Monday, November 4, 2013

Bob Hope's Birthday (review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

Sunday evenings at Zombie Joe's Underground Theater make for more "family friendly" fare. For November this means Bob Hope's Birthday, a dramedy having to do with one family coping with Alzheimer's.

The writer/director is Jeri Batzdorff, and she notes in the program she drew upon experiences with her aunt, Cynthia Goldstone. The play comes across as a labor of love, with a portion of the proceeds going to several charities involved with this dreadful condition.

So how is it?

I'm at a bit of a disadvantage here. This type of story isn't really to my taste. Honestly, the subject matter lacks the kind of meatiness I prefer. Please note (to belabor the metaphor) I'm not claiming this is the theatrical version of a plum tart or some other desert. Here we do see some of the meat of the human experience--sometimes quite raw. But because this isn't quite to my taste, the fear of misjudging the piece rears its head. Likewise this play falls into what is sometimes called "the well made play" namely it proceed along a completely logical emotional structure towards its target. Honestly, I prefer more surprise.

Having admitted that up front, let me also note the most important part of this entire review. I was emotionally moved. Everything else is detail. In fact, you can quite easily stop reading now, having gotten the heart of what this play is all about, how the performance impacted me.

I was unfamiliar with the cast overall, and to be honest they seemed a tad under-rehearsed. But that is a nuance. A lot of dialogue was more "on the nose" than I particularly like, yet it worked. One thing I've always liked about soap operas is how characters end up showing lots more facets than we sometimes come to expect. Very rarely do we meet anyone in such (just as in life) purely virtuous or innately evil. But everyone has flaws, miscommunications abound, issues and tensions rarely resolve themselves totally but at the same time people do undergo continuous change. All this is real! If feels true! In that sense Bob Hope's Birthday captures exactly that kind of sometimes-fascinating mundane reality we too often ignore in favor of car chases, gun fights and exploding space ships. That latter makes for spice and sugar coating, while the thousand tiny tragedies and triumphs of everyday life is where heroism often pervades.

Ayo Majek has a dual role, initially as a hired caretaker for one Jane Grady (Georgan George) who's recovering from a broken hip and dealing with Alzheimer's. This caretaker has to leave because her own mother is very sick, so Jane's own family have to pitch in. Majek later shows up as a social worker doing a monthly visit.

The first helper to show up isn't family per se, but Billy (Christopher Crabb), a friend of Jane's grandson. He's known Jane since his childhood and loves the old lady. Next up is the grandson, Dylan (Daniel Kuhlman) who has a new band and a new girlfriend we eventually get to meet. His grandmother, given her condition, keeps telling him the same stories and forgets nearly everything he says to her. But remains interested and kind. More problematical is Lydia (Sylvia Bush), a highstrung workaholic who warns people she's really stressed, proving the point by snapping at everyone. At least at first. Later we meet Dylan's sister Jessica (Genya Royfman) as well as Betsy aka Bittersweet aka Bitsy, Dylan's new girlfriend and member of his band (Alison Stolpa).

I'll fess up--I found Billy, Jessica and Bitsy the most interesting characters. Really wanted to get to know them more. But that is a digression.

Ultimately, this play tells of how a circle of family and friends find a point of unity amidst a very personal crisis--caring for someone with Alzheimer's Disease. Not exactly the defeat of Lord Voldemort, but exactly the kind of crisis we often face in real life. It works that way. Towards the end I felt  choked up and some moisture in my eye. This, from someone who does not as a rule watch this kind of show! So what can that mean save that it achieves precisely the emotional chord at which it aimed? An achievement, that. No small one!

Bob Hope's Birthday plays at Zombie Joe's 4850 Lankershim Blvd. North Hollywood 800-202-4120 Sunday nights at 7pm until November 24, 2013. It really is the kind of play very many people like in the holiday season.

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