Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics


CONSTELLATIONS by Nick Payne at the Geffen

Goodwin, her orange sweater and poor Leech (Chris Whitaker photo credit)

For the last two-plus years, I've been hearing what has seemed like a non-stop hymn of praise for the two-hander play Constellations by Nick Payne, which had its Broadway debut in January 2015 with Jake Gylenhaal and Ruth Wilson in the roles of the starry-eyed lovers - "perfectly-matched," as Ben Brantley wrote in the NY Times.  A metaphysical play in which two young lovers break through the time-space continuum in the many expressions of their love - and all lasting little more than an  hour?  That sounds so absolutely up  my alley. Yes, please, bring it on!  I was so sad to miss the Broadway production, but high  hopes for the Geffen production with Ginnifer Goodwin and Allen Leach.  But what a miserable letdown it was!  What an absolute bore!  The 70 or so minutes did the opposite of "fly by" - it seemed to take hours before this production was finally put out of its misery, during which time several audience members had turned tail and fled the theater, some actually running.  What happened?  Ginnifer Goodwin did.  She single-handedly destroyed what I'm sure is a wonderful play in the right hands.  Director Giovanna Sardelli must bear some blame  - first, for the tacky-looking set design and that hideous orange sweater that Goodwin's character wore, but most of all for casting Goodwin, who performed throughout in a flat voice and was completely unconvincing as both a scientist (ha!) and as a lover.  She and Allen Leach seemed more like brother and younger sister, except with less chemistry.  Seriously, this is the worst example of miscasting of a new play (or new to us anyway) that I can recall.  I was so bored out of my mind, all I could do was sit there thinking about all the great Los Angeles women who would have shined in that role: Rebecca Mozo, Kate Morgan Chadwick, Deborah Puette, Kaci Rogers, Annika Marks, Vanessa Stewart, Jeanne Syquia, Lily Nicksay - the list goes on and on, just as the play did.  Any one of them, paired with a decent actor like Mr Leech, could have been magificent.  Hell, Flo from Progressive would have brought more to the role than Ms. Goodwin did, and the play simply makes no sense - has no meaning - without a great love at its center. What were you thinking, Ms. Sardelli and the Geffen team?  What were you possibly thinking?


Stella Kim, Sharon Friedman and John Copeland in THE GUARD WILL ESCORT YOU TO RUFF-RUFF by Carole Real  (Photo: Youthana Yuos)

Ensemble Studio Theatre of Los Angeles's decision to stage a festival of original one acts at the same time that the Fringe is going on 15 minutes away in Hollywood raises some serious questions about planning and strategy from their leadership, especially when so little is going on in theater circles after July 4th.  Really, any time of the year would be better than right now, since who wants to compete with 375 productions just down the road?  Isn't it difficult enough to draw an audience for a festival of new one acts anyway?

In contrast to the unpredictability of the Fringe, with its big highs and lows, the EST-LA Festival offers several pleasures with a certainty and stability attached.  There is the pleasure of catching the work of veteran writers who have an assuredness about the way they spin a tale.  And there is the pleasure of watching actors - many of them veterans too - who go about their business with nothing to prove, simply enjoying the work.  There definitely is an Ensemble Studio Theatre style - basically naturalistic in approach, but drama or comedy stripped down to its essence - more comedy than drama, usually - and always providing the small casts with meaty character roles.

There are 3 programs - A, B and C.  I've managed to catch A and B.  B is still going on and has two more shows this weekend.

Sarch McCarron and Kevin Comartin in THE DARKEST PLACE by Karen Rizzo, the darkest one act in Evening A (Youthan Yuos photo credit)

Program A had 5 plays, all two-handers between a man and a woman.  All were dark comedies of various shades.  The standout of the evening for me was Deborah Pearl's Can You Hear Me Now?, in which Caitlin Gallogly and Will McFadden played a dating couple who alternately were breaking up with each other or on the verge of proposing marriage, depending on the strength of their cell phone reception and what they thought the other person was saying.  While more a sketch than a fleshed-out play, the piece had some brilliant comedic twists and turns and was well-directed by Christopher Raymond, who had the actors walking in and out of each other's spaces in search of a stronger cell signal, which wittily dramatized the state of confusion that both were plagued by.  So Lovely Here On Earth by Mary Portser was also a noteworthy short play.  In it, Christopher Reiling appears to be interviewing Simone McAlonen for her suitability for a flight to Mars, from which she could never hope to return to earth in her lifetime.  "No problem," Simone's character replies.  But Mr Reiling's character has something else on his mind.

Program B has 3 longer one acts - more novellas than short stories: Provenance by Ian Patrick Williams, Writing to Mrs. Otts by Thomas Stringer and The Guard Will Escort You To Ruff-Ruff by Carole Real.  All are entertaining, worthwhile efforts, featuring excellent performances.  All contain deep criticisms of American consumerism, and the way business is conducted here.  All, oddly enough, take place in the past.  The first and third pieces both take place in the recent past, right after the financial meltdown of 2008.  Writing to Mrs. Otts is specified as taking place "in Baltimore in the '70s," but it felt more like the '30s for some reason.  Maybe it was the literary tone of the piece, which was leisurely and reminded me of something from Henry James by way of Nathaniel West.

Eve Sigall, Yolanda Snowball and Justin Shenkarow in WRITING TO MRS OTTS

Mrs Otts was also my favorite piece of the evening because it was the most successful for me in both creating a world and then having its main character undergo a believable and interesting change within it.  John (an excellent Justin Shenkarow) is a young man just starting out in the real estate business.  He wants to sell houses - that's where the real money is! - but in the meantime he's willing to do the grunt work of dealing with problem tenants for a landlord they did business with.  One of these tenants is Mrs Otts, an elderly woman of undetermined place of origin, who must be evicted for unpaid back rent.  It turns out the John looks remarkably like her nephew David, whose framed photo she shows him.  The two form a bond on this basis, and John finds himself much more effected by her eventual eviction than he expected himself to be.  This threatens his plans for being a cutthroat businessman, to the point that he must make a decision about which way his future will go.

Provenance is about a world-class forger being confronted by a very dissatisfied customer.  It features a wonderful and emotionally-rich performance by Tony Pasqualini as the forger, whose love of life has not been dampened by the law having caught up with his game.  Steve Burleigh does very well by the other role, but it would have been stronger if the author had delved a little further into this man's anger and who he is.  As it is, Pasqualini gets all the best lines and Burleigh too often ends up playing the straight man.  Keith Szarabajka directs with a sure hand, finding many ways to keep the action from falling into a predictable rhythm.

The Guard Will Escort You to Ruff-Ruff by Carole Real is the most ambitious of the three plays, taking place in "a large corporation in the U.S. and a factory in China, circa 2009."  The product in question here bears a striking resemblance to "Hello Kitty."  Sharon Freedman plays a temp in an office that is supposed to be overseeing working conditions in the factories that have been sub-leased to turn out the merchandise.  She is shocked to find out the conditions which the workers have to endure, and which is reported in great detail by the Chinese inspectors.  She is haunted by these reports - by the words of the inspector and the visions they conjure up - and she believes that she can convince her boss, played by John Copeland, to take some kind of action.  However, Mr Copeland's character knows on which side his bread is buttered, and that's all he cares about.  The author's anger and frustration come through loud and clear, but that doesn't necessarily make her play more effective.  Throughout Ms. Freedman does a great job in finding different ways to be hopeful in the face of constant rejection - she somehow manages to be funny and sexy even in the direst extreme of frustration.

Program C runs from July 6-16 and will feature 4 new plays:  Things That Matter, a musical by Ellin Hampton with music by Gerald Sternbach; How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall? by Nick Ullett, directed by his wife Jenny O'Hara, in a premiere 32 years in the making; My Jesus Year by Tony Foster; and Between Friends by Katherine Cortez, whose searing play about a nightclub massacre, In The Valley of the Shadow, is just completing its run in the Fringe.

Steve is a 5-tool writer (plays, screenplays, novels, poetry, journalism) who has had 11 books published, 10 plays produced, and has written for the New York Times “Arts & Leisure”, Village Voice, New Republic, and many others. He is one of the few people on the planet who can lay claim to spending time with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, as well as so many other extraordinary people who refused to color inside the lines. He is always on the lookout for the original and the incisive.