Monday, December 9, 2013

Is That All There Is?

No one goes to the theatre hoping to be underwhelmed. And yet, on numerous occasions following a performance, one can head home feeling surprisingly unfulfilled. Part of this emotional letdown is due to the simple fact that theatre is a live medium. Sometimes there are brilliant surprises. At other performances, a feeling of limp disappointment can ensue. Contributing factors?
  • An actor may be having an off night.
  • The attendee may be tired, stressed, or feeling under the weather.
  • The acoustics of where one is sitting (a dead spot in an auditorium) or the oppressiveness of a production's sound design can have a severe impact on one's level of enjoyment.
  • At some performances, the cast finds an audience less responsive than usual.
  • A creative team of notable artistic pedigree may fail to meet one's expectations.
  • For some inexplicable reason, the "magic" just doesn't show up on the night one attends a highly-praised production.
After decades of attending operatic performances (where factors such as an artist's vocal condition or a conductor's tempi can make or break an evening), I've learned to take certain types of disappointment with a grain of salt. In recent seasons I've also made peace with the fact that, for purely personal reasons, some narratives have less appeal for me than others. The bottom line is that, as a critic, one may hope to be objective but, as an audience member, one's reaction to anything is purely subjective.

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Comedian Alicia Dattner (whose one-woman show entitled The Oy of Sex just began a holiday run at The Marsh) is a high-voltage performer eager to work the room, engage her audience, and use her life experience as comic and dramatic fodder for her monologues.

Dattner's new show is structured very much like what Stephen Sondheim refers to as a list song. In essence, she entertains her audience with stories of fumbled attempts at love, lust, bisexuality, and wrestling with the conundrum of a Jewish girl learning how to indulge in polyamory without suffering from the usual attacks of guilt and low self-esteem. Underlying her desperation for approval are the familiar emotions of the underachiever suffering from impostor syndrome; the person whose enthusiasm propels her into awkward situations but whose overwhelming sense of inadequacy prevents her from enjoying her own success.

Bottom line: Is the skill which allows someone to a tie a knot in a cherry stem with one's tongue something to be celebrated after one's tongue ring gets caught on a man's Prince Albert?

As Dattner proceeds from describing her first attempt to kiss a boy in kindergarten through various sexually liberating experiences (her physical depiction of trying to eat out another woman in a karaoke bar while mentally searching for an escape route is hilarious), one becomes increasingly aware that she could have ended her joyfully self-deprecating monologue in at least a half a dozen spots without moving on to one more example of failure. And then another. And another. And another.

At a certain point, Dattner's narrative started to remind me of a gay man I once knew who, every two weeks, would regale his friends with the intensely dramatic arc of his latest infatuation with a man who seemed destined to become his next husband. When I asked Bobby if he understood why few, if any of his romances lasted beyond 10 days, he was shocked to be told that most of the men he dated were semi-closeted tourists from out-of-town who arrived in San Francisco on a two-week excursion fare.

Alicia Dattner (Photo by: Melissa Schwartz)

During the first 30 minutes of Dattner's opening night at The Marsh there were numerous instances in which what seemed like well-rehearsed punch lines missed their target. Maybe she was having trouble warming up the crowd. Maybe she would have gotten a better response in a nightclub setting where the audience was drinking.

But there's a problem here (what Dattner coyly refers to as a "Cooch-22"). The ultimate strength of The Oy of Sex comes from Dattner's realization that many of her emotional and sexual problems may have been due to a combination of her emotional neediness and an addictive personality. Weaning herself from drugs and alcohol while attending meetings of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous is what finally sets her down a path toward a less frantic definition of self-acceptance.

Alicia Dattner (Photo by: Robert Strong)

One's reaction to Dattner's latest monologue may well depend on the ease with which one relates to certain embarrassing romantic situations, the extent to which one enjoys a female version of Woody Allen's self-deprecating shtick, or one's saturation point for hearing stories of self-inflicted defeats on the battleground of love.

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What happens when a small regional theatre company stages a mediocre play by a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright? Despite the leadership of a veteran stage director and a cast of highly capable local actors, there's no guarantee that the evening will gel. In the case of John Patrick Shanley's 2012 dramedy, Storefront Church, the San Francisco Playhouse's earnest staging felt oddly plagued by a theatrical equivalent of erectile dysfunction. In short, Shanley's play never seemed capable of rising to its own occasion.

In many respects, Shanley's script depicts a cluster of people who, as Pope Francis tells us, have each fallen victim to the ravages of unbridled capitalism. Indeed, there is such a self-conscious sense of balance as each character's questionable morals and emotional weaknesses are laid bare that one gets the feeling of being forced to eat one's vegetables because "they're good for you."

In his program note from the Artistic Director, Bill English writes:
"I feel lucky the last three seasons, with Period of Adjustment, Bell, Book and Candle, and now Storefront Church to find stories that speak to all kinds of needs for connection we all feel at Holiday time, without preaching or appealing to any particular ethnic or religious groups. As Chester (our disillusioned man of God) says, 'We all feel lost" at times, disconnected from the community that helps give our lives meaning. And so, as San Francisco Playhouse continues to dedicate itself to building a more compassionate community, Mr. Shanley's play is a no-brainer bullseye to serve our mission."
Each of Shanley's characters has a robust back story which propels him toward the play's redemptive climax: However, there is no escaping the fact that each one of these characters is a fool.
  • Jessie Cortez (Gloria Weinstock) is an financial fool. A religious Puerto Rican woman who, as the Christmas holiday approaches is eight months behind in payments for her home building improvement loan, she is deep in trouble with her bank 
  • Ethan Goldklang (Ray Reinhardt) is an old fool.  As Jessie's elderly, diabetic and secular Jewish husband, he hopes that he can die soon of a heart attack so that his wife can collect on his life insurance. News that Ethan's doctor has unexpectedly predeceased him gives the old man little solace.
  • Donaldo Calderon (Gabriel Marin) is a political fool.  As Borough President of The Bronx, he is trying to be the local hero who can bring business and jobs to his community. He is shocked, however, to learn that his mother co-signed Jessie's loan without his knowledge.
Ray Reinhardt, Gloria Weinstock, and Gabriel Marin in a
scene from Storefront Church (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)
  • Reed Van Druyten (Rod Gnapp) is a pathetic fool. A loan officer at Jessie's bank who lacks both a sense of humor and any sense of empathy, Reed rose to great power and wealth in the business world and then watched helplessly as his little kingdom imploded. A torrid love affair gone wrong (during which his wife shot him in the face) has left Reed permanently disfigured. A man who was raised outside of religion, Reed has absolutely no understanding of what faith and community mean to others. Nor does he know how to behave in a church.
  • Tom Raidenberg (Derek Fischer) is a corporate fool. As Reed's boss, he's a capitalist tool eager to build a shopping mall in a decrepit Bronx neighborhood (even if it means evicting some people from their homes).
  • Chester Kimmich (Carl Lumbly) is a religious fool. A displaced, disillusioned, and deeply depressed preacher from New Orleans who relocated to The Bronx following Hurricane Katrina, he is still in a state of shock. Unable to connect with his faith, Chester imagines a giant black hole in front of him which has rendered him hopeless and helpless. Although Jessie rented Chester space in her building to use as a storefront church, his emotional and spiritual paralysis has left him unable to build a congregation to which he can preach in order to collect the funds with which he can pay the rent.
Carl Lumbly and Gabriel Marin in a scene from
Storefront Church (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Throughout the play (which has been directed by Joy Carlin on a rotating set designed by Bill English), people try to bribe each other with cake, gingerbread, political deals, and suspiciously forgiven debt. While Shanley (who won numerous awards for Doubt: A Parable) insists that: "There is a dearth of places for people who have a spiritual hunger to satisfy -- and there's a dearth of places for people who have the hunger for community to satisfy," having been raised in a family of atheists, I often have trouble dealing with plays in which the credibility of faith and the goodwill attributed to organized religion are given a free pass.

In Shanley's play, each person has something that could help another but is often prevented from "doing the right thing" by cultural influences. In his recent article for The Huffington Post entitled God Created Gravity: Why the U.S. Can't Keep Pace With Slovenia, Dr. Jeff Schweitzer points to the following crises of knowledge:
  • "As religiosity has ascended in American life, policy debates have become faith-based rather than being anchored in logic. Support for a policy position becomes unmoved by contradictory facts because proponents simply "believe" the position to be correct even in the face of incontrovertible evidence to the contrary."
  • "American religiosity has become an existential threat, undermining the foundation of our future prosperity by contaminating our educational system with superstition, fable, and myth.  We see this with evolution, vaccines, climate change, energy policy, and a host of critical issues that should be based in science but instead are hijacked by ignorance."
  • "Many accept the existence of ghosts with no evidence, but deny the reality of a changing climate with proof before their eyes. This differential deference to evidence is clear indicator that much of the American public lacks the tools to evaluate issues rationally.  Without science, reality becomes just an option to be rejected whenever the real world gives us inconvenient truths."
  • "Many factors have brought us to this sad state of affairs, but we can no longer ignore the 600 pound gorilla and trumpeting elephants in the room.  Religion is killing us.  While our kids are being taught that God created gravity, children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are learning about Newton and Einstein."
  • "The far right can stick their collective heads in the sand and talk about American exceptionalism, but the rest of the world is getting educated in the meantime.  America is indeed number one -- in self delusion."
While Carlin has coaxed reliably sympathetic performances from Gabriel Marin and Carl Lumbly, I was particularly taken by Ray Reinhardt's portrayal of Ethan (which brought back memories of an elderly Eli Wallach) and Rod Gnapp, whose never-ending inventiveness at capturing the wounded souls of imperfect men made the most of Reed's battle-scarred face to deliver a character capable of surprising emotional growth during the course of Shanley's play. Here's the trailer:

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