Other Desert Cities: Funny and Flawed

  The placid retirement community of Palm Springs and its remote, relaxation-obsessed way of life is almost a sixth character in Jon Robin Baitz’ play Other Desert Cities. The only people who love it are the people who live there. Their nearest and dearest deplore it. It’s

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Christmas 2004 and Hollywood expatriates Polly and Lyman Wyeth (JoBeth Williams and Robert Foxworth) are spending it with their grown children, Brooke (Robin Weigert) and Trip (Michael Weston)—but not happily. Polly and Lyman were in “the biz,” Lyman as a successful actor and Polly as a screenwriter. Their daughter Brooke, after struggling with severe depressive episodes, has finally finished the book she has been writing for forever. And Trip has taken a different direction: he produces reality-TV shows. Also on hand is Polly’s self-absorbed, alcoholic sister Silda (a marvelously wacky Jeannie Berlin). As is often the case when diverse family members get together in a single house—no matter how posh—for more than 15 minutes, the arguments and disagreements take over. The “kids” hate the blandness of Palm Springs and the other desert cities that surround it. But the parents refuse to be bullied. They also are stalling about reading Brooke’s manuscript. She has told them it is about them. This is a family that has secrets, and slowly they are revealed. There was an older brother who apparently committed suicide, and his death has haunted his sister ever since. She has more or less eulogized him in her book, much to her parents’ chagrin. Jon Robin Baitz is an entertaining playwright and his characters are engaging. Under Robert Egan’s direction the roles are well-defined. But there is a glitch in the scenario, which is distracting and disturbing. It deals with the time frame. If the older brother disappeared during the time of the Viet Nam War, as is disclosed by the others, he would be far too old to be a beloved playmate to his siblings. The war ended in 1974 and the play is set 30 years later. You do the math. Further, the parents, staunch Republicans, talk about hobnobbing with the Reagans. (Polly mentions her intimate friendship with “Nancy” several times.) But the Time of the Reagans was the ‘80s, some quarter of a century earlier. And the time of Reagan’s Governorship was even earlier than that. The difference in their ages during those years would have made them unlikely buddies. This is an untidy loose end that could be fixed easily. Or maybe I’m missing something? There are a plethora of other issues. Changed allegiances, beliefs vs truths, the conflict between perceptions and morals. And as Baitz states in the program notes, the play “argues for humility in the face of what you don’t know, and compassion in the face of what you do know.” At any rate, Other Desert Cities is well-mounted and pleasant to look at. Takeshi Kata’s living room set is easy on the eyes, and Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design (glowing desert sunsets and cumulus clouds) add pizazz to the setting. Other Desert Cities will continue at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, daily (except Monday) at 8 p.m.,

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Saturdays at 2 :30 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at l and 6:30 p.m. through January 6th, 2013. Call 213-628-2772 for tickets.   Photo: Jeannie Berlin and JoBeth Williams Photo by Craig Schwartz

A Pageant for Christmas Instead of Chinese Food

They should have called it Corny Island Christmas. Corny in a good way, of course. Donald Margulies’ new play, Coney Island Christmas celebrates what Jewish kids have fantasized about for a couple of generations now: an ecumenical Christmas that they can participate in without shocking the neighbors. After all, Christ was a Jew, wasn’t he? And so it makes perfect sense for Shirley Abramowitz (the Annie-like moppet Isabella Acres) to play a mop-bearded Christ in PS 100’s Christmas pageant. Besides, she has the loudest voice in the school! (The Loudest Voice is what Grace Paley called the short story from which Margulies adapted this play.) The pageant itself is hilarious, incorporating every cliché from the Three Wise Men

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(what’s myrrh?) to Santa Claus and Tiny Tim. Everybody gets a role. The kids are diffident and awkward and totally adorable. And

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every parent who has ever had to sit through his grammar school child’s acting debut will empathize with Shirley’s Mama and Papa. And therein lies the tale. Mama (Annabelle Gurwitch) is a staunch traditionalist: she is afraid that her daughter’s role as Christ will assimilate her into Christian values at the expense of her Jewish heritage. Oh ye of little faith. In contrast, Papa (Arye Gross) is sympathetic to his daughter’s wishes, but, as is traditional in many Jewish households, he won’t argue with his wife on Shirley’s behalf. It’s a totally predictable plot, but much fun to watch. Especially Shirley’s best friend Evie Slotnick (the delicious Kira Sternbach), who plays her multiple parts in the pageant with a stoic face and arms and legs that refuse to move in sync. Her movements, awkward and uncoordinated, make her the uproarious star of the show. Cheers to her and to director Bart DeLorenzo. The role that is supposed to be the starring role, however, isn’t. It’s the sappy great-grandmother, the elderly Shirley Abramowitz (Angela Paton) who anchors the show (and by anchors I mean wields a heavy weight) by telling the story of her childhood to her young great-granddaughter Clare (Grace Kaufman). The dialogue here is too gooey to be poignant and it really distracts from the rest of the plot, which is otherwise straightforward and well acted. There are some funny scenes that every Jew who was ever a kid will recognize. And some that may annoy the “goyem”—like sitting through the blessing of the Chanukah candles twice. Donald Margulies, who has won a Pulitzer Prize, among many other prestigious awards, has had his plays performed in venues all over the world. He teaches English and Theater Studies at Yale and continues to write beautifully crafted plays, mostly with Jewish themes or subplots. Coney Island Christmas isn’t one of his best, but like all his work, it’s worth seeing, if only to watch the kids at play and Takeshi Kata’s fetching revolving sets. Coney Island Christmas will run Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through December 30th at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. in Westwood. Call (310) 208-2028 for tickets. Photo: Angela Paton and Grace Kaufman  

Seniors and The Road – NoHo Home Companions

Some people retire from the theater. But others can now retire to the theater. The new NoHo Senior Arts Colony is a housing development that also includes a professional working theater on the premises.

The Colony — at 10747 Magnolia Boulevard — is currently accepting its first live-in artists and arts aficionados, age 62 or older. They’ll share their creative talents and interests with each other and with the public.

Among the amenities of the complex, besides its one- and two-bedroom apartments, are three courtyards, a swimming pool, large balconies, and exercise equipment — features that aren’t unusual for a new housing complex where the market-rate rents run from $1,750 to $2,340 a month.

John Huskey. Photo by Cynthia Citron.

But this complex also will offer studios for painting, sculpture, and other visual arts; a quiet library for writers; film editing facilities; classrooms and lecture halls for teachers, writers, and visiting artists — in addition to free art and yoga classes for residents. And 20% of its units are offered at below-market rates to lower-income renters. Those subsidized units are already filled, and a wait list for vacancies for those units has begun, “but it’s not likely that they will be available any time soon,” says the complex developer, John Huskey.

The piece de resistance, and the element that appears to make the NoHo Senior Arts Colony unique, is the 78-seat professional theater that is built into the complex.  Staffed by the Road Theatre as its second space (its other space is at the Lankershim Arts Center, also in NoHo), the resident company will incorporate Colony residents as actors and crew, depending upon their backgrounds, training, and capabilities.

“We began planning this project five years ago, along with the Community Redevelopment Agency, which no longer exists,” says Taylor Gilbert, founding artistic director of the Road. “There were a number of theater companies that applied to be part of the Colony, but we were chosen by the community developer, Meta Housing Corporation, to be the on-site professional company.

The complex was funded in part by the CRA, which bought the land and leased it back to the developer at a lower than market rate, explains Huskey, the president and CEO of Meta Housing. The CRA also provided $800,000 for the addition of the theater.  Then Meta utilized a tax credit provision that is available to housing projects that offer some 20% of their units at a subsidized rate.

Taylor Gilbert

“From the beginning, the Road Company wanted to be in the Valley,” Gilbert notes.  “It offered spaces we could afford, and it was a different environment from all the little theaters in Hollywood.  We started out in a warehouse behind the Burbank Airport and moved on to a warehouse in Van Nuys before we became part of the Lankershim Arts Center in 1996.

“North Hollywood is such a supportive community,” she adds, “and it’s been so exciting to see how its arts component has grown.”  She points out that Road’s membership has also grown — from its original 22 members it now numbers some 120 designers, actors, and playwrights.

“The new space will allow us to expand our season and present alternate productions,” she continues.  “And better yet, our hits can run longer because we won’t have to shut them down to set up our next production.  It will also give our actors more opportunity to work and to give back to the community.”

As for the larger NoHo Senior Arts Colony, “we hope to be the most attractive nuisance around,” Huskey says.

“It did my heart good to watch this place develop,” says Linda Castle-Davie, one of the first tenants in the new complex.  “This part of Magnolia Boulevard was a real eyesore and this space was an ugly vacant lot.  I lived a block away for 14 years and I watched this place being built.”

The new buildings have already begun to gentrify the area.  “People around are whitewashing their property, and the little shopping area down the street has done away with their hand-lettered signs and put up a commercial sign that covers the whole mall,” Castle-Davie notes.

Linda Castle-Davie. Photo by Cynthia Citron.

In addition to acting, Castle-Davie has toured the world as a vocal artist, performing in venues as diverse as Germany and Scotland. At her new home, “I will get to act again—and sing!” she exults.

Huskey has been building senior housing since 1969 — he will soon turn 65. And he is fixated on what makes for successful living conditions, “what separates the good from the great.” He has come to the conclusion that it is the inter-activities between people that change their lives.

“It’s changed my life, too,” he adds.

He points to a set of guidelines that governs the activities of the senior housing projects he has developed.  “First, there is ‘the Norm factor,’” he says.  “Remember in ‘Cheers’ how every time Norm came into the bar, ‘everybody knew his name’ and called out ‘Hi, Norm’?  Well, that works in senior housing projects, too.”

The second element is education, “relearning things you already know but were resistant to,” he says.  Teachers who have offered classes to his senior residents say they “feel safe” with their students because they and the students “are there because they want to be.”

He talks about a writing assignment, in a class at one of his earlier senior housing developments, in which students were charged with writing autobiographically.  “They lost all their tension,” he notes, “and worked with incredible energy because they were not writing dry, but confronting what’s real.”

In another writing group, it turned out that a number of the students were from Boyle Heights, so they decided to return to that community and make a movie about the visit.  They eventually produced a 12-minute black and white short that was shown at the Skirball Cultural Center to great acclaim.

“Activities that require cooperation are the most successful,” Huskey says.

Burbank Senior Artists Colony

At the Burbank Senior Artists Colony he established in 2005, the residents developed an informal theater group, “a Mickey and Judy sort of affair,” he says, and began doing radio shows.  The show, “Experience Talks,” is now broadcast on KPFK and will soon be syndicated nationally.

Huskey jokes that the activities involve “letting the inmates manage the asylum” and that sometimes it is “like herding cats,”  but working together “makes people healthier, helps them to live longer, and raises their self-reported level of happiness.”

To prove the point, Huskey invited an academic review group from USC to monitor a control group from a senior housing project that didn’t incorporate all the activities that he had initiated.  He says the review validated his premise.

“It provides something new and different,” he says. “The residents are not couch potatoes and the environment is not sterile.  It’s hard to describe, but you know it when you see it.”

He also notes that, even though the living arrangements are gracious, “people don’t spend as much time in their apartments.  They’re out engaging in activities.”

Coming up next: the Long Beach Senior Arts Colony, a low-income residential facility containing 126 units on three floors.

And finally, Huskey explains his company name, Meta.  It means, he says, “turning point” in Latin, “deeper, beyond” in Greek, and “loving compassion” in Sanskrit.  All the things he hopes to provide for his NoHo Senior Arts Colony.

Reprinted from the Los Angeles Stage Times, published Dec. 11, 2012


Like the Sopranos on Steroids

Five deez-dem-and dowz guys are currently chewing up the stage of the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica. You might think of them as the Sopranos on steroids. In the first of playwright/director Sam Henry Kass’ three one acts, jointly titled Siddown!!! (Conversations with the mob) the terrifically nuanced Cris D’Annunzio plays Punchy, a forlorn petty thief who is being shunned by his bosses because of one-too-many screw-ups. (When the storage warehouse where he was to deliver his “goods” was locked, he drove a hijacked 18-wheeler and its stolen cargo of cigarettes home and parked it in front of his house—in broad daylight.) So now, he is sitting in a restaurant pushing a salad around on his plate while he pleads with Lenny (Jason Paul Field) to “just mention my name” to the powers that be. Punchy’s arguments veer from self-righteousness (after years of doing grunt work he feels, a la Romney, that he is “entitled” to consideration) to pathos and self-pity. The dialogue is sharp and witty and both actors do it justice, but the mesmerizing bit in this scene is watching Lenny assiduously down a bowl of tomato soup, a full plate of spaghetti, two rolls, and a glass of wine while refuting Punchy’s pleas. The second playlet involves John Paul Field and Jeff Adler as “Lefty and Squinty,” two minor mobsters waiting in court for the verdict on multiple charges against their boss. These are two acting

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tours de force, hilarious in their quirkiness and timing. And what is truly remarkable is that, wearing a different outfit, a hat, and a compulsive twitch, Field is completely unrecognizable as the same actor who was so cool and cruel in the first scene. The third vignette, “Dice and Cards,” is less entertaining than the first two, but it is still well-played. The mob dialogue is not as gripping, and even becomes a bit tedious at times. The main attraction in this scene, however, is watching ex-lightweight boxing champ Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini alternately coach and berate young Richie, who is played by his real-life son, Leo Mancini.Leo, who is a student at the Ruskin School, is making his acting debut in this production. Richie is a little stupid, to put it mildly, and doesn’t quite get it when he is told very explicitly that dice and cards have to be changed every 15 minutes when you’re a dealer in a casino. “You mean use NEW cards?” Richie asks incredulously. This show, Siddown!!! premiered in New York in 1992. This is its West Coast debut. It will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 through December 23rd at the Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Road

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in Santa Monica. Call (310) 397-3244 for reservations. Photo: Jeff Adler and Jason Paul Field  

“Life of Pi” a Life-Affirming Fantasy

I couldn’t get through the book, so now I feel the need to express my apologies to its author, Yann Martel. The film they have made of his novel, “Life of Pi,” is one of the most exquisite films I have ever seen. It has received rave reviews from everyone (Newsweek called it “stunning”), but I had to add my overwhelming reactions to this extraordinary film. Each frame is visually gorgeous and emotionally provocative. India looks like India—swarming with color. The ocean, even at its most fiendish, is extravagantly blue. When the sun comes out, it blinds you. And the nighttime sky, filled with stars, is as you remember it from your childhood. Not that Director Ang Lee needs to have his genius reconfirmed, but this fantastical picture is bound to be remembered as one of his major masterpieces. I sat enthralled as we journeyed through Pi’s childhood and his engagement with the tiger in his father’s zoo. I admired the way he earned his fellow students’ respect by filling up a room full of blackboards with the endless numbers that make up pi. (Does anyone know those numbers any further than 3.1415?) And when he becomes the sole survivor of a catastrophic shipwreck and sails for harrowing months across the Pacific with only a tiger for company, you become as parched and debilitated as he. The glistening scenes underwater. The variety of quirky animals. The flying fish and the flying birds. And the virtuoso performance of Suraj Sharma as he lives his story. I usually have mixed feelings about 3-D movies because the directors can’t resist the gimmickry and it’s often distracting. But “Life of Pi” is 3-D at its very best and delightfully integrated into the story. It’s so hard to believe that the tiger, Richard Parker, is only real some of the time. But I’ll bet you won’t be able to tell when he’s real and when he’s computer-generated!

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The computer work alone took a year, and 14,000 people were engaged in the final production. This is a film not to be missed. And to all the people who worked on it, I can only say “Namaste,” or, “I bow to the divine in you.” “The Life of Pi’” is playing now in theaters throughout Los Angeles.