Down the digital rabbit hole in two CTG productions

Dear_Evan_Hansen._Photo_by_Matthew_Murphy._2018.jpgBen Levi Ross and Jessica Phillips in "Dear Evan Hansen." Photo by Matthew Murphy.

"The internet loses its mind and now we're down the rabbit hole...Up is down and down is up."

These words are spoken by the flustered leading character in "Quack," a new satirical comedy produced by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

The same words could easily be uttered by several characters in "Dear Evan Hansen," the award-winning musical that CTG is now presenting downtown, at the Ahmanson Theatre.

CTG is demonstrating the power - and the problems -- of viral social media in two otherwise very different productions.

"Dear Evan Hansen" is the more powerfully moving experience. It follows a withdrawn teenager who's catapulted out of anonymity, when an awkward misunderstanding turns into an elaborate deception, which turns into a digital sensation - at least briefly. For the high proportion of theatergoers who shed a tear - or 10 - during "Evan Hansen," it's literally a cleansing experience.

If you're not familiar with the story, you probably should know that an offstage suicide happens early, triggering most of the subsequent events. The narrative is more about the survivors than about the boy who kills himself. The score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (of "La La Land" fame), and Steven Levenson's book enhance each other from beginning to end.

In the wake of the success of the original casts in Washington and on Broadway, this touring production features Ben Levi Ross in a phenomenal performance of the title role, vocally as well as dramatically. The people who run the Music Center's annual Spotlight program, which awards scholarships to promising performing artists from Southern California high schools, must be kvelling - Ross, out of Santa Monica High School, was named a Spotlight grand prize finalist just two years ago.

But the entire ensemble in Michael Greif's staging rises to the occasion. I'd like to especially note the appropriately named Jared Goldsmith in the role of Jared Kleinman, a character whose snarky interpretations of the script's twists and turns cut through the prevailing sentiment, sometimes providing needed reality checks, even though the character himself is as culpable as anyone else in the tale's central deceit.

Except for somewhat similar observations on social-media phenomena, Eliza Clark's "Quack" is a different duck altogether. None of its characters is initially inside a shell, a la Evan Hansen. Most of them are all-brash, all the time.

The central character is a popular celebrity doctor (Dan Bucatinsky), whose TV show is watched by millions. He's married to a slim-trim shrew who runs a parallel weight-loss business. A few of the doctor's fans have misinterpreted the doctor's advice on vaccinations with deadly results - or so contends an investigative reporter who hopes to turn her 8500-word article about the doctor's empire into a book. This reporter also works in shorter forms -- she's a Twitter addict, while the doctor hires an unseen intern to tweet for him.

Meanwhile, the doctor's primary assistant, an ex-nurse who is the play's one relatively calm and halfway-sympathetic character, is also a potential successor, just in case the doctor's problems take him down.

quack-ctg.jpgJessalyn Gilsig and Jackie Chung in "Quack" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Unlike the "Evan Hansen" stage at the Ahmanson, the Douglas stage for "Quack," directed by Neel Keller, is inexplicably devoid of TV or internet imagery. It's almost entirely set in the doctor's TV-studio office, where he wields printouts (unreadable to the audience) of online material. With so many of the characters snarling at each other, in one way or another, throughout most of the play, the stage has the thick atmosphere of a cage.

Of course, unlike "Evan Hansen," "Quack" has no musical numbers that expand the horizon or intensify the emotion. The goal here appears to be to intensify the wisecracks and the ironies, but not the emotional stakes. Even if the doctor loses his show, he's in line for a multimillion-dollar payout. The reporter has more on the line, but we don't actually see what becomes of her. I laughed a few times, but the comedy here feels somewhat cramped.

I laughed more often, and also felt more deeply about what was going on, in Geoff Elliott's revival of Tom Stoppard's early "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead" - the "Hamlet" offspring that's told from the perspective of two of the classic's most passive characters, at A Noise Within in Pasadena.

If Evan Hansen ever had been assigned "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern" in an English class - in conjunction with "Hamlet" of course, because a basic knowledge of the latter is useful in appreciating the former - he might have recognized that he wasn't quite as alone as he thought he was. Or alternatively, I imagine that R and G would have related deeply to this lyric from Evan's first big solo: "I try to speak but nobody can hear/So I wait around for an answer to appear."

At A Noise Within, Kasey Mahaffy and Rafael Goldstein are delightful as R and G, respectively, creating such distinct personalities that one wonders why anyone would ever confuse them - but of course, they were both such nobodies that no one paid much attention to them. It took the obviously "Godot"-influenced Stoppard to endow these non-entities with a bracing wit, more often than not of the unwitting variety. He also let them glimpse their ultimate fates with bone-chilling foreboding. The last two words of the title are no accident.

And elsewhere

Vietgone-3.jpgA scene from "Vietgone." Photo by Michael Lamont.

I saw no great new plays that reflect directly on our current politics in this ultra-dramatic midterm-election season. Perhaps all the constantly-updating real-life breaking news explained the absence of onstage political fare that might have expired before we could have seen it. For example, Sarah Burgess' strangely titled "Kings," at South Coast Repertory, was about two politicians and two lobbyists (three of the four are women) in Washington, but it was no more interesting than many an hour of cable news and less entertaining than most episodes of "Veep."

However, the subject with which Trump has tried so strenuously to divide us - immigration in general and refugees in particular -- is a factor in the welcome LA arrival of Qui Nguyen's brilliant "Vietgone," at East West Players. After the premiere of "Vietgone" in 2015 at South Coast, the script won major national and local awards, and it holds up well in Jennifer Chang's staging in Little Tokyo.

This is a great opportunity for anyone who missed this funny and touching saga of '70s Vietnamese refugees. They arrive in the new world speaking to each other in a "Vietnamese" that is actually a hiphop-infused 21st-century English, which ushers us more directly into their young-adult sensibilities from another time.

The style of "Vietgone" is in stark contrast to Alan L. Brooks' "A Splintered Soul," which depicts the moral chaos faced by Holocaust refugees in 1947 San Francisco. Marya Mazor's staging for International City's Theatre, in Long Beach, is grim but involving, as we follow the downward spiral of a rabbi (Stephen Rockwell) who strives to be the shepherd of his wounded flock.

Finally, in my tradition of trying to track the better plays set in southern California, take note of Nate Rufus Edelman's taut kidnapping drama "Desert Rats" in the downstairs Avalos Theatre at downtown's LATC. Tinged with moments of black comedy that are handled well by director Angie Scott's cast, it's probably the first play I've seen that's set in Barstow.

The target of the play's two desperate Barstow-bred brothers is a teenager from a wealthy but broken home in Calabasas. A carefully non-stereotyped cheerleader at her school, she performs a few cheers for one of her hapless captors. Three cheers for "Desert Rats."

More by Don Shirley:
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed