Wednesday, October 5, 2016

When Parting Is Such Bittersweet Sorrow

Some people have perfected the art of making an entrance. Knowing when to leave, however, is quite another story. A dear friend of mine once told me that it's always best to leave a party before you're asked to leave. Not everyone is clear on that concept.
  • Those who are shy, tired, or have other responsibilities to worry about (children, babysitters, a day job) might keep eyeing their watches until they can find a convenient moment to say their farewells. 
  • Those who have had a few too many drinks (or are deeply in love with the sound of their own voice) may hang around until closing time or until their hosts tell them it's time for everyone to go to bed.
Lyricists are often required to frame good-byes with a sense of poetry and poignancy. The following three examples range from the grateful to the inquisitive and, finally, to the resigned. Written by Joe Hamilton, the opening verse to the theme song for The Carol Burnett Show states:
"I'm so glad we had this time together,
Just to have a laugh, or sing a song.
Seems we just get started and before you know it,
Comes the time we have to say, 'So long.'"
The great songwriter, Billy Barnes, famously wrote:
"I wanted the music to play on forever
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
I wanted the clown to be constantly clever
Have I stayed too long at the fair?
The merry-go-round is beginning to slow now
Have I stayed too long at the fair?"
The lyrics that Adolph Green and Betty Comden wrote for the hit song from 1956's Bells Are Ringing state:
"The party's over, it's time to call it a day
No matter how you pretend
You knew it would end this way.
It's time to wind up the masquerade
Just make your mind up
The piper must be paid."
Some people get fired from their jobs, others resign. Some people go through a bitter divorce, others agree to an amicable separation. Of course, there are always a few characters who prefer to make their exit with panache. Consider the vain rake, Stephen Kodaly, from Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick's 1963 musical, She Loves Me.

* * * * * * * * *
Commissioned by San Francisco Playhouse, Theresa Rebeck's new play, Seared, debuted on a unit set designed by the company's artistic director, Bill English. Seared takes place in the kitchen of a small restaurant on the cusp of fame where the business venture is a partnership between two old friends pursuing a common dream.
  • Harry (Brian Dykstra) is, to all who have tasted his food, an extraordinary chef who knows how to blend spices with various meats and fish to deliver an exquisite dish that can coax a satisfied swoon from the pickiest diner. While people marvel at Harry's skill in the kitchen, those who work closely with him have learned to tiptoe around some of his moods and neuroses. What they often fail to understand is that Harry is not just a perfectionist. He has an artistic temperament and is always competing against himself. What some people misinterpret as prima donna behavior is actually a culinary talent trying to make sure that the dishes he creates and serves to his customers reflect his own personal sense of integrity. That's easier said than done. Why? Because Harry is an artisan, not a magician.
  • Mike (Rod Gnapp) is one of Harry's closest friends and his business partner. Over the years, he's seen Harry suffer while working in someone else's kitchen. Together, they have struggled to make Harry's dream come true -- to have his own restaurant which can serve as his creative outlet while supporting him financially. For better or for worse, Mike is a numbers man who keeps a keen eye on profit margins and "what if" scenarios (like what if the landlord raises their rent). While Harry has provided the sweat equity, Mike is the businessman who invested hard cash in the restaurant. After two years of pouring money into the project, he's itching to get a return on his investment.
Mike (Rod Gnapp) and Harry (Brian Dykstra) are co-owners
of a restaurant in Seared (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

The two men have managed well enough with their intimate, eight-table restaurant in Brooklyn for Harry's food to get a "Best Bet" mention in New York Magazine. Eager to take advantage of such a golden PR opportunity, Mike has invited a young foodie/consultant named Emily (Alex Sunderhaus) to see if she can help take the restaurant to the next level in terms of media buzz and profitability. While Emily is an expert at consuming and describing food, her presence creates one problem. Mike hasn't consulted Harry about bringing her on board.

Brian Dykstra (Harry), Alex Sunderhaus (Emily), and Rod Gnapp
(Mike) in a scene from Seared (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

With or without an MBA to her name, Emily knows how to network, call in favors, set up endorsement opportunities, and use a smartphone. While Harry is the kind of person who needs to mull over decisions, prepare for events, and keep refining a new dish until he is ready to serve it to the restaurant's customers, Emily is the kind of enthusiastic millennial who craves instant gratification and likes to move fast (perhaps a bit too fast). Nor does she have a written contract with Harry and Mike (she and Mike have merely agreed to "see what happens").

Quietly watching the proceedings with an eagle eye is the restaurant's waiter, Rodney (Larry Powell), a young African American who has worked closely with Harry and understands how he thinks. If Rodney, Emily, and Mike stand in awe of Harry's talent, perhaps that's because (in addition to loving the food he creates) they're keenly aware that they haven't got any culinary talents of their own. At their best, they are what Shakespeare referred to as "the rude mechanicals."

Rodney (Larry Powell) is the waiter in a new restaurant in Seared
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

During her career, Rebeck has frequently written about the conflict between highly idealistic artistic types who tend to approach projects with a view toward their long-term impact (e.g. the architects in her play, What We're Up Against) and the greedier business types who are willing to cut corners if such actions will lead to bigger profit margins. A key moment in Seared arrives when Emily and Mike keep pressuring Harry to use cheap, farmed salmon ("It's not art, Harry, it's just a piece of fish....") and he insists that they taste a dish he's been creating which requires much more expensive (and difficult to procure) wild salmon. Viva la difference!

About 25 years ago, when a financial crisis led me back into the field of medical transcription so I could earn  a steady income, the woman who hired me and agreed to help me get up to speed was careful to explain one of the key rules of transcribing dictation from doctors who often cannot form a coherent sentence. While she did not want people to transcribe what each doctor said verbatim (which could be disastrous if it ever appeared in a patient's medical record), she stressed that we were being paid on a production basis by the number of lines we had typed. Knowing all too well that people who studied grammar and creative writing had a tendency to spend extra time rewriting someone's jumbled dictation, she sternly cautioned me that "We're not making art here."

Some marriages and business partnerships succeed when a balance can be struck between the artistic talent and the numbers people. But if one side works too hard to dominate the other (and fails to include them in the decision-making process), the equilibrium in their relationship can be lost -- with tragic consequences. As Emily and Mike start to change vendors, print new menus, and add sidewalk tables without hiring any extra help, the stress keeps piling up on the kitchen staff. Soon, it seems as if Harry is supposed to be taking his marching orders from a consultant who can't even cook. The last thing they should be doing is filling Harry with so much repressed rage that, because he can't perform, he hangs up his apron and goes for a very long walk at a critical moment for the restaurant.

Harry (Brian Dykstra) and Mike (Rod Gnapp) can't stop
arguing in a scene from Seared (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli) 

David Gockley (who recently retired as General Director of the San Francisco Opera) frequently told people that his job was to keep the machinery of an opera company running smoothly enough so that he could clear a path for the artists to do their work without having to make their way through an obstacle course. As directed by Margarett Perry, Seared does a beautiful job of capturing the enthusiasm of Harry's fans (who genuinely want to help him succeed) while demonstrating the harm they can do by pushing the talent (which was the main reason for opening this restaurant in the first place) too hard and too fast in their lust to achieve quantifiable results.

Harry (Brian Dykstra) is the chef and co-owner of a restaurant
in Theresa Rebeck's Seared (Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Bill English's functioning set (the audience can smell the garlic and onions as they cook) offers a realistic behind-the-scenes atmosphere for Rebeck's excellent script. The four-actor ensemble is uniformly strong although, dressed in Tatjana Genser's stylish costumes, Alex Sunderhaus's portrayal of a young, impetuous, and power-hungry consultant with no sense of boundaries has more appeal as a pushy villain than as a human being. Bill Dykstra gives a complex and beautifully layered performance as the put-upon chef with Rod Gnapp adding to his portrait gallery of confused straight men who never quite "get it" until it's too late. Larry Powell's portrayal of Rodney proves to be far more touching than one might initially expect.

Larry Powell as Rodney in a scene from Seared
(Photo by: Jessica Palopoli)

Performances of Seared continue through November 12 at the San Francisco Playhouse (click here for tickets).

* * * * * * * * *
Theater Rhinoceros opened its 2016-2017 season at the Eureka Theatre with a powerful production of The Brothers Size directed by Darryl V. Jones. Tarell Alvin McCraney's play was first seen in the Bay area in 2010 when Magic Theatre, Marin Theatre Company, and American Conservatory Theater worked together to produce all three parts of McCraney's trilogy entitled The Brother/Sister Plays.

While the playwright's use of spoken stage directions is a stylistic touch which may take audiences some time to embrace, there can be no doubt that McCraney's writing is poetic, muscular, and masculine (according to the playwright, the first reading of The Brothers Size took place in a courtyard in the Miami projects where he lived).

The Brothers Size has a cast of three African American men:
  • Ogun Size (LaKeidrick S. Wimberly) is the responsible older brother who works as an auto mechanic. As a young man, Ogun frequently shouldered the blame for his younger brother's bad behavior. As a grown man, he has stayed employed, never spent time in jail and, despite being abandoned by his wife (Oya), has managed to keep his life on an even keel. When push comes to shove, Ogun must decide whether or not he can be his brother's keeper.
  • Oshoosi Size (Gabriel Christian) is Ogun's irresponsible kid brother who has just been released from prison. Oshoosi doesn't want to talk to his older brother about things that happened to him while he was incarcerated yet, at the same time, he needs some wheels if he is going to be able to go out and get laid.
  • Elegba (Julian Green) is Oshoosi's close friend and the man with whom Oshoosi most likely had a "down-low" sexual relationship while they were in prison.
LaKeidrick S. Wimberly (Ogun), Julian Green (Elegba), and
Gabriel Christian (Oshoosi) in a scene from The Brothers Size
(Photo by: Steven Ho)

In The Brothers Size, the relationship between Ogun and Oshoosi comes to a boil after Oshoosi has an unfortunate run-in with the police (who find some cocaine hidden in Elegba's gym bag when they inspect the car's trunk). Up until then, Ogun had been trying to get Oshoosi motivated to get a job and start living a straight life. But with the police on Oshoosi's trail, there is precious little time for the two brothers to come to grips with what it means to be a blood brother, a spiritual brother, and (in the case of Oshoosi's relationship with Elegba) a gay brother.

This is a play in which male anguish holds hands with macho bravado and in which each brother's sense of shame is brought out into the open. The  sacrifice that Ogun soon realizes is unavoidable requires him to encourage Oshoosi to flee to Mexico and for Ogun to deny his kid brother's very existence. In a 2008 interview in The Sunday Times of London, McCraney explained that:
"Essex Hemphill has this saying, 'Two black men loving one another is a revolutionary act.' He didn't say 'two black gay men,' he just said 'two black men.' It's something we don't see. I wanted to put it on stage -- these men, in all forms of color, trying to figure out how to love themselves and each other."
LaKeidrick S. Wimberly (Ogun), Gabriel Christian (Oshoosi), and
Julian Green (Elegba) in a scene from The Brothers Size
(Photo by: Steven Ho)

A powerful piece of theatre, The Brothers Size offers three forceful portrayals of black men struggling to reconcile their needs with their responsibilities. While the relationship between Oshoosi and his friend Elegba is playful and erotic, Oshoosi's relationship with his older brother is fraught with tension and despair. Without a job, Oshoosi isn't in any rush to worry about what his future holds in store. Ogun, however, is acutely aware that Oshoosi's laziness and easy-going nature could be his undoing.

Gabriel Christian (Oshoosi) and LaKeidrick S. Wimberly (Ogun)
in a scene from The Brothers Size (Photo by: Steven Ho)

The three-man ensemble performing The Brothers Size for Theatre Rhinoceros is at once engaging, yet distancing as they seem locked in a world of their own troubles. While Gabriel Christian (Oshoosi) and Julian Green (Elegba) deliver strong performances, the evening's dramatic weight rests on the shoulders of LaKeidrick S. Wimberly who, as Ogun, often seems to breathe fire.

LaKeidrick S. Wimberly (Ogun) and Gabriel Christian (Oshoosi)
in a scene from The Brothers Size (Photo by: Steven Ho)

Performances of The Brothers Size continue at the Eureka Theatre through October 15 (click here for tickets).

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