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Dezart Performs Artistic Director Michael Shaw is ending the company’s 11th season on a perfect note with Audrey Cefaly’s Maytag Virgin.

Set in rural Alabama, this charming story follows the burgeoning romance between new neighbors Lizzy Nash (Kay Capasso) and Jack Key (Joel Bryant). Lizzy has taken a leave of absence from her job as a high school English teacher to mourn the loss of her husband in a roofing accident.

Jack, a physics teacher at the same school, has just moved in next door. He purchased the house not knowing that the previous owner died in the front bedroom, mere months after the man’s wife passed away. After Lizzy reveals this fact, Jack—a widower himself—becomes convinced the house is haunted, and takes to sleeping out on his back porch for safety. Featured prominently on that porch is a Maytag clothes dryer that Jack stubbornly refuses to move inside. Lizzy chooses to dry her laundry the old-fashioned way, on a clothes line, and finds the appliance an irritating eye-sore.

The neighbors discover a bag of old love letters the elderly tenant had written to his wife during their decades-long marriage, and they read them throughout the play. The tenderness of the letters helps Jack and Lizzy deal with the grief of losing their own spouses, and to slowly discover their feelings for each other.

In a two-hour play with only two characters, casting is crucial. If the performers don’t have strong acting chops and onstage chemistry, the audience is in for a long night. Thankfully here, director Deborah Harmon made excellent choices: Both Kay Capasso and Joel Bryant are superb.

Capasso’s Lizzy is conflicted, sexually frustrated, warm, likable and hilarious. The term “motormouth” does not adequately describe her penchant for chatter: The woman simply doesn’t shut up. Jacks sums it up perfectly, “You say it all out loud, huh?” When explaining why she can’t fall in love with a Catholic, Lizzy quips: “It’s just not done!” Her special meditation to “keep the dark thoughts out” is priceless. Capasso exquisitely captures all of Lizzy’s nuances. Her acting is flawless, and her Southern accent is spot-on. She has several long monologues in this production—hundreds and hundreds of lines to memorize—and I did not notice a single flub. Quite impressive.

As Jack, Joel Bryant is equally terrific. I’ve seen Bryant in several other valley productions, and he’s set the acting bar quite high for himself. He does not disappoint here: Attractive, well-built and charismatic, he commands the stage. Funny, friendly and kind, his Jack is the guy men want to be, and women want to be with. His attraction to Lizzy is apparent right away, but he realizes she is fragile and that he must tread carefully. Bryant’s comic timing is marvelous, and he handles the serious moments equally well. Not every actor could pull off the scene in which Jack breaks down when recalling his wife’s death. Bryant nails it.

It’s such a joy to see truly gifted actors ply their trade onstage. That is what you’ll see in this production of Maytag Virgin. I would encourage any acting student to check it out for that reason alone.

The production values are equally as good. Thomas Valach’s set could not be better. Every detail—from Lizzy’s collection of wind chimes to Jack’s statue of the Virgin Mary—seems just right. The costumes, lighting and song selection during the swift set changes are all fabulous.

Special mention should be made of the director: Deborah Harmon chose her actors well and then guided them expertly through the script. Even outstanding thespians need someone who knows what he or she is doing at the helm of the ship.

As a theater reviewer, it’s easy to second-guess yourself when you can’t find even a minor flaw in the production of a play: “Isn’t there something wrong here that I can write about?” But the truth is, there isn’t.

Maytag Virgin is a magical time at the theater. Go see it.

Dezart Performs’ production of Maytag Virgin is performed at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, April 14, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $30 to $35, and the running time is two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. For more information, call 760-322-0179, or visit www.dezartperforms.com.

Published in Theater and Dance

What better way is there to deal with heartache on a 4 a.m. subway ride than to immerse oneself in a crossword puzzle?

That’s the mindset of Janet, the female character in Jerry Mayer’s 2 Across, now playing the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre. But the buttoned-up psychologist can’t seem to get a moment’s peace once free-spirited Josh barrels onto the subway car just as the doors close; he keeps trying to chat her up.

So opens the two-character comedy that artistic director Ron Celona has chosen to close CV Rep’s romance-themed season. It’s fun, funny and, yes—romantic. The dialogue and pacing are a bit reminiscent of situation comedies … which is not surprising, given playwright Mayer’s many years as a writer for shows like Bewitched and Bridget Loves Bernie.

During the 80-minute Bay Area Rapid Transit ride, we learn a great deal about the backgrounds and life philosophies of Josh and Janet as they each tackle the same crossword puzzle. Their styles are very different: She is a by-the-book kind of gal who believes all rules should be followed, that “a library card is a contract,” and that cheating on a crossword puzzle is sacrilege. (Her childhood nickname was “Granite Janet.”) Josh, an unemployed ad exec, is the very definition of laid back. He feels calling the 900 number for help on the puzzle is no big deal, and when it all gets too frustrating, he simply throws it away. Though he’s Jewish, Josh has brought a barbecued pork sandwich on the train as a snack. “I don’t follow dietary rules” he explains, ignoring Janet’s horror that he would dare violate the “No Eating on the Subway” sign posted in plain sight.

They banter back and forth, argue, flirt and slowly strip away the masks we all tend to wear when meeting someone new. Josh is charming, funny and likable. He’s also persistent in his efforts to win over Janet. When Janet bluntly announces that “she’s not the least bit interested," he retorts, “Well, try harder!”

With a two-character romantic comedy, chemistry between the leads is essential. Luckily, there is plenty between Andrea Gwynnel (Janet) and Joel Bryant (Josh). Veteran actors with impressive national credits, both are attractive, charismatic and comfortable onstage. Every moment in the arc of their blossoming friendship rings true.

Local actress Deborah Harmon, who directed the world premiere of 2 Across at the Santa Monica Playhouse in 2004, is guest director here and does a superb job.

Special mention should be made of the terrific set, lights and sound. The recreation of a BART train, complete with periodic announcements of stops, is spot-on.

Congrats to Ron Celona for selecting a perfect piece to end CV Rep’s 2017-2018 season. 2 Across is light-hearted, upbeat and fun.

2 Across is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 20, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $53, and the running time is 90 minutes, with no intermission. For tickets or information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

It’s a brilliant idea for a one-set play.

A.R. Gurney’s Later Life, now bring produced by Coachella Valley Repertory in Rancho Mirage, takes the tiniest slice of life and expands it into universal lessons, just as Gurney expands the four-person cast into a dozen characters in the show. It’s a terrific concept, and producer Ron Celona has invited guest director Luke Yankee to mastermind it.

Here it is: It’s 1993, and two people who were once briefly involved find each other, years later, at a party in Boston. They are out on the huge balcony away from the noise, where it’s easier to talk. As they discuss their long-ago relationship, other partygoers drift out into their space and interrupt with their own issues. The really interesting thing is that these 10 guests are played by just two other performers! It’s a golden opportunity for these two character actors to show off their versatility.

Playwright A.R. Gurney is the author of Love Letters (which I’ve seen four times). It’s an extraordinary play, and there is nothing else like it. Same with The Cocktail Hour and The Dining Room, and now Later Life. He is famous for plays about upper-class WASPs; we find that although their problems might be different from those of others, they are quite serious. Gurney’s mastery of dialogue removes the theater’s “fourth wall” and deeply involves the audience in their stories. The extraordinary feat of writing in Later Life is that Gurney gives each character his or her own voice—and I mean all of them: The 10 character roles each have personalities and appearances so wildly different from one another that if an audience isn’t alerted to this, they might believe there really are 12 different people in the cast. There aren’t many plays that give actors this kind of opportunity (though it happened to me last year when I played five roles in a play!). It’s important that the audience appreciates the extraordinary work being done here—and enjoys the fun of it.

Guest-director Luke Yankee has a stunning resume that speaks for itself—and he has tackled the challenge of Later Life with zest. The 90-minute show’s pace is brisk, despite the restrictions of one set and one act. (There’s no intermission—a great choice! It would have totally destroyed the timing.) His firm guiding hand is evident in the body language and the impressive variety displayed by the character actors as they morph from one role into another.

The play centers around Austin, played by William Fair, whom we meet immediately. The onion-layers of Austin peel away gradually throughout the play, revealing more and more of him and creating surprises right up to the very last second of the show. Our first suspicions of stereotype crumble away as he gradually reveals an unexpectedly complex and conflicted inner life. William Fair keeps us wondering as he juggles Austin’s instinctive self-protection along with his co-dependency and his longing to burst free from his shell.

Ruth is the lady who knew him Back When, and actress Barbara Niles achieves a sympathetic portrayal of a woman whose steel-trap memory contrasts with multiple mental games of, “What If?” as well as a huge need to be accepted and liked. Ruth combines her wounded past with a brave determination to be happy in the future; her struggles are thickly slathered over with what some will see as courage, and others will perceive as a dumb resistance to learning from her history. Niles gives us a deep portrait of a lovely, if sometimes exasperating, lady.

Gorgeous Teri Bibb plays five female roles who contrast wildly. We first see her as Sally, the party’s hostess—sweet and efficient, looking like a model in a women’s magazine. Next she is Marion, an older lady and the frustrated wife of the irrepressible Roy. Then she turns up as socialite Nancy, a sleek and stylish mystery lady who has just been dumped by her companion. As Esther McAlister, an aging Southern belle whose lively attitude makes her a perfect match for her fun-loving husband, she is trying to adjust to the culture shock of moving North across the Mason-Dixon Line. And as working-musician and personal friend Judith, she becomes a thin, tense and tightly wound redhead. She is beautiful in every role.

But it is Joel Bryant who knocks us out with his five male characters. His transformation from one role to the next is so complete that he is unrecognizable every time he comes through the door. He starts us off with an astonishing portrayal of a philosophy professor desperately trying to quit smoking. Then he transmogrifies into Roy, the cranky but feisty old bird driving his wife nuts. Next he changes into Duane, a nerdy computer whiz whose crackling internal energy (watch his blood pressure!) is about one minute away from a massive explosion. Then he switches to become Ted McAlister, an outgoing silver fox from the South with a charming interest in his fellow man and a sweet sort of breezy innocence. Last, he becomes Walt, a squash-obsessed Bostonian who is the loyal best friend of Austin, in a performance so completely realized that you will swear you know this guy. It is amazing work by Joel Bryant; I predict awards.

Let’s talk about the gorgeous set, another triumph from CV Rep’s award-winning resident set designer, Jimmy Cuomo. The beautiful, sophisticated decor sets us up for a fancy party overlooking Boston’s famous harbor, with the city’s tall buildings as a backdrop. The open stage features a patio with one door leading back into the house. Coming from there, we hear muted sounds of music and chatter; kudos to sound designer Terence Davis for keeping the background noise at the appropriate level where it’s heard, but does not not interfere with these conversations. Not easy—but the balance is excellent. Karen Goodwin, the assistant stage manager and sound tech, shares in these finely tuned choices. The clever contributions of stage manager and lighting designer Moira Wilkie Whitaker are perfectly correct for this play, as are Aalsa Lee’s 1993-era costumes, reminding us of the colors and styles worn “way back” then. Production manager and associate designer Doug Morris contributed his talents and keen eyes to this show, while the incomparable Lynda Shaeps designed the makeup and hair styles; wait until you see her amazing work that transforms the character actors. Selene Rodriguez assists with Shaeps’ hair and makeup effects with great results.

Ron Celona’s production of this “dramedy” could not be better. It shows a huge amount of thought, and fascinating results. You will never see anything else like it—so make sure you do see it!

Later Life is performed at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, May 21, at Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $48. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance

The first thing you need to know about Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune at Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre is that there’s nudity—quite a bit of full frontal nudity, right at the top of the first act.

The second thing you need to know is that the production is fabulous. Founder and artistic director Ron Celona has hit another one out of the park.

The two-character play by Terrence McNally was first performed off-Broadway in 1987. It tells the story of two lonely people, both in their 40s, whose first date ends with a mutually satisfying roll in the hay. While Johnny is convinced he will ride off into the sunset with Frankie, she has some serious doubts: She is far more cautious, and prefers to take things slowly. As the night progresses, they slowly bare their souls to each other … which may or may not lead to a viable relationship. The “Clair de Lune” referred to in the title is a piece of music by Claude Debussy. This fact is important to the plot.

When Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune made its way to Broadway in August 2002, it starred Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco. It ran for 243 performances, and both the play (as a revival) and Tucci earned Tony nominations. I’m sure they were marvelous in the roles—but the CV Rep cast would give them a run for their money: Stephanie Dawn Greene (Frankie) and Joel Bryant (Johnny) are simply tremendous.

In a two-character romantic comedy, chemistry is vital, and Greene and Bryant have it in spades. From the second the lights come up as they’re exuberantly consummating their relationship, the audience believes that these two will—or at least should—somehow end up together. Greene is spunky yet vulnerable as waitress and failed actress Frankie. We feel for her when she doesn’t always understand the big words Johnny throws around—but we know, deep down, that she’s probably the wiser of the two. After their apparent one-night stand, Frankie becomes anxious for Johnny to leave. He resists, sometimes with charm, and at other times with a persistence that borders on creepy. (Some women in the audience may relate to this predicament.)

Like Frankie, Johnny (a cook who works with her) is longing for acceptance and hesitant to reveal all the details of his past. He’s divorced and has spent time in prison, while she is uneducated, can’t have kids and has survived an abusive relationship. Both had mothers who walked out on them as children. Bryant’s Johnny is funny and cocky, yet clearly desperate for love. There is one point in the second act when Johnny’s emotional breakdown seems just a tad over the top and whiny, but otherwise, both Bryant and Greene are flawless. (Both are also in great physical shape—a big plus when you’re running around onstage unclothed.)

Director Ron Celona elicits strong performances from the actors, and moves them around on stage quite effectively. Jimmy Cuomo’s set could not be any better, and the lighting (Stuart A. Fabel) and sound (Kara Masek) create just the right mood throughout the production.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, CV Rep’s final production of the 2013-2014 season, completes the theater’s retrospective of Terrence McNally plays. Congrats to Ron Celona for once again offering the Coachella Valley professional, high-quality entertainment. As long as you’re not squeamish about a little nudity and some salty language, this play is a must-see.

Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune is performed at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday; and 2 p.m., Sunday, through Sunday, April 6, at the Coachella Valley Repertory Theatre, 69930 Highway 111, Suite 116, in Rancho Mirage. Tickets are $40, and the running time is two hours, with a 15 minute intermission. For tickets or more information, call 760-296-2966, or visit www.cvrep.org.

Published in Theater and Dance