Wednesday, February 29, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Next Fall" at Diversionary Theatre

Glib and Be Gay?

Diversionary’s superb cast can’t overcome the superficial script and stereotyped characters of “Next Fall”

By Donnie Matsuda

For a play that strives to tackle so many larger than life themes – namely faith, sexuality, relationships, love, and hope – Geoffrey Nauffts’ contemporary dramedy “Next Fall” falls a bit short of its lofty goals.

While Nauffts’ play is at times funny and at times touching, it’s paper thin premise of two gay men – Luke, a young, na├»ve, devout Christian and Adam, an old, jaded, militant atheist – offers a largely superficial look at how these two men deal with (or rather, don’t deal with) their distinctly differing faiths over the course of their five-year relationship. With this work, it almost seems as if Nauffts is too afraid to delve deeply into the religiosity of it all, and instead settles for a two act, two hour long, sitcom-style play that simply scratches the surface of these deep-seated issues. And other than being labeled as “Christian” or “non-Christian” or simply “Spiritual,” there isn’t a whole lot of depth to the six stereotyped characters who inhabit the piece, other than a few laugh lines and a whole lot of talky dialogue that doesn’t really go anywhere.

Matt McGrath and Stewart Calhoun in Diversionary Theatre's production of "Next Fall." Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.

Even the play’s namesake is given short shrift. It is only mentioned once (and fleetingly at that) in the second act, when Luke proclaims that he plans to come out to his parents sometime “next fall.” Perhaps that’s a monumental event for Luke, but we as an audience aren’t let in on the secret as to why it is so ground-breaking and significant that it deserves to be the title of the play. Similarly, we hear Luke espouse the fact that he is a practicing “Christian” (although we aren’t given any more specifics about his faith) and he rather sheepishly admits to praying before meals and after sex. But other than that, we are left to wonder what truly fuels his religious fervor and, perhaps more interestingly, how does his faith inform and invigorate his relationships with his family, his friends, and his partner?

Full of half-hearted Christian quips, Luke clearly hasn’t internalized what he truly believes, which makes him no match for the razor-sharp wit of non-believer Adam, whose Woody Allen-style rants are less about religion and more about proving himself right. Clearly, the play opens the door on some hot-button issues, but fails to push hard enough to really make the effort worthwhile.

The story itself is straight out of a sitcom as Nauffts’ play opens in an intensive care unit, where Luke remains in a coma following an automobile accident. Luke’s parents – Butch and Arlene – are there by his bedside while his partner Adam is forced to wait outside as he is not considered “immediate family.” Also present is Adam’s bright and bubbly “fag hag” Holly and Luke’s ex-lover, a Bible-toting, bowtie-sporting Brandon. As everyone waits for news of Luke’s condition, the play alternates between the hospital’s waiting room and flashbacks to various scenes in Luke and Adam’s five-year relationship. It is a suffocating structure that doesn’t give the characters enough space to grow and evolve in their relationships and its strained storytelling ultimately comes across as more contrived than naturalistic.

Shana Wride and Matt McGrath. Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.

While the play frequently works against itself, Diversionary has assembled an incredibly talented cast of stalwart actors for this production whose winning performances rise above the mediocre material. Most convincing is Matt McGrath as the wonderfully witty and uber-urbane Adam. McGrath possesses a droll deadpan that is most suitable for the quirky role and he adds a great deal of smart and sophisticated savvy to his disdain for fundamentalist-based faiths. As aspiring actor (read: cater waiter) Luke, Stewart Calhoun is adorable both in his boyish good looks and in his free-spirited embrace of life and love.

As Luke’s father Butch, John Whitley could easily have played to the character’s stereotypically hick nature, but instead, he crafts Butch’s unflinching bigotry into a more complicated and calculating character that is quite compelling to watch. And Shana Wride is utterly intriguing as Luke’s mother Arlene. Written as a loud-mouthed, uneducated hillbilly (who firmly believes that Chihuahuas are from Puerto Rico and that Jews make the best doctors), Arlene is a tough character to portray as she subsequently morphs into a warm, grounded Mother Earth-type figure and then is exposed as a pill-popping drug addict. But somehow Wride is able to overcome the vast stereotypes and give credibility and heart to this complicated role. And rounding out the six-member cast, Jacque Wilke is incredibly warm as bubbly blonde Holly, while Tony Houck brings out the best in the underwritten role of Brandon.

Veteran director (and San Diego favorite) James Vasquez helms this stellar six member cast with a sure hand and a sharp eye. He keeps his pacing brisk and uses every inch of space on the long and narrow Diversionary stage. His contemporary vision for the show carries over into Matt Scott’s cleverly compact scenic design (which includes a storybook pullout apartment set), Michelle Caron’s edgy lighting, Shirley Pierson’s casual costumes, and Kevin Anthenill’s pop rock infused musical interludes.

Stewart Calhoun and Matt McGrath. Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.

Despite its overarching glibness, there’s still a lot to like about Next Fall. It is endearing in all its quirky charm and, most importantly, it allows Diversionary’s cast of talented actors to delve deeply into their eccentric characters and affect some engrossing and truly heartfelt performances.

In the end, much like Luke’s planned coming out to his parents, it is a Fall worth waiting for.

Things to know before you go: Next Fall plays at Diversionary Theatre through March 25, 2012. Running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm and 7pm. Tickets are $33 with discounts available for students, seniors, and military. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 220-0097 or visit www.diversionary.org.

PLUS....Q&A WITH ADAM OF DIVERSIONARY'S "NEXT FALL"

A mini-interview with star of stage and screen, Matt McGrath

Matt McGrath (center, surrounded by the rest of Diversionary's "Next Fall" cast). Photo courtesy of Ken Jacques.

DONNIE: Where did you grow up? And where do you currently reside? You seem to be in San Diego quite a lot these days….

MATT: I grew up in New York City. Which is where I currently reside although you would think I recently moved… huh?

DONNIE: In what ways do you relate to the character of Adam? In what ways are you totally different?

MATT: I am starting to recognize myself in Adam to a degree or aspects of his character I suppose. I always find a way ”in” through their sense of humor and sometimes I can’t tell which comes first theirs or mine, cause I like to bring mine everywhere I go. A strong character on the page though will emerge in performance and trounce any trick I may have up my sleeve by playing it truthfully. Our philosophies are different. Adam is comparing himself to others and always feeling less than. In his relationships, he can’t help but think he can change his partner on such a fundamental way. If you want your partner to change you may be with the wrong partner, right?

DONNIE: What is it like working with director James Vasquez (who also directed you in “The Rocky Horror Show” at The Old Globe)?

MATT: Working with James Vasquez has been great. Both James and I took over in "Rocky Horror" late in the game so we became fast friends in a very short period of time. I knew that James was going to be directing "Next Fall" at Diversionary and I am friends with John Alexander (Diversionary’s Executive Director) from when he was the managing director of the Off-Broadway company Naked Angels. So it all kind of fell into place.

DONNIE: Is this your first time working with Diversionary? How has the experience been thus far?

MATT: Yes. I was lucky enough to see Diversionary’s "The Equality Plays" about gay marriage and they were so fantastic and well done. That was my introduction to coming down to the theatre and it is such a great space and friendly community and something I want to support. Being here in San Diego and being a part of such a welcoming community has been great.

With John Alexander at the helm, I think Diversionary has a really bright future.

Thank you, Matt for taking time to do the interview. We look forward to seeing you back in San Diego sometime very soon!

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "Visiting Mr. Green" at North Coast REP

A Charming "Mr. Green"

North Coast Rep brings out the best in loveable, if lightweight, odd couple comedy

By Donnie Matsuda

Sometimes the most unexpected of circumstances can provide us with life’s greatest lessons.

Such is the case in Visiting Mr. Green, Jeff Baron’s heartwarming two man play currently being presented in a stellar staging by North Coast Rep.

Craig De Lorenzo and Robert Grossman in "Visiting Mr. Green" at North Coast Rep. Photo courtesy of Aaron Rumley.

While the premise of the play is admittedly a bit of a stretch, there is a lot to be found just under the surface of the inter-generational alliance that forms between cantankerous octogenarian Mr. Green and his most unlikely visitor: 29-year old financial executive Ross Gardiner. As we learn at the play’s outset, Ross has been charged with reckless driving for nearly running over Mr. Green and has been ordered by the court to perform community service by visiting Mr. Green once a week for six months. Despite their shared Jewish heritage, these two men couldn’t be more different and their failure to see eye-to-eye on just about everything gives the play a very argumentative feel in the first few scenes. But, as the weeks pass and the visits become more personal, both men begin to let their guards down and open up about the skeletons that have been hiding in their closets for years. The once hostile indifference that characterizes their relationship as strangers slowly morphs into a friendship based on shared trust and compassionate understanding.

Baron has quite a gift for writing engaging and naturalistic dialogue and his back-and-forth banter brings out the best (and the worst) in his Ross and Mr. Green, creating two very distinct, yet complementary characters. While his play harps on the same issues in ways that seem stale and dated by today’s standards (Ross coming to terms with his sexuality and the recently widowed Mr. Green coming to terms with the importance of his remaining family), there is just the right amount of personal tragedy and contemporary comedy to keep things interesting. And in the more than capable hands of the always professional North Coast Rep, Baron’s intriguing play is quite the charmer.

Craig De Lorenzo and Robert Grossman. Photo courtesy of Aaron Rumley.

Veteran character actor Robert Grossman is delightful and endearing as the curmudgeonly Mr. Green. With a shuffling gait, brazen, no-nonsense attitude, and a raspy voice, Grossman has the perfect sensibility to bring this staunchly stuck-in-his-ways, painfully practical, elderly Jewish man to life. Not one to waste a spoonful of matzo ball soup, Mr. Green is clearly a survivor who has endured life’s brutal tragedies by sticking firmly to his orthodox Jewish beliefs and ignoring everything else. In this complex but verbally uncommunicative role, Grossman delves deeply into Mr. Green’s dense psyche to convey a wide range of intricate and interrelated emotions – anger, repressed guilt, bitter resentment, lost abandon, and ever-increasing senility.

Craig De Lorenzo is a refreshing contrast to Grossman’s crusty, old-fashioned Mr. Green. Full of bright-eyed optimism and fast-talking exuberance, De Lorenzo initially comes across as a well-groomed, well-grounded twenty-something who has little to offer but a slick quip and a wink of the eye. But the genius of De Lorenzo’s performance is in how he gradually peels away the outer layers of his character to reveal the damaged and dejected lost soul that lies underneath it all. His fully realized, completely exposed emotional eruptions in the second act are wholly felt and incredibly affecting.

Christopher M. Williams (in his full directorial debut at NCR) does a splendid job of keeping the back and forth banter well-balanced and the biting comedy fresh and wholesome. His dynamic actors play off each other seamlessly and none of the scenes feel forced or out of place. Williams takes his time to extract some incredibly genuine performances from his two man cast, and these performances mange to deepen and unfold quite naturally over the course of the play’s two hours. He also makes good use of all the rooms of Marty Burnett’s compact upper West Side Manhattan apartment set, which works well with Matt Novotny’s concise lighting design and Renetta Lloyd’s contemporary costumes.

Craig De Lorenzo and Robert Grossman. Photo courtesy of Aaron Rumley.

If you can overlook the prefabricated premise and the return to the same tired themes over and over again, there is a lot of heart and humor to be found in North Coast Rep’s charismatic revival.

And, with a dynamic acting duo and some formidable one-liners, I’d say Mr. Green is well worth a visit.

Things to know before you go: Visiting Mr. Green plays at North Coast Rep (987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite D, Solana Beach, CA 92075) through March 11, 2012. Running time is 2 hours with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Wednesdays at 7pm, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm and Sunday evenings at 7pm. Tickets are $32-$49 with discounts available for students and military. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (858) 481-1055 or visit www.northcoastrep.org.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Phantom "Never Dies": Sequel Hits Movie Theatres This Week


While the Andrew Lloyd Webber juggernaut “Phantom of the Opera” may be the longest running Broadway musical in the history of Broadway musicals, its long-awaited sequel “Love Never Dies” has not seen the light of day (or the lights of a Broadway stage). The sequel takes place roughly ten years after the end of the original “Phantom,” as Christine Daae is invited by the legendary masked man to perform at a new attraction in Coney Island.

With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Glenn Slater and Charles Hart, “Love Never Dies” opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London’s West End in March 2010 to mostly negative reviews. It was originally directed by Old Globe regular Jack O’Brien with choreography by Jerry Mitchell. Lloyd Webber closed the show and did significant reworking of the script and score (including adding new directorial and choreographic touches by a new staff). Despite these efforts, “Love Never Dies” closed in August 2011 after a disappointing run.

A Melbourne-based production of the sequel opened in May 2011 with brand new direction and design by an Australian creative team. This Australian production has been described as “thrilling” and “super-lavish,” featuring 300 costumes and sets lit by 5,000 onstage light bulbs with a cast of 36 accompanied by a 21-piece orchestra. It is this production that was filmed in September and will be released on the big screen at movie theatres across America this Tuesday, February 28 at 7:30pm with an encore screening on March 7 at 7:30pm. The DVD will be released in the US on May 29.

If you want to catch this first ever US showing of “Love Never Dies” (as a Broadway debut looks more and more uncertain), check the Fathom Events webpage for a showing near you:

http://www.fathomevents.com/performingarts/event/loveneverdies.aspx

And for footage and review highlights of the show itself, check out: