Sex and basketball -- and why Durang's Tony is wrong

William Reinbold and Stephanie Zimbalist star in the Colony Theatre Company's production of "Sex and Education." Photo: Michael Lamont

Sex, basketball and cheerleaders. Two productions that opened over the weekend at two of Greater LA's midsize theaters share these popular topics. Let no one say that the stage focuses only on the more esoteric concerns of the elite.

At Burbank's Colony Theatre, the title is "Sex and Education." But basketball, cheerleaders and selling houses are also on the agenda in Lissa Levin's probing comedy set in a high school classroom. The school's hoops star Joe (William Reinbold) and his English teacher Miss Edwards (Stephanie Zimbalist) are both on the verge of graduation - he to college and then (he hopes) the NBA, and she to a new career in real estate.

But Miss Edwards catches Joe passing a note to his cheerleader girlfriend Hannah (Allison Lindsey) during the final exam. So the veteran instructor requires the campus BMOC to stay after class in order to dissect and then re-write his profanity-laden note, which was an effort to get the answer to one of the test questions - and, more important, to arrange a hook-up.

As she analyzes Joe's writing, the two of them tangle not only over issues of grammar and persuasiveness, but also the meaning and value of an education. Meanwhile, Hannah appears on the sidelines in order to deliver little cheers comically emphasizing Miss Edwards' points. Hannah also has a few scenes with Joe that depict events before and after his encounter with Miss Edwards.

Levin's play, which had its Burbank (and area) premiere in 2011 at the smaller Victory Theatre, looks and sounds even sharper at the Colony, under the direction of Andrew Barnicle. It brings potentially fusty arguments to life in a match that has some of the hallmarks of a competitive and fiercely fought basketball game.

Meanwhile, I'll continue the basketball analogies, as I note that the Colony is doing very well on the boards right now, with great rebounding stats to prove it. The company announced last week that its most recent fund-raising efforts raised more than $260,000, enabling it to describe itself as "once-struggling" in a reference to a near-death experience in 2012.

That's great news for LA theater in general. The Colony is one of the most important teams in the midsize theater leagues that offer LA artists and audiences a happy medium between the intimacy of the smaller stages and the better-paying contracts of the larger stages.

Chance Theater, in Anaheim, intends to be one of the newest players in this same league, and it took a big step toward that goal over the weekend, as it opened its new, larger facilities with the West Coast premiere of "Lysistrata Jones," a musical that also offers the lures of basketball, cheerleaders and sex.

The company's new theater, just down the block from its former digs, has been converted into a miniature basketball court. A little more than a hundred fans are seated on one side of the court, while the band occupies a platform on the other side.

J.D. Driskill and Devon Hadsell<br />
Photo by Thamer Bajjali, True Image StudioDouglas Carter Beane's book and Lewis Flinn's score re-set the story of Lysistrata - the legendary Greek feminist who led the campaign to deny soldiers sex until they stopped fighting -- in contemporary America. The location is "Athens University," where the incongruous name of the athletic teams -- "the Spartans" -- indicates the level of haplessness on campus and the level of comedy in the show.

A particularly determined cheerleader vows to lead the basketball squad to victory via a campaign to withhold sexual favors from the team members until they win. A few too many plot machinations follow. The goal of her campaign eventually expands beyond winning a basketball game.

Despite some narrative clutter that makes "Lysistrata Jones" a little too long-winded, the energy level of director Kari Hayter's cast remains high. A few of the lines weren't quite audible in the new space, but enough of the one-liners land to sustain the high-spirited whimsy.

Taking one step at a time, the Chance hasn't yet graduated to using Actors' Equity members in its larger quarters, but it intends to pursue that goal, say the company's leaders. Chance created a considerable name for itself even without Equity contracts, and the talent of its young non-Equity casts is undeniable. But if those actors are to mature into pursuing long-lasting theater-devoted careers, Equity is the next essential step.

NYET: Christopher Durang's "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" comes with the heavy baggage of high expectations at the Mark Taper Forum.

If you're aware that it won the Tony Award for best play last year, you might assume that it was, well, the best new play -- at least among the shallow pool of new plays that appear on Broadway. Also, many theatergoers - include me in this group - might look forward to Durang's latest because of fond memories of some of his earlier work and the plays of Chekhov, which Durang is gently spoofing here.

vanya-and-sonia-shirley.jpgBut high expectations often lead to disappointment. Durang's recent Tony winner isn't as funny or as edgy as many of his previous plays - remember "Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them" (which Hollywood's Blank Theatre produced in 2009)? And "Vanya..." isn't as heartbreakingly funny as almost any of Chekhov's plays.

Durang gathers contemporary American versions of Chekhovian characters into the sun room of a Pennsylvania exurban house, which looks just a little too comfortable at the Taper. The glamorous middle-aged actress Masha (Christine Ebersole) owns the place and passes through it for the period of this play, accompanied by her latest young stud Spike (David Hull) - might he be her next, sixth husband?

The house isn't Masha's primary home, but it serves as the permanent abode of her seemingly never-employed brother, 57-year-old Vanya (Mark Blum), and their equally unengaged 52-year-old sister Sonia (Kristine Nielsen) - who was adopted into the family.

The play's only characters not mentioned in the title are the young, aspiring actress Nina (Liesel Allen Yeager), who lives nearby, and the voodoo-practicing housekeeper (Shalita Grant). This last character predicts poetic doom in the style of, yes, the ancient Greek prophet who shares her name - Cassandra.

Cassandra serves primarily as one long, tedious joke. But she is merely the worst example of the problem with the entire play - it's an over-extended comedy sketch, in which a few bulls-eye laugh lines are accompanied by many that miss the mark, which then undercut any serious sentiments that might be evoked.

In the evening's worst examples of sloppy writing, Sonia has a long solo telephone conversation in which she clumsily has to repeat what the other person is saying so we can understand her answers, and Vanya has an even longer rant about cultural artifacts he misses from his youth (including his very youngest years - he mentions the '50s more than once, although he apparently was born in 1957.)

This long slog of a speech is apparently supposed to be the play's climax; actually, it's the clearest indication that Durang didn't know how to edit his own work. And David Hyde Pierce, who appeared as Durang's Vanya on Broadway but directs here, surely felt no incentive to suggest any edits on a script that, after all, won a Tony. The play might have become better if it had remained Tony-less.

Middle photo: J.D. Driskill and Devon Hadsell in "Lysistrata Jones," photo by Thamer Bajjali, True Image Studio. Lower: David Hull and Shalita Grant in "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike," photo by Craig Schwartz.

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