7 Days in the Arts
Uncle Leo Fulfills a Dream
“If you’re a pretty good actor and live long enough, you can play any role,” said Len Lesser, sitting on a worn couch just after finishing an evening performance at A Noise Within in Glendale.
At 80, and after close to 60 years on stage, screen and television, Lesser has proven his own adage. During the last 15 years, he has even become a public face, mainly through recurring roles as Uncle Leo in “Seinfeld” and Garvin in “Everybody Loves Raymond.”
But before that, “I played gangsters, heavies, Russians and Italians,” he reminisced. “I’ve done everything.”
Altogether, the long-time Burbank resident figures he has appeared is some 50 feature films and more than 400 TV shows, plus theatrical performances at the Taper Forum, Ahmanson and at venues across the country.
A recent stint included a moving role as an avuncular Holocaust survivor in Israel director Dan Katzir’s “Today You Are a Fountain Pen.”
Now Lesser is fulfilling a decades-old ambition by playing Gregory Solomon, a wizened New York secondhand furniture dealer, in Arthur Miller’s “The Price.”
One of Miller’s less frequently performed plays, “The Price,” written in 1968, wrestles with the author’s familiar themes — family conflict, personal and social responsibility and the price we pay for our past actions.
A Noise Within, a repertory company that over the years has maintained an enviable standard as one of the most professional and skilled theatrical venues in the Los Angeles area, does full justice to the subtleties and complexities of the Miller drama.
Its two protagonists are middle-aged brothers Victor and Walter Franz, who are selling off the furniture left behind by their recently deceased father.
When the once-wealthy father was wiped out by the Depression and became a physical and emotional wreck, son Victor (Geoff Elliott) sacrificed his ambition to become a scientist to take care of the father and became a local cop.
Brother Walter (Robertson Dean) shrugged off his responsibilities, left home and became a successful surgeon, while Victor’s wife (Deborah Strang) has turned into an unhappy and unfulfilled woman.
The fourth character is Solomon, come to appraise the furniture. It is not a comic role per se, but Lesser turns the man into a true original.
A lifelong New Yorker, Solomon has seen and survived everything, including four wives (he said the current one stays at home with her “100 boids”). He is a man who would rather talk than deal and is blessed with some of Miller’s best lines.
Though written in the supposedly idealistic and rebellious ’60s, the play has a very contemporary feel when Solomon observes, “When people were unhappy, they used to go to church or start a revolution. Now they go shopping.”
At one point, while Victor keeps pressing him for an appraisal, Solomon leisurely takes a hard-boiled egg and a jar of water out of his briefcase. In a wonderful ritual of consuming this repast, he will remind old timers of Charlie Chaplin’s classic shoe-eating routine in the “Gold Rush.”
Lesser said he has seen “The Price” many times but was never satisfied with the depiction of Solomon.
“They played him like a Yiddish stereotype in a vaudeville show, like a caricature,” he said. “That was all wrong. Like all Miller characters, Solomon is multidimensional.”
Lesser was born in the Bronx, the son of a grocery clerk, and vividly recalled a bar mitzvah from hell when he forgot the text and started singing instead. He got his acting start at 17, playing Lenny in “Of Mice and Men” at the neighborhood Settlement House.
“I was very shy and introverted, and I liked the applause and the communication with the audience,” he reminisced. “In my family, we didn’t talk much.
He earned a degree in economics and government at the City College of New York, but after he was discharged following Army service in the Pacific, he asked himself what he wanted to do the rest of his life. Lesser decided on an acting career and studied under Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg.
After that, “I became a starving actor in summer stock, but when television came in, I got my first part with the CBS ‘Philco [Television] Playhouse,'” he recalled.
In the early ’50s, with some change in his pockets, Lesser met and married a farmer’s daughter from California, and in his first visit to her very WASPish and conservative parents, he felt as out of place as a Woody Allen movie character in a similar situation. (At the wedding ceremony, Lesser forgot the ring and substituted a cigar band.)
But he liked California enough to settle down here.
He has continued on the TV circuit, and although a lot of the sitcoms he played in were pure “chazerai,” using the Yiddish term for junk. “You made more money in one day than in six months in New York,” he said.
Now married to actress Jan Burrell, Lesser closed the interview close to midnight.
“You gotta excuse me,” he explained, “I have an early TV shoot in the morning.”
“The Price” will play though Dec. 4, in repertory withShakespeare’s “Coriolanus” and Moliere’s “The Miser.” For tickets andinformation, phone (818) 240-0910 or visit www.anoisewithin.org .
Book Month Sparks Literary Landslide
Homecoming From Hell
One day during his junior year abroad in Vienna in 1978, Jon Marans told a professor of his intention to visit the concentration camp Dachau. Her response stunned him. "She said, ‘Why do you want to go there for? It’s just a bunch of dead Jews,’" recalled the Pulitzer-nominated playwright, whose "Jumping for Joy" opens Sept. 7 at Laguna Playhouse.
Previously, Marans, now 45, hadn’t thought of himself as Jewish or non-Jewish. He had simply considered himself an American from a Maryland suburb where "we were all just one big, bland, homogenous group."
"But the anti-Semitism I encountered in Vienna was so blatant it was transforming," he said. "I began to realize that until we embrace our heritage and all of who we are, it’s difficult to write about things that matter."
Since then, Marans has made a career of writing about characters who profoundly connect to or disconnect from their roots, families or work. He’s one of the newer members of a cadre of playwrights in their 40s — including Donald Margulies and Richard Greenberg — who have won Pulitzer Prize nods for work exploring issues of Jewish identity and assimilation.
Marans’ newest play, "Jumping for Joy," tells of an aloof Jewish attorney, estranged from his schizophrenic sister and paranoid father, who returns home during a family crisis. "The character of Michael is the kind of guy who shuts down when you talk about anything remotely personal," Marans said of his offbeat, often wickedly funny new drama. "But his family is the one place where he cannot remain disconnected. They’re so in his face they just drag him into their world Michael both loves it and hates it at the same time."
Michael’s father, Samuel, doesn’t just shut out people — he shuts out the entire world. His daughter wryly reflects that when Samuel dies, "We will always have the map chronicling which countries have been unkind to Israel."
Marans’ his first produced play, "Old Wicked Songs," a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer, revolves around a self-denying Jew, a burned-out piano prodigy who travels to Vienna to jump-start his creative juices but locks horns with his professor, a Holocaust survivor.
"Old Wicked Songs" came about during a time when the author, like his "Songs" prodigy, was battling creative burnout. After writing the book for a musical that was supposed to go to Broadway but was instead canned in 1990, the distraught author and lyricist retreated to a Vermont writers’ colony.
"Everything seemed to have fallen apart, so I thought, ‘To hell with it. I’m just going to write whatever I want regardless of the chances for commercial success,’" he said. Within three weeks he had a draft of "Songs," which among other seemingly noncommercial devices featured characters singing Schumann’s "Dichterliebe" in German. "I thought, ‘No one in their right mind is going to produce this play," said Marans, who was shocked when the piece opened off-Broadway and went on to more than 100 theaters around the world.
Then came an even bigger surprise: the Pulitzer nomination.
"It became a little daunting," he recalled. "Suddenly, there was pressure to write another piece that mattered. That’s why it took so long for me to [finish] my new play."
"Jumping for Joy" — partly inspired by Maran’s interest in Asperger’s syndrome — is another riff on how people engage and disengage.
"It’s like having this weird disconnect," he said of the condition that is similar to autism. "You see it in people who are incredibly focused but slightly detached from life."
The Playhouse’s Richard Stein, who directed an acclaimed production of "Songs" in 1999, was eager to direct the world premiere of "Joy."
"From the first read I knew it was a brilliant play," he told The Journal. "One of the things that marks Jon as a unique writer is his ability to delve deeply into his characters and to fully explore the relationships between them."
During rehearsals, Marans said he’s emphasized "the general twinkle all three of the characters have when they come together. The initial tendency for actors is to mime the darker side of what’s going on. But it’s important the piece doesn’t come off in a way that negates the joy these people have in being together."
Creating a Sacred Space
7 Days In Arts
Gene Simmons, Bob Dylan, the Beastie Boys and Susanna
Hoffs are proof positive that Jews know how to rock. Enter Belgium-born vocalist
Lucy Levinsohn and Jersey girl vocalist/keyboardist Dina Torok, members of
Lily’s Siren, a five-member, female-led group that won Rock City News’ vote for
Best Modern Pop Band in 2000. Called a cross between Nirvana and Fleetwood Mac,
Lily’s Siren did an acclaimed tribute to ABBA last year. Tonight, they perform
at Chain Reaction in Anaheim and on Saturday, September 29 at The Gig in
Hollywood. $5 (prepaid tickets); $7 (at the door). For tickets or more
When nine year-old Eliza Naumann wins her fourth grade
class spelling bee, she shatters her parents’ image of her as a disappointment
in Myla Goldberg’s “Bee Season.” Her success culminates as she is picked for the
national spelling bee competition, portraying an intimate look at her family
dynamics. Through the obssessive compulsive antics of her mother, her devout
kabbalist father and extremely introverted brother, the novel proves that
there’s no such thing as a normal family. Besides being a writer, Goldberg is
involved with foreign and independent film and an acclaimed accordian, banjo and
flute player. Today, her dramatic account of a Jewish family will be presented.
4 p.m. Congregation Beth Chayim, 6000 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. For more
information, call (323) 931-7023.
Beautiful Judaic images come to life for Anne Cheek
LaRose when her needle hits the fabric. “Looking Forward, Looking Back” at USC
Hillel features the this artist’s decorated fabrics, hand paintings, embroidery,
reweaving, needlepoint and appliqué designs. Her creations grace museums and
galleries nationwide, including the Yeshiva University Museum in New York City,
the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles and The Jewish Federation in Los
Angeles. Opening reception: Sept. 9, 4 p.m.-6:30 p.m. Gallery Hours: Mon.-Fri.,
9 a.m.-5 p.m. The exhibit runs Aug. 20-Oct. 19. USC Hillel Jewish Center Art
Gallery, 3300 S. Hoover St., Los Angeles. For more information, call (213)
Catching up on summer reading is one of the best ways
to spend a relaxing weeknight. In “Too Many Men” ($25, Harper Collins
Publishers), Australian writer Lily Brett’s latest novel, Ruth Rothwax, a
successful New York businesswoman, is obsessed with returning to Poland with her
father. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Brett began writing as a rock
journalist, profiling stars such as Sonny and Cher and Jimi Hendrix. This is the
fourth novel for Brett, who lives in New York City with her Australian
artist-husband and three children.
Veteran expressionist painter David Rosen was so
enamored with William Shakespeare’s work that he decided to put one of the
playwright’s legendary soliloquies on canvas. His love affair with art took him
from the Cooper Union Art School in New York in 1930 to his present exhibition
including the monochromatic “Hamlet’s To Be Or Not to Be” along with 23 of his
most powerful works. Gallery hours: Wed.-Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m. and Sun., 11
a.m.-5 p.m. Howell Green Fine Art Gallery, 120 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Pine
Tree Circle, No. 107, Woodland Hills. For more information, call (310) 455-3991.
Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen believes in “the big
picture.” This vision drove him from his early days of piano playing to his
current trademark, the double acoustic bass. He was so dedicated to his music,
that he abandoned the Israeli army to play it. Inspired by the legendary sounds
of Oscar Peterson, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, Cohen, now a member of
“Adama,” combines jazz with the traditional Israeli music. with which he was
raised. The result is a performance tonight with The International Vamp Band.
The band adds multicultural flavor to the Sunset Concert series with Yagil Baras
on bass, Antonio Sanchez on drums, Yosvany Terry on saxophone, Avi Lebovich on
trombone and Argentinean Diego Urcola on trumpet. 7:30 p.m. Skirball Cultural
Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310)
Spiked. Long. Green. Curly. Regardless of the look,
many women have a strong, and sometimes strange, affinity for their hair.
Tonight, in “Hair Pieces: By Women, About Hair,” a multicultural group of female
playwrights, from Jewish to Latina, have joined to express the significance of
hair in a woman’s life. Sponsored by the Jewish Women’s Theatre Project, the
collection of short plays are a part of the New Works Festival, a series of
dramas and comedies including “Direct From Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys” at
the Fountain Theatre. $20 (general admission). Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
and 7 p.m. Through Sept. 16. Hudson Mainstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd.,
Hollywood. For reservations or more information, call (323) 663-1525.
7 Days In Arts
Rage Becomes Power in Writer’s Hands
"I still write a lot from anger," playwright Mark Medoff said. "I’ve wanted to flagellate the world."
Medoff, 61, is the author of the smoldering plays "When You Comin’ Back, Red Ryder?" "Children of a Lesser God" and "Road to a Revolution," now at Deaf West Theatre. His intense work often rails against a world he perceives as rife with violence, racism and sexism. Several childhood memories fuel the rage, he revealed during a telephone interview from his New Mexico ranch.
As a boy, he sensed his family lived in a small Illinois town because his Jewish physician father couldn’t find work anyplace else. During summers at a Jewish camp in Georgia, Medoff said bigotry was as palpable as "a compression in the air." After the family relocated to Florida, he learned that his father had to beg an official to grant him a medical license because the Jewish quota was filled. "My father cried in front of this man," the author said bitterly. "I saw him turned away from door after door. All of that has long been boiling in me."
No wonder Medoff’s work rants against every kind of injustice. A shabbily dressed Vietnam veteran spurs the action in "Red Ryder," about violence and American values in the ’60s. A paraplegic Jewish veteran spews bigotry in "Stumps." A deaf woman refuses to be patronized in "Children of a Lesser God," which won Medoff a Tony and was made into an Oscar-winning film.
Now comes "Road to a Revolution," in which three generations of women (some hearing, some not), face off against the backdrop of the 1988 uprising of deaf students at Gallaudet University. It’s the fifth play Medoff has written for actress Phyllis Frelich; his goal, as usual, is incendiary.
"In ‘Children,’ there is a revolt by a deaf woman against her hearing husband," he said. "In ‘Road,’ the revolt leads to a kind of detente between the deaf students and the hearing board and, by extension, between hearing culture and deaf culture."
Medoff, ironically, didn’t rebel against the jock culture of his Miami Beach high school. A star athlete, he remained a closet writer lest he be considered effeminate, he said. He wasn’t above some smug assumptions of his own, however. "I had this clichéd vision of the deaf as those people who sold the little alphabet cards at airports," he admitted.
In the late 1970s, when colleagues told him about an amazing deaf actress named Phyllis Frelich, he thought, "Everyone was overcompensating because she was this poor, handicapped individual."
Yet hours after he had met Frelich, Medoff was so impressed that he announced he was going to write a play for her.
Frelich smiled politely. "I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, sure,’" she told The Journalin sign language, speaking through her hearing husband, Bob Steinberg, a set designer. Surprisingly, Medoff came through. "But we hated the play," Frelich said. "The main character was just so furious about her deafness."
Undaunted, Medoff affably tore the pages to shreds in front of the couple and invited them to work on a new play at his New Mexico state university theater department. Frelich and Steinberg accepted the offer.
"We bought an old, rusty Ford van for $600, loaded up the kids and drove out West," Steinberg recalled. By the end of the semester, the trio had created the drama that would help put deaf theater on the map.
"Road" began when Medoff was glued to the television news of the Gallaudet uprising in 1988. When the deaf college’s board elected yet another hearing president, enraged students protested and succeeded in reversing the decision. The appointment of Gallaudet’s first deaf president became the cornerstone of the deaf civil rights movement. It was Medoff’s kind of story.
He initially envisioned a film (he wrote the screenplays of "Clara’s Heart" and "City of Joy"), but was rejected at every studio in town. In one meeting, a young executive told Medoff, "There’s already been a deaf movie." The disgusted author eventually decided to develop the story as a play.
It’s not just a piece about deaf people, he insists. While the play focuses on the Gallaudet uprising, the character of Edna (Frelich), who is initially timid, reminds Medoff of his father, hat in hand, in the Florida state official’s office. "She is like all my relatives who were afraid of their own shadow, afraid to offend, to present their positions as Jews," he said. "But the play is universal. It could be about the Latino experience or any other experience, because everyone feels isolated and the need to rebel at some point in their lives."
For tickets to the show, which runs through May 27, call (818) 762-2773 or 762-2782 (TTY).
From Fandom to ‘Phantom’
It all began when Steve Cisneros, as an 11th grader at La Mirada High School, was exposed to the plays of his English teacher, Bruce Gevirtzman.
For 27 years, Gevirtzman has been teaching honors English and American literature at the high school. And for 25 of those years, he has been writing morality plays that students mount asproductions each year.
Cisneros was so moved by Gevirtzman’s plays that, for the past four years, he has been directingand producing productions of Gevirtzman’s work for middle and high schoolers all over California, from San Diego to Oxnard.
“We planned the first year just to see what happened,” recalls Cisneros. “I never knew it would get this big.Since Cisneros started his Phantom Projects (so named because students in theater production would create setpieces overnight), more than 100,000 teens have seen Gevirtzman’s pieces, which take aim on issues they face every day.
“I love that the theater can teach people,” says Cisneros, who tours with three Gevirtzman plays a year: ameditation on prejudice and tolerance called “Center of the Universe”; “No Way to Treat a Lady,” about abstinence; and “Out, Out, Brief Candle,” which tackles substance abuse. The veteran educator believes that in getting involved with these plays, students take away something more important than a self-esteem boost. “They need more direction and ethical guidance when they do the right thing; everything else will follow.”
Contrary to stereotypes, Gevirtzman believes that “kids are smarter in a lot of ways. They’re definitely more aware of social issues than ever before. Here [at La Mirada High] it’s still very good. If anything,it’s better.” But then again, stereotypes are something Gevirtzman tries to subvert with his work. Case in point: his latest script.
“I’m working on a long one, a full-length, two-hour play that will be done in June,” says the 50-year-old teacher and auteur. “It centers around the 20-year reunion of theclass of 1980 [and deals with] stereotyping in high school.”
Cast with kids from all over Southern California, each Phantom Project features five to 10 young performers. And Cisneros loves the reaction that the 45-minute stage stories inspire.”They really open up to us,” says Cisneros of the young attendees. “And the actors talk about their own stories… It makes me feel very lucky that I haven’t made the same mistakes when I was growing up. Part of it was self-control that we didn’t make these same mistakes. So we’re teaching self-control.” The 21-year-old Cisneros adds that “we’ve had students come join us [as actors] the next year after they’ve seen our show.”
The themes Gevirtzman employs come from his lifelong interest in politics. While talk radio programs “manifest my passion” for social issues, the playwright says that nobodyinspires him or keeps him current like his students. And he credits his success to the two-parent Norwalk household he grew up in.
“Personally I think my Jewish values are a big part of my life,” says Gevirtzman, whose motherregularly attended his shows before she passed away last year. As for Cisneros, Gevirtzman is very touched by what the former student has done with his work:”The fact that he would think that much of me… I’m very excited by that.”The next Phantom Projects will take place on May 24 at La Mirada Theater for the Performing Artsin La Mirada. For more information, contact (562) 902-0119
Alive and Well
Kabbalah: Scary Jewish Stories
At one point in the play, “Kabbalah: Scary Jewish Stories,” a yeshivabocher and a severed talking head careen across the Abyss. The Baal Shem Tov battles a werewolf. And a hapless youth accidentally marries a re-animated corpse, which nonchalantly re-adjusts an eye-socket while pleading its case before the rabbinical court.
Welcome to “Kabbalah,” the kind of tongue-in-cheek macabre fare one might expect from director Stuart Gordon, best known for the horror cult classic film, “Re-Animator.” When Gordon explores his Jewish roots, you get tales of debauched Kabbalists, shtetl zombies and water demons in the mikvah. But because these are Jewish scary stories, the director notes, there is always a moral, a battle between good and evil, and a wise rabbi to make everything right.
Gordon first thought up the play not long after his adult bar mitzvah in 1997, when he chanced upon folklorist Howard Schwartz’s edition of scary Jewish folk tales, “Lilith’s Cave,” at a Temple Beth Hillel book fair. The amiable Gordon, director of “Dolls” and “From Beyond,” had previously read Midrashim about the supernatural and had even researched a script about the demon-queen Lilith for “Hellraiser IV” — until the producers nixed the idea. “They said it was too far afield,” Gordon recalls, wryly. “But it started to bother me that demonic possession movies were always Catholic.”
With the tales in “Lilith’s Cave,” Gordon saw the potential for a Jewish horror movie and also a play; the piece would be performed in the style of his mentor, Paul Sills, a founder of Second City and the Story Theatre, in which the actors narrate their own action. Enter comedian Avery Schreiber, a veteran of both Second City and the Store Theatre, who brought actors from his own improv workshop and, with Gordon and the other performers, improvised the script from Schwartz’s translations. An elderly Yiddishist, a Holocaust survivor, was on set to consult with the thespians. And when Gordon saw the Golden State Klezmers perform with a mariachi group at Temple Isaiah, he knew he had found the perfect live incidental music.
What is surprising about Gordon, who grossed out his “Re-Animator” actors by taking them to the county morgue, is that he actually has a horror of horror films. When he was a child, his parents did not allow him to watch any scary movies; thus he sneaked out of the house to see “The Tingler” or “House on Haunted Hill,” only to suffer grievous nightmares and insomnia afterwards. Gordon recalls a “wild escape from the drive-in” mid-way through a David Cronenberg movie; he slept with all the windows locked, one summer, after reading Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” “I would rather have sweltered,” he says, dryly, “than let a vampire in.”
Directing scary movies, he concedes, is a way of mastering his fears. “When you make horror film, you’re controlling them,” he explains. “You know how everything is done.”
Gordon’s career began at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where his anti-Establishment Screw Theater made the national news (and brought obscenity charges) after he staged a nude version of “Peter Pan.” When the university informed him that a professor would have to sit in on any future productions, he dropped out and moved to Chicago, where the Screw transformed into the acclaimed Organic Theater. It was there that Gordon co-created the long-running “Bleacher Bums” and met a cocky young David Mamet, who kept pestering him with scripts he assured everyone would win the Pulitzer Prize. Gordon went on to stage the world premiere of Mamet’s “Sexual Perversity in Chicago.”
Thirty-five original plays and adaptations later, Gordon moved to Hollywood, directed films like “The Pit and the Pendulum” and co-created “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” when his daughters clamored for him to make a movie he would actually let them see.
Now he’s hoping to direct a film based on Schwartz’s book, perhaps a Lilith trilogy or something about the fallen Kabbalist Joseph della Reina, who chants the “Shema” backwards to conjure up lovely women in his bedroom. Joseph, after all, rivals the creepiest of contemporary horror characters. “He is,” Gordon says, “the ultimate stalker.”
“Kabbalah” plays on Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Jan. 7 through Feb. 13 at the Lex Theater, 6760 Lexington Ave, Hollywood. For tickets and information, call (323) 957-5782.
Mantle’s Home Run
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.
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.
The Years of Persecution