'Above the Fold' in Pasadena, drugs on stage, two musicals

Top two photos from 'Above the Fold' by Jim Cox

Quick -- without checking Wikipedia, do you remember the much-publicized 2006 case in which three Duke University lacrosse players, all of them white, were accused of raping an African-American stripper who had entertained at their party?

If so, do you remember how that case was resolved? I confess -- I didn't remember, and I would guess I'm not alone.

That's one of many points that Bernard Weinraub makes in his blistering new "Above the Fold," at Pasadena Playhouse -- that we often remember the initial headlines about high-profile criminal cases but not the conclusions.

Although he was inspired by the 2006 case, Weinraub has carefully fictionalized it. The play is set in North Carolina, but Duke and lacrosse aren't mentioned. And he has updated his tale to the Twitter-infused present day. Because it's fictional, no one can say that he's distorting the real story as egregiously as an unnamed "New York newspaper" does in his script.

ATF_7.jpgBut it's that newspaper's reaction that Weinraub is most interested in dissecting. He's an alumnus of the New York Times reporting ranks, and his wonderfully dimensional protagonist -- Jane (the splendid Taraji P. Henson) -- is an African-American reporter who's covering the case for the New York Ti--... er, newspaper.

Jane breaks the story in the national media with the eager cooperation of the prosecutor (Mark Hildreth), who is also running for Congress as a white man in a predominantly black district. She says her initial attempts to reach the accused are unsuccessful -- first, because they haven't been identified and then because "their lawyers are freezing me out" (it might be helpful if we saw this actually taking place on the stage.)

Oops. When she finally speaks to the alleged rapists, she begins to regret the tone of her earlier articles. Yet it's too late to suddenly change her tone, says her editor (Arye Gross), who had earlier raised some precautionary questions.

Jane's ambitious. She has an eye on a coveted foreign post for the newspaper. It turns out that the purported victim Monique (Kristy Johnson) has ambitions of her own. But the play never resorts to the cheesy level that some producers might find irresistible -- there is no romance between Jane and the prosecutor, for example.

Weinraub has taken big steps as a playwright since his "The Accomplices" opened at the Fountain Theatre in 2008. And director Stephen Robman whips the ingredients into a compelling journalistic thriller. An intricate projection design by Jason H. Thompson helps convey the currency of the situation, although part of the imagery unfortunately developed a tic on opening night Wednesday, so a slice of the visual field went dark for most of the second act.

Although no one mentions it in the program, "Above the Fold" is a fascinating follow-up to the revival of "Twelve Angry Men" that the playhouse's artistic director Sheldon Epps directed last fall. That production was unnecessarily schematic. Six black jurors gradually were convinced to save the day for the unseen defendant (who was also apparently of color), against the rush to judgment of six white jurors. There were no Latino or Asian-American or female jurors.

Weinraub's examination of the journalistic system, as opposed to "Twelve Angry Men"s treatment of the justice system, is much more nuanced -- less black and white, metaphorically as well as literally. I can't remember a play with a more detailed demonstration of how easy it can be for the media to make mistakes that matter.

Drugs, anyone?

rx-photo-shirley.jpgKate Fodor's "Rx"is a sprightly satire focused on the clinical test of a new prescription drug designed to combat "workplace depression." One of the test participants (Mina Badie), who edits a pork industry newsletter, and her medical monitor (Jonathan Pessin) -- who's as depressed by his own job as she is by hers -- begin an unlikely and perilous romance. News flash -- complications ensue. John Pleshette directs a nimble ensemble at Lost Studio (130 S. La Brea Avenue.)

Illegal drugs launch the very different "Se Llama Cristina," by Octavio Solis, at Boston Court (70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena.) It hinges on the not-entirely-plausible premise that a couple awakens from an illegal drug binge with almost total amnesia. The man (Justin Huen) and woman (Paula Christensen) then gradually prod each other into re-creating their shared past from their returning memories, which include the suspicion that they're apparently neglectful parents. Director Robert Castro emphasizes the script's inherently dreamy quality to explore the turbulent feelings produced by severely flawed parenting, but the ending is surprisingly upbeat. "Se Llama Cristina" is as close to performance art as it is to being a play. Fortunately these performers know how to sustain interest.

Musicals to the Southeast

Since the death of Reprise, the city of LA lacks a fully professional company devoted primarily to producing (as opposed to presenting) musicals. LA fans of musicals now spend a lot of time in their cars on the way to Musical Theatre West in Long Beach and 3-D Theatricals shows in Fullerton (Plummer Auditorium) and Redondo Beach (at the city's performing arts center.)

Last Sunday I combined a matinee of 3-D's revival of Mel Brooks' "The Producers" with an evening performance of one of South Coast Repertory's rare musicals in Costa Mesa -- the Adam Guettel/Craig Lucas/Elizabeth Spencer romance "The Light in the Piazza."

Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR

"Piazza" follows a North Carolina mother (Patti Cohenour) and her not-quite adult daughter (Erin Mackey) on their vacation in Florence in the '50s. Much to her mother's chagrin, the young woman falls for a brash Italian not-quite adult man (David Burnham) and vice versa, despite linguistic barriers. Then the mother begins to consider her own conventional but threadbare marriage, and tables start turning. Kent Nicholson's crystalline staging is smaller and more intimate than the one that played the Ahmanson in 2006, but the nuances are perhaps clearer and the ending just as moving.

As for "The Producers," I'm guessing no synopsis is necessary, but I'll just say that the leads -- Jay Brian Winnick as Max and Jeff Skowron as Leo -- are as accomplished as their Broadway predecessors but lack the hype that might have raised some expectations too high. Would you believe that Skowron recently won the Ovation Award for best actor in a musical for 3-D's revival of the musical about the lynching of Leo Frank, "Parade" -- which has virtually nothing in common with "The Producers" other than a Jewish connection and the fact that both titles start with "P"?

These are Don Shirley's first reviews for LA Observed. Don was the LA STAGE Watch columnist and copy editor of LA STAGE Times, a website (now on hiatus) published by the LA STAGE Alliance. He was the primary theater reporter for the Los Angeles Times for two decades, writing many reviews as well as news, feature articles, and larger commentaries. He also has been the theater critic of LA CityBeat, a (now defunct) alternative newspaper, and KCRW, a public radio station. Early in his career, he was on the staff of the Washington Post and wrote extensively about DC theater. He is a graduate of USC and also studied at NYU and at the National Critics Institute of the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut.

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