SF Playhouse’s Barbecue sizzles

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The cast of Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue at San Francisco Playhouse includes (from left) Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe as Adlean, Adrian Roberts as James T, Kehinde Koyejo as Marie and Halili Knox as Lillie Anne. Below: The clever, twisty play also includes cast members (from left) Teri Whipple as Marie, Clive Worsley as James T, Anne Darragh as Lillie Anne and Jennie Brick as Adlean. Photos by Ken Levin

Robert O’Hara is one of those playwright/directors who, when his name is attached to a project in any way, you pay attention. He’s smart, funny and has a keen eye for theatrical disruption. His Insurrection: Holding History may have played at American Conservatory Theater almost 20 years ago, but it remains one of the wildest, most wonderful things I’ve seen from that company.

O’Hara – the playwright – is back in town with Barbecue, the first show in San Francisco Playhouse’s 15th season, and here’s what’s on the grill: American families, race in America and recovery porn. This is comedy with deadly serious aim or drama with some really big laughs. Whatever it is, it’s almost indescribable, and that’s a good thing.

The one thing I will tell you, even though it would be better if you went into the play knowing nothing other than it was impeccably directed by Margo Hall and might elicit strong reactions from you on a number of fronts, is that O’Hara turns theater into a wacky mirror, almost literally. The subject is the O’Mallery family’s five (of seven) surviving siblings in a Midwestern city. They are a family plagued with addiction issues (alcohol, painkillers, marijuana, crack, control) and bad attitiudes. They don’t like each other much, but they love each other, and when sister Barbara needs an intervention to get her into rehab, the family rallies. Just like they’ve seen on TV reality shows, they stage a “barbecue party” in a local park in an attempt to lure her in.

But here’s the first of several twists you will encounter over the course of the play’s two hours: we see the O’Mallery’s as a white family in one scene and then as a black family in the next. Same characters, same situation, two sets of actors. When are we afforded the chance to challenge ourselves and our notions of how family and race and class are related? What does it say about me that I found the white family whiny and annoying while the black family was more interesting and likable and much funnier and more vivacious? (Perhaps the white family hit too close to home.)

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If the whole play had only been ricocheting between the alternate families, that would have been fine by me, but O’Hara has more in mind here. These families are alternating reflections, but what exactly are they reflecting? That’s the real question, and O’Hara does provide answers. And twists. And a lot more fun and some quite serious thoughts on rehab and recovery and the language and culture we have built around that process.

There are some wild tonal shifts here, but director Hall has everything firmly in hand, with an excellent design team including Bill English (the superb outdoor park setting complete with restrooms that you know are on the verge of disgusting), Wen-Ling Lao (perfect lighting alteration to accommodate the play’s twists) and Brooke Jennings (pitch-perfect costumes on the cusp of reality/comedy). Usually when Hall is in the director’s chair, the only downside is that it means she won’t be on stage. But that’s not a problem with Barbecue. She is part of the excellent cast and all but ignites the second half alongside the also excellent Susi Damilano. The black/white scene flips, in addition to being culturally, comically and dramatically fascinating, offer a wonderful opportunity to see talented actors tackling the same roles at the same time.

The entire cast is tremendous, but it’s especially instructive to see the dramatic work of Anne Darragh and Halili Knox as Lillie Anne, the controlling sister who is attempting to pull off this intervention and get her difficult (and addled) siblings on board with her. They approach the character differently and offer different levels of empathy, and it’s extraordinary. On a more comic level, Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe and Jennie Brick as Adlean are both hilarious and, again, so different in the way they get laughs. One is more obnoxious and one is more lovable. The same is true of Clive Worsley and Adrian Roberts as brother James T and Teri Whipple and Kehinde Koyejo as Jack Daniels-swilling sister Marie.

If all of O’Hara’s twists don’t have the same potency, this cast pulls off this whole audacious enterprise beautifully and keeps the flames of Barbecue high and hot.

Robert O’Hara’s Barbecue continues through Nov. 11 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$125. Call 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.

Good People is good theater at Marin Theatre Co.

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Jamie Jones (left) is Jean, Amy Resnick (center) is Margie and Anne Darragh is Dottie in the Bay Area premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People at Marin Theatre Company. Below: ZZ Moor (left) as Kate, Resnick as Margie and Mark Anderson Phillips as Mike sort through some uncomfortable details of the past (and present). Photos by Ed Smith

There’s something to be said for a play that is simply good. Not earth shattering or even profound. It may not take the form of drama in new and exciting directions or reinvent the notion of entertainment, but a good play does indeed entertain.

David Lindsay-Abaire is a smart, funny, compassionate writer who makes good plays (and happens to have a Pulitzer Prize on his shelf for the play Rabbit Hole). They have depth and feeling and almost always a good laugh or two (or three). His most recent arrival in the Bay Area is Good People, a slice-of-life comedy/drama receiving its local premiere as the season-opener for Marin Theatre Company.

And here’s what’s really interesting: not only is the play about something – choices, luck and the American class system – but also manages to be heartfelt, thoroughly entertaining and, at times, even a little unsettling. How can you not be unsettled when talking about our unspoken but very real class system? We all know the basic rules but seldom acknowledge the realities outside of that great American myth involving hard work, boot straps and ultimate reward.

The play itself, set in Lindsay-Abaire’s native South Boston and Chestnut Hill, apparently one of Bean Town’s tonier suburbs, acknowledges that hard work is important when aiming to escape one’s hardscrabble roots, but it also posits that luck has an awful lot to do with it. Those who make good choices and rise above their humble beginnings may have had more luck than those for whom such choices didn’t ever exist.

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That’s essentially the difference between Mike (Mark Anderson Phillips), a successful doctor, and Margaret (Amy Resnick). They both grew up in the rough Lower End part of Southie. He had a working father who looked out for him and helped push him in the right direction – to college, then medical school and on to a successful career. She, on the other hand, got pregnant, dropped out of high school and devoted her life to raising a disabled daughter on her own and bouncing from one bad job to another.

Hard up for a job after being fired from her cashier gig at the Dollar Depot, Margie (as she’s called by her friends – with hard “g”) takes desperate action. It’s been 30 years since she’s seen Mikey, but she figures what the hell and crashes his office to see if he might offer her some sort of job.

The scenes between Resnick and Phillips are incredibly satisfying, both in the writing and performance. Margie and Mikey have a bond created by the old neighborhood. He got out, she’s stuck there, so that bond is a tricky one. He’s one of the “haves” now and she’s a “have not,” or as he says, he’s “comfortable.” “I guess that makes me uncomfortable,” Margie retorts. That’s the thing about these two – Margie is self-deprecating and calls herself stupid, as if that’s the reason she got trapped and he escaped. But Margie is sharp and up front. She really pushes Mikey’s buttons (“I’m just bustin’ balls,” she says. “It’s how I do.”), and it’s fun to watch him squirm, especially when the action shifts to his lovely suburban home and his wife (ZZ Moor) is there to amp up the intensity and discomfort and, ultimately, the honesty.

Resnick, long one of the Bay Area’s most reliable actors, is remarkable here, so real and thoughtful. Margie can be quite funny, but credit Lindsay-Abaire and Resnick for making the humor come from someplace honest and more than a little heartbreaking. One of the most sustained and rewarding laughs I’ve heard in a theater in a long time came in Act 2 on opening night. The lines themselves don’t really amount to much, but context and delivery are everything. Mikey asks a simple question, but it’s suffused with class implications, and Margie’s straightforward answer pierces right to the core of their differences and puts them on equal footing. Phillips, another Bay Area stalwart, is grounded and complicated as Mikey and is well matched with Resnick.

Credit director Tracy Young for guiding her strong cast with a sure hand. Some of the supporting characters – Margie’s friends Jean (Jamie Jones) and Dottie (Anne Darragh) and her former boss, Stevie (Ben Euphrat) – verge on the precipice of stereotype or caricature, but these actors are too good to let that happen.

Good People climbs up on a soapbox for a bit to allow two basically good people to demonize each other briefly before calming down and acknowledging that bad choices do get made, luck is sporadic but greedily consumed and that the lives we live are precarious no matter if we’re “comfortable” or “uncomfortable.”

David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People continues through Sept. 15 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37-$58. Call 415-388-5288 or visit www.marintheatre.org.

Aurora’s Heaven falls well short

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The women of Anthony Clarvoe’s Our Practical Heaven are (from left) Joy Carlin as Vera, Lauren Spencer as Magz, Julia Brothers as Willa, Blythe Foster as Suze, Anne Darragh as Sasha and Adrienne Walters as Leez. Below: Willa shows granddaughter Leez that she’s the “bird of the day” in the Aurora Theatre Company production. Photos by David Allen

There’s a lot to like in the world premiere of Anthony Clarvoe’s family drama Our Practical Heaven at Aurora Theatre Company. Laughs come frequently, the production itself – full of light and space – is lovely and the six women in the cast are all quite interesting.

Many of the funniest lines come from the character Willa, a ruthless titan of business who has a thorny relationship with her 20something daughter, Magz. Willa is caught between being the warm and thoughtful person she wants to be and the cold, heartless businessperson she is forced to be much of the time. That internal conflict makes the character crackle, and it helps things considerably that she’s played by the always reliable Julia Brothers.

When asked how she could possibly like a certain person, Willa answers, “She makes me laugh,” to which her questioner says, “You’re not laughing.” “I’m in hysterics,” Willa rejoins. “I’m also very sad. This is the net result.”

If only there were more of that snap, both dark and comic, in Clarvoe’s play. Clearly he’s after a Chekhovian mood as he gathers family members – some related by blood, others by choice – at the nearly seaside home of Vera, the matriarch of a large clan who is grieving the loss of her husband.

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Joy Carlin as Vera has some very funny moments – especially when she defies her children’s expectations by not only not tumbling over a box left on the floor but kicking it across the room – but like most of the characters here, she doesn’t have enough to do, enough complexity to play. Vera doesn’t seem to have much of a relationship with any of the women in her house, not daughter Sasha (Anne Darragh), not honorary daughter Willa, nor with granddaughters Leez (Adrienne Walters) and Suze (Blythe Foster) or honorary granddaughter Magz (Lauren Spencer).

The one defining element of Vera, other than occasional flashes of sass, is that she is a birder and has made bird watching a mandatory activity for the entire family. Why? “You’ve got to have something,” Vera says. “Some families drink.” After a while, you kinda wish this family imbibed a few more cocktails.

It’s easy to see why Vera isn’t connected to these women because aside from Willa, who has a tangible life beyond the country house, none of these women feels real. They come off rather like stiff characters in a play who are asked to be disagreeable much of the time.

Director Allen McKelvey’s production feels forced, as if he and his actors were pushing hard to squeeze more out of Clarvoe’s play than is actually there. When the end of Act 1 comes, for instance, it’s quite a surprise because nothing has really happened. We haven’t earned an intermission, yet here it is. Act 2 throws in a few more complications but no real drama.

The end of the play feels a lot like the end of Act 1: seriously? It’s over? I felt like I wanted to have some empathy, some connection to this family but I just didn’t. There’s a lot of huffing and puffing about the modern world and its abundant means of communication and its actual dearth of communicating. Our Practical Heaven, with its projected text messages, surly teenagers and cranky adults, feels like one more message zipping through the airwaves without enough to say.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Anthony Clarvoe about creating Our Practical Heaven for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Anthony Clarvoe’s Our Practical Heaven continues through March 3 at the Auorra Theatre, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $32-$50. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org.

Aurora tips Albee’s Balance delicately

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Kimberly King (right) gives a stellar performance as Agnes in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Agnes’ world is upended by the arrival of best friends Edna (Anne Darragh, rear left) and Harry (Charles Dean) who are fleeing a nameless terror. Below: Ken Grantham (in bathrobe) is Tobias, patriarch of a challenging clan, which now includes Harry (Dean, right) and (rear, from left) Agnes (King), Julia (Carrie Paff), Claire (Jamie Jones) and Edna (Darragh). Photos by David Allen

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance only looks like a suburban comedy. It’s really an existential nightmare slightly more gussied up than your average slasher movie. Oh, blood flows in this eviscerating drama, but it’s of a more metaphorical variety than you’ll find in the Saw franchise. Between the ravages of time and the mighty pen of Albee, the family on stage has absolutely no chance at all.

And their demise is so very delicious. (Also delicious: Albee himself was in the audience for Thursday’s opening-night performance.)

A Delicate Balance opens Aurora’s 20th season, and as directed by Artistic Director Tom Ross, it’s a perfect example of why the Aurora is such a glorious part of the Bay Area theater scene. An intimate theater and a thrust stage so deep it’s practically in the round make the Aurora a crucible in which outstanding writing and superb performances combine and, with luck and a good director, ignite. To watch an actor lose herself or himself in an exquisitely crafted part is one of the greatest pleasures in the theater, and there’s no better vantage point for this than the Aurora.

Ross’ Balance is one of those wonderful Aurora experiences – a cracking good play with a strong director at the helm and intricate performances that blur the line between art and reality.

Chief among this production’s pleasures is a central performance by Kimberly King as Agnes. Hers is a performance so compelling it’s sometimes to hard to watch anybody else. From the play’s opening moments, as Agnes muses on the very real possibility that she’ll lose her mind, it’s clear that King will be the vital center of this story. Agnes is a fascinating character – strong, controlling, incredibly smart and hard to the point of impenetrability. But through Albee’s incisive writing and King’s dynamic performance, we also see the person Agnes once was – warm, funny, compassionate, nurturing – before life, and the choices she made to deal with that life, built up her defenses and made her more sour than sweet.

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Because the audience is on three sides of the stage, it’s impossible for actors to escape the careful inspection of audience members at all times. Ross, who has been with the Aurora since 1992, is adept at directing the most minute details. This means that wherever you look at any time during the play, you’ll see something revealing, especially if, like me, you’re compelled to watch King’s Agnes for the play’s three acts and nearly three hours.

Whether she’s lovingly manipulating her somewhat baffled husband, Tobias (Ken Grantham, fighting her alcoholic younger sister, Claire (Jamie Jones or dealing with the hysteria of her oft-divorced daughter, Julia (Carrie Paff), Agnes is a force of nature (“There’s no saner woman on Earth,” we’re told). She’s well spoken (indeed, she apologizes at one point for being articulate), and her words have powerful impact. She’s the fulcrum attempting to maintain the delicate balance of the title.

She rules her suburban roost (the gorgeous living room set is by Richard Olmstead and the lighting by Kurt Landisman) like a drill sergeant crossed with dowager empress with a hint of Margaret Thatcher. And yet she’s entirely likeable, even empathetic, and that’s largely due to the intricacies of King’s masterful performance.

Agnes gets even more interesting when her world starts to rock. Errant daughter Julia returns home after her fourth failed marriage on the same day that best friends Harry and Edna (Charles Dean and Anne Darragh) arrive with news that they have fled their home due to some unnamed terror. The monster of mortality is storming the neighborhood, like Godzilla touring Japan, and Agnes is just the warrior to ready her troops. As she and Tobias discuss early in the play, from their plateau of soul-numbing suburban domesticity, “we do what we can,” so of course they take in their creepily spooked friends and mentally unbalanced daughter. They don’t want to but they do.

There are so many good laughs in this production that it can feel like a rollicking comedy, but for every great laugh line, or accordion solo, there’s an equally searing observation about marriage, friendship, family and the ruinous nature of time. As when Claire, a self-described drunk rather than an alcoholic, asks for a refill on her cocktail: “Oh, come on. It’s only the first I’m not supposed to have.” The more you laugh, the closer you get to falling down the bottomless pit – “the dark sadness” as Albee describes it – at the center of the play. And that’s a theater experience to savor.

Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance continues an extended run through Oct. 23 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $10-$48. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org

Heavenly Angels exhibit takes wing

Angels caricatureThis Al Hirschfeld drawing of the Broadway Angels in America cast is on display at San Francisco’s Museum of Performance and Design in the exhibit More Life: Angels in America at Twenty. Below, Milton Glaser’s artwork for the Broadway production of Angels.

The millennium approached, then quickly fell behind us. Time marches on, but Tony Kushner‘s Angels in America remains a landmark achievement of 20th-century theater.

The legacy of the play that got its start at San Francisco’s Eureka Theatre is on display at the Museum of Performance and Design, one of San Francisco’s best kept museum secrets. The exhibit hall may be filled with memorabilia from Angels’ humble beginnings on a red Formica table filled with scribbled-in notebooks to its domination of world stage (with the Pulitzer Prize and international posters to prove it), but what you really feel in this display is the extraordinary power of theater.

It doesn’t happen very often, but when a play or a musical really taps into the American psyche, imaginations are ignited and artists are pushed to do work they didn’t know they could do. MPD’s curator of exhibitions and programs, Brad Rosenstein, has created a testament to the evanescence of theater. Plays may come and go, but sometimes in their wake, the world changes because people’s imaginations were truly engaged.

At a press preview for More Life! Angels in America at Twenty, (the exhibit opens to the public Saturday, Nov. 6), Rosenstein talked about his connection with the play from the first time he read it then described how enthusiastic everyone was when he contacted them for information or artifacts for the exhibit. No one had time, he said, but just about everyone made time, including Kushner, whom Rosenstein accurately described as “the busiest writer in the world.”

Angels posterKushner was there for the preview, as were original Broadway cast members Joe Mantello and David Marshall Grant. The Eureka production was represented by Tony Taccone, who, along with Oskar Eustis, ran the Eureka and had the foresight to produce the world premiere of Angels, along with cast members Lorri Holt and Anne Darragh.

The ever-present image in the exhibit, not surprisingly, is wings. There are angels’ wings from numerous productions, including the original Sandra Woodall wings from the Eureka (beautifully restored), the only surviving wings from Broadway, the American Conservatory Theater wings (metal and fabric and strangely beautiful) and the hyper-realistic wings worn by Emma Thompson in the HBO movie. There’s also a set piece from Broadway of the Angel of Bethesda Fountain that looks like it just fell off the beloved Central Park landmark. There are angels in photos and on posters, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to sense a few actual angels hovering among the artifacts.

Kushner was saving his speech for the big pre-opening gala, but in accepting a proclamation from San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty proclaiming Angels in America Day, Kushner said, “The only thing left is to climb in a box and shut the lid.” He described himself as “overwhelmed” and “out of my head.” And he described the experience of the exhibit as if someone had opened his closet and out spilled posters and wings and people.

Rosenstein conducted about 50 interviews with artists involved with Angels over the last two decades, and he said he will continue to add new audio and visual material into the exhibit. Among that material will be footage from a number of different productions. Toward the end of the exhibition, there will be a screening of Freida Lee Mock’s Kushner documentary, Wrestling with Angels at a Lucasfilm screening room, and there’s talk at the San Francisco Opera of unleashing the Adler Fellows on a concert presentation of the Angels opera.

The exhibit is so inspiring you want to head immediately into a nearby theater and see Angels in its entirety. You’d have to head to New York’s Singature Theatre Company to do that right now, but Supervisor Dufty mentioned a local theater company he’s helping, Theatre Shark, as they try to find a Castro neighborhood storefront in which to produce the entire two-part epic. Until then we can wallow in the wing-fluttering glory of More Life!.

More words!

I wrote about the contents of the exhibit in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the article here. You can also read Rob Hurwitt’s interview with Tony Kushner and his piece on the legacy of Angels.


More Life! Angels in America at Twenty continues through March 26, 2011 at the Museum of Performance and Design, 401 Van Ness Ave., Veterans Building, Fourth Floor, San Francisco. Suggested donation is $5. Call 415 255-4800 or visit www.mpdsf.org.

Guest critic Leslie Ribovich reviews `Busy World’

As a critic at the Oakland Tribune and its sister newspapers, one of my greatest pleasures was instituting a teen theater critic internship, and it was my luck to launch the program with Leslie Ribovich, who was then a senior at Albany High School. For much of her final year in high school, she would accompany me to shows and write her own reviews, which than ran in the newspaper or online (or both).

Well, Leslie has finished her freshman year at a prestigious New York college, and while she’s home this summer, I asked and she graciously accepted my offer to be a Theater Dogs guest critic. It is my pleasure to present her work. (For my review of the show, click here.) She remains an astute observer and a wonderful writer.

Aurora’s Busy World Provokes Thought of Biblical Proportions

By Leslie Ribovich

You could label The Busy World is Hushed, currently at Aurora Theatre Company, as a political play with a strong message about the Episcopal Church’s relationship with homosexuality, but the designation would be misleading. Yes, the characters grapple with God and predestination, and yes, two of them are homosexual, in a church no less, but playwright Keith Bunin presents the issues far too complexly to take sides.

In a political play, you look for the point of view. In this play, it’s fragmented. We see three different points of view and wonder with whom the playwright agrees.

Is it Hannah (Anne Darragh) who has the first and last line of the play (often an indicator of point of view)? Hannah is an Episcopalian minister and seminary professor who is amazed by the idea that an infant could be the most powerful being, but also refers to “doe-faced Jesus-freaks from the Midwest.”

Or Brandt (Chad Deverman), an excellent writer with a dying father who is unqualified for the job of synthesizing Hannah’s research on an unearthed gospel into writing?

What about Thomas (an incredibly charismatic James Wagner), Hannah’s son named for the apostle, who heard gospels instead of bedtime stories and believes his mother is, “fully informed and yet swallows her own Kool Aid”?

What if all three of them say things that make a lot of sense? And then say things that we couldn’t disagree with more?

We don’t walk away from this play knowing what political stance the playwright is taking. That makes good political theatre because these issues aren’t black and white. Religious affiliation and belief in God address a fundamental part of human existence. The play thrives in sticky territory that must be dealt with gracefully and honestly, which Bunin and director Robin Stanton do.

Without a political or religious agenda laid out for us, the audience must think about the issues. And what’s theatre good for if it doesn’t make you think at least a little?

Bunin’s play is also satisfying dramatically. Hannah hires Brandt despite his inadequacies, (a move that more scatter-brained professor types could benefit from following). His religious views are in flux: the Bible was the first piece of writing that he “truly and consciously loved” and yet he questions whether religion is a desperate attempt to make death more bearable. He tells Hannah upfront that as a gay man, he feels at best queasy when faced with the church’s attitude toward homosexuality.

Thomas enters the scene covered in animal blood and “dried crap” immediately after Hannah explains that she despises stained glass because it epitomizes the self-important nonsense of Christianity and makes a mockery of motherhood (one of Bunin’s many clever juxtapositions). Thomas is happy when he notices Brandt “looking his way.”

So we’ve got two characters hard at work on Hannah’s book and the mysterious history therein; a romantic relationship with too many psychological and practical barriers to produce anything less than one big fight; and a mother/ son relationship with expectations of biblical proportions.

The heat is raised on the drama in certain scenes, even visually at the end of Act 1 when light designer Kurt Landisman goes for a Godlike, transcendent quality. The effect highlights the production’s melodramatic elements more than creates a religious metaphor, but it certainly excites you for Act 2.

The set has elegant stained glass windows for Hannah to deconstruct, boxes of Thomas’ deceased father’s things, and enough piles of books that when Brandt comments, how innovative to have a library without shelves, we laugh.

A large window overlooks a slightly out-of-focus, black-and-white photograph of New York’s upper west side. Set designer Eric E. Sinkkonen’s choice might indicate that the discussions in the playing space are timeless; they are somewhat removed from the outside world. The text takes a while to identify where they are geographically, and we might in fact like to know less about the city outside the church. When Bunin mentions “The Strand” and “NYU,” we wonder if the characters aren’t believable enough to live in the more ambiguous, slightly out-of-focus world that Sinkkonen creates.

This is political theater where the specific represents the big picture, or at least gets us wondering about it. After all, the big picture is nothing if we don’t understand how it affects people we know or can relate to. In The Busy World is Hushed, we do.

The actors are all fabulous – they’ve figured out the emotional nuances of their characters to a tee. I must say: after a year in New York, Bay Area theatre still tops my list. Even a show like this that shouldn’t necessarily be the-best-thing-I’ve-seen-all-year, feels so much more organic than anything I saw in New York. Kudos to the Aurora for creating risky, thought-provoking theatre.

For information about The Busy World is Hushed visit www.auroratheatre.org


Review: `The Busy World Is Hushed’

Opened June 19, 2008 at the Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley


Anne Darragh (left) is an Episcopalian minister and Chad Deverman is her writing assistant in Keith Bunin’s The Busy World Is Hushed at the Aurora Theatre Company in Berkeley. Photos by David Allen


Thoughts on faith, love, family make noise in Hushed
««« ½

Aurora Theatre Company concludes its 16th season with a thoughtful love story/dysfunctional family drama cloaked in theological robes.

Keith Bunin’s The Busy World Is Hushed has its soapy, melodramatic moments, but there’s much more to the play – musings on gays, God, getting lost and being found — that satisfies both intellectually and emotionally.

There aren’t that many plays around that address the notion of faith from both an organized religion standpoint and from a less structured spiritual place. Bunin’s play opens the conversation without preaching too hard or making anyone look foolish. That in itself makes the play worth seeing.

In addition to an intelligent discussion of God’s place in our modern lives, Busy World throws in a tortured mother-son relationship, a love story between two mid-20s men and a crisis of faith for a son slowly losing his father to a terminal illness. That’s a lot to stuff into two hours, but Bunin manages it, and director Robin Stanton (who did such wonderful work on the Aurora’s Permanent Collection) lends it a naturalism infused with realistic rhythms that pull the audience into the fraught conversations.

How appropriate that this tale is told simply – one set (by Eric E. Sinkkonen, complete with stained-glass windows above, and a regular window looking out onto a cold, gray New York) and a trinity of characters in various stages of belief.

Hannah (Anne Darragh) is an Episcopalian minister and seminary professor. She is a great believer in God – not the God depicted in stained-glass windows or trumped up Catholic mythology but the human Jesus who spoke and taught and performed miracles. She’s liberal in her beliefs but strict in her faith. She’s in the process of decoding a newly discovered gospel that could turn out to predate the existing gospels in the Bible, and if genuine, could be the closest thing to the true words of Christ.

To help her write the book on the gospels, she has hired an aspiring author, Brandt (Chad Deverman), whose own writing is blocked and needs a project to help him concentrate. Brandt’s father has been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and his belief in anything is severely shaken. “All religion,” Brandt says, “is an attempt to make death more bearable.”

And then there’s Hannah’s 26-year-old son, Thomas (James Wagner), who doesn’t believe in anything beyond running away. He has just returned from “getting lost,” a game he plays where he throws himself into someplace wild with few provisions then challenges himself to make it out alive. Damaged by his father’s death (and possible suicide) before he was even born, Thomas resents his mother’s immersion in faith and the fact that her relationship with Jesus is often stronger than her relationship with him.

Stanton’s actors are excellent, and this is one of those plays that benefits tremendously from the Aurora’s intimacy. There’s no escaping the passion of Thomas and Brandt’s budding romance just as there’s no turning away from the final confrontation between mother and son, with God, hypocrisy and loneliness wafting through the chasm between them. Bunin comes down hard on Hannah and Thomas, and their rift, full of harsh accusations and hard truths, is truly painful.

There’s not a lot of peace or resolution in this Busy World, which is best, but there’s a lot of common sense and even insight into the complexities of faith and the complexities of living outside faith. Hearts and souls are tangled and torn, God is abused and praised. And the audience is left in a state of contemplation.

The Busy World Is Hushed continues through July 20 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $40-$42. Call 510-843-4822 or visit www.auroratheatre.org for information.

The play’s title, by the way comes from the following benediction:

May the Lord support us all the day long,
Till the shades lengthen and the evening comes
and the busy world is hushed,
and the fever of life is over,
and our work is done.

Then in his mercy may he give us
a safe lodging
and a holy rest,
and peace at last.