LAist should start a "TheaterWeek"
plus reactions to 'Kate', 'POTUS', a 'Mystic Pizza' musical, 'Sukkot' and more
A year ago, most of KPCC transformed into LAist.
The Southern California Public Radio empire, including KPCC, had long ago outgrown its roots as a Pasadena Community College-affiliated radio station. More recently it had acquired the archives of the defunct LAist website.
So why not rebrand to a name that suggested a much wider scope of local news coverage? The history of that brand also reminds listeners that the organization is a website — accessible online as well as on old-fashioned radios.
LAist proclaimed that it has “the second largest newsroom in greater Los Angeles” and emphasized that it’s “not behind a paywall” — it’s accessible to anyone online, regardless of subscriber status. We can probably assume that the intended comparison here was to the LA Times, which offers only limited access to non-subscribers (and, just last week, laid off a fifth of its newsroom).
I listen to LAist often, usually on my old-fashioned car radio. Frequently, while traveling to or from theaters, I hear Larry Mantle and two or three movie critics (drawn from a rotating pool of 10 or 11) discussing the latest screen offerings on FilmWeek, a segment of Mantle’s popular AirTalk program. Of course podcast versions are available on the website at whatever time. AirTalk also presents interviews with filmmakers, critical reports from film festivals, and TV-Talk, in which Mantle leads a critical discussion about new streaming TV series.
I enjoy Mantle’s lively chats, especially when two or three critics somewhat disagree about a particular film or series. On the other hand, if two or more critics agree that a movie or streamer is worthwhile, I’m likelier to make a mental note that perhaps I should eventually check it out.
Lately, however, I tend to think less about the screen fare that’s discussed on AirTalk — and more about the stage fare that isn’t.
Why doesn’t AirTalk or the larger LAist offer similar critical discussions of LA stage productions? When might TheaterWeek emerge?
Sure, LA theater hasn’t completely recovered from the COVID closings — or the troubling “pause” in season programming at the Mark Taper Forum. But Greater LA is still one of the three major theater hubs in the country, along with New York and Chicago. In almost any week it’s possible to attend the openings of at least four or five professional productions. LAist’s home-town Pasadena Playhouse won the most recent Tony award for an outstanding regional theater.
Thousands of Angelenos treasure live, face-to-face encounters with actors, alongside other audience members who are also reacting to what’s on stage, here and now. Of course theater tickets usually cost more than movie tickets and many streaming subscriptions, and theatergoing often requires more time in transit to a show — all the more reason why theater audiences might want to hear informed opinions of what’s playing from at least a couple of critics.
But LAist lacks any regular theater commentary. While LAist has promotional partnerships with a few theater companies and posts occasional interviews with theater artists, these are hardly substitutes for the assessments of established critics who have actually seen the shows — at least from the perspective of the theater-interested public.
Am I partially to blame for this?
In January 2009, the then-leaders of LA County’s three biggest theater companies (Center Theatre Group’s Michael Ritchie, Pasadena Playhouse’s Sheldon Epps and Geffen Playhouse’s Gilbert Cates) wrote a letter to the LA Times warning about recent layoffs of theater critics at LA publications — and how this would diminish the attention the public pays to LA theater. The trio of artistic directors also appeared on AirTalk to discuss this topic with Mantle.
Perhaps as a delayed result of that segment, at the end of 2009, I was among the critics who participated in a year-end discussion of LA theater that Mantle hosted on AirTalk. Two similar discussions occurred at the end of 2010 and 2011. But I’ve occasionally wondered if we critics flunked what might have been implicit auditions for regular conversations about LA theater.
In our defense, please note that most LA theaters have closed for the holidays by the end of each year — and the first half of January is the least active period on the LA theater calendar (hence this late-January arrival of the latest edition of Angeles Stage). Potential ticket buyers would probably prefer to hear about currently-running productions, instead of shows that already closed.
Steven Leigh Morris, then with the LA Weekly, was another of the critics on those KPCC discussions. This was before he started the website Stage Raw. Now, with more than 20 contributors writing reviews of a wide range of theatrical productions, it’s the best place to find a single writer’s review of any given production that might be on your radar. If you want to find more than one opinion about a production, sometimes that’s possible on the website of Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle (yes, a link to Angeles Stage is usually available there).
But the competition for LA’s “second largest newsroom” is the LA Times, not any stage-specific website. And the Times coverage of LA theater has crumbled so significantly that LAist should seize the newspaper’s previous position as the central forum for wider audiences to hear about the local stage.
As LAist itself has demonstrated with FilmWeek, this step shouldn’t be taken within the outdated structure of asking only one critic to do all of the commenting (I participated in that format years ago at the Santa Monica NPR affiliate KCRW, but in 2020 KCRW apparently discontinued the estimable Anthony Byrnes’ most recent continuation of that tradition — his last post on the station’s website is from April 2020).
LAist should instead adapt its multi-critic format to the arena of LA stage productions. Discussions usually entice more listeners than solos.
This wouldn’t be unprecedented for public radio. Links on the National Public Radio website brought me to the podcast page for “Theater Talk,” a program in which two critics discuss current stage productions — in the Buffalo, New York metro area, on WBFO. However, they lack a moderator and apparently a larger pool of critics — it’s only two men doing the opining, most of it positive, plus occasional interviews with theater artists.
Greater LA has more than 12 times as many people as greater Buffalo. It has immeasurably larger numbers of professional theaters, actors, writers, directors, designers and, yes, theater critics. If LAist wants to cover LA’s performing arts with any depth and discernment, the LA stage scene would be a good place to start.
A kiss for ‘Kate’
If LAist were to start a TheaterWeek program immediately, the first production to discuss might well be “Kate” at the Pasadena Playhouse — a few blocks northeast of the headquarters of AirTalk and Southern California Public Radio. But it would deserve first place for reasons other than its coincidental proximity.
We could easily frame “Kate” as comedy, or as performance art. It’s a comedy about the art and the artifice of performance. Voila — a hilarious piece of performance art.
Kate is played by Kate Berlant, a 36-year-old performance provocateur. She’s also a working Hollywood actor who played Shirley Cohen on the canceled Amazon series “A League of Their Own” in 2022. I’ve never seen it, but Wikipedia describes Shirley as “highly anxious”.
We first see “Kate” before the show, sitting inside a velvet-rope-enclosed square in the center of the lobby. She wears a sign that says “IGNORE ME” — while large photos of her in contrasting poses loom in the background. Meanwhile, “KATE” signs pop up just about everywhere. I saw three of them in the playhouse’s tiny men’s room. Arriving spectators are invited to take photos of the lobby scene.
Inside the theater, as we find our seats and then wait for Kate to appear on stage, we can contemplate a video that more or less continues the version of Kate we saw in the lobby. Finally we see a screen message that she will enter the stage in five minutes — and we laugh at a few other messages that appear in the interim countdown.
Despite the cultish trappings, we soon discover that “Kate” is the opposite of self-satisfied. She is plagued with doubts about her (somewhat fictional) family, about the concept of performance, about her career in general (why can’t she cry on cue in auditions?) and this specific production in Pasadena. This play could be called “Doubt,” if that title weren’t already taken, but there is no doubt about the mirth it makes. Kate’s anxiety is literally magnified by director Bo Burnham’s sensational handling of video, lighting and sound.
You might want to be surprised by what happens later in “Kate”. But for anyone who wants more details, I’ll hand the baton over to another critic (befitting what I suggested above, in my advocacy of a “TheaterWeek” segment on LAist) — here is Charles McNulty’s LA Times review. The Times also posted an interview with Berlant last Friday, more about her LA food faves than about the show,
LAist itself posted a brief but more “Kate”-oriented interview with Berlant six days after its opening night, and KCRW interviewed Berlant before it opened, perhaps because she grew up in Santa Monica.
A frantic farce that flounders
Of course any journalistically sound and consumer-friendly commentary on LA theater also has to acknowledge mixed or negative reactions as well as cheers. Enter Selina Fillinger’s “POTUS or, Behjnd Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive,” as staged by Jennifer Chambers at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.
The title character — a philandering and incompetent president of the United States — is absent from the stage. Instead an all-female cast plays the president’s harried chief of staff, the press secretary, the Oval Office secretary, the overachieving First Lady, a drug-dealing sister and a young Iowan whom POTUS recently impregnated — plus a reporter who arrives to interview the First Lady but become embroiled in the other women’s attempts to cover for the president’s multiple failings.
The excessively exaggerated shticks and plot twists become difficult to track, especially in the second act. A shallow stage configuration adds to the confusion of which rooms of the White House we’re in at any given moment; a couple of forays by characters up and down the aisles hardly help clarify matters. The question of why this particular POTUS would have hired a woman as chief of staff is ignored. In fact, no woman has ever held the real-life job in the White House.
The Geffen’s “POTUS” opened last Friday — the same day that a jury ruled that Donald Trump must pay an extra $83 million for continuing to defame E. Jean Carroll, a victim of his sexual abuse. Trump’s courtroom attorney in this case was Alina Habba, a 39-year-old woman. This surely could make for a much more interesting play than “POTUS.”
And seven more shows
Plenty of other productions have opened this month that could serve as fodder for critical conversations on the proposed TheaterWeek. Let’s examine seven of them, starting with productions at two of the larger theaters:
“Mystic Pizza” at La Mirada Theatre. This is the West Coast premiere of a musical inspired by the very East-Coasty 1988 movie about coming of age in the seaside town of Mystic, Connecticut, focusing on the employees of a popular pizza purveyor. The movie soundtrack lacks any hint of the pop-rock sounds of that era, so the idea of a jukebox-musical version using ‘80s hits is promising. Sometimes it pays off in Casey Hushion’s energetic staging. But was it necessary to use 20 such hits? The need to make room for a lot of dancing sometimes clutters the stage, and we miss the movie’s picturesque coastline scenery. Sandy Rustin’s stage script is also less salty — in the sense of risqué — and she unfortunately felt compelled to contrive an extremely unconvincing happy ending for the arc of Daisy (the character played by Julia Roberts in the movie).
“The Journals of Adam and Eve,” at Garry Marshall Theatre in Burbank. I’ll be brief, because it has already closed, but it was obviously a tryout for likely future productions. Sitcom veteran Ed. Weinberger wrote a Borscht-Belt-like duet for the Bible’s first two humans, played here by Hal Linden and Sally Struthers, who stand behind scripts on music stands — in other words, a format usually associated with the many “Love Letters” celebrity tours. I chuckled now and then, but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being even more impressed by Googling Linden’s age after the show ended and learning that he’s 92. He could easily pass for 72.
“Sukkot,” a 6th Act production at Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz. Speaking of plays with references to the Torah (see “Journals of Adam and Eve,” above) I was quite moved by this brand-new play, to laughs as well as tears. Matthew Leavitt’s script rises far above the usual warring-family-reunion conventions by its creative use of the sukkot rituals in a contemporary and only barely-Jewish family. Joel Zwick’s superb staging features a terrific performance by Andy Robinson as a retired professor who wants to mourn his late wife with something from her Jewish heritage (which he does not share). He insists that his three secular adult children join him for the occasion.
“Mercury,” at the Road Theatre in North Hollywood. Steve Yockey’s script begins as a real-life comedy about two gay couples — of different genders. One of the women, who is married to an unseen man, wants to uncouple from her lesbian relationship with her neighbor. Eventually the play veers into wild satire, as well as the afterlife, where we meet an outrageous heterosexual couple. But Yockey and director Ann Hearn Tobolowsky nonetheless manage to keep us along for the ride. The performances and the design of this West Coast premiere are ideal for this witty blend of genres.
“Middle of the World," Rogue Machine at Matrix Theatre in the Fairfax district. That title describes Ecuador (“equator” in Spanish). Parts of the play are flashbacks to 2015, when a (fictional) woman who had become president of Ecuador was forced into exile, after a particularly fateful decision that the CIA had encouraged her to make. She landed in New York City and became an Uber driver. A customer who is a younger banking executive is so intrigued by her story that he hires her as his personal driver. The two become friends, and perhaps more, but major mistakes that each has made haunt their relationship. Juan José Alfonso’s script has some of the texture of a nuanced novel — in only 95 minutes — and it receives a thoughtful treatment from director Guillermo Cienfuegos, building on his own staging of the world premiere last fall in Idaho.
“Brushstroke,” a Jeremy Wein production at the Odyssey in West LA. John Ross Bowie’s play also has a CIA element (see “Middle of the World,” above), but it’s set in the very different environs of the abstract-expressionist art world of the Lower East Side in 1956 New York. I found the first part of the play more plausible and engaging than the last part, but on opening night we were literally told not to reveal the ending as we left the theater, so mum’s the word.
“Strangers on a Train,” at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills. Maybe you’ve seen the famous 1951 Hitchcock movie with the same title? This current production is a revival of Craig Warner’s stage adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1950 noir novel — which was also, separately, the source material for the film. So some of the details are different from those on the screen. I enjoyed most of Jules Aaron’s staging, but the late arrival of the private eye who cracks the case seems far-fetched — a problem of the script, not the acting.