Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

A Series of Unfortunate Events

April 30, 2007

George Wendt and Richard Thomas
Photo: Joan Marcus/CTG 2007
With the LA Philharmonic in New York and LA Opera tickets for next week's performances, this was the perfect weekend to catch up on some of the productions in Southern California’s bigger theaters. Too bad what was on offer was far from perfect. On Friday, I caught the Roundabout Theater Company’s touring production of Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men currently at the Ahmanson Theater. I’ve never seen this play outside of the famous movie adaptation, so with deep discount subscriber add-on tickets, I figured what was there to lose. As fate would have it, the answer to that question was about ninety minutes, the running time of this breakneck exercise in speed acting. Delivering the lines that quickly almost eliminated any realism to the proceedings, but as time passed, I began to realize this may have been an intentional choice on the part of director Scott Ellis as a last ditch effort to somehow quell the overacting of Richard Thomas who had elected to eschew subtlety for volume and histrionics. George Wendt was in this too as the jury foreman, but it was unclear what function he served other than to entertain the segment of the audience who likes to hear themselves clap when they recognize someone from TV in their midst. The play itself is very interesting and holds up surprisingly well, all considering. The only exception though is the play’s over-reliance on an outmoded version of Freudian psychology to inform the play's characters. There were some thrills here if admittedly not big ones.

Charlie Robinson
Photo: Henry Di Rocco/SCR 2007
I thought this would be the low point of the weekend, but little did I know what was in store in Orange County at the South Coast Repertory on Sunday. SCR has a great reputation for staging new works by young American playwrights, and spring usually brings one or two world premieres. The promise of this spring however turned out to be rather hollow. I took in a double header (as is my wont), which started with Julie Marie Myatt’s My Wandering Boy, best described as the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” version of Waiting for Godot. Actually the best thing that can be said about this experience is that it reminded me of how liberating it can be to walk out of something awful at intermission. It is quite sad that talents like those of director Bill Rauch and star Charlie Robinson (who was incredible in the Odyssey Theater’s recent production of Fences) are wasted in this mess. A local character actor who deserves a much bigger career and much more notoriety, Robinson was no match for a play devoid of narrative, tension, dramatic development, linguistic beauty, or wit.

John Sloan and Shannon Cochran
Photo: Henry DiRocco/SCR 2007
After this teeth-grindingly bad afternoon I figured how bad could that evening’s performance of David Wiener’s new work System Wonderland be? Well, I didn’t walk out of this one. But looking back on it now, maybe I should have. This almost entirely humorless send up of the dark-underside of Hollywood suffers greatly from absolutely plodding pacing and a lack of insight into its topic matter. The ersatz vision of Hollywood Wiener dreams up is about as embarrassingly fake as the Oscar on the mantle piece of the play’s protagonist. (What a lovely touch! His Grandmother must be so proud.) The work is set in some mythical time after the widespread use of word-processing software but before the advent of DVDs when stars sat around reliving their past via film projectors set up permanently in the middle of their living rooms. At times the piece seems to want to have a noir Sunset Boulevard feel but can’t seem to commit to this idea any more than the idea of being a fiercely witty comedy. It’s not a good thing when a play begins to make you long for Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow, but there it was. New work always involves some risk; it's just too bad when none of those risks pay off.

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