Saturday, May 18, 2024

Torch Song: ★★★ BANG

 "This Time the Dream's on Me" plays as the curtain rises. Arnold Beckoff wants a normal life, or as normal as a gay, despairing drag queen can aspire to. His mother wants Arnold to grow up and get a real job, a wife an a child. Arnold wants the same thing, or so he says. But the dream is far away and no one is trying very hard.

Marin Theater's two-act adaptation of Harvey Fierstein's 1982 "Torch Song Trilogy," directed by Evren Odcikin, drops a few characters from the original, but the idea is the same. Arnold (Dean Linnard) sees the world through shmutz-colored glasses. He needs everyone to understand and respect him, as long as he gets to behave the way he likes and do the things he does to the people he wants to do them with. His mother (played by Joy Carlin) is still suffering from the death of her husband. Her suffering matters to her far more than Arnold's -- after all, he only lost his boyfriend but SHE lost a husband!

The innuendo is of Jewishness, guilt and suffering, a tried-and-true hat trick of New York  angst that Arnold and his mother's thick matzo-brei Brooklyn/Miami accents are meant to convey. Look! They're wearing the same slippers! 

We also have Arnold's current kinda-sorta love interest bisexual Ed (Patrick Andrew Jones), clearly a gentile because he is repressed and quiet, and Ed's wife Laurel (Kina Kantor), unable to make Ed stop thinking about Arnold, and Alan, the BoyToy, played with panache by Edric Young, and then, in a questionable casting decision, a grown man (Joe Ayres) does his best to convince us he is fifteen year-old David, a troubled gay teenager with the demeanor of an eight-year-old but the face and blue suit of an adjunct professor.

Maybe you just had to be there.

Fierstein's trilogy was a seminally important show for 1982. It still carries a lot of weight in theater circles. But for us, in 2024, this adaptation has big problems. Why would anyone love Arnold? Even Arnold can't stand himself. Why should we care about Quiet Ed? And Mama, for God's sake, Mameleh, is there nothing new that a wonderful actor like Joy Carlin can be allowed to bring into this role? 

There are many knock-out lines, like Mama's at the end: "A problem is never as permanent as a solution." And there are terrific staging pieces, such as the Four-way Fugue in bed, and of course the circular-waving cigarette in the dark back room of the bar. Let's not forget Arnold's fabulous opening (and only) torch song. We wish they would give us more of that. 


The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division grants Marin Theater's "Torch Song" Three Stars with a Bangle of Praise for the one torch song we get. Dean Linnard can really lip-synch.

"Torch Song"

Marin Theater

397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley

Through June 2, 2024


Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The Glass Menagerie: ★ ★ ★ ★ BANG

Through the years, audiences have had many different responses to "The Glass Menagerie," Tennessee Williams's first successful play. It is a touching story that can ring different bells depending on when in life you see it.

The playwright was 34 years old when the show debuted on Broadway in 1945. We might see Williams's alter ego in the character of Tom Wingfield (played by Jomar Tagatac), a young man who can't wait to flee his menial job and the cramped St. Louis apartment he shares with his mother and sister. (Tennessee Williams's real first name was Tom.)

Tom's mother Amanda (played with heart and humor by Susi Damilano) is rooted firmly in her real or imagined past, when she was a Southern Belle and the world revolved around the amount of gentleman callers she could attract into her orbit. But the husband she chose has now run away, though his portrait dominates the stage. The Wingfield family has been barely hanging on since then.

Tom has a sister, Laura (who gives us the show's finest and shortest moment, in Act Two). Laura (Nicole Javier) is shy to a fault. She lives a fantasy life playing old victrola records her father left behind, when she is not dusting and rearranging her menagerie of tiny glass animal figurines.

Her mother Amanda's finest dream is to find a gentleman caller for Laura, a man who could perhaps change the family's trajectory.

They are all living in an illusion: Amanda as a desirable young woman, Tom as a poet far from his confining current existence, and Laura who shows her figurines the tenderness of a mother with her babies. But Act One is a setup for Act Two: the arrival of character four, Tom's workmate Jim O'Connor. Played with surprising tenderness by William Thomas Hodgson, Jim represents the real world, the one of possibility. He is alive and sweet, and, for a moment, available. Whatever chances the Wingfield family has depend on Jim O'Connor.

See this show at 20 and you may be attracted to the potential love story. See it at 40 and Tennessee Williams sets you straight. But he might just be getting you ready for A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. 


The San Francisco Theatre Blog Awards Division, bless its heart, grants Four Stars with a Bangle of Praise to SF Playhouse's "The Glass Menagerie."  Susi Damilano was born to play Amanda. She gives an award-winning performance that makes us laugh, something several generations of Amandas have had trouble bringing to the stage. We understand this family.

The Bangle of Praise is for The Kiss. It doesn't last too long, because this is Tennessee Williams and nothing ever does. But watch for Nicole Javier's smile. She makes us understand the family's hope: "Happiness -- and just a little bit of good fortune."

"The Glass Menagerie"
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Sutter Street, San Francisco
(2d floor of the Kensington Park Hotel)
Through June 15, 2024