SF Theater Blog

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

Monday, November 24, 2014

Promises, Promises: ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

We get two excellent lead performances (Jeffrey Brian Adams as Chuck Baxter and Monique Hafen as Fran Kubelik), plus two equally first-rate supporting roles (Corinne Proctor as Marge and Ray Reinhardt as Dr. Dreyfuss). We also get a hall of fame book writer (Neil Simon) and two multi-Grammy winning songwriters (Burt Bacharach and Hal David). What can go wrong?

It's the passage of time. Bacharach's music that was cutting-edge in 1968 has become the province of elevators and supermarkets. With the exception of two or three songs (one of which, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," sung by Hafen and Adams, is a true showstopper), the sound track is peppy, but forgettable. Simon's story, taken from the Billy Wilder film "The Apartment," has some great one-liners, but we all know where it's going. And since the score is wildly jazzy, the six office workers, three men and three women, would have to have been selected to sing first and dance second. Their singing is fine.

Johnny Moreno is good as the big boss. We can understand why the innocent Fran would choose to have an affair with him, but he is a shark in a shallow pool. They all are. The men are forever pulling up their pants and putting on their coats, while the women wait for the divorce that will never come.

In the end, love conquers all. That's nice. What the world needs now is love, sweet love. But that song isn't in "Promises, Promises."

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Promises, Promises" Three Stars with a BANGLE of PRAISE. Having seen the show on the last night of Previews, it is possible the cast will sing and dance itself into the smooth ensemble feel this score demands. The music and lyrics may echo a different time, but "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," "You'll Think of Someone" and "Whoever You Are I Love You" are timeless songs. The BANGLE is for Adams and Hafen, both of whom are becoming stars before our eyes.

"Promises, Promises"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
(Second Floor of Kensington Park Hotel)
Through January 10, 2015

Sunday, November 16, 2014

"Breakfast with Mugabe" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

Two hard-headed men face off against each other in a room with slightly out-of-date aristocratic, upholstered furniture and white marble floor.  One is the ruler of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, and the other is Dr. Andrew Peric, a psychiatrist whose family has lived in Zimbabwe for generations, since it was the openly anti-black nation known as Southern Rhodesia. Mugabe is filled with hatred for whites, especially those who oppressed his people for so many years, while Peric demonstrates the conscious and unconscious superiority born into white Southern Africans of his time. The year is 2002.

The difference between the two men, of course, is that Mugabe has all the power while Dr. Peric has none. Peric's hubris forbids him from seeing the danger he is in, while Mugabe's sole purpose in inviting psychoanalysis appears to be an opportunity to humiliate and destroy the doctor.

Aurora Theater's production of Fraser Grace's 2006 play is buoyed by an amazing performance by L. Peter Callender as Mugabe. While maintaining a studied, intellectual exterior, Callender is so tightly wound as to seem never more than a second from explosion. It is a brilliant character study, though we can never know how true the stage Mugabe is to the real-life Mugabe.

Mugabe's wife Grace, played by Leontyne Mbele-Mbong is equally frightening. She alternates between threatening, when her husband is not around, and docility when he is. Dan Hiatt's Dr. Peric shows frustration but somehow never fear, while Adrian Roberts plays Gabriel, an aide to the Mugabes. Gabriel's job is to "know everything and say nothing." This is not a happy bunch of folks.

The play isn't happy either. We are left wondering not only how a government as racist as Rhodesia could ever have existed, but also how a tyrant as evil as Robert Mugabe could still be in power in 2014.

It's a difficult assignment for a playwright: the audience is aware that the real-life Mugabe turned even more evil after the period discussed here. We assume Dr. Peric is fictional, but Robert Mugabe is anything but. We leave the theater a little bit unhinged.

 The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Breakfast with Mugabe" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. The Bangle has to be for L. Peter Callender, whose every gesture makes us shudder. This show will not make you feel very good about real life, but it is an exciting night in the safe confines of a theater seat.

"Breakfast with Mugabe"
Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
EXTENDED Through December14

Friday, November 14, 2014

"77%": ☼ ☼ BANG

In Rinne Groff's "77%," we see a modern couple caught up in the modern world. Melissa (Arwen Anderson) is the high-powered executive, doing deals by the minute on her cell phone, while her husband Eric (Patrick Russell) is the struggling artist and stay-at-home dad. They have two young children and he wants another while she is, at best, ambivalent.

The voice of reason is the third corner of the triangle: Melissa's mother Frankie (Karen Grassle), who has been recruited to help with the kids while her husband, Melissa's father, is sailing his sloop in Chesapeake Bay. Frankie says and does very little in the first half of the play but her entrance as a real character, which comes after Melissa and Eric have gone through a crisis in the pregnancy clinic, marks the spot where we begin to understand what all the fuss is about.

The actors are excellent, especially Anderson, who makes sure we don't like Melissa very much while also conveying a solidity her husband appears not to have. Eric should have a spine inserted, which may or may not be the author's point. Frankie just needs to take better care of her cartilage. Groff spends a lot of time getting to the final image -- the bone that is cracked but fixable. Your enjoyment of this show may depend on whether or not you think fixing the skeleton of this relationship makes any sense at all.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "77%" Two Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. We enjoy the way the show is minimally staged -- the two chairs and single table leave it to our imaginations to fill in the details.

San Francisco Playhouse Sandbox Series
Tides Theatre
 533 Sutter Street (top floor), San Francisco
Wed- Sat through Nov 22

Monday, November 3, 2014

"Recipe" ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

The World Premiere of Michael Gene Sullivan's "Recipe" has all the energy and farce of a San Francisco Mime Troupe show, which is no surprise since Sullivan is Writer-in Residence for the Mime Troupe. It's a million dollar idea and you don't have to sit on a rock in Dolores Park to see it.

Four women bakers are the best muffin, cake, cobbler and pie makers in town, but this is just their cover. Their true name is the Morning Glory Baking Circle for Revolutionary Self-Defense and they are dedicated to the revolutionary politics of their youth. Overthrowing the fascist Amerikan (with a k) government would be fine, as long as the pig tastes their muffins first.

The show is belly-laugh hysterical, especially in Act One, and the cast is terrific. Tamar Cohn as Ruth (muffins) brings down the house with every Pantherish posture.

Phoebe Moyer and Lynne Soffer play the bickering lesbian couple Lillian and Helen (cake and cobbler) with luscious pleasure while Jan Zvaifler's Janice (organic pastry and joints in the kitchen) is a delight as the ex-child of the summer of love, whose stories always revolve around who she was banging at the time. Mime Troupe vet Velina Brown is the hapless reporter sent to do an interview on the four women with unexpected results.

Like a Mime Troupe Show, where the authors never quite believe you already know and probably agree with their politics, "Recipe" gets mired in political diatribe in Act Two. The surprise ending is satisfying but could get there a lot faster. World Premieres are like that. The author will have plenty of feedback to use for trimming his show.

But we hope they don't cut out any of the acerbic dialogue between the four women. Please don't lose Janice's Luther Anderson story. (Luther Anderson?) And the music cues: priceless. Sullivan is a terrific comedy writer and "Recipe" is already delicious. It just needs to come out of the oven sooner.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Recipe" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Gary Graves (director) manages to use the entire room to keep the action flowing and the cast and story are endearing as well as entertaining. The BANGLE OF PRAISE is for Tamar Cohn, especially at the end when Sweety Dimples is tied up and...well, you'll see.

Berkeley City Club
2315 Durant Avenue, Berkeley
Fri-Sun through November 23
$15-$28 (sliding scale)