Tuesday, January 29, 2013

There's A Place for Us

There's an old saying that Jews are "the chosen people." But it's hard not to sympathize with Tevye the Dairyman as he looks toward the sky and asks: "Dear God, just this once, couldn't you choose someone else?"

From Russian Jews being forced from their homes during a Czarist pogrom to innocent victims of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes, the phrase "There's no place like home" takes on a bitter irony when it becomes obvious that one's home no longer exists. Although Harvey Milk liked to insist that "You gotta give them hope," sometimes hope evaporates into thin air as it becomes obvious that one's home is gone forever.

Sudden evictions are traumatic events in the lives of confused and fearful tenants. If people have been walking on eggshells -- or determined to avoid reality -- the impact of being forced out of their homes can be brutal. How well these people bounce back and reclaim their lives is the ultimate test of their resources, their resiliency, and the depth of the human spirit. After all, where should they go?
Two new dramas focus on highly emotional characters whose lives have suddenly been turned upside down and inside out by a sudden eviction. While each contains a great deal of comedy, sarcasm, and frustrated dreams, each paints a remarkable picture of how, given no choice, some people find new ways to survive.

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When one thinks about the history of the American musical theatre, shows with one-word titles take on a peculiar significance.
The title of Matthew Lopez's poignant new dramedy, Somewhere (which received its world premiere in October 2011 from the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and has just received its regional premiere from TheatreWorks), is an acutely specific reference to a song, a show, a time, a place, and a critical moment in the history of the American musical theatre.

When composer Leonard Bernstein, director/choreographer Jerome Robbins, and librettist Arthur Laurents were working on 1957's West Side Story they fashioned a dance scene in Act II in which Tony and Maria could suddenly be transported to an imaginary world in which there was no racial tension and no gang warfare. Sung by soprano Reri Grist, the song underpinning this number contained the following lyrics written by a young Stephen Sondheim:
"There's a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us.
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us

There's a time for us,
Some day a time for us,
Time together with time to spare,
Time to learn, time to care,
Some day!
We'll find a new way of living,
We'll find a way of forgiving
Somewhere . . .

There's a place for us,
A time and place for us.
Hold my hand and we're halfway there.
Hold my hand and I'll take you there
Some day,

Somewhere takes place in the summer of 1959 in a tenement on West 66th Street (the area that New York City's urban planner, Robert Moses, would soon condemn and demolish in order to make way for the trend-setting Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts). By that point, West Side Story had made a huge impact on the theatre world and preparations had begun for the show's film adaptation (whose choreographed prologue was to be shot on the streets of the upper West Side). As the playwright explains:
"To me, musicals are the most important thing ever in the history of the world. That should be stated first and foremost. It's part of my upbringing. It was instilled in me by my parents (who had it instilled in them by theirs) that there was no higher form of artistic expression than an 11 o'clock number. I had no idea who Madonna was. I didn't listen to 'Thriller' until high school. It was all musical theatre being played in our house."
Alejandro (Michael Rosen) dances with his mother (Priscilla Lopez) as
his brother and sister look on in Somewhere (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

As the play begins, the Candelaria family is getting ready for a quick family dinner.
  • The family matriarch (Priscilla Lopez) has just returned home from ushering for a matinee performance at a Broadway theatre. Although Inez is as infatuated with Broadway musicals as Gypsy Rose Lee's mother was with vaudeville, she had a much shorter career as a stage mother. She is now coaching her daughter on the fine points of ushering.
  • Inez's oldest son, Alejandro (Michael Rosen), is preparing dinner. Although he was one of the children in the original Broadway cast of The King and I, 'Jandro has tried to stay grounded in reality. Because he works nearly 80 hours a week at a local grocery store, he is reluctant to audition for any shows. Alejandro also has a closely guarded family secret which has been eating away at his conscience.
  • Inez's youngest son, Francisco (Eddie Gutierrez), is excitedly preparing a scene with Alejandro for his acting class.  'Cisco has dreams of becoming the next Brando and is hopelessly and happily stagestruck.
  • Inez's daughter, Rebecca (Michelle Cabinian), dreams of the day when she can move on up from being an usher to dancing in a Broadway musical.
Jamie (Leo Ash Evens) dances with Rebecca (Michelle Cabinian)
in a scene from Somewhere (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

The hopes of the effusive Candelarias are clearly focused on two goals: being cast in a musical and welcoming their father, Pepe, home from his travels. It soon becomes obvious that Pepe is not only the hero of numerous family legends, but has been gone for a long, long time. When the family is visited by Jamie MacRea  (Leo Ash Evens), who is now working as an assistant to Jerome Robbins, Alejandro's closest childhood friend quickly becomes the center of attention.

Priscilla Lopez as Inez Candelaria in Somewhere
Photo by: Tracy Martin

The family's giddiness over Jamie's visit is shattered by a letter from Robert Moses informing them that their building is scheduled for demolition and that they only have 30 days to vacate the premises. While Alejandro (who was forced to become the man of the house at a very young age) tries to think about the limited options facing the Candelarias, his mother absolutely refuses to leave their apartment. As Giovanna Sardelli explains in her director's note:
"The reason this play spoke to me and continues to move me so deeply is because the fuel that feeds its narrative fire is love. This family loves passionately and profoundly. They love each other, theatre, the movies, dancing, America. They are tantalizingly close to being able to seize the piece of the American dream that is rightfully theirs. They were born to be a part of this American landmark but poverty, and the ominous power of urban planner Robert Moses, conspire against them. Somewhere is the Puerto Rican answer to the question: What happens to a dream deferred? In a family of limited resources, who gets to fly and who must stay on the ground? Who has the right to dream? What if your dreams cost others? What if those others are people you love? To Robert Moses, those in the way of his dreams are expendable strangers. But to Alejandro Candelaria, they are family."
Alejandro (Michael Rosen) reads a letter to his
family in Somewhere (Photo by: Mark Kitaoka)

Act I ends abruptly, with the sound of wrecking crews and dynamite leveling the neighborhood (causing a hasty evacuation by the Candelarias). In Act II, the family has relocated to a nicer apartment in the Fort Greene Housing Projects in Brooklyn and, a year later, Alejandro is working at the new Hilton Hotel where he delivers room service orders to the guests.

Jamie is now involved in the filming of West Side Story.  In fact, that very morning Inez walked right up to Jerome Robbins and invited him home for dinner. Knowing that Robbins would never show, Jamie has arrived at the Candelaria apartment, where Alejandro learns that his kid sister is going to audition for Robbins.

Throughout Lopez's play there are periodic radio announcements about current events, including the growing American involvement in Vietnam. Late in the second act, when Jamie finally convinces the increasingly depressed Alejandro to reconsider his dream of becoming a dancer, it's already too late. By the end of the play, Alejandro is in Vietnam while his worried family bravely tries to celebrate Christmas without him.

There is so much to applaud in Lopez's play that it almost hurts to point out a confusing technicality in Act II which nearly begs to be fixed. Following the scene in which Jamie begs his childhood friend to rediscover his dancing feet, there is a beautiful solo choreographed by Greg Graham for Alejandro (Rosen studied for three years at the School of American Ballet) in which the audience gets to see the potential 'Jandro had to become a professional dancer.

Michael Rosen as Alejandro (Photo by: Tracy Martin)

For draft dodgers like George W. Bush (whose family had strong political connections) and chickenhawks like Dick Cheney (who had "other priorities"), there were ways to avoid being sent off to Vietnam. Low income minority kids like Alejandro had no such options. Unfortunately, for many in today's audiences who have grown up in the era of an all-volunteer military, there is absolutely no awareness of the paralyzing fear that enveloped families whose sons had been or were likely to soon be drafted.

The result is that Somewhere ends on a bittersweet, if somewhat confused note, leaving the Candelarias (as well as the audience) without any surety about the family's future. One thing is for sure, though: This time no one feels the urge to sing any show tunes.

I found Lopez's play to be a deeply touching breath of fresh air and look forward to seeing Marin Theatre Company's production of his other play, The Whipping Man, in late March.  In the meantime, hats off to a tightly-knit ensemble (especially Michael Rosen and Eddie Gutierrez) and an extremely promising young playwright.

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Something unusual happened as I watched a DVD screener for The Story of Luke (which will be shown at the upcoming SFIndie Film Festival). Not only did I quickly realize that this was an exquisitely crafted  independent film, I found it far superior to Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Lost in Translation, and Precious (all of which won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Film). I liked The Story of Luke so much that I watched it twice.

Written and directed by Alonso Mayo, The Story of Luke is certainly not the only film to feature an autistic character. Leonardo DiCaprio (What's Eating Gilbert Grape) and Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man) delivered poignant portrayals of autistic men which were riveting pieces of work.

However, unlike many previous examples, Luke (Lou Taylor Pucci) is neither hopeless, helpless, noncommunicative, nor a savant. After his mother abandoned him, Luke was lovingly raised by his grandmother, who home schooled the boy and taught him how to cook breakfast and 23 gourmet dinner dishes. As a fairly high-functioning person with autism, Luke is precise, focused, intelligent, methodical and extremely well-mannered.

There's just one problem. The film begins shortly after his grandmother has died, which means that Luke and Grandpa Jonas (Kenneth Welsh) are going to have to move in with their relatives.

Grandpa Jonas (Kenneth Welsh) and Luke (Lou Taylor Pucci)

Bottom line: Luke's carefully constructed world and safely structured lifestyle (he watches a lot of cooking shows) have vanished into thin air. When his Uncle Paul (Cary Elwes) asks him what he wants to do, Luke's answer is not at all what one would expect.

One can see Grandma Mildred's endless patience reflected in the way Luke interacts with his increasingly senile grandfather, the soothing platitudes he employs to defuse tense situations, and his meticulous attention to detail. One can't help but notice how she trained Luke to think positively, learn from his experiences, and try to adjust to new situations in as well-mannered a way as possible. As evidenced in the following news clip, a young man  like Luke is not a fantasy figure.

In his director's statement, Mayo explains that:
"Since I was a child, I was surrounded by people with special needs, their parents and the professionals that serve them because my mother runs the Centro Ann Sullivan del PerĂº (an educational center for kids and adults with developmental delay). I started my film career by making training videos about supported employment programs and have always been particularly fascinated with autism -- especially those individuals who stand close to the line between the 'normal world' and their own. It’s a tough place to be, where society has little expectations of you, where you are categorized based on your limitations and are basically regarded as a person of lesser value. But just as I have seen many examples of discrimination and frustration, I have also seen examples of the exact opposite, of what happens when you stop looking at someone’s limitations, when you forget about what a certain person should realistically achieve, and just treat them like anybody else. That tough place suddenly becomes a place that, for anybody that cares to look, is filled with surprising achievements, with laughter. Luke will make you look. Not because he is autistic and so different than you or anybody you’ve ever met, but because he is so similar in the most basic way. Luke wants a job, a girlfriend, and to live on his own. What makes Luke so special is that he wants to live -- desperately -- and his desperation is contagious. Someone that doesn’t know him could look at Luke and see him as a disabled person that merits pity. But give him a minute of your time and you’ll see that Luke is actually a hero on a quest."

Aunt Cindy (Kristin Bauer) and Luke (Lou Taylor Pucci) have a drink
The challenge facing Luke is to master a new environment and new lifestyle. His uncle Paul and cousins Brad (Tyler Stentiford) and Megan (Mackenzie Munro) make no bones about the fact that Luke's Aunt Cindy (Kristin Bauer van Straten) is a total bitch. But when Luke sets out to get a job, meet a girl, and become a man, his determination and resourcefulness can even win over such dubious onlookers as Zack (Seth Green) and Angry Betsy (Ann Holloway).
Zack (Seth Green) tries to mentor Luke (Lou Taylor Pucci)
Along the way, Luke develops a crush on a sweet and attractive receptionist named Maria (Sabryn Rock) and has an extremely poignant encounter with his birth mother (Lisa Ryder). To give away much more of the plot would ruin some lovely surprises. Rest assured that Seth Green triumphs as another highly dysfunctional, angry young nerd. Lou Taylor Pucci's captivating portrait of Luke rests on a foundation of vocal modulation, careful phrasing, practiced body language, and the kind of simple goals that make most people around him seem horrifyingly petty and materialistic. The Story of Luke is a gem of an indie film. You won't want to miss it.
Lou Taylor Pucci stars in The Story of Luke

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