"Balm in Gilead," Lanford Wilson's first full-length play, is a collage of outcasts, dopers and whores hustling one another in a sleazy all-night coffee shop on Upper Broadway in the 1960s.
Director Sal Romeo's production by the Friends and Artists Theatre Ensemble is drama verite. The denizens here are already slouching about the diner when you enter the Heliotrope Theatre. The effect is like watching a mural on the side of an industrial building suddenly spring to life.
The chief question was whether this graphic work, which debuted nearly 25 years ago at Off Off Broadway's Cafe La Mama, would appear relevant or dated. Happily, the work remains timely. There's period flavor from the '60s jukebox numbers and some of the hair styles (such as the beehive with the pink bow on actress Bridgid Coulter's lesbian character). But the subculture rings with contemporary veracity.
Wilson's play is almost plotless; it's all style, movement and character. On this level, director Romeo and his 25 cast members are impressive, giving rhythm to the verbal intricacies and the whirlpools of overlapping, interlocking scenes. The simultaneity of action is vibrant and relentless. You have to make constant choices about what to watch. Mercifully, the stage is very wide. Good peripheral vision helps.
"Balm in Gilead's" bums and hustlers are sympathetic in their desperation (such as Joe Kane's savvy but foolhardy drug dealer). And their squalor is sharply drawn (Michael Berry's junkie is haunting and Lisa Thayer's stark hooker in her aggressive red dress is a vicious portrait). But the emotional arc of the show is largely horizontal. Momentum flags in the second act when the swirling dramas tend to become repetitive.
The terrific diner set design, which seems ripped right out of any number of post-midnight joints on Hollywood Boulevard, is by Bob Zentis (who also did the set for the last major Los Angeles revival, at the Pan Andreas in 1983).
At 660 N. Heliotrope Ave., Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., indefinitely. Tickets: $10-$15. (213) 466-1767. 'Richard III' What a season for that hunchbacked toad, King Richard III. The Shakespeare Society of America at the Globe Playhouse is presenting a generally solid production with actor Kevin Carr crackling in the title role, concurrent with another strong "Richard III" at the Actors Alley (reviewed earlier).
The two shows illustrate how a great play can accommodate different interpretations. The Globe production is more decorous, its Richard more sleekly curdling. The Actors Alley staging, in contrast, is looser, its titular devil (Walter Raymond) more raucous.
The Globe has the physical resources, of course. They do almost nothing but Shakespeare, and this straightforward production enjoys a blistering, mercurial performance by the angular, blond Carr, whose drive to the throne is reptilian.
The major women in the production (Kay Pattison, Katherine Henryk, Lesa Lockford and Doris Mazerov) are uniformly fine.
Director Delbert Spain's staging too often falls into blocky patterns of characters standing around, which is a trait at the Globe Playhouse. But this production, barely edited, moves with sufficient pace.
Almost as strong as Carr is Domenick Allen as the Duke of Buckingham. His ingratiating machinations on behalf of Richard combine dashing looks, flair, charm and nobility. Don Altman's bald Hastings and Richard Irving's Clarence go to their deaths with touching sorrow. Overall, this is some of the Globe's best work.
At 1107 N. Kings Road, West Hollywood, Thursdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., through April 9. Tickets: $8.50-$17.50. (213) 654-5623. 'Mayhem at Mayfield Mall III'
Fans of old-time radio will be particularly touched by "Mayhem at Mayfield Mall III," the concluding chapter in writer-director Joel Bloom's self-styled satire of a greedy America.
Al's Theatre (a.k.a. Al's Bar in the deepest reaches of downtown L.A.'s warehouse district) is the hardest theater in town to find. But if you love live radio comedy, your sense of sweet nostalgia will flower here. Six actors scurry back and forth to mikes, changing voices and flipping pages, a narrator in a rear booth intones narration, a sound effects expert fills the air with manufactured noises.
The play within the play ridicules contemporary America (morally symbolized as a toxic dump) through the enacted radio broadcast of a gangster yarn from the roaring '20s. The actors are vocal chameleons (with special applause to Russell Fear, Tom Tully and Mike Wiles, who are smartly joined in the ensemble by Michael Morrissey, Dominique Lowell and Robin Bronfman). Their radio studio acting style is choice cultural history.
Trouble is a little of this goes a long way. Repetition sets in, the fun is hard to sustain for two acts, and content is muffled by style. Even so, the show leaves a precise and buoyant image of old radio days.
At 305 S. Hewitt St., concluding Tuesday and Wednesday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $6. (213) 680-7785. 'Gameface'
Given the current exposes of steroid abuse, "Gameface," at the Flight Theater, couldn't be more timely. Two former football players, Russ Bolinger and John Schalter, co-wrote--and co-star in--a gritty gridiron locker room drama centered on an aging drug-abusing superstar played with credible edge by Bolinger (who toiled 10 years as a pass protector for the Detroit Lions and the L.A. Rams).
The players drift in, strip from their street clothes into their silver and gold uniforms, and prepare, through obscenity, anger and nervous camaraderie, for a playoff game that could send them to the Super Bowl.
The production has texture and one exceptional actor, Art Frankel as the trainer called Mother, whose understated performance is a gem. But cliches, notably an obnoxious sportswriter, an unscrupulous owner and a callow assistant coach, not to mention raunchy sexual banter, seriously mar the play.
Nevertheless, despite the melodrama, there's an elemental drama here, a jaundiced and knowing inside look at the sport. Drugs are dramatized almost off-handedly, as a given. There aren't many plays written about football, but Bolinger and Schalter's work has a raw potential--probably more as a movie than a play.
At 6472 Santa Monica Blvd., Fridays through Sundays, 7 p.m., through April 2. Tickets: $10. (213) 466-1767.