Frances Fisher, left, and Jessica Meraz in "Native Gardens." Photo by Jenny Graham.
Among nonprofit theaters in Los Angeles County, the second tier - just under Center Theatre Group - is shared by Pasadena and Geffen playhouses. During recent decades, neither of these companies particularly emphasized Latino/Latina/Latinx work, even as the Latinx proportion of the Los Angeles County population grew to about 50 percent.
So it might be a significant milestone that the 2018-19 seasons at both of these playhouses began this month with plays by Latinx writers: Karen Zacarías' "Native Gardens" in Pasadena, and Jose Rivera's "The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona" at Westwood's Geffen. At the Pasadena Playhouse, another Latinx-oriented production, "Bordertown Now," was the immediate predecessor of "Native Gardens," concluding the last season in June.
Both companies are in the hands of relatively new artistic directors, so perhaps this suggests a new interest in catching up with CTG, not to mention Latino Theater Company, in terms of producing Latinx plays.
"Native Gardens," a satirical comedy briskly directed by Jason Alexander, is by far the best of the three productions mentioned above. Zacarías neatly focuses on the irony that some Americans who are welcoming of human immigrants - or even are immigrants -- can become virtual nativists about the plants in their gardens. The flip side? Some old-timers who are a bit wary of human beings from elsewhere are nevertheless eager to welcome imported flora into their yards.
Although Zacarías was born in Mexico, for years she has been a Washingtonian, of the DC as opposed to the West Coast variety. "Native Gardens" is set on the home turf of her adult years. Moving into an affluent DC area are a millennial Colombian (Christian Barillas) who has just become a junior partner at a DC law firm and his pregnant New Mexican wife (Jessica Meraz), who's working on a dissertation. The next-door neighbors (Bruce Davison, Frances Fisher) are Washington-establishment Republicans, nearing retirement, originally from New England and Buffalo.
The initial pleasantries between the couples are soon undermined not only by differences of opinion regarding the use of native plants but also by a dispute over exactly where the boundary exists between their yards. The younger couple has proof that the fence between the two properties is off by a couple of feet - in their favor.
These microcosmic narrative points reflect gently off the larger political fault lines that exist in our culture right now on the subjects of immigration, a wall, and the diversity of the population as well as its plants. Still, some critics have dismissed the play as a sitcom, without acknowledging that sitcoms have frequently and meaningfully delved into real issues, ever since the heyday of Norman Lear.
Beyond the subject matter, "Native Gardens" also achieves stylistic points for theatricality by employing a trio of actors who play the silent roles of a surveyor, landscaper and building examiner in between the spoken scenes, moving to a Latin beat while also setting up the time frame of the narrative with signs, as well as the physical frame of the new fence. Their scenes lift the production into territory that's similar to what we've seen in Latino Theater Company stagings by Jose Luis Valenzuela, who in fact directed Zacarías' zingy but less topical "Destiny of Desire" at South Coast Repertory in 2016.
Also at Pasadena Playhouse right now, upstairs in the smaller Carrie Hamilton Theatre space, is another sitcom-infused play that attempts to touch lightly on larger national themes. The title of Bess Wohl's "American Hero" refers not only to a new franchise of an assembly-line sandwich-shop chain, but also to the trio of minimum-wage workers who have been hired to open it and continue running it even after its owner mysteriously disappears and the food runs out.
Unfortunately, narrative improbabilities are a lot more obvious in "American Hero" than they are in "Native Gardens." Still, it's great to see both of the playhouse's spaces simultaneously operating at full steam. "American Hero" is a production of IAMA Theatre Company, whose next such collaboration with a larger group is scheduled for March, with the aforementioned Latino Theater Company, at LATC.
Meanwhile, over at the Geffen, I don't recommend Rivera's new "Nikki Corona," about an incoherent journey into the afterlife. Charles McNulty's review in the LA Times reflected my own thoughts about the script so well that I see no reason to pile on, other than to express the hope that the decision to produce it reflects new artistic director Matt Shakman's willingness to take risks on new plays more than it demonstrates his standards for quality control.
The good news at the Geffen is in its smaller space, the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theatre. That's where Echo Theater Company was invited to revive its 2017 production of Bekah Brunstetter's "The Cake," originally staged by Jennifer Chambers in the Echo space in Atwater. If you missed it last year, here is another opportunity to see this warm and tasty depiction of the good souls on all sides of a controversial issue.
It's about a lesbian couple (Shannon Lucio, Carolyn Ratteray) who try to commission a wedding cake from a recalcitrant North Carolina baker (Debra Jo Rupp) -- who's also a dear family friend, despite her disapproving religious beliefs about same-sex unions.
When I saw this play last year, before the Supreme Court reached a decision this year in the somewhat similar but actual case of Masterpiece Bakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, I would have predicted that the play's hyper-topicality might have waned after the decision. But the court's decision was purposely restricted just to the resolution of its particular case, so the larger issues remain undecided. And the play seems sturdy enough to outlast its current topicality.
The Geffen's import of "The Cake" brings a smaller-theater production to larger audiences, just as CTG's Block Party does with three productions each year at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. But "The Cake" is a much stronger play than any of the Block Party's most recent selections. I hope the Geffen, like CTG, keeps hosting at least one production from a smaller LA company, at least once a year.
Meanwhile, Echo Theater is also currently producing a riveting new play back in Atwater - Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' "Gloria." It begins as a workplace comedy among twentysomethings. Then it evolves into something else entirely, the details of which you shouldn't know in advance, unless you're of a particularly tender temperament. "Gloria" is definitely not as warm and tasty as "The Cake." If you're aware of the LA stagings of Jacobs-Jenkins' "Neighbors" and "Appropriate," brace yourselves for something stronger, and much more effective. As Echo's work creates more and more echoes in the LA theater, its artistic director Chris Fields stages "Gloria" flawlessly.
Center Theatre Group's latest offerings at the Music Center are more predictable echoes of other recent shows. "Ain't Too Proud," at the Ahmanson, is a formulaic jukebox musical about the Temptations. Lynn Nottage's "Sweat," at the Taper, is a serious drama about the Rust Belt working class that could benefit from further editing but probably won't get it, because it already won the Pulitzer Prize. I preferred Dominique Morisseau's similarly themed "Skeleton Crew," seen at the Geffen earlier this year, to "Sweat." Bringing this paragraph full circle, I'll point out that Morisseau also wrote the uninspired book for "Ain't Too Proud."
CTG's current production at the Kirk Douglas isn't similar to other plays we've seen in LA, unless you've seen other plays that are set in a girls' boarding school in Ghana. But it does have a title reminiscent of the "Mean Girls" film/Broadway franchise: "School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play," by Jocelyn Bioh. It's 1986, and the girls are trying out for the "Miss Ghana" title and a possible spot in the "Miss Global Universe" pageant. The backbiting is somewhat amusing. But the ending strives to give the impression that black women never have (or at least had) a chance in such pageants -- a feeling that was somewhat undercut the same weekend that the show opened, when a black woman won the latest Miss America reboot. Actually, the first black Miss Universe was crowned in 1977.
Finally, for those who want to mark the passing of Neil Simon with one of his strongest plays instead of the recent Reprise production of "Sweet Charity" (for which he wrote the weak-link book), I suggest the West Coast Jewish Theatre revival of "Broadway Bound," at the Miles Playhouse in Santa Monica. The autobiographical comedy is based on the early efforts of Simon and his brother to break into radio/TV comedy, even as their parents' marriage is dissolving. Shelly Kurtz is especially notable as the young men's old-school-leftist grandfather. I can't help but imagine that Simon might have picked this play as his ideal epitaph.