By Sarah A. Spitz

Turn Him Loose
Joe Morton IS Dick Gregory. Watching him in “Turn Me Loose” all you’ll see is Dick Gregory…ok, minus the gray beard.

Without Dick Gregory, there might never have been a Richard Pryor. What a shame that would be.

Gregory more than deserved this biographical homage. He was alive when it debuted in New York, but he passed away just this past August, at the age of 84.

Gregory was a trailblazing comedian, civil rights activist and in his later life, a vegetarian and health advocate (he even wrote cookbooks). Joe Morton disappears into the role, and is nearly flawless.

Side note: “Turn Me Loose” is produced by musician John Legend, who says that the comedian’s cutting edge humor of the era is just as relevant today.

If you’re lucky you can still catch a performance at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, where it’s been extended due to popular demand, closing on Sunday, November 19.

I first saw Joe Morton in “Brother from Another Planet,” but he might be better known these days as Rowan Pope, the villainous father of Olivia Pope, the lead character in the TV hit show, “Scandal.”

Dick Gregory broke the color barrier with his social satire and changed the way white audiences saw black comics.

He satirized segregation and race relations, and experienced the period of his greatest success during the 1960s, when he became actively engaged in voter registration drives and the civil rights movement.

He counted Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers as friends – all of whom were assassinated.

We witness Gregory’s breakthrough performance: standing in at the last minute for old-school comic Irwin Corey at the Playboy Club in Chicago, he was confronted with an audience of all-white, frozen food executives. This wasn’t the kind of humor they wanted, and they let him know.

He opened with: “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I understand there are a good many Southerners in the room tonight.

I know the South very well, I spent 20 years there one night…” This brave appearance and the way he turned the audience around resulted in a 3-year contract at the Playboy Club followed by numerous appearances on TV.

The theater is set up like a nightclub, with tables down front and regular theatre seating behind. The play’s opening is a cultural time capsule: a white comedian tosses out cheesy, rapid-fire, one-liners (think Rodney Dangerfield), very old school ha-ha.

And then boom: Gregory takes the stage, and there’s electricity in the air – and hecklers in the room. Why? Because he’s talking about race, politics, social justice…and he doesn’t withhold the barbs.

Morton plays Gregory as a young man, an old man and in the years of his greatest celebrity, following the biographical arc of his life and career. But these 90 minutes feel like a private audience with the man, not a play about his life.

This is a must-see production and you don’t have too many more chances to see it.

Performances take place Thursdays through Sundays. Call (310) 746-4000 for tickets, or visit http://thewallis.org/show-info.php?id=308. The Lovelace Studio Theatre at The Wallis is located at 9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd. in Beverly Hills.

UNDER THE LINTEL

This is a trickier beast.

Another one-man show (although “Turn Me Loose” has one supporting actor), Arye Gross is simply a wonderful actor, giving an outstanding performance in “Under the Lintel: An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences.”

But the material is too cumbersome to sustain even a superlative performance.

The play is sort of a detective story, featuring a geeky Dutch librarian, who has only ever lived inside his mind and within the confines of the library where he works, collecting masses of historical information and interesting trivia for no particular end.

The return of a book that was checked out 113 years ago starts him on the path to discovery, global travel and rule-breaking that he might never have considered, to seek answers about who checked it out, and why it has just been returned.

The play is something of an object lesson in obscurantism. Too many facts piled upon facts, too many diversions on the way to a narrative that might come to a more satisfying conclusion.

The unnamed librarian’s search leads him to consider the Bible, in which a man standing under a lintel refuses to help Jesus, on his way to the crucifixion. He is condemned, as The Wandering Jew, to walk the Earth until Jesus returns.

Many twists and turns along the way lead the librarian to believe that it is the Wandering Jew who checked out the book.

But this doesn’t really get us, the audience, much closer to understanding why it matters. And by the end, details bog us down.

Nonetheless, Arye Gross is an actor’s actor, and as a master class in the art, he is worth seeing onstage.

“Under the Lintel” is in Westwood at The Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre, and closes on Sunday, November 19. Find out more at www.geffenplayhouse.org.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

JOE MORTON as Dick Gregory in “Turn Me Loose” at The Wallis
Photo by Lawrence K. Ho

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