SF Theater Blog

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Lake Effect: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼

A cold front is passing over the warmer waters of Lake Erie, bringing snow and icy winds to the streets of Cleveland. The metaphor of rising and falling temperatures permeates "Rajiv Joseph's "The Lake Effect," as frigid personal relations yield slowly to acceptance and understanding.

Vijay (Adam Poss) has returned to the family diner, having received a note from his father Vinode that the diner is to be sold. Poring through his father's ledger, he discovers the family has run out of money. Enter Jason Bowen, playing Bernard, a friend of Vijay's father but unknown to Vijay. Lots of things have been unknown to Vijay, including his father's gambling habit which has been ably assisted by Bernard.

But Bernard is no thief. And Vinode appears to always win his bets. So where is the money? The understory begins to reveal itself as Priya, Vijay's sister arrives. Priya is a little sketchy but has her own story to tell.

Drama, humor and honesty: "The Lake Effect" is a perfect one-act play. Author Joseph and Director Giovanna Sardelli present us with complete stories within each scene. We see disbelief and mistrust change to understanding, we see the immigrant experience as it evolves with each advancing generation and we see how trust can sometimes trump truth.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Lake Effect" Four Stars. Story, acting, directions, sets, costumes, lights and music are all first rate. We feel for Vijay and Priya but we love Bernard. Jason Bowen's big heart shows us how basic is our need for community and friendship. For us, this is Rajiv Joseph's best work since the brilliant "Animals Out of Paper." The Lake Effect will stick with you for awhile, and make you happy you don't live in Cleveland during the winter.

"The Lake Effect"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road
Palo Alto, CA
Through March 29

Sunday, February 8, 2015

The Lyons: ☼ ☼ ☼

Bear in mind, Nicky Silver's "The Lyons" is a comedy. But Mom, Dad, Junior and Sis, your quintessential nuclear family, it ain't. Dad's dying of cancer and barely tolerates his two children, who despise their parents and aren't too fond of each other either. Everyone is lost and one will soon be dead.

Ben Lyons (Will Marchetti), the patriarch, is a foul-mouthed wreck of a man, who is said to be wasting away but it seems more likely his wife Rita (Ellen Ratner)'s prattling will put him away first. Ratner's Rita is perfect. At first she appears to be socially inept, but we come to realize she is just plain nasty, ecstatic to soon be rid of Ben so she can remodel the living room. There is no visible hope for their helpless alcoholic daughter Lisa (Jessica Bates) nor her gay and pathetic brother Curtis (Nicholas Pelczar).

Still, Act One is quite funny: we have hope. In Act Two those hopes are quashed, although we do see each family member make a limping stride or two towards what optimists might call recovery. (Of course none of their choices, such as Lisa's falling in love with a terminally ill lymphoma patient, has a shred of possibility of success.) Nurse Jeanette (Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe) tries to inject a little humanity into the situation and eventually does reach Curtis; Joe Estlack plays Brian, who takes over the beginning of Act Two with a particularly desperate story of his own.

Disfunction does lead to humor. "The Lyons" is funny while you're seeing it but you really don't want to spend much time thinking about it afterwards.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "The Lyons" Three Stars,  two for the brilliant performance of Ellen Ratner and the third for director Barbara Dameshek, because she drips a little sardonic humor into every show she touches. This is Nicky Silver's first show that made it all the way to Broadway. It's funny and disturbing, probably in that order.

"The Lyons"
The Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through March 8

Monday, February 2, 2015


Normally, we would not post a review of a show in developmental stage, but David Kleinberg's "Hey, Hey LBJ" is already a gripping piece of theater. It is both Kleinberg's memoir of being a military journalist during the Vietnam War and an honest depiction of the lunacy of that war. He plays several characters, including his fellow journalists and the officers to whom they reported, in a time frame that bounces back and forth between 1967 in the combat zone to a reunion of survivors in the late 1990s.

The video flashbacks of President Johnson attempting to explain the burgeoning disaster of this war to the American people are horrifying to watch, especially if you are old enough to remember how surreal it all seemed at the time. In an era when our country seems to be eternally engaged in foreign adventures, it would be good to remember Vietnam and the lessons we all should have learned.

RATINGS: The San Francisco Theater Blog never rates a show in development. But "Hey, Hey, LBJ" is already as strong as quite a few shows we've seen on larger stages. We'll keep our eye out for it and we hope you do too.

David Kleinberg: "Hey, Hey, LBJ"
No shows planned at present

Monday, January 26, 2015

"Tree" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Growing up white in a small Louisiana town, author Julie Hébert did not suffer from the explicit racism that tormented some of her friends. Though race is the backdrop to Hébert's "Tree," the story is about far more than that. This is a testament to the power of love and family, a love so strong that it defies the stereotyped expectations of those who have come after.

Cathleen Riddley plays Mrs. Jessalyn Price, the aging mother who most of the time spews senile craziness, while Carl Lumbly is her son and caretaker Leo, a chef with aspirations to open his own restaurant. Mrs. Price and Leo live in a house in Chicago, strewn with packing boxes, where Leo's daughter JJ (Tristan Cunningham) takes care of Mrs. Price while Leo is at work.

 The Price's world is turned sideways by the appearance of Didi Marcantel (Susi Damilano), whose father has died recently, leading her to the suspicion that Leo is her half-brother from her father's long-ago liaison with Mrs. Price, an unspoken story which carries conflicting connotations for Didi and the Prices.

Or so it seems. Since Didi is white and the Prices are black, many assumptions have already been made. But are they accurate?  The truth can be determined only by discovering which of the elderly Mrs. Price's loony ramblings may turn out not be crazy at all.

The show drags a bit in the middle. We're not sure why they keep letting Didi into the house. The nude scene is...weird.

But these are quibbles. We have to let go when we see "Tree," because the story is about discovery, and taking chances, and being willing to investigate our fears, to open our old boxes, in order to move forward and find new meaning in life. It's a journey we all need to take.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division is happy to award Julie Hébert's "Tree" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE, one star each for acting, directing and story, and a BANGLE for Nina Ball's explosive set. All those boxes on the stage are the real metaphor for this story and we relish our slow discovery as the show surges towards the finale.

San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Through March 7, 2015

Sunday, January 18, 2015

"2 Pianos 4 Hands" ☼ ☼ BANG

It's a great idea for a show, which is why Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra's "2 Pianos 4 Hands" has won every possible honor in the authors' native Canada and has been performed all over the world for close to twenty years. It is the story of the triumphs and struggles of two piano prodigies from the same Montreal neighborhood, stretching from their early childhood well into adulthood.

Richard (Christopher Tocco) and Ted (Darren Dunstan) are both terrific pianists but classical music has absorbed them. Neither has friends, nor outside interests. They live in a world of constant competition and impossible expectations, from their parents, their teachers and from themselves.

We wish we cared more. This could be such a deep story; instead Tocco and Dunstan play strictly for laughs. The opening, especially, feels like Victor Borge on the Ed Sullivan Show. But the gags have little heart behind them; worse than that we are showed the two pianists' struggles but none of their pleasure. Perhaps this is the story the authors wish to tell -- the misery of the endless grind.

While Greenblatt and Dykstra may have been piano masters as well as excellent actors, neither Tocco nor Dunstan excite us when they play. The show, which is basically about two classical musicians who who are never quite good enough to be stars in their world, would pack a lot more emotion with two fabulous pianists than two good comedians.

The finale is exactly what we expect: Piano Man.

Each actor plays multiple roles and we enjoyed these bit parts quite a bit, such as Dunstan's rendering of the poor man at the Kiwanis Club who had to listen to four hundred pairs of children playing the same 4-hand recital piece. Likewise, Tocco's music school professor who rejects Ted's audition made our skin crawl.  The authors took every opportunity to exorcise a lot of their early demons.

But in the end, though this is an interesting story it breaks little new ground. We wish the characters showed more depth and that the music itself could help us see more than two actors who can also play piano.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "2 Pianos 4 Hands" TWO STARS WITH A BANGLE OF PRAISE. Though this leaves the show below the Julie Andrews Line (see right side bar for explanation of ratings), it does deserve a BANGLE OF PRAISE for Richard's excellent summary of the classical musician's dilemma: "I feel guilty when I don't practice, and inadequate when I do."

"2 Pianos 4 Hands"
Mountain View Center for the Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Through February 15

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Josh Kornbluth: Haiku Tunnel: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

There aren't a lot of performers who can walk out onto stage and without explanation launch immediately into a 25-year-old piece. Josh Kornbluth's "Haiku Tunnel," first performed at the Marsh in 1990, is a period piece replete with references to outmoded computer programs and dictation machines, yet we follow along gratefully as Kornbluth explains to us exactly why his dream job is turning into a nightmare. No matter how crazy it all is, we can't help but cheer for Josh and hope he manages to score a few more points with the beautiful lawyer with her tax problem.

The Marsh is re-running several of its hit shows from the nineties as part of its 25th Anniversary Celebration. "Haiku Tunnel," which followed "Red Diaper Baby" and led onward to several Kornbluth classics including "Ben Franklin Unplugged" and co-writing "Mr. Smith Goes to Obscuristan" for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, keeps the jokes coming by giving us characters as alive today as twenty five years ago. We particularly loved his co-worker Clifford's bar story ("Jack, you owe me an apology"), his canine-rich description of the young lawyers yapping around the office searching for billable hours, and of course Bob Shelby's mantra at the end.

How many times has Josh Kornbluth performed this show? They even made a movie out of it. But it still feels as fresh as a (Mike) Daisy. What a delight.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Haiku Tunnel" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. There isn't a lot to the story, and we don't really grow or learn anything about the character, but the journey is a rich one. The BANGLE is for his priceless reminder of what it was like to format columns on Word Perfect. We love this show.

(Incidentally, the last show that earned a SFTB ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG rating was another wonderful comedy, "Recipe," written by Michael Gene Sullivan, a collaborator of Kornbluth's, and Josh Kornbluth was sitting right across the aisle at that one. Obviously, the man knows fine humor.)

Josh Kornbluth: "Haiku Tunnel"
The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco 
Thu-Sat through February 7 
$20-$35 sliding scale

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Peter and the Starcatcher: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

If you are familiar with Peter Pan, which probably includes the entire theater-going population of America, you can't help but love Rick Elice's "Peter and the Starcatcher." Based on the successful twenty-first century novels by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, we now have all the "how exactlys" that have concerned us since we were children, like how exactly did Captain Hook lose his hand, and how exactly did the Lost Boys get lost on that island, and how is it, exactly, that Peter managed to never grow up? 

The ensemble cast is all excellent. Patrick Kelly Jones plays Black Stache, the evil both-handed pirate (for awhile), who wants the lighting correct for all his scenes; Tim Homsley, in his first Theatreworks role, is the nameless orphan who becomes Peter; Adrienne Walters is Molly, without whom there could have been no Wendy; and Suzanne Grodner is the delightfully malaproping Smee, the captain's right-hand man, oh, oops.

We cannot forget to mention Michael Gene Sullivan in a quartet of roles, especially Captain Fighting Prawn, as well as Ron Campbell's alliteration-enhanced Betty Bumbrake.

The puns, double entendres and belly laughs fly fast and furious. And we promise one of the funniest scenes of the year when you discover exactly what DID happen to Black Stache's right hand.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Peter and the Starcatcher" Four Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE.  The thing we love best about this show is it doesn't take itself all that seriously, but reaches full-out for each joke without shame. The dialogue might refer to pirate ships or cell phone ads, and who knew about Norse Code? But it all works, and Robert Kelley keeps both feet on the throttle at all times.

The BANGLE of PRAISE is for the death scene of that right hand. Since we already know Black Stache is destined to become Captain Hook, Patrick Kelly Jones's agonizing trip around the treasure chest, never showing us his hand, is absolutely priceless. Take your kids; take your grandparents.

"Peter and the Starcatcher"
Lucie Stern Theatre
1350 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Through January 3, 2015