Trekking gently through O’Neill’s nostalgic Wilderness

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Sid Davis (Dan Hiatt, pictured in orange suit) indulges the Miller family with food gags at the dinner table in Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness!, at ACT’s Geary Theater through Nov. 8. Below: Left to right) Lily Miller (Margo Hall), Mildred Miller (Christina Liang) and Arthur Miller (Michael McIntire) do what the Millers do: hang out in the living room. Photos by Kevin Berne

Can we agree that Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! is warm and wonderful…and weird? The sepia-tinted 1933 play is a rare light work from tragedian O’Neill, though its fantasy elements – the family O’Neill wished he had growing up rather than the more nightmarish version he depicted in Long Day’s Journey Into Night – lend it a rather sad underpinning.

It’s almost as if O’Neill strayed into Kaufman and Hart territory long enough to write the four-act play about a loving family dealing lovingly with each other and their minor crises but couldn’t quite escape the shadows long enough to completely avoid the shadows of alcoholism and devastating heartbreak.

So what feels like the prototype sitcom, all gentle rebellion, lessons learned and a fortifying hug, sends roots into the cultural ground, which decades later sprouts variations like “Family Ties” and “The Brady Bunch.” Can we really credit O’Neill for the story of a man named Brady who was busy with three boys of his own? Maybe, maybe not, but there is some shared DNA, especially in how utterly false but how utterly delightful it all feels.

American Conservatory Theater’s production of Ah, Wilderness! is a lively, lovely way to spend a little more than 2 1/2 hours in a theater. Nine of the 14 members of the cast are still students in ACT’s Master of Fine Arts Program (Class of 2016), are all solid, and it’s exciting to see them working on the big stage, especially Thomas Stagnitta as budding rebel socialist literary hound Richard Miller, who’s like a bolt of electricity on stage – believably young, believably brilliant, endearingly caught up in himself and the drama of his romance with the girl next door.

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There is some real-life drama attached to this production, which was supposed to have been directed by ACT Associate Artistic Director Mark Rucker. His untimely death in August was a devastating loss to the theater community, but, as they say, the show must go on. ACT has dedicated the entire season to his memory, and Casey Stangl, who last worked with ACT on the inaugural production at the Strand Theater, Love and Information in June.

The nostalgic tone of Stangl’s production comes through in a gauzy, dreamlike set by Ralph Funicello that renders the Connecticut home of the Miller family (as well as a seedy bar and a moon-swept beach) in the dreamy impressionism of see-through walls and only hints of reality. This is where the Millers fuss and fret. Dad (Anthony Fusco) runs the town newspaper, and he’s wise (like Mike Brady wise). Mom (Rachel Ticotin) is a fussbudget with a big heart. Uncle Sid (Dan Hiatt) is a lovable but self-loathing lush and spinster Aunt Lily (Margo Hall) had her heart broken by Uncle Sid years ago and keeps forgiving him and keeps putting her heart out there to be broken.

There are assorted other Millers – little Tommy (Brandon Francis Osborne), daughter Mildred (Christina Liang) and pretentious Yalie older brother Arthur (Michael McIntire) – but they don’t have a whole lot to do but be kid-like. Arthur gets to sing (off stage) some lovely turn-of-the-century tunes, but otherwise they come across as pretty well-adjusted young people and, frankly, aren’t that interesting.

Richard gets all the complication (and the bulk of the parental attention). He reads Wilde and Ibsen and Shaw and the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, so he’s just overflowing with pithy quotes and potent ideas. He’s a big boy mentally and a little boy emotionally, and it’s fun to watch those two parts of him battle, especially when it comes to standing up to his dad or nervously waiting to be grounded by him.

The laughs in Ah, Wilderness are pretty gentle, and the real heat from this production comes from watching pros like Fusco, Hiatt and Hall really work to make something emotionally real happen on stage. The final burst of romance feels pretty by the numbers – that’s when the show feels most like a familiar TV show – but there’s also some sweetness that could turn cloying if the play didn’t end shortly thereafter.

Modern viewers might keep waiting for the shoe to drop – for disaster to strike, for real life to actually intervene, for the cynicism or irony we expect from our art to finally infiltrate. But none of that happens. Everybody’s happy (or reasonably not too sad), and you finally have to say, well good for them.

Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! continues in an American Conservatory Theater production through Nov. 8 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$100. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Greed not so good in ACT’s Napoli!

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Members of the large cast of Napoli! at American Conservatory Theater enjoy conversation and black market coffee as World War II rages on outside their doors. Below: Seana McKenna is Amalia and Marco Barricelli is Gennaro, her husband. Photos by Kevin Berne

Scuzza me, but you see back in old Napoli that’s…

In the play Napoli!, it’s not so much “amore” as it is “controlling the market.” American Conservatory Theater’s new translation of Eduardo De Filippo’s 1945 play eschews the Italian title, Napoli milionaria!, in favor of translators Linda Alper and Beatrice Basso’s choice, Napoli!. The exclamation point might suggest a musical (Hello, Mussolini!), but it’s probably meant more ironically. Naples during World War II, especially before the allies arrived, was a pretty dismal, bombed-out, typhus-infested place with no shortage of shortages.

Neither a chest-beating drama nor an uproarious comedy, Napoli! resides in an in-between zone, where warmth and realism count for a lot, and the more you identify with the characters, the more you get out of the production.

Director Mark Rucker does not have an easy time making the Geary feel like a realistic family home. Set designer Erik Flatmo has done what he could to reduce the playing space to something resembling a gritty Neapolitan dwelling for the Jovine family, but intimacy is sacrificed for the glory of the Geary.

As the heads of the family, Seana McKenna as Amalia and Marco Barricelli as Gennaro give big but grounded performances that generate the two-hour show’s only warmth and intermittent heat. They are surrounded by a large, genial cast that occasionally overplays its comic hand. Anthony Fusco is notable as a beleaguered citizen who turns to Amalia, a whiz at working the black market, and reveals the shifting moral ground beneath Amalia’s feet.

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Napoli! has something to say about greed (especially about wartime profiteering) at the expense of community (and family), but it comes through in a way that insinuates gender is a factor. Amalia, as the wife, shouldn’t be the one making so much money from the black market coffee and pasta and cheese that she sells and withholds to drive up the price. Her out-of-work husband becomes the play’s moral conscience, but we don’t see him refusing to eat the pasta or hear him complain that his children are being fed and clothed while others in town go hungry and lose their homes. Would the play even exist if the tables were turned and Genarro was working the black market and Amalia was percolating the black market coffee?

The play ends before we see if Amalia can somehow check her avarice and put her clearly excellent business skills to use in a way that isn’t damaging to her neighbors or her family. But the play doesn’t end before she is shamed for surviving and thriving, which doesn’t quite seem fair to Amalia, who is not a villain.

While Genarro wants to revel in the horrors of the war, his wife, children and friends want to move on, almost as if it had never happened. Apparently we’re meant to think that such moving on is a bad thing, an inability to face and deal with reality. But I certainly wouldn’t want to spend a birthday party hearing about corpses in ditches and German atrocities. There’s a time and a place.

Amid occasional farce (an attempted police raid on Amalia’s black market stores generates some chuckles) and family drama (American soldiers are dogs) Napoli! ties up its family crises quite tidily but leaves its judgements hanging uneasily in the air.

[bonus interviews]
I talked with Napoli! stars Seana McKenna and Marco Barricelli for the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

American Conservatory Theater’s Napoli! continues through March 9 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$120. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Sam Shepard feels a Holy song coming on

The new year begins with an intriguing, nearly under-the-radar collaboration. American Conservatory Theater and Campo Santo have jumped into the ring formed by Magic Theatre and dubbed Sheparding America, a far-ranging celebration of Sam Shepard that promises to flare for years to come.

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Co-directed by Campo Santo’s Sean San José and ACT’s Mark Rucker and performed in the near-round at ACT’s Costume Shop, Holy Crime: Rock ‘n’ Roll Sam Shepard is an amalgam of Shepard texts with an infusion of live music. The prologue and epilogue come from 1969’s Holy Ghostly and the big chunk in the middle comes from 1972 Tooth of Crime (which Shepard revised in 1997).

The best part of the 85-minute show is, without question, the music, which is composed and arranged by cast members Tommy James Shepherd Jr. and Golda Sargento along with the band: bassist and keyboard player Rachel Lastimosa and guitarist Steve Boss. It takes about a half an hour to get to the first real song, but from there on out the vibrant music trumps Shepard’s cryptic text.

The prologue and epilogue are almost spoofs of the Shepard playbook: a dying cowboy (Myers Clark attempts to reconcile with his son (Ryan Williams French) in a desolate Western landscape with a random corpse (Isiah Thompson) and a Native American spirit (Dan Flapper).

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Then the middle section, which is like a Western movie by way of sci-fi fantasy carbonated by rock opera, reveals itself to be mostly inscrutable in terms of plot and character. But this is where the good music lives. Anytime Shepherd is singing or beatboxing, Holy Crime is fully alive. The same is true when Juan Amador as Ruido shows up to rap up a glorious storm. Another nice musical moment comes when Sango Tajima pulls out her violin and joins the band.

Energetically staged by San José and Rucker, Holy Crime and well performed by a keenly focused cast and is always interesting to watch, even when it’s completely baffling and feels like a workshop production of a very much in-process work. There’s a formula at work here, but it seems to need more music (and amplification – this music needs to be LOUD! even in an intimate space like this) and less Shepard babble.

Holy Crime: Rock ‘n’ Roll Sam Shepard continues through Jan. 19 at the ACT Costume Shop, 1117 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25. Visit

ACT’s 4000 Miles a journey worth taking

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Reggie Gowland is Leo Joseph-Connell and Susan Blommaert is Vera Joseph, his grandmother, in Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Below: Gowland’s Leo wrangles over matters of the heart with Julia Lawler as Bec. Photos by Kevin Berne.

How do you make a hug between grandmother and grandson a high point of a play without making it corny or sentimental? That’s the trick playwright Amy Herzog and director Mark Rucker pull off in the compelling drama 4000 Miles now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater.

The moment comes fairly early in this 90-minute one-act after 21-year-old Leo (Reggie Gowland) has surprised his 91-year-old grandmother, Vera (Susan Blommaert) by showing up in the middle of the night after completing a cross-country bicycle trip from Seattle to Manhattan.

There’s a lot they need to talk about, like why Leo disappeared for months after his bicycle trip with his best friend Micah went horribly awry or why stubborn Vera doesn’t reach out for help as often as she should as she navigates old age with mixed success. But first these two just need to connect.

She’s an old Leftie, a card-carrying Communist whose second husband wrote books about Cuba. He’s a vaguely New Age hippie. Neither of them is as well versed in their manifestos as they should be, but they both live with the conviction of true believers. Theirs isn’t so much a cultural or generational clash as it is a bumpy reunion of like minds and hearts.

The hug comes when Vera is upset but doesn’t readily take comfort from the rare warm body in her Greenwich Village apartment. The raggedy, bushy-haired Leo, who towers over his grandmother, opens his arms and says, almost jokingly, “How about a hug from a hippie?” Vera, in her slightly doddering way, waves him away. Then she re-thinks the option, turns around and falls into her grandson’s arms. They both seem a little surprised by how much the hug ends up meaning.

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The fact is, these two find each other when they most need each other. Theirs is not a stereotypical clash of the older and younger generations, with each railing against the other’s foreign ways and then coming to a begrudging, ultimately loving understanding by the final curtain. These two love each other from the start. Their ways are rather foreign, but they also have a great deal in common.

The real pleasure of Herzog’s script and Rucker’s sensitive production is that it feels real. The rhythms aren’t theatrical. Some scenes are long, others are quite short. And that’s a difficult thing to pull off in the giant Geary.

Set designer Erik Flatmo has created a strikingly lifelike apartment with the focus on the living room (where there’s a working rotary dial phone to give you an idea of the design sense), although the size of the stage allows glimpses into the kitchen, Vera’s room and the hallway outside the apartment’s front door.

In spite of the finely detailed set, the sheer size of the theater swallows up some of the naturalism. Nuances, both vocal and physical, tend to get lost, and some of the scenes, especially the quiet ones like Leo’s soliloquy about his bike trip, don’t connect in the way they should

The performances are lovely, though. Blommaert’s Vera conveys a believable tussle with the horrors of aging, like not being able to remember words, the luxury to say whatever is on your mind (even if it involves telling your grandson that he sounds stupid) and the, in her words, “disgusting” physical deterioration that accompanies her advancing years. Vera gets a lot of laughs, but they are not in any way “Golden Girls” laughs. This is a smart, political woman who doesn’t put up with a lot of nonsense, and Blommaert is sharp and compassionate in the role.

Gowland’s Reggie is just as believable at the opposite end of the aging spectrum. He’s 21 going on 16. We see him interacting with two women, his girlfriend Bec (Julia Lawler) and an art student he brought home for a fling (Camille Mana). In his dealings with these two very different women, we see that he’s honest and sincere (almost to a fault) but immature. He’s been through a rough time, but it’s time for him to stop behaving like a teenager and step up to manhood. Gowland is loveable but he has some sharp edges, which is good.

4000 Miles is, in the end, a story of transitions, of family members being there for one another to help, not in a sappy way but more of a being there and listening way. Vera and Leo are better for having spent some time together, both ready to add a few more miles onto their respective journeys.

[bonus interview]
I talked to playwright Amy Herzog for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles continues through Feb. 10 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$105 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

High on Cal Shakes’ spiffy Spirit

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Dominique Lozano (center) is Madame Arcati, the outsize medium who sets the ghostly plot moving in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit, now at California Shakespeare Theater. Also at the seance are (from left) Melissa Smith, Anthony Fusco, René Augesen and Kevin Rolston. BELOW: Augesen’s Ruth reacts to the ghostly presence of Jessica Kitchens (right) as Elvira, first wife of Charles (Fusco on the couch). Photos by Kevin Berne

Noël Coward was a man of his time in many ways and maybe even ahead of his time in others. For instance, in the delightful 1941 play Blithe Spirit, now gracing the Orinda Hills in a handsome and well-tuned production from California Shakespeare Theater, Coward was way ahead of the ghastly Twilight curve.

No, he wasn’t dealing with pale but attractive vampires and shirtless werewolves, but he did understand a little something about mixing mortality and romance. In the play, the ghost of a dead wife returns to haunt her husband and his new wife, but her real aim is to get her beloved to join her on the other side, and she’s not above trying to kill him herself to accomplish that goal. To love someone enough to want to spend eternity with them is an intriguing concept, and thankfully Coward played it for laughs, with only a trace of the shadows poking through the peaked meringue of his comedy.

Director Mark Rucker’s buoyant production is full of sly, well-observed moments that help ground Coward’s smooth-as-dressing-gown-silk dialogue as it flies quickly and crisply through a foggy night in the Orinda Hills. By all rights, a drawing room comedy like this shouldn’t work in the great outdoors, with hawks and bats making guest appearances in the play’s rural Kent setting. But Annie Smart’s marvelous set is elegantly cozy without pretending it’s not outside. York Kennedy’s lights are warm when they need to be and ghostly cool when they don’t.

Anthony Fusco is wonderful as British prig Charles Condomine, a mystery novel writer dealing with a furious and confused living wife and a scheming, ethereally lovely dead wife. Charles is not terribly likeable, but Fusco makes him fun, and by the end we’re even rooting for him a little.

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As the ghostly Elvira, Jessica Kitchens as as lovely as she needs to be (and then some), outfitted in flowing, creamy white elegance by costumer Katherine Roth. All we really need to know about Elvira is that she’s charming and bratty in equal measure. She’s an annoying ghost, but Kitchens softens her edges with sexy mischief.

Blithe Spirit is always in danger of being overwhelmed by the actor playing eccentric medium Madame Arcati, who travels everywhere on her bicycle and delivers schoolgirl aphorisms like the most valiant trouper on the planet. Certainly Domenique Lozano steals every scene she’s in, but the rest of the production is sharp enough to contain her beguiling performance without upsetting the comic balance. The most rewarding aspect of Lozano’s energetic, comically dexterous performance is that for all her goofiness, Madame Arcati seems like a sincere person with talents and intelligence to bolster her eccentricities.

The nicest surprise of this spirited Spirit is how it becomes the story of Ruth Condomine, the reluctantly haunted second wife who finds herself fighting for her husband with a ghost she cannot see or hear. On loan from American Conservatory Theater (as is most everyone involved in this production), René Augesen is all smart elegance and ferocity as she goes from horror at her husband’s inexplicable and astonishing behavior (he swears he sees the ghost of his dead first wife) to grudging acceptance and willingness to fight with everything she’s got. Augesen’s Ruth is emotional and grounded, a woman who feels her way of life is at stake and well worth a serious fight.

It’s not that Blithe Spirit needs gritty acting to make its sophisticated repartee work, but the warmth and relatable human-size stakes offered by Augesen and Lozano help make the play more than a pleasant diversion with an improbable plot. Their spirit makes this comedy more than blithe. It’s a farce with force.

[bonus interview]
I chatted with the lovely Jessica Kitchens about her work in Bay Area theaters and her spirited turn as Elvira for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the story here.

Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit continues through Sept. 2 at the Bruns Amphitheater, 100 California Shakespeare Theater Way, Orinda. Tickets are $35-$71. Call 510-548-9666 or visit

Past imperfect in ACT’s Maple and Vine

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Dubonnet on the rocks, please. Dean (Jamison Jones, left), Ellen (Julia Coffey, center) and Katha (Emily Donahoe) enjoy the best part of the 1950s – the cocktails – in the American Conservatory Theater production of Maple and Vine by Jordan Harrison. Below: Donahoe as Katha and Nelson Lee as Ryu, her husband, interact 21st-century style. Photos by Kevin Berne

Dwelling on the past – or in it – as so many human beings come to find, causes nothing but frustration and disappointment. The same is true for Jordan Harrison’s play Maple and Vine now at American Conservatory Theater.

Harrison is the talented young writer last seen in the Bay Area with Finn in the Underworld at Berkeley Repertory Theatre in 2005 and Act a Lady at the New Conservatory Theatre Center in 2009. His Maple and Vine premiered about a year ago at the Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville, Ky., and it’s a more interesting play than it is a good one. The play purports to be about the quality of life now compared to the 1950s, but it really ends up being about how far people are willing to go to save a relationship.

Act 1 is pretty much all set up. Katha (Emily Donahoe) and Ryu (Nelson Lee), a frustrated 21st-century couple, still reeling from a miscarriage some months before, struggles to remain connected and loving in spite of the emotional and professional pressures conspiring to split them apart on the high-stakes Isle of Manhattan. By chance one afternoon, Katha meats a Dapper Dan named Dean (Jamison Jones) in the big city for the day who tells her all about how he lives in a Society of Dynamic Obsolescence, which is essentially a gated community where it’s always 1955.

What frustrated modern wouldn’t want to give up all the gizmos, spurn the Internet, step off the high-speed treadmill and bask in the glories of a time when Disneyland was brand new, the Commies were the baddest guys on the block and cocktails were king? Oh, yes, and racism was rampant, feminism nearly non-existent and American Imperialism at its height?

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Once we get Katha and Ryu into the SDO, you can sense Harrison warming up to really dive and have fun with this enjoyable premise. But early in Act 2, the promise of the premise takes a nose dive and never recovers. Issues of racism flare up when Ryu, a plastic surgeon in his former life, takes up work at a box factory and is quickly compared to Kamikaze pilots by his manager (Danny Bernardy). And lots of juicy details emerge about maintaining a life of pretend – how engineers have to re-create things like mimeograph machines, how committees have to monitor the “authenticity” of the community, lest anyone get caught “disrupting” (the worst thing you can do – bringing in the 21st century – because it’s a buzz kill for everybody).

The scene that made me recoil from the play involves a character instructing other characters how to be more racist because their nice neighborliness isn’t nearly authentic enough. My strong reaction made me think this would make for a very interesting, if difficult play. You’d guess that many people who choose to live in perpetual 1955 would be doing so because they have a hard time being racist in 2012. But that’s not really explored here.

Rather, Harrison goes for the pulp. The move to 1955 definitely has an effect on Katha and Ryu and their gender roles, and it seems their retreat from modern life was a good move for their marriage, though the thought of having a child in 1955 while it’s 2012 on the other side of the gate is terrifying (and also not satisfactorily explored). For community leaders Dean and his wife, Ellen (Julia Coffey), life is complicated by forbidden desires, but then too much of Act 2 centers on those desires. It turns out that they arrived in 1955 to salvage relationships as well. Kinky, right?

The ending is just plain weak and leaves far too much unexplored. It’s a provocative idea to explore the notion of living a pretend life that becomes real, but Harrison makes the leap and falls flat.

That said, director Mark Rucker’s production is highly enjoyable within the limits of Harrison’s script. Set designer Ralph Funicello has created the most beautiful New York City backdrop I’ve ever seen (and it’s gorgeously lit by Russell H. Champa), and the slide-on, slide-off set pieces are highly efficient at creating not just a sense of place but a tone as well. Once in the SDO, the back of the stage is dominated by – what else? – a white picket fence. It’s easy to imagine that one of the main reasons (other than the cocktails) for going back to the ’50s is for the clothes, and Alex Jaeger’s creations, especially for the women, are glorious.

The performances are all strong, especially from the crisp and crafty Jones and Coffey as the seemingly picture-perfect ’50s couple, but the play can’t help but let them down. It would be so interesting to see Harrison close the loop he started. If modern folk spend time in a self-inflicted and laboriously maintained time warp, what happens to them when they come back to the real world? There are interesting justifications in the play about why the ’50s are more desirable because life then was more difficult and we human beings thrive on challenge. Today, everything comes too easily and we’re shut off from everyone by our electronic devices.

The 1950s are a lot of fun – the kitsch factor is irresistible – but if people really wanted to be challenged, why not take them back to the depths of the Great Depression in 1932. The show wouldn’t be nearly as fun to watch, but talk about life not being too easy!

Jordan Harrison’s Maple and Vine continues through April 22 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$95 (subject to change). Call 415-749-2228 or visit

ACT’s Perloff aims Higher

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Andrew Polk (left) is Michael Friedman, Concetta Tomei (center) is Valerie Rifkind and Ben Kahre is Isaac Friedman in the world premiere of Carey Perloff’s Higher, an American Conservatory Theater production at the Theater at Children’s Creativity Museum. Below: René Augesen as architect Elena Constantine shares her work with Polk’s Michael, a renowned architect and Elena’s boyfriend. Photos by Kevin Berne

This is the season for artistic directors sharing their writing with their audiences. Tony Taccone at Berkeley Repertory Theatre has actually done it twice this season with Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup and the current Ghost Light.

Now American Conservatory Theater’s Carey Perloff is sharing her fourth full-length play as a special non-subscription production at the Theater at the Children’s Creativity Museum (formerly Zeum). In both cases, the artistic directors are making bold moves to put their work out there ̶ a brave gesture, to say the least. And they’ve both wisely handed over the directorial reins to trusted cohorts. In Taccone’s case it’s Jonathan Moscone and in Perloff’s case, it’s ACT Associate Artistic Director Mark Rucker.

The last time I saw a Perloff play it was The Colossus of Rhodes at the same theater in 2003 (directed by Perloff as well). I didn’t like that play much. It seemed an intellectual exercise in out-Stopparding Tom Stoppard. Higher is a much more satisfying and entertaining play, a drama with substance and classy soap operatics.

Perloff’s fascinating with architects is evident throughout as she follows two acclaimed designers, one at the height of his notoriety and the other just beginning hers. Unbeknownst to each other, these two architects are competing to build a memorial in Israel on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where 22 people were killed in a bus explosion.

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The two architects also happen to be lovers, spending time in hotel rooms as they cross paths on their way to building things in places like Dusseldorf and Abu Dhabi. The play leans heavily on the dramatic irony that the audience knows the lovers are also competitors long before both of them find out.

In addition to her love of the pomposity and purity of the architectural world, Perloff also seems fascinated with the idea of balancing work life and personal life and committing fully to a project (a heart thing) and just doing it to get it done (an ego thing).

Director Rucker allows the action to bounce between New York and Israel with ease (helped by the simplicity and elegance of Erik Flatmo’s set). The dramatic line is clean if at times contrived. But the substantial performances help ease the occasional strain of credulity. René Augesen is her usual marvelous self as Elena, an up-and-coming architect, a woman in what is mostly a man’s game. She’s smart and emotional and makes Elena a woman all the more appealing for all her complications.

Andrew Polk is Michael Friedman, a high-powered, world-famous architect and, if we assess him by what we see, a real asshole. He seems to really love Elena, but how much can an egomaniac really love someone? He certainly can’t handle being a responsible dad to his grown son (the charming Ben Kahre). His attitude toward memorials is, not surprisingly, all about him, just as most things end up being all about him. He has a bit of an attitude shift, but it’s not quite as believable as it should be.

The carbonation in this two-hour production comes from Concetta Tomei, an absolute delight as feisty Valerie Rifkind, a widow as smart as she is rich (and she’s extremely rich). Tomei looks fabulous in the elegant costumes by David F. Draper, and she commands the stage as easily with broad comedy as she does with subtle body language.

As the money behind the design competition, Valerie could be a sideline player relegated to turning the gears of the plot, but the character is much more interesting and, thankfully, much more present than that.

Higher holds audience interest for several reasons ̶ first, we want to see who wins the design competition; then we want to see Michael knocked off his architect celebrity pedestal. We’re satisfied on both counts, for the most part. Perloff pulls a couple punches at the end, but she remains true to her characters and makes the play ultimately more about character than plot.

[bonus interview]
All interviews should be as delightful as the one I had with Concetta Tomei, who talked about her stage and television career. Read the San Francisco Chronicle story here.


Carey Perloff’s Higher continues an extended run through Feb. 25 at the Theater at the Children’s Creativity Museum, 221 Howard St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$65. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Laughs of a Lifetime in ACT’s season opener

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Jerry Hyland (John Wernke, right) makes an unexpected proposal to his vaudeville partners May Daniels (Julia Coffey) and George Lewis in ACT’s season-opening production of Once in a Lifetime by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Below: Playwright Lawrence Vail (Alexander Crowther) and May (Coffey) compare notes on the craziness of Hollywood. Photos by Kevin Berne.

American Conservatory Theater opens the season with a play that only American Conservatory Theater could do. And I mean really do – the way it should be done.

The play is George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s Once in a Lifetime, a 1930 comedy that seems oh so very jaded about the new Gold Rush represented by the advent of talking pictures. What’s funny is that all the trashing of Hollywood types – dimwitted performers, egomaniacal studio heads, apoplectic directors, long-suffering writers – is so disdainful. But at the time of the play’s premiere on Broadway, The Jazz Singer, the first big hit movie with sound, was only three years old!

What’s more, all those stereotypes feel strangely current, as if absolutely nothing in the Hollywood world had changed, but instead of the frenzy over sound, we have frenzy over CGI and gazillion-dollar budgets and opening weekend grosses. Turns out has been a laughingstock, especially to legit stagefolk, for more than 80 years.

Once in a Lifetime is full of old-fashioned pleasures, and by old-fashioned I don’t mean quaint or sentimental. I mean that the three-hour, two-intermission structure helps the 2 ½-hour evening zip by. I mean the sets (by Daniel Ostling) fill the vast ACT stage perfectly and with just the right hint of theatrical opulence.

And I mean it’s utterly delightful to see a stage so full of exuberant actors – 15 of them, many doubling, tripling and quadrupling their roles – all seeming to relish the crispy, fast-paced dialogue that makes you think the 1930s were populated by particularly punchy and verbose people. The fact that more than half the cast comprises current MFA students in ACT’s Class of 2012 or recent graduates of the program is just more reason to crow about this production’s pleasures.

Director Mark Rucker has the touch here, combining just the right amount of zaniness, sophisticated comedy and human-scale sentiment. The most personable aspect of the show is its central trio, has-been vaudevillians May (Julia Coffey), Jerry (John Wernke) and George (Patrick Lane) who decide to cash in on the talking movie craze and start an elocution school in Hollywood.

The zany element is represented by pretty much everyone else, from the hard-edged studio head Mr. Glogauer (the pitch-perfect Will LeBow) to the bizarrely elegant secretary Miss Leighton (played in deliciously daffy drag by Nick Gabriel).

The world of Hollywood is evoked by Alexander V. Nichols’ wonderful projections, which include film clips from Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer to Bing Crosby in Going Hollywood to some hilarious audition clips and clumsy cinematic performances by some of the characters in the play. Watching movies in the gorgeous theater is strangely comfortable – perhaps because the theater regularly screened movies for decades.

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Amid the cast of loonies, several stand out. ACT core company member René Augesen hits all the right egocentric notes as a Hedda Hopper-like journalist and Jessica Kitchens is a hoot as a silent film star whose imperfect speech makes her future in talkies doubtful at best.

Coffey delivers May’s lines with a sharp punch just this side of Katharine Hepburn circa Stage Door in 1937. She’s delightfully wry, but her infatuation with Wernke’s Jerry doesn’t really register, probably because Jerry is such an uninteresting, under-written character.

Lane really gets to shine here in ways he didn’t as barely-there Brian in last season’s Tales of the City. He’s goofy and sincere, the opposite of most of the Hollywood folk we meet. He’s a dolt with a taste for crunchy Indian nuts (apparently another name for pine nuts) and terrible taste in women (Ashley Wickett as untalented actress Susan Walker). It’s interesting to watch a man-size ego grow in a manchild like George.

My favorite character, and the guy I wish May ended up with, is playwright Lawrence Vail, played by Alexander Crowther. As part of a “shipment” of playwrights from New York, Vail gets completely swallowed up by the studio system. He’s making tons of money, doing no work and losing his mind. The fact that he ends up in a sanatorium for playwrights is just the icing on his crazy cake (wouldn’t it be great to see a play about that sanatorium?).

Rucker guides his cast through the mayhem with style and grace. He navigates his actors skillfully through some of the play’s pitfalls and strange bends in construction, and he gives them a tap-dancing curtain call that is almost as entertaining the play that came before it.

[bonus video]
Watch a trailer for ACT’s Once in a Lifetime:

[another bonus video]
Watch Bing Crosby sing the title song in 1933’s Going Hollywood:

Once in a Lifetime continues through Oct. 16 at American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets range from $10-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

ACT’s MFA students frolic in kiddie Litter

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ACT’s Master of Fine Arts Program members, all 12 of them, star in the world premiere of Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Litter at Zeum Theater. Below: the Framingham Dodecatuplets confer on an important family matter. Photos by Alessandra Mello

It’s a busy late winter for San Francisco playwright Peter Sinn Nachtrieb, and the busy-ness has a lot to do with unusual births.

Later this month at the Humana Festival of New Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Nachtrieb will premiere BOB, an “epic journey in just five acts” about a man born in a White Castle bathroom.

Closer to home, Nachtrieb is upping the baby ante but in only one act. Litter: The Story of the Framingham Dodecatuplets was written for the 12 students of American Conservatory Theater’s Master of Fine Arts Program Class of 2011. The comedy, complete with original songs, had its world premiere over the weekend at the Zeum Theater.

If you know Nachtrieb from his plays boom or Hunter Gatherers, you know that he is, in a word, hilarious. His comedy has edge and it can be heartfelt. He can slice you up and make it seem like the nicest possible thing to do.

Any opportunity to see a new Nachtrieb work is well worth taking, even when the results, like Litter are still the embryonic stage.

For most of its 90 minutes, Litter, as directed by Mark Rucker, ACT’s new associate artistic director, is a heck of a lot of fun. On a set that looks like it was borrowed from a ‘70s variety show (design by Liliana Duque-Pineiro), we find the Framingham Dodecatuplets in performance at the Concord Senior Center.

Once celebrated for being a happy, singing-and-dancing brood of 12, the dodecatuplets have fallen on hard times. We learn that their mother died during their birth. In fact, we learn she insisted on it. They once had hit records but have now hit hard times.

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Now in their early ‘20s, the Framinghams are all different shapes, colors and sizes. Their lifetime sponsorship by Minute Maid fruit juices means they’ll always have some sort of nutrition in their lives, but lately, that’s about all they have.

They don’t have names but rather numbers, and they wear plush velour track suits (costumes by Callie Floor), further obscuring their identities and their adulthood. They harbor a lot of hostility toward one another, and their collective future is questionable, to say the least.

As a showpiece for the MFA dozen, Litter certainly does the trick. Each actor gets to highlight a custom-made Framingham quirk. For instance, Patrick Lane as 9 plays the violin and tells fart jokes. Ashley Wickett as 1 is the Type-A overachiever de facto leader. And Brian Clark Jansen is the webcam-loving horndog of the group.

The actors attack their roles with enviable energy, and they seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. I was most impressed by Dan Clegg as 8, the dodecatuplet with the enigmatic British accent. His character is probably the most interesting because he’s the most rebellious. Also impressive are Marisa Duchowny as 6, the one in the middle who (like Jan Brady before her) suffers from invisible child syndrome (but then kicks some serious ass as a leather-clad journalist), and Richardson Jones as 2, the quippy, fashion-loving gay one. His every line, even when it’s not a punch line, is funny.

As much fun as the play is, the plot runs out of stem in the final third, and by the end, Nachtrieb seems to just give up on trying to find anything but the most ordinary ending. Any sense of the Framingham’s as faded celebrities or having any sort of pop-culture cachet has vanished. While erstwhile Bradys and Partridges, Osmonds and New Kids on the Block can’t escape their fame or notoriety, but, seemingly, the Framinghams can.

Nachtrieb breaks up the family group and sends its individual members out into the harsh world to make in on their own, but we never hear about them bumping up against their once sparkling celebrity. There’s a reunion at the end, and the fact that it’s not televised on VH-1 makes it seem like an event from a parallel universe.


Peter Sinn Nachtrieb’s Litter: The Story of the Framingham Dodecatuplets continues through March 19 at Zeum Theater in Yerba Buena Gardens, Fourth and Howard streets, San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$15. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Theater Dogs changes, Cal Shakes’ Cowardly courage

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative. – Oscar Wilde

What a tumultuous year it has been here at Theater Dogs. Thank you for taking the ride.

The news is that I have jumped the fence, from writing about theater to working in theater. As the new communications manager for Berkeley Repertory Theatre, I find that I can no longer review Bay Area theater without feeling a nagging conflict of interest. So what’s a dedicated blogger to do?

Here’s what I have figured out for the time being – and this may evolve in time: I’m going to keep the blog alive with news, both local and national, as well as occasional reviews of theater-related music, books, TV and film.

Because I am a devoted fan of Bay Area theater, I will continue to see as much theater as I can, and when I see something wonderful, I will give it a shout out here at Theater Dogs. We’re not talking full-on reviews but boosts, encouragement to get out there and experience the best the Bay Area has to offer on its multitude of stages.

And I invite you to do the same. When you see something great, please drop me a line at I’ll happily post your thoughts and keep the conversation about our vibrant theater scene alive.

And the first shout out goes to…


To get the conversation started, here’s what I enjoyed about the California Shakespeare Theater production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives.

First off, we lucked out and saw the show on a gorgeous summer night – warm, no wind, starry skies, in short, heaven at the Bruns Amphitheater.

I happened to catch Private Lives the same day I saw Sacha Baron Cohen’s Brüno, and I have to say, I was relieved to lose myself in the sophisticated humor of Coward after finding myself completely turned off by Cohen’s generally mean, uninspired and fruitless attempt to wring laughs from ridicule and dick jokes (and this from someone who still hasn’t stopped laughing over Borat).

What bliss to be immersed in the world of 1930s Coward, where adults with complicated romantic entanglements parry and thrust with words and wit, all the while looking glam and gorgeous.

I have a great love for all things Coward, and I must say it’s a delight to see the main characters in Private Lives, Amanda and Elyot, played with such warmth and passion by Diana Lamar and Stephen Barker Turner (above right, photo by Kevin Berne). The characters, originated by Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, can be played as brittle facades, but Lamar and Turner, under the direction of Mark Rucker, turn from icy Brits in formal wear into pajama-clad lust buckets with convincing glee.

Act 2, which takes place in Amanda’s Paris flat (the colorful set design is by Annie Smart), bursts with passion as Amanda and Elyot proceed to destroy the flat – and each other – all the while proving over and over again how impossible it will be to live with each other and how equally impossible it will be to part company.

Turner and Lamar have sizzling chemistry that flares and fires consistently and with ever-richer results.


Cal Shakes’ Private Lives continues through Aug. 2 at the Bruns Amphitheater, just off Highway 24 at the Shakespeare Festival Way/Gateway exit, one mile east of the Caldecott Tunnel in Orinda. Tickets start at $20. Call 510-548-9666 or visit for information.
Coming up at Cal Shakes:

Next up is Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days starring Marsha Mason, Aug. 12-Sept. 6.

Also the Cal Shakes costume department has just completed a huge reorganization of its inventory, and the result is tons and tons of costumes, wigs, and accessories, to be sold to the public at thrift-store prices for a few days only. Thirty-five years’ worth of hats, armor, capes, Renaissance and Tudor, unique modern pieces—a little bit of everything! Perfect for Burning Man costumes, Ren Faire, Halloween and what-have-you.

Here are the details: Cal Shakes Costume Shop Sale, Thursday, Aug. 6–Sunday, Aug. 9, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. at the Cal Shakes Rehearsal Hall, 701 Heinz Ave., West Berkeley (Just a few blocks west of San Pablo and north of Ashby). Call 510.548.3422 x131 or e-mail for information.