Saturday, January 31, 2009

"Betrayed": ☼ ☼ 1/2

The Iraqis who believed the strongest in America's intervention against Saddam Hussein, and who enthusiastically went to work translating for the American army, believing they could help to create the New Iraq, ended up in the worst position possible: distrusted by Americans because they were Iraqis and hated by Iraqis because they were working for Americans. This is the central theme of George Packer's "Betrayed," based upon a series of articles he wrote for The New Yorker. The theme both involves and repels us.

Let us say immediately: "Betrayed" would be a terrific Frontline report or magazine expose, but it is Packer's first play and feels like it. Although the story is never less than fascinating -- we want to jump onto the stage, grab the ignorant American soldier and scream at him: "Don't you see what you're doing?" -- the dialog is not only hard to understand at times but spotty in its focus, and Robin Stanton's direction and staging, with so many changes of scene taking place and black-clad techies running in and out with props, feels awkward.

When the cast is good, they are very good. The two men, the Sunni Adnan (Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari) and the Shia Laith (Amir Sharafeh), are at their best both able to show us the inconsistencies of the life-and-death situation in which they are imprisoned. When Intisar (Denmo Ibrahim) arrives, a woman whose dream is to ride her bicycle through Baghdad without being ostracized for doing so, a very interesting dynamic develops between the three.

At one point, the American security chief (James Wagner) is lecturing the three on security issues in the Green Zone, where they all work. He warns them to never trust anyone in the Red Zone. "Excuse me," Ibrahim asks, "but where is this Red Zone?"

"The Red Zone is everywhere outside the Green Zone," says Wagner. In other words, where Iraquis, including the translators, all live.

But their boss Bill Prescott (Alex Moggridge) doesn't get it, the head of security (James Wagner) doesn't want to know about it, and the Ambassador (Keith Burkland) doesn't even want to hear about it. As Adnan, Bakhtiari gives us the most reason to care about what happens to him, but there are no arias here -- no stunning pieces of dialog to capture our attention.

Of course, as we write this, and on into the near future at least, America is still fighting in Iraq. Nothing has changed. Perhaps this is the play's biggest difficulty -- the issues are still charged. The audience walks from the theater in silence.

RATINGS: ☼ ☼ 1/2
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Betrayed" two and a half stars. It could be three stars, but three stars implies you should consider seeing this show - definitely. We feel that way -- almost. Perhaps the show will gain some electricity as the cast becomes more familiar with each other during this run. That would put it over the top for sure.

Aurora Theatre
2081 Addison Street, Berkeley
Wed.-Sun. through March 1

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"Geezer": NO REVIEW REQUESTED (But It's Really Funny)

It was one-night only, no review requested, but every seat at the Marsh was taken to see Geoff Hoyle read through "Geezer," his latest work-in-progress. Charlie Varon was there. Hoyle's son Dan was there too. It's too bad we're not supposed to report on the performance, because it was pretty damned funny. So you don't know about the phlebitis, and the jokes with the violin, and you don't have to worry about the poor man's blood pressure, like the guy in the front row (in whose lap Hoyle was sitting) had to.

We can't wait 'til he finishes the show, which he will do unless life finishes him first. Some day you'll see Geezer and laugh as hard as we all did.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division sits on its hands this time.

The Marsh
1062 Valencia Street, San Francisco

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Twentieth Century": ☼ ☼ BANG

In 1934, in the heart of the Depression, when escapism ruled the entertainment world and the Hays Act forbade any inkling of sex on stage or screen, America yearned for a new form. They got it with the stage play "Twentieth Century," directed by George Abbott. It ran for 152 performances, then was turned into a successful film starring John Barrymore and Carole Lombard. It was then, and is now, a wacky farce set aboard the famed Twentieth Century Limited, a luxury train that ran between New York and Chicago.

The trouble is it's not very funny anymore and after two generations of train caper movies and plays, it's not even very original. Ken Ludwig's modern adaptation keeps the fast dialog and seamy characters while Dan Hiatt and Rebecca Dines try gamely to make themselves believable within their roles of corrupt producer and fading starlet. Gerry Hiken turns in a very enjoyable performance as the crazy religious fanatic masquerading as a wealthy tycoon and there are terrific costumes and a very fine set that simulates three rooms aboard a moving train.

But yawn. Who cares? We didn't. 'Twentieth Century' looks great but there's not much there there. Like a speeding locomotive, it went by very fast, but when it was done we hadn't moved an inch.


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Twentieth Century" Two Stars with a BANGLE of Praise. The Bangle is for those train windows by Scene Designer Andrea Bechert. We never could take our eyes off them.

"Twentieth Century"
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View
Tue-Sun through Feb. 8

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"Rich and Famous": ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG

John Guare plays always make you think ('Six Degrees of Separation,' 'House of Blue Leaves,' the screenplay for Louis Malle's 'Atlantic City'), but 'Rich and Famous' is not only deep but really, really funny. Guare's dialog and John Rando's direction are only a banana peel or two shy of slapstick, but the belly laughs are tempered by disbelieving gasps of discovery. The acting is tremendous. Several set pieces are classics. You leave the theater wide-eyed and bushy-tailed. So what's not to like?

...NOTHING! The grumpy old reviewer loved every minute!

Mary Birdsong just about steals the show. In real life, she sings in a band called 99 Cent Whore. So it is fitting that she plays four roles in this production and, in her finest moment, ends up in a bottomless trashcan pulling her press clippings behind her. As famed Broadway agent Veronica Gulpp-Vestige, Birdsong looks like a decrepit Katharine Hepburn and sounds like a deranged Ethel Merman. She has achieved everything in her show biz life except for the thing she craves: a comeback. To have a comeback she needs a failure. This is why she has latched on to the first produced play of wannabe playwright Bing Ringling (played to perfection by Brooks Ashmanskas).

(John Guare is a lyricist. Did he hire Ashmanskas to finally find a word that rhymes with Kansas? Just asking.)

Birdsong is fabulously slimy as Veronica, but she kills us dead as Bing's Mom. She has had his soiled baby diapers bronzed. She tries to put the grown man on her lap on the sofa and give him a bottle. Parents throughout the audience turn to each other and whisper: "Honey, that's not us, is it?"

And let's not forget to mention Stephen DeRosa as Dad with the American Legion hat in the photo above, and as the unforgettable songwriter Anatole Torah. Guare has written that Torah is the combination of Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and Joe Papp. Add in Larry, Moe, Curly Joe and Don Music from Sesame Street. DeRosa is really good. And Scott Bradley's two bedroom sets for the Anatole Torah and Mom and Dad scenes, the second one green and the first one pink, are classic.

Gregory Wallace, as always, is wonderful as Aphro, both onstage as an actor/unemployed transvestite hooker, and offstage as we hear him crucify poor Bing's dialog. Wallace's syntax is so distinctive that it is probably inevitable that by show's end every character is talking exactly like him.

So what's it all about, Aphro? The message might be that you shouldn't drink the glamourous Kool-Aid of success, but it might also be that you should. For sure, don't buy the cufflinks. You might end up like Tybalt Dunleavy (also played by Stephen DeRosa), who is probably the only man on Earth who actually likes Bing's play.

It's fabulous. Go see this show and go see it now.

The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Rich and Famous" Four Stars with a BANGLE of Praise. Acting, direction, story, pacing -- the four stars are easy. It's harder to pick which line of dialog deserves the BANGLE:
(1) (Bing describing how bad his play was): "I'm not into Zen, but I just heard the sound of one hand clapping."
(2) (Veronica talking about her future): "I'll be the greatest comeback since Jesus."

You choose.

"Rich and Famous"
A.C.T. Theater
415 Geary Street, San Francisco
Tue-Sun through February 8