Who Let the Clerks Out?

You may not be dazzled and it may leave you frazzled. It’s Tom Stoppard’s boisterous 1981 farce On the Razzle, which documents the adventures of two unsophisticated shop assistants “on the town” in 19th century Vienna.

The original play, written in 1842 by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy, was titled Einen Jux will er sich machen, or He Will Have Himself a Good Time. Nearly a century later, in 1938, it was adapted by American playwright Thornton Wilder as The Merchant of Yonkers, and then, in 1955, as The Matchmaker. Which, in turn, became the smash musical Hello, Dolly!

Ironically, the only character from the original story who didn’t make it into Stoppard’s play is Dolly herself.

Those who did are the ferociously bullying Zangler (Andrew Walker), who owns the shop; his two clerks Weinberl and Christopher (Joey Jennings and Lacy Blake); Madame Knorr (Cathy Diane Tomlin), Zangler’s fiancée, her friend Frau Fischer (Maria Kress); and Zangler’s niece Marie (Chloe Rosenthal) and her penniless suitor Sonders (Frank Gangarossa).

This motley crew all winds up in party-time Vienna. Including the two clerks, who are supposed to be home minding Zangler’s store. The cast is augmented by seven other actors as well, many playing multiple characters. Such as Mary Garripoli, who plays a dim-witted servant as well as Miss Blumenblatt, Zangler’s sister-in-law

There’s also a strange gender switch that suggests an additional farcical move to explain it or right it, but that anticipated plot line never materializes. It arises from the fact that when On the Razzle premiered at the Royal National Theatre in London in 1981, the male clerk, Christopher, was inexplicably played by a woman. And so Lacy Blake, a petite and talented young woman, plays Christopher in this current version. And though you might be expecting her womanness to be revealed and for her to wind up in a paroxysm of love with her fellow clerk, Weinberl, that never happens. Although she would be a much more suitable match for Weinberl than the lady he winds up with: Frau Fischer. Fischer identifies herself as “elegant and under 40”, but she still appears to be a mismatch and much older than her ardent swain.

Yet another unexplained gender switch takes place with the role of Melchior, a fast-talking young man whom Zangler hires as his personal assistant. Melchior, wearing a buzz cut, a derby, and a perpetual frown, is actually an actress, Jeanine Anderson.

Like all farces, On the Razzle is replete with lots of running around, banging of doors, miscommunications, misunderstandings, misidentifications, and frantic hiding out. This play, however, is generously built on puns, double entendres, and sexual innuendoes. Some of them funny, others elusive. Stoppard himself has admitted that he had to rewrite much of the humor and dialogue, as the Austrian version is filled with site-specific allusions, colloquialisms, and multiple puns that don’t translate well.

Pete Parkin, who directs this robust ensemble, has steered them to an “all’s well that ends well” conclusion and to especially notable performances by Andrew Walker as the blustering Zangler, Joey Jennings as the didactic clerk Weinberl, and Lacy Blake as the ingratiating Christopher.

On the Razzle will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 through November 2nd at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West in Los Angeles. For reservations, call (323) 851-7977 or visit www.theatrewest.org.

Photo: Cathy Diane Tomlin, Maria Kress, Joey Jennings, and Lacy Blake
Photo by Charlie Mount

The Gang’s All Here

There’s a happy ending, except nearly everybody dies.

It all happens in the grubby underworld of Brooklyn, where men new to the crime scene in America vie with the old established gangs. (Until recently, whoever heard of mobsters from Chechnya?) In fact, in author Dennis Lehane’s new film, The Drop, it’s practically impossible to keep the perpetrators straight without a scorecard.

They include a number of faces that are relatively unknown, or unrecognizable, and that makes it difficult to figure out how they relate to each other. Or not.

The “star” of the film is Tom Hardy, the English actor who made his television debut in Band of Brothers and subsequently appeared in the films Black Hawk Down, the science fiction thriller Inception, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Dark Knight Rises, among others.

In The Drop Hardy plays Bob Saginowski, a seemingly simple-minded bartender working for his cousin Marv in the bar cousin Marv no longer owns. Cousin Marv is played by the extraordinary James Gandolfini in his last film role. (Sadly, Gandolfini had gained a tremendous amount of weight and appeared to be a walking admonition to the obese that too much weight can eventually kill you.)

The loss of Gandolfini, like the loss of Philip Seymour Hoffman, leaves a huge gap in our roster of “the best actors of their generation,” and watching Gandolfini’s face so clearly express a variety of emotions with just the movement of his eyes makes you sad once again to know that he is gone.

The other star in this film is a dog that Bob finds wounded and dumped in a garbage can to die. In the process of rescuing it, he meets the woman who owns the garbage can, but not the dog. She helps him nurse it and more or less coerces him into keeping it and caring for it. He names it Rocco and soon becomes obsessed with it. And also, gently, with the woman, Nadia, played by Noomi Rapace.

The dog is adorable and is the subject of Animal Rescue, a short story by Dennis Lehane from which The Drop was taken. Unfortunately, however, it was apparently impossible to get a series of dogs that looked enough alike to convincingly portray him as he grows up. In some scenes his black coat has streaks of white. In others the white is missing. In one scene, in fact, as Bob leads him down the street, Rocco changes noticeably from an older, heavier dog to a smaller puppy, and back again.

So, to get back to the plot. Cousin Marv’s bar is one of the many drop spots in Brooklyn where stacks of money are “deposited” and held for gang leaders, as well as policemen, judges, politicians, and other “bought” officials. The bar itself is a popular neighborhood meeting place filled with a crowd of men nearly as menacing as those in the bar in Star Wars.

But Bob’s big moment comes on the night of the Super Bowl, when the cache of deposited money becomes enormous. And the convolutions of the plot become enormous too. Everybody has hired someone to rob the bar. But you have to figure out who belongs to whom.

The main menace is a man named Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), who used to be Nadia’s boyfriend. Then there are a bunch of black-browed men who all look alike, and they are thugs working for Cousin Marv, thugs working for other thugs, and the inevitable Chechens.

There is a lot of shooting, but nothing blows up, there is no car chase, and very little blood. It’s a pretty classy love story cum gangster epic and director Michael Roskam has fashioned a chronology that leaves you puzzling it out from the very beginning. It’s definitely not a run-of-the-mill production. And definitely enjoyable.

The Drop opened on September 12th and is in theaters in Los Angeles now.

Photo: Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini in Cousin Marv’s Bar.

Sam Shepard’s Flock Not By Norman Rockwell

Sam Shepard’s plays are almost always a little weird. His people live in a world of their own, usually hostile and dysfunctional. And so it is with Buried Child, Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama that is currently celebrating its 35th birthday at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks.

The principals in this unhappy play are “a midwestern family with a very dark secret.” Unfortunately, there is no mystery about it, as Shepard’s title tells the story.

Moreover, the family has been described as “like a Norman Rockwell cover.” Not hardly. Rockwell didn’t paint covers in which the father is a slovenly, combative drunk, the mother is a ditzy non-stop “conversationalist”, and of their two sons, one is an angry, abusive bully and the other is fearful and loony.

This enchanting foursome talks trivia throughout, even when dealing with the arrival of a grandson whom nobody recognizes.

Leon Russom plays Dodge, the father of the family, who spends much of the play asleep on the couch. Jacque Lynn Colton as Halie, his wife, is the perfect replica of Edith (“Dingbat”) Bunker, squeaky voice and all. Cris D’Annunzio plays Bradley, the older of the two brothers, with a permanent frown, a limp, and one-and-a-half legs. And the other brother, Tilden, (David Fraioli) has a perpetual deer-in-the-headlights stare. It is extremely difficult to imagine him ever having summoned the gumption to father a son, Vince (Zachary Mooren), the visiting grandson.

Vince has brought along his girlfriend Shelly (Tonya Cornelisse) who wants to leave immediately after she sees the dilapidated “family homestead” and the dilapidated family that inhabits it.

Meanwhile, Tilden keeps coming in through the back door, first with an armload of fresh corn and then again with carrots, which he claims to have picked from “the fields behind the house.” Which perplexes both his parents, since it has been 35 years since anyone planted or tended those once-productive fields. (Presumably, this vignette reflects Shepard’s view of the indifference and negligence of American families as they relinquish the American Dream.)

Shelly is tasked with peeling the carrots while making angry faces to emphasize her cynical remarks. She also has a scene where she is assaulted by Bradley and another in which she approaches Dodge seductively, crawling on her hands and knees, and then snuggles up to him, laying her head on his shoulder. If she is anticipating that he will protect her from his oldest son, she is certainly misjudging both his character and his capabilities.

At any rate, that potential threat never materializes, and the play moves on to the unfolding of its “dark secret.”

Bryan Rasmussen directed Buried Child with a uniformly outstanding cast, but the play was three hours long with two intermissions in which the crew only swept the floor. Surely the junk on the floor could have been dispatched more expeditiously than removing the entire audience twice.

Sam Shepard, in addition to being a prolific playwright (nearly 50 plays), is an actor (he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff in 1983), director, and author.

As a young man he was influenced by Samuel Beckett, jazz, and abstract expressionism, according to Wikipedia. Which may explain why his plays are so abstruse. They go off on tangents, include symbolism, and have themes that are filled with moral equivocation.

Shepard’s plays seem to proclaim, “This is what I have to say. Make of it what you will.” And don’t be put off by the lethargic pacing.

Buried Child will run Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm through October 11th at The Whitefire Theatre, 13500 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Call 818-990-2324 for tickets.

Photo: (seated) Leon Russom, David Fraioli, Cris D’Annunzio
(standing) Jacque Lynn Colton, Zachary Mooren, Tonya Cornelisse, Grant Smith
Photo by Nico Sabenorio

Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy in 55 Minutes

If you’re looking for a play thst is smart, witty, well written, well acted, and well directed, this isn’t it.

The show is called Women and the main characters are called Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, along with their mother, insipidly called “Marmee”. Sound familiar?

It’s Little Women, but, unfortunately it isn’t Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and we all aren’t ten years old anymore. It’s playwright Chiara Atik and director Stephanie Ward who have put together this travesty and the nine mediocre actors who demolish it.

Most of the main points of the book are there, but badly rendered. Jo, the writer (Lauren Flans), and her sister Meg (Erika Rankin) race through their lines in double-time, making their speeches incomprehensible. Which is actually a good thing because most of what they have to say, plus their flat attempts at humor, are neither illuminating nor funny.

And Beth (Brigitte Valdez), who doesn’t have much of anything to say, spends her time coughing. And then she dies, which is also a good thing, since now Marmee won’t have to worry about marrying her off. In a departure from the mood of the book, however, none of the remaining sisters seems to mourn or miss her.

In another departure, Jo, who was a tomboy in the book, is characterized in the play as a lesbian. And, just in case you miss the point, when Professor Bhaer proposes to her she accepts with the proviso that he will agree to a marriage without sex.

The men in the play are somewhat better. But not by much. Clayton Farris, who loves Jo and then marries Amy, plays the next-door neighbor, Laurie, with a persistent self-satisfied smirk. Joseph Patrick O’Malley, who marries Meg, is pompous and remote. (When Meg agrees to marry him, she announces that she is “capitulating to the shackles of my gender.”) Only Professor Bhaer (Ben Moroski), with his sometime-German accent, appears to be earnest and human. And then there is, inexplicably, a brother, Carl March, played by J.B. Waterman.

As the play progresses, everyone races around a lot. And then they dance.

They have plenty of room to race and dance, since the stage is nearly bare. Whoever designed it (there is nobody credited with it on the program) apparently thought that two chairs and a bench would suffice.

As an aside, Jo expresses her desire, as a writer, to be “the voice of a generation.” Louisa May Alcott actually was. She’s probably spinning in her grave right now.

Women, however, despite my opinion, is credited with being a “record-breaking hit” from #Serials @ The Flea Theater, then was produced at The People’s Improv Theatre in New York, and was an award-winning entry at the Hollywood Fringe Festival.

Women, which opened September 5th, will appear Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 pm until October 25th at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd. in Los Angeles.

Photo: Amy, Meg, Jo and Beth

Love Is Wondrous, Not Strange

Sometimes in a film in which two men are lovers, the actors are so emotionally detached and unconvincing that the viewer becomes dismayed, and even uncomfortable. But when the two men are John Lithgow and Alfred Molina, the adventure is a joy to watch.

In Ira Sachs’ profoundly moving love story, Love is Strange, these two consummate actors hug and kiss with affection, like any married couple that has been together for 39 years. But they consistently display their abiding tenderness and love as well. It’s delicately palpable and they convey it all with their eyes. No other couple, gay or straight, could do it better.

Their troubles begin when they decide to get married. George (Molina) is immediately fired from his job as the music director of a small Catholic school because even though all his colleagues knew about his private life, when it was no longer private (someone posted the news of the wedding on Facebook, for god’s sake!) the bishop became incensed. And so the income that supported the couple is cut off. And Ben (Lithgow)’s pension is not sufficient to carry the load or pay the rent.

Compelled to move from their comfortable apartment, they begin their peripatetic, and separate, wanderings. George finds a place to sleep on the living-room couch of raucous neighbors whose primary activity consists of throwing endless noisy parties. And Ben moves in with his nephew and niece-in-law and their belligerent teen-age son and sleeps in the bottom bunk in the boy’s tiny bedroom.

The niece, brilliantly and sympathetically played by Marisa Tomei, is a published author trying desperately to finish her latest book without overtly rebuffing Ben. He is understandably lonely and trying to connect with her by making what he considers pleasant small talk that she sees as dreary prattle.

Meanwhile, George is trying to find a job and an apartment they can afford.

It’s a heartbreaking story, beautifully told. With photography to match. Cinematographer Christos Voudouris makes of New York City a distinct delight, even with its swarming crowds, its impersonal high-rise apartment buildings, and the grimy rooftops their windows look down on. The city skyline at dusk and the glowing sunsets, however, apparently make it all worthwhile to inveterate New Yorkers like Ben and George.

In fact, their New York apartment had been filled with the art of the city, much of it produced by Ben. His inclination to paint, however, is stifled by the living conditions he now finds himself in. But in time he takes to the building’s rooftop and, wearing a floppy straw hat like Vincent Van Gogh, he begins to paint again.

As an aside, in the closing screen credits there is a list of five or six artists whose work appears in the film. Among the names of the artists is John Lithgow’s.

Ira Sachs, who co-wrote the screenplay (with Mauricio Zacharias) and directed the film, has made a stunning, idyllic love story and coming-of-age journey that is presented by a tightly connected ensemble. Because the film is slow-paced, however, it might have ended a bit sooner. There are several long closing blackouts that don’t quite close the film, but the multiple end scenes do serve to provide a semi-satisfying postscript to all that has gone before.

As Shakespeare might have said, “All’s well that nearly ends well.”

Love is Strange opened in a limited engagement at the ArcLight and the Landmark Theaters in Los Angeles last week. Watch for it when it opens at a theater near you.

Photo: John Lithgow and Alfred Molina on their wedding day