Friday, July 29, 2016

"Slaughter City"


Slaughter City
Naomi Wallace
Stanford Repertory Theater

Louis McWilliams as Brandon & Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Roach
American playwright, university professor, and social activist Naomi Wallace creates in her Slaughter City a play that rips open the doors of one of the more gruesome workplaces to reveal the injustice, the suffering, and the inequalities residing there every day while also showing the friendships, humor, and sexual attractions that somehow exist in a setting full of stench, guts, and blood.  As part of its “Theatre Takes a Stand” summer offerings, Stanford Repertory Theater presents Naomi Wallace’s mixture of allegory, realism, and fantasy presented in rich, graphic, raw, and erotic language, song, and choreography.

Please follow this link to my full, Talkin' Broadway review: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj52.html 


Rating: 3 E

Slaughter City continues through August 7 at Nitery Theater, 515 Lausen, Stanford, CA.  Slaughter City is part of Stanford Repertory Theatre’s “Summer 2016: Theater Takes a Stand.”  Next on stage will be Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty (August 11-21), with a related, free Monday night film series occurring through August 15.  Information and tickets are available at www.stanfordtheater.com or by calling 650-725-5838 and leaving a message.

Photo by Frank Chen
 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"The Gathering"


The Gathering
Arje Shaw


Kahlil Leneus, Tracy Camp, Edward Nattenberg & Arje Shaw
Plays about a Holocaust survivor rarely open with an elderly man swapping Yiddish-filled pokes and jokes with his thirteen-year-old, African-American grandson, whom he calls ‘boychick.’  The grandfather tries half-heartedly to cajole the boy to practice his haftorah reading for his upcoming bar mitzvah while the boy begs to play chess instead, which clearly his ‘zayde’ would prefer to do, too.  With chicken soup cooking in the background of the old man’s art studio (dominated by a almost-completed bust of Mohammed Ali), the two play chess while discussing what makes a perfect kreplach, including if Zayde’s choice of pork-filled wontons will be kosher enough for today.

Thus opens a revival of Arje Shaw’s 1999 Off-Broadway, 2004 Broadway play now showing at Berkeley’s Live Oak Theatre and starring the playwright himself in the role of Gabe, Michael’s curmudgeon grandfather with nothing but twinkling eyes of love for his ‘boychick.’  With a talented, multi-racial cast about a play of three generations of one Jewish family, the play elicits a wide range of emotions during its two-hour course.  Issues erupt between father, son, and grandson on how much the sins of earlier generations pass on to those not yet born as well as if, when, and how to let go of hate and move on to reconciliation. 

The actors genuinely tackle with great skill and empathy the difficult subjects of fathers who have ignored sons, of family secrets that have been hidden in locked-up pasts, and of a survivor who is abhors how his own son seems to forget too conveniently what the Germans once did to their family and millions like them.  Unfortunately, the playwright’s script asks us as an audience to buy into and believe increasingly incredulous situations and conversations that do not seem plausible, even though they are delivered with heartfelt fervor.  And while tears may be in some eyes as the play ends, heads have to be shaking upon exit wondering how the playwright actually thinks we are vulnerable enough to believe what has been posited could have really happened.

The play’s first act moves from the back-and-forth banter of Gabe and Michael to a Shabbat dinner which Diane, an African-American Jew-by-Choice, has meticulously prepared the dietary traditions she has learned that were passed from Eastern European shtetl to her Bronx kitchen.  Gabe’s son, Diane’s husband, and Michael’s dad, Stuart, arrives to join the other three -- late from D.C. where he has recently begun working as a speech writer for President Reagan.  Tension rises as Stuart appears totally oblivious that Michael’s bar mitzvah is for actually the boy, even saying at one point, “It’s not your bar mitzvah.”  As he rattles off questions about caterers, Viennese tables, and seating arrangements, he warns Michael sternly, “Better be a good one, son ... Don’t embarrass me ... I have a lot of important people coming.” 

Against such tension at the Shabbat table, a call comes from Reagan’s Senior Advisor, Pat Buchannan (with Gabe shouting “Anti-Semite” in the background), summoning Stuart back to D.C. to prepare the President for a visit to Germany.  Chancellor Kohl has proposed they visit together a cemetery in Bitburg, a cemetery where German soldiers from WWII are buried along supposedly with some members of a former SS unit. 

That his son would become intimately involved in what he sees as an atrocity to not only himself as a camp survivor but also to the Six Million is more than Gabe can tolerate.  The explosion that erupts with shouting and accusations ends Act One, leaving many important questions hanging in the air.  All events and reactions are quite plausible to that point, especially since many in the audience remember this controversial visit Reagan actually made in 1985 and all the hubbub it caused in Congress, the Jewish press, and across much of the nation.

Arje Shaw & Kahlil Leneus
However, in Act Two, the playwright moves from this historically based set-up a series of unlikely events that are filled with stage melodrama.  Somehow we are to believe that Gabe essentially kidnaps his grandson the day before Reagan is to arrive at Bitburg, flies with him across the Atlantic, and performs the boy’s bar mitzvah at the hated cemetery just before Reagan and Kohl are to arrive.  Further, a phone message from him the night before somehow gets Diane and Stuart on a plane, across the ocean, and to the cemetery just as a young soldier is trying to convince a vehement, screaming Gabe that he and Michael must leave.  The dramatics of the cemetery reunion of the family, the subsequent confessions of an aged father, and the calm revelations of a young German soldier all begin to sound more like an quickly conceived TV movie plot than a serious play with intentions of generating reflection and conversation.

But despite a script that begins to weaken in believability and thus potential impact, the cast members themselves do all they can -- and more -- to present plausible persona, emotions, and reactions.  Arje Shaw is at his best when he is a doting, playful Grandfather to his intelligent, serious, but still kid-at-heart grandson, Michael (Kahlil Leneus).  He also is stunning as he projects the raw emotions of Gabe’s haunting memories of capture and encampment, the present and past regrets for him as a father, and the lingering anger he has for a whole nation of people that he sees as guilty then, now, and forever. 

Aaron Kitchin, Arje Shaw & Edward Nattenberg
As Gabe’s grown son Stuart, Edwin Nattenberg begins as overly insistent on his own wishes and needs and insensitive to the effects he is having on his family at the Shabbat table.  The animated exasperation he later shows toward his father in Germany is seen in his locked jaw, gritted teeth, and voice on edge by a lifetime of mounting hurt.  His own final, weeping collapse is visceral and moving, even if the events surrounding it are stretching credibility.

Kahlil Leneus plays the young Michael with poise, maturity, and a great ability to deliver authentically both Yiddish and Hebrew as well as display the kind of Jewish sayings and mannerisms that delight his Zayde.  As Diane, Tracy Camp is often a quiet force in the background but able to step in as both a caring Jewish mom, a confronting wife, and a compassionate daughter-in-law as required.  Aaron Kitchin is the young German soldier, Egon, who brings a calm, firm, steady voice and approach to his attempts to convince Gabe to leave the restricted area of the cemetery as well as a measured manner in revealing his own German family’s connections both to the Holocaust and to Israel.

As a reviewer who also happens to be Jewish and who has been heavily involved in the international teacher development organization, Facing History and Ourselves (dedicated to engaging students in the difficult history of the Holocaust and other, more recent genocides), I applaud Arje Shaw for writing this play and these actors for bringing it to the stage.  However, appealing to an audience wider than the overly Jewish one present the afternoon I attended may prove to be difficult.  The Gathering brings great intentions that get thwarted by a plot that dips too much into infeasible melodrama, thus hurting it goal fully to engage.

Rating: 3 E

The Gathering continues through August 20 at Live Oak Theatre, 1301 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at www.thegatheringplay.com for performances Thursdays – Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.

Photo Credit: David Allen


Monday, July 25, 2016

"Grand Concourse"


Grand Concourse
Heidi Schreck

Kevin Clarke, Cathleen Riddley,  Megan Trout & Caleb Cabrera
The soup slowly simmers as more and more cut veggies are added to the large pot in the squeaky clean, industrial kitchen.  While the actual brew in this neighborhood soup kitchen never boils over, the metaphorical soup that is stirring in the kitchen run by a nun does begin to bubble, to pop, and eventually to spew as tensions heat up due to mounting disappointments and deceptions.  Along the way in this holy place providing sustenance to the poor, questions arise concerning the real intent of those helping others, how much to trust one’s faith in earthly friendships or heavenly devotion, and if and when forgiveness is just not possible.  Shotgun Players presents Grand Concourse by Heidi Schreck, a well-scripted, masterfully directed, and superbly acted play that begins innocently enough but that keeps pulling back the onion skins to reveal doubts, motives, and secrets that lead to disruptions and decisions impossible to predict in the beginning. 

Cathleen Riddley as Shelley
Shelley is a basketball-playing nun with a beloved cat named Pumpkin who with a grin eschews the expected black and white outfit but who believes so much that cleanliness is next to holiness that she arrives every morning at the soup kitchen (which she manages) to clean again what the night janitor has already done.  As Shelley, Cathleen Riddley never seems to stop chopping, wiping up, and just plain moving fast – that is, except when she pauses with clasped hands in front of the microwave, her chosen alter for timed prayers (one minute now, goal of two minutes soon).  But for some reason, those meditations seem harder for her to pray than one would expect from a woman devoting her full life to her Catholicism. 

The kitchen that Shelley reigns over with a big heart and a whole slew of rules (“Always change your gloves every time you handle a different vegetable”) is also where events are about to happen that unsettle the foundation of who she is and what she believes.  Cathleen Riddley excels and stuns in her abilities to display equally and authentically joy, silliness, and devilishness as well as hurt, anger, and despair.  The sudden sparkles in her eyes, the spontaneity of an unexpected hug, or the jive moves of a couple dance steps give way in time to eyes that send arrows to their prey’s heart, a jaw that ossifies in its firmness, and a heart that explodes into weeping heaves of the chest.

Caleb Cabrera as Oscar & Megan Trout as Emma
Early on, into Shelley’s kitchen arrives a nineteen-year-old woman full of intense eagerness to volunteer but with unclear reasons as to why.  When asked by Shelley what does she want to help, the lanky, rainbow-haired girl meekly answers, “Oh well, them I guess who need help ... and also me.”  The last part of her answer becomes the first of several red flags that Shelley appears to notice but to ignore as she takes this high-energy do-gooder under her wings and sets her to chopping and serving.  Megan Trout skillfully and with ease leads both Shelley and us to see her as sweet, eager-to-please, and even attractively naïve; but her real art as an actor is how she draws everyone around her into traps she sets for deceptions that go undetected.  What is behind the stories she begins to weave and a persona she creates that draws increased attention, sympathy, and love from others?  Are her stories and actions part of a plan, part of being sick, or just part of being a nineteen-year-old spoiled kid?

Part of the web Emma weaves begins to surround Oscar, the affable, upbeat janitor and all-around good guy who works for Shelley.  Oscar is devoted to Shelley and the work they do, eager to better himself for the future, and excited to be in love with his girlfriend, Lydia.  But try as he can, there is something about Emma and her forwardness with him (as well as her good looks) that he finds hard to resist. 

Caleb Cabrera brings much energy, jocularity, heart, and likeability to Oscar.  He moves about with fun in his step, and he lights up like a neon sign when he greets his fellow kitchen inhabitants.  Oscar is the person most upfront with his emotions and thoughts; but he is also one, along with others, who will wrestle if, when, and how to forgive an unexpected deceit.

Kevin Clarke as Frog
Offering both jocularity and sadness to the scene is Frog, an older homeless guy with long white hair and beard and a peddling purveyor of self-made booklets containing his somewhat pointless jokes.  (“Why did the little boy drop his ice cream?  He got hit by a bus.”)  Kevin Clarke is fun to watch as sneaks into the kitchen, grabbing surreptitiously a potato or zucchini to stash in his clutched pouch.  He grabs our sympathies and those of Emma as he describes his struggles to get a place to live and a job interview.  Wracked by past coke dependence, Mr. Clarke’s Frog oscillates from gentle and genial to erratic and explosive.  Through Emma’s persistence and ingenuity, a new beginning for him emerges that looks life is changing ... until it isn’t.

The literal on-stage chopping of many vegetables (all offered to the audience in bags at play’s end) and the figurative unpeeling of the story’s onion occur in a series of many short scenes marked expertly by Heather Basarab’s lighting shifts and shafts that help us discern passing of time, days, and nights.  Nina Ball’s set is immense and authentic as a shiny metallic, appliance-filled kitchen (aided greatly by Devon LaBelle’s shelves of pot and pan props) – a kitchen that includes a set of swinging doors that see a lot of action as actors head back and forth to feed the waiting, unseen hungry.  Urban sounds (including rocks thrown by pesky kids) permeate through imaginary walls thanks to well-executed sound by Matt Stines.  Christine Crook has dressed the principals in manners to accentuate each particular personality and set of peculiarities. 

This script offers twists and turns that ultimately do not end where might be most expected, readying the audience for post-play self-reflections and conversations about motives behind their own volunteering, about times when they have been duped when only trying to do a good turn, or about what it would take for them never ever to forgive.  The skills of the actors to deliver this multi-leveled script are sharpened and given just the right edge by Joanie McBrien’s direction.  Nothing develops too fast to miss it or too slow to become impatient, even though there are so many short scenes and people coming and going from the kitchen left, right, and center.  And the emotions that swell to breaking points are given their time and due to sink in for impact without bringing the story’s flow to a melodramatic halt.

Shotgun Players continues to unveil in this, the 25th Anniversary season, important plays that grab and hold attention and that raise thought-provoking questions.  Regular playgoers are getting to know this repertory cast and to revel in their individually diverse capabilities as actors.  Grand Concourse is yet another winner and can be seen -- should be seen -- as the play continues in repertory with the season’s earlier productions, Hamlet and The Village Bike.

Rating: 5 E

Grand Concourse continues its primary run through August 21, 2016 at the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at www.shotgunplayers.org or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Pak Han.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

"Stale Magnolias"


Stale Magnolias
Sean Owens (Book & Lyrics); Don Seaver (Music)

Jef Valentine as Raven Looney & Robert Molossi as Spuvina Fetlock
It’s a feverish 102º in Rectal, TX, where the most shocking sight is “Texas women in 80s couture.”  The radio announcer on local KWHY has just announced the town’s oldest citizen, Miss Vita Brevits, has passed on to her heavenly reward after going on a sugar binge in protest of the introduction of New Coke.  The town’s prize bull has suddenly lost his will to spread his genes among the waiting cows, and C.C. Chesterfield is getting ready to greet her customers and sometimes-friends to her “Last Chance Salon” (as in often-dyed and much-ratted hair-dos), where the motto is “Natural beauty is no excuse.”

Once again, San Francisco’s Oasis plucks a much-loved (especially by gays and their pals) show from the past (in this case, the film Steel Magnolias) to create a pun-packed, no-holes-barred, drag-queen-filled parody, Stale Magnolias.  With book and lyrics by Sean Owens and music by Don Seaver, Stale Magnolias is loaded with the kind memorable lines that Oasis fans flock in hoards to hear -- quotable quips like “Memories are like hot flashes ... You don’t really want them but sometimes they’re all you got.”

C.C. Chesterfield is the proprietress of Rectal’s illustrious salon, where the town’s gentler sex gathers for beautifying, gossip, sweet tea, and air conditioning.  C.C. (played by Marilynn Fowler, the one real woman on stage) has a welcoming spirit, a sharp tongue, and a sweet soprano voice that is actually natural.  The story opens as she has just hired newly arrived Sugar Sweetly who was named at birth ‘Splenda,’ a name she decided was a poor substitute for the more desired ‘Sugar.’  With lips as red and wide as a big Christmas bow, Sugar (Michael Phillis) is not overly smart but is as nice as they come – except when she has sudden bouts of screaming anger.  Like others soon to visit the salon, she carries a dark secret locked deep in her heart and also in her car’s trunk about the priest she recently “took care of.”

Jerry Navarro is the snappy, snarky Louisiana Morales, smooth-sounding voice of KWHY.  Louisiana is better known in these parts by friends and traveling salesmen simply as “Loose.”  A performer on skates with a skirt barely covering the essentials, Loose has aspirations that an audition tomorrow will send her packing to New York City for the destiny she knows is in her future.  She also is immediately drawn to the lanky, stringy-haired but cute Sugar, who returns those subtle glances with smitten, silly smiles.

Into the scene rolls in her wheelchair Fanny Chaffer, infuriated at big-mouthed Loose who has just announced on the radio that Fanny is now the town’s oldest citizen (with Vita about to be laid to rest).  Fanny (Drew Todd) is an ol’ curmudgeon with a scratchy twang, a scowling frown, and a peaked head of white, puffy hair.  She claims to own the town’s supply of healing waters, which she declares in song, “It’s a wonderful thing ... Your lips take a sip, and you can hear the angels sing.”  (Sugar naively notes that the water comes out of the faucet brown, to which Fanny falls into fits and furies.)

Rounding out the morning’s drop-ins are two of the town’s socialites and upper crust (or at least, as upper as you can get in Rectal), Spuvina Fetlock (Robert Molossi) and Raven Looney (Jef Valentine).  Spuvina, a former Miss Squash Blossom Queen, and Raven, still reveling in her walk-on role decades previously in a Wes Craven classic film seen by dozens (“Terror Train”), are rivals to the core.  In a dueling duet, they trade barbs such as “You’re like a joke that the town’s forgotten” and “You spread your lies, spread your legs, and both are rotten.”

Believe it or not, all the above is just the set-up for much intrigue and hilarity to follow.  Stale Magnolias has more corn than a whole season of “Heehaw,” more rivalries and lies than Dyansty, and more true confessions and surprises than Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.  Why does that bull not hump?  What is in that purse that Sugar clutches?  Who did run over Spuvina’s husband with a rotter-tiller?  And why is everyone’s hair falling out?

Not only is it necessary to high-tail it to Oasis to find out the answers, the price of ticket also pays for must-be-seen-to-believe dresses (Jef Valentine) and wigs (Jordan L’Moore) that many drag queens would give a year of life to own.  Sarah Phykitt has also created a salon set that is pink and ‘purty,’ accentuated just right by Leonardo Hildalgo’s lighting.  Flown in with no regard to expense is the KWHY Band, with Don Seaver on keyboard and Mark Macario on drums; and they provide a slew of Texas-sounding tunes and sound effects to tickle your innards.

While this is a musical, the real strength of Stale Magnolias is in the punch lines of the book and the excellent caricatures of the cast (who for the most part, if truth be told, are not really stage singers).  And even with wackiness and wit, Stale Magnolias also has a story with twists and turns that surprise and lead to a ending with real heart and maybe even a message of what community really means. 

Oasis once again brings to San Francisco an experience hard to find any where else but in the City by the Bay and a reason to grab a ticket, order a drink, and enjoy the ladies of Rectal, Texas.

Rating: 3 E

Stale Magnolias continues Thursdays – Saturdays, 7 p.m. through August 6 at Oasis, 298 11th Street, San Francisco. through September 12, 2015.  Tickets are available at www.sfoasis.com or by calling the box office at 415-795-3180.

Photo by Oasis

Saturday, July 23, 2016

"American Idiot"


American Idiot
Green Day (Music); Billie Joe Armstrong (Lyrics); Billie Joe Armstrong & Michael Mayer (Book); Tom Kitt (Musical Arrangements & Orchestrations)


The Cast of "American Idiot"
Onto the stage of City Lights Theater Company bursts a vigorous, heart-pumping, invigorating American Idiot with a cast that gives and gives and gives some more.  Even if the story or some of the characters’ motivations are not totally clear to any audience member not already fully versed in Green Day music and lyrics, this cast, director, and production team ensure the overall punk-flowing messages are there for the easy taking.

For my full review on Talkin' Broadway, please link to http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj51.html.

Rating: 4 E

American Idiot continues through August 21, 2016 at at City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at https://cltc.org/ or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday – Friday, 1-5 p.m.

Photo Credit: Susan Mah Photography

"Schooled"


Schooled
Michael Gene Sullivan & Eugenie Chan (Book); Ira Marlowe (Music & Lyrics) (with additional music by Daniel Savio)


Lisa Hori-Garcia, Rotimi Agbabiaka, Velina Brown & Keiko Shimosato Carreiro
Schooled, San Francisco Mime Troupe’s 2016 contribution to its tome of political parodies, is the Company’s fairly simplistic, somewhat sophomoric, but totally serious red alert that this summer and autumn, there is work to be done by all of us before November 8.

Please link to my full review in Talkin' Broadway: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj50.html

Rating: 3 E

San Francisco Mime Troupe continues through September 5, 2016 to present Schooled at parks throughout the Bay Area.  For a full schedule of mostly free shows (with a $20 donation suggested at play’s end), please check online at http://www.sfmt.org/schedule/.

Photo Credit: Mike@mikemelnyk.com

Sunday, July 17, 2016

"Confederates"



Confederates
Suzanne Bradbeer





Jessica Lynn Carroll as Maddie & Richard Prioleau as Will
Could a compromising picture of a coed and a confederate flag really be just a naïve girl’s attempt to create an edgy art project, or is it just the quickly invented, convenient explanation for what was really a drunken prank, now deemed mistake?  What if that girl is also the twenty-something daughter of a leading presidential candidate, the online picture is in possession of former boyfriend, and the only other person who knows about this is the young woman’s friend of the past, now aspiring journalist, whom she has sought for help and advice?  

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents Suzanne Bradbeer’s Confederates, a huge hit from the Company’s New Works Festival of last August and potentially an even bigger hit this July given the serendipitous timing, stellar direction, eye-popping creative elements, and a cast of three who all knock their parts right out of the park.  

Please follow the link to my full review on Talkin' Broadway:  http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj49.html


Rating: 5 E


Confederates will continue through August 7, 2016 as a world premiere by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets are available at http://www.theatreworks.org/box-office/buy-tickets/ or by walk-up one hour before performances.

Photo by Kevin Berne



  

Saturday, July 16, 2016

"The Real Americans"


The Real Americans
Dan Hoyle

Dan Hoyle as a Man Met in Mississippi
Dan Hoyle, the master of disguise, chameleon of personality, mimic of dialect, and man with the sharpest of wits and the biggest of hearts has returned after a several-year hiatus better than ever, bringing folk from all across America with him to The Marsh to tell their stories, in their own words and voices -- warts and all, with no shame or apology.  The Real Americans is a gem not to be missed.

Please click here for my full, glowing review: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanfran/s1628.html 


Rating: 5 E

The Real Americans continues through August 27, 2016, Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 8:30 at The Marsh, San Francisco, at 1062 Valencia Street.  Tickets are available online at www.themarsh.org or by calling 650-327-1200.

Photo by Patrick Weishampel
 

Friday, July 15, 2016

"The Rules"


The Rules
Dipika Guha


Amy Lazardo as Mehr, Karen Offereins as Julia & Sarah Moser as Ana
What are some of the dos and don’ts many of us carry around about dating, committing, or even marrying?  How deeply engrained in our subconscious and thus our habits, even in this era long past the ‘70s women’s liberation movement, are the norms of our parents and grandparents when it comes to male-female relationships?  What are the unspoken protocols when there appears to be a conflict between life-long friendships and a new, sexy heartthrob?  

These are just some of the questions that Dipika Guba addresses with earnestness but with varying success in her new play, The Rules, now in its world premiere as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s much-acclaimed Sandbox Series.  Even with a particularly strong cast of proven actors, the script and directorial choices somewhat lag behind the actors’ abilities to insure these implicitly posed questions are given their just due.

Mehr, Ana, and Julia are three long-term friends who meet in Julia’s office on Fridays for the first two to have a “session” with their psychotherapist pal.  While they talk about a lot of things -- especially how each is not exactly ecstastic about her current life – the one thing the three increasingly have trouble discussing is each one’s new fling with a handsome, mysterious (one might say intoxicatingly exotic) man who suddenly and unexpectedly popped into her life.  While Mehr comes to know that the man (whom she had never met, by the way) that she arranged for a blind date with Ana turns out to be the owner of her building and is now having an affair with both of them, she nor the other two yet have any idea that he is actually the bedmate of all three.  He is also the one who, unbeknownst to any of them, keeps texting all three at the same time whenever they are together, most likely with the same message copied to each.  

Clues begin to point that they all may be falling for the same hunk who has promised his eternal love and devotion to each.  The audience can almost see the ‘thought clouds’ rise above their puzzled, suspecting faces saying,  “How come the other two suddenly use the word ‘transmuting,’ which is a word Valmont only uses with me?”  Tensions rise, and it becomes do or die time for each to decide whom do I sacrifice:  My friends, myself, or my one shot at loving a man I thought I could never get?

Julia is a professionally proper (and frankly a bit prim) psychotherapist who dresses, talks, and acts with some reserve.  Karen Offereins tempers her expressions and sometimes counters the titters and chatter of her two girlfriends with a slight smile, a knowing nod, or a readjustment to sit taller in the chair behind her desk.  She also has a whole set of unexpressed but clearly governing rules that dictate much of her being, like exactly where the chair is to be placed in her office and how she should hold her tablet while taking notes.

She is visited by a bold (actually brash), strikingly handsome, potential client -- not ‘patient,’ as Mehr and Ana too often say and have to be once again corrected by her.  Her equilibrium is pushed off-balance by his suddenly interviewing her and making declarative statements as if he could see into her otherwise, hidden secrets.  As Julia becomes more enticed and aroused (and thus professionally confused and bothered), Ms. Offereins literally lets her hair down, loosens her blouses, and subtly makes shifts in stance and tone of voice, first to respond to his advances and then to become more the advancer herself – moves her girlfriends are also taking in their parallel trysts with the same guy.

Mehr (Amy Lizardo) is a power-tool-using, somewhat butch woman who moves with a swagger and laughs with big heart.  She looks with wide-smiled admiration at her two friends, whom she probably envies for what she sees as better looks and physique.  She constantly reminds others her own faults (like “I never finish anything” or “I am someone who tries and never makes the team”) without usually becoming too maudlin or concerned. 

But things change for her too when this dark, smooth-talking man with a perfect body and tempting lips shows up at her open door and offers to help fix up her apartment (stripping to his tight, white t-shirt).  Ms. Lizardo’s Mehr suddenly discovers her own sexiness, dresses in new ways more conforming to society’s norms for a woman on the hunt, and grabs with gusto her chance to dance in the arms of her Romeo.  But as her guilt rises that hers and Ana’s guy is one and the same (even before she knows about Julia’s), her Mehr again transforms, gaining increased sullenness as well as some cynicism.  Ms. Lizardo demonstrates with great skill a wide range of authentic emotions and manners as she rides the rapids of a love triangle (that is actually now a quadrangle), trying to follow rules that somehow no longer fit.

From the first minutes we meet her in the opening scene, Ana is an enigma in many respects.  A children’s music teacher, she is described by Mehr as “immune to disappointment” and “my little diamond.”  Sarah Moser uses a high-pitched voice that sounds more like that of a teenager than a teacher, that oozes at times with innocence, but that also transforms when around Mystery Man into a flirty, flighty sequence of sexy innuendos and suggestions.  Sometimes it is difficult to know how much her Ana is really comprehending the situations around her since typical it is for her to freeze frame with slightly weird smiles in the midst of conversations with others, finally to move on as if nothing happened after a rather pregnant pause.  But of the three women, it is Ana that undergoes some of the biggest transformations as she decides not just to follow rules but also to make a few new ones for herself.  Ms. Moser pulls off this newfound confidence and resolution believably, especially the parts where hurt and loss occur in terms of her friendships.

Johnny Moreno as Valmont
The center of this storm swirls around the man already described above multiple times in sultry, sensuous bits and pieces. Valmont is a supposed CEO of some venture and clearly (or at least, maybe) a man of some means.  Anyone who has seen Johnny Moreno in his many appearances throughout the Bay Area would probably also have cast him to play this seductive lover who employees his piercing eyes, tempting lips, and inviting raise of an eyebrow practically to hypnotize his prey.  But however attractive he is in luscious looks and debonair demeanor, there is also much that is suspicious, almost scary lurking in those eyes and in that deep, persuasive, but oh so quiet and calm voice.  Valmont has a set of rules that he expects his potential mates to follow; and part of those is that he makes the calls, the judgments, and the decisions.

While there is so much to like in the performances of these actors, what causes issues is that the play itself begins to lose steam and momentum about half way through its ninety minutes.  Part of this, I believe, is director-driven (Susannah Martin) as there become an over-abundance of slow-motion scenes full of sudden pauses/silences that do not go anywhere.  The scenes themselves sometimes end in such ways as to leave us almost in mid-sentence (either literally or figuratively), with my scratching my head wondering what just happened and why.  Those issues are probably more due to script than to director.   

We are also left with a mysterious man who appeared in these women’s lives without ever really understanding why he is there, why them, or what makes him tick.  We know nothing more about him in the end than we did in the beginning.  Maybe it is by design that he is there only to represent the male-dominated world of relationship rules, but I found his continued mystery after a while to be tiring.

Angrette McCloskey has created an intriguing set that immediately gets the audience’s attention upon entering the theatre.  Two levels of women’s clothes – all either white or pale in color and many in lace or loose knit – hang on poles across the entire stage.  Simple, also mostly white or faded furniture that can be moved as needed, form the basis for the many short scenes to follow.  Stark tubes of on-and-off-again florescent lighting rise on three levels and punctuate scenes and moods throughout the play, thanks to the design of Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky.  As he often does on Bay Area stages, Matt Stines has created an underlying sound track that, in this case, adds its own drama, tension, and support to the conversations and events on the stage. Ashley Holvick ensures the transformations of our three protagonists are reflected in what they wear and that Mr. Moreno gets to don and accentuate his sexy appeal scene after scene.

The Sandbox Series of San Francisco Playhouse is a gift to the world of Bay Area theatre lovers and to the world of aspiring playwrights.  Premiering new play after new play in a season is not without risk, but fortunately local audiences are more and more prone to pick theatre companies where this is more that norm than the exception.  Kudos to San Francisco Playhouse for exposing us to this rising playwright and to challenging us with an intriguing, if still not totally ready for prime time, The Rules.

Rating: 3 E

The Rules closes its month-long run this weekend, July 16th.  San Francisco Playhouse is staging this Sandbox production at The Creativity Theatre, San Francisco, CA.  Tickets are available at www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling 415-677-9596.