Empty Nesters explores a grand marital canyon

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John Walker and Pamela Gaye Walker star as a married couple at a crossroads in Garret Jon Groenveld’s The Empty Nesters, part of the 19th annual PlayGround Festival of New Works at the Thick House. Photos courtesy of mellopix.com

A marriage heads over a cliff, literally, in Garret Jon Groenveld’s The Empty Nesters, a co-production of PlayGround and Virago Theatre Company and part of PlayGround’s 19th annual Festival of New Works.

Luckily, the cliff in question is on the western rim of the Grand Canyon, and there happens to be a popular tourist spot called Skywalk that allows visitors to make a u-shaped jaunt on a glass walkway, with the canyon floor more than 3,000 feet below them.

The visitors making this trip are Frances and Greg, played by real-life husband and wife, Pamela Gaye Walker and John Walker. They have just dropped off their young child, a daughter, at college. Their older child, a son, is a college junior, which means that when they return to their Los Angeles home, that home will be what they call in the parenting business, an empty nest. “We have two kids out of the house,” Greg says. “But somehow they cost twice as much.”

While waiting in line for the glass-bottom trek, amid a lot of familiar-sounding squabbling of longtime marrieds, Frances drops a bomb that throws this little Arizona sojourn into a whole different light.

San Francisco playwright Groenveld offers three distinct chapters in this tale of a day in the life of a marriage at a crossroads. The first is at the canyon’s rim. The second is in a busy café, and the third is in a nearby hotel room. Each section delves deeper into the nature of this marriage, which actually seems to be a sturdy marriage built on love and companionship and not a lot of excess drama. At play’s end, just over an hour after it began, Groenveld makes a bold shift in his storytelling that turns Frances and Greg into characters in their own story as they recount a seemingly unimportant few minutes that turns out to be much more vital than they realized.

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Directed by Amy Glazer, The Empty Nesters has a natural rhythm that subtly builds tension and deepens the connection between husband and wife, thus raising the stakes. Married 25 years, Frances and Greg have fallen into distinct patterns of disengagement with each other. She has focused primarily on work and the kids (mostly the kids). He has focused on work and sports (mostly “SportsCenter,” the Dodgers, the Lakers and televised poker tournaments). Now that it’s just them again, they have a big readjustment to make.

They acknowledge that they knew this time would come, but it came more quickly than they realized, with the surprise being an unexpected, unfamiliar and uncomfortable stretch of mid-life without children and retirement still years away. We’ve seen bickering couples with faltering marriages before, but this couple feels more grounded in reality.

It’s never a sure thing that hiring a married couple to play a married couple is going to work in the characters’ favor, but here, under Glazer’s sure directorial hand, there’s a big payoff. The Walkers give us recognizable types – he’s whiny and a little clueless, she’s constantly annoyed and feeling unseen. But Groenveld takes us beyond those façades, and the Walkers open up the emotional lives of these spouses with warmth and compassion. It’s also helpful that there is abundant humor. They’re going through a rough patch, but they both get off a few good laugh lines every now and then.

Once we’re into the motel room scene, it’s easy to empathize with Frances and Greg – there’s no real bad guy…other than time and marriage (or the challenge of) itself. There’s a kind of sexual tension hovering over the scene – not the good kind – and you begin to see how they could easily break apart at this point. But you also sense the depth of their connection and feel the enormity of what they have to lose. That’s what gives The Empty Nesters its edge and makes it feel much heftier than its brief running time.

Garret Jon Groenveld’s The Empty Nesters continues through June 14 as part of the19th annual PlayGround Festival of New Works at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$55. Call 415-992-6677 or visit www.playground-sf.org.

Writers’ souls crushed, hilarity ensues in Rebeck’s Seminar

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The cast of San Francisco Playhouse’s Seminar by Theresa Rebeck includes (from left) James Wagner as Martin, Patrick Russell as Douglas, Lauren English as Kate, Charles Shaw Robinson as Leonard and Natalie Mitchell as Izzy. Below: Leonard and Kate surprise Martin (and themselves). Photos by Jessica Palopoli

The ego, the insecurity and the courage of fiction writers are all on hilarious and intriguing display in Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar, a one-act comedy that derives laughter from pain and theatrical pleasure from whiplash-smart word play.

The premise is simple: four New York writers have paid $5,000 each for 10 weekly classes with a famous writer. They meet in the beautiful (and rent controlled) apartment of one classmate and wait anxiously for the globe-trotting famous guy, who can’t really be bothered to remember their names, to pass judgement on their work.

Anyone who has ever written anything will feel the body blows as Leonard (Charles Shaw Robinson), the teacher, rips the writers to shreds. But the great thing about Rebeck’s play is that while she’s focusing on writers, a particularly intense and vulnerable artistic breed, the cruelty inflicted by someone with power on those without is immediately recognizable and relatable. That’s why the play is so damn funny.

Director Amy Glazer, who directed Rebeck’s The Scene for SF Playhouse (as well as that play’s subsequent film adaptation, Seducing Charlie Barker), knows exactly what to do here to achieve heightened realism. Her pacing is sharp, and her cast is superb. The actors’ ability to handle the comedy and then make it all devastatingly real is pitch perfect.

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Take Lauren English’s Kate for instance. She’s been laboring on the same story for years, and when Leonard has especially unkind things to say about it, she is devastated and turns to ice cream and potato chips for solace. Kate could turn into something from a “Cathy” cartoon strip, but the character is more interesting than that, and English finds all the heart and intelligence and occasional ferocity she has to offer.

There are some initially broad stereotypes here among the writers – Natalie Mitchell as the sex-forward Izzy, Patrick Russell as the puffed-up literary scion Douglas, James Wagner as Martin, a frightened, nearly defeated everyman – but they all emerge with more complexity as the play evolves. Even Leonard, so believably inhabited by Robinson, is more than just ostentatious cruelty. There’s a damaged, serious artist here, and we get glimpses of him from time to time.

In the end, Rebeck narrows her focus down to two characters – not the two who interested me most – and her ending seeks redemption that feels hollow. But with performances this good and a production this solid, the ending is a minor glitch. What comes before is a funny, incisive Seminar that is well worth taking.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed playwright Theresa Rebeck for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

Theresa Rebeck’s Seminar runs through June 14 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Actors put some life in SF Playhouse’s Party

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Light my fire: Bev (Susi Damilano, far left) and Tony (Patrick Kelly Jones) grind into some dirty dancing, while Laurence (Remi Sandri, center) and Sue (Julia Brothers) keep things a little more polite in the San Francisco Playhouse production of Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party. Below: the revelers of Abigail’s Party, from left, Allison Jean White, Jones, Brothers, Damilano and Sandri. Photos by Jessica Palopoli

If you’ve seen a Mike Leigh movie, the conversational rhythms and that true-to-life quality of nothing happening/everything happening will seem familiar on stage in Abigail’s Party, a play Leigh devised in 1978 with the help of his actors (Leigh is famous for improvising scripts). Though not nearly as substantial or illuminating as some of Leigh’s best movies – Life Is Sweet, Secrets and Lies, Another Year Abigail’s Party has some delightful gin-soaked moments as an older couple and a younger couple mix it up Virginia Woolf-style under the wary (and woozy) eye of a neighbor who would probably rather be anywhere but this party.

At San Francisco Playhouse, director Amy Glazer and her quintet of actors is working wonders with the subtext in Leigh’s script, finding laughs that perhaps Leigh never even knew about. There’s a manic energy to this two-hour production that intensifies with each gin and tonic (for the ladies) or rum and Coke (for the nearly monosyllabic gentleman) or whiskey (for the host). While this can be very entertaining, especially each time the hostess grabs an empty (or nearly empty) glass from someone’s hand and gives them a “little top-up” whether they want it or not, it’s also a little unsettling, which is as it should be.

We’re on Richmond Road in a London suburb. As designed by Bill English, the living room/dining room/kitchen set evokes the late ’70s so perfectly you may feel time travel really is possible.

Beverly (Susi Damilano) and Laurence (Remi Sandri) are hosting a little neighborhood soiree. Their guests are the new couple in the ‘hood, Angela (Allison Jean White) and Patrick Kelly Jones), and Sue (Julia Brothers), whose teenage daughter is having a rowdy party a few houses down where mom is distinctly unwelcome. With her blond hair in a Farrah-like flip and a bright green dress cut down to here (terrific costumes are by Tatjana Genser), Bev is raring for a good time. Laurence is preoccupied with work, and poor Sue, an uncomfortable divorcee, is worried about her daughter (the unseen Abigail of the title), her home and her ability to withstand an evening with her neighbors.

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Sweet-natured, gabby Angela is game for anything and never minds Bev’s constant “topping-up” of her G&T, while Tony grunts an occasional word and makes no move to dissuade Bev from her flagrant flirtation with him. Laurence can’t help but notice the devouring looks being shared between Tony and his wife, and rather than address the situation directly, he reacts in passive-aggressive, wounded-ego ways that only intensify his indigestion.

The party is all fun and games for a while as the booze flows, the cigarettes turn to ash and social formalities begin disintegrating.

The entire cast is wonderful, but Brothers all but steals the show as practically silent Sue. Brothers can say more with a look than anyone else on stage, and she’s brilliant at conveying British reserve and good manners underscored by fear, loathing and utter disgust. It would be hard to tear your eyes away from Brothers if White weren’t so wonderful as Angela. Her accent is spot on, and though Angela can be annoying (you begin to understand why her husband is such a withdrawn caveman), she’s well intentioned and harmless – and in White’s capable hands, hilarious.

When the play decides to veer in a dramatic direction, it goes there in a hurry, and the inevitable hangover the next morning arrives early…and hammers hard. Director Glazer has modulated her production in such a way that the shift in tone isn’t a complete surprise. There are dark, serious currents to even the most frivolous scenes early on (Damilano is especially good conveying the nasty edge to the comedy), so when this party is over, you feel like the revelers are actually getting the evening they deserve.


Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party continues through July 6 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$100. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Dating sharp, funny, creepy Becky Shaw at SF Playhouse


The cast of Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw includes (from left) Liz Sklar, Brian Robert Burns, Lorri Holt, Lauren English and Lee Dolson. Below: Burns and English have an uncomfortable second non-date. Photos by Jessica Palopoli


The humor is in direct proportion to the discomfort in Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw, now in its West Coast premiere at SF Playhouse.

If David Mamet were good at anything other than provocation and crisp dialogue, he might write something as entertaining and as distressing as Becky Shaw, a smart, incisive and very funny play that, despite its lack of focus, makes for a beguiling evening of theater.

By lack of focus I mean that Gionfriddo doesn’t delineate protagonist or antagonist. Even though the title of the play belongs to one character, the playwright’s aim seems much broader – like how power works between family members, between men and women and between the seemingly weak and the seemingly strong. She’s interested in highly functional dysfunctional people, which is to say, just about everybody.

Her targets here are members of an extended family: the matriarch, Susan (Lorri Holt), who is dealing with MS; Suzanna (Liz Sklar), the fragile adult daughter whose life is a mess; and Max (Brian Robert Burns) the sort-of adopted son who makes millions by managing the fortunes of others.

We meet this trio several months after the deal of Susan’s husband and Suzanna’s father. Family secrets and economic misfortune are the order of the day, but so are mother-daughter feuds and romantic liaisons probably best left outside the family unit.

Gionfriddo is a zesty writer with a taste for zingers, especially for the characters of Max and Susan, both brilliantly played with full-throttle, zinger-flinging relish by Burns and Holt respectively. Here’s Max on how to deal with death and still wield power: “Grieve. Be sad. But do it with a big dick.” On the same subject, Susan says the death of her husband, an elderly man who lived a full life and died peacefully “is not a loss. It’s a transition.”


With Sklar’s Suzanna, you want to make her hold still and take some deep breaths in an attempt to get a hold of herself, but she teeters through the play’s two-plus hours on the verge (and just on the other side) of nervous collapse and blinding rage.

As months go by, new people enter the fray who challenge the wicked family balance. Andrew (Lee Dolson) brings, as Max describes it in his customarily sarcastic way, an “indie rock” vibe to the clan, and his apparent concern for all creatures great and small is just another mask for his own particular damage.

And then there’s Becky Shaw (Lauren English), a possibly pathetic or possibly crafty (or more likely both) young woman whose life has taken some unfortunate turns and now finds herself at the mercy of both Max and Andrew. One thing we could have told Becky that no one in the play bothered to is this: never go on a blind date with Max, the man who sees marriage and prostitution as one and the same thing and the man who says, “Love is a happy by-product of use.”

English has a tricky role because we’re never quite sure about Becky and her reality. But this much is sure: English is extraordinary in the role. Compassionate and crazy-making, she turns the play on its ear, just as she should. There’s a moment when all Becky does is walk on stage, and the audience has a collective reaction just to her presence. That’s a testament to the character Gionfriddo has written and the skill with which English brings her to life.

As directed by Amy Glazer, Becky Shaw is a comedy of discomfort, a drama of ridiculous people. There’s a real-life edge to these people, both in Gionfriddo’s script and Glazer’s finely tuned cast. It’s not exactly docu-drama, but then again it wouldn’t be nearly as funny or as intriguing if it were. There’s real craft here in dissecting people we might be happy to dismiss but can’t because they’re too familiar.

The craft extends to Bill English’s set, which, with a few spins of the turntable, goes from a Manhattan hotel room to a posh Florida home to a grimy studio apartment in Providence, R.I. And congratulations to costume designer Miyuki Bierlein for finding a dress that, when described as a birthday cake, gets a laugh but also makes you feel sorry for the woman wearing it.

At one point, Max, who turns out to be the play’s most fascinating character, wonders why anyone would choose “an ugly reality over a beautiful fiction,” and it’s a good question. Becky Shaw has both in it, and that makes for a fascinating and highly entertaining play.


Gina Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw continues through March 10 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$70. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Seducing Amy Glazer (away from the stage)

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Stephen Barker Turner is the title character in the Amy Glazer-directed feature Seducing Charlie Barker, based on Theresa Rebeck’s play The Scene. Below: Theater and film director Amy Glazer. Photo by Lisa Keating

Theater folk know Amy Glazer as one of the busiest directors in Bay Area theater. But she also has a burgeoning career as a film director, which is no surprise given that she grew up on movie sets.

I interviewed Glazer for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle pegging to the release of her second full-length feature, Seducing Charlie Barker, which is based on Theresa Rebeck’s play The Scene, which Glazer directed at SF Playhouse in 2008. (Read my review of that production here.)

You can read my interview with Glazer here.

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As usual, there wasn’t quite enough room in the newspaper for every interesting thing Glazer had to say. Given that she’s becoming a specialist in turning plays she directed on stage into movies, I asked her what the secret of adaptation is.

“First, you have to pick the best of the dialogue, the greatest hits,” she says. “It’s hardly surprising that playwrights are now in demand as TV writers. They write great dialogue and great characters, and film needs that. Then you have to learn to show and not tell. Wherever a play is relying on the grammar of drama, like using dialogue to create exposition, that has to become a scene or somehow it has to inform the visual picture. I discovered ways of including details that can be more powerful than dialogue.”

I also asked her how the movie world feels about plays becoming movies. “People in the know that at the end of the day, a movie has to come from good writing,” Glazer says. “Those people do not have an attitude about turning plays into movies. They understand that you’re not just shooting the play as a movie. You’re deconstructing the world of the play for a film because film is a visual medium and can only sustain so much dialogue. Film condenses time, which is something I didn’t understand on my first movie. I’ve definitely had a learning curve.”

Glazer and her producing partner, Lynn Webb, have formed a production company called Beshert, a Yiddish word meaning destiny or kismet, and they have four projects in pre-production, all based on plays Glazer loves and has directed.

“I’d love to get old doing this. Or stay young doing this,” she says.

Visit the official Seducing Charlie Barker website here.

Watch the Seducing Charlie Barker trailer:

Official Seducing Charlie Barker Trailer from Seducing Charlie Barker on Vimeo.

Taking (Rosen)Stock of comic Tigers and musical Night


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Prom nerds: Jeremy Kahn is Zack and Melissa Quine is Sherry in the hit comedy Tigers Be Still at SF Playhouse, one of two shows by Kim Rosenstock (shown just below) in the Bay Area. Below: Wade McCollum is the narrator and Kristin Stokes is Miriam in Fly By Night, Rosenstock’s musical (with Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick) at TheatreWorks. Top photo by Jessica Palopoli, photo below by Mark Kitaoka


In a recent email chat with playwright Kim Rosenstock (see full interview below), I asked her what Bay Area theatergoers might learn about her if they see both of her shows now on local stages – Tigers Be Still at the SF Playhouse and the musical Fly By Night at TheatreWorks. Her response: “It’s probably better that I don’t know the answer to this question.”

So I will take it upon myself to answer the question for her.

First the easy answer: Rosenstock is smart and funny, and she’s a talented, quirky writer. Based on the two shows available – her first in the Bay Area – she is interested in the lives of women in crisis and making choices to climb out of that crisis.


In the first few scenes of Tigers Be Still, I thought maybe Rosenstock was following in the footsteps of Sarah Ruhl (indeed, fine footsteps in which to follow). Both are putting a unique spin on old formulas but with an emphasis on women. But their voices are distinctly different. Rosenstock is ultimately more compassionate and grounded, while Ruhl is more lyrical and morose. How exciting it is to have two such intelligent and entertaining women writing about life in modern America.

It’s easy to see why Tigers has become such a hit for SF Playhouse (now extended through Sept. 10). Director Amy Glazer has found the right tone to balance the comedy and the heart in Rosenstock’s tale of a plucky young woman, Sherry (Melissa Quine), who was, like her mother and her sister, depressed and despondent and inert. Armed with her master’s in art therapy, she couldn’t get a job, so she moved in with her mother and sank into a pit of sadness. Her mother, traumatized by the exit of her father some months before as well as by illness, has barricaded herself in her bedroom and won’t come out. We don’t see her over the course of the 90-minute play, but she does call every so often.

Sherry’s sister, Grace (Rebecca Schweitzer), is a victim of infidelity – she caught her fiancé fooling around – and is now engaged to Jack Daniels and seems permanently embedded in the living room couch, which, incidentally, we’re told smells like tears. Grace is bitter about everything, especially her sister’s ability to move on: “Just because you’re suddenly all functional doesn’t mean you won’t hit rock bottom again,” she chides.

Unable to maintain her depression, Sherry is on the rebound. She has a job as a substitute art teacher (thanks to her mother pulling a few strings) and her first art therapy patient. It took someone else’s grief to pull Sherry out of her own. The patient is Zack (Jeremy Kahn), the teenage son of Joseph (Remi Sandri) Sherry’s new boss (and an old flame of her mother’s), and both men are grieving the loss of Zack’s mother in a car accident.

Doesn’t exactly sound like fodder for hilarity, but Rosenstock mines what could be a sitcom retread for laughs that come solidly from dimensional characters and realistic situations. This production really crackles whenever Quine and Kahn are together. They’re both desperate in different ways. She desperately wants to succeed and to avoid rock bottom again. He desperately wants to feel something again because his mother’s death put him into a sort of numbed zombie state.

Kahn is so utterly believable as a slack-jawed teen that everything he does is funny and poignant. His Zack is sharp enough to register Sherry’s desperation, which prompts him to observe: “I’m pretty sure the last thing anyone wants is a needy therapist.”

Rosenstock’s version of a happy ending isn’t sappy, which is a triumph in and of itself. There are no guarantees of anything – not happiness, not relief from grief, not threat of failure. But we leave the theater certain that life will continue to be interesting and intermittently functional, for all involved.

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We won’t go into the ending of Fly By Night, the musical Rosenstock created with Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick. You wouldn’t call it happy, but neither is the musically, which you might describe as cheerfully grim.

Of the recent world-premiere musicals, including ACT’s Tales of the City and Cal Shakes’ The Verona Project, Fly By Night boasts by far the most interesting score. Set in the mid-’60s, the show has actual songs with beginnings, middles and endings, and those songs reveal character AND further plot AND they have tuneful, occasionally memorable melodies. What a concept. There are echoes of the ’50s in some of the tunes, some of the guitar-based folk of the era as well as hints of the British invasion.

Aside from the score, the biggest plus in Fly By Night is Wade McCollum as the narrator, who steps into a number of roles, most memorably as a South Dakota mother pushing her daughters to move to New York and a groovy club owner. McCollum is onstage for the duration of this nearly three-hour show, and he’s mesmerizing and funny. He sings the title song and dons a flowing headdress to play a gypsy with an important prophecy. He gets unexpected laughs and makes a solid connection with the audience that benefits this overstuffed musical immensely.

Rosenstock, Connolly and Mitnick have set up an old-fashioned love triangle. Sandwich maker Harold (Ian Leonard) falls in love with Daphne (Rachel Spencer Hewitt), who has just moved to New York from South Dakota with her waitress sister Miriam (Kristin Stokes). Daphne swears she’s born to be a Broadway star, but somehow she falls for the charms of the guitar-playing Harold (who’s grieving the loss of his mother, not unlike like Zack in Tigers). Playing it almost too cute, Harold never meets Miriam until the very day when the gypsy tells the waitress that she’s about to meet her soul mate. Somehow when they meet, Miriam and Harold don’t know they’re connected by Daphne, but too much knowledge always did spoil a good triangle.

Though the authors are exploring the monotony of daily life, the sacrifices required to fulfill dreams and the mysteries of fate, three hours seems an awfully long time to spend on what is really a slight romantic tale. They try to fill in the periphery with quirky, interesting supporting characters. Crabble (Michael McCormick) is Harold’s sandwich-making boss and victim of monotony (repeatedly sung in a catchy refrain of “mayonnaise, meat, cheese and lettuce). Keith Pinto is Joe Storms, an aspiring Broadway playwright and part of a Broadway family famous for taking Broadway by…

The most intriguing character in the show is Harold’s father, played by James Judy, whose grief is so profound he carries a record player around as if it were his recently deceased wife. He keeps trying to tell the story about why La Traviata means so much to him, but no one really has time to listen – until his big number, “Cecily Smith,” a powerfully emotional song that stopped the show on opening night.

Though the show feels too long, it doesn’t drag exactly, and we can likely credit director Bill Fennelly and the appealing cast for that. It just feels like too much for this particular story. We get reveries about the stars (beautifully and frequently illuminated in Dane Laffrey’s set design), lurches backward and forward in time, metaphysical interference and a famous Eastern seaboard blackout.

Michael Pettry’s quartet is visible through a window at the back of the black-painted stage, and it’s nice that we’re able to see the hardworking musicians creating such a full, infections sound for the score.

In the end, Fly By Night has an appealing message: it’s not what you do in life but who you do it with. And there’s death and sadness and grief and frustration and depression and mistakes all over the place. This is hardly a fairy tale, though it often feels like one. I thought if Seesaw, the 1973 musical by Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Michael Bennett and based on the William Gibson play Two for the Seesaw was mated with the 2006 rock musical Spring Awakening, the result might look and sound a whole lot like Fly By Night. Not a bad combo.

So here we have the bravura, double-feature Bay Area debut of Kim Rosenstock, a playwright who, even amid this abundance, leaves us wanting more.

[bonus interview]

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kim Rosenstock for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.



Kim Rosenstock’s Tigers Be Still continues an extended run through Sept. 10 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$50. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information.

Fly By Night by Kim Rosenstock, Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick continues through Aug. 13 in a TheatreWorks production at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreowrks.org for information.

Marin Theatre Company’s `What the Butler Saw’

I reviewed Marin Theatre Company’s production of What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton as my first reviewing assignment for the Marin Independent Journal.

You can read the review here. The show has been extended through July 5.

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Stacy Ross is Mrs. Prentice and Andy Murray is Dr. Rance in the Marin Theatre Company production of What the Butler Saw by Joe Orton. Photo by Ed Smith

Review: `Shining City’

Opened Oct. 4, 2008, SF Playhouse

Paul Whitworth (left) is John, a grief-stricken widower, and Alex Moggridge is Ian, a fledgling therapist in the SF Playhouse production of Conor McPherson’s Shining City, a grand Irish ghost story. Photos by Zabrina Tipton


Ghosts go bump in McPherson’s luminous `Shining City’

SF Playhouse opens its sixth season with a roaring good ghost story.

Even better, Shining City is an intelligent ghost story from the mind and pen of Conor McPherson, one of Ireland’s best contemporary playwrights, and it is directed by Amy Glazer, one of the Bay Area’s most insightful and reliable directors.

In any discussion of a ghost story, the less you know going into it, the better. But know this: Glazer gets deep inside McPherson’s story and finds sympathetic rhythms that lead to a series of surprises.

This is a first-class production with solid talent in front of and behind the footlights. SF Playhouse artistic director Bill English handled set design chores, and this is one of his best: an old brick office building in Dublin, the office of newly hatched therapist Ian, who has barely had time to unpack all the boxes before he sees his first patient.

The realistic office, which features a large central window looking out onto a bleak Dublin city scene dominated by a cathedral spire, reflects a realistic tone in McPherson’s play that is vital for the ghost story to gain some traction.

Alex Moggridge plays Ian, the therapist and Paul Whitworth, formerly the artistic director of Shakespeare Santa Cruz, is his primary patient, John.

Whitworth carries the weight of the play in terms of dialogue. Like many a McPherson play (The Weir, Dublin Carol), there are some heavy-duty monologues, and as a patient spilling his emotional soul to his therapist, it’s logical that he would do a lot of talking.

But what’s really interesting about Shining City is that McPherson, who tends to favor a good ghost story, is putting himself on the examination table and exploring just what it is about ghosts and the mere idea of ghosts that is so titillating and terrifying.

For Ian, the whole ghost thing is less about reality and more about our relationship with God – we want desperately to know there’s something more out there, and ghosts, in their spooky way, are proof of another dimension.

For John, ghosts are more about guilt – a sort of self-induced shock therapy that forces us to confront our truest and deepest emotions. Ghosts, in short, can be useful, and McPherson utilizes them in a sort of roundabout way toward redemption.

They can also bedevil the stage. It’s difficult – almost impossible, I’d say – to scare a live theater audience with a ghost story. You can chill us, maybe, but actually scare us? That’s a tall order.

But Shining City manages the trick quite handily. I won’t say where or when, but mixed in with the intelligent script, the beautifully nuanced performances and the intriguing plot twists, there’s a heckuva good scare.

Glazer follows McPherson’s lead and keeps the focus on the emotions of the story. Whitworth and Moggridge’s scenes together are masterful. It’s possible John’s lengthiest monologue could be trimmed, but it’s all about rhythm and the way important pieces of his story – an adulterous liaison followed by a ghastly tragedy – come trickling out.

Beth Wilmurt and Alex Conde shake things up in supporting roles that help us get to know Ian a little better, and then there’s the ghost, of course, who scares up some pretty intense emotions.

There’s not a theater better suited to this Irish ghost story than SF Playhouse, an intimate space that makes you feel like you’re up there on the therapist’s couch with John. Ensconced in the confines of that office, you relax into the conversation, but then you’re also trapped when it gets scary.

Remember, in a theater full of people, everyone can hear you scream.

Photo at right: Moggridge (left) undergoes a different kind of therapy with Alex Conde as Laurence. Photo by Zabrina Tipton.


Shining City continues through Nov. 22 at SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St. San Francisco. Tickets are $40. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org for information.