Odds are in favor of SF Playhouse’s 77%

The cast of Rinne Groff’s 77%, part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new play development: (from left) Arwen Anderson, Karen Grassle, Patrick Russell. Below: Russell’s Eric shares a drink and some bonding with his mother-in-law, Frankie (Grassle). Photos by Fei Cai

The title of Rinne Groff’s new play 77% may seem cold and statistical, but it’s actually wonderfully charming. You have to see the play to get it, but here’s something to know: if you can achieve that percentage with a romantic partner of some kind, you’re doing a really good job.

A play about marriage, among other things, 77% receives its world premiere as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series for new plays. It’s a remarkable play, in part, because it seems so unremarkable. The set-up smacks of sitcom fodder: he’s a stay-at-home dad/children’s book illustrator, she’s a high-powered businesswoman who travels a lot for work and her mom is currently living with them and helping with the kids. She’s always dreamed of having three children, but to add one more kid to their brood will require the assistance of medical science and the wonders of in-vitro fertilization.

On an extremely simple set – a few chairs, a table on wheels and an abstract backdrop that looks like a sailboat’s sail – this fast-paced comedy/drama plays out in 80 minutes but still manages to feel substantial.

Credit Groff’s sharp script, which cuts through a whole lot of layers to get to the good stuff in a hurry, and director Marissa Wolf’s stellar work with a crack trio of actors for managing a tricky blend of speed and naturalism. The rhythms are from real life, but there’s a theatrical push to the short scenes that infuses them with an irresistible electrical charge.


This is apparent in the first scene, as Eric (Patrick Russell) and Melissa (Arwen Anderson) are taking a drive in their new minivan. Melissa has returned from a work trip, and the following day, they resume their IVF treatments in hopes of a third child. Melissa is driving, and it’s clear that though these spouses are thoroughly and deeply connected, there’s all kinds of tension. Part of that is from her being the breadwinner. Eric is sensitive about the way Melissa talks about his work or about his daily life with the kids. In Groff’s deft hands, this scene is less about a challenged macho ego and much more about how people – especially those in what would be considered non-traditional roles – connect to their self-worth.

Anderson and Russell are so natural in their roles, it’s easy to go on this ride with them. They scuffle, they laugh, they sext (hilariously and not without a frisson of super sexiness). Life is difficult for them, but tension and conflict is part of the landscape and not the deal breaker it tends to be in less sophisticated work.

Adding to the mix of complication is Karen Grassle as Frankie, Melissa’s mom. She’s staying with her daughter’s family while her husband is on a solo sailing trip (he’s delivering a sloop, and much is made of the word “sloop”). There’s a fair percentage (not 77%) of the play that is about a strained mother-daughter relationship without that ever seeming to be at the fore. Both mother and daughter sit in heavy judgement of each other, but on a slightly drunken evening when Eric and Frankie bond, we find out a whole lot more about who Frankie is (and, by the way, who Eric is), and it’s fantastic. We sense a through line from mother to daughter and even to father, who is only ever acknowledged as a faint image on a FaceTime call.

SF Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, as it did last year with Aaron Loeb’s, Ideation, which made its way to the company’s main stage this season (read my review here) takes a simple approach to new work. Hand the work to skilled directors and actors and let the script shine through a straightforward, no-frills production. Sometimes that’s the best possible way to experience a play. With a play as smart, funny and incisive as 77%, it’s not hard to imagine many more productions of the play in the near future. Odds are 100 percent hit.

Rinne Groff’s 77% continues through Nov. 22 at the Tides Theater, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco, a presentation of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series. Tickets are $20. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.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.

Four hot bodies heat up Aurora’s Body Awareness

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The cast of Aurora Theatre Company’s Body Awareness includes (from left) Howard Swain, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Amy Resnick and Patrick Russell. Below: Cohen and Swain prepare for a body awareness photo session. Photos by David Allen

Drama in the small college town of Shirley, Vermont, is much like it is anywhere: small, intimate and, for the people involved, earth shattering.

Playwright Annie Baker, one of the theater world’s most acclaimed and buzzed-about writers, has a particular skill in writing about the lives of ordinary people. She’s acutely aware of the comic absurdity and the fissures of sadness and anger that clash continually and cause tremors, both minor and majorly damaging.

Baker is a humane and very funny writer, and the Bay Area is finally getting a taste of her talent in the Aurora Theatre Company’s utterly delightful production of her Body Awareness. In true Aurora form, the production gives us a meaty play and performances by a quartet of Bay Area actors that defy you to find a false moment in this up-close and intimate space.

Baker is taking a sideways look at the essential and uniquely individual nature of family. She gives us a non-traditional family and quickly throws it into crisis.

Jeri Lynn Cohen is Joyce, a high school teacher and mom in her mid-50s whose son, Jared (Patrick Russell) is likely dealing with Asperger’s Syndrome, but he’s never been diagnosed, let alone spent time with a psychologist. Joyce was married to Jared’s dad but has taken a different turn in middle age. She’s now partnered with Phyllis (Amy Resnick), a psychology professor at the local university.

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Phyllis is one of the organizers of the university’s Body Awareness Week (formerly Eating Disorder Awareness Week), and to “celebrate” and create dialogue and otherwise create all that activity that empowered academics so cherish, she and her organizing crew have invited an array of guests artists, from a Palestinian dance troupe to a puppet theater, to discuss all aspects of body awareness.

One of those visitors – not one of Phyllis’ choosing – is Frank (Howard Swain), a photographer who shoots nude women of all ages. Because it’s a small university, guests are housed at professors’ homes, and Frank is staying with Phyllis, Joyce and Jared. It’s the perfect storm as Jared fights his parental figures and Frank appears as an inspired artist to Joyce and a loathsome misogynist pervert to Phyllis.

Director Joy Carlin gets such delicious performances from her actors, it’s hard to know where to begin in praising them. Resnick’s ability to play reality and comedy at the same time makes her the perfect actor for a Baker script. Phyllis could so easily come off as a ridiculously pompous academic, but Resnick keeps her grounded and her intellectual foibles within the realm of (very funny) reality.

Cohen is a superb foil for Resnick. She’s part pragmatist and part yearning earth mother. When she gets it in her head that she’d like Frank to photograph her, Phyllis is so repelled she threatens to end the relationship. Cohen’s reaction as Joyce is a wonder – surprise, hurt, defiance and a yearning to make everything right without sacrificing what she thinks is right for her.

It’s wonderfully complex, all of it, and these actors handle it with ease. Swain is downright goofy in a role that could easily be crass and repellent. His Frank has warmth occasionally cooled by ego but also genuine concern fueled by compassion.

And Russell, an ACT Master of Fine Arts graduate, is astonishing as he conveys Jared’s tortured interior life. He’s a young man smart enough to know not everything is right with him but afraid to do anything with that knowledge. His flashes of anger toward his mother are jolting but understandable. This is a sensitive, highly PC household, so flashes of unrestrained anger have a certain welcome appeal.

Carlin deftly keeps the action lively for the play’s 90 minutes and never lets the rhythms fall into predictable, sitcom beats. She keeps the humor at the forefront, which only makes the real-life drama of it that much more pronounced, especially at the end, when Baker allows the notion of family to define itself.

Body Awareness traffics in jealousy and devotion, maturity and folly, pomposity and true love. In its low-key brilliance, the play serves to heighten awareness – body and otherwise.


Annie Baker’s Body Awareness continues an extended run through March 11 as part of the Aurora Theatre Company’s Global Age Project. 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $30-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.