Last week I went to the Broad Stage at the Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center for the U.S. premiere of “In Paris,” a theatrical piece based on a story by Russian writer and Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin. Although Mikhail Baryshnikov is the name on the marquee, “In Paris” is actually an ensemble piece from Dmitry Krymov’s Laboratory in Moscow, an experimental theatrical group exploring “visual poetics.”
During the performance I was struck by the impressive, yet simple staging — translations (the dialogue is in Russian and French) scrolling over the performers and stage or projected onto a hand-held cartoon bubble cutout; a cardboard car with doors that open and that travels on a rotating platform; a costume change that unfolds as a magical metamorphosis; a live musical soundtrack blown into glass bottle pipes with operatic voices singing familiar and unfamiliar melodies; even a flying scene, reminiscent of the figures who hover over roofs in fellow Russian Marc Chagall’s paintings.
But I wondered, “Where’s the beef?” or maybe more aptly, the borscht. The story is quite simple — two lonely Russian émigrés from different walks of life find one another in Paris — but I didn’t see much of the story’s arc.
However, in the days since images from “In Paris” keep recurring, not just to me but to others with whom I’ve spoken about it. This is a staged dream play whose haunting images reappear in retrospect. Final performances are tonight, tomorrow night plus matinee and evening performances on Saturday. For tickets, visit thebroadstage.com/inparis.
At the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood the laughs come at you like a fastball and hurt when you get hit. “Good People” by David Lindsay-Abaire — Pulitzer Prize winner for his play “Rabbit Hole” — poses a multitude of questions that leave you wondering who to sympathize with. Is it the single mom of a disabled adult child (played by “Malcolm in the Middle” mom Jane Kaczmarek) who is one paycheck away from destitution— and who’s just been fired? Is it the man (Jon Tenney, “The Closer”) who escaped a downtrodden Boston Irish neighborhood, known as Southie, to become a doctor living the bourgeois dream? Is life about choices or luck? And who sacrificed what for whom?
It’s a great gray-area of a play. My favorite scenes are between the three longtime working class women friends. Kaczmarek is Margie Walsh, Dottie is her landlady (Marylouise Burke), and Margie’s friend Jean (Sara Botsford) is the caustic and mouthy Southie who goads Margie into actions she may regret. These three actors’ rapid-fire patter feels totally spontaneous. “Good People” runs at The Geffen through May 13 so there’s plenty of time for you to see it now and argue with friends about it later. For tickets, go to http://geffenplayhouse.com/
And finally, hats off to the Ruskin Group Theatre at the Santa Monica Airport, which is celebrating its 10th year to the genuine astonishment of founder and artistic director John Ruskin. It’s a tight-knit theatre community committed to the theatrical arts and each other.
In a brief meet and greet at the lobby door, Ruskin told me that the theater began as an offshoot of his acting school to give the aspiring actors, writers and craftspeople a safe place to practice their skills.
On April 13, I attended the world premiere of two one-act plays and on April 15 went to their monthly L.A. Café Plays, where five writers have 10 hours to write, rehearse and stage a 10-minute play based on a specific theme.
The two world premieres were written by Clara Mamet, daughter of renowned theatre/film/TV writer/author David Mamet, and Jack Quaid, son of actor Dennis. Their respective one-acts mostly hold their own; both include acting performances by Clara. Quaid and Mamet co-wrote “The Solvit Kids” and Mamet wrote “Paris” when she was 16 (she’s just 17 now).
“Paris” is about an important conversation between a father and a daughter. The dialogue is a little self-consciously precocious and exaggeratedly droll, and it’s hard not to think of it through the lens of autobiography.
In “The Solvit Kids,” Brad and Annie are stars of the Solvit Kids movies. The author of the popular children’s books on which the films are based dies as he’s writing the last installment. Annie and Brad are left with the rights to release it, but when the book accidentally disappears, the real life Solvit Kids must find a solution. Plot twists are over the top; it’s fast and furious and gets lots of laughs.
Aside from staging critically acclaimed productions, such as Martin McDonagh’s “The Lonesome West” (just concluded), Ruskin’s next ambitious undertaking is “Sideways: The Play,” opening in May, written by Rex Pickett, author of the book “Sideways” that was adapted into the Oscar-winning screenplay for the hit indie film.
Each evening a different winery will host tastings prior to the performance featuring primarily — the joke the story turns on — pinot noir. Ruskin said they were overwhelmed with the number of wineries — more than 40 — that stepped forward to offer their vintages to theatregoers.
I’ll be there for the wine — and the play. Gala opening is May 18. For more information, visit www.ruskingrouptheatre.com/
Sarah Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for National Public Radio and a producer for public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She reviews theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.