"Pocatello." Photo by John Perrin Flynn.
Two plays named after cities: "Barcelona" at the Geffen Playhouse and Rogue Machine's production of "Pocatello" (in case that doesn't ring a bell, its namesake is the fifth largest city in Idaho.)
Which theatrical destination sounds more inviting?
Well, "Barcelona" isn't bad. But "Pocatello" pops.
Produced by Rogue Machine, "Pocatello" is by Samuel D. Hunter. His "A Bright New Boise" and "A Permanent Image," two of Rogue Machine's greatest hits, were also set in Idaho -- Hunter's original home state.
"Pocatello" is the first mainstage production in Rogue Machine's supposedly temporary home at the Met Theatre, a block southeast of the intersection of Santa Monica Boulevard and Western Avenue. The new neighborhood is not likely to conjure thoughts of Idaho.
Yet "Pocatello" looks as if it could be set just about anywhere in the United States. It takes place entirely within the doomed Pocatello outpost of a downscale Italian restaurant chain - the sort of eating establishment that looks more or less the same in Pocatello, Pittsburgh or Pomona.
Until I saw "Pocatello," I'm not sure I had ever thought about how a play set in a branch of a national or international commercial chain has a natural advantage in the quest to quickly establish at least a superficial sense of universality.
At the same time, the struggling characters in "Pocatello" appear to have fewer options than they might have in Pittsburgh or Pomona. In Pocatello, with only 55,000 people, good jobs are scarce, judging from what we hear. Much of the play is about the conflicts people feel when their home-town roots are under duress. This isn't a play that the Pocatello Chamber of Commerce is likely to endorse.
Hunter's ability to find that bittersweet spot between laughter and tears has never felt sharper than in John Perrin Flynn's staging. All 10 characters are dimensional, and a magnificent cast is led by Matthew Elkins as the restaurant manager (he was also golden in the leading role of Rogue's "Bright New Boise.") I try to avoid saying that plays are "Chekhovian," a standard to which many plays aspire - and "Pocatello" is more streamlined than most of the good doctor's seminal works. But with just the one set (by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz) and only 90 intermission-free minutes, Hunter manages to excavate private and public wells of surprising depth.
Hunter is a writer on "Baskets", the new FX TV series with similarities in tone (and Zach Galifianakis) but with commercial interruptions (and concessions?) "Baskets" is set mostly in Bakersfield, much closer to LA, and the Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce is probably glad that it's not titled "Bakersfield."
Bess Wohl's "Barcelona" has a more limited scope than "Pocatello." It's about an older Spanish man (from Madrid, not Barcelona) and a younger American woman who turn a one-night stand into a long session of soul-searching. The setting in Barcelona appears to be decorative more than thematic. The city is such a picturesque tourist destination that the title might draw in some theatergoers who might otherwise find the subject matter somewhat depressing. It's as if Hunter's play were called "Yellowstone" instead of "Pocatello."
"Barcelona." Photo: Michael Lamont.
However, Wohl provides an interesting twist to the last third of "Barcelona," which creates a greater degree of gravitas (but which can't be spelled out, because of spoiler concerns.) Trip Cullman's staging ends up as a much more satisfying experience than it appears to be at the halfway mark.
By the way, another male-female duo, Laura Eason's "Sex With Strangers," is about to appear at the Geffen's other theater. The two productions will briefly be side by side. On the website of a recent Arizona production of "Sex With Strangers," the play is described as involving "strangers in a secluded cabin. Opposites instantly attract, undeniable chemistry ignites, and sex is imminent. As dawn rises, however, what could have been just a one-night stand transforms into something much more complicated." Except for a couple of words, that description would also serve well for "Barcelona."
Welcome to the Geffen's One-Night-Stand, Two-Character Theater Festival.
Are there any plays out there called "Los Angeles"? I hope not. LA is too big and complex for its name to be borrowed for the title of any one play. But why aren't there plays called, say, "Valley Village" or "Hermosa Beach" or "Leimert Park" or "Pico Rivera"?
Still, titles aside, a few current LA productions feature plays set in Southern California. It's time for a brief survey.
Little Tokyo's East West Players is producing Giovanni Ortega's "Criers for Hire," set in Monterey Park. It's primarily the story of the reunification of a Filipina immigrant and her teenage daughter, who has finally arrived in LA after years without her mom by her side. The play's title stems from the fact that the mom makes a few extra dollars as a professional mourner at a Chinese-oriented funeral home in Monterey Park. The girl is also invited into the ranks of professional mourners, but she has a hard time keeping a straight face as she tries to wail on cue.
Although we've heard and seen similar stories about immigrants, the mother-daughter material is poignant, and it's blended into the professional-mourners subplot in a well-timed climax. Until then, the mourning scenes generate a few chuckles, but they take place in a vacuum. The bereaved clients are completely absent. When the girl goofs up, as a mourner, does it matter to the clients or affect the mourners' jobs? We have no idea. There is some promising material here that's left unexplored.
Tony Abatemarco's "Forever House," at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz, is set in an unidentified suburb northeast of LA. It's about a gay couple's purchase of the former childhood domicile of one of the two men. For a while it works as a bright, brisk comedy. But gradually the shtick begins to look like, well, shtick, and then Abatemarco yields to the temptation of a long and indulgent monologue that seems completely out of character with the rest of the play. It's rewrite time.
Tom Cavanaugh's "Inland Empress," in a Mutant Collective production at the Lounge in Hollywood, is set at a specific address in Apple Valley - an area that most people would think of as the far northern end of the, yes, Inland Empire. A crime-clan melodrama with an almost all-female cast, "Inland Empress" gets some points for originality. Lily Knight plays a middle-aged godmother, so to speak, who's being released from prison and returning to find her business usurped by a younger generation. Perhaps the most novel touch is that in prison she has converted to Islam. To paraphrase Michael Corleone in "The Godfather," will the old life of crime "just pull her back in"? The cast brings considerable vigor to these lip-smacking roles.
Stephen Sachs' "Dream Catcher," at the Fountain Theatre, is set farther out in the desert - where a plan for a giant solar power plant is threatened by the discovery of Native American artifacts. This is a thorny real-life dispute with far-reaching implications, yet here it's presented within the context of a brief, realistic two-character relationship drama (see "Barcelona" and "Sex With Strangers," above), which sometimes takes precedence over the weightier issues. Small-theater audiences (as opposed to mass-media audiences?) should not have to rely on the distracting possibility of sex in the sand in order to get them to consider these subjects inside a theater.
Speaking of small-theater romances, Sheila Callaghan's "Bed," in an Echo Theater production in Atwater Village, is partially set in LA, plus four other cities, as it charts the tempestuous decade-long relationship of a literary academic (he) and a rocker (she). Only one other character appears. The production is impressive, but I never believed that these two would remain together for 10 weeks, let alone 10 years.
Finally, although it has nothing to do with LA, Musical Theatre West's revival of "West Side Story," in Long Beach, is a rare opportunity. How often do you see and hear a "local" production of a musical classic with a 30-piece orchestra (David Lamoureux is the musical director) and a 32-actor cast (Joe Langworth is the director)? They make a convincing case that no finer musical exists in the American repertoire.
Long Beach also recently experienced a revival of "West Side Story" composer Leonard Bernstein's "Candide," by Long Beach Opera. I hadn't seen "Candide" since a revival by Gordon Davidson for Center Theatre Group, two decades ago. But Long Beach's "Candide" seemed a complicated curiosity piece, while "West Side Story" is a whirlwind.
"West Side Story." Photo: Caught in the Moment Photography