Satirical salvos in 'Monster' and 'Archduke'

monster-builder-scr.jpgSusannah Schulman Rogers and ​Danny Scheie in ​"The Monster Builder." Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

South Coast Repertory produced three new plays this spring that referred, in different ways, to groundbreaking classics of the late 19th century.

Fortunately, the best of these is still playing one more weekend. It's Amy Freed's "The Monster Builder" — a wild and woolly present-day takeoff on Henrik Ibsen's "The Master Builder."

Earlier in the spring, SCR produced Michael Mitnick's "The Siegel," which is in part a modern variation on Chekhov's "The Seagull," and Lucas Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2," which is an explicit sequel to Ibsen's part 1.

Calling "The Monster Builder" the best of these three plays might surprise observers of the national theater scene, because it's Hnath's "A Doll's House, Part 2," in a different production, that subsequently opened on Broadway, following its premiere at South Coast. The New York rendition received eight Tony nominations - more than any other non-musical play. Laurie Metcalf, who played Nora in that production, is considered the favorite to win the Tony for best actress in a play, when the awards are announced on June 11.

I haven't seen the Broadway version. But Charles McNulty of the LA Times summed up the differences between South Coast's premiere and Broadway's subsequent production this way:

"What in Costa Mesa plays like a thought-provoking drama has become most emphatically a comedy of ideas...What was somewhat awkward about the play in California - the contrived set-up, the smattering of anachronistic cursing, the fuzziness of Nora's emotional truth - now seems less problematic in the more explicitly comic context. But some dramatic strength is sacrificed in the quest to wring as many laughs from Broadway theatergoers as possible."

I agree that the "A Doll's House, Part 2" at South Coast wasn't very funny and that the plotting felt contrived. But I didn't notice the "dramatic strength" that McNulty cited. The production's virtually academic austerity wasn't redeemed by any ideas that sounded surprising, after a century of similar discussions about gender and marriage and parenthood. Of course if Metcalf is willing to give the role a second shot in L.A., I'll be glad to give the play a second shot; sometimes the production's the thing, as opposed to the play.

Meanwhile, South Coast's "The Monster Builder" is at least 10 times funnier than was SCR's "A Doll's House, Part 2." Of course Freed's "Monster Builder" is a satire instead of a serious sequel. Satirists have a lot more latitude for exaggerating the comic elements to the point of absurdity - in fact, that's usually how satire works. "Contrivances" are not necessarily bad in this genre, as long as they're done skillfully enough to take us along on the outlandish journey the playwright has contrived.

It also helps that "Monster Builder" is satirizing a topic that is seldom examined on the stages of America, especially in comparison to the gender- and family-related subjects that were addressed in "A Doll's House."

Freed is mocking "starchitects" and other urban developers who seek to impose their egos on the landscape in the form of big, bold new buildings that dominate or even uproot everything around them.

At first I found it refreshing that here is a satire that doesn't mention Donald Trump. But then it occurred to me that Trump, in fact, spent most of his life doing exactly what I described in the previous paragraph. Freed might not have been thinking about Trump initially - the play pre-dates Trump's candidacy. But nowadays it's hard not to think of the Trump Towers titan while watching this play.

South Coast's production, savvily staged by Art Manke, features a dynamic performance by Danny Scheie as Gregor, the title character. And its cartoonish set looks as if Tom Buderwitz must have enjoyed designing it. We certainly enjoy watching the crazy antics that take place on it.

Rajiv Joseph also uses satire in his new "Archduke," the springtime offering at the Mark Taper Forum, also still playing through Sunday. But Joseph doesn't hit his targets as precisely as Freed does in "The Monster Builder."

His central character, "Gavrilo," is clearly meant to suggest the historical Gavrilo Princip, who ignited World War I by assassinating an archduke in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. But satirists who use real-life names while discarding much of the real-life context are often headed for trouble. In modern drama, flights of fancy are much easier to swallow when they're clearly fictitious.

archduke-ctg.jpgStephen Stocking, Patrick Page, Ramiz Monsef and Josiah Bania in "Archduke." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

In this case, Joseph's Gavrilo is a complete newcomer to politics, drafted into activism for transparently absurd reasons that depart from the historical record. And the grisly effects of Gavrilo's actions remain entirely offstage. We're supposed to understand that the assassination will set off a devastating conflagration, but Joseph doesn't bother to give us a taste of the results, lingering instead in a prolonged and often strained attempt to keep us laughing.

Joseph is probably trying to say something about the deluded stabs at glory that are made by contemporary young male terrorists. But Taper audiences already saw a much more successful satire about that subject, Martin McDonagh's "The Lieutenant of Inishmore," which looked at a group of fictitious contemporary terrorists. McDonagh brought the gory details of the carnage onstage.

"Archduke" is a pale echo of "Inishmore." For that matter, it's not nearly as strong as Joseph's previous plays about somewhat similar but made-up characters, "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" (also seen at the Taper) and "Guards at the Taj" (seen at the Geffen Playhouse).

Los Angeles Theatre Center's Latino Theater Company also is completing its spring season with a new play, "The Sweetheart Deal," that includes elements of satire, in the form of brief doses of the actos that El Teatro Campesino used to spur on the farm workers during the California UFW strikes of the '60s and '70s. The playwright, Diane Rodriguez, was a young actor in some of those actos back then.

But the focus of her play isn't on the actos, the performers, or even on the farm workers themselves. Instead, she sets most of the action inside the headquarters of the UFW newspaper, with her primary attention on a middle-class Latino couple who volunteer their services and end up paying a steep price.

The play maintains a mostly realistic style, and it's mildly involving. But as I watched, I kept wondering if it was ever going to migrate over to the farm workers themselves, and perhaps the growers as well. It didn't. To use a phrase from journalism, it seems as if Rodriguez has "buried the lede."

Ebony Repertory Theatre's production at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center on Washington Boulevard also feels somewhat off-target. For its annual mainstage production, Ebony usually presents something much more substantial than "Five Guys Named Moe."

This musical revue "celebrates the music and persona of the seminal saxophonist, singer and bandleader Louis Jordan," according to the producer's note in the program. But Jordan, who spent most of his post-1942 career in LA and died here in 1975, isn't a character in the revue's bare-bones book. And according to the music credits, he contributed to the writing of only nine of the 25 musical numbers (one of his five wives, Fleecie Moore, is credited with two others). "Moe" offers momentary pleasures, but I would have enjoyed learning a lot more about Jordan.

In the smaller theaters

Given my frequent campaigning on behalf of telling LA stories in LA theaters, I should mention that "The Gary Plays," Murray Mednick's three-part, six-play creation, set mostly in LA, is being produced in its entirety by Open Fist Theatre at Atwater Village Theatre. I saw the first and second parts, which include plays 1-4. I especially appreciated the third play, "Gary's Walk," in which the titular small-time actor is homeless and walks around large swaths of LA, with the assistance of Hana S. Kim's projections. I saw play 5 in an earlier production.

I wasn't caught up in "The Gary Plays" to the extent that would appear to be necessary for something that requires so much time. Even "Angels in America" was in two parts, not three. Compared to a living room, a theater isn't necessarily the best place for binge-watching.

In "I Carry Your Heart," at the Bootleg, Georgette Kelly manages to tell the tale of a heart transplant from the perspectives of the recipient, the donor's daughter, the recipient's partner, and even the donor's spirit -- in 90 minutes with no intermission. Skillfully staged by Jessica Hanna on an unusual circular set by Sibyl Wickersheimer, it's an intriguing and gently moving story.

It's also interesting for its funding, much of which comes from a Templeton Foundation grant for an academic study on hope and optimism - a study in the disciplines of philosophy and the social sciences, but with a theatrical component. It's an example of the kind of enterprising fund-raising that will help small theaters survive, as Actors' Equity's new requirement to pay actors the minimum wage gets off the ground.

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