Fractured tales confound in ACT’s Love and Information

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Cindy Goldfield (left) and Dominique Salerno star in Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a collection of 57 scenes that challenge audiences to consider the fateful, intimate dance between the virtual and the real, and the ways we filter data in the Information Age. Below:Joel Bernard, Salerno and Christina Liang in a short scene of love, information or both. Photos by Kevin Berne

Confounding and captivating in equal measure, American Conservatory Theater’s debut production in the newly renovated Strand Theater certainly lives up to its title. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information sounds like a generic title for just about anything in our short-attention-span world, on or off line, and that seems to be part of the point.

More like a curated collection of scenes and short films than an actual play, Love and Information breaks down into 57 scenes (like Heinz, 57 varieties) for a total running time about about 100 minutes. There are 12 actors deftly assaying hundreds of characters (or sketches of characters, really), and the whole thing is slickly, fluidly directed by Casey Stangl.

Some scenes are more memorable than others – a man attempting to share mnemonic games with a woman is delightfully surreal (“the hedgehog is in the microwave”); a brother and sister redefine their relationship in a shocking way; a text battle between wife and philandering husband takes place under the surface of polite dinner conversation; a young woman describes to a friend what it’s like growing up unable to feel any pain at all; a grandmother attempts to teach a grandchild about fear; a man who experiments on chick brains regales a date with tales of decapitation and brain slicing. And the list does go on.

About half the scenes feel like they’re part of a bigger, more interesting play. The other half feels like filler.

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It’s all very proficiently done, and Stangl, working with scenic designer Robert Brill, lighting designer Lap Chi Chu and projection designer Micah J. Stieglitz show off the Strand beautifully. The sound, the sight lines, the vibrancy of the room itself – it’s all thrilling and makes for an ideal second ACT stage.

What I didn’t get from the play was satisfaction. There isn’t much connective tissue here, and that seems to be part of the point. We’re fragmented, we’re chaotic, we’re filtered. Technology has increased our options for communications but has done the quality of communication no favors. That comes through here, but what I missed (after hitting the wall at about the one-hour mark) is that moment when it all comes together, when the fragments coalesce into something bigger and more meaningful. And though the end incorporates an appealing slice of Electric Light Orchestra, I never felt the whole became more than the sum of its attractive, often intriguing parts.

Maybe that’s what Churchill is after here: there is no sum game anymore. It’s all just parts. Maybe so. But as long as those parts keep coming on the stage of the Strand, I’m happy. San Francisco’s newest theater should be its most active and alive for many years to come.

[bonus interview]
I interviewed Love and Information director Casey Stengl about her work on the play for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information continues through Aug. 9 at ACT’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

Nick & Nora and musical theater necrophilia

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The cast of 42nd Street Moon’s Nick & Nora includes (from left) Brittany Danielle and Ryan Drummond as Nick and Nora Charles, and Allison Rich (right) as actress Tracy Gardner and Nicole Frydman (reclining) as murder victim Lorraine Bixby. Below: Danielle’s Nora is charmed by William Giammona as Victor Moisa, much to the chagrin of Drummond’s Nick. Photos by David Allen

The greatest crime the musical Nick & Nora seems to have committed in its ill-fated 1991 debut was not being nearly as good as it should have been and not being nearly the catastrophe everyone had imagined. The notorious musical is based on Dashiell Hammett’s final novel, The Thin Man from 1933, which was turned into the more memorable series of Thin Man movies starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as soigné sophisticates Nick and Nora Charles, who also solve crimes.

Nick & Nora has not been fully produced since its Broadway demise (72 previews and only a week of performances following the disastrous reviews), which is why we love 42nd Street Moon, the company that dusts off the flawed, forgotten and factious musicals of old and allows a contemporary audience to see what’s actually there. Sometimes these shows fell through the cracks for good reason, but more often there’s something surprising or gem-like to unearth in their resurrection.

Moon’s production of Nick & Nora does not reveal an unjustly maligned masterpiece, but it is great fun – exuberantly produced with a game cast directed by co-artistic director Greg MacKellan. One of the most common reactions to the original Broadway production seems to have been “well, it wasn’t as bad as they said it was,” and that is, perhaps, the worst kind of review. Not only is the show not good, it’s not the delicious debacle that can be just as fun (if not more so) than a masterwork.

No, Nick & Nora is an inherently flawed show with moments of charm, humor and even beauty that fails to make a case for itself as a work of art independent of the novel and the movies (and the radio show and the subsequent TV series and assorted rip-offs). The one thing I kept thinking over and over while watching the nearly three-hour show is, “This gives me a whole new appreciation for just how good City of Angels is.” That jazzy show is also set amid the glamour and backbiting of Hollywood in the early mid-20th century, but it’s got style and high concept and a score that won’t quit.

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It’s understandable that expectations would be high for Nick & Nora. It’s director and book writer, Arthur Laurents, wrote what is arguably the greatest musical of all time in Gypsy and has other shows like West Side Story and La Cage aux Folles on his lengthy and distinguished resumé. Composer Charles Strouse had huge success with Bye Bye Birdie and Annie, and lyricist Richard Matlby Jr. made a splash with his Richard Maltby collaborations Baby and Closer Than Ever and then with his lyrics for Miss Saigon. That’s the kind of creative team that looks good on paper, but on stage, there’s no real magic. These are all artists capable of great work, but the spark of inspiration seems to have bypassed this endeavor entirely.

Still, Nick & Nora has a sort of clunky, old-fashioned charm, which director MacKellan emphasizes in his enjoyable production. Ryan Drummond and Brittany Danielle in the title roles have abundant charm, but what’s nice about their downplayed performances is that they also come across as human beings and not Art Deco archetypes of crisp, urbane repartee. The show’s creators, however, have not done a good job of conveying who Nick and Nora are in their songs or convincing us that these blithe crime busters should be singing and dancing. Laurents introduces marital discord into the mix, which seems wildly off base, especially when he’s already juggling a complicated murder mystery in which every supporting character seems to be a suspect. On Broadway there was an actual dog playing famous sidekick Asta, but this production keeps the canine offstage.

The show’s one bold theatrical touch is having murder victim Lorraine Bixby (played with brio by Nicole Frydman) continually back from the dead to reenact key moments of her tumultuous life and death. She also gets the score’s best song in the funny and rousing “Men.” Lorraine was a movie studio bookkeeper with secrets and potentially destructive gossip. Many had a motive to see her silenced, including the Hepburn-esque actress Tracy Gardner (the robust Allison F. Rich), the crooked producer (Michael Kern Cassidy), the corrupt detective with a foot fetish (Michael Barrett Austin), the embezzling director (Brian Herndon), the slick union chief (William Giammona) and the highly protective wife of the producer (the invaluable Cindy Goldfield). There are other players as well, including the surprisingly drawn racial stereotypes (the show is set in 1937 but was written in the ’90s so there’s really no excuse) of a Mexican entertainer and a Japanese house boy.

The talented cast makes a good case for Nick & Nora as a show that deserves another look and perhaps a longer life in community theater, but it’s also easy to see why this Broadway misfire – stuck in that purgatory of “not so bad/not so good” – has lain dormant for nearly a quarter of a century.

[with thanks to the marvelous George Maguire for the headline]

FOR MORE INFORMATION
42nd Street Moon’s Nick & Nora continues through April 19 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 415-255-8207 or visit www.42ndstmoon.org.

Can’t resist the charms of Mr. Irresistible

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Cindy Goldfield (left) is Eileen, Steven Shear (center) is Mr. Irresistible and Colin Thomson is Joey the exterminator in D’Arcy Drollinger and Christopher Winslow’s Mr. Irresistible, a new musical comedy at the Alcazar Theatre. Below: It’s like horny Christmas as Eileen (Goldfield) receives a boyfriend in a box (Shear). Photo courtesy of www.kenttaylorphotography.com

There’s a lot of old-fashioned musical theater charm in Mr. Irresistible, a new musical by D’Arcy Drollinger and Christopher Winslow now having a short run at the Alcazar Theatre. It’s a new-fashioned musical in the sense that there’s camp, drag, sass, murder and a ménage à trois, but there’s also a sort of sweet familiarity to it all that keeps everything grounded in the realm of appealing musical comedy.

Winslow’s appealing music and Drollinger’s smart book and lyrics are what might happen if you cross Little Shop of Horrors with 9 to 5. There’s lonelyheart misery and workplace nastiness combined with a little sci-fi robotics to make it a little more interesting.

The central character, Eileen, is someone we’ve seen before: a doofus who just can’t win. Her love life (what love life?) pales in comparison to the bodice-rippers she reads so ardently. And what with her mop of curls and her inability to tone down clashes in her personal wardrobe, she’s an object of ridicule in the big corporate office in which she’s been a temp for four years.

One of the score’s highlights occurs early on when we meet the mean girls (and the mean gay mail boy) of the office in “WORK!,” which shows off the skills of the cast in capturing the zippy campy comic tone of the show. It also shows off the sparky choreography by Drollinger and John Paolillo.

Tired of being miserable, Eileen takes action and orders herself a Mr. Irresistible robot, which promises to be the ultimate boy friend, seeing to her every need and making her happy whatever the cost.

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Eileen could be a real dolt, but she’s not because she’s played by Cindy Goldfield, a performer so delightful and disarming she couldn’t be a dolt if she tried. In the Carol Burnett/Imogene Coca mold, Goldfield knows exactly what to do with the character to give her heart and comic chops. She has a sweet voice and a way to get you rooting for Eileen, especially as the world around her comes crashing down in bloody waves.

It’s clear from the start of this nearly 2 1/2-hour show that Eileen should be with Joe, the exterminator (the wonderful Colin Thomson), but because he doesn’t conform to romance novel standards, he’s cast aside, much the way Eileen is at work by her coworkers. Instead, Eileen succumbs to the digital charms of Mr. Irresistible, played with sinister élan by Steven Shear. When Eileen casually mentions she could “just strangle” an annoying co-worker, the robot takes her request literally. And so begins the bloodbath.

But even as the bodies pile up, this musical, under the direction of Jonathan Carpenter remains resolutely upbeat. The zippy pace is helped tremendously by the video projections created by Richard Neveu, which add a strong sense of place and humor to the proceedings. I’m not generally a fan of such heavy use of projections in a live theater setting, but when a show is on a budget and the projections are this slick, it’s hard to resist them. Just as it’s hard to resist the supporting cast, which includes James M. Arthur as Billy, Jessica Coker as Tina, J. Conrad Frank as Kat, Kristen Iuppenlatz Grech as Jan, Eliza Leoni as Debbie and the indispensable Joe Wicht as Mr. Abernathy.

As delightful as Mr. Irresistible is, this is still clearly a show in progress. Some numbers go on too long and others will likely not make the next cut. There’s a loss of focus and momentum in the chaos of Act 2, which bleeds some oomph from the ending. But the charm and dazzle is ever present, making Mr. Irresistible live up to its name. It seems highly likely we’ll be hearing more about this lively show in the very near future.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Mr. Irresistible continues through Sunday, June 8 at the Alcazar Theatre, 650 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Visit mrirresistible.eventbrite.com or call 415-766-4588 for information.