Monday, September 12, 2016

Desperate Times Call For Desperate Measures

Utter the words "Clear and Present Danger" and most people will think of the 1994 movie based on Tom Clancy's popular thriller. An image of Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan may quickly pass through their memory. However, they probably won't think of  "clear and present danger" as referring to a female. Unless, of course, they are women.
  • Women who worry about being groped at work or while riding public transit
  • Women who fear being attacked by a stalker or raped by a sexual predator
  • Women who must constantly be on their guard, aware of sudden moves by suspicious strangers. 
Statistics indicate that the most dangerous threats often come from people a woman might already know. Whether they risk being assaulted by an employer, co-worker, spouse, or relative, it's often difficult for a woman to convince police that the person who humiliated or assaulted her might have actually been a friend.

Two new plays that received their world premieres in San Francisco this month focused on women who suddenly found themselves severely compromised by someone they trusted. Each woman is faced with the need to make a tough decision about her future. When they turn to people they should be able to rely on for help, these women must go to extreme lengths to get the attention of superficial friends and family members who orbit around them. The lesson they learn is simple: Life is not fair, especially when you're scared and vulnerable.

* * * * * * * * *
Set against the harsh realities of a Chicago winter, Nosejob focuses on the plight of Eleanor Shapiro (Laura Espino), a nerdy young Jewish woman who has just been fired from her job as the weather forecaster for a local television station. The reason for her termination had nothing to do with her ability to perform her job duties. Instead, her boss simply wanted to replace her with his girlfriend, a young woman who looked more like the bubbly blondes hired by Fox News and didn't have an "ethnic nose."

Directed by Richard S. Sargent, Susan Rabin's new romantic comedy follows Eleanor's emotional roller coaster ride starting as she leaves her office screaming insults at the station manager. Painfully aware that she has a honker of a nose (as well as other issues which contribute to her low self-esteem), Eleanor can't help wondering if life would be a whole lot easier if she were tall, blonde, and stupid.

Robert (Amir Hasan) and Eleanor (Laura Espino) meet
at a Chicago television station in a scene from Nosejob 
(Photo by Richard S. Sargent)

As she is about to leave, she is approached by a handsome man whose halting speech barely covers an embarrassing level of shyness. A socially clumsy, self-confessed "weather nerd," Robert (Amir Hasan) is a successful plastic surgeon. After some feeble attempts at conversation, he asks Eleanor out to dinner and gives her his business card in the hope that she will call him. Ironically, they live in the same neighborhood.

Waiting downstairs for Eleanor is her garrulous father (Kenneth Shaw). A taxi driver with a worrisome gambling habit, Sammy keeps nagging his daughter to not be so picky about the men she dates. He's always had a soft spot for Derk (Matthew Thomas Ward), the lunkhead who recently proposed to his daughter but Eleanor finds Derk mildly repulsive, with good reason. He's a stereotypical dumb jock who drank so much on a recent date that, after he blacked out, she had to drive him home.

Sammy (Kenneth Shaw) gives his daughter (Laura Espino) a
taxi ride in a scene from Nosejob (Photo by: Richard S. Sargent)

By the time Eleanor makes it back to her apartment her nerves are frazzled, she's cold and depressed. Her roommate, Valerie (Adrienne Dolan), is of little help. A rail-thin model, Valerie tries to sound smart but ends up mispronouncing lots of words, especially if they are Yiddish. Whereas Eleanor excels in science, communication and thinking long-term, Valerie excels in short-term solutions and the three F's of her trade: fashion, flirting, and eating as little food as possible. She suggests Eleanor start reading some fashion magazines and consider spending her money on a nosejob if she wants to keep working in television as she nears 30.

After Eleanor shows her roommate Robert's business card, Valerie surprises her by setting up an appointment so that Eleanor can learn how much the procedure will cost. To her surprise, Robert goes out of his way to dissuade her from getting a nosejob, partly because he thinks she looks fine just the way she is and also because he wants to date her rather than operate on her.

Eleanor (Laura Espino) and Valerie (Adrienne Dolan) are
roommates in Nosejob (Photo by Richard S. Sargent)

Meanwhile, one of Sammy's bookies is pressuring him to pay up on an old debt. In true Chicago style, the demand is accompanied by a close deadline and a threat of physical violence if Sammy doesn't come up with the money right away. Unaware that his daughter has just lost her job, he starts leaning on Eleanor for another loan.

Just when it seems as if nothing else could possibly go wrong, Derk shows up at the apartment, hoping to get back together with Eleanor. He may not be big on manners or personality, but Derk's last name is Wrigley (like the folks who make Wrigley's chewing gum and who built Wrigley Field). Since his father sits on the board of WGN (the flagship station of Tribune Media), he's sure his dad could put in a good word for his girlfriend.

Robert (Amir Hasan) and Eleanor (Laura Espino) find each other under
strange circumstances in Nosejob (Photo by Richard S. Sargent)

On one hand, Eleanor and her father are both desperate for money. On the other hand, Eleanor and Robert are desperate for love. After several surprising twists and turns, Robert reassures Eleanor that he's not a stalker. He explains that he was the chubby boy with braces who sat behind her in elementary school and was ignored by all of their classmates. Robert has had a life-long crush on Eleanor and devotedly watches each and every one of her weather forecasts. Although he's now a handsome, successful, and sincere professional, he can't stop stammering in her presence.

Like most actors who portray Cyrano de Bergerac, Laura Espino goes through the evening wearing a prosthetic nose to telegraph her character's problems with self image. It's possible that Eleanor could be portrayed just as easily without prosthetic makeup, but doing so might make her sense of outrage seem unreasonable.

Rabin's supporting characters have been carefully fleshed out, although some performances were stronger than others. I particularly enjoyed the work of Adrienne Dolan as the ditsy Valerie and Amir Hasan as the lovelorn Robert. Richard S. Sargent's direction kept the comedy moving without letting Rabin's script sag.

Amir Hasan (Robert) and Matthew Thomas Ward (Derk)
rehearse a scene from Nosejob (Photo by Richard S. Sargent)

* * * * * * * * *
Written by Phillip Howze and directed by Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, all of what you love and none of what you hate received its world premiere from the San Francisco Playhouse as part of its Sandbox Series for new works. A well-intentioned script, this 80-minute drama could easily have had 50 minutes cut from its premiere production. Although it attempts to deal with tough issues like teen pregnancy and self-induced abortions, the opening night was the theatrical equivalent of a stillborn birth.

Britney Frazier as Girl A searches online for help in
all of what you love and none of what you hate
(Photo by: Ken Levin)

Girl A (Britney Frazier) is a sullen 15-year-old black girl moping around her bedroom and stalling on her chores. When her mother (India Wilmott) starts pressuring her to do the dishes, she senses that something is wrong and tries to get her daughter to open up to her. Meanwhile, Girl B (Tristan Cunningham) is trying to stay in touch with Girl A on her smartphone while listening to music. Girl B wants to become a better Muslim and considers herself "a good listener." The problem is that she's primarily interested in listening to the sound of her own voice as she gossips over the phone about the other girls at school, unable to realize that Girl A needs compassion and support but is too emotionally fragile to ask for help.

Tristan Cunningham as Girl B and Britney Frazier as Girl A in a
scene from all of what you love and none of what you hate 
(Photo by: Ken Levin)

It takes the audience much less time to figure out that Girl A is pregnant than it takes for the playwright to arrive at the big reveal. In the meantime, the production relies on lots of gimmicks ranging from unanswered phone calls to screens which show someone using Google to search online for information about self-induced abortions. By 20 minutes into the show, I was checking my watch on a regular basis. By the time Girl A embarked on an angry soliloquy that consisted of repeating "Blah, blah, blah, blah," I had pretty much lost interest in Howze's drama. Much of the evening turned out to be an execrable bore.

Part of the problem is that each character is woefully immature. Girl A's mother had her child when she was still a teenager and is not having much luck raising a moody daughter. Girl B is a teenage narcissist whose ear buds are tightly plugged in as a means of warding off unpleasant news. The Boy (Cameron Matthews) who got Girl A pregnant is working in a fast food restaurant with no future ahead of him. Eager to pour champagne for the two of them at a picnic, his philosophy boils down to "Ain't got no money, ain't got no worries."

Britney Frazier (Girl A) and Cameron Matthews (Boy) enjoy a
picnic in all of what you love and none of what you hate 
(Photo by: Ken Levin)

In his program note, San Francisco Playhouse’s artistic director, Bill English, asks:
“What is it about a play that can win you over before you’ve even finished it? Certainly, a script can turn one off in as little as ten pages if you can’t identify with the characters, can’t get a grip on the creative world of the play, can’t see where the story is headed. But all of what you love and none of what you hate just grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. I sensed immediately a playwright who deeply loves his characters and sets them at play in a dangerous world where they are to be deeply challenged. A world we know exists but few of us in our safe lives can really imagine. A world burdened by racism and poverty. Poverty of the spirit as well as the flesh."
Britney Frazier as Girl A and Cameron Matthews as the
Boy in all of what you love and none of what you hate
(Photo by: Ken Levin)
"Delicate souls are we all, but these four do not have the tools to navigate the desolate urban landscape they call home. Where are the values to give a life stability? Can a mother, barely past childhood herself, care for her children? Can a boy find a moral compass in the maelstrom of urban macho culture? Who is there to guide these fragile souls? No one. They are cast adrift on their own, to stumble through the dark to the light. Mr. Howze, their creator, knows how tough their chances are to find wonder and joy. And yet he gives them the courage to try."
India Wilmott as the Mother in a scene from Phillip Howze's
all of what you love and none of what you hate (Photo by: Ken Levin)

Although India Wilmott (the Mother) and Tristan Cunningham (Girl B) had some strong moments early in the play, by the time Britney Frazier let loose with Girl A's impassioned rant it was too late to save the evening. While Richard Strauss's 1919 opera, Die Frau Ohne Schatten (The Woman Without A Shadow) ends with the voices of six unborn children, Howze's ensemble of crawling critters making creepy sounds in the dark (unhappy gametes?) proved to be a ridiculously clumsy conceit. It gives me no joy to report that an ambitious play about abortion was dead on arrival.

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