Malibu Playhouse: Worth the Trip

It’s a long drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to the Malibu Playhouse, but it’s worth it. A new off-Broadway play is making its West Coast

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premiere there now and it’s beautifully written by David West Read, beautifully acted by an outstanding ensemble, and well directed by Edward Edwards. The play is called The Dream of the Burning Boy—a compelling title, but it isn’t exactly what the play is about. It’s a metaphor, from a story about a man who so wished to have one last moment with his dead son that he doesn’t respond when the boy catches on fire in his coffin. The metaphor is more grim than the play, which is lively and full of humor, even though it tells the story of a popular young student who dies suddenly, and the effect of that death on his fellow students, his girlfriend, his mother, his sister, and, most especially, his beloved English teacher. The teacher, Larry, played by veteran Broadway actor Jeff Hayenga, was the last person to see Dane (Matthias Chrans) alive, so he is haunted by his dreams of the young man. He is also haunted by the challenges in his life that he has avoided and the lost opportunities of the “might have beens.” A young counselor at the school, Steve (Tyler Ritter), a former student of Larry’s who is compassionate and sensitive but not too bright, steps in to conduct grief counseling sessions for the students, which he augments by printing up signs with feel-good messages like “Everything will be all right” and “Lean on me.” Dane’s mother (Melissa Kite) breaks down in Larry’s office when she comes to confront him about the last conversation he had with the boy just before he died. And Dane’s

younger sister Rachel (Jsyne McLendon) acts out her anger and grief at her brother’s death by lashing out at everyone, including Dane’s girlfriend, Chelsea (Joslyn Kramer). Rachel’s attitude is demonstrated by the clothes she wears to school: pajama bottoms and an oversized hoodie jacket, and by the foul language she uses. Scenic designer Erin Walley makes her Los Angeles debut in this production (she is a recent arrival from Kansas City) and has managed to squeeze Larry’s classroom, Steve’s counseling office, and the school library into a relatively small set effectively. The Dream of the Burning Boy premiered in 2011 at the Roundabout Underground in New York and was a Drama League Award nominee for Distinguished Production of a Play. It was also nominated for an award for a New American Play by the Outer Critics Circle. Playwright David West Read has been commissioned to write plays for the Roundabout Theatre Company, Burnt Umber Productions, and Southern California’s South Coast Repertory. Director Edward Edwards’ most recent production, which he directed and co-produced was Tender Napalm, which was an LA Weekly Pick of the Week and Ovation Recommended. As an actor, he won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Supporting Actor in the play The Hasty Heart. The Dream of the Burning Boy will continue Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3 through October 13th at the Malibu Playhouse, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu (near Zuma beach). For tickets call 310-589-1998 or visit

Theatricum Botanicum Hosts Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates’ Tone Clusters is one of those theatrical programs that improve with distance. Comprised of three short mood pieces, it is backed up by a long dialogue between a husband and wife and a radio interlocutor who is brutally questioning them about their son, who has been accused of raping and murdering a young neighbor.

The Clusters are single free-form poems rather than plays. In the first, I Stand Before You Naked, Jonathan Blandino, Cynthia Kania, and Sarah Lyddan introduce the theme: the secret anguish of each player as he reveals his story in a piercing monologue.

In The Secret Mirror Jonathan Blandino admires himself as he undresses, substituting a bra, stockings, high heels, a “wedding dress”, and a long curly wig for the masculine tie, trousers, and shirt he was wearing when he entered his private sanctuary. He applies lipstick, eye makeup, and rouge over his stubble, all the while talking soothingly to himself in the mirror.

Cynthia Kania reacts to a gut apprehension in Slow Motion that leaves her moving inexorably toward a situation that will change her life forever.

And in The Orange, an anorexic girl (Sarah Lyddan) fantasizes about the orange she will eat in just a few minutes, when “the time is right.”

Each of these characters is removed from the usual “norm” that we live with every day, and so we view them as interesting curiosities. Thus it comes as somewhat of a surprise when we discover that they are still with us, tossing around in our minds, days later. Becoming more real over time and distance.

The second half of the program is a long, insistent one-act play in which a mother and father vehemently deny the accusation that their son has murdered a neighbor girl. The couple is played by real-life married couple Alan Blumenfeld and Katherine James, and they couldn’t be more earnest if it were their own real son they were defending.

They are being pinned down like trapped butterflies by Jeff Wiesen, whose brusque questions are both intrusive and detached. As the disembodied voice of a radio interviewer, Wiesen is out to “get the story” but you know his interest is as ephemeral as most gruesome stories of this sort are. For a reporter, there will always be another murder to cover and other families to badger. He is so removed from this story that he keeps mixing up the couple’s names.

Meanwhile, Frank and Emily, the harried couple, are protesting the accusation against their son. He is a “good boy” and they are a “decent family” and as they repeat their protests they get tangled up in their stories, forget details, charge that somebody else—not their son—must have brought the dead girl’s body into their basement.

The story has the ring of truth because it is filled with non-sequiturs and bewildered comments and unquestioned loyalty in the face of what they refuse to accept as a fait accompli.

Director Mike Peebler has dressed the outdoor second stage of Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum with a riveting assortment of props. Two television cameras recording Frank and Emily’s every move and twitch on separate screens, a large screen in the background which broadcasts relevant scenes leading up to the murder, including shots of the victim, as well as innocent baby movies and little-boy-growing-up shots of Frank and Emily’s son.

This brutal drama leaves you with unanswered questions about the role of the media and its non-stop coverage of sensationalized news.

Joyce Carol Oates, who was on hand to participate in a Q&A with the audience, was gracious in answering their questions, but was most curious about the choices that the director and the actors made in presenting her work. One of the most prolific writers working today, she was charming, articulate, and the spitting image of Lillian Gish.

Tone Clusters will continue at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., in Topanga, with performances on Thursday, Sept. 12, 19, and 26 at 8 pm, Friday, Oct. 4 at 8 pm, and Saturday, Oct. 12 at 8pm. An audience talkback with the actors will follow each performance. Call 310-455-3723 for reservations.

Photo: Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld
Photo by Ian Flanders

The Women’s War

If the beautifully persuasive Amy Brenneman had been an active feminist in the 1970s she might have played an important role in getting the Equal Rights Amendment ratified by the three additional states needed to cement it into the United States Constitution. As it is, Brenneman brings her persuasive skills to Gina Gionfriddo’s Rapture, Blister, Burn, a new play that brings those feminist concerns, updated, to the Geffen Playhouse. The four women involved in this intelligent and challenging discussion are Alice (Beth Dixon), a woman who lived through the early years of the Feminist Movement with some confusion and some trepidation; her daughter Catherine (Brenneman), whose career as an author and professor has made her a celebrated spokesperson for women’s issues; Catherine’s former college roommate Gwen (Kellie Overby), who has opted for wife and motherhood; and Avery (Virginia Kull), a college student who thinks of the Movement as ancient history, somewhat akin to the Civil War. The lone man in this ensemble is Don (Lee Tergesen), Gwen’s husband and Catherine’s former lover. Don is dean at a local New England college who relishes the thought that he “doesn’t have to do much” and understands that he will probably never write the book he has talked about for years. “I am ready to embrace mediocrity,” he says. In the course of introducing each of the participants in this intellectual exercise, Catherine is called “a hot doomsday chick” and Gwen is identified by her husband Don as someone who “gave up drinking and took up talking.” Don also has a few pithy comments of his own: “Men are not hard-wired to follow women,” he says, and then, quoting William Blake: “Excess is the road to enlightenment.” As each of the characters expresses her beliefs she is suddenly caught up in the romance of the choices she didn’t make. Catherine, who has pursued her career at the expense of her love life, sees Don as “the man who got away” and looks to a lonely and emotionally unfulfilled future. Gwen has come to resent the paths not taken and fantasizes about going back to school and pursuing a challenging career. Avery, the student, is caught up in the reflected magic of the Movement, and Alice, Catherine’s mother, who found herself upended by the radical new ideas, nevertheless stayed in an unexciting marriage and in her traditional role as wife and mother. While the script sometimes reads like a history lecture, it is delivered expertly and with flashes of light and humor so that it remains totally engrossing throughout. The twists and turns of the plot are unexpected and the characters remain likable and credible as they wrestle with the tenets of the Movement and its effects on their own lives. In addition to top-notch direction by Peter DuBois, who brought his original New York cast to this West Coast premiere, the production has the benefit of a beautiful rolling set design by Alexander Dodge, costumes by Mimi O’Donnell, lighting by Jeff Croiter and Jake DeGroot, and sound by M.L. Dogg. The only sour note in this production is the title

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of the play. When I told people about it, everyone responded with, “Who would go to a play with a title like that? It sounds like a fatal sunburn!” (Or a trip to Hell!) But in spite of the title, you really should go. It’s a terrific play! Rapture, Blister, Burn will continue at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 and 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 and 7 pm through September 22nd. Call 310-208-2028 for tickets. Photo: Amy Brenneman and Lee Tergesen Photo by Michael Lamont

Of Love and Death at Carranor

Cutesy-cute and girly-girlish isn’t what’s called for from a 70-year-old widow. And it isn’t an

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appealing picture. Lee Meriwether, still beautiful all these years after winning the Miss America crown in 1955, is too visibly ‘together” to crumple into the coy flirtatiousness she exhibits at the sight of an old flame. And that’s not just my opinion; it’s what her daughter Shelby thinks as well. Meriwether, as Irene, is the owner of a comfortable country home on the edge of a Midwestern lake. As William Blinn’s play A Short Stay at Carranor begins, Irene is twittering around getting the house ready for a visit from the man she didn’t marry 50 years earlier. Shelby, well-played by understudy Leona Britton on the night I saw the production, is aghast at her mother’s behavior and shocked to discover that Irene has been seeing this man, Chet (Don Moss), over the 18 years since her divorce and the later death of her husband. The problem is that Chet is married and, like Irene, has children and grandchildren of his own. The other problem is that he is dying. Shelby’s disapproval comes not only from the fact that Chet is “a Republican and a gun owner” but also from the fact that her mother is apparently sleeping with a married man. To which Irene responds with the most unlikely denial ever perpetrated on a grown-up audience: “We don’t make love,” she says. “We just hold each other.” (And, like Bill Clinton, they “didn’t inhale”?) Not only unbelievable, but ridiculous. In their 70s, who are they saving their virginity for? There are a couple of extraneous subplots: Greg Lewis provides some not very funny comic relief as the curmudgeonly next-door neighbor, and Shelby and her husband Alan (George Tovar) have a lacerating fight which Shelby resolves by seducing him in the kitchen, where he has gone to wash the

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dishes. Set designer Jeff G. Rack has beautifully captured the look of a traditional summerhouse which has acquired leftover furnishings from the many other places the owners have lived. And the acting of all parties is good, given the flat, uninspired direction of John Gallogly. But the love affair between Irene and Chet seems somehow hollow. There doesn’t seem to be much chemistry there, and you get the feeling that Irene has accepted the affair because, as she admits, she is “tired of being alone.” She very clearly sees this as her last chance to be loved. Moreover, she goes into the adventure knowing that when Chet dies she will have nothing of him except a few months of memories. The best thing about this production, however, is that it demonstrates current playwrights’ growing awareness of the concerns of an aging population, and, in the case of A Short Stay at Carranor, confirms that romantic love is possible at any age. A Short Stay at Carranor will continue at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, in Los Angeles Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 through September 29th. Call 323-851-7977 for reservations, or visit Photo: Don Moss and Lee Meriwether Photo by Tomas Mikusz