"Block party." What do those words suggest?
I think of a hyper-local gathering, organized by a neighborhood's residents, who temporarily reclaim the streets on their own turf, for the purposes of food and drink and fun and games with each other and any others who choose to attend.
So, when I think of a block party in Los Angeles, I don't think of Chicago in the '20s, the mind of a Yale-based poet, central Florida, the Philippines, Poland, New York, Rotterdam or Chicago in the '30s.
Yet those are the places where eight of the nine "Block Party" productions have been set, since Center Theatre Group began the project in 2017. The ninth, last year's "Die! Mommie! Die!," was set closer to home, but in this case "home" meant a campy-cartoon version of Beverly Hills in 1967.
CTG is currently approaching the midpoint of the 2019 Block Party. As in past years, three productions from smaller LA companies are undergoing transplants to Culver City, for shorter but better-paying runs at CTG's Kirk Douglas Theater, primarily for audiences who didn't see the earlier versions.
I'd like to propose a challenge to CTG, as it begins to consider which productions might make up the 2020 Block Party.
Please try to find three productions that are set in more-or-less contemporary Los Angeles, the city you serve. I might even settle for just one.
This shouldn't be a difficult challenge. This past week, I saw three such productions in smaller LA theaters.
I would recommend either "Friends With Guns," which just opened at Road Theatre's Magnolia Boulevard venue in North Hollywood, or "Canyon," which is about to close in a production by IAMA Theatre and the Latino Theater Company at LATC, in downtown LA.
CTG probably wouldn't choose both productions for the same Block Party. Their primary characters are superficially very similar - liberal thirtysomething Angelenos. Each play features two heterosexual couples, and in both plays one of the couples is entirely white while the other couple consists of a black husband and a white wife.
Jonathan Caren's "Canyon," however, also features two important Latino characters. They're a middle-aged father and teenage son (Geoffrey Rivas as Eduardo and Luca Oriel as Rodrigo, respectively) who are building a retaining wall at the home of househusband Jake (Adam Shapiro) and his wife Beth (Christine Woods), a pregnant but still-working doctor. Eduardo wants to persuade Jake to authorize an expansion of the deck that will allow the homeowners to see the whole canyon in which their house is located.
On this particular weekend, however, forget the literal canyon. Jake and Beth fall into what might turn out to be a personal and financial abyss. This turn of events coincides with the arrival of married friends and houseguests from New York - public defender Will (Brandon Scott) and full-time mom Dahlia (Stefanie Black), a former developmental psychologist.
It all takes place on Labor Day weekend in 2016, "just before Fall. Before everything changed," according to the script. The characters are confidently expecting Hillary Clinton to be the next president. More than one rude awakening awaits.
Shapiro and Scott played somewhat similar characters in playwright Caren's acclaimed "The Recommendation," which IAMA staged in 2014. Caren is clearly becoming one of the most adept chroniclers of young strivers in today's Los Angeles, and the co-production between IAMA and Latino Theater Company, ably thrust-staged by Whitney White in LATC's black-box Theatre 4, is a commendable example of a theatrical partnership that works.
The surprises that happen to the two couples in Stephanie Alison Walker's "Friends With Guns" occur over a somewhat longer and more plausible period of time than those in "Canyon." The title reveals what one of those surprises is, but it's not the only one.
Shannon (Kate Huffman), a West LA real estate broker who's supervising her two young kids at a park after a near-sleepless night, encounters a much more relaxed mom, Leah (Arianna Ortiz). Soon they're getting together with Shannon's husband Josh (Brian Graves), who works unhappily at Hulu, and Leah's entrepreneurial husband Danny (Christian Telesmar). Everyone seems compatible with each other and with shared liberal values until...the subject of gun ownership arises.
Yet the two women maintain their newly minted friendship. Soon Shannon is beginning to see some merit on the other side of the argument, much to the chagrin of her husband. The play ends with a jolt, before the story itself ends. Although some of the conversation and behavior have seemingly undermined the standard liberal point of view, suddenly Josh's tired tirades against guns are underlined by the added irony and gravitas of a real-life situation.
Director Randee Trabitz masterfully choreographs the rising tension of Walker's play. It's set in the "present day" and resonates as an up-to-the-minute dramatization of gender issues as well as gun issues. While the superb "1st cast" that I saw is terrific, an alternate cast will perform on Thursdays and Sunday evenings, beginning March 28.
The third LA-set play I saw last week is taking place at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz - just one neighborhood away from its fictional setting in east Hollywood. "America Adjacent," by Boni Alvarez, is set in a crowded one-bedroom apartment where young, pregnant women from the Philippines are staying temporarily so that their children can be born in the United States. Under Jon Lawrence Rivera's direction, it's a compassionate glimpse at a variety of characters and their conflicts in this pressurized environment. But it would be an unlikely contender for CTG's Block Party, because Alvarez's "Bloodletting" was in the Block Party just last year (in the list above, it's the play that's set in the Philippines) -- which is too bad, because "America Adjacent" is a better play than "Bloodletting."
Coincidentally, in 2017 the Skylight also produced the West Coast premiere of British playwright Jon Brittain's "Rotterdam," which will be the second component of this year's Block Party, opening March 30. Michael Shepperd's previous staging of "Rotterdam" at the Skylight was excellent, well worth the accolades it received, and I have no objection if CTG or another larger company wants to continue its LA life.
But isn't it time that CTG took the Block Party moniker more seriously and started using it to reflect what's going on, circa 2020, in the blocks within Los Angeles?