A Traditional Dysfunction

It has become a cliché in both theater and films that when a family gathers for a communal meal—Thanksgiving, Christmas, a funeral, etc.—they do so with anxiety, trepidation, and dread. And before the meal is over everyone has revealed dark secrets, animosity, rage, or jealousy. Dysfunctional families make for compelling drama.

Take, for example, the recent film, and earlier Tony Award-winning play, August: Osage County. When a disparate group comes together after the funeral of the family patriarch, the matriarch (in the film), a ranting harridan played by the incredible Meryl Streep, tears everyone to pieces, one by one, and discombobulates them all.

And so it goes in Jewish families as well. As playwright Robin Uriel Russin explains, “All families are a little crazy, only the details are different.”

In Russin’s latest play, The Face in the Reeds, now having its world premiere at the Ruskin Group Theater in Santa Monica, the occasion that draws the family together is a Passover Seder.

Christina (Stacey Moseley), the second wife of Barry (Chip Bolcik), has just converted to Judaism. (You can fill in your own platitude here: “A second wife has to try harder” or “There’s nobody as Jewish as a convert.”) At any rate, she is anxious to oversee a proper, traditional ceremony. She is thwarted throughout the service, however, by the contentious group around the table.

There is Barry, a successful and affable doctor, and his father, Sol (Paul Zegler), a cantankerous retired shoe shop owner, and Barry’s children Rachel (Julia Arian) and Mose (Aidan Blain). And finally, there is Patrick (Tom Berklund), an invited guest who is a colleague of Barry’s and a Catholic. (“Is that the Goy?” Sol asks as he is introduced to the young man who he insists on calling “Paddy”.)

Rachel, who is Barry’s daughter by his first wife, is a seething bundle of angst about everything. She resents her brother Mose because he is Barry’s son by Christina and is obviously their favorite. She is flirting with the idea of becoming a lesbian and is an activist for women’s rights. She brings a revised, female-oriented Haggadah (Passover prayer book) to the Seder. In contrast to Barry, who has condensed his own book to the “short version” of “only 45 pages.”

Mose, who is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, is a skeptic about religion —his own in particular. Which introduces a provocative series of arguments and discussions about religious practices, myths, and God.

Each point that’s made is consistent and effective, and director Sarah Figoten Wilson brings this ensemble of excellent actors through it all with conviction, believability, and panache.

Christina, in defining her transition from Catholicism to Judaism, asserts, “I am no longer thinking of Jesus as my Savior—and possibly gong to hell.”

Patrick, who is continually challenged and put on the defensive, nevertheless provides a soothing note to the proceedings, even though he can’t get Sol to stop calling him “Paddy”.

And, as is true in all Jewish discussions, there is tremendous humor sprinkled through the exchanges. (In the manner of the old Jewish jibe, “They attacked us. We won. Let’s eat.”)

Sol, who keeps complaining through the often-interrupted ceremony that he is starving, greets the appearance of the roast with “If we can just get to eat it before it fossilizes…”

But before they eat, Christina delivers an emotionally appealing speech about the Pharaoh’s daughter who drew the baby Moses in his reed basket from the Nile and brought him up as her own. She imagines the rapture of the princess as she views The Face in the Reeds for the first time. And that’s where Robin Russin got his name for this most stimulating and enjoyable play.

L’chaim, y’all!

The Face in the Reeds will be playing at The Ruskin Group Theatre, 3000 Airport Avenue, Santa Monica, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 through October 11th. Call (310) 397-3244 for tickets.

Photo: Julia Arian (Rachel), Tom Berklund (Patrick), Stacey Moseley (Christina), Chip Bolcik (Barry), Paul Zegler (Sol), and Aidan Blain (Mose)
Photo by Ed Krieger

Hair Apparent

Many of us have had the mixed pleasure and dismay of watching ourselves grow older via the photos in our family album. Ironically, the faces remain pretty much the same over the years—or at least recognizable—until age sets in and everything droops. But the thing that registers the passage of time unequivocally is the hair. From Mamie Eisenhower bangs to fringe so long it can blind you. From tight curls to Jennifer Aniston flowing locks. Colors that transform from mousy brown to flaming pink. And so it goes with Ellar Coltrane, the leading boy/man in Richard Linklater’s family drama, Boyhood. Playing a loosely coiffed boy named Mason, we first see Coltrane as an angel-faced six-year-old being harassed by his older sister, Samantha. (Played by Linklater’s real-life daughter,

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Lorelei.) Mason’s parents, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke enter fighting, and it soon becomes apparent that they are in the beginning stages of an inevitable divorce. Mom and the kids begin moving from one Texas home to another. Mason goes to a school where he is harassed by bullies. Mom goes back to college and flirts with her professor. Mom marries the professor and the kids become a blended family of two boys and two girls. All with long hair. The professor turns out to be a martinet and a nasty drunk who harasses the kids, batters Mom, creates menacing tension, and frightens them all. He also takes Mason to a barbershop and, without consulting anyone, has all his long hair cut off. Mom escapes from the professor, divorces him, and moves into another home. Another new school for her kids. And another boyfriend for her who also turns out to be abusive. The scenes are short and included to demonstrate the passage of time as everyone ages. Linklater, who wrote, produced, and directed this ongoing epic, shot it over a 12-year period as Mason progresses from a baby-faced six-year old to a tall, lanky, restrained and thoughtful college student of 18. He still has the angelic face, but his hair undergoes the changes that identify the time. Nothing much happens in this nearly three-hour film, except LIFE. Mason, who is more an observer than a participant, stoically accepts the vicissitudes of growing up and only occasionally expresses anger or disapproval. Without comment he listens to the opinions and advice of the adults in his life, often delivered in condemnatory harangues or else in well-intentioned but ambiguous “lessons”. Meanwhile, he goes through teen-age angst, trying to figure out what life is all about and how to make it meaningful. He discovers girls, and sex, and alcohol and pot, but only as passing diversions. He suffers the pangs of unrequited love and

the comings and goings of the men in his mother’s life. He is Holden Caulfield, almost grown up. Boyhood is a slow-paced, delicate film that will either enthrall

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you or bore you to death. There doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. If the slow-moving details of other people’s lives hold your interest, however, this beautifully rich coming-of-age film will keep you glued to your seat. As will its star. Boyhood can be seen now in select theaters around Los Angeles. Photo: Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood Photo courtesy IFC Films

Where’s Annette?

Twenty-three insanely inventive actors. A hilarious script. And a world-class guitarist to strum them through the scene changes. And they do it all without Annette!

It’s Hope Juber and Jeff Doucette’s ad lib extravaganza Without Annette, now having its World Premiere at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks.

The play works on a simple, uncluttered premise: an improv class run by Sam Wasserman (Jeff Doucette, alternating every other week with Mark Beltzman), an old-time actor who serves as guru for a varied group of eccentric thespians. (In fact, the role mirrors the real life of both men, who are actors, writers, and directors as well as veterans of Chicago’s Second City.)

The audience members, who are cast as “auditors” of the class, are also called upon to shout out from time to time objects or places that the actors must weave into their improvised routines. The results are invariably witty, zany, and hysterical.

As a director, Sam is described as “completely adequate” by one of the students as he launches them into a “self-discovery” exercise. Whereupon a tiny Chinese girl, Libby, (Julia Morizawa, alternating with Corinne Dekker) wails that everything about her is considered average, but yet “there is nobody who is like me.”

She also bemoans the fact that older women in films are only cast as “grandmas or real estate agents,” and complains “It’s not my fault I’m not sexy—I’m ASIAN!”

Then there is C.J. Carter (Gary Robinson/Shea Scullin), a mountain of an ex-football player who now sells insurance and is seeking to Improve his people skills. He is awkward, shy, and skeptical and it’s fun to watch him gradually come into his own.

And Hogan Connely (Charlie Mount/Bill Chott) who talks about time spent selling a script and calls it his “fantasy weekend.” (Mount, in addition to acting and directing, served for eight years as Artistic Director of The Chestnuts Theatre program at Theatre West, where his hit play Against The Wall ran this spring and summer.)

Kyle Klein and his twin brother Jeremy, and Matthew Shane take turns playing Kyle, a morose teenager. Tara Ciabattoni and Christina Engelhardt alternate as Jeanette Parker, a successful actress and femme fatale, and Timothy Walker and Adam Ball play Michael Gaines, who, because he is moderately successful professionally and an egotist personally, takes on the role of unsolicited leader and bosses everyone around.

In one of the last exercises, the “class” is directed to do a complete advertising campaign for a new product. The product, suggested by an audience member is “bleach.” Working spontaneously, the group describes the product, writes a slogan and a jingle, and writes and acts an entire commercial—all within the five-minute limit specified by Director Sam. None of it makes any sense, but it’s hilarious.

Hope Juber, the co-playwright, is best known for her smash hit musicals It’s the Housewives! and A Very Brady Musical. Her husband is Laurence Juber, an amazing guitarist and veteran of Paul McCartney’s Wings. He presents a mini-concert before the show, replete with his own songs, and plays delicious riffs between scenes.

Without Annette has a dynamic that is comparable to big band jazz,” he says. “A tight ensemble performs structured arrangements with room for improvised riffs.”

Says co-writer Doucette, “You could see this show many times, and since the casts change each week and there’s a lot of improv in it, you would never see the same show twice.”

I can’t think of a better way to spend your Thursday nights from now through October 2nd!

Without Annette will run on Thursdays at 8 p.m. through Oct. 2nd at the Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Call (323) 960-5773 or visit www.plays411.com for tickets.

Photo: The opening night cast of Without Annette
Photo by Michael Lamont

The Men in Penelope’s Pool

In the beginning there were 100 suitors vying for the hand of Penelope. But Penelope, the faithful wife of Ulysses, is patiently waiting for her husband to return home after having participated in the Trojan War and ten years of fantastic adventures.

By the time he finally returns, there are only four suitors left, spending their days idling on the floor of her empty swimming pool. They are Quinn (Brian Letscher), a youngish, self-absorbed, and belligerent wastrel; Dunne (Ron Bottitta), an older version of Quinn, who spends his time boasting and preening; Fitz (Richard Fancy), an even older version of both of them, but who has lost his fire; and Burns (Scott Sheldon), who serves as a sort of cabana boy, running and fetching, bringing towels and drinks to the others and absorbing their abuse and insults without responding. It isn’t until the play is nearly over that you realize he is also a suitor.

The play is Penelope by multiple award winner Enda Walsh, presented by the much-celebrated Rogue Machine and directed in its Los Angeles premiere by John Perrin Flynn, Rogue Machine’s founding Artistic Director.

The play consists of monologues and conversation that are mostly scornful of society, politics, and the current state of man. Man goes “out of poverty and into obesity,” Quinn says contemptuously.

Meanwhile, they are devouring and ruminating on the delights of sausages that Burns has prepared on the barbecue. As a non sequitur, all four admit to having had a dream the previous night that the barbecue was on fire.

After much banter, the suitors get down to business: attempting to “seduce” Penelope with a recitation of their outstanding attributes and their suitability to be chosen as her husband.

Dunne, who calls himself a “master scribe”, attempts to woo her with poetry, but keeps getting sidetracked into egotistical expositions of his own worthiness and his masterful (but somewhat pot-bellied) physique. “Do you not see in me Pedigree?” he challenges her.

Noting their common interests and pursuits, he observes that the remaining suitors are “building a company” and comments to Fitz that he should “embrace trust.” The “company” dissolves within minutes, however, as the conversations continue.

“We are the last men,” Quinn says. “We annihilate everything that doesn’t conform to our taste.” He acknowledges that he had killed a man named Murray, who he viewed as competition, and Burns bemoans the loss of his friend and, by implication, lover.

“Hate is our friend,” Quinn notes. “Only a ten-year-old has no burden of the past,” Dunne adds.

Fitz’s soliloquy is a softly mumbled assertion that he is “building a house of nothing” and that “love is to grow from a glorious nothing.”

In the midst of all this, Penelope (Holly Fulger) appears on a balcony and silently watches and listens. She says not a word as the play devolves into violence and chaos. And finally she absents herself to await Ulysses’ arrival.

All of this takes place on a messy and dilapidated set ringed by multiple raggedy curtains prepared by scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz. It is a most unattractive venue to reflect on for 95 minutes. The costumes, by Lauren Tyler, are equally undistinguished. All four men wear only tiny Speedos and occasionally a bathrobe.

In the end, the play itself, which started with so much promise, peters out. In my view, it’s hard to empathize, or even care about, such a group of vacuous losers.

Penelope will run Friday and Saturday at 8 pm and Sunday at 3 through August 17 at Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Call 855-585-5185 or visit www.roguemachinetheatre.com for tickets.

Photo: Brian Letscher as “Quinn”
Photo by John Flynn