Seeing 'Indecent', 'Happy Days' and 'Dana H.'

indecent.jpgAdina Verson and Elizabeth A. Davis in "Indecent" at the Ahmanson Theatre. Cropped photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Women's voices dominate Center Theatre Group's June offerings -- but with a twist. Yes, the voices include those of a 67-year-old playwright, a 71-year-old actress and the mother of one of America's foremost young male playwrights, but the last two of those three voices appear in scripts that were written or assembled by men.

The voices in these plays are from an earlier generation of women than most of those who led the recent Me Too movement. But the influence of that movement is currently detectable elsewhere in the LA theatrical landscape and perhaps even in this CTG trio as well.

"Indecent," at the Ahmanson, is the most exciting of the CTG productions. It provided its playwright, Paula Vogel, with her Broadway debut only two years ago, after a four-decade career of writing plays that were produced only in lower-profile venues (she also taught many of today's prominent younger playwrights).

The move of "Indecent" to Broadway somewhat echoed an element of what happens inside the play itself. "Indecent" chronicles the odyssey of Sholem Asch's play "God of Vengeance" from its birth in 1906, to Yiddish theaters in Europe, then to New York for an English-language production on Broadway in 1923.

If that sounds excessively inside-theater, understand that "God of Vengeance" included an apparently then-unprecedented love scene between two women, who defy the wishes of a brothel owner who sired one of the women and employed the other. And consider the fact that even after that scene was somewhat self-censored by the Broadway producer, police raided the production, in part pressured by Jewish fears that the play's seriously flawed characters could stoke anti-Semitism.

But "Indecent" ventures into territory far beyond that specific scene and the police raid. Indeed, much of the play's power comes from the fact that Vogel places this story in the much larger context of the 20th century's pogroms that culminated in the Holocaust.

indecent2.jpgLisa Gutkin and Elizabeth A. Davis in "Indecent." Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

If this sounds too sobering, understand that "Indecent" is also infused with the life-affirming sounds and spirit of klezmer (including originals composed by one of the performers, Lisa Gutkin, with Aaron Halva) and corresponding movement (choreographed by David Dorfman). The chameleonic ensemble features the musicians as well as the actors. It's all staged by Rebecca Taichman on a stage that shifts with seeming effortlessness between locations and years, up through the aftermath of World War II.

With so much on its mind, "Indecent" doesn't actually show us much of "God of Vengeance" except the famous love scene and the dramatic finale. Leaving the theater, I immediately began wondering where and when the closest production of "God of Vengeance" might take place. I've never seen it. My curiosity was roused even more by this Vogel quote from American Theatre magazine: "Most of all I want 'Indecent' to be a product placement for 'God of Vengeance'. It's a great play."

So which LA theater company has seized the marketing moment and scheduled a revival of "God of Vengeance" for 2019, as New Yiddish Rep did in 2016-2017 in New York (in Yiddish with English supertitles, no less)? The Ahmanson production of "Indecent" was announced in February 2018; surely some enterprising LA group began putting together a companion production of "God of Vengeance" soon thereafter?

Unfortunately, I can find no hint that such a production is waiting in the wings. In fact, I can't find any trace of a "God of Vengeance" in LA since 1985 (Group Repertory in North Hollywood) and before that in 1970 (Santa Monica Playhouse), although the playhouse also did a loose adaptation of "God of Vengeance," called "Backstreet," since then. The best-known recent English-language adaptation of Asch's play, by Donald Margulies, emerged in Seattle and New York nearly two decades ago, but it never joined the many other Margulies plays that have arrived in LA.

I wonder if anyone at Center Theatre Group itself considered a "God of Vengeance" production, in coordination with "Indecent." Whatever, the final decision was made to go in two very different directions for the simultaneous fare at CTG's downtown Mark Taper Forum and its Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

At the Taper, the wondrous Dianne Wiest is starring in Samuel Beckett's mega-metaphorical "Happy Days", in which the star is buried in a mound up to her waist during the first act and up to her neck in the second. Directed by James Bundy (originally for Yale Repertory Theatre, where he is artistic director), with Michael Rudko playing Winnie's mostly silent mate, this production yields plenty of ironic laughter. Yet perhaps because of our awareness of the encroaching effects of climate change, as well as the usual aging process, it's also as bleak as always. Still, it's a joy just to hear Wiest's voice rise and fall, along with her spirits, as Winnie measures her days.

The Douglas has the premiere of one of the most unusually-formatted productions CTG has ever staged. In "Dana H.," Deidre O'Connell lip-syncs, with virtuosic skill, excerpts from a recorded interview with Dana Higginbotham - as edited by Higginbotham's son, playwright Lucas Hnath.

Higginbotham's story is no garden-variety personal memoir. She was abducted in 1997 by a mentally ill criminal, whom she had been counseling in her job as a chaplain. She was abused for at least five months - in Florida, while her son was studying at NYU. Her story is gripping but also somewhat difficult to parse and seemingly impossible to verify with other sources. Her attempts to get help from police were futile, she says. There are no references to any official investigations or adjudications.

dana-h.jpgDeirdre O'Connell in the world premiere of "Dana H." Photo by Craig Schwartz.

A detailed motel-room set is inactive during much of the play. I began to wonder if all of this wouldn't be more effective as a close-up video. But then the action suddenly expands to include a segment in which the stage is seized by the light and sound show of an unearthly fever dream - while an anonymous silhouetted female figure silently removes blood-stained sheets from the motel bed, remakes it and tidies up the room. Is Hnath suggesting that some parts of this story have dreamlike qualities - or might have been dreams? It isn't clear. But this scene certainly increases the production's overall mystery and theatricality quotients. Les Waters directs.

Hnath is best known in LA for his breakthrough play "The Christians," which CTG produced at the Taper in 2015. Those who missed that production should see a much more intimate version of it, produced by Actors Co-op (through this Sunday only).

That this company's home is on the campus of the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood increases the audacity of this production, for "The Christians" is an uncompromising look at questions of faith. The central character, a legendary-in-his-own-time minister (Townsend Coleman), surprises his congregation and even his own wife (Kay Bess) one Sunday morning by informing them that he no longer believes in hell. Although we might admire his intellectual integrity, we also sense the arrogance with which he springs his announcement - in fact, the initially silent and finally spoken reactions of his wife are enough to add this to the list of plays in which mansplaining takes a hit. Thomas James O'Leary directs.

Me Too didn't inspire "Ladies," at Boston Court; it has been years in the making and was actually inspired by the stories of 18th-century pre-feminists in England who formed the Blue Stocking Society in order to stimulate advances for women in the arts. But throughout the play, just as we start to become engaged with the bonds and conflicts among four characters drawn from this Blue Woman Group, the play is repeatedly interrupted by a contemporary American character inspired by the playwright, Kit Steinkellner.

The four women in the ensemble take turns playing this modern character, donning identical glasses frames in order to indicate that suddenly we've lurched forward into 2019 with Steinkellner. She explains her interest in the play and the extreme liberties that she took with the actual history. A lot of this material might be better handled in a long program note; in the play itself, it's distracting and scatters the focus. The overuse of this device seems a little condescending to Steinkellner's own generation, as if she assumes that her contemporaries can process information only in brief pieces and with frequent use of 21st-century jargon -- even in the theater, away from the distractions of the internet and social media. Nevertheless, Jessica Kubzansky's lively staging is visually bracing.

Finally, a brief nod to the recently closed "The End of Sex," by Gay Walch, which Maria Gobetti directed at the Victory Theatre in Burbank. This one is set in present-day Los Angeles. A sixtysomething woman has decided that she no longer wants sex - just to be held, please - much to the distress not only of her husband, who has begun taking erection-enhancement pills, but also their thirtysomething USC-tenure-track daughter, who has somewhat different problems inside her own marriage. The dialogue intelligently analyzes the state of heterosexual contemporary coupling in two generations, adding a third and even younger generation in the unexpected final scene, which scrupulously avoids any artificial tying up of the narrative strands. This production should not be the end of "The End of Sex."

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