Wrestling With The Devil

03 Mar
March 3, 2015

It wasn’t just the nose. Or the hooded eyelids. Or the protruding gums in the small mouth that almost never smiled. It was the total demeanor. The flat tones of his speech, punctuated by frequent pauses. The ego that prompted him to identify himself as “The Golden Eagle.”

It was the transformed funny-man, Steve Carell, taking on the persona of the self-proclaimed “ornithologist, philatelist and philan-thropist,” John du Pont, heir to one of the largest family fortunes in the country.

Carell’s stunning performance earned him an Oscar nomination for a film role that almost no one went to see. The film was “The Foxcatcher,” named for the massive estate to which du Pont brought his “band of brothers,” champion wrestlers that he aspired to coach into immortality. Du Pont was neither a wrestler nor a coach, but when you have that much money you can, presumably, convince people that you are anyone you say you are.

And so du Pont “seduced” these men, including two brothers who had each won gold medals in the 1984 Olympics, by supplying them with the lifestyle of landed squires and feeding them with dreams of glory.

In return, he worked them mercilessly and boasted that he had become like a father to them. For an introverted man preoccupied with only himself, who had never had a real friend in his life, the acquisition of an entourage of servile sycophants was a decisive triumph.

The Olympic gold medalists, Mark and David Schultz, fatherless at an early age and impoverished, could not turn down the money that du Pont offered them. And Mark, who was exceptionally needy, bought into du Pont’s whole pitch about patriotism and teaching the next generation the values he believed in. Mark even bought into du Pont’s demand that he “become his own man” and distance himself from his older brother, David.

David, who was a gregarious, easy-going man, was also a superior wrestling coach, and du Pont soon began to exhibit a subliminal envy, not alone for his prowess, but also for his happy home life—a wife who obviously adored him and two loving kids.

Du Pont also had a troubled relationship with his mother. She was an accomplished horsewoman who crowded out his wrestling trophies from the family “Trophy Room” with excessive trophies of her own. An insensitive taskmaster, she consistently chided him for his devotion to wrestling, which she considered a “low” sport. And however much he tried to win her approval, she never gave it.

Eventually, for somewhat trivial reasons, the warm relationship between Mark and du Pont soured. Mark won a gold medal for Team Foxcatcher at the 1987 World Wrestling Championships, but having been introduced to cocaine by du Pont, who was a heavy user, he drifted into a drug habit augmented with heavy drinking.

Disillusioned by continual rebuffs by du Pont, and assaults on his fragile self-esteem, Mark finally left Foxcatcher, and wrestling. He urged Dave to leave as well, but Dave remained until one fateful day in January 1996, when, inexplicably, du Pont committed murder. After holding off the police for 48 hours, du Pont was captured and became the central figure in a notorious trial.

This true story was made into a book by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman and subsequently into a film produced and directed by Bennett Miller. Miller, who was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director for the film, won the Best Director Award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival.

In addition to Steve Carell’s nomination for Best Actor at the 87th Academy Awards ceremony, Mark Ruffalo, who played David, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman were nominated for Best Original Screenplay, and Bill Corso and Dennis Lilliard were nominated for Best Makeup and Hair Styling.

Other members of the stellar cast included Channing Tatum as Mark, a somewhat naïve and befuddled champion, and Vanessa Redgrave, du Pont’s starchy, Victorian mother. Fortunately, she died before she had to endure the indignity of seeing her name besmirched as her son stood on trial for murder.

John du Pont served 15 years of a 30-year sentence before he died in 2010 from heart disease and emphysema. One would hope that during the time he was incarcerated this complex, troubled, and lonely man would have acquired at least one friend.

The film, which was released in time for the Oscars, will be re-released in Los Angeles this month.

No Return to Cape Cod

24 Feb
February 24, 2015

Now that nearly 13% of Americans are over 65, filmmakers no longer need to cater solely to an audience of 12-year-old boys. More often they have been choosing to bring seniors back from invisibility and making them the focus of their literary work. As playwrights have been doing all along, since how many 12-year-old boys go to the theater?

But it’s a mixed blessing because they no longer depict seniors as chirpily falling in love at 70 or becoming successful entrepreneurs at 75. Now, more and more, they’re dealing with harrowing end-of-life issues.

Case in point: “Still Alice”, which won an Oscar for Julianne Moore as she fearfully descended into the hell of Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

And now comes a play that is equally agonizing. It’s called “The Other Place” and it follows actress Taylor Gilbert into the darkness of that same disease.

As the play opens, she has already started on her downward path. Her personality is undergoing the inevitable changes that accompany the disease: she is angry, argumentative, and irrational. Sometimes lucid, she is bewildered and frightened. And the butt of her abuse is her husband, who is trying to get her to acknowledge the problem and accept whatever help is available.

She is in denial and he is in despair.

“Not being myself is who I am,” she says defensively.

Playing her husband is Sam Anderson, who is impeccable in any role he plays. He works with the dynamic Gilbert in perfect disharmony. (The two of them are co-Artistic Directors of The Road Theatre Company; Gilbert is also the founder of the award-winning group.)

Sharr White, who wrote the play, has mounted it in sequences that move backward and forward in time. Starting in Boston in the present, it moves to St. Thomas ten years previously, as Juliana (Gilbert) is making a pitch for a new pharmaceutical that her lab has developed. She is speaking to a doctors’ conference and she suddenly has “an episode” of memory loss and winds up in the hospital.

Meanwhile, she has been having intense hallucinations about her daughter, who ran away as a teenager and never came back. Ian (Anderson) tries to convince her that their daughter is dead, but Juliana insists that she receives frequent telephone calls from her.

At the same time, Juliana develops a nostalgic yearning for “the other place,” a family cottage on Cape Cod where she and Ian and their daughter had spent happy weekends. But she doesn’t remember that they had sold “the other place” many years earlier.

There are subplots within subplots in this play and Andre Barron has directed his principals exquisitely. As he does with The Woman (Danielle Stephens) and The Man (Dirk Etchison) who each play multiple parts.

Adding to this production are fanciful projection designs created by Kaitlyn Pietras that depict the biological squiggles that accompany Juliana’s explanation of the new pharmaceutical as well as the pounding waves crashing on the shore of Cape Cod. You can almost smell the salt water.

“The Other Place” opened on Friday, February 20th, and will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 through April 11th at the Road Theatre Company’s second home, The Road on Magnolia, 10747 Magnolia Blvd. in North Hollywood.

Beginning on March 5th “The Other Place” will run in repertory with Lucile Lichtblau’s “The English Bride.” It will run until April 26th.

For tickets call (818) 761-8838 or visit www.RoadTheatre.org.

A Visit to Their Roots

23 Feb
February 23, 2015

You’d think that after 70 years they’d have used up all the possible Holocaust stories. But they keep coming up with new ones.

Now, from Poland, the site of the largest and most infamous of Nazi concentration camps (Auschwitz) comes Ida, the story of a Jewishirl’s coming of age in the 1960s.

The film is Poland’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film and for Best Cinematography. And a beautifully directed, sensitive film it is.

It begins two weeks before a young novitiate, Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska), is about to take her final vows as a nun. Abandoned as a baby, she had spent her childhood in an orphanage/convent being taught to live by the religious beliefs and within the sequestered silence of her fellows.

But the Mother Superior has another plan for her. She reveals that Anna has a living aunt and insists that Anna meet her before she takes her vows. So, reluctantly, Anna goes off to a small village to meet Wanda, an aunt that she didn’t know she had.

Another thing that Anna didn’t know she had was a Jewish heritage.

Wanda, who was her mother’s sister, tells Anna that her real birth name was Ida Liebenstein and tells her about her family, all of whom were killed in the Second World War. Wanda, however, survived to become a Communist Party insider, a prominent prosecuting attorney and a ferocious judge, as well as a compulsive drinker and a sexually promiscuous woman. She is cynical, unhappy, and aloof. But she gradually warms up to this reclusive girl who is her only living relative, and she agrees to take her to visit the village where the family once lived.

They are searching for someone who would remember the family and would know where they were buried. But nobody will acknowledge having known them. “There are no Jews here,” they say.

Meanwhile, Wanda has offered a ride to a young hitchhiker who is on his way to the same town to which they are heading. He is a saxophonist, traveling to join the rest of his band and play for the celebration of the town’s birthday. He invites the two women to come and listen to them play, and Wanda readily accepts.

Anna, of course, demurs. But when Wanda returns to their hotel room in the company of a man she has picked up at the bar, Anna gets back into her nun’s habit and hurries off into the night. There is nowhere in town to go, however, but the club in which the saxophonist and his band are playing, and so she shyly stands in the corner and listens to the music.

Eventually he joins her and they have a brief, quiet conversation, and it’s plain to see they are attracted to each other.

This part of the story is suggestive of the Amish practice of sending their young people out to sample the outside world and then letting them decide whether they want to remain there or return to the way of life and traditions of their own people.

But this is as far as I’m going to go with Anna’s story because it is too rich and too intense for me to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say this is a very European movie. Long, thoughtful pauses. Many quiet close-ups. Large winter forests with trees bearing only twigs. Dirt roads and poverty. And people with faces that haven’t changed in a thousand years.

Ida is embellished by a melancholy musical score that includes Mozart as well as John Coltrane. And best of all, the film is in black and white, which emphasizes the bleak tone and mood that makes the film a moving and haunting experience.

Ida is in limited release at the moment, but will open wide after the Oscars.

Hellman and McCarthy Feud; Cavett Mediates

23 Feb
February 23, 2015

If you are old enough to remember Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee’s browbeating of prominent intellectuals in the 1950s, you may be excused for thinking that the play Hellman V. McCarthy refers to the Wisconsin Senator’s vicious attack on the political views of the celebrated playwright Lillian Hellman.

That was the devastating inquisition in which Ms. Hellman, in refusing to respond to McCarthy’s insistent questions about her participation in what was at that time considered “radical” activism, famously remarked, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions…”

But that is the wrong McCarthy. The McCarthy that playwright Brian Richard Mori is referring to is Mary.

Mary McCarthy, a celebrated author and critic, was only seven years younger than Lillian Hellman, but they lived in two different worlds. While both flirted with Communism in the 1930s, (Hellman, by her own account, admitted to having been a “casual member” of the Party), they split their loyalties when Hellman supported the faction that favored Stalin. McCarthy, who moved in “fellow-traveling” Communist circles in the early ‘30s, became a staunch anti-Stalinist later in the decade and favored Stalin’s enemy, Leon Trotsky.

Socially they were worlds apart as well. While both authored numerous books and plays, McCarthy had many friendships with members of New York society, even after she scandalized them with the reports of their hijinks in her book The Company She Keeps. Hellman was friendly with many of the movers and shakers of the day, including writer Dashiell Hammett, with whom she kept up an affair “off and on” for 31 years. She also had numerous lovers, as did McCarthy, but McCarthy wound up marrying four of them.

One thing that the two women did have in common , however, was that they were heartily disliked by many of their contemporaries. McCarthy for her acerbic comments and essays, and Hellman because she was a cantankerous, demanding individual.

Their mutual dislike came to a head, however, when McCarthy, on
Dick Cavett’s popular television talk show, remarked that “every word that (Hellman) writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” Whereupon Hellman sued her (in addition to Dick Cavett and PBS) for libel and demanded 2.5 million dollars in compensation.

At this point, Cavett, who had introduced the play earlier with a
witty monologue, a few jokes, and his usual charm, reappeared to shepherd the principals through the preparations for the trial. (And by the way, he has aged handsomely and looks better than ever.)

The lawsuit went on for years while McCarthy searched for incidents that would prove that Hellman really was a liar. And, unfortunately, there were quite a few examples. For instance, the heroic story in Pentimento about Hellman ferrying money into Germany for “Julia”, which Hellman claimed was autobiographical and true, proved not to be either and laid open the question of whether there actually was a Julia at all.

In the end, the suit was finally dismissed in 1984, when Hellman died. But it makes for a wonderful play, superbly directed by Howard Storm and made even more wonderful by the appearance of Marcia Rodd as Mary McCarthy and Dick Cavett as Dick Cavett.

But special kudos have to be given to Flora Plumb as the crotchety Lillian Hellman and M. Rowan Meyer as her marvelously obsequious manservant, Ryan.

Hellman v. McCarthy will be presented at Theatre 40 through February 28 on Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 pm on Saturday Feb. 14 and 21, and Sunday Feb. 8, 15, and 22 also at 2 pm.

Theatre 40 is located at 241 S. Moreno Drive in Beverly Hills, on the Beverly Hills High School campus. There is ample free parking beneath the theater.

For reservations, call (310) 364-3606 or go to www.theatre40.org

The Dame Marches On

06 Feb
February 6, 2015

She’s been doing the same act for 60 years. No need to change it though, since audiences all over the world love it just as it is and flock to see it again and again. Currently on her third round of visits to Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theater, she is playing, as she habitually does, to a full house.

She is Dame Edna Everage and this year her show is called Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye with the added subtitle The Farewell Tour. But not to worry, this is her gazillionth “farewell tour” and, as usual, she closes her act with an invitation to the audience to be sure and come back to see her on her next farewell tour.

With her perfectly coiffed purple hair, rhinestone-covered glasses, and glitzy over-the-top gowns in gaudy colors, she makes Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie look like someone you might have hired to clean your house. Or your horse.

Her act owes more to Don Rickles than to Dustin Hoffman, however, as her performance consists almost entirely of insults to her audience. Most particularly the poor unfortunates sitting in the first two rows. “I see you dressed for a special occasion,” she tells one woman. “Like washing your car.” To another she says, “You appear to have misplaced trust in your hairdresser.”

She also throws some barbs at the audience in the “cheap seats” in the balcony, whom she calls “the Wal-Mart people”.

She also claims to be “making it up as I go along” and takes off on a riff with a woman named, not “A-N-G-I-E”, but “A-N-J-I.” “Do you dot the ‘i’ with a little circle?” she asks facetiously.

Arriving from her home in Australia with “a moderate depression,” she tells us, she soon discards it among the “nicely dressed people” of Los Angeles, the city she calls “the intellectual capital of the United States.”

She talks about her entrepreneur son, Brucey, noting that the name is “French for failure” and that he is contemplating setting up a chain of Ugandan restaurants. There is also talk of a heat-seeking bedpan powered by a Roomba and of someone who is a high-functioning Ebola victim.

She also mentions Velma, a woman whose house was so filthy that, Edna says, “I tried to drink my coffee without my lips touching the cup.”

By the end of the first act the show had become somewhat tedious, consisting as it does solely of repetitive questions to the people in the front row seats. The second act picked up a bit with her tales of visiting an ashram in India, which she calls “a trailer park for the soul.” Here she learned to drink a parsnip and kale smoothie and met a man who wanted to remain inconspicuous and so signed in as “Leonard Cohen.”

Since her first appearance in a Christmas revue at the University of Melbourne in 1955 her acts have centered around her monologues, interviews and banter with her audience, and a few unremarkable songs and dance numbers by an exotically dressed foursome. She first took her act to America in 1978, where she was trounced by a New York Times critic. She later said that she would have to wait for that critic to die before she could return to the United States.

Fortunately, she can go incognito at will by just taking off her costume, her gaudy jewelry, and her wig and morphing into a pudgy Australian gentleman named Barry Humphries. And if he ever decides to retire his alter ego, Dame Edna, Humphries has many other talents to pursue. He is the author of several books, novels, autobiographies, and plays, and is a well-respected landscape painter. He has two doctorate degrees (one in Law), the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) awarded by Queen Elizabeth, the AO (Officer of the Order), the Australian of the Year award (in 2012) and the Sydney Theatre Lifetime Achievement Award, also in 2012.

Mr. Humphries is married to Lizzie Spender, daughter of British poet Stephen Spender, and they have two sons and two daughters.

Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles the huge audience roared, whistled, and stomped throughout the show. And although they probably weren’t singing Wqyne Barker’s song “You Will Have to Do Without Me Somehow,” I’ll bet some of them, as they exited the theater, were singing “There Is Nothing Like A Dame.”

Dame Edna will be appearing Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1 pm through March 15. There is also a listing of additional performances and a number of individual performances that will not be presented, so call the theater at (213) 972-4400 or go online to www.CenterThreatreGroup.org to determine available tickets.

The Ahmanson Theatre is located at 135 N. Grand Avenue in Los Angeles.

Photo of Dame Edna by Matt Jelonek

The Dame Marches On

03 Feb
February 3, 2015

She’s been doing the same act for 60 years. No need to change it though, since audiences all over the world love it just as it is and flock to see it again and again. Currently on her third round of visits to Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theater, she is playing, as she habitually does, to a full house.

She is Dame Edna Everage and this year her show is called Dame Edna’s Glorious Goodbye with the added subtitle The Farewell Tour. But not to worry, this is her gazillionth “farewell tour” and, as usual, she closes her act with an invitation to the audience to be sure and come back to see her on her next farewell tour.

With her perfectly coiffed purple hair, rhinestone-covered glasses, and glitzy over-the-top gowns in gaudy colors, she makes Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie look like someone you might have hired to clean your house. Or your horse.

Her act owes more to Don Rickles than to Dustin Hoffman, however, as her performance consists almost entirely of insults to her audience. Most particularly the poor unfortunates sitting in the first two rows. “I see you dressed for a special occasion,” she tells one woman. “Like washing your car.” To another she says, “You appear to have misplaced trust in your hairdresser.”

She also throws some barbs at the audience in the “cheap seats” in the balcony, whom she calls “the Wal-Mart people”.

She also claims to be “making it up as I go along” and takes off on a riff with a woman named, not “A-N-G-I-E”, but “A-N-J-I.” “Do you dot the ‘i’ with a little circle?” she asks facetiously.

Arriving from her home in Australia with “a moderate depression,” she tells us, she soon discards it among the “nicely dressed people” of Los Angeles, the city she calls “the intellectual capital of the United States.”

She talks about her entrepreneur son, Brucey, noting that the name is “French for failure” and that he is contemplating setting up a chain of Ugandan restaurants. There is also talk of a heat-seeking bedpan powered by a Roomba and of someone who is a high-functioning Ebola victim.

She also mentions Velma, a woman whose house was so filthy that, Edna says, “I tried to drink my coffee without my lips touching the cup.”

By the end of the first act the show had become somewhat tedious, consisting as it does solely of repetitive questions to the people in the front row seats. The second act picked up a bit with her tales of visiting an ashram in India, which she calls “a trailer park for the soul.” Here she learned to drink a parsnip and kale smoothie and met a man who wanted to remain inconspicuous and so signed in as “Leonard Cohen.”

Since her first appearance in a Christmas revue at the University of Melbourne in 1955 her acts have centered around her monologues, interviews and banter with her audience, and a few unremarkable songs and dance numbers by an exotically dressed foursome. She first took her act to America in 1978, where she was trounced by a New York Times critic. She later said that she would have to wait for that critic to die before she could return to the United States.

Fortunately, she can go incognito at will by just taking off her costume, her gaudy jewelry, and her wig and morphing into a pudgy Australian gentleman named Barry Humphries. And if he ever decides to retire his alter ego, Dame Edna, Humphries has many other talents to pursue. He is the author of several books, novels, autobiographies, and plays, and is a well-respected landscape painter. He has two doctorate degrees (one in Law), the CBE (Commander of the British Empire) awarded by Queen Elizabeth, the AO (Officer of the Order), the Australian of the Year award (in 2012) and the Sydney Theatre Lifetime Achievement Award, also in 2012.

Mr. Humphries is married to Lizzie Spender, daughter of British poet Stephen Spender, and they have two sons and two daughters.

Meanwhile, here in Los Angeles the huge audience roared, whistled, and stomped throughout the show. And although they probably weren’t singing Wqyne Barker’s song “You Will Have to Do Without Me Somehow,” I’ll bet some of them, as they exited the theater, were
singing “There Is Nothing Like A Dame.”

Dame Edna will be appearing Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 1 pm through March 15. There is also a listing of additional performances and a number of individual performances that will not be presented, so call the theater at (213) 972-4400 or go online to www.CenterThreatreGroup.org to determine available tickets.

The Ahmanson Theatre is located at 135 N. Grand Avenue in Los Angeles.

Photo of Dame Edna by Matt Jelonek

Yes Sir, That’s My Baby

26 Jan
January 26, 2015

Do you remember the Cabbage Patch kids—that ubiquitous fad of the 1980s? The “kids” were a series of dolls that came with names and birth certificates and their own individual scrunched-up faces.

Well, apparently there is a whole industry that takes that process one step further. Becoming popular at the end of the 20th century, it’s called “reborning” and its purpose is to provide dolls that are so human-looking that they are coveted, purchased, and loved by collectors around the world. And by mothers, too.

In fact, if a doll-maker is talented enough she can duplicate the face of a dead infant and provide comfort to a bereaved mother.

And that’s the plot of Reborning, Zayd Dohrn’s drama now making its Los Angeles debut at the Fountain Theater.

Expertly directed by the Fountain’s Simon Levy, and well acted by the three-person cast, the play, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to its initial promise. It’s uneven, and draggy in spots, and even though it is billed as a comedy/drama, there isn’t much to laugh at.

Jeff McLaughlin’s set design, cluttered with vinyl baby parts, gives life to the studio of sculptress Kelly (Joanna Strapp) and her boyfriend Daizy (Ryan Doucette). Having met as students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISDE), they have set up shop together in Queens, and while she makes the dolls and paints their faces to match the photographs supplied by her clients, he makes outrageously oversized dildos for his.

Everything runs smoothly until a client named Emily (Kristin Carey) turns up to collect her “baby”. She praises Kelly’s work, but is not quite satisfied that the baby looks exactly like her dead daughter. “There’s something about the eyes…” she says.

And so Kelly continues to work on the doll for another week. But Emily still isn’t satisfied and Kelly becomes obsessed with getting it right.

Daizy, who seems to be the only participant who isn’t totally crazy, tries to talk Kelly out of her obsession, but by this time Kelly has convinced herself that Emily is the mother who abandoned her at birth and that the baby is actually Kelly herself.

While well presented, the play somehow hangs unfinished. There is no discussion of the motivations or behaviors of the people who order the dolls. If they are not seeking to replace a dead baby are there other issues they’re dealing with? A need to be in control and to have complete power over another “human being”? A need to keep their grown children as perpetual infants? A need to assuage their loneliness?

While these questions are beside the point, perhaps alluding to them, or introducing an additional character or two, might serve to open up a play that otherwise feels a little one-note and somewhat claustrophobic.

Reborning will continue at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Ave. (at Normandie) Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2 through March 15th.

Call (323) 663-1525 for tickets.

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