In my view, it’s cause for rejoicing when a play is beautifully written and is performed by actors who are at least as brilliant as the writing. Mostly because it doesn’t happen all that often.
Two new shows demonstrate what I mean.
“Love Struck,” which opened at the Beverly Hills Playhouse on May 11, is a collection of eight one-act plays, each delivering thoroughly engaging performances by its players. But the brief “plays” are most often vignettes that feel like serious versions of the sketches on “Saturday Night Live." They set the scene, briefly pique your interest, and then end abruptly, without resolution.
They make you wonder, was the author, Dale Griffiths Stamos, trying out each individual idea to see if it was worth creating acts II and III around them? Or had he decided “to hell with it,” and abandoned them to dangle in limbo?
There were a couple of exceptions, however. Both provided by Barbara Bain. In the first, titled “Identity," she brilliantly portrays a woman in the throes of Alzheimer’s who has a distressingly fragmented confrontation with her husband (Peter Van Norden) and her son (Dave Roberts).
In her second appearance Bain is paired with the inimitable Nick Ullett in a delightful scene in which he attempts to charm her and charms the audience as well. She is the proprietor of the “Love After 70” matchmaking service and he is a friend that she hasn’t seen for 50 years.
Maggie Grant, who directed all the bits and pieces, also appears in two sequences: as the quarrelsome wife of Bob Ebinger in the office of quirky psychiatrist Paul Jacek, and again as a psychiatrist trying to break through the defenses of a bully played by Matthew Brenher. Brenher, who has been assigned by the court as her patient, holds her in contempt for running what he calls “a traffic school for the psyche.”
Fine performances are also turned in by Tara Windley and Eric Charles Jorgenson as they deliver confessional monologues to a parish priest.
The other new show this week is called “Synesthesia,” subtitled “Artistic Telephone Across the Genres." Or, to put it simply, a progression, as in the children’s game “telephone,” in which a concept is changed each time it is repeated.
This is a clever idea that doesn’t quite work, probably because the participants in the activity aren’t actors, but artists working in other mediums.
Ruby Karen leads off by breaking open a Chinese fortune cookie and thinking aloud on camera about its message. She doesn’t tell us what it says, but what she thinks about it. And then, to illustrate her thoughts, she climbs aboard an aerial ring that is manipulated by Luca Cecchini and performs aerial acrobatics.
Aldo Pisano, a spoken word artist, then appears on screen to talk about his reactions to Ruby Karen’s performance and on stage to tell a story based on his impressions of what her act was trying to communicate to him.
Then comes John Bobek, singer/songwriter, to compose and sing a song extrapolated from Pisano’s story.
None of the performers had been told what the fortune cookie’s message actually is, and they are given two weeks to prepare their presentation for the next scheduled performer.
Each performer’s contribution is preceded by a candid interview right after they’ve seen the previous artist’s “act,” and since they haven’t had time to absorb the emotions that the act has engendered in them, they all say the same thing: “What an exciting and daunting challenge this is!” (Much like the “SNL” host of the week always starting off with how thrilled he is to be hosting “SNL.”)
Bobek is followed by Marc Rosenthal, a lighting and projection designer whose abstract photographic projections didn’t really work. They were repetitive, not very imaginative, and so light as to be nearly invisible.
Then singer Michael Bonnabel accompanied his song with American Sign Language, John Achorn performed an original commedia dell’arte piece, and Rocco Vitacco played a number he had composed for musical theatre.
Lastly, and most unlikely, Chef Michael Dunn appeared to announce his quest for a food combination that nobody had ever created before.
To the accompaniment of a film showing him cooking up a mysterious batch of glop, members of the company raced through the theater offering sealed Chinese take-out boxes to the audience. Told to not open them until everyone had been served, the audience was buzzing with anticipation.
Fortunately, Dunn didn’t offer us the recipe. The “new food combination” consisted of a small, fuchsia-colored gelatinous rectangle sweet enough to give you instant diabetes, accompanied by sweet white unidentifiable strings that looked like sauerkraut and tasted like strings.
Do not expect to see it any time soon at Trader Joe’s.
To wrap things up, Ruby Karen came back on-screen to reveal the message in the fortune cookie. Which had absolutely nothing to do with anyone’s presentation.
This offbeat experimental production was created by Electric Pear Productions and produced by Athena Theatre and Bootleg Theatre. It is directed by Cate Caplin, who kept the performances, and the actors, moving with speed and panache.
And, despite my unsubtle reservations, it was actually a kind of fun evening.
“Love Struck" will continue at The Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. through May 27. Call (323) 960-7787 for reservations.
“Synesthesia" will continue at the Bootleg Theatre, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, on Mondays only at 7:30 p.m., through June 11.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.