Scene from "Premeditation," photo by Ed Krieger.
Couples counseling is in session in two rousing productions at Los Angeles Theatre Center -- and in some other theaters around greater LA.
In Evelina Fernandez's "Premeditation," two middle-aged heterosexual couples in contemporary LA are in the throes of marital discord. But this is no earnestly realistic psychodrama.
It's a delirious farce. The narrative proceeds from the premise that one of the wives, Esmeralda (Fernandez), has met Mauricio (Sal Lopez) -- the husband in the other couple -- only when she hires him to kill her own husband, Fernando (Geoffrey Rivas).
And what dastardly deed has Fernando, a UCLA professor, done to merit such a fate? When Mauricio asks this burning question, Esmeralda begins by describing Fernando's habit of leaving his underwear on the floor... and Mauricio immediately begins sympathizing with his would-be mark.
Complications ensue, especially after Mauricio's own long-suffering wife Lydia (Lucy Rodriguez) gets wind of what she supposes to be a romantic tryst between Mauricio and Esmeralda.
"Premeditation" -- as with several other plays developed by Fernandez and her director and husband Jose Luis Valenzuela (who happens to be a UCLA professor) -- achieves a genuine comic brio, on the edge of satire, as it delves into the state of middle-aged marriage. The tone is established at the beginning, as the actors move in choreographed conjunction with mobile set pieces and lively music. Comedy also arises from the juxtaposition of '40s noir imagery -- in costumes, lighting and projections -- with the often-mundane squabbling of these 21st-century couples, who are chained to their personal phones, even as they try to appear aloof and mysterious. But the light-hearted style doesn't guarantee a happy-ever-after ending.
Let's move upstairs from LATC's Theatre 3 to the much smaller Theatre 4, where the endings are even less happy-ever-after in Robey Theatre's production of Charles Smith's "Knock Me a Kiss."
In 1928, the biggest social event of the season for "the talented tenth" of African Americans in New York was the wedding of the rising young Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen (Jason Mimms) to the daughter of the scene's leading intellectual light, sociologist/writer/editor/activist W.E.B. DuBois (Ben Guillory).
A year later, the marriage was kaput. Young Yolande DuBois (Toyin Moses) concluded that her husband preferred the company of his best male friend and that she -- perhaps too late -- preferred the company of the randy jazz musician Jimmie Lunceford (Keir Thirus), who had previously wooed her.
"Knock Me a Kiss" is not only about the younger couples but also about the somewhat strained relationship between the great DuBois and his wife Nina (Rosie Lee Hooks), who is depicted as holding a grudge against her husband for his previous choice, long ago, to work in segregated Atlanta. The discriminatory medical care there, she contends, led to the death of their young son.
But this grim undercurrent within the play is somewhat countered by the raucous interactions among the younger generation -- including Lenora, a wise-cracking best friend (Ashlee Olivia) of Yolande. Lenora picks up the remnants of Yolande's romance with the virile Jimmy.
It's a fascinating tale, told without a trace of rote reverence toward the historical characters, even as it acknowledges DuBois' status. Kudos to Robey and Smith for telling us a story that most of us hadn't heard. Of course, judging from Smith's "Free Man of Color" -- seen at the Colony Theatre in 2010 -- that appears to be Smith's specialty
Dwain A. Perry's staging is especially refreshing as it arrives courtesy of a company named after Paul Robeson but tells a much more entertaining story than the two solo shows about Robeson that recently opened in LA.
Ebony Repertory Theatre just closed its revival of the longer but lesser Paul Robeson monodrama, "Paul Robeson," and Center Theatre Group just opened the better Robeson solo, "The Tallest Tree in the Forest," at the Mark Taper Forum. "The Tallest Tree," starring Daniel Beaty, is considerably less devoted to hagiography than the reverential "Paul Robeson," but neither of them is nearly as full-bodied a play as "Knock me a Kiss," with its juicy roles for six actors instead of just one.
"The Tallest Tree" is actually a couples play, too -- in which Beaty plays both Robeson and his wife Essie, the former more convincingly than the latter. But at least Beaty allows Essie the opportunity to object vociferously to Robeson's affairs with white actresses -- a topic that was almost entirely avoided in "Paul Robeson."
Before we leave the DuBois/Robeson era, I also should note that "Porgy and Bess" -- yet another show about a troubled African-American couple during roughly the same period -- is currently at CTG's Ahmanson Theatre. Of course, it's set in provincial Charleston, not sophisticated New York. This controversial but Tony-winning version of the Gershwin masterpiece, directed by Diane Paulus from Suzan-Lori Parks' adaptation of the original Gershwin/Heyward libretto, is entrancing. And it's such a big show, by the standards of musical theater if not those of opera, that perhaps I should cut CTG some slack for simultaneously presenting an only-one-actor production, next door at the Taper.
A Noise Within in Pasadena is also reviving an American couples play, William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba" -- which has a psychological trajectory that is somewhat similar to that of "Knock Me a Kiss." In both plays, a father figure strongly disapproves of a young woman's choice of a lusty young suitor, and she decides to go with someone who's considered more suitably marrigeable.
But Inge was less concerned with the play's twentysomethings than with its middle-aged adults -- Doc (Geoff Elliott) and Lola (Deborah Strang), a childless couple who feel empty and jealous as they observe the affairs of their young boarder Marie (Lili Fuller), her jock boyfriend Turk (Miles Gaston Villanueva and her fiance (Paul Culos).
Another major difference between the two plays is that "Come Back" is set a few decades later, in what here appears to be a very white Midwestern college town. But it ain't necessarily so -- Center Theatre Group altered that equation in its 2007 production at Kirk Douglas Theatre. S. Epatha Merkerson played Lola alongside Alan Rosenberg as Doc -- an interracial couple, although no one said anything about it.
Of course, Lola and Doc don't need the extra societal disapproval of crossing racial lines in order to break our hearts, as convincingly confirmed by the performances of Elliott and Strang. That these two are equally successful as the primary antagonists in Moliere's "Tartuffe" right now, also within the spring repertory at A Noise Within, should convince just about anyone that they're among LA's most protean actors. "Come Back, Little Sheba" is directed by Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott with an assurance that muffles any questions that might be raised by Inge's Freudian obviousness.
Finally, let's look at two more couples -- one apparently dissolving, one possibly beginning -- who inhabit the premiere of Rachel Bonds' "Five Mile Lake" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. These present-day couples aren't nearly as old as those in "Premeditation" or "Come Back, Little Sheba," but they're already feeling some of the anxieties and doubt that beset their elders.
The play takes place in a small Pennsylvania town. To Mary (Rebecca Mozo), the fact that she has never left this town is a curse. But the locale suits Jamie (Nate Mooney), her would-be crush who works alongside her at a bakery counter. When Jamie's Ph.D-trapped brother Rufus (Corey Brill) returns home from New York with his English girlfriend (Nicole Saunders), the city/country divide becomes more intense. No one is really satisfied with his or her place in life.
Many writers try to re-create that Chekhovian feeling in contemporary settings; Bonds comes closer than most -- especially if you compare her play to the explicitly Chekhovian "Man in a Case," currently featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov in a tedious, half-baked experiment at Broad Stage.
Daniella Topol's direction of "Five Mile Lake" allows the subtleties of Bonds' characters to emerge in a style that's a far cry from the urban pace of the people in "Premeditation" or even the stark anguish of the couple in "Come Back, Little Sheba." But the unknown futures of the "Five Mile" folks are tantalizing, too.
Lower photo from "Knock Me A Kiss," photo by Tomoko Matsushita.