October 20, 2018

Summer Plays

A visit to the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum gives new meaning to the escapist concept of getting away from it all — if only for an evening.

Its newly renovated 299-seat amphitheater is terraced into the hillside of a rustic ravine along Topanga Canyon Boulevard. For picnickers, there are benches scattered among the trees, while the Ole Mole Kitchen dispenses tacos and enchiladas.

The setting is ideal for such woodsy tales as Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” both part of the Theatricum’s current summer repertory season.

It is less suitable, though still enjoyable, for the hothouse atmosphere and Southern gothic themes of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth,” with its high quota of sexual neurosis, violence, self-delusion, mob psychology, racism and castration.

The latter operation is performed on Chance Wayne, who returns to his Deep South hometown to reclaim the love of Boss Finley’s daughter, Heavenly, whom he had infected with syphilis during an earlier tryst.

Chance, this time, travels in the company of fading Hollywood star Alexandra Del Largo, a perfect matchup between the guy who never quite made it and the woman who is heading downhill.

Williams wrote the play in 1959. In the intervening decades, perhaps no part of this country has changed more than the Deep South, lending parts of the play a faintly anachronistic air.

Largely overcoming these handicaps is a fine professional cast, smartly paced by director Heidi Helen Davis.

Honoring the memory of Will Geer, who founded the Theatricum as a refuge for blacklisted actors like himself, are his talented progeny.

Ellen Geer essays the role of the tortured one-time star with remarkable intensity and feeling. Thad Geer, as the racist political boss, ratchets up the vitality level of the play during his too-short appearances.

Chance, played by Richard Tyson, has the hunky build and looks of a casual stud, but he is rapidly disintegrating under his drug- and alcohol-fed delusions. Toward the end, he goes way over the top in an explosion of tics and gestures oddly reminiscent of Jimmy Cagney.

“Sweet Bird of Youth” plays Saturday evenings through Sept. 13.

Decent ‘Proposals’

As certain as the sun shining for the Tournament of Roses parade is the annual Neil Simon play. The 1997 entry is now in its world première run at the Ahmanson Theatre.

“Proposals” is neither the best nor the worst of Simon’s prolific output and bears the hallmark of the genre: intricate emotional relationships that are resolved in the final act, and easily recognizable characters, all seasoned with moderately funny to hilarious wisecracks.

In “Proposals,” Simon maneuvers three main sets of relationships, plus a handful of subplots.

There is paterfamilias Burt Hines (Ron Rifkin), a Jewish businessman subject to heart attacks, whose workaholic ways have driven his wife (Kelly Bishop) to divorce and remarriage.

Their daughter, Josie (Suzanne Cryer), copes with the affections of three men, to wit, Ken (Reg Rogers), a smart Harvard law student; Ray (Matt Letscher), a budding writer; and Vinnie (Peter Rini), of whom, more later.

And then there is Clemma (L. Scott Caldwell), the Hines’ longtime housekeeper, cook, family counselor, resident mother figure and narrator. Her husband, Lewis (Mel Winkler), disappeared seven years ago.

That’s quite an intricate emotional minuet, choreographed by director Joe Mantello, but there is more: Josie’s affection for her father and alienation from her mother, the interplay among Josie’s three suitors, and the requisite blond bimbo attached to Ray.

Through some heavy-duty plot gyrations, all these folks, including Clemma’s missing husband, arrive from as far as Paris and Florida to join for lunch at the rustic Hines summer home in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.

(That rotating house and its bucolic surroundings are magical and earned set designer John Lee Beatty one of the most heartfelt rounds of applause during the evening.)

To manage the unwieldy lunch crowd, its members obligingly slip in and out of the surrounding woods to allow one or another couple to work out its hostilities or affections.

None of the characters is especially memorable, or likely to reach the cult status of, say, Felix and Oscar of the “The Odd Couple,” save for Josie’s buddy Vinnie Bavasi.

With the apparel and elocution of an aspiring Mafiosi, Vinnie is a master of malapropism, who is not nearly as stupid as he appears.

The opening-night audience greeted the unfolding play with occasional robust laughter but remained seated for the final curtain applause. That’s an ominous sign in Los Angeles, whose municipal regulations require a standing ovation for even the most humble of artistic presentations.

“Proposals” will continue through Aug. 31 at the Ahmanson Theatre. For tickets and information, call (213) 628-2772.