Flying high in Aurora’s Mud Blue Sky

Mud Blue 1
Sam (Rebecca Dines, left center) sends Jonathan (Devin O’Brien, center right) on an errand as Angie (Laura Jane Bailey, right) enjoys some fine cognac and Beth (Jamie Jones, left) pours herself another one in the Bay Area Premiere of Marisa Wegrzyn’s Mud Blue Sky at Aurora Theatre Company. Below: Jones as Beth straightens the bowtie worn by O’Brien’s Jonathan on his bizarre prom night. Photos by David Allen

There’s easy comedy and titillation to be had in choosing to explore the lives of flight attendants. You could blithely whip up a story detailing the lives we imagine those high-fliers live, with their easy access to great cities, hot coworkers and the occasional randy passenger. That story might be fun, but in truth, the days of “coffee, tea or me” are long past, and flying is a grind for everyone, from passengers to crew, and that may actually be the more interesting story.

Marisa Wegrzyn’s Mud Blue Sky, now in an extended run through Oct. 3 at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, tries to have it both ways – swinging comedy, down-to-earth drama – and succeeds mightily. There are farcical elements in play, and cognac and marijuana are enjoyed, and there are some hearty, satisfying laughs to be had, but what lingers in the air after the show is a sense of connection, comradeship and workaday resilience among the characters.

Unlike those “flight”sploitation movies of the ’60s and ’70s, there is nothing glamorous about the two flight attendants we meet at a cheap motel in the purgatory between O’Hare and Chicago. Beth (Jamie Jones) has a terrible back and won’t do anything about it except self-medicate with pot, which she gets from a teenage supplier, Jonathan (Devin S. O’Brien) somewhere behind the motel. Sam (Rebecca Dines) seems to be more of a partier. She wants to go to the bar, meet up with an old friend and strap on the old feedbag at IHOP (“Bacon!”). But she’s not as breezy as she seems. She’s got a 17-year-old son back at home in St. Louis, and he’s on his own an awful lot, given her schedule, and that weighs on her.

Mud Blue 2

What’s so interesting about Wegrzyn’s play is that it really does feel like a slice of life we don’t get to see very often. For instance, Beth is what’s known as a “slam locker.” She gets to the hotel room, slams the door and locks it. But on this night, Beth’s locked door won’t be enough. She’s drawn out to meet Jonathan and make their usual deal. The high schooler is wearing a tux because it’s prom night, and he’s available to help Beth score because he has been ditched by his date.

Details about the lives of these characters begin to trickle out, and while there’s not high drama here, there’s compassionate drama filled with day-to-day realities of just trying to get through and deal with the people you have to deal with and maybe something more (better?). We’ve all encountered flight attendants who seem weary or who have their heads somewhere else, and taking a peek into the fictional lives of these flight attendants fills in the back story very nicely.

As the evening wears on, Jonathan ends up in Beth’s hotel room (the set by Kate Boyd is so perfect you want to call housekeeping for an emergency deep cleaning) and there’s a new guest: Angie (Laura Jane Bailey), who trained with Beth and who used to be a key member of the crew. But she gained some weight and was promptly fired. She’s been living with and taking care of her mother since and hasn’t been able to find another job.

Bailey’s Angie has a long monologue toward the end of this 95-minute one-act, and it’s as sweet as it is heartbreaking. She misses the connection with her former co-workers and passengers. She longs for the chance encounters with fun and kindness and outrageousness that her job afforded her, and this short visit with her old friends (who have not been great about keeping in touch since her departure) is a boost to her psyche.

Director Tom Ross does superb detail with work with his wonderful actors here. Nothing feels rushed, and the actors give us characters whose lives feel lived in. That’s why the humor can spark so effectively one minute and the pathos can register deeply the next.

Jones’ weary Beth keeps trying to be a stick in the mud, but fun and empathy continually prevent her from giving in completely to her misery. She has a real (if somewhat reluctant) connection with the Eeyore-like Jonathan, expertly played by O’Brien, whose slumpy posture and teenage galumphing are scarily accurate and endearing.

Dines’ Sam is peppery and bright, which is to say she’s bursting with energy, but she’s also prone to stinging from time to time. Sam’s participation in the evening’s festivities takes a surprising, provocative turn that takes yet another surprising turn. Credit Wegrzyn’s intriguing script for keeping us guessing as to where this story will fly next.

Mud Blue Sky has the crackle of good television (a compliment in this golden age of television) but the rhythm and heft of good theater. These skies are friendly enough, but it’s the turbulence that really matters.

Mud Blue Sky continues through Oct. 3 at Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit

TheatreWorks delights with devilish Angels

Angels 1
Rebecca Dines is Jane and Sarah Overman is Julia, best friends whose marriages are boring them to tears. In Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels, a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, the bored wives get up to some drunken mischief. Photos by Kevin Berne

Boredom, desire and champagne make for a potent cocktail in Noël Coward’s 1925 comedy Fallen Angels, now receiving a lively production from TheatreWorks at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts.

Director Robert Kelley delivers an elegant outing for this zesty comedy that keeps its focus on two live wire ladies – Jane and Julia, best friends since grammar school. Living the easy life with their lackluster husbands is taking its toll on their vivacity, and when left to their own devices, they manage to stir up a whole lot of excitement with the help of a man from their past (a cameo by the ever-dashing Aldo Billingslea.

I reviewed the production for the San Francisco Chronicle. Here’s an excerpt:

If Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz had been born into London’s upper crust, they might have resembled Julia and Jane, besties since childhood and now five years into their respective marriages to wealthy ninnies. Julia (Sarah Overman) is frank with her husband, Fred (Mark Anderson Phillips), over breakfast: “We’re not in love a bit,” she says. Ever-sensible Fred replies that they’re in love in a different way, a way full of affection and “good comradeship.”
Jane (Rebecca Dines) has a similar conversation with her Willy (Cassidy Brown); and when the two men go off for a short golf holiday, the women decide to inject some much needed passion and excitement into their lives. “To put it mildly, dear,” Jane says, “we’re both ripe for a lapse.”

Read the full review here.

Angels 2

Noël Coward’s Fallen Angels continues through June 28 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$74. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

Magic sends tingles through Chafee’s Body

Lilli played by Lauren English, Renee played by Rebecca Dines

Body checks: Lauren English (left) is Lili and Rebecca Dines is Renee in the Magic Theatre’s revival of its 1993 hit Why We Have a Body by Claire Chafee. Below: English’s Lili converses with Maggie Mason’s Mary. Photos by Jennifer Rei


“Once you start to ask,” Eleanor says, “there are more questions than answers.” Not a surprising statement in a play whose title, Why We Have a Body promises an answer to an implied question. And as Eleanor warns us, once those questions start forming, the answers, they keep multiplying.

Claire Chafee’s wonderfully enigmatic play is back at the Magic Theatre to open its 45th anniversary season with a look backward before heading into a season of newer plays. Body is being called a “legacy revival” because it was a huge hit for the Magic in 1993, running for six months and winning a passel of awards. What a welcome return it is.

In the nearly two decades since the play’s premiere, it has lost nothing in its sense of humor, sense of mystery and sense of, well, sensuality.

Chafee’s is an intellectual world – people living in their heads, in their pasts (the phrase “when I was a child” crops up a lot), in a perpetual state of perplexity – but that world is sliced through by a sharp comedy derived from family fractures and psychological scars. One of Chafee’s best lines comes when sisters Lili (Lauren English) and Mary (Maggie Mason) are on the phone talking about dreams. Mary has had another one of her feminist nightmares. “Like the once where you’re in a big circle and you have to come to a unanimous decision?” Lili queries.

Mary played by Maggie Mason and Lilli played by Lauren English

Though the play moves mostly in one direction, there’s a fragmented sense to this story of a mother (Lorri Holt) driven to remote stretches of the planet, while her daughters are left to try and figure out there thorny adulthoods for themselves. Lili is a private detective who helps women whose husbands are cheating on them. Mary is a criminal. She holds up 7-11s, obsesses about Joan of Arc and has the power to send faxes telepathically.

Mary is a singular person in every sense. She’s on her own in the world, perhaps mentally ill but very self-sufficient. Lili, though independent, buckles under the pressure of wanting and needing someone to love. The women she has loved have, as her sister, points out, are “busy not noticing her.” But she has recently met a rather extraordinary paleontologist on a plane. Renee (Rebecca Dines) is married but separated from her husband.

The scene on the airplane between Lili and Renee – so perfectly performed by English and Dines – is incredibly sexy, as is the following scene when a nervous Renee comes to Lili’s home and ends up presenting a paleontological slide show of her childhood.

Director Katie Pearl’s 90-minute production flows beautifully with the help of Marsha Ginsberg’s gorgeous white set, which represents airplanes, wild rivers in South America, the open desert (a pile of dirt is brought in to help manage that one), a Mexican beach and an airport bar among other locations.

I found myself longing for the character of Eleanor to be more involved in the play. She seems to be a short story circling a novel, an influence on everyone involved but not really present. Sharply etched by Holt, Eleanor is reacting to the limitations of her own upbringing. She’s out in the world with no plans to return home. “I was never told that you have to look for your life,” she says. “That some of aren’t born into our lives, we have to go and look for them. As if they’re taking place without us.”

The fine quartet of actors skillfully mine the humor and the darker, dramatic places to create characters that you care about – enough anyway to feel pangs when they do, which is fairly frequently.

It all seems to boil down to something Mary says to her older sister, who is not having enough fun. “You gotta just enjoy the human dilemma, Lili. That’s why it’s here.” That could be an answer to why we have a body. It could just as easily tell us why we go to the theater, but for some of us, they’re one and the same thing.


Claire Chafee’s Why We Have a Body continues through Oct. 2 at the Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, Marina Boulevard at Buchanan Street, San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$75. Call 415-441-8822 or visit

Nostalgic for The Homecoming at a different home

Homecoming 1

The cast of ACT’s The Homecoming includes (from left) Kenneth Welsh, Anthony Fusco, Jack Willis (seated), Adam O’Byrne, René Augesen and Andrew Polk. Below: The cast in the shadows of Daniel Ostling’s impressive set. Photos by Kevin Berne


The absolute power of live theater, when it’s done superbly well, is undeniable. The connection the playwright, the director, the actors and designers forge with the audience – and vice-versa – can be incredibly powerful.

That’s a wonderful thing and leave a lasting impression. Sometimes, perhaps, too lasting.

Last week I saw Carey Perloff’s production of Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming for American Conservatory Theater. It’s a bizarre, tormentingly fascinating play by a master playwright at the height of his game-playing dramatic powers. And though the production is fine, all I could think about was the Aurora Theatre Company production staged by Tom Ross at the Berkeley City Club in April of 2000.

I’ve seen a lot of plays in the nearly 11 years between that production and this one, and yet while sitting in the giant ACT space, I was longing for the intimacy (where horror is even more horrific when you feel like it’s unfolding in your lap and there’s no escape). I could even remember line readings delivered by Julian Lopez-Morillas as Max, the monstrous father figure, now played by ACT company member Jack Willis, and by James Carpenter and Rebecca Dines, who play Max’s returning son, Teddy, and his wife, Ruth. René Augesen, celebrating her 10th anniversary as an ACT company member, did the most of any cast member in the current production to make me forget the performances of more than a decade ago. But Anthony Fusco, who plays her husband, might as well have phoned in his performance for all the impression he made (he was so much more vivid in the recent Clybourne Park).

It’s absolutely not fair to judge one production by another, but when a certain production burns itself into your brain, there’s no escaping it. When I left the Berkeley City Club that night, having just experienced The Homecoming for the first time, I was thrilled and unsettled, which is, I think, a perfectly fine way to feel after a Pinter play. All the performances in Ross’ production had been pitch perfect, which made the production easy to admire, but the actors’ skills only augmented the work of Pinter and his genius for pleasant unpleasantness. With his sheen of British propriety and his structure of well-chose words (and, of course, his silences), Pinter unleashes monsters who look and sound remarkably human.

The ACT production has the size of the theater working against it automatically. It’s a huge stage, a giant house and an intimate six-person play. Set designer Daniel Ostling handles this beautifully by building one of the most imposing living rooms ever seen on a stage. With great heaving gray walls leaning heavily into the performance space, you feel the weight of this house. And the giant staircase (giant – think the BART station at 16th Street) is agonizingly gorgeous. So too is the lighting by Alexander V. Nichols. I don’t remember so much turning on and off of lights in the previous production, but in this space, you feel the presence and the absence of light.

Homecoming 2

The physical production does just about everything it can to make the space feel intimate, or, if not exactly intimate, then imposing in an intimate sort of way. In fact, the set and lights do more work than some of the actors.

Perloff creates some compelling tableaux, especially with Nichols’ lighting, but that becomes a problem. This is not a still life. It’s a play. Actors, when they aren’t striking a pose, are moved awkwardly around the stage, and that diminishes the sense of unease and discomfort that should build steadily from the first minutes of the show. I wanted to like Willis as Max – he looks perfect in the part – but his uneven British accent kept throwing me off until I was defeated.

This production does cause gasps, but I’d credit Augesen’s mastery of Ruth for that. When her character really gets to know her in-laws – like when Max meets her and calls her a “stinking pox-ridden slut” – mouths should drop and brows should furrow. But Augesen conveys intelligence amid the fear, some control, even pleasure, in the flood of testosterone overwhelming the stage. There’s a kind of heat coming off of her, and it isn’t just sexual.

I found more humor than horror bubbling through the ACT production, which is certainly enjoyable. But every production of The Homecoming I see from here on out, is going to have be better than my first time out. Apparently that’s going to take some doing.



Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming continues through March 27 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Taking Steps toward a lively evening

39 Steps 1
The stellar cast of TheatreWorks’ The 39 Steps comprises (from left) Rebecca Dines, Mark Anderson Phillips, Dan Hiatt and Cassidy Brown. Below: Dines and Phillips take a step closer to romance. Photos by Mark Kitaoka

Whatever will we do when the British have thoroughly unstuffed themselves? That stiff-upper-lip stuff and famous British reserve have long been targets for comedy – especially by the British themselves.

We love to lampoon the stalwart Brit character – the rigid veneer that provided such fodder for Kneehigh Theatre Company’s brilliant adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, which we saw here at American Conservatory Theater. British frigidity was practically its own character in that show, which threw two placid lovers – a doctor and a housewife – into an ocean of romantic emotion and took incredible glee in the destruction of their noble facades.

I couldn’t help thinking about Brief Encounter during The 39 Steps, the rollicking stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name.

Both Coward and Hitchcock (working on an adaptation of the 1915 John Buchan novel) enjoy throwing prim-and-proper Brits into tumultuous events and watching their reserve knock against passion and danger.

Stage adaptor Patrick Barlow goes Hitchcock one better. He turns the tumult into a farcical fracas that allows four adept actors to play 140 different characters.

A hit on London’s West End in 2006, the play became Broadway’s longest-running comedy two years later. The touring production played San Francisco’s Curran Theatre in December of 2009, and now Mountain View’s TheatreWorks has cast it with a quartet of local favorites.

Under the direction of Artistic Director Robert Kelley, it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable evening of mystery mayhem and slapstick espionage. Kelley has cast an irresistible quartet of actors to create the whirlwind, and the result is two hours of constant laughs.

39 Steps 2Mark Anderson Phillips is Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting London. Bored, he craves something mindless and trivial, so he goes to the theater. Naturally. There he meets a classic femme fatale, a German named Annabella Schmidt played by Rebecca Dines with an accent think as strudel.

When Annabella comes home with Richard and ends up with a knife in her back, the adventure begins. In true Hitchcock style, Richard becomes an innocent man on the run, and his journey takes him to Scotland, where invaluable comedians Dan Hiatt and Cassidy Brown chew the accent as if it were haggis-flavored taffy.

Joe Ragey’s set creates a pretty but second-rate theater complete with elevated box seats on the sides, and the actors seem to be playing the theater’s company actors. Phillips is the vain leading man (the narration keeps emphasizing how handsome Richard is, what with his wavy brown hair and pencil moustache) and Dines is the beleaguered leading lady. Hiatt and Cassidy are the hammy scene-stealers who can’t help playing the show as if it were their own vaudevillian showcase.

The costumes by B. Modern add fuel to the comic fire, especially when Brown does drag. His buxom Scottish hotelier is hilarious, while Hiatt’s villainous Professor sports an impressive two-tone pompadour that wouldn’t be out of place in a band like Josie and the Pussycats.

Act 2 of The 39 Steps loses some steam, especially in a long hotel room sequence, but most of the show is filled with deft physical comedy and cute allusions to other Hitchcock films (the Psycho reference is particularly funny).

What’s especially rewarding about a show like this is how spectacularly theatrical it is. With cargo trunks, ladders and a lot of stage smoke, four skilled actors create a world that sucks you in despite the inanity of it all. You’re laughing at the farce of it all, but the story exerts a certain pull because the characters are distinct, the locations are effectively evoked and you’re having a grand time enjoying it on a number of levels.

The 39 Steps isn’t exactly a stairway to paradise, but it’s definitely more than three dozen steps in the right direction.


TheatreWorks’ The 39 Steps continues an extended run through Feb. 20 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $24-$79. Call 650-463-1960 or visit for information.

Theater review: `Distracted’

Distracted 1

Rebecca Dines is a harried mother desperately trying to figure out how to help her 9-year-old son, who may have Attention Deficit Disorder, in Lisa Loomer’s Distracted, a TheatreWorks production. Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Script’s lack of depth distracts in otherwise enjoyable `Distracted’

Say this for the TheatreWorks production of Distracted by Lisa Loomer: it gets the brain-pinching chaos of modern life exactly right.

It’s all there — the constantly ringing cell phones, the call waiting, the Internet information overload, the remote control ruling the roost with hundreds of channels and any kind of music merely a click away. No wonder the kids we bring into this world are distracted.

Loomer’s play finds itself in a hot spot. There was a fantastic production in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s black box theater. And Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon just starred in the high-profile New York production.

This TheatreWorks outing reunites director Armando Molina and star Rebecca Dines, who worked together in TheatreWorks’ 2004 production of Loomer’s Living Out, a stronger, more artfully shaped play.

In Distracted, we get an unnamed mother (Dines) whose frantic life is dominated by her troubled 9-year-old son, Jesse (Gabriel Hoffman, mostly a loud offstage voice with a penchant for dropping F-bombs). Jesse’s days are frenzied leaps from energetic highs (he loves to invent hors d’oeuvres) to despairing lows (he loathes putting on his pajamas). Sensitive, intelligent and uncontrolled, he has trouble in school and makes life difficult for his teacher (Elizabeth Carter) and his classmates.

Distracted 3

Mom devotes herself to figuring out what’s wrong with Jesse, and after consulting with a raft of professionals – all played by Carter, Dena Martinez and Cassidy Brown – it turns out he has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. Mom and Dad (Robert Yacko making the most of an underwritten role) spar over whether or not to put their child on medication. Dad is adamantly against it and says that Jesse is a perfectly normal boy. “Is childhood a disorder now?” he asks. Mom is loathe to risk turning her vibrant son into a zombie: “He’s the most interesting person I know,” she says.

With Mom shuttling between doctors, she pauses occasionally to interact with her quirky neighbors (are there any other kind in these sitcom-y issue plays?). There’s the Jewish mom (Tara Blau) whose daughter (a superb Jayne Deely) is dealing with cutting and bipolar disorder and there’s the deadpan Prozac mom (Suzanne Grodner, finding humor and empathy in the role) whose kid is on a whole raft of medications for his ADHD.

Dines anchors the play with more comedy than drama. She never quite connects as a compassionate, nurturing mom, but she does keep pace with the constant motion and barrage of information that play throws at her. Her best scenes are with Deely, the troubled teen she has watched grow up and turn into an emotional mess.

In the supporting cast, Brown sinks his comic chops into a series of doctors, and he seems to relish breaking the fourth wall as an actor who feels compelled to put in a good word for Ritalin.

The pace of the play is, understandably, frantic. Molina’s production zips right along, with Melpomene Katakalos’ set and Jason H. Thompson’s video projections helping speed things considerably. When Mom goes onto the Internet, the walls of the set are filled with Web sites. When it’s time to watch TV or see things explode in an action movie, the set is awash in images.

Distracted 2

By the end of Act 1, the feeling of exhaustion weighs heavy. A lot of information – visual and auditory — has been dumped on us, and the question arises: Is this entertainment or a lecture demonstration?

Act 2 of this one-hour, 40-minute show slows just enough to allow in some real emotion and connect with rather than beat down the audience. Distracted would probably be stronger as a 90-minute one-act play. For too long, Loomer skims across the top of issues and never delves. The comic pacing belies the seriousness of the plot. It’s like there’s a fear that if the play slows down and the images stop assaulting us we’ll notice just how thin this play is – a brochure more than a work of art.

Getting to the emotional core of the play almost comes too late, but Loomer has a few tricks to make her audience happier, even if she does leave them hanging.

TheatreWorks’ Distracted continues through April 26 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $23-$61. Call (650) 903-6000 or visit for information.