Friday, November 21, 2014

Flare Path (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

I can say a lot of things about Theatre40's production of Flare Path that opened this week. One involves the frustration of actually finding the theatre. Really, one has to enter via a parking garage. Another was anticipation at re-visiting a playwright I hadn't thought on for a long time (Terence Rattigan). But mostly I felt curiosity for the subject matter.At first, even the title remained a mystery. As it happens, a flare path consists of lamps laid out on landing strips to help pilots take off and land at night. The story deals with three RAF personnel during WWII, especially their family and friends before, during, then after a night raid. Each character faces the challenge of war, of danger and privation and the gnawing fear of death. They seek some kind of way, some guide with which to make choices. In this light (pardon the pun) the title becomes a perfect metaphor for the story.

Mind you, watching the play (written in 1940 while the author himself served in the RAF) felt a tad disorienting. During the intermission, I realized the presence of color startled me. The whole piece felt from a different era, one I expect to see in black and white.
This does not mean I was unaffected. Far from that! Rather I felt steadily, subtly drawn into these people's lives, with what amounts to a startling amount of forgiveness. Some really do seem appalling. Peter Kyle (Shawn Savage) in particular one rather expects to come across as a villain. He's a fading movie star, at the edge of losing his career forever. Trapped in an unhappy marriage, he fell for an actress Patricia (Christine Joelle) who has since married Teddy (Christian Pederson), an RAF pilot. Peter and Patricia have resumed their affair. He wants her to come away with him, insisting not only does he love her but needs her. The war leaves him untouched emotionally, for reasons he frankly admits escape him. When she speaks of "duty" his reaction is to scoff. "What does that mean" he asks? Yet such profound selfishness, such pettiness in midst of privation and war, ultimately inspires pity. This triangle, at the heart of the play, maintains--by writing no less than performance--a series of surprises, each making total sense. Patricia early on seems a subtle tower of strength compared to the men in her life. Her husband in particular seems a good enough chap, very stiff upper lip and full of the right sort of quips for every possible event. Salt of the earth, but shallow don't you know? Until the mask slips, after the raid, when exhausted beyond words he finally has a few moments alone with his wife. He'd even given us a hint earlier, accurately analyzing his wife's "friend" in terms of his being an "actor" but admitting we all put on an act. Seeing the real Teddy--traumatized, desperately lonely, literally sick with terror, fiercely determined to put his duty first--has the precise opposite impact he expects. That revelation echoes into the emotional lives of all around him, even those who never really learn of it.
Yes, I'm praising the cast quite a bit because writing only goes so far. Frankly the whole production seems meticulous, with a beautiful set (Jeff. K. Rack), wonderfully detailed period costumes (Michele Young) and some extremely effective sound design (Joseph "Sloe" Slawinski). Along with the cast I'm very impressed with the way everyone handled the dialects (kudos to Stuart James Galbraith), although to be brutally frank Karl Czerwonka did sound rather more Italian to my ear than Polish (not that I know much of what Polish sound like). But the relationship between him and his Countess Doris (Alison Blanchard) rings very true, an important thread and rhythm in the story.

The third RAF couple consists of Dusty (Caleb Slavens) and Maude (Annalee Scott), who really should in theory come across as the most stereotypical lower class Londoners but instead seem totally humane, totally real and individual. Rattigan's writing does this, but also so do the actors! Bottom line--I was moved by an extremely well-crafted play performed and executed by a very good cast and crew. Do I have any criticisms? A few, minor quibbles really. I did feel the whole show could use turning up half a notch. Granted, the whole very English thing of keeping powerful emotions under wrap tends to trip up most American actors, at least in my experience. But that is probably the only real critique I have to offer--namely that in theory it could possibly be better. Well, I can think of only two productions I've seen EVER where those words didn't apply (for the record--Les Liaisons Dangereuses on Broadway with Alan Rickman in the 1980s, and Our Class at the Son of Semele here in LA). Personally, I'm left hoping to see more from Theatre40, having so thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Flare Path plays Friday, Saturday and Monday evenings at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm until December 15, 2014. The show is at Reuban Cordova Theatre on the campus of Beverly Hills High School (pay close attention to this last link because finding the theatre is very tricky). Tickets can be purchased here or by calling (310) 364-0535.


audrey linden said...

The actor who played Johnny actually is Polish and his accent is authentic. He is a Polish actor who only came to the U S 7 years ago.

You neglected to mention the wonderful direction by Bruce Gray.

Zahir Blue said...

Really? Shows how much I know! :P