Friday, February 3, 2012

A Bunch Of Actors In Search of Some Justification

When confronted with a narrative in print, on stage, or on screen, an audience's gut response is simple and to the point: Why should I care about these characters? That's a fair question to ask when one considers that:
  • An audience or reader must invest a considerable amount of time and interest in the outcome of the story.
  • What may seem fascinating and entertaining to an author may not resonate with his audience.
  • After being used a few times, the words "fuck" and "fucking" quickly lose their ability to shock.
  • A story may transpire in a foreign culture, a different historical period, or take place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
Seen back to back, two recent Bay area premieres revolved around people struggling to find themselves. For some, there were difficult truths to embrace; for others there was simply "no there there."

One show offered its audience an intense drama front-loaded with tough choices and tough love; the other offered its audience a whole lot of "Whatever, dude" nonsense. One show felt like a meal packed with proteinfiber, and complex carbs; the other was all empty calories consumed while high and easily flushed from one's memory.

The people depicted in these two plays ranged from the simplest buffoon to the most dysfunctionally selfish bitch; from the most naive and trusting mung bean farmer to the most bitter and cynical financial planner. While audiences were quick to embrace these characters onstage, only one play left me thinking about it after the performance ended.

* * * * * * * * *
Two years ago I attended a reading of a strange new work during Magic Theatre's annual Virgin Play series. At the time, I thought Lloyd Suh's comedy was a pretty pathetic mess -- a whimsical idea that could barely sustain 10 minutes of an audience's attention, much less an hour and a half of stage time. Now that it has received its official world premiere, I can report that Jesus In India is still a pathetic mess. But thanks to the use of multicolored party lights as part of its scenic design, it's a lot prettier to watch.

The challenge for a critic who has attended a reading of a play is to try to shelve his memories of that event and evaluate the world premiere of the subsequently workshopped (and hopefully improved) piece with a fresh mind. However, for the sake of full disclosure, let me make the following points clear:
  • As a Jewish atheist, I'm not particularly drawn to stories about Jesus, whether he is being depicted as a brave martyr or an immature, lame, and extremely selfish stoner.
  • Scenes in which people who are wasted on hashish, marijuana (or in this case, frankincense) may resonate with the stoners in the audience, but often contain notoriously feeble writing.
  • The world is filled with people in search of themselves. Not all of them have compelling stories to tell or the ability to make their story seem particularly interesting.
  • Choosing to write about a lame Jesus risks delivering a lame play.
Suh's comedy attempts to depict Jesus during the "lost years" when, as a rebellious teenager, he ended up becoming a rock star before heading home to his true calling in Galilee. When we first meet Jesus (Damon Daunno), he's about to ditch his best friend Abigail (Jessica Lynn Carroll) after hooking up with Gopal (Bobak Bakhtiari), a young stoner with easy access to a crop of kickass weed.

Jesus proceeds to impregnate Gopal's sister, Mahari (Mahira Kakkar), who is played by the same actress who play's Jesus's mother, Mary. As it turns out, Jesus is a far more rebellious dickhead than righteous dude.

Damon Daunno and Bobak Bakhtiari in Jesus In India
(Photo by: Jennnifer Reiley)

Among Jesus's many unknown talents is his ability to play riffs on an electric guitar. As soon as he decides to form a rock band with Gopal and Sushil (Jomar Tagatac) it seems that, with the help of organic mood elevators, Jesus may have found his calling. But, alas, this is a young slacker who has a limited span of attention, is afraid of commitment, has no sense of responsibility, and is a whole lot less interesting than Suh has tried to make him.

With a nice centerpiece of used bicycle wheels (designed by Michael Locher), director Daniella Topol has tried to breathe as much life as possible into Suh's play. Damon Daunno is an appealing and talented actor/musician whose good lucks and youthful energy are easily embraced by the audience.

Strings of pretty party lights and a fake camel head attached to the handlebars of a tricycle help to add to the play's sense of whimsy (think Godspell and Pippin discover that Jesus is a major K-hole).

Jomar Tagatac, Damon Daunno, and Bobak Bakhtiari form
a rock band in Jesus In India (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

While I applaud Loretta Greco's dedication to supporting young writers, Jesus In India is a very slight piece of work. It helps to know that:
  • In 2003, Christopher Moore published a wonderful novel about a teenage Jesus wandering around in search of himself entitled Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. It is infinitely funnier and far more creative than anything in Suh's new play.
  • As I left the Magic Theatre on opening night, I was stunned by the utter vapidity of Suh's script and how little I cared about any of his characters (this was the theatrical equivalent of eating a huge Chinese dinner and feeling hungry again 30 minutes after it was over).
  • The following promotional video by Magic Theatre pretty much sums up the sophomoric level of humor and writing to be found in Jesus In India.

* * * * * * * * *
If the characters in Jesus In India seem like naive, superficial nitwits, Gina Gionfriddo's rowdy slugfest, Becky Shaw, contains almost as much hysterics and dysfunctionality as August, Osage County (the Tracy Letts multigenerational family brawl that won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama). The big difference is that, although this no-holds barred throwdown pits manipulative users and abusers against the used and abused, each character quickly grips the audience's attention and holds onto it long after the play has ended.

Brian Robert Burns and Liz Sklar in Becky Shaw
Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

Commissioned by the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Becky Shaw had its world premiere in 2008 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays and became a finalist for the following year's Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Gionfriddo's writing is masterfully confrontational, filled with dyspeptic cynicism and family rage. Her characters include:
  • Susan Slater (Suzanne Grodner), a recent widow who is in deep denial about her late husband's affair with Yoshi (a younger Japanese man who, entrusted with the family business's financial matters, royally screwed things up). Years ago, when a friend of Susan's died, she and her husband adopted their boy, Max, as a goodwill gesture (which included paying off Max's petty criminal of a father to stay away from his son for, like, well, forever.) Susan -- who has multiple sclerosis -- has since taken on a redneck lover named Lester, who aspires to become a filmmaker but has a penchant for running up debts on his credit cards and dabbling in mail fraud.
  • Max Garrett (Brian Robert Burns), the aforementioned young man who has grown-up to become a cold and calculating financial planner. Max's decision-making processes may be blunt and brutal, but at least they are driven by logic, rather than misplaced emotions or raging hormonal rushes.
  • Suzanna Slater (Liz Sklar) is Susan's passive aggressive daughter and Max's stepsister. Although Suzanna and Max are thick as thieves, she refuses to acknowledge Lester, much less involve him in any discussions about the family's finances. Suzanna and her mother have a bitter, love-hate relationship which is not at all helped by the fact that Suzanna (who is studying to become a family counselor)  can't handle her mother's criticism, which is dished out with laser precision.
Lee Dolson and Lauren English in Becky Shaw
Photo by: Jessica Palopoli
  • Andrew Porter (Lee Dolson) is the young barista/writer who likes to "rescue" women in emotional distress. When he met the grieving Suzanna on a ski trip where she was dressed in a red ski jacket, he couldn't help likening her to a giant blood clot helplessly adrift in a field of snow. Although Andrew doesn't earn much (and is so politically correct that he cries while watching porn), the couple eloped to Las Vegas four months after they met without ever consulting Max. Andrew also has a friend at work whom he thinks would be a perfect blind date for Max -- an attractive woman who might be able to put some distance between Max and Suzanna.
  • Becky Shaw (Lauren English) is Max's co-worker, a deeply damaged woman estranged from her family and friends who is needy, manipulative, pretty, and pretty available. Becky is the kind of emotional catalyst who turns people into toxic avengers.
Brian Robert Burns and Lauren English in Becky Shaw
Photo by: Jessica Palopoli

Directed by Amy Glazer on a highly effective rotating unit set designed by Bill English, this SFPlayhouse production is one of its sturdiest successes in many months. While none of the characters are essentially likable, Lauren English does a spectacular job of capturing Becky Shaw's soft neediness, seductive femininity, and phenomenally manipulative strength.  Brian Robert Burns and Liz Sklar duke it out as the two step siblings with tons of emotional baggage, while Suzanne Grodner portrayed the kind of selfish, disingenuous, acid-tongued mother that anyone could learn to hate with very little effort.

The class of students in attendance from SFPlayhouse's "Rising Stars" program had no trouble relating to the bitter family fights in Gionfriddo's script (these characters are straight out of the George & Martha School of Venomous Retribution).  You may not like these people, but you sure as hell can't ignore them.

Performances of Becky Shaw continue at SFPlayhouse through March 10 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

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