Playwright Justin Tanner takes an uncharacteristic segue into sweetness in his 1992 coming-of-age play, "Teen Girl," now in revival at the Zephyr. "Girl" is not the acid-etched indictment of soulless suburban life so typical of Tanner but a scrawled valentine to adolescent romance and the 1970s. Despite its lighter impressions, the result remains indelible, a riotous glimpse of slack-jawed youth as caustic as it is comedic.
Set in 1979, the action takes place in the backyard of a house in Salinas, Calif. For Susan (Zoe Perry), who is about to graduate, her high school years have been a hell of peer pressure and teen angst, exacerbated by the constant needling and criticism from Tricia (Audrey Siegel), Susan's Farrah-haired friend, who considers herself the exponent of all that is cool.
With her mom out of town for the weekend, Susan has been left under the watchful eye of Mrs. Burns (Johanna McKay), the wine-guzzling busybody next door. But when Susan's former baby sitter Mary (Chloe Taylor), now a heroin-fueled punker, visits with her thrasher boyfriend Pete (Guilford Adams), Susan's planned weekend of quiet study descends into chaos.
Gary Guidinger's evocatively tasteless backyard set is perfect for the ensuing escapades. As with many Tanner works, the plot is minimal and character-driven, and director Matt Roth tackles the play's comedic rhythms without a whisper of artifice. Among the terrific cast, Perry is a standout, as is Cody Chappel as Dennis, Susan's classmate and admirer, a twinkling-eyed innocent out to score.
In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. The converse does not hold true for Susan, a bright young woman trapped in the valley of the brainless. Her efforts to make sense of her idiotic surroundings is an existential struggle that will frequently leave you howling. We sense that Susan will have a life beyond Salinas, but in the interim, we feel -- and relish -- her pain.
"Kingdom Come" is a truly bizarre theatrical animal -- an old Incan tale translated from Quechua into English (by way of Spanish) and then given a 21st century avant-garde makeover in the form of a group incantation that spans centuries and continents.
That the original story still manages to pulsate powerfully through the layers of linguistic and stylistic drag is remarkable. This over-conceptualized production by the Unknown Theater is frequently ridiculous, but its austere poeticism exerts a hypnotic pull that is difficult to resist.
The play begins as a group of disparate wanderers congregates on stage, all repeating the phrase "Once upon a time." Each character represents a survivor from a real-life political cataclysm -- a Jewish boy from World War II, a member of the Russian royal family, a survivor of the Hiroshima bomb and so on. Gradually, the actors morph into members of an Inca tribe in 16th century South America. Their leader is King Atau Wallpa (David Pavao), a benevolent and wise ruler whose power proves to be tenuous in the face of modernity. An invasion by Spanish conquistadors topples this seemingly idyllic kingdom with alarming speed.
Directed and translated by Dan Oliverio, "Kingdom Come" is a daft experiment in neo-antiquity. The cast performs with a straight face and mostly monotone delivery, which gives the story an unexpected minimalist beauty. The strikingly abstract set (by Chris Covics) suggests a bridge to the past and to the future -- a literal link between eras and civilizations. The play's "We Are the World" vibe can elicit a bad laugh from time to time. But it's a noble folly whose embrace of humanity is never less than heartfelt.
There's thoughtful intent to "Boise, USA" at the Matrix. Inspired by actual events, Gene Franklin Smith's look at a citywide purge of suspected homosexuals in 1955 is certainly pertinent in this Defense of Marriage Act-ridden age. Whether it succeeds dramatically is less determinate.
In docudrama manner, Smith examines the fallout after a police bust of teen hustler Eldon Halverson (Westley Thornton) leaves three prominent citizens arrested. The ensuing scandal mirrors the Red scare, eventually ensnaring Joe Moore (the sensitive Kris Kamm), a local banker whose situation with Doris (a nuanced Melissa Kite), his unseeing wife, edges into areas that Todd Haynes explored in "Far From Heaven."
Smith's narrative hovers between Douglas Sirk-style melodrama and Gore Vidal-level commentary until era details clash with modern attitudes rather than illuminating them. It's also hard to ascertain who the protagonist is supposed to be. Is it long-repressed Joe? Is it court-appointed psychiatrist Jack Butler (the solid Seamus Dever), estranged by personal loss from wife Marjorie (Audrey Moore), the mayor's daughter? To overload an already unwieldy plot, the mayor (George McDaniel), his lavender-toned brother (Cameron Mitchell Jr.) and tormented West Point cadet son (Matty Ferraro) stretch credibility near to breaking. Factor in an overzealous D.A. (Nic d'Avirro) and a questionable FBI agent (Craig Robert Young), and it's clear that rewrites are in order.
This Salem K Theatre Company production is capable, particularly Leigh Allen's noir-flavored lighting and May Routh's excellent period costumes. Apart from some moments of overkill, the cast is proficient, with Dever's haunted voice of sanity and Kite's betrayed spouse especially fine. Yet director Arturo Castillo's stark approach cannot close the tonal rift between bravura emotionalism and detached irony. "Boise" is a respectable effort, but involvement is at best provisional.
-- David C. Nichols
"Boise, USA," Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 29. $25 and $30. (323) 960-4420. Running time: 2 hours.
Greed and the corporate grind
If you need a lift, take in "Assistance" an IAMA Theater production at the Working Stage. As directed by Annie McVey, the show is the theatrical equivalent of a triple-shot espresso, bristling with propulsive nerviness and high style.
The latest offering in playwright Leslye Headland's "Seven Deadly Sins" series, "Assistance" treats the sin of greed. But the beleaguered young corporate assistants in this case are not so much greedy as they are desperate to rise in a pathological hierarchy. With marathon endurance, the characters withstand killing levels of stress and the kind of soul-destroying abuse that would try the endurance of a martyr.
The action is set in the Manhattan office that could be a legal firm, an investor group or an entertainment conglomerate -- take your pick. The nature of the corporation is not as important as the corporate culture it spawns -- in this case, a toxic atmosphere corrosive to all who breathe it.
For creepy, unethical Vince (Graham Sibley), promotion has come quickly. Slower to rise, Nick (Adam Shapiro) is weighed down with a burdensome sense of morality. Others labor in the trenches with little hope of success. Heather (Stefanie Black) is a bumbling hysteric who won't last long in this exacting milieu. Justin (Wes Whitehead) functions competently -- until his last nerve frays. Yet for all of the sturm, drang and disorder around them, all these young workers hang on, bloodily and tenaciously, as if fearing a fatal fall from the cliff face.
Not so Nora (Katie Lowes), a bright and capable employee who has the temerity, after months of ill-treatment, to stand up to her monstrous boss, never seen, only briefly heard, in all his splenetic cruelty. Nora makes the rational choice to simply leave -- a defection that boggles the minds of her single-minded peers. Of course, Nora is supplanted by the rapacious Jenny (Amy Rosoff), a matter-of-fact schemer is soon tap-dancing her way -- quite literally -- to the top.
Headland's ferociously funny but somewhat derivative piece comes across as a combination of "The Devil Wears Prada" and "Swimming With Sharks" -- nothing we haven't seen before. But McVey's fast-paced staging and an exceptional cast, spearheaded by the wonderful Shapiro as an everyman forced into soul-destroying compromise, invest the material with the kind of infectious craft and energy that are fast establishing this young company as a creative new force on the local theater scene.
"Assistance," Working Stage, 1516 N. Gardner St., West Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Ends May 25. $16.50. (866) 811-4111. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Chase that's a wild showcase
Throughout "Nymphony in 12-D" at the Meta Theatre, a madcap nymph pursues a gay zarzuela singer in his Ansonia Hotel room to forward his career and recharge her sexual energies.
That's a premise you don't see every day, which, despite some game performances, is virtually all that this wildly overextended showcase has going for it.
Written and directed by Gib Wallis, the alleged musical farce opens with nymphomaniac nymphet Marge (Beth Whitney) posturing through a 10-minute monologue that is a missed opportunity for laying tuner groundwork. With the arrival of closeted Brick Wilson (Rusty Hamrick), countertenor star of "The Bearded Lady of Guadalajara," the world of piano bar is upon us.
Lewd complications of a "Big Gay Sketch Show" nature arise from Brick's insecure secret boyfriend (James Gaudioso), a heterosexual aspiring singer (Barrett Kime) and Brick's plant-watering neighbor (Mercy Malick), all of whom spend much time wearing towels.
Wallis dutifully sends them romping around designer Diana Sillero's cartoon set, generating a measure of laughs from kooky cardboard props. His score consists of four indistinguishable soft-rock songs that musical director Brian Murphy cannot make sound like much more than "American Idol" auditions.
Malick, whose deranged attack suggests Jennifer Tilly on antihistamines, is a tireless standout as fern-wielding Pfeiffer. She and the stalwartly ingenuous Kime display good voices when the plot lands them in Marge's spell.
Hamrick, though suitably boyish, is not exactly a stellar vocalist, which defeats what point "Nymphony" contains, and Whitney and Gaudioso succumb to camp clichés.
So, sadly, does this pallid fable.
"Nymphony in 12-D," Meta Theatre, 7801 Melrose Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; also 8 p.m. June 20 only. Ends June 21. $25. (323) 860-6625. Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
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