SF Theater Blog

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Julie Katz: "Grey Matter" ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼


Julie Katz's "Grey Matter" had us snorting and sniveling with laughter. There are only a dozen more shows before she takes off for the NY Fringe Festival, so I'll keep this short: GO SEE GREY MATTER -- but only if, like everyone else in America, you find corporate-speak hilarious as well as undecipherable. Katz takes us on an angst-filled romp through the brains of the characters who work on many different floors for The Company, until they get fired and go to work for The Corporation. We particularly loved the announcement lady, whose core value is Feel the Spirit and whose Fun Fact is she's never had soda. We wish somebody would change the paper towels in the lunch room. We hope the Assistant VP of Happiness and Effectiveness has a nice life.


Though she looks like a teenager, Katz has had enough time on the planet to become an excellent physical comic, as well as an aphorism sponge. You'll laugh your head off, and when the show is over you'll need a dose of reality. Fortunately, you can get that right outside the door.


RATINGS:☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division, each member of whom is a leader, because WE ARE ALL LEADERS (and, on a personal note, we feel the artisan hot chocolate machine should NOT be moved to the 103rd floor), awards "Grey Matter" Four Stars. We have no choice, because this column was leaked in advance and e-mailed to 13,000 subscribers and the Chronicle.

Julie Katz: "Grey Matter"
The Marsh San Francisco
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
EXTENDED Through July 9
 $20-$35

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

"The Invisible Hand" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


What a concept, what a story. Ayad Akhtar's "The Invisible Hand" brings us into a difficult situation where bad or good mean nothing. The only things that matter are money and God, in that order.

"The Invisible Hand" is one of the guidelines of neoclassical economics -- that financial markets always tend towards equilibrium, guided by the "invisible hand" of thousands of competing transactions.

But sometimes this equilibrium can be upset, for just a moment, but enough time for a wise investor to profit. Craig Marker plays Nick Bright, a low-level Citibank executive working in Pakistan. He is kidnapped by a jihadi group headed by Bashir (Pomme Koch) and Imam Saleem (Barzin Akhavan). The jihadis demand a ten million dollar ransom, but Bright realizes his company will not consider him to be worth that much. Facing his imminent death, he convinces Bashir and Imam Saleem to allow him to teach them how to make that much money and more, simply by manipulating financial markets the way he does in his everyday life. All they need is a computer, internet access and Bright's expertise.


Of course, making money like this is anti-Islam. No matter. And no matter that Nick Bright warns his 'hosts' that money can corrupt anyone. The game is intoxicating. Once the ball starts rolling and the profits begin to accumulate, an unexpected series of events transpire.

Koch is the star here -- as the English-born Bashir, a jihadi whose hatred of the West is matched only by his thirst for knowledge, Bashir absorbs Nick's lessons and begins to use them himself. His associates, Imam Saleem and Dar (Jason Kapoor) lose control of Bashir as he begins to implement a spectacular and bloody scheme.

We have a small problem with Craig Marker -- who was absolutely brilliant in MTC's previous "Anne Boleyn" and is excellent here. But shouldn't he be nervous? Frightened? Nick Bright seems far more hostile than a prisoner would be. His attitude and physical self don't seem to change much as his incarceration continues, until the very end. A few tweaks may be in order here.


The lesson is unmistakable: money can seduce an imam, and God can still help out the western nonbeliever, in such unusual times.


RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Invisible Hand' Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE for Pomme Koch. He is so good that after the show was over, when the young actor came to the front of the stage to make a pitch for an MTC charity, using, of course, his real California voice, I was still afraid of him. I thought he might want to put a shackle on my leg.

There are no bad seats in this theatre. Feel safe buying the least expensive seat in the house.


"The Invisible Hand"
Marin Theater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
EXTENDED Through July 3
$10-$58

Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Velocity of Autumn: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼


From the ridiculous to the sublime, The San Francisco Blog Reviewing Staff saw two (2) two-person shows this weekend. Let's just say Theatreworks' West Coast premiere of Eric Cable's "The Velocity of Autumn" is so good it almost puts to rest the memory of...that other thing.


Susan Greenhill is spectacular. She plays Alexandra, the seventy-nine year old mother of Chris (Mark Anderson Phillips). She has barricaded herself in her Park Slope apartment because her other two children want to put her in a retirement home. She is determined to stay in her own home and has filled bottles with highly inflammable film developing fluid to prove her point. She walks around with her late husband's Zippo lighter (which still works), and if anyone makes a wrong move she will blow up the entire neighborhood.


Enter Chris. He is the son who went away, who never quite fit in. He is, we come to see, just like his mother. They understand each other. The police are standing by outside. If Chris fails to figure out a solution to this problem the world goes up in smoke.


Ms. Greenhill gives such honesty to Alexandra, who realizes she is losing her body and mind as time passes. "Every day, another old body part shrivels," she says. " A friend dies. Your world is ending."  And her memory is failing. "I'm not me anymore." The only world she has left is the small, familiar one inside her apartment. She will not leave without a fight.


RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division, whose members are not as old as Alexandra but sometimes cannot remember where they put their keys, awards "The Velocity of Autumn" Four Stars. How many? Four. See? We remembered. 

Mark Anderson Phillips we know well..."The 39 Steps," "Ideation" and so many more... but Susan Greenhill -- who is this wonderful actor?  She does a lot of TV. We hope she finds a home in the Bay Area very soon. We need to see her again.

"The Velocity of Autumn"
Mountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through June 26
$19-$80

Saturday, June 4, 2016

"The Last Five Years" ☼ ☼ baub


Jason Robert Brown's "The Last Five Years" is a story about a relationship between Jamie (Zak Resnick) and Cathy (Margo Seibert). It purports to detail five years in their lives, beginning and ending with distance, and in between -- well, more distance. The show is told entirely in song. It is eighty minutes long (no intermission).

Here are the things we like about "The Last Five Years."

These songs: "Still Hurting," "The Next Ten Minutes," "I Can Do Better Than That," and "A Summer in Ohio."

Cathy. She has a fine voice and gives us emotion when called for.

Jamie, at the end when he gets mad.


That's about it.

Why, we ask ourselves, would anyone wish to see a story about two people who seem to have been set up by a cross-eyed demon yenta? Why write a show about two people who show no attraction to each other, nor affection, and whose relationship starts nowhere and ends nowhere, with no lessons learned?

Jamie is such a (WORD FOR MALE SEXUAL ORGAN REDACTED). Self-centered, a sickening fake smile, the essence of callow. But he doesn't know it. We are supposed to feel for him because Cathy's career isn't doing as well as his is. But, you know...please see the first sentence of this paragraph.

And the music. It gets better towards the end, beginning when Resnick and Seibert get a chance to interact in a duet. The rest of the time she sings a song about alienation, and he sings a song about temptation, then she sings a song where she's mad at him, then he sings a song where he is frustrated with her. They could be face-timing from Cleveland.

Feh. As my grandmother used to say, "for every pot there is a cover." These two can have the whole kitchen cabinet to themselves. No they can't. They broke up. Poor pot. Poor cover.


RATINGS: ☼ ☼ baub
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Last Five Years" Two Stars with a bauble of despair. The good songs are worth a star and and Margo Seibert's attempts to bring life to a relationship that lacks not only chemistry but biochemistry, gains another.

The bauble is for the song "The Schmuel Song." Not only does it have nothing to do with the story, but the music -- OK, let's say the chorus -- sounds like Schmuel, the old world tailor, with a little Yiddische accent here and there, has gone to the Schlablinsk Center to see The Monkeys. Did the Monkeys play Schlablinsk? Really, guys.

Two Stars falls below our Recommended Level (see side bar for explanation of ratings). You have been warned.


"The Last Five Years"
A.C.T. Theatre
405 Geary Street, San Francisco
 Through June 5
$20-$105





Will Durst: Elect to Laugh 2016: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


With one nonstop joke after the other, Will Durst has us roaring in the aisles with big, galumphing belly laughs most of the way through the show. His take-offs on every Republican and Democrat in the primary and debate process helps us recall the scope of the idiocy through which we have been living. Perhaps our favorite Durst line actually belonged to George Bush: "The trouble with the French is they have no word for entrepreneur." And "The American people love the Home Shopping Network because it is commercial free."

And let's not forget Carly Fiorina. Durst says "It took Carly one week to do to the Cruz campaign what it took her years to do to Hewlett Packard."


All very funny. And then we come to Trump, Sanders and Clinton. And it doesn't feel funny anymore. The lines are still good, their mishaps and foibles easy fodder for a comedian of Durst's abilities. But I don't feel like laughing at Donald Trump's women. I don't think Hillary Clinton's email troubles are even real, let alone worth joking about. And Bernie Sanders fills me with fear, because I think he wants to put a bazooka through the whole piƱata. None of these people strike me as funny.

So if you take things the least bit seriously, you may have a little trouble with Elect to Laugh 2016. It never seemed so bad when we all laughed at Mitt Romney and Obama. Or John Kerry and George Bush. This year, I don't know.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Elect to Laugh 2016" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise. The Jokes are so damned funny and just about all of them would earn a big, snarfly Bangle. Bill Clinton and Helen Thomas. Marco Rubio's racist denial. Chris Christie in the baseball uniform, oh, oh, wait, that's for real? Yup. It all is.


Will Durst: Elect to Laugh 2016
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco
Tuesdays 8pm ONLY
EXTENDED Through  July 26
$15-$35 (sliding scale)

Monday, May 16, 2016

Red Velvet: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG


There are many things to like about San Francisco Playhouse's production of Lolita Chakrabarati's "Red Velvet."  Ms. Chakrabarati has created a fictionalized recounting about the real-life appearances in Europe of Ira Aldridge, a black American actor, the first non-white actor to play Shakespearean leads on a European stage. The story, from the 1830s, is true. For hundreds of years, even Othello was played by a white actor in blackface.


Carl Lumbly plays Aldridge and Susi Damilano plays Ellen, the centerpieces of this drama. They exude a sexual energy that can lead only to downfall, Aldridge unable to curb his fierceness as an actor and Ellen making little effort to curb her attraction to him.


 Elena Wright plays three roles, including Aldridge's wife Margaret, Tim Kniffin is an excellent Charles Kean, Richard Lewis James gets to display his Henry Higgins English and Patrick Russell his Maurice Chevalier. Devin O'brien plays Henry and Britney Frazier has a small but important roll as the theater's Jamaican maid and voice of caution to Ira.


Language is key here. Aldridge has assumed the upper-crust English he knows he must use to succeed, but when he is angry his true vernacular bubbles to the surface. We need to keep reminding ourselves this is 1833. Britain's economy depends on American cotton produced by black slaves, and the English attitude about cheap labor sounds terrifyingly similar to our own concerning immigration.

The set is eye-popping. Gary English has designed a masterful Victorian drawing room which blends well with Abra Berman's costumes.

If this show has a fault it is that it feels somewhat awkward, in that the author has chosen to impose a twenty-first century sensibility upon nineteenth century characters. Then again, one of the show's strengths is pointing out to us how little some things have changed.



RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

 The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Red Velvet" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Right now Act II feels a bit forced. I would wait a week or two until the actors settle into their material.

 "Red Velvet" is ultimately about betrayal, as is so much Shakespeare. The Bangle of Praise is for reminding us of that miraculous connection between great actors and powerful drama.


"Red Velvet"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Second Floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through June 25
$20-$120

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Empty Nesters: UNRATED


 It's a familiar problem to those of us whose children have grown up and left the house. It's really quiet around here, isn't it Hon? Garret Jon Groenweld's "The Empty Nesters" takes us through the angst, as Mom and Dad attempt to figure out what's going to happen next.


Greg (John Walker) and Frances (Pamela Gaye Walker) have dropped off their daughter at her new college in Arizona. They've driven on to tour the Grand Canyon, but can't stop thinking about her not being home any more. Frances doesn't understand why her daughter hasn't phoned her yet, seeing as the two are used to talking several times a day on the phone. Greg, meanwhile, hasn't stopped complaining about the price of parking, the curios in the gift shop, the length of the ticket line and everything except his sadness.

The two begin to take it out on each other. Frances drops a bomb and Greg reacts. Clearly, both parents are bereft. It is a feeling we have all had.


But it doesn't really feel like a play yet, it's more like a chat room conversation. Nothing much happens, there are no surprises and the ending is anti-climactic, so the audience isn't sure the show is over.

Frances: "I don't think I can face her empty room."

Greg: "What are we going to do instead?"

That's about it. The Walkers are trained actors, hit their marks and deliver their lines. But there is little mystery here. Something needs to happen. They're in Arizona. Maybe a UFO?

---------
RATINGS: UNRATED

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division has decided not to rate this show. It's better than Two Stars, because there are nice moments. But not quite enough yet to merit a Three Star recommendation.

"The Empty Nesters"
Z-Space Below
470 Florida Street, San Francisco
through June 11
$30-$58