The Housewife as Show Biz Goddess

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[Corinne Dekker, Jayme Lake, Jamey Hood, a.k.a. The Housewives] 

If you pay attention to the house music before the beginning of the musical comedy It’s the Housewives!, you will clearly hear a polished parody of Pete Townshend of The Who’s rock opera, Tommy. The music is played by Laurence Juber and his wife, Hope, updates the lyrics to fit the domestic frivolity about to come. Townshend had poor Tommy lose the power of speech and hearing after his father killed his mother, prompting a psychiatrist to sing, “He seems to be completely unreceptive/The tests I gave him show no sense at all.” Ms. Juber has brought it home, in more ways than one: “She seems to be completely undomestic/The tests I gave her show no skills at all.”

The skill of the Jubers is incontestable. He played lead guitar for Paul McCartney’s Wings and has 14 CDs of his own. She directs and writes with the comedic instincts one would expect, as the daughter of TV’s Sherwood Schwartz (Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch.) And what could have seemed like an obvious and straightforward take on the fantasy life of some average housewives really becomes something big. Because the hit group The Housewives has broken up and ex-star Becca (Jamey Hood) tells her plumber (Tony Cicchetti), who recognizes her, the story of her band’s breakup; we are treated to dead-on song style parodies that the Jubers have totally down.

They include the scorching blues number “Ironing Bored,” the self-explanatory “The Reynold’s Rap,” and, when The Housewives were in their New Wave mode, the completely uproarious “Domestiphobia,” with delightful, goofy, robotic choreography, courtesy of Kay Cole. Ms. Juber, with Ellen Guylas, has fashioned a book far cleverer than one might expect. The inevitable reunion concert is a satirical take on musical groups who break up and are forced to tour again. In this case, conniving Lynn (Corinne Dekker) and ditzy Lexie (Jayme Lake) make up with Becca onstage, after resolving the source of their disruption, namely who makes the best guacamole.

The three femme leads all blend voices smoothly and Hood, especially and appropriately, has a knockout voice and can really sell a song with her physicality. In fact, the Jubers manage not only a glossy, fun musical but something that will come as a surprise to men and women alike: the ability to wring sexual innuendo from moments as simple as taking off an oven mitt.

[It’s the Housewives! at the Whitefire Theatre, Studio City, though March 29.]

Iris Bahr says “Dai (Enough)” in 11 Ways

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If anyone has the right to comment in a solo show on the tragedy of the conflict between Israeli and Palestinian, it is Iris (ee-reese) Bahr. Her renowned and multiply-awarded performance has a Hebrew name that, not only means “enough” but with cruel irony rhymes with the English word for the fate of the 11 characters she depicts in a Tel Aviv café, moments before a suicide bomber detonates his terminal expression of protest.

Bahr has her feet in the world of both Middle Eastern and American Jewry, as she moved to Israel with her family as a girl of 12, served in the military there and eventually came stateside, studying both Neuropsychiatry and Religious Studies at Brown University. Dai has in its setup a series of interviews with characters and the ironies keep piling upon each other. An actress is going to shoot a movie in Romania about a Palestinian bomber and an Israeli girl he falls in love with, just before he is to blow up a target. The actress has come to Tel Aviv for research, not knowing that her research will come to bear deadly fruit. Director Will Pomerantz has this production punctuate each monologue with a horrendous sounding explosion—each sounding slightly different—and the audience, knowing the fate of these odd characters, feels desperation and tension throughout the performance.

Bahr’s Israeli accent is of course perfectly authentic and it requires great attention on the part of the American attendee to make out all the words at first. But once one is attuned to the dialect, the show totally holds one near the edge of the seat, as we wonder how much personal history we will glean before each sudden demise. And in another irony, it is the American Jewish characters whose Zionism seems the most ardent in this work, bile spilling freely.

Among the wayward souls of Dai, we meet a gay German young man who stalks his former Israeli lover and a female Russian Ph.D. in Physics who hilariously comments on Israeli males, as she now makes a living as a hooker. The more elderly Israeli Uzi tells us that his wife accused him, “You have lost your emotions. I’m tired of looking for them.” Part of the reason for his flat affect is losing one son in armed conflict and learning the other is about to flee to fairly aggressive but admittedly safer confines of New York City.

Bahr has done plenty of TV and standup but this is theatre, raw, deep, conflicted and in the end, astonishing, and it is no surprise that the show was a hit at Edinburgh, off-Broadway and has won the Lucille Lortel Award for Solo Show here, as well as gaining nominations for Drama Desk and UK Stage Awards. Along with the Golden Globe-winning animated feature Waltzing with Bashir, directed by Ari Folman, it would seem Bahr is among the Israeli artists who, while having no simple solution, cannot bear the never-ending cycle that eradicates lives and, upon closer examination, life stories.

Dai (Enough), written and performed by Iris Bahr, The Lillian Theatre, Hollywood. www.plays411.com/dai

The Delightful Chaos of “The Reunion”

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[The Reunion, co-written and -directed by Darcy Halsey and Danny Parker, with the SpyAnts Theatre Company, The Howard Fine Theater, Hollywood.]

The term “full disclosure” is used when a reviewer has a personal connection someone related to a review, and in the case of Darcy Halsey, the co-director, -writer and a performer in the ingeniously crafted The Reunion at the Howard Fine Studio in Hollywood, I am happy to oblige. Halsey was one of five remarkable performers in Simon Levy’s Fountain Theatre production of What I Heard About Iraq, a show I was proud to serve on as Media Consultant.

Halsey’s multiple characters and dialects were impressive enough during the five-month run of Iraq but with The Reunion, she, her partner in writing and directing crime Danny Parker and the SpyAnts Theatre Company have constructed an audience walk-through show that takes us to the ten-year reunion, ostensibly, of the Woodrow Wilson High Warriors, Class of ‘84. Halsey and Parker have exhaustively put together 57 scenes, totalling five hours and 25 actors. As with the former long-running hit Tamara, the audience chooses which characters to follow. The temptation to dart from a patio to a courtyard to an open door of a bathroom is great during the two- hour running time.

Among the revelations that the audience members may experience or hear about from fellow attendees: The born-again Christian girl who had her breasts photographed, photocopied and pasted up all over school. The doting husband who is reminded by a classmate of their homosexual fling. The football jock who may or may not have accidentally hit a teammate with his truck, crippling him for life. The reunon guest who blackmails a teacher into keeping silent about his attending The Reunion…with his mistress.

Full disclosure cannot be invoked in either this summary or one visit. Alas, The Reunion, subtitled Everything Changes, Everyone Stays the Same, which ran last year, must close August 4. Marvelously mind-boggling in its complexity, with lots of sordid revelations and hijinks, The Reunion deserves a long-term home. Halsey and Parker and their brilliant, scurrying SpyAnts, show not only great story sense from those three months of improvised scenes before script completion, but prove to be a large ensemble that is thoroughly talented, through and through. Go Warriors!

[Critical Moment: Hilarious, outlandish, complex, intricately crafted and a large yet very polished ensemble in a terrifically fun walk-through theatre experience.]

Lansky/The Car Plays

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Much has been made of Hannah Arendt’s discussion of the “banality of evil,” the human face of a Nazi like Adolph Eichmann, about whom she wrote in Eichmann in Jerusalem. In fact, the play Lansky, written by Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna, directed by the latter, manages to present mobster Meyer Lanksy as a put-upon, persecuted figure whose attempts to permanently emigrate to Israel are foiled. All this is done between his musings about his life and bromides about the corned beef in both Miami and Israel, where the play takes place.

Mike Burstyn imbues the character with the right mix of humanity, toughness and self-entitlement, and Krevolin and Bologna have done deep research, to bring to the fore such topics as his family’s persecution in Russia, his relationships to such Mafiosi as Lucky Luciano and Bugsy Siegel, investing with the latter in a new development called Las Vegas. While gambling and money-laundering seemed to be Lansky’s forte, the inner demons depicted in the work seem to be about a former wife, sketchily mentioned. Bologna’s staging becomes curious when he has Burstyn confront an audience member and insist on taking a bite of a corned beef sandwich, one that does not meet with his approval. This uncomfortable breaking of the fourth wall ironically provides one of the few moments of tension or menace. While well-constructed, the play opts for self-deceit and self-pity on the part of the character, which makes its two act structure a bit bulky.

Breaking the fourth wall in an entirely different way is the Moving Arts production of The Car Plays, presented once each month at the Steve Allen Theatre’s parking lot. Three rows of five cars are the stages for these ten-minute pieces, generated by a variety of playwrights for audiences of one or two at the time per car. Series B, the only one available to this writer, sported a couple of crime-related pieces, well-performed but not entirely gripping. But writer-director Michael David scores with Ladies of the Evening, in which a matron (Mary Boucher) attempts to engage a female prostitute, only to learn she is a he (Brian Weir).

The intense intimacy of these works, set in cars, where the audience may be guided to a front or back seat, is utterly addictive. Sometimes the performers acknowledge one’s presence, inches away from them, and sometimes not. The logistics of setting up the “stage” prevent the show from being performed for many at a time, or for more than one night a month. But the site specific boundary-stretching of the show makes it well worth one’s while to hit the open road of theatricality.

[Lansky by Richard Krevolin and Joseph Bologna at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd, West Los Angeles. The Car Plays presented by Moving Arts at the Steve Allen Theatre, 4773 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles.]

Prince Myshkins Ascend the Throne of Musical Satire

myshkins.jpg For 17 years Jeannine Frank has been booking an amazing array of stand-up and musical comedians, political satirists, cabaret, folk and jazz artists, historical shows, monologists and authors. Her Parlor Performances, called an “accidental performing arts series,” used to use the living rooms of people living in Los Angeles. She now books acts in Steinway Hall in West Los Angeles. And her recent pairing of the brilliant, unique musical duo The Prince Myshkins and comedian Betsy Salkind did not disappoint.

The Myshkins are singer/songwriters Rick Burkhardt on accordion and Andy Gricevich on guitar. It’s easy to explain the name of the band as a reference to a Doestoevsky character. But their songs? Dazzlingly fast, complex, socio-political songs with musical changes that would leave Kurt Weill smiling and shaking his head with jealousy. A song begins with a legalese disclaimer spoken aloud by Burkhardt and turns into a wild musical ride. “Nail Clippers” sends up the limitations to airline passengers. “Mimi LaValley and 100 Nuns” is the hilariously upbeat retelling of activist sisters marching onto a military base in protest and paralyzing the soldiers with confusion.

The Myshkins leave one’s mouth gaping with their rapid-fire hilarity but significantly, they also have penned what I consider to be the greatest anti-war song in the history of music, “Ministry of Oil.” As Burkhardt’s hypnotic, mournful accordion plays, Gricevich sings, in part, “How much do you suppose that artwork sold for/As their last remaining food began to spoil/The situation’s bad/ But no place in Baghdad/Is safer than the Ministry of Oil.”

Opening for the Magnificent Myshkins was Betsy Salkind, whose Julie Eisenhower outfit belied her salty and outrageous wit. She insisted that despite her Jewish heritage, she was now a Christian Scientist. “It’s the only health plan I can afford.” She admits to being too immature to raise kids. “I get up at 7 PM and work for fifteen minutes.” Despite all this, Salkind writes a blog in the voice of fifth grader Ethel Spiliotes. Well, as Salkind insisted at Steinway Hall, kids are important. They allow you to use the carpool lane on the freeway.

Why I’m Glad “Cats” Finally Closed

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(Entertainment Today, Oct. 27, 2000)

The musical Cats closed on Broadway, September 10, 2000, now and, I sure as hell hope, forever.

Not to seem too curmudgeonly, but should any musical or play run just under 18 years, let alone one as insipid as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s feline abomination? Broadway has long-since ceased to be the showplace for significant American theatre, but it is nice to know, after 7485 performances of this unadulterated piffle, that children and tourists in Times Square will have to find other inane, overpriced stagecraft

Artistically banal, Cats tells a wafer-thin story about this aging hooker kitty who winds up dying and ascending to heaven on a tire. They could have had Firestone underwrite some of their costs.

People who have seen Cats can only remember one song, “Memory,” a dripping, cloying, relentlessly maudlin piece, written to approximate the piercing yowls of real cats.

No less than 50 million people have seen Cats and it has generated $2.5 billion in sales. It has played in Iceland, Korea and Belgium and has delivered folks worldwide a message that is immortal: You can still get into heaven if you charge for sex and it’s okay if women have facial hair.

Just as Spielberg and Lucas eviscerated the future of studio filmmaking with their blockbuster mentalities, so has Lloyd Webber cheerfully helped to disembowel both the popular musical and the variety and depth of material on the Great White Way. As far as I’m concerned, he should have quit after Jesus Christ Superstar and gone out a winner.

Think about eighteen years of Cats. Why the hell couldn’t they mix it up a little, maybe change animals every third year?

Imagine the marquee at the Winter Garden theatre: “From the Genius Who Brought You CatsWombats.” Consider the exciting challenges of the makeup, scenery and pyrotechnics when Lloyd Webber proudly presents Parakeets: The Musical.

I’m thrilled from top to toenail that Cats is gone. I know it is still playing in London. I know it will likely always infest some stage somewhere. There will always be people with disposable income who eschew donating to a worthy cause so they can tell their friends back home about the adorable actors in cat outfits, without ever having heard of T.S. Eliot and thinking “The Hollow Men” is a horror movie.

On behalf of all theatre artists, most of whom struggle to make a living doing what they love most, sometimes for nothing more than a mention in a paper or gas money, I dance a giddy jig on the grave of Cats.

Can I Have Your…Uh…Um…Oh, Yeah…Attention?

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(Rita Wilson and Johanna Day discuss why Johnny is a foul-mouthed rage-a-holic in Distracted.)

Distracted by Lisa Loomer, directed by Leonard Foglia at the Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles. March 15 - April 29.

Lisa Loomer gets style points for reaching beyond the usual commercial grasp. For Distracted grapples with the many societal accusations for the cause of Attention Defiicit Disorder (ADD, now ADHD for those not paying attention). Rita Wilson portrays a Mama whose son turns into a foul-mouthed vortex of rage. The diagnosis is ADHD but aging hippie Dad (Ray Porter) threatens Mama with divorce before agreeing to pump the kid full of Ritalin. Bronson Pinchot plays a variety of doctors with a panoply of dialects.

The real standouts here are Stephanie Berry, playing everything from a sullen waitress to effervescent, Jamaican nurse. Johanna Day is delightfully obsessive-compulsive as a driven but inevitably helpful neighbor who does not believe in small talk. Loomer argues that while diet, genetics and allergies may affect our kids, the culprit may also be media overstimulation. This concept is enabled by a triptych of screens upstage blasting images against our corneas, courtesy of Elaine McCarthy’s stunning projection design.

By play’s end, Loomer leans toward more attention toward children as a solution, which is lovely but rings false, as does her condemnation of George W. Bush as classically ADHD. Director Leonard Foglia pushes Pinchot to do broad shtik. Loomer exacerbates this by letting his characters break the fourth wall and talk about their own attention deficits. She also hands Porter the unenviable role of a father who won’t negotiate, cries out of frustration and then threatens divorce, a nasty tet-a-tet that is never addressed again. Still, this kind of multifaceted inquiry about our ability to focus is, if not on target, valuable for identifying the target’s periphery.

Critical Moment: Great video projection. Distracting “meta-theatre” gimmicks. Two female supporting players steal the show. Important play that has ironically not found its own focus.