Monday, October 31, 2011

Taboo Or Not Taboo

Are you fully disclosed to your doctor?  Your boyfriend?  Your spouse?

I didn't think so. No matter how hard anyone professes to have no secrets, somewhere inside their head a tiny voice is screaming "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire!" through a haze of denial.
  • If it's a financial secret, it's probably not as big or bad as Bernie Madoff's.
  • If it's a romantic secret, you're probably following in the footsteps of countless others.
  • If it's a secret about your health, it will eventually come out. (Remember the shock waves when the media learned that Rock Hudson had AIDS?)
  • If it's a secret about your identity, that too will be unmasked. Check out Billy Tipton's story.
  • If you're a closeted lobbyist or politician who thinks his secret is safe, just ask Larry Craig, George Rekers, Ed Schrock, or Roy Ashburn what happened to them.
  • If you're a homophobic religious leader who thinks no one would ever accuse you of having sex with another man, just ask Ted Haggard or Pastor Eddie Long about their falls from grace.
  • If you're a closeted politician doing dumb things on the Internet (or with electronic toys), think about what happened to Anthony Weiner, Mark Foley, James E. West and Philip Hinkle.
Think of all the people who appeared on "I've Got A Secret."  What's yours?

* * * * * * * * *
Hoping to make a good impression on someone causes more people to lie than imaginable. Sometimes it's a little white lie, at other times it's a whopper. Sometimes it's a nervous lie designed to position yourself as the kind of person a potential employer or a date might like to know. Sometimes it's a lie of omission.

That last type of lie tends to bite people in the ass at the most unfortunate moments. Lies of omission are the key plot points in The Last Romance, a sweet and tender play by Joe DiPietro that has been meticulously directed by Laird Williamson down at San Jose Rep, where it is receiving its regional premiere.

A tidy two-act dramedy that will have tremendous appeal to older audiences, The Last Romance features an ugly dog named Peaches and the ghostly memory of a naive young man (Joshua Jeremiah) who once had operatic ambitions.

Will Marchetti and Joshua Jeremiah in
The Last Romance (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Each of DiPietro's three main characters is hiding a painful and embarrassing truth.
  • Ralph Bellini (Will Marchetti) is an 80-year-old Italian-American widower living in Hoboken, New Jersey. He and his wife used to dress up and go to the Metropolitan Opera once a year but, ever since Anna died in her sleep, he's been pining for some female companionship and the touch of a loving woman.
  • Rose (Sharon Lockwood) is Ralph's sister, the stereotype of a overly negative, nagging Italian-American relative who, because she is miserable, thinks the whole world should be miserable. Rose moved in with her brother shortly after Anna's death and has been cooking, cleaning, and picking up after him ever since. A control freak whose husband left her 22 years ago, Rose is cut from the same cloth as Tony's sister Marie in The Most Happy Fella. Her closest friend, Annette, is a never-ending source of local gossip.
  • Carol Reynolds (Kitty Winn) is a wealthy 75-year-old woman whose husband, after suffering a stroke four years ago, became a vegetable. Forced to put him into a long-term care facility, Carol rescued a dog from the ASPCA to ease her loneliness

Carol (Kitty Winn) and Ralph (Will Marchetti) in
The Last Romance (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

When Ralph tries to start up a conversation with Carol on a park bench, the former executive secretary is cold, wary, and not the least bit interested in getting to know the strange man who is so shamelessly trying to flirt with her. But Ralph is not the kind of person to take no for an answer. Slowly, but surely, he pierces through Rose's defense mechanisms.

By the time Rose arrives home one afternoon to find her brother necking with Carol in his easy chair, the audience knows full well that this affair has a limited shelf life. While she is quick to tell Carol that Ralph is a real catch "because he can still drive at night," Rose is clearly threatened by his demonstrations of puppy love.

Unwilling to confront the source of her own misery -- and deeply resenting Ralph's attraction to Carol --  Rose doesn't hesitate to ruin her brother's brief chance at happiness. For a play about geezers in love, one of the nicest things about The Last Romance (which premiered in Kansas City's New Theatre Restaurant in 2008) is that all three characters are still alive at the play's end.

Carol (Kitty Winn) and Rose (Sharon Lockwood) in
The Last Romance (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Kitty Winn, Sharon Lockwood, and Will Marchetti deliver solidly-crafted characterizations of three lonely souls. Joshua Jeremiah's appealing baritone adds a lyrical touch to the proceedings (the young opera singer has appeared in The Last Romance in Kansas City, San Diego, and San Jose). Karen Altree Piemme's program notes reveal how carefully DiPietro chose certain arias to mirror the action taking place onstage (or the thoughts in Ralph and Carol's minds).

The Last Romance is a gently teasing, but realistic play which is not merely about what happens when a person's most intimate secrets are betrayed. DiPietro asks audiences to consider whether anyone in the last stages of life is entitled to take risks, feel happy, have an adventure, and maybe even fall in love.

With a cast of four and a simple unit set, The Last Romance should have no trouble becoming a tidy and economical crowd pleaser for regional theatre companies. Its characters are easily recognizable and its moments of anguish and joy equally palpable.

Kitty Winn, Will Marchtti, and Sharon Lockwood
star in The Last Romance (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

* * * * * * * * *
There is nothing tender or gentle about the American Conservatory Theater's new production of Race. The West Coast premiere of this 2009 dramedy by David Mamet may take place in a sleekly angled law office designed by Christopher Barreca, but audiences should not be fooled. This play is about legal sharks swimming in very expensive waters. And these sharks smell blood. As the playwright explains:
"Race, like sex, is a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth. In each, desire, self-interest, and self-image make the truth inconvenient to share not only with strangers, but with members of one's own group, and, indeed, with oneself."
Smoothly directed by Irene Lewis, Race turns into a legal game about enticement and entrapment involving four characters:
  • Charles Strickland (Kevin O'Rourke) is a wealthy businessman, a smug "Master of the Universe" type who has been charged with raping a black prostitute in a hotel room.  Not yet willing to admit that his case has been declined by the first law firm he approached, Strickland is now hoping that a multiracial law firm will be able to win the case for him. Because money is no issue (and no one would ever dare to call him on his bullshit), Strickland's overwhelming sense of white male privilege makes him believe that the simplest way to put the matter to rest would be to go directly to the press and try to explain everything to them.
  • Henry Brown (Chris Butler) is the African American attorney Strickland hopes will be able to save his ass. Smart as a whip but streetwise in ways his business partner could never understand, Henry is deeply suspicious of the firm's new hire, a young African American female attorney who keeps her cards close to her chest.
  • Jack Lawson (Anthony Fusco) is Henry's law partner, a well-intentioned white man who took a chance on hiring the young African American attorney in question after thoroughly (and, in some ways, illegally) investigating her past. As a practiced lawyer who can find an excuse for anything, Jack is convinced that the victim's red sequined dress holds the key to winning Strickland's case.
  • Susan (Susan Heyward), the firm's new attorney, is nobody's fool. But, as an African American woman, she says things from a very different perspective than her male employers. From the moment she first laid eyes on Strickland, she was convinced of his guilt. Adept at sparring with Jack and Henry over legal and ethical trivia, she has a few interesting moves of her own.
Kevin O'Rourke and Chris Butler in David Mamet's Race
Photo by: Kevin Berne

The action is Mamet's play is quite secondary to the assumptions he puts in the hands of each character (as well as the audience). As I watched Race unfold, I was reminded of what an old leather friend once said to me. "The reason lawyers make the very best bottoms is because they'll do absolutely anything!" But as director Irene Lewis stresses:
"The language moves so fast that it doesn't give the audience a lot of time to digest what they've just seen. You've got these lawyers. Their weapons are words.  They annihilate whomever they're talking to."
Anthony Fusco and Susan Heyward in David Mamet's Race
Photo by: Kevin Berne

Much of Race resembles a high-stakes three-dimensional game of chess, with each new revelation shifting the advantage from one character to another. In the end, one likes or feels any sympathy for any of the characters onstage, which is exactly what leads to Mamet's brutal final statement.
  • It's not about whether Jack and Henry should have agreed to take on Strickland's case.
  • It's not about whether Jack and Henry should have investigated Susan's private life.
  • It's not about whether Strickland should have gone to the press, kept his mouth shut, or confessed to raping his mistress.
  • Nor is it about whether or not Susan sold out her employers.
As Susan tersely informs Jack at the end of the play, "it's because, White Man, he was guilty."

Susan Heyward  in David Mamet's Race
Photo by: Kevin Berne

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