Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics

As 2017 winds down, I think it’s inevitable that we ask ourselves: what was that all about?

There were expectations we had – some were met, most weren’t.  There was money made – or not.  Or maybe a windfall, who knows?

There were a series of events… things that happened with parents, children, friends, lovers, business associates, strangers… mostly they were the same things that happened in 2016 and 2015, but with some slight variations.  Or maybe this year was uemarkably different. Who knows?

For the Twisted Hipster, the end of this year marks the end of my year-long return to journalism – something I pursued for 10 years in the last century (or last millenium) for The New York Times, Village Voice, New Republic, New York Newsday, American Theatre, In These Times, and many others.   I returned to journalism only once this century, 16 years ago, when I wrote a piece for the New York Times “Arts and Liesure” section about the effect of 9/11 on Downtown New York theater.  But I really appreciate the opportunity that Enci and Steven Box of Better-Lemons gave me to take up the journalist’s pen again, and the freedom to write what I wanted to.  I’ve learned a lot about my adopted city, and the dreamers who are drawn to the Dream Factory, as well as the Dreamers being threatened with exile.

Of course, the theme of the moment is it’s good to be rich.  Those with money keep making more and will get that windfall I mentioned with this disgusting new Tax Bill.  Those of us without wealth hang on more perilously than ever.  But we do hang in there, yes we do.

No art form is more perilous these days than the theater – as analog as it gets, with no rewind or fast-forward buttons, no collectible value, and completely dependent on the kindness of many strangers (the audience) – especially hard in a TV/Film town like Hollywood.  I attended as many plays as I could last year, which isn’t easy with the bad traffic and the worse parking – I’m still fighting a few parking tickets I got at the Fringe.  I’m not sure that most people understand how difficult it is to make good theater, which budgetary restrictions keep making harder.  After a year of watching other people do it, I’m more impressed by this than ever.

Here then are the 25 best shows I saw here last year – the TOP 12, and then 13 others that were excellent too.  It wasn’t a spectacular year in Los Angeles theater – or maybe it was, and it just didn’t seem that way at the time.  Certainly there is a great deal more stage brilliance here than the world (or the non-theatergoing population of Los Angeles) gives us credit for.

So, going backwards (as I so often do), 3-12, in no particular order:

33 VARIATIONS – Here a remarkable play by Moises Kaufman received the remarkable production it deserved by director Thomas James O’Leary and the production team at the Actors Co-op.  Nan McNamara, playing a musicologist and Beethoven expert stricken with ALS, was simply phenomenal.  As good as Jane Fonda was in the role at the Ahmanson (in a production directed by the playwright), I was far more deeply affected this time, and the many levels of the play were much clearer to me.  Kudos to designer Nicholas Acciani for his evocative and wonderfully functional multi-level set.

BOB’S HOLIDAY OFFICE PARTY – The fun has been going on for 22 years, but this is the first time I caught it, and I was laughing so hard that it was difficult to write down any notes.   Joe Keyes and Rob Elk have developed a certain formula that features the talents of some wonderful comic actors working off each other with perfect timing.  I’m not sure I would have been as swept away as I was in other years, but this felt like the perfect entertainment for the first (and hopefully last) year of Trump.  The comedic masterminds seemed to sense this too, and their romp was filled with explicit references to Trump and his denigrating way of referring to “outsiders,” meaning all those people who aren’t on his side.  It was a perfect blending of the past and present for this show, and as far as I’m concerned, they should keep distracting us as much as possible from the heinousness of our political nightmare.

ROTTERDAM – This is one of the only shows on the list still running, so I urge anyone who hasn’t been to the Skylight Theatre yet and caught this excellent play to stop right now and make your reservation.  This is another example of a wonderful play (by John Brittain) receiving an equally wonderful production, care of director Michael Shepperd and his deeply relatable cast.  What makes this play about a transgender woman of color and her gay girlfriend so memorable is how human-size all the problems are, how they are trying to figure out the riddle of their lives in just the same way the rest of us are – without knowing any real answers or how it may or may not work out.

RULES OF SECONDS – This play by John Pollono was seen by far too few when it debuted at LATC downtown. Featuring Amy Brenneman and one of the best casts I’ve seen on any LA stage, the play delves deeply into the all-too-relevant subject of toxic masculinity as memorably exemplified by Jamie Harris in this 1855 Boston setting.  “A 21st century comic melodrama set in the 19th century,” Charles McNulty wrote in the LA Times, and we agree that Jo Bonney staged it with great panache and technical mastery.  What impressed me most was the play’s constant inventiveness and refusal to settle for easy answers.  It was produced by the Latino Theater Company. As their first offering, it bodes well both for their future and for ours.

SOMETHING ROTTEN – This is another show that’s still running, though for only a few more performances.  If you love musicals and you like to laugh, then this is a show for you.  To quote my own review:  “Yes, it owes a large debt to Mel Brooks – not just The Producers, but also the musical number at the end of Blazing Saddles – but this show has its own brand of historical and parodic zaniness, and it does a masterful job of keeping a sense of real stakes while continuing to move the story and characters forward.  To my mind, every element of this production is brilliant, top-tier, and yet they all come together to form something that is greater than the sum of its wonderful parts.  This is so rarely achieved, and I am in awe of the many talents at work at such a high level here.”

Alex Alpharoah

WET: A DACAmented Journey – This is one of the pieces I saw this past year that affected me most profoundly and stayed with me the longest. As I wrote at the time:  “It is simply a great piece of theater – deeply wrenching and compulsively interesting – that also has more to say than anything else I’ve seen about the situation in this country with regard to people who come here from other countries “yearning to breathe free.”  We often toss around words like “the immigrant crisis” and “illegals,” which just become ways to distance us from the human tragedy that these words purport to describe.  Alex Alpharoah is the human face of that tragedy, while also being the best example I know of someone who has managed to triumph over seemingly insurmountable obstacles by making art out of it, by converting his anxiety and suffering into beautiful word-music.”  Kudos to EST-Los Angeles for helping Mr Alpharoah to develop his work and then supporting it with an ample production run.  Mr Alpharoah’s monologue is nominated for an Ovation Award for Best Play, and he would be a deserving winner.  Again, a good example of what a difference small theaters can make in the cultural landscape of our large and sprawling city.

MASTER CLASS – As I wrote: This is the first production of the Garry Marshall Theatre (formerly the Falcon), but I have to admit that I didn’t have high expectations.  The play Masterclass was first produced in 1995 – right here at the Ahmanson,  then on Broadway – and it has been revived several times. Was this really how you want to kick off a new theater?  Well, the answer is Yes.  This is a stellar revival.  In fact, it’s so alive, so strong moment-to-moment, that it doesn’t feel like a revival, it feels like an Event.  This is thanks largely to Carolyn Hennessy, who simply seems to BE Maria Callas.  She inhabits the play, she comes to life as a creature of the stage, full of joy, sorrow and many contradictions.  Credit must go to director Dimitri Toscas, who is also co-director of the Garry Marshall Theatre (GMT).  He clearly has a passionate connection to this play and to the character of Callas.  He deeply feels her pain – the pain of dislocation and loneliness.  “You know the only place where Callas truly fit in? On stage. In the opera house,” Toscas writes in the program notes, and he wonderfully dramatizes this on the GMT’s stage.

George Wyner and Sharron Shayne in “Daytona”

DAYTONA – This fascinating play had a brief run at Rogue Machine and was forced to close down just as word of its excellence was starting to get around.  There is word that it may be coming back soon – here’s hoping that’s true.  As I wrote:  There are so many great older actors in Los Angeles, and far too few plays that really give them anything to perform.  But Daytona by Oliver Cotton has three terrific roles, which are inhabited to the hilt by George Wyner and Sharron Shayne as a long-married couple and Richard Fancy as Mr Wyner’s long-absent brother, under the pitch-perfect direction of Elina de Santos.  The play takes place in Brooklyn in 1986, where Joe and Elli are preparing for their dance competition the next evening, a hobby they’ve cultivated for the past 15 years.  Then Elli goes out to pick up her dress from her sister. Suddenly the downstairs buzzer sounds.  Joe is shocked to hear the voice of his brother Billy, whom he hasn’t heard from for the past 30 years, and whose entrance will shake up the easy-going world of Joe and Elli.

THE GARY PLAYS – These 6 plays (there are 8 in the entire series) are a real anomaly in the American cannon – epic in length and scope, yet intimate in feeling.  Directed with great imagination and a spirit of generosity and compassion by Guy Zimmerman and presented by Martha Demson and her tireless team at Open Fist.  Director Zimmerman describes Mednick’s plays this way: “The series is uniquely the product of the LA theatre community – it could not have been created anywhere else.  And Gary, an unemployed actor struggling with grief and self-recrimination after his only son’s murder, is an iconic LA character.”  There’s so much more to it – and Jeff Lebeau’s depiction of Gary in the first 3 plays is so remarkable, so memorable, he simply crawls into the character’s skin.  For my money, Part II is the best evening of theater I can remember seeing in Los Angeles, it just buzzes with emotional intensity.  These are plays about LA Theater that achieve the kind of universality that all playwrights crave.  These plays should be celebrated, as should those who have lovingly brought them back to such vivid life.

UNDERNEATH THE LINTEL: An Impressive Presentation of Lovely Evidences – I had seen this monodrama by Glen Berger several times before, but this production at the Geffen Playhouse made it all new for me.  This strange but compelling play introduces us to The Librarian, who has rented this hall in order to present his “Lovely Evidences” about a book that was turned in several decades late, and the offender whom he has become obsessed with tracking down.  Arye Gross played The Librarian here, and he may well be as close to perfection as anyone can be in the role.  Sporting a huge beard, he reminded me of aother lonely castaway, the main character in Dostoievski’s Notes from Underground.  But unlike that man, filled as he is with self-loathing, the Librarian finds a sense of purpose and triumph in his discoveries, even if they lead him further away from human affection than ever.  Under Steven Robman’s inventive direction – much more theatrical and detail-oriented than the one I saw in NYC in 2002 – Arye Gross attained a level of joy and excitement – even exuberance – which was infectious.

My two favorite shows from 2017 (drum roll, please):

2. LES BLANCS  – If you missed this production at Rogue Machine, you may never get another chance to see this fascinating play from one of our great playwrights, Lorraine Hansberry, who died of cancer at age 34.  Hansberry’s first play, Raisin in the Sun, is an American classic, deservedly beloved and frequently performed.   Her second play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,  is very much an examination of social conditions in the late 1960s and has more value now as a social document than as a work of theater.  Neither of her earlier plays give any indication of the ambition, scope and sheer theatricality that Les Blancs contains, as she depicts on a huge canvas – with 24 characters! – the unresolvable problems created by American and European colonialism in Africa.  Huge kudos to Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn for having the determination and resourcefulness to give this truly important play its Los Angeles premiere.  Director Gregg T. Daniels does an admirable job in bringing this world of a white-run mission in the heart of Africa to mosquito-swatting theatrical life.  The set design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz is one of the best of the year – roughhewn slats of dark wood primitively lashed together  – truly capturing the essence of this place, so far removed from European civilization and regarded with such condescension by the white American liberal journalist, whose arrival in this village signals the beginning of the drama.  Jeff Gardner’s sound design is also one of the year’s best, bringing the surrounding jungle to auditory life.  A percussionist, Jalani Blunt, brilliantly plays Gardner’s African compositions on a variety of instruments, and Shari Gardner’s African dancing is haunting and inescapably vivid.  Yes, the play has scenes that go on too long and monologues that ramble; these are things that I’m sure Hansberry would have given better shape to had her life not been cruelly interrupted. But the fire that burns at the heart of this play – that burns a path of destruction through the lives of all these characters – is still very much with us today.  And I know of no other play that brings it to life s0 compellingly.

1. MR BURNS –  One of the great things about the Sacred Fools production of Anne Washburn’s dystopian fantasy was that their theater has 3 separate spaces, and they were able to make use of a different one for each Act.  This was absolutely ideal for Washburn’s play, and I can honestly say that the Sacred Fools production was superior in every way to the one I saw in New York.  More than that, I understood the play this time in a way that I hadn’t before.  That is, I saw how Ms. Washburn assembles the pieces of a broken civilization in Act I and gradually starts putting them back together again in what amounts to an heroic effort of mankind to recover our soul.  It documents a great triumph of the imagination.  Which was, quite simply, what this production was as well.  A triumph for Sacred Fools, for director Jaime Robledo, and for the pitch-perfect company of actors, as well as for the production team under the leadership of Brian W. Wallis, with assistance from Alison Sulock and many others.  It’s unfair for me to single out any performances in what is truly a group effort, but I’m going to anyway.  Tracey A. Leigh as “Bart” and Eric Curtis Johnson as “Mr Burns” just kept topping themselves in the final section in ways that I didn’t think possible.  All that I can say in return is “brava!” and “bravo!”  You completely blew my mind.  And tickets were only $15!!! Amazing.

Other Extraordinary Productions from this past year in Los Angeles – thanks for the memories:

The cast of ZOOT SUIT in the revival at the Mark Taper Forum

WOODY’S ORDER by Ann Talman, directed by John Shepard, at EST-Los Angeles, Atwater Village Theater

CAUGHT by Christopher Chen, directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskander at the Think Tank Gallery

ZOOT SUIT, written and directed by Luis Valdez, at the Mark Taper Forum

KING HEDLEY II by August Wilson, directed by Michele Shay at the Matrix Theatre

PLASTICITY by Alex Lyras, directed by Robert McCaskill at the Hudson Guild

THE SECRET IN THE WINGS by Mary Zimmerman, directed by Joseph V. Calarco, presented by the Coeurage Theatre Company

SO LONG BOULDER CITY by Jimmy Fowlie and Jordan Black, directed by Jordan Black, at the Celebration Theatre

Katy Owens in “Adolphus Tips”

REDLINE by Christian Durso, directed by Eli Gonda, presented by the IAMA Theatre Company

946: THE AMAZING STORY OF ADOLPHUS TIPS – adapted from the book by Michael Murpurgo by Britain’s Kneehigh Theatre, directed by Emma Rice, at the Wallis Annenberg Theatre

WHITE GUY ON THE BUS by Bruce Graham, directed by Stewart J. Zully at the Road Theatre

And from the Fringe:

MOTHERFUCKER WITH THE HAT by Stephen Adley Gurgius, directed by Tony Gatto

THE GIRL WHO JUMPED OFF THE HOLLYWOOD SIGN by Joanne Hartstone, directed by Vince Fusco

EASY TARGETS by the Burglars of Hamm, presented at Sacred Fools

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.