Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Para Abnormals (Review)

Spoilers Ahoy!

I'll confess to feeling sad.  Twice I described the play I saw last night in very specific terms.  And twice I had to explain half of it.  Makes one feel old.

The play is The Para Abnormals by Thomas J. Misuraca.  It premiered last Saturday night to a standing room only crowd.  That is actually a little less impressive than it sounds, because Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre isn't really that large.  But on the other hand, it is also surrounded by NoHo competition and lacks any parking.  So when I say "less impressive" better to think "slightly less impressive."  Especially since the audience enjoyed the show quite a bit, as evidenced by the most sincere form of feedback any comedy can desire--laughter.

I laughed as well.  Honestly, the concept is clever and the overall show extremely entertaining.  Honestly, I do believe the idea better than the script, and the script better than the performances but that is to quibble.  The bar here remains fairly high.

Bottom line, The Para Abnormals tells the story of a nascent ghost-hunting business composed of three friends:  Driven Jill (Jessica Amal Rice), her far more mellow boyfriend Stan (Tyler McAuliffe) and the lovable but somewhat simple Chuck (Tucker Matthews).  When investigating a haunted house--their first case--the group sets off a chain of events that nicely combines mystery, spookiness and comedy with more than a few drops of romance tossed into the stew.  Seems ghosts like Chuck.  In fact, to them he's something like a huge neon sign.  So as long as he's around thing tend to happen.

Following the team's wake is a more professional psychic known, weirdly, as Chai Tea (Lauren Parkinson) who has motives of her own.

As far as the script goes, I'm going to recommend Mr. Misuraca consider expanding it to full length and/or submitting a version in screenplay format.  Methinks it deserves that kind of treatment.  In truth, I would describe the story as a kind of XXIst version of Blithe Spirit blended in Ghostbusters.  Sadly, it seems no one remembers what the former is so here's a precis--a drawing room comedy by Noel Coward about the accidental summoning of a man's first wife from beyond the grave, who then won't or cannot leave.  Many a theatre company all over the world stages it each year.  Quite rightly too.  It remains a lighthearted bit of entertainment written with great wit and consummate skill.

This play displays more one-liners than wit per se.  But they got laughs, as did the memorable little characters that dot the show.  Gradually--and this is no small feat--we become engrossed in events and wonder what in fact is going on.  Then, when we learn, all Hell breaks lose.  Very nearly literally!

Honestly, the cast doesn't quite jell.  The play demands a blend of realism and stylization they didn't quite find, but that in no way distracts from the sheer fun of it all.  Ms. Parkinson as Chai Tea seems over the top ever single moment but that seems to work just fine.  It fits with her character, and (as my evening's companion pointed out) she makes a refreshing change from the stereotype of a middle-aged overweight medium.  Rather, she is clearly attractive and knows it, even uses it.  More, one comes to expect almost anything from her.

Ms. Rice and Mr. McAuliffe have much harder roles.  Their roles need to navigate between almost-camp and nearly-serious.  Each goes a little too far in each direction.  A little.  Mr. Matthews very nearly steals the scenes he's in, coming closer to the blend the play probably needs.  His Chuck reminds me a little of some of Shakespeare's funny/pathetic characters like Sir Andrew Aguecheek--ridiculous and yet suddenly very human for all that.

The special effects work, no small feat on what is clearly a modest budget and lie on stage.  Part of the humor and sense of mise-en-scene is the whole spookiness of it all.  Like I said, this could make a find full length play and it might make a better movie!

The Para Abnormals plays Saturdays at 8:30pm August 25 through September 29, 2012, at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group 4850 Lakershim Blvd north Hollywood 818-202-4120

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Modern Drama (Review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Last night, Friday August 10, 2012 the director/playwright ushered me into SPQR's theatre on Western Avenue to see a play described in the press release as Noel Coward's " Private Lives " meets Luigi Pirandello's " Six Characters in Search of an Author ".  Most of the seats were deck chairs, and within moments I was offered a Sea Breeze.   Sadly, I had to take mine virgin (due to medications) but overall the whole thing made me quite comfortable and look forward to an evening's entertainment.

What follows will include some pontificating.  Just a friendly word of warning.  For example, I disagree with the above description.  Neil Simon's "California Suite" meets Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?" seems closer to the mark.

Let us begin with the script.  The idea is one charming and potentially fascinating.  A middle-aged playwright (Rich Brunner) and his wife (Lisa Temple) live near the beach in Provincetown Massachusetts, trading witticisms and barbs, until invaded by a Mr. Gordon Gordon (Jeff Groff) of the Bloomington Repertory, full of praise for the playwright, desperate to commission a new playAlong the way, he triggers exposure for himself and to the couple of what is really going on in their marriage.   Herein lies the best thing about the play, as well as the trap into which both cast and director seem to have fallen.  Alas.  The story fairly seethes with wit, so much so it accurately portrays the hint it serves as a distraction.  From obvious little flicks of the vocabulary to epic/absurd descriptions that take exaggeration almost (mind you only almost) too far.  We pretty soon get the idea.  This couple has issues.  Secrets.  A history we'll learn more on before the final curtain.

And all that proves true!  Bravo!


Speaking wit remains very tricky.  It takes much more than a smooth voice and a lot of energy to make such lines work, especially when they comprise so much of an hour or so.  Watching this show last night that became especially clear when any member of the cast said something with genuine passion, real feeling.  Both Brunner and Temple did it.  Sometimes.  Groff did not, not that I noticed.  Instead for the most part what we got were line readings, all too often coupled with miming out events described.  For the record, this is very nearly NEVER a good idea.  That bears repeating.  Never.  A.  Good.  Idea.

For us to care about a social mask, we need to see that it is a mask and to get a glimpse of what seethes and boils underneath.  In this case--rage, guilt, despair, complacency, deceit and more than a few drops of pure undiluted obsession.

The playwright (Mr. Starritt) came up with a very interesting and fun way to bring all this out into the open, at least as far as the audience is concerned.  Our playwright "hero" has had exactly one hit, a Tony-award winning bedroom farce/comedy of manners that has remained a staple of community and dinner theatres ever since--Mind Your Manners.  The four characters of that play literally accompany him everywhere, silent but hardly unseen (at least by him).  They seem to haunt him in ways not immediately understood.  But as time goes by, we do understand.  And as we do, the dilemna of this man's life and marriage are laid bare.

Those four, lacking lines, do turn in the best performances in the show--John Paul Evans as Mr. Rosdale, Sarah Ann Vail as Mrs. Rosedale, Christina Giagos as The Maid and Jason T. Gaffney as The Gardner.  When they interact with the writer who 'created' them, frankly those are the best moments in the show.

But while the play seems interesting, entertaining and intriguing with a nice share of surprises (these are all high praise) the production itself seems to pull its punch.  Frankly little about it can work unless one feels everyone has a great deal at stake emotionally.  But the leads spend too much time mugging.  When they don't, one is moved.  Even touched.  You suddenly care.  The problem remains how rarely that seems to happen!  Mind you, I've seem plenty of productions where it NEVER does!  So kudos for some success at the very least.

So it could be better.  At its worst Modern Drama (honestly, I don't understand the title--wouldn't Mind Your Manners have worked better?) tries much too hard to be clever but at its best plucks some heart strings.  I've seen shows on Broadway that didn't manage as much.  But much as the central character is haunted by his characters, I walked away bothered by what could have been.

Performances continue August 3 - 26, 2012, Fridays and Saturdays at 8PM, Sundays at 5PM at  520 North Western Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90004
rsvp: 323-463-3900 or via email:

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Down & Dirty (review)

Context, so they say, is everything.  With that in mind may I please offer two pieces of context to this review?  First, Zombie Joe's Underground Theater presented a cabaret last summer in which a friend of mine performed.  Second, this summer's caberet-esque musical revue includes an actress I praised in my earlier review of Hamlet at the same theatre.  Her name?  Vanessa Cate.  In a fun twist lies at the heart of Down & Dirty, she not only portrays the director of the show, she actually did direct it!

Last year's cabaret essentially recreated the stage acts from the musical Cabaret.  All well and good and plenty of fun.

This year ZJU gives us something more tasty.  More rich.  It even harkens to one of my favorite Broadway musicals, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  We see and partake of more than just a series of musical numbers.  The cast have their own dramas going on, so that in effect the backstage angst, inter-cast rivalries and stories spill out in front of the audience.  Starting with the MC having gone missing as the proverbial curtain rises.  How that plays out proves quite fun and I won't spoil it for you.

Musical numbers do include three from Cabaret but also a couple from Chicago including a very neatly re-imagined "Cell Block Tango."  The space used remains small and the use of its black box works very well.  Likewise the various numbers are all good, many of them startling, one (a striptease) actually disturbing in a way that shouldn't be funny yet somehow was.  The final number, likewise, provoked laughs--although exactly why I'm still not sure.

This last is not a criticism.  Not at all.  I like to be intrigued.

Down & Dirty certainly achieved that.  In fact that leads to very nearly my only real criticism of the production.  And it is a subtle one.  Several times in the show I felt genuinely moved by the performers, especially the MC (Timothy Alonzo).  One sensed some history behind his monologues, as well as an attitude you might describe as melancholy joi de vivre.  Fatalism with a smile, and an entrance.  Likewise genuine rivalry between other cast members played out, such as a certain arabesque striptease quite creative in set up and funny in punchline.  But the story about Madame Director (Vanessa Cate) and her assistant (Natalie Hyde) gave us hints without quite becoming fully real.  Not quite.  But two possibilities immediately come to mind as to why.  Offering them may be presumptuous, but here they be anyway.

I attended the premiere and maybe there were a few opening night jitters.  Another, not mutually exclusive possibility, is that these two by necessity lacked as much precise direction as the rest of the cast.  Directing oneself--not an easy task!

But even saying that much almost makes too much of it.  The whole production remains very fun, well worth the price of a ticket.  I attended at the tail-end of a mild health problem and frankly didn't expect to have nearly so good a time!  Honestly, I hoped to like it, but what appeared before me exceeded expectations.  Returning to context for a moment, recall that I like the dark and the witty, the erotic and biting and (yes, I'll use this word) challenging.

I might even take my friend who was in last year's show.  She seemed interested, even when I said Down & Dirty was better than her own (quite fun) revue.

The rest of the cast are Joanna Bartling, Paige O'Malley, Gracy Ramirez, Annalee Scott (who also did vocal directions--the results quite impressive), Natalie Stevie, Jade Waters-Burch and Corey Zicari.  All of the above spend most of the show (or at least a significant part of it) in lacy women's underwear.  Including Mr. Alonzo.  He doesn't quite have the legs for it but he carries it off--actually the more impressive accomplishment.

Down & Dirty (Miss Vanessa Cate's Dark & Sexy Neo-Retro Cabaret) plays August 4 through September 15 unless it gets extended (the premiere was almost standing room only, so that remains possible), Saturdays at 11pm.  The delightful show lasts approximately one hour, with tickets $15 each.  Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre Group is at 4850 Lankershim Boulevard (a little south of the NoHo sign).  Box office is (818) 202-4120.