Mothers in our Midst

Judi Dench is quite a Dame. As one of Great Britain’s greatest gifts to theater, films, and television, she has portrayed most of Shakespeare’s heroines from Juliet to Lady Macbeth, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Sally Bowles in Cabaret, and M in seven James Bond films. The list stretches from 1957 on. Dame Judi as an actor presents a consistent image of luminous intelligence, dignity, and forthrightness. So it is a thought-provoking diversion to see her portraying an unsophisticated woman too meek to protest the cruelties meted out to her by an order of Catholic nuns. The film is Philomena, a true story adapted from the book The Lost Child of Philomena Leeby Martin Sixsmith and directed by Stephen Frears. Steve Coogan, who plays the part of Sixsmith, wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope and actor Coogan is marvelous as the brusque atheist/journalist who, for the sake of a good “human interest” story, takes on the task of helping a poor Irish Catholic mother search for her long-lost son. The son, conceived in a one-night dalliance, inadvertently condemns his young mother to a home run by nuns who believed these unwed girls were evil and undisciplined and warranted severe punishment. In fact, after their babies were born, the girls were required to work in the laundry as virtual slaves for four years to “repay” the nuns for having “taken them in.” Moreover, the nuns ran an “adoption” business, selling the children to potential parents in America and elsewhere. Among the most poignant scenes in the film is the one in which the young Philomena watches her 3-year-old son, his face pressed against the rear window of a long black limousine, being driven away by a pair of strangers. This same dreadful story of the punishment of “fallen” women was revealed in the film The Magdalene Sisters in 2002. That film dealt with four teenage girls who suffered through their four years in the “Magdalene Laundries”, but the most shocking revelation was the fact that the laundries and their cruel, intimidating practices

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were not fully shut down until 1996. Philomena Lee did not speak of her early life, however, until the day of her son’s 50th birthday. At that time she told her story to her daughter, who appealed to journalist Sixsmith, whom she encountered at a party, to help her mother find her son. Philomena, who had silently agonized over her lost son for 47 years, willingly joined Sixsmith wherever the search took them, including, eventually, to America. It’s a lovely film, laced with good-natured humor and Philomena’s patience, fortitude, and, most of all, unshakeable faith. Still a reverent Catholic, she accepted without recrimination the deceptions of the nuns who, even 50 years later, refused to help her in any way. If there is anything missing in this well-told story, however, it is a sense of Philomena as a full-blown woman. She has a daughter. Was there a husband? What did she do with her life? It wouldn’t be necessary to elaborate; she could fill in a few details in conversation with Sixsmith or with her daughter. It might distract a bit from the constancy of her concerns about the fate of her son, but it would give her character a little larger context. Philomena opened in two local theaters on November 22nd, but it will be playing in theaters throughout Los Angeles within the next week. Photo: Judi Dench and Steve Coogan

A Different Kind of Mother

In contrast to Philomena,

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the mother in playwright John Pollono’s Lost Girls is a foul-mouthed harridan, but then, so is her daughter. The mother, Linda, played alternately by Ann Bronston and Peggy Dunne, berates her daughter with nearly every sentence. The daughter, Maggie (Jennifer Pollono), shouts obscenities and insults and tells her mother to “shut up!” periodically. But then, Maggie is distraught by the fact that her daughter Erica (Anna Theoni DiGiovanni) has disappeared in the middle of a crushing New England snowstorm.

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Plus, Maggie’s car has been stolen. To the rescue comes Lou (Joshua Bitton), Maggie’s ex-husband, with his second wife, Penny (Kirsten Kollender). Lou is an ex-cop and a recovering alcoholic who gets his police buddies to look for Erica. Meanwhile, Erica has persuaded a school friend, Scooter (Jonathan Lipnicki) to drive her to Florida so she can rendezvous with her middle-aged boyfriend. From there the plot unravels in all directions, but it does hold your attention. John Perrin Flynn directs this dysfunctional family group well, except for the accents, which come and go. The setting is supposed to be New Hampshire, but the exaggerated accents are from Boston. (As is someone’s reference to having lived in Somerville, which is a Boston suburb.) Of note is David Mauer’s dual set, which morphs in seconds from Maggie’s living room to the seedy hotel room that Erica and Scooter have holed up in to wait out the storm. The Murphy bed comes out from behind a wall, other walls reverse, and even the pictures turn to become other pictures, and it’s all done by hand so quickly that it doesn’t disrupt the continuity of the action. This world premiere is presented by Rogue Machine Theatre at Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., in Los Angeles, and as many Los Angeles theatergoers already know, almost any play presented by the celebrated Rogue Machine Theatre is well worth seeing. Lost Girls will run Saturdays at 5 pm, Sundays at 7 pm and Mondays at 8 pm through December 16th. For reservations, call 855-585-5185.

On Being A Barrymore

Ethel and Lionel and John. The Barrymores. “We were the Royal Family of Theater,” John said. “And I was the clown prince.” Known for his antics, his ribald wisecracks, and his exorbitant drinking, John Barrymore was also celebrated for his charismatic good looks and dramatic skills—especially after he graduated from fluffy light comedy to the heights of Shakespeare. All these aspects of his life in “the family business” show up in William Luce’s 1996 play, Barrymore, which is now being presented in Los Angeles by the Good People Theater Company in association with the Greenway Arts Alliance. When the play was first presented on Broadway in 1997 its star, Christopher Plummer, won a Tony, a Drama Desk, and an Outer Critics Circle award for the role. This current production stars Gordon Goodman, and I don’t think Christopher Plummer could have done it better. Goodman has the looks and the mannerisms that we associate with John Barrymore, having become familiar with them on old late-night movies on TV. As Janet Miller, founding artistic director of the Good People Theater Company and director of this, their second production, said in a company press release, “This show is risky. You’ve got to have the right actor—someone who’s Barrymore-handsome and who can believably disappear into the role. The decision was easy. It was either Gordon Goodman, or pick another show.” Goodman is mesmerizing from the moment he walks onstage, mixes himself a drink, and prepares to run lines from Richard III. With him, but backstage and never seen until the curtain call, is his loyal stage manager and prompter, Frank, played by Matt Franta. It is 1942 and Barrymore, at 60, is trying to reprise the role that made him a star in 1920, when he was 38. “I need to be taken seriously once more,” he says. He starts with the first line: “Now is the winter of our discontent…” but needs prompting from the first word. And so, to Frank’s growing concern, and to keep from acknowledging that he doesn’t remember the lines, Barrymore prances around the stage, pouring himself another drink, and telling anecdotes about his friends and family. He imitates his sister Ethel and his brother Lionel flawlessly, as well as his good friend W.C. Fields. About Lionel he says, “He felt bad when he felt better.” And he quotes Ethel as characterizing New York as “Sodom with subways” and Los Angeles as “Gomorrah with palm trees.” He talks about Louella Parsons, the Hollywood gossip columnist, saying, “I don’t like Louella and I always will.” From time to time he

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breaks into a Shakespearean monologue: Hamlet’s “To Be Or Not to Be” speech and his “What a piece of work is a man” speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He tells of his four wives and his short marriages, and of his second wife, Blanche Oelrichs, who became known as “Michael Strange” and has been the subject of many speculations about her sexuality. In a burst of braggadocio he trumpets, “My greatest regret is that I can’t sit out in the audience and watch me perform.” But in the end, he finally breaks down. Reciting lines that mirror his emotional conflicts and despair, he confesses that he is “waylaid by regrets.” “A man isn’t old,” he says, “until regrets take the place of dreams.” And having acknowledged that his acting career is finished and his life, as he knew it, is over, he doffs his fedora and strolls jauntily off stage. A month later, he was dead. Barrymore can be seen Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 and 8 pm, and Sundays at 7 through December 1st at the Greenway Court Theater, 544 N. Fairfax (between Melrose and Beverly), Los Angeles. Call 323-655-7679 x100 for tickets. Photo: Gordon Goodman as Barrymore Photo by Steve Anderson

Help, I’m Drowning and I Can’t Get Up!

Just a warning: when you get up to leave the theater after seeing All Is Lost you’re going to be sloshing in your shoes. Your mouth will taste like seawater and your fingers will look like raisins. God knows what Robert Redford looked like each day when he finished battling the storms, getting tossed overboard, banging into the cupboards and furniture on his boat, and rummaging around in water up to his chest! In this solo performance, a tour de force for Redford, the 77-year-old actor braves the elements on the Indian Ocean in his small sailboat. What he is doing there, where he is going, even his name is unknown. There is no back-story to this man. All that matters is his struggle to survive after his boat is breached by a huge metal container free-floating in the ocean. The boat is equipped with everything a sailor could need if he were marooned, say, off the Channel Islands. But in the middle of an endless ocean, 1700 miles from the Straits of Sumatra, with no wind and a broken mast, there’s not much a man can do. Moreover, all the radio and electrical equipment is waterlogged, short-circuited, and irreparable. But in true MacGyver fashion, Redford spends the days “fixing” things: gluing, twisting, bolting, plugging, bailing… It’s amazing how much he knows how to do to keep a crippled boat afloat. Another thing that’s remarkable is the look of the ocean. Unlike the ocean in Life of Pi, it is not gloriously blue and inviting. The Indian Ocean here is cold and gray and the sky is relentlessly overcast— when it isn’t raining. Except for the sounds

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of the sea and the ferocious storms, and occasional unobtrusive background music, there is no sound in this film. Redford speaks briefly at the beginning and the end. The rest of the time he speaks with his face. All Is Lost is a tense, gripping, and magnificent movie. Look for it at your neighborhood movie theater. And look for Robert Redford at the Academy Awards.

The Mysterious Life of W.J. Trumbull

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Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills. It was called Breaking and Entering and I gave it a pretty harsh review. So a couple of weeks ago, when the playwright, Colin Mitchell, dropped me a note to invite me to come see it again, he made sure to add that

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it had been rewritten, revised, refreshed, recast, and redirected. How could I turn down an invitation like that? The story revolves around W.J. Trumbull, a one-book wonder reminiscent of J.D. Salinger and Catcher in the Rye. Like Salinger, Trumbull has become a grumpy recluse, having retreated to his rustic hideaway in the woods. But whereas Salinger continued to write and publish, Trumbull’s one book was all he wrote. Which may explain his grumpiness. At any rate, on a night when he is avidly listening to the seventh game of the World Series, his house is broken into by an insistent fan: an attractive young woman named Milly Smith. Initially outraged, (he calls her a “psychotic evangelical feminist”) Trumbull eventually succumbs to her charm and conversation and they engage in a dialog about truth and reality (“Reality is that which affects us,” he tells her, and “With truth comes responsibility”). Finally, she gets to the real reason for her break-in: she has written a book (“a masterpiece,” she calls it) about him. Her book chronicles his entire life, including the current evening, and reveals secrets, and even murder, that she ostensibly would have no way of knowing. Is she a witch? A ghost? His conscience? Director Sebastian Munoz has staged this drama in a curious way. Trumbull, played by Matthew Sklar, delivers most of his lines with his back to Milly (Katherine Canipe), who hovers close behind him, as if she were sitting on his shoulder, whispering in his ear. Further, Munoz has allowed Sklar to deliver every line at the top of his lungs, with almost never a change in tone. He is “projecting” for the Ahmanson in a theater that is the size of a postage stamp. For her part, Canipe is engaging, as are the Tweedledum and Tweedledee baseball announcers, Jerry Chappell and Jason Britt, who provide the comedy relief. Playwright Colin Mitchell, who is the editor of the popular and respected online theater review magazine Bitter Lemons, has done an admirable job of rewriting, revising, and refreshing his play. Much better, Colin. Nice work and nice writing. Breaking and Entering can be seen Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 pm Nov. 15, 16, 22, 23, and 29 at Zombie Joe’s Underground Theatre Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd. in North Hollywood. For tickets, call 818-202-4120. Photo: Matthew Sklar and Katherine Canipe Photo by Sebastian Munoz

…But You Wouldn’t Want to Live There

Falling is a play you may never forget. Not just for its incredible acting, but also for its subject matter. It’s the story of an exceptional nuclear family: a couple with a teenage daughter and a severely autistic 18-year-old son. And a well-meaning grandmother who comes to visit with all her platitudes intact. “All things work together for good,” she says, flourishing her Bible. Be warned: This play chronicles a day in the life of the playwright, Deanna Jent, a Julie Andrews look-alike with a Ph.D. in Theatre from Northwestern University, who is the Artistic Director of Mustard Seed Theatre in St. Louis. Falling is written, she says, from “The War Zone of Extreme Parenting,” and it’s an intense, upsetting, and terrifying place to be. Matt Little plays the son, Josh Martin, with a ferociousness that is alarming. He is, by turns, angry, aggressive, threatening, demanding, resistant, destructive, childlike, apologetic, and playful. But whatever his mood, he requires the constant attention and vigilance of his ever-alert parents. His parents, Bill (Matthew Elkins) and Tami (Anna Khaja), humor him, placate him, and physically restrain him when he gets violent. His younger sister Lisa (Tara Windley), knows “the rules” but can’t help resenting, and even hating, him. He monopolizes the focus in the household and sucks all the air out of any room he enters. But, as Tami notes, “Parents don’t have the choice to hate their children.” And his visiting grandmother Sue (Karen Landry) watches it all with mounting horror and eventually poses the inevitable question: “Can’t you put him in an institution?” The answer, unhappily, deals with the fact that there aren’t enough facilities to meet all the needs, nor enough money in the state budget to keep them funded. And at home, Josh’s condition is so volatile that no caregiver or tutor will stay with him for very long. “It’s like having

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a toddler for 12 years,” Tami says. The range of autistic disorders is vast and varied and is thought to be genetic, triggered by some environmental factor. But the spectrum is too varied for the

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disorder to be caused by a single gene. In a recent play at the Fountain Theatre, On the Spectrum, by Ken LaZebnik, the protagonist was a high-functioning young man, a 23-year-old college graduate with Asperger’s Syndrome. His disorder included physical awkwardness and social inappropriateness: lack of humor, naivete, and an insistence on taking all conversation literally. As he noted, he “doesn’t waste a lot of time on emotions.” Nevertheless, he falls in love with a young woman who is also “on the autistic disorder spectrum” who is much more severely disabled than he. She lives in an Otherworld that she has invented for herself and speaks through a mechanical voice on her computer. Though the play is heart-wrenching in its display of different types of autistic behavior, in the end it is a bittersweet fantasy/love story. Not so for Falling. It is an unremittingly intense and crushing experience. But mesmerizing. You find yourself holding your breath for long periods of time. And being blown away by the vividness of the performances. Falling is not a barrel of laughs. But it’s definitely a “must see.” Produced by the celebrated Rogue Machine Theatre Company, this West Coast premiere, expertly directed by Rogue Machine’s award-winning Co-Artistic Director Elina de Santos, will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 3. A Speaker Series of talkbacks with the audience follows each Sunday performance. The show will run through December 1st at Theatre Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., in Los Angeles. For reservations, call 855-585-5185 or visit Photo: Matt Little, Anna Khaja, and Karen Landry Photo by John Flynn

Thanksgiving: Time for a Family Feud

Bruce Norris’ play The Pain and the Itch is rendered perfectly in a current revival at Los Angeles’ Zephyr Theatre. Perfect ensemble work by a superb cast. Perfect direction. Funny dialog. Perfect timing. The only thing wrong with the play is the plot. It’s Thanksgiving, 2006, in Pacific Palisades and a small family group has gathered at the home of Clay and Kelly (Eric Hunicutt and Beverly Hynds) for the holiday. There is Clay’s mother, Carol, (April Adams), a Socialist on the edge of Alzheimer’s, his brother Cash, (Trent Dawson), a ranting Republican, Cash’s girlfriend Kalina, (Beth Triffon), a damaged young woman from Eastern Europe, and Clay and Kelly’s precocious four-year-old daughter Kayla (Ava Bianchi, alternating with Kiara Lisette Gamboa), who doesn’t speak in the play, but screams often enough and loud enough to discombobulate the whole house. And then there is the mysterious gentleman (Joe Holt) standing on the sidelines, observing. When he speaks, the lights dim. Is he a phantom or is he an invited guest? And if he is a guest, why is no place set for him at the dinner table? Spoiler alert: Each time the lights go dim, it is the following January, but nothing in the playbill, nor the play itself, ever indicates or explains that time change. And then there is the question of who, or what, is making the curious noises on the roof? Who is biting chunks out of the avocado? And who stole the loaf of bread? Could it be Jean Valjean? No, that’s another story. The evening starts out pleasantly enough, with Carol half-remembering and then forgetting past movies she

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has enjoyed and sharing tidbits from gossip magazines. She discusses, with patronizing enthusiasm, the customs of far-flung cultures, as gleaned from PBS and the Discovery Channel. Kalina, for want of something better to do, chases the screaming Kayla in and out of the living room and around the house. But soon enough old grievances start to come up and disparate opinions, both political and personal, are aired with ever-increasing malevolence. Clay and Cash engage in a brotherly wrestling match, a telling leftover from what you can see was a belligerent boyhood. Moreover, Cash is a successful plastic surgeon while Clay is a stay-at-home dad; it’s his wife Kelly, a lawyer, who is the breadwinner for their comfortable upper-middle-class home. Which makes Clay not only defensive, but antagonistic to everyone. There is also a rather revolting subplot which is totally unnecessary, dealing with Kayla’s vaginal rash and where it came from. In the midst of all the chaos, however, playwright Norris has peppered the play with provocative commentary, recognizable characters and attitudes, and lots of laughs. The Pain and the Itch, which he wrote in 2004, is similar in its focus on xenophobic, unresolved race relations to his later play Clybourne Park, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 and the Tony Award for Best Play in 2012. Though the play is engaging to the very end, thanks to the fine acting of the whole ensemble, the ending itself is a series of twists that are dumped in without forewarning or hints to make it all come together plausibly. We do find out who the mysterious stranger is. And who stole the bread. And who was chomping on the avocado. But we never find out who or what was making the noises on the roof. The Pain and the Itch will continue at the Zephyr Theatre, 7456 Melrose Avenue, in Los Angeles, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 7 through December 1st. For tickets, call 323-960-5774 or visit Photo: Trent Dawson, Eric Hunicutt, Joe Holt, Beth Triffon, April Adams, and Beverly Hynds Photo by Ed Krieger