

It turns out that Michael’s biggest Oscar competition tonight is a cisgender actor playing a transgender serial killer (if this seems very 1991 Silence Of The Lambs, it’s not the only time audiences may find themselves feeling they’re watching something written a quarter-century ago) and Eddie, selfish if well-meaning little prick that he is, wants Uncle Michael to use his Oscar speech platform (because there’s apparently little doubt he’s going to win) to lambast the Academy for its long history of homophobia!

(I’m guessing that it’s around this time that those of the non-progressive persuasion will find themselves heading for the exit rather than stick around for more of what they’ll surely see as Rudnick’s “gay agenda,” and they may not be the only ones.)

Esther’s arrival does manage to perk things up a bit, as does the surprise she springs on her son, which is that walking the red carpet by her side tonight will be her college prof Eleanor (Kecia Lewis), the merry widow’s Pulitzer-prize winning African-American lesbian lover!

But that’s nothing compared to the cataclysmic event that follows Esther’s announcement, a game-changer takes Rudnick’s comedy into stark dramatic territory (a genre most definitely not the writer’s forte) from which there is no recovery, a tonal shift not helped by the fact that the words coming out of Rudnick’s characters’ mouths are talking points and sound bites, and before you know it, Big Night has sunk quicker than Titanic.

Director Walter Bobbie and his cast do what they can with the material, Jenkins proving a particularly sassy delight as Jack McFarland clone Cary, and it’s a treat seeing Malick play a character with more depth than those she’s normally given. Hutchison, Lewis, and Phelan, on the other hand, are hobbled by their characters’ clichés, and Macfarlane, entering when he does midway, never gets to play more than anguished.

At the very least, Big Night looks absolutely fabulous as designed by a team of Broadway greats. John Lee Beatty’s gorgeous set looks to have been transported directly from the Beverly Hills Hotel, William Ivey Long’s costumes are stunners, Ken Billington’s lighting dazzles, and Karl Fredrik Lundeberg adds amusing/dramatic sound effects and some nifty original music.

Brooke Baldwin is production stage manager. Lindsay Allbaugh is associate producer. Casting is by James Calleri, CSA and Paul Davis, CSA.

Paul Rudnick fans hoping for more of what made us fall for his previous hits will be sorely disappointed by Big Night. Big Flop is more like it.

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Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Through October 8. Tuesdays through Fridays at 8:00. Saturdays at 2:00 and 8:00. Sundays at 1:00 and 6:30. Reservations: 213 628-2772

–Steven Stanley
September 16, 2017
Photos: Craig Schwartz


A Catholic mom, her Jewish husband and mother-in-law, and a couple of kids raised somewhere in the middle. Meet the protagonists of Gary Lamb’s Somewhere in the Middle (or guess who’s coming for Passover), a World Premiere Crown City Theatre Company dramedy that transcends its “Very Special Episode” premise to make for a discussion-prompting, terrifically acted look at the religious ties that rarely bind in today’s polarized world.

“Good Yom Tov,” a Weird Al Yankovich-style takeoff on The Rascal’s “Good Lovin’,” sets a lighthearted tone as we are introduced to the ever-kvetching, guilt-inducing Grandma Roz (Cynthia Kania), whose three-month stay with adult son David (Richard Van Slyke), daughter-in-law Lauren (Saige Spinney), and teenage grandson Adam (Adam Simon Krist) has stretched into a year and counting.

Completing the family circle is 20-year-old Sarah (Julie Lanctot), off studying philosophy at Stanford but on a plane back to Chicago for a Passover visit that promises at least one humdinger of a surprise.

Though press materials (and a production still you won’t find here) reveal the nature of the first surprise Sarah has in store for her family, I’ll refrain from spoiling it.

Suffice it to say it’s a doozy, though the even bigger whammy Sarah has planned for David and Lauren turns out to be Jamal (Luke King), smart, handsome, British, black, and as his name might suggest, about to add something extra to an already combustible ethno-religious mix.

Yes, Somewhere In The Middle does feature its fair share of sitcom-style setup-and-punch jokes (“The Orthodox are crazy! They don’t even eat lobster!”) and yes, there are times when conversations veer into talking points, but the points being made are hardly out of the question given the circumstances at hand.

Since Lauren is Catholic, does that mean her children aren’t actually Jewish? (Having been raised somewhere in the middle, all the kids know for sure is that “Jesus was a Jew who celebrates his birthday on Hanukah and comes back from the dead to deliver Easter eggs for Passover.”) On a related note, does the word “Jewish” refer to a race, a religion or both? And this is just small latkes compared to when talk turns to the Middle East.

Without this meat, Somewhere In The Middle might be nothing more than a contemporary Abie’s Irish Rose, and it wouldn’t get you to thinking just as often as you find yourself laughing at the jokes.

At a brisk eighty-five minutes (not counting intermission), it does seem a bit of a stretch to divide Somewhere In The Middle into two acts, particularly these days when “ninety-minutes, no intermission” are often the sweetest words a theatergoer can hear.

Still, a fifteen-minute break does allow the audience to mull over what they’ve seen and heard even as they sing the praises of yet another terrific Crown City cast displaying laugh-getting comedic timing while fleshing out Lamb’s characters under the playwright’s assured direction.

A subtle, authentic Spinney is a particular standout as a wife and mother who could give Donna Reed lessons in parenting. So is recent UCLA grad Lanctot, who makes her every line sound like it’s being spoken for the first time (and by a young woman of intelligence and depth). As for native Londoner King’s sweet-and-smart Jamal, Sarah’s beau could hardly be more appealing.

A delightfully salty Kania’s against-type casting helps prevent Roz from becoming another standard-issue Jewish mom, Van Slyke’s rare departure from musical comedy reveals an adept dramedian, and Krist plays Adam with smart-alecky flair.

Scenic-and-properties designer Joanne McGee’s meticulously appointed Midwest living room/kitchen set provides a believable backdrop, Amanda Walter’s costumes tell us much about each character, lighting designer/stage manager Zad Potter lights sets, props, and costumes with authenticity, and an uncredited sound design gets its own laughs from between-scenes song parodies like “Gimme Some Latkes.”

Casting is by Reneé Cohen. Zach Louis, Susan J Sommer, A Martin Sottile, Sarah Yannie, and Tony Tambi are alternates.

I approached Somewhere in the Middle (or guess who’s coming for Passover) with some trepidation, if only for its rather unwieldy title. I need not have fretted. The latest from Crown City may not win a Pulitzer, but it’s a crowd-pleasing winner in its own sweet, funny, conversation-starting way.

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Crown City Theater, St. Matthew’s Church, 11031 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. Through October 8. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 3:00. Alternate cast performances on Thursdays September 14, 21, and 28. Reservations: 818 605-5685

–Steven Stanley
September 2, 2017
Photos: Rainer Tischler



SILENT SKY Sat, 26 Aug 2017 20:01:27 +0000

Jennifer Cannon lights up the International City Theatre stage as groundbreaking astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, a hidden figure at long last given the recognition she deserves in Lauren Gunderson’s captivating Silent Sky.

 We first meet “Henry” circa 1900 as the Radcliffe grad leaves behind her beloved father, old-fashioned sister Margaret (Erin Anne Williams), and their Wisconsin home to join Harvard University Observatory head Edward Charles Pickering’s all-female team of “computers,” whose only responsibility is to name and catalog stars seen through the university observatory telescope and captured on glass.

Tedious as Henrietta’s work would seem to be, this is hardly the adjective to describe Gunderson’s enthralling play, whose early scenes are deliciously spiced by the squabbling of Henrietta’s partners in star-gazing, the starchy, imperious Annie Cannon (Leslie Stevens) and the feisty, quick-witted Scot Williamina Fleming (Jennifer Parsons).

 Meanwhile, romantic potential arrives in the person of Peter Shaw (Eric Wentz), Pickering’s brilliant assistant and just the right match for the equally brainy Henrietta if only he can keep from putting his foot in his mouth, something that seems to happen whenever they meet.

In tried-and-true romcom tradition, bickering proves mere foreplay to an attraction neither astronomer can deny as Henrietta devises the first-ever means of calculating a star’s magnitude, and even more significantly, a method of determining the distance of stars as far as ten million light years away.

 Under Todd Niesen’s effervescent direction, Silent Sky draws us into the lives of its eclectic band of characters, in particular the plucky Henrietta, given equal parts gumption, ambition, and smarts by the radiant Cannon (Lenny in ICT’s recent Crimes Of The Heart) in quite possibly her finest performance to date.

 The equally fabulous Parsons and Stevens trade zinger after zinger to audience glee, and Williams is terrific too as an old-fashioned gal who learns to appreciate her decidedly untraditional sister.

As for Henrietta’s adversary turned admirer, what young astronomer of sound mind wouldn’t fall for someone as adorably awkward and ultimately winning as Wentz’s deliciously dour, utterly smitten Peter Shaw.

Scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo’s spare but splendid set combines with Donna Ruzika’s vibrant lighting and Lily Bartenstein’s literally stellar projections to take us from Wisconsin to Harvard to the star-spangled skies above.

 Add to this sound designer Jeff Polunas’s mix of mood-setting music and effects, resident costume designer Kim DeShazo’s pitch-perfect period creations (acquiring a slimmer silhouette as we move from the early 1900s to the WWI years), resident property designers Patty and Gordon Briles’ finely detailed glass plates and other assorted astronomical paraphernalia, and resident hair and wig designer Anthony Gagliardi’s era-appropriate women’s dos (only Cannon sports her own tresses) and you’ve got yet another top-drawer ICT production design.

Silent Sky is produced by International City Theatre artistic director caryn desai. Victoria A. Gathe is production stage manager and Sarah Nearhoff is assistant stage manager. Casting is by resident casting director Michael Donovan, CSA. Richie Ferris is casting associate.

With its just-right blend of human relationships, science, and romance, Silent Sky entertains as often as it illuminates. From the heavens above, Henrietta Leavitt would be proud.

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International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
August 25, 2017
Photos: Tracey Roman



THE DEVIL’S WIFE Tue, 08 Aug 2017 19:44:31 +0000

Three recently bereaved sisters find their world rocked by a mystery man dressed all in black (save a pair of blood-red satin gloves) in Tom Jacobson’s devilishly droll period thriller The Devil’s Wife, a Skylight Theatre Company World Premiere.

Flood, drought, locusts, lawyers, and the death of their father have left the once wealthy Ramirez girls—Bonita (Mariel Neto), Dulce (Alana Dietze), and Sofia (Caro Zeller)—with a roof over their heads and thirty-three thousand acres of untillable land but neither savings nor servants to provide for their many needs.

What the sisters do have as assets are themselves, and while frisky middle sis Dulce would gladly go on auction to the highest marital bidder, their father’s will has specified that his eldest must be the first to wed, and ice virgin Bonita is in no hurry to plight her troth.

Since an attorney versed in real estate law is what’s now most needed to provide the Ramirez siblings with financial advice, the smart-and-sassy Sofia has summoned legal counsel to their family abode.

Enter Nicolas Mastema (Everette Wallin), not the toothless, tubercular seventy-nine-year-old the girls have imagined but a handsome hunk hardly a day over thirty and armed with a proposal that could well put an end to the sisters’ financial woes.

In exchange for one-third of the Ramirez acreage, he will marry the eldest daughter on condition that the five-foot-long staff that is Sofia’s weapon of choice be returned to the Mastema family from whence it came.

And so, willing or not, Bonita marries Nicolas, who soon finds himself the most sexually unsatisfied of grooms thanks to his wife’s post-wedding exhaustion, general anxiety, and a time of the month that has gone on a record six weeks and counting.

Not that Bonita is any happier with their living arrangements, Nicolas’s frequent business trips leaving her behind with only a bearded, wizened, hunchback servant named Ratel to inform his new mistress of her husband’s one and only rule.

She must never go in the cellar!

With its mid-nineteenth century setting, its frequent dark-and-stormy nights, and its tongue-slightly-in-cheek melodrama, The Devil’s Wife will remind audiences with long movie memories of mid-1960s Roger Corman-Vincent Price-Edgar Allan Poe thrillers like House Of Usher, The Pit And The Pendulum, and The Tomb Of Ligeia.

In other words, there’s as much humor as there is horror in the mix, and never more so than when a certain rule gets disobeyed and there just might be a need for more than one Devil’s Wife.

Under Eric Hoff’s savvy direction, an all-around terrific cast deliver one deliciously stylized performance after another, from Neto’s haughty Bonita to Dietze’s saucy Dulce to Zeller’s ballsy Sofia to Wallin’s seductive Nicolas, with special snaps to two of the above for some of the year’s most thrillingly (and believably) executed stage combat, expertly choreographed by Mike Mahaffey.

I must confess to being less enamored of The Devil’s Wife’s forays into theological philosophizing, and I can’t help thinking that the play’s title (and identifying the actor playing Ratel in the program) give away too much.

What cannot be debated is scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s stylish set, Sarah Figoten Wilson’s equally elegant period costumes (from somber mourning to frilly undies to Zorro-ready cape and boots), Jeff McLaughlin’s striking lighting design with its splashes of scarlet, and Christopher Moscatiello’s pitch-perfect sound design collage of suspense-heightening music and dramatic effects.

The Devil’s Wife is produced by Gary Grossman and Tony Abatemarco. Jonathan Muñoz-Proulx is associate producer.Christopher Hoffman is production stage manager. Casting is by Raul Clayton Staggs.

Once again revealing Tom Jacobson to be one of L.A.’s most original, daring, compelling playwrights, The Devil’s Wife provides a devilishly entertaining mix of chuckles and chills at the Skylight.

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Skylight Theatre, 1816 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
August 6, 2017
Photos: Ed Krieger


THE CAKE Mon, 03 Jul 2017 23:17:17 +0000

Bekah Brunstetter puts a deeply personal, delightfully down-home face on the Gay-Wedding-Cake Wars in The Cake, the gifted young playwright’s latest World Premiere dramedy, another feather in director Jennifer Chambers’ and The Echo Theater Company’s multi-plumed hats.

North Carolinian Della Brady (Debra Jo Rupp) has been confectioning Winston-Salem’s most heavenly cakes for so many years, it’s no wonder she’s been hand-picked among thousands of applicants to compete on reality TV’s Great American Baking Show, news which means absolutely nothing to Macy (Carolyn Rattaray), the gluten-averse Yankee visitor who’s shown up this morning at Della’s Sweets, reporter’s notebook in hand.

The reason for Macy’s unexpected visit becomes clear when Jen (Shannon Lucio), the closest thing married-without-children Della has ever had to a daughter, walks through her bakery door, back from the Big Apple for the first time since her mother lost her battle with cancer five years ago, bursting today with news she wants Della to be the first to hear.

Jen is getting married in the fall, and there’s no one on earth she’d rather have bake her wedding cake than the best friend her mama ever had, news which renders Della speechless, first with joy and then with dismay when she learns that Jen’s fiancé is not only a fiancée but a strident Yankee cake-hater to boot.

To do Della justice, Winston-Salem’s most renowned baker doesn’t get on her high horse and out-and-out refuse to make Jen and Macy’s wedding cake. (October is, after all, one of the year’s busiest months what with christenings and Halloween and the like.)

Still, Jen knows in her heart of hearts that if she were marrying a man, Della would find a way to squeeze her in, and so, hiding her humiliation with an apologetic smile, she exits Della’s Sweets, though hopefully not for good.

In less inspired hands, Brunstetter’s latest could easily have turned into either a strident denunciation of Christian hypocrisy or a TV-movie-ready tale of one Bible thumper’s road-to-Damascus conversion to from gay-hater to rainbow-flag-waver.

The Cake is neither of these, and much of what makes it Brunsetter’s finest play since her extraordinary Be A Good Little Widow are the expectation-defying ways her nuanced characters, including Della’s good-ol’-boy husband Tim (Joe Hart), try (to varying degrees and with varying success rates) to understand those at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Topping the list of tryers is none other than conservative Christian Della herself, and since the role is played with multi-layered brilliance by quintessential TV-mom Rupp (who as any That ‘70s Show fan will tell you doesn’t have an unlikable bone in her bubbly petite frame), it’s hard to imagine an audience member not on Della’s side, even at her most hurtful, because God love her, she does try, and so do we for the effort if not always for the results.

The always marvelous Hart’s salt-of-the earth Joe does try too, though he’s got his own struggles as a man incapable of going forth and multiplying and who now must face the consequences of a childless (and now sexless) marriage.

Lucio (a warm, radiant Jen) and Rattaray (who makes Macy as unexpectedly likable as she is abrasive) do equally superb work, with an offstage Morrison Keddie voicing The Great American Baking Show’s Simon Cowell-like host to deliciously full-of-himself effect.

Scenic designer Pete Hickok’s terrific use of the wide rectangular Atwater Village stage allows for lickety-split scene changes from Della’s scrumptiously cake-filled bake shop to double beds on either side, aided by Pablo Santiago’s topnotch lighting design, one that includes some delightful fantasy-sequence effects.

Jeff Gardner’s multi-faceted sound-design mix of music and layered effects is one of his best, with Elena Flores’s just-right costumes completing another fabulous Echo Theater production design.

The Cake is produced by Jesse Cannady and Nadia Marina. Natalie Figaredo is production stage manager. Skyler Gray is dramaturg. Casting is by Meg Fister.

Additional program credits are shared by Tara Karsian (consulting producer), Michael Sturgis (associate producer), and bakers Kaleb King, Kellie Haggett, and Elena Calderon.

Treating all of her characters with the utmost affection and respect, Bekah Brunstetter has written that rarity among LGBT-themed plays, one that might actually inspire baby steps towards mutual understanding. I laughed, I cried, I learned, I loved, and like a certain someone who shall remain nameless, I am better for having tasted The Cake.

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The Echo Theater Company @ Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village.

–Steven Stanley
July 1, 2017
Photos: Darrett Sanders

CONSTELLATIONS Fri, 16 Jun 2017 23:29:57 +0000

Ginnifer Goodwin and Allen Leech lend their considerable movie/TV star power, charisma, and talent to the Geffen Playhouse Los Angeles Premiere of Constellations, Nick Payne’s brain-teasing look at the multitude of possibilities inherent in a single romantic relationship.

Goodwin stars as physicist Marianne, whose study of string theory posits a “multiverse” in which “at any given moment, several outcomes can co-exist simultaneously.”

Take for instance the series of rapid-fire meet-cutes, each slightly different from the one before, that promise romance ahead for Maryanne and the man (Leech as beekeeper Roland) she meets at an outdoor barbecue somewhere in England.

Multiverse Roland Number One cuts off Marianne’s awkward come-on (“Do you know why it’s impossible to lick the tips of your elbows?”) with a terse “I’m in a relationship.” Roland Number Two has just undergone a painful breakup, Roland Number Three is married, and so is Roland Number Four.

Fortunately for Marianne, Roland Number Five happens to be both willing and able to take things a step further, albeit in multiple ways and with multiple outcomes for each.

However confusing this all might seem on paper, it ends up working on stage thanks to Payne’s unexpectedly accessible script, Giovanna Sardelli’s incisive direction, a pair of bravura star turns, and a production design that helps to distinguish each multiverse from the ones before and those yet to come.

Indeed it is to lighting designer Lap Chi Chu’s credit that a sudden switch from color to black-and-white only minutes into the play cues us into a bleaker future ahead for our young lovers than the one we may initially have imagined.

What makes Constellations particularly fascinating is our realization that each Marianne and Roland we encounter is a slightly different person from the one before, making this not just a “what if he’d/she’d said this instead of that?” story but one taking place in an infinite variety of parallel worlds.

From a less ingenious, daring playwright than Payne, Constellations could well have ended up a standard, cookie-cutter romantic disease-of-the-week dramedy, and considering how few moments in Marianne and Roland’s life we actually spend with them, this more traditional one-act might have run only a fraction of its already brief seventy or so minutes, and nobody would have paid it much heed.

Instead, following a couple of star-studded debuts (Sally Hawkins and Rafe Spall in London, Ruth Wilson and Jake Gyllenhaal in New York), Constellations arrives at the Geffen with justified advance buzz for both the play itself and its luminous L.A. stars.

Goodwin (Big Love, Once Upon A Time) and Leech (Downton Abbey, The Imitation Game) deliver dazzling, quicksilver performances that have Marianne and Roland changing moods, intentions, and even personality quirks in a heartbeat as they go from the playful banter of multiple meet-cutes and the romantic missteps that follow to the darkness of those black-and-white scenes and then back again.

Constellations unfolds on scenic designer Takeshi Kata’s black box of a set made magical by its abundance of translucent globes hanging down from above, orbs that not only bring to mind the play’s titular star clusters, when lit from within by Chu’s seemingly infinite array of color schemes, suggest unlimited possibilities and hopes and tragedies and joys.

Lindsay Jones’ sound design and original music add even more magic to the mix, with costume designer Denitsa Bliznakova giving Marianne and Roland each a single, character-appropriate outfit to wear.

Julie Haber is production stage manager and Daniel Trostler is assistant stage manager. Rachel Wiegardt-Egel is dramaturg.

Casting is by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA. Understudies Donnla Hughes and Benjamin Davies cover Marianne and Roland.

Constellations explores life and how we live it and death and how we face it in an infinite number of ways. It’s no wonder Goodwin and Leech took time off from lucrative film and TV careers to bring Nick Payne’s one-of-a-kind play to poignant, powerful life on the Geffen Playhouse stage.

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Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
June 15, 2017
Photos: Chris Whitaker

NICKY Fri, 09 Jun 2017 21:35:03 +0000

Chekhov’s melancholy antihero Nikolai Ivanov is alive and well and living unhappily ever after in today’s Palm Springs as Nicky, the titular protagonist of Boni B. Alvarez’s rewardingly adventurous reinvention of a late-19th-century Russian classic.

More than any other modernized Chekhov or Chekhov-inspired play of recent years—Species Native To California, Stupid Fucking Bird, Possum Carcass, The Country House, and Vanya And Sonia And Masha And Spike among them—playwright Alvarez’s World Premiere adaptation sticks close to Ivanov in both plot and style.

Nikolai may now be nicknamed Nicky (Cyrus Wilcox), but he’s every bit as screwed up as his Chekhovian counterpart, married to a dying wife (Sandy Velasco as Filipina immigrant Anna, who like her Russian namesake has given up family and friends for her man), over his head in debt to childhood pal Pavel Lebedev’s (Daniel Kaemon) money-lending wife Zina (Emily Swallow), and pursued by the Lebedevs’ besotted 21-year-old Sasha (Chris Aguila).

This time round, however, Sasha is no fair young maiden but a fair young lad whose sexuality has been embraced by both family (Pavel repeatedly extols the virtues of “my gay son”) and his gay/gay-friendly millennial posse (Jaime Barcelon as Julian, Mark Jacobson as Bryce, and Taylor Hawthorne as Renee), down from San Francisco for their chum’s 21st-birthday weekend.

Not only does this gender tweak give Alvarez’s latest play added contemporary relevance and some zingy one-liners missing from the more dour Russian original, Nicky’s sexual confusion motivates both his depression and his icy coldness toward a terminally ill wife.

Not that Nicky forgets its Eastern-European roots, Alvarez filling his ethnically diverse cast with a mix of first-generation Soviet émigrés and second-generation Russian-Americans. (Uncle Matthew applauds his native land’s return to its old glory under Putin, Pavel maintains there’s nothing vodka can’t cure, and Russian kisses get exchanged throughout.)

It’s fun to see middle-aged Russian matchmaker Aurora (Julia Silverman) not only facilitating matrimony between old-school Uncle Matthew (Ted Barton) and well-to-do widow Martha (Alexis Genya) but being persuaded to begin fixing up impoverished young San Francisco twinks and moneyed old queens living out their dying days under the Palm Springs sun.

If Chekhov’s self-described comedies tend to lose their laughs when performed by overzealous Americans, Nicky most assuredly does not, even as playwright Alvarez gives his cast plenty of opportunities to strut their dramatic stuff.

Under Beth Lopes’ assured direction, a superb Wilcox reveals Nicky’s conflicted soul, not only in scenes opposite loved (and unloved) ones but in Chekhovian soliloquies delivered to powerful effect. Aguila’s heartbreakingly smitten Masha represents the second time in less than a year that the USC grad has devastated this reviewer with his work. Velasco’s quietly suffering, karaoke-loving Anna is given an eleventh-hour scene of such rage and pain that it too proves indelible.

Nardeep Khurmi provides splendid backup as Anna’s oncologist Lawali (the definition of lovestruck devotion), Kaemon and Swallow are equally terrific as Masha’s supportive parents, and Jeremy Lelliott’s irrepressibly exuberant cousin Misha never fails to delight.

The tangy trio of Barton, Genya, and Silverman give their Russian-born-and-bred characters abundant gusto (and convincing accents thanks to dialect coach Caitlin Muelder), while Barcelon, Hawthorne, and Jacobson add millennial spice, and Caro Zeller delivers some sassy zingers as Pavel and Zina’s maid Gisela.

Nicky looks absolutely sensational on Benoît Guérin’s expansive set, seemingly imported from Palm Springs with mini-swimming pool intact and lit to SoCal desert brilliance by Azra King-Abadi, with additional production design kudos to Karen Fix Curry for her just-right bevy of costumes, Sammi Smith’s spot-on props, and Michelle Stann’s topnotch sound design.

Summer Grubaugh is stage manager. Melissa Pryor is assistant director. Alternates Ron Bottitta, Chelsea Boyd, Leona Britton, Julia Fisher, Kevin Gottlieb, Craig Jorczak, Shawn Kathryn Kane, Gio Munguia, Marta Portillo, David Tran, and Ryan Patrick Welsh as Nicky take center stage on Thursday June 15 and whenever needed.

It takes chutzpah to reinvent a classic and talent to pull it off. In Nicky, Boni B. Alvarez has turned minor Chekhov into a major Coeurage Theatre Company hit.

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Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Blvd., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
June 8, 2017
Photos: John Klopping


ELEVATOR Mon, 22 May 2017 20:01:51 +0000

Get ready for the Elevator ride of the year as Michael Leoni’s gripping, emotion-packed dramedy-in-a-lift returns to West Hollywood seven years after its eleven-month smash run had audiences coming back for more of its crowd-pleasing blend of excitement, laughter, and tears, not to mention one unexpected twist after another.

Is there any of us who hasn’t imagined being trapped in an elevator, and worse still, what might happen if that elevator should plunge to the ground floor? Writer-director Leoni takes that fear and runs with it—with a cast of seven nameless characters, at least one of whom each audience member can identify with.

CEO Woman (Deborah Vancelette) is still single at forty-five, hating her job, worrying about getting older, and wondering if she might just be terminally ill.

Temp (Erica Katzin) is a perpetual dieter unable to shed those excess pounds, a fact that a looks-oriented society won’t let her forget.

Business Man (David Abed) is a loud-mouthed boor who seems to thrive on putting other people down.

Musician (Devon Werkheiser) is a teenage slacker who can’t seem to get worked up about anything, unless perhaps it’s his music.

Maintenance Man (William Stanford Davis) is an elderly African-American unable to escape racial stereotyping no matter where he goes.

Hot Girl (Karsen Rigby) is a drop-dead gorgeous blonde who would appear at first glance to have not a thought in her head other than wanting to look her best at all times.

Goth Girl (Kristina St. Peter) has unwashed, unkempt hair and a bad attitude that may have just gotten her rejected at yet another job interview.

As John Hughes did in The Breakfast Club, Elevator starts with a group of strangers trapped in tight quarters over an extended period of time, then allows each character to let down his or her mask and reveal truths that go from unexpected to downright astonishing. If it ware a movie, you’d be popping in the DVD year after year after year.

Under Leoni’s incisive direction, Abed’s Business Man has just the right slickness to make his own transformation all the more rewarding. Davis brings his decades of experience to create a wise, richly layered Maintenance Man, with a minimum of dialog. Katzin’s Temp is a powerful mixture of sarcasm, good humor, and longing.

Rigby too is a stunner, her self-revelatory monolog played with beautiful authenticity. St. Peter’s Goth Girl keeps things so deeply hidden inside her angry, antisocial shell that, like Ally Sheedy’s Breakfast Club “weirdo,” we eagerly await the moment when she will at last speak. The terrific Vancelette captures all of the CEO Woman’s brittleness, her self-doubts, and the demons which pursue her.

As for Musician Werkheiser, not only is the emerging recording artist an engaging actor and talented singer-songwriter, his particularly touching work here brought tears to my eyes not once but twice.

Tyler Tanner provides the offstage voice of the trapped septet’s only link to the outside world.

Leoni’s direction is as ingenious as his writing, a number of between-scene sequences proving particular dazzlers, one of them fast-forwarding the action as if a » button had suddenly been pushed, another allowing the characters’ inner fears and rage to explode in a fantasy brawl.

Scenic designer David Goldstein has transformed WeHo’s Coast Playhouse into a building “under construction,” and his brand-new elevator is not only more realistic than his previous design, he lights it quite thrillingly from both outside and within, scoring bonus points for clearly differentiating between reality and fantasy.

Paul Seradarian’s sound design is another winner, allowing us to hear the character’s inner voices and backing scenes with Mario Marchetti’s suspense-building music soundtrack.

Add to this Michael Mullen’s character-appropriate costumes and Linda Michaels’ just-right makeup and you’ve got an all-around Grade-A production design.

Elevator is produced by Michelle Kaufer and Goldstein. Max Feldman is co-producer. Kristin Bolinski is stage manager.

I fell in love with Elevator at Fringe 2010, loved it even more in its Macha Theatre transfer later that yeare, and love it more still at the Coast. Michael Leoni’s emotionally moving, highly satisfying thrill ride is better than ever, and likely to keep audiences riveted to their seats for months to come.

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Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Through December 31. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 3:00. Reservations: 323 960-7787

–Steven Stanley
May 21, 2017
Photos: Michèle Young