Broken Fences; Lear; The Room
By Myron Meisel
A Smart, Entertaining and Illuminating Broken Fences
Matters of real estate tend to so dominate any sense of home or neighborhood in Los Angeles that it’s easy to neglect how central hearth and neighbors can be to the life experiences of most Americans. The Chicago homestead play springs from deep roots in A Raisin in the Sun, and the recent riffs and reversals on it in Clybourne Park only cements the primacy of community identity, and how wrenching its changes can be on individual lives. Recent movies like 99 Homes elucidate on the most fundamental level how the exploitation of the housing bubble wreaked such violent emotional havoc on that most fundamental foundation of the American dream: home ownership.
Broken Fences, Steven Simoncic’s smart, entertaining and illuminating addition to the subgenre, receives a deft and sensitive production at the Road on Magnolia: it’s an exemplary social issue play that, while neither difficult nor complex, clearly evidences a deep appreciation for the difficulties of complex situations.
On John Iacovelli’s resourcefully evocative set, we see adjacent backyard properties in the west side nabe of East Garfield Park: one weathered and old-school urban, hard alongside a newly developed upscaled renovation. Moving in as the play begins, white couple April (Mia Fraboni) and Czar (Coronado Romero), expecting a first baby, can be acutely conscious of their economic (and diversity-accepting) choice to avoid the suburbs, yet blithely clueless about the inexorable impact their gentrifying has upon the residents, most especially their third-generation next-door neighbors Hoody (Bruce A. Lemon Jr.) and fiancée D (Donna Simone Johnson), whose triply escalating property tax reassessments swamp their ability to hold onto what had been home to multitudinous relations, notwithstanding the mortgage is nearly paid off.
Simoncic generally works within the Ibsenite tradition of an Arthur Miller social problem play, thankfully without the moralizing and with a better ear for lively dialogue, a glib facility that makes everyone sound rather more clever and eloquent than they would likely be, though never saying anything that the characters would not mean to express, only more accurately (and often delightfully so). He skillfully evolves the tone from a comedy of tense misunderstanding buffered by essential goodwill to a drama of immutable consequences, astutely recognized by all involved as tragic, yet beyond the capacities of any action — violent or charitable — to ameliorate.
It’s the particular satisfaction of the conventionally well-made play that it can explore issues with a wide-ranging appreciation for emotional conflicts that are both civic and personal, although perhaps Simoncic’s most piquant ploy breaks the boundaries of the otherwise manicured naturalism: the four main characters each deliver parallel monologues about their secret sense of existential invisibility, and how it shapes their strategies for hiding their intractable insecurities. Even more than elucidating common humanity, the technique enriches the already intricate economic and class distinctions with a psychological dimension that, rather than detracting from the already finely observed behavioral details of the performances, lends them a self-conscious, yet dynamic, range of perception.
As has been apparent in many recent black-themed films, white characters, particularly those of historic import or motivated by good intentions, are ripely overdue for the sort of travesty long perpetrated by racial and ethnic stereotypes through history, the sort of payback that deserves to be tolerated with good humor, however unfair. Simoncic, though of a Caucasian persuasion, can play this game, too, though his caricatures remain light and mostly directed at the roles that corporate capitalism enforce on the privileged to maintain that status. (Both Czar and his best friend Spence (Kris Frost), who lives with wife Barb and kids in mockable suburban Schaumberg, work devising advertising for dubious products of unquestionable unworth.)
Broken Fences doesn’t aspire to be a daring, or even particularly challenging, experience, but it doesn’t compromise the integrity of its subjects, its characters or the audience, and it makes important, rather gnarly, concerns coherent whilst engaging minds and sympathies. I rushed to the show on two hours’ sleep, dodging L.A. Marathon traffic closings, and to my delight found it to be the most satisfying theater I’ve seen locally in months (with a nod to the Echo’s Sheila Callaghan play Bed, which Stage Raw’s Deborah Klugman well considers in her own review).
Not entirely coincidentally, my mother grew up between the wars in a West Side Chicago neighborhood only slightly south of East Garfield Park, when it was mostly Jewish immigrant. During the brief time she was in college, frantic white flight turned its population black. Broken Fences empathetically examines the fallout as, more than a half-century later, demographics and economics shift it tumultuously back.
I’d be remiss to fail to single out acutely persuasive performances Lemon and Johnson, as well as an indelible portrait in unapologetic pragmatism by James Holloway, as Hoody’s enterprising brother Marz, though the entire ensemble handles the paradoxes and double-edge sincerities with an aplomb that belies the multiple facets of the roles.
An Intractably Inadequate Lear
Loyal readers back to my Hollywood Reporter days know of my special fondness for the often abstruse, highly distinctive experimental theater work of the City Garage in Santa Monica, which is nearing its 30th anniversary. Director Frederique Michel and producer-designer (and often playwright or adapter) Charles A. Duncombe are steeped in the idioms and sensibilities of a particularly fertile 20th century European avant-garde (from France to Germany to the Soviet Union), on which they keep generating their own personal spin, fancy, rigor, and, might one add, obsession.
This approach extends to their ventures both into classical texts (like their frequent Molière) and newer material, too, which they invariably tackle via a command of what is now a classical style all its own of late last century, and for me, at least, with almost invariably interesting and sometimes transcendent results.
So more in regret than pique, I must report that their latest presentation, the ironically misnomered Lear, from a most highly touted young talent, multi-Obied Young Jean Lee, whose Straight White Men was well-received late last year at the Douglas (though somewhat less so by this writer), remains an intractably inadequate text immune to their ministrations, which for the most part are more minimal than customarily bold.
Lee jettisons Lear, and Gloucester, even faithful Kent and the Fool. The plot is described at the start of the performance by a video host (Trace Taylor), essentially so that none of it may need to be pertinent to her curlicues of not-so-radical revisionism. Only the three sisters remain, all sans husbands: Goneril (Kristina Drager), Regan (Kat Johnson) and Cordelia (Nili Rain Sigal), along with Gloucester’s legitimate and illegitimate sons Edgar (Andrew Loviska) and Edmund (Anthony Sanazzaro), none of whose characterizations more than glancingly evoke Shakespeare’s.
Instead, Lee appropriates these familiar (and usually indelible) roles to stereotypically shallow contemporary-speaking adolescents, despite their adult ages. The self-centered posturing and clichés make memories of movies like the argot-centric Valley Girl sound nuanced.
Lee burlesqued adults regressing to bumptious immaturities in Straight White Men, though in the more understandable environment of reuniting with their father in their childhood home, and she displayed considerable more empathy for their substantive lives apart from their masculine mannerisms than she affords these irretrievably vainglorious, spoiled royal princesses. Her satiric touch was also more pointed and accurate: in Lear, the women’s self-absorbed narcissism seems far more arbitrary and unfair, so exaggeratedly juvenile as to make their arch behaviors not so much evocative of recognizable women as a farrago of idiot-chauvinist perceptions of female behavior.
So the ironies fall flat as mean-spirited cartoons without conveying any compensating insight. There is a more than fair chance that I am missing Lee’s point here, though even then it’s appropriate to suggest that her argument tends toward the obscure. The company members do maintain a consistent performance style, and the design does suggest past CG motifs, notably in the deployments of varying degrees of red from set to costumes. It’s also possible that the opening night performance ran at a slower pace than might have been optimally intended.
Lee does invoke a singular speech of Shakespeare’s, limning Lear’s grief at his dead daughter, and it’s a surefire heart-tugger as delivered, being as durable a mourning requiem as ever penned, though its greatest daring here is to expose all the more the enormity of the apparent banality of Lee’s post-post-everything conceit.
A Patently Perverse Distortion of Harold Pinter
There had been so much immediate to-do over Samuel French’s refusal to grant rights beyond Los Angeles to the Wooster Group for its patently perverse distortion of Harold Pinter’s early The Room (1957), and for the agency’s hysterically ham-handed and counterproductive injunction that no one be allowed to publish reviews (presumably at the insistence of the tone deaf and uptight Estate), that it seemed more useful to wait until the brouhaha, and the show, had passed before weighing in on each.
Notwithstanding Bill Raden’s characterization in his otherwise passionate and persuasive feature in Stage Raw, I did not decline the offer of press complementary seats as a protest against the porous critical embargo, but merely to preserve my ethical standing, by my own lights, to comment without either jeopardizing REDCAT, the presenting organization, or compromising myself from any moral obligation to respect it. (Such issues are always subject to waves and layers of ambiguity and interpretation: my refused tickets went to Bill.)
Certainly the injunction backfired resolutely, as the production quickly became an international cause-celebre, rather than a hush-hush irrelevancy banished to the obscurity in the boondocks. (Indeed, the innate presumption of Los Angeles’ theatrical irrelevancy could have been marginally more pompously offensive than the impotent attempt to suppress journalistic speech.)
In any event, midway through the parsimoniously truncated event – The Room is almost always paired with another short play, and this compressed version at forty minutes was by far the most rushed, if also most interminable, playing time I’ve ever seen of it — it occurred to me that I probably was a less-than-appropriate critic to assess such virtues as it may offer. Although I had been an impressed fan of the Wooster Group’s earlier work (such as I happened to see when back East), after the inventive brio of To You, The Birdie (Phedre) (2002), mounted at UCLA, I perceived an increasingly decadent ornamental quality to their trademark gestures as they persisted in applying their particular methodology over and over again. Of those I seem to recall to have come here since (all at REDCAT), only the opera La Didone seemed to benefit from their determined evisceration of established performing tradition.
So little deference is accorded the text of Pinter’s The Room, an emblematic and historically significant work, though merely embryonic in terms of his own development, that it survives merely as pretext for the host of meretriciously precious obstacles that the highly disciplined company (led by the inimitable Kate Valk) contrives with great skill to overcome. These include such inventively annoying distractions as comedy duo banter both antique (Abbott and Costello being custodians of burlesque routines already chesnutty when they were popular) and venerable, such as the obscure (for we Westerners) of comedy cross-talk rooted in the Qing Dynasty, relayed as earphone noise to challenge the actors’ timing and concentration). Less irksome if equally mulish was the mimed mandolin playing of Suzzy Roche to pre-recorded track, which she most certainly can play quite well.
More commonly, American actors find sufficient barriers to surmount merely in getting some of the verbal and body English into Pinter’s own rhythms and accents, which of course was central to his invaluable and perhaps overly influential vision. I think of how Michael Caine must have found sufficiently stimulating challenges in playing one of the interloping Sands couple in the original 1960 London production, opening one day after the Kennedy inauguration.
The result is no palpable menace and much mandated mannerist absurdity, all quite contrary to the original Pinter inspiration. Of course, such exercises pursue many points of their own, though it seems to me that Wooster Group’s course of invention has long lost its novelty value, and with it, any useful revelation. One can explicate what they are doing, though it is tougher to justify its value beyond a stubborn determination to see an aesthetic through whatever variety of texts whose intrinsic worth remains far greater than what may be gleaned from this particular brand of subversion. Intransigence can be admirable, but the insights it yields are often subject to diminishing returns, especially upon repetition.
A rumination on the seeking of rights for such transposition of source materials: from music, obviously, and the fine arts to the art of performance, the time is overripe for a legal reconsideration of the constitutional (and statutory) status of “fair use,” which has not been revisited since the mid-1950s. The fact is that contemporary culture has vastly outstripped not only the law but also previously prevailing business models, yet the worst possible business outcome for large rights-holders would be to litigate to an adverse result, and so they are reduced to aggressive threats and the expensive prospect of depleting scarce defendant resources. They dare not, however, litigate to any resolution, which affords enormous leverage to sufficiently ballsy artists. They can bully and win any pissing contest but cannot risk engagement in a battle that might remotely prove decisive, however small.
More significantly than the Wooster’s woes, the That’swhatshesaid production currently playing in Seattle has been subject to two “cease-and-desist” letters from Samuel French and one from Dramatists Play Service, Inc., as well, to which their attorney has aptly replied. asking them to “cease and desist” sending “cease and desist” letters. The playwright uses only the female dialogue from the 10 of the 12 most produced plays of last year to illustrate the marginalization of women’s roles in contemporary theater. It’s worth far more attention than the New York-centric Wooster imbroglio, and perhaps our own Paul Birchall can jump on that more important case.
For myself, I once had a project that required a considerable licensing of clips from a major studio and, in an excess of prudence and good manners, I insisted on concluding a deal before spending the production money to make a film that could be at risk of not being released. The studio lawyer held the process up for a year before making demands so onerous that it had to be known that it would make the production economically impossible, and it promptly died, though it had been fully financed. I was later told that if I had just made the film without asking permission, they would have acknowledged our situation and simply negotiated a quick deal. (Lesson: Never afford the suits leeway to fuck you over, they just can’t help themselves.) So business practices (and ethics) on such matters can be far different than the timeworn traditions of London theater.
Broken Fences, The Road Theatre Company on Magnolia, The NoHo Senior Arts Colony, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; through April 3. (818) 761-8838, roadtheatre.org. Running time: Two hours (with intermission).
Lear, City Garage, Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building T1, Santa Monica, Fri.-Sat, 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through March 16. (310) 453-9939, citygarage.org, Running time: one hour, eighteen minutes.
The Room, The Wooster Group at REDCAT, closed. Running time: Forty-six minutes.