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Keep Reaching for the Stars

April 28, 2012

Brett Ryback and Matthew Arkin in The Prince of Atlantis by Steven Drukman. Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR 2012

Thanks to Ben Vanaman for the following report on two recent theater offerings from Orange County

Each Spring, Orange County’s Tony Award-winning South Coast Repertory theater company hosts the Pacific Playwrights Festival, a three-day event where new plays receive staged readings. Among the notable plays that have been launched at the festival are Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics and David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole just to name a few recent examples. In addition, SCR simultaneously mounts full productions of plays that have previously appeared at the festival. This year, there are two, both world premieres: Steven Drukman’s The Prince of Atlantis which concludes its run Sunday on the Segerstrom Stage, and the musical Cloudlands from dramatist Octavio Solis and composer Adam Gwon on the smaller Julianne Argyros Stage which continues through May 6th.

The Prince of Atlantis is set in the Boston suburb of Nonantum, whose denizens spout colloquialisms specific to their neighborhood, an arcane language mixing Italian, English, Romany, and street slang from the 1930s and 1940s. “Divia mush,” for instance, translates to “crazy guy,” and this play is full of crazy men, like Joey Colletti (John Kapelos), a wealthy fish merchant who’s serving a nine-month sentence for selling tainted fish, which has resulted in casualty. Adding to his woes: a son named Miles (a sympathetic Brett Ryback) who wants to meet him for the first time. Joey asks seemingly unstable brother Kevin (Matthew Arkin, in the production’s strongest turn) to run interference, leading to unanticipated complications and poignant payoffs.

The plot’s primary focus is the awkward meeting of Kevin and Miles, an intellectual who owns a small publishing imprint and is appalled by the décor of Joey’s estate, where Kevin is staying while awaiting his brother’s release. The Neptune-themed kitsch prompts Miles to quote from Oscar Wilde: “either the wallpaper goes, or I go.” But of course Miles is compelled to stay, as this is a tale of the central role that family plays in the formation of identity. It may not hurt that Miles is intrigued when Kevin announces that he’s been reading Hamlet, a play about sons and fathers and pretend fathers, deliberation versus action, the essential if elusive self. As yet incapable of making critical decisions about his own heart, Miles seeks guidance and approbation from floundering Kevin while flirting with Joey’s streetwise girlfriend Connie (a delightful Nike Doukas), and the startling results are equal parts pleasure and pathos.

Addi McDaniel, Robert Mammana and Katrina Lenk in Cloudlands. Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR 2012
The other former Playwrights Festival offering currently getting the full treatment, Cloudlands, is far more problematic. It's also the one that lingers, though not necessarily for the right reasons. You don’t want to discuss the meaning of this musical after exiting the theater as much as you may seek to exorcise the spirit of it. You don’t care to dissect its ideas as much as you would like to talk about the mission of the American musical theater itself. You might well ask: “has it come to this?”

Cloudlands leads to a shocking climax and a disturbing resolution that are equally anticipated by the time they arrive. However, this makes recapping the synopsis an exercise in judgment. I will say this much: the story takes place in present-day San Francisco for no particular reason; it is about a not quite next to normal bourgeois American family at a moment of impending crisis; it identifies ethnic conflict and then arguably reduces this conflict to caricature; its theme of how the past is inextricably bound to the present mirrors the action next door on the Segerstrom Stage while making one yearn for the company of Drukman’s more relatable characters; and its tragic outcome feels less earned than rigged. Teenage heroine Monica shoulders the burden of her family’s dark legacy while keeping her head metaphorically in the clouds, and she sometimes feels more like a representation of the ethereally troubled teen than flesh and blood. Yet, one commends the young actress portraying Monica –Addi McDaniel- for making her reasonably sympathetic.

There was a time when you went to a musical to have a good time; to be lifted up. That time may be over. Where musicals (and comedy, for that matter) were once at least in part about resilience –when life throws you a curve, you sing and dance, spin patter- today’s musicals seem increasingly to be about knocking over taboos, the downward spiral, characters sprinting toward self-annihilation. And, still, the tunes are pretty, in Cloudlands creating a tonal disconnection with the overheated action that I think accounted for some of the tittering at the end of the show. Overall, I found Adam Gwon’s score to be melodious but lacking distinction, a series of pop anthems and ballads sounding more or less the same: melancholy suffused with longing. This music enters the brain, lodges there briefly, and then dies a quick death. Pop ballad scores; jukebox musicals: more than anything, I think the American musical theater needs a new musical language and Cloudlands, while struggling to find it, hasn't quite arrived there yet.



Aptly put. Quo vadis, musical theater?
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