TheatreWorks’ slam-dunkin’ Donuts

Superior Donuts 2

A gallery of Bay Area greats. The cast of TheatreWorks’ Superior Donuts includes (from left) Howard Swain, Søren Oliver, Julia Brothers and Joan Mankin. Below: Lance Gardener as Franco Wicks. Photos by Tracy Martin


I reviewed TheatreWorksSuperior Donuts for the Palo Alto Weekly (read the review here), and the official review will be out on Friday (Oct. 15). I loved the show and appreciated Letts’ ability to create a conventionally well-made play that, unlike a donut, isn’t all empty calories and sticky sweetness.

What I didn’t have space for in the review was proper praise of the entirely local cast.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Leslie Martinson, director of Superior Donuts, should bring together such good actors. Martinson is also the company’s casting director and has been with TheatreWorks for 26 years. Some directors say that casting is more than 50 percent of directing, and that’s probably true for Martinson, though she’s clearly a solid director (I loved her Theophilus North three years ago).

Howard Swain stars as donut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski, an aging hippie who can’t really be bothered by life, which he describes as “a derailment.” He runs his shabby donut shop and doesn’t much care that the new Starbucks across the street is killing his business. For him, the business has been dead for years. Swain conveys Arthur’s detachment while making us care about him. Arthur has made some rough decisions in his life, and his troubled relationship with his now-dead father complicate his emotional life as well as his relationships with his own fractured family.

Superior Donuts 3 (crop)

You can see and feel Arthur start to liven up with the arrival of Franco Wicks, an enthusiastic 21-year-old played by Lance Gardner. If Swain is the soul of the play, Gardner is its spark. He bounces around the set like a dancer interpreting his own original score, and he’s a joy to watch. Gardner and Swain play off of each other expertly, with natural and naturally comic rhythms that go a long way toward making Letts’ play seem more profound than it might actually be.

This is a star-making performance for Gardner, who more than holds his own opposite a seasoned pro like Swain.

There is much about Letts’ play that is conventional, like the gangster Luther Flynn played by the always-reliable Gabriel Marin. Though he’s a typical big-city goon, Luther claims he has empathy, and all that empathy has given him an ulcer. Marin takes a stock character and makes it more believable. The same is true for Joan Mankin as the sort of bag lady /neighborhood drunk known as Lady Boyle. You just know Lady is going to spout crazy wisdom at some point, and sure enough, here it comes. But Mankin gives Lady a little edge. She’s not always nice, nor is she always safely sane.

Julia Brothers is Randy, a beat cop with a thing for Arthur, and her courtship – if you can even call it that – with Arthur is adorably awkward. What could be the play’s most conspicuously sappy subplot becomes its most endearing. And Michael J. Asberry as Randy’s partner reveals himself to be a “Star Trek” geek and a truly committed police officer.

As Max, the Russian proprietor of the DVD shop next door, Søren Oliver gets to play bumbling immigrant, no-nonsense businessman, neighborhood tough and sloppy drunk – and it’s all mightily entertaining.

Superior Donuts was Letts’ encore after winning the Pulitzer Prize for the considerably darker and thornier August: Osage County. His attempt to interject a slice of hope into the landscape of American drama didn’t fare very well on Broadway. I think the play fits much more comfortably on the regional stage, where plays don’t have to shake the foundations of the theatrical establishment to be noticed. TheatreWorks, a company unafraid of compassion and sentiment, is the perfect home for this play.


The TheatreWorks production of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts continues through October 31 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$67. Call 650 463-1960 or visit for information.

TheatreWorks’ 2010-11 season is a wow!

Title of Show_Carol Roseggv2
The original cast of [title of show] included (from left) Heidi Blickenstaff, Hunter Bell (seated), Jeff Bowen (top),
and Susan Blackwell. [title of show] will be presented as part of the 2010-2011 season at TheatreWorks. Photo by Carol Rosegg

If the new TheatreWorks season only contained[title of show], I would be thrilled. I wanted desperately for this “little musical that could” to have it’s pre-Broadway run in San Francisco, but creators Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen opted not to go out of town and head directly from off Broadway to on. The show didn’t exactly re-write Broadway history, but the original cast recording preserved a plucky show that, to some of us, is legendary in its wit and ambition.

But now this musical for people who love (and loathe and love to loathe) musicals is going to conclude the newly announced TheatreWorks season in June of 2011.

[title of show] isn’t the only treat in the season. After its run on Broadway this season, the Bay Area will get to sink its teeth into Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, his well-received follow-up to the gazillion-award-winning August: Osage County. The play runs Oct. 6 to 31. And another Broadway hit (one that recently stopped in San Francisco on its national tour) takes steps to Mountain View. The 39 Steps, a lovingly comic spoof of the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name, opens in January of 2011.

TracyLettsYou can usually count on a TheatreWorks season to include a big, juicy musical, and the coming season is no exception. Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ A Light in the Piazza, a stunning, sophisticated work of modern musical theater (with a score by Richard Rodgers’ eminently talented grandson, no less), opens Aug. 25.

The season also includes three world premieres, including season-opener Auctioning the Ainsleys by Laura Schellhardt about a family of auctioneers. Schellhardt’s The K of D was seen at the Magic Theatre.

The second world premiere is a holiday offering: a new musical adaptation of Truman Capote’s story A Christmas Memory with lyrics by Carol Hall (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas), music by Larry Grossman and a book by Duane Poole. The show runs through most of the month of December.

The third world premiere is Rajiv Joseph’s psychological thriller The North Pool. Joseph is probably best known for his play Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo. His Animals Out of Paper is currently at SF Playhouse.

And finally, David Gutterson’s acclaimed novel Snow Falling on Cedars gets a theatrical adaptation (and a Bay Area premiere) in March 2011. Kevin McKeon of Book-It Repertory Theatre adapted and directed David Guterson’s masterful novel for the stage in Seattle three years ago.

For information about the TheatreWorks season call 650 463-1960 or visit Subscriptions range from $149 to $441.

Photo at right: Tracy Letts, author of Superior Donuts. Photo courtesy of Steppenwolf Theatre Co.

August in Pawhuska, OK, or the joys of family drama

August Osage County

Shannon Cochran (left) is eldest daughter Barbara and Academy Award-winner Estelle Parsons is Violet, her drug-addled mother, in the national Broadway tour of August: Osage County, running through Sept. 6 at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. Photo by Robert J. Saferstein


Where have all the family dramas gone and why did they become so unfashionable?

With the grand-scale success of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-wining August: Osage County, the family drama came roaring back, but while watching the excellent touring production now at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre (as part of the SHN/Best of Broadway season), I had to wonder why in the world the drama of thick family dynamics became so passé.

Incorporating chunks of O’Neill and Williams and Miller, Letts really lets loose in August, a 3 ½-hour trip through family hell, complete with drugs, drink, death, incest, bile and dark, dark humor. We get three generations of the Weston family of Pawhuska, Oklahoma (about 60 miles northwest of Tulsa). We’re deep in the plains, which we’re told is a state of mind sort of like the blues: she’s got a bad case of the plains.

We have the missing patriarch and his pill-popping wife (played by the redoubtable Estelle Parsons), their three grown daughters, assorted other relatives and the lone grandchild (as addicted to her weed as the grandmother is to her pills).

Listening to the audience at the Curran on opening night, it was exciting to feel an audience connecting with a play. That’s what family dramas do because we can all relate on some level. We may not be sleeping with our first cousins, we may not have a mother who takes delight in ripping us to shreds and we may not be quite as dysfunctional as the Westons, but we can relate. We have family members who can slice into us seemingly without even trying. One tossed-off comment can cause a serious wound, and that’s how you know you’re with family. Other people have to work much harder to wound less.

There are two moments in the play that really struck me and reminded me how long it had been since I’d seen a family drama that reminded me just how cathartic a family drama can be.

The first involves Uncle Charlie (Paul Vincent O’Connor – a former Bay Area actor doing great work), probably the kindest, most sensible person in the play. He’s married to Mattie Fae (Libby George), sister of the drug-addled Violet. Charlie and Mattie Fae have a son, Little Charles (Stephen Riley Key), whom Mattie Fae belittles at every opportunity. Finally, Charlie has had enough. He loves his wife and son dearly, but enough is enough.

Charlie: “Mattie Fae, we’re gonna go get in the car right now and go home, and if you say one more mean thing to that boy I’m going to kick your fat Irish ass onto the highway. You hear me?”

Of course, Mattie Fae is astonished to hear her generally genial husband say such a thing. But he’s not finished yet. And this is where it gets good because Charlie (via Letts’ incredible skill with dialogue) is about to reaffirm his love for both son and wife all the while putting his foot firmly down.

Charlie: “I don’t understand this meanness. I look at you and your sister and the way you talk to people and I don’t understand it. I just can’t understand why folks can’t be respectful of one another…We’ve been married for 38 years. I wouldn’t trade them for anything. But if you can’t find a generous place in your heart for your own son, we’re not going to make it to 39.”

I find that extraordinary, partly because it makes me wish that every family in difficulty had a Charlie to provide such a stern moment of clarity and enforced kindness.

Shortly after Charlie lays down the law, Mattie Fae is part of another extraordinary scene, this time with her eldest niece, Barbara (the extraordinary Shannon Cochran). Some deep, dark family secrets are revealed, and Barbara is astonished that her Aunt Mattie Fae is capable of holding such juicy secrets.

Mattie Fae: “…Maybe it’s hard for you to believe, looking at me, knowing me the way you do, all these years. I know to you, I’m just your old fat Aunt Mattie Fae. But I’m more than that, sweetheart…there’s more to me than that.”

That moment really struck me – I immediately thought of family members I’ve known my entire life but whom I’ve never really known – not as anything but my family member. In that one line lies an entire play — not this one, but another one. Maybe Tracy Letts will write it. Maybe someone else. But I’m in the mood for more family drama – families in the here and now, navigating this interesting, troubled, exasperating world of ours.

Read my interview with Estelle Parsons for Theatre Bay Area magazine.


SHN/Best of Broadway’s August: Osage County continues through Sept. 6 at the Curran Theatre. Visit for information.

E.M. Lewis wins major theater award

The American Theatre Critics Association has selected E.M. (Ellen) Lewis’ Song of Extinction to receive the 2009 Harold and Mimi Steinberg /ATCA New Play Award. The announcement was made April 4 at Actors Theatre of Louisville during the Humana Festival of New American Plays. The award includes a plaque and a cash prize of $25,000 –the largest national award for a new play.

Lee Blessing’s Great Falls and Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts received Steinberg/ATCA citations and $7,500 each. Both Lewis and Letts are first-time winners, but Blessing previously won the 2006 Steinberg/ATCA Award for A Body of Water, and in 1987 he won the predecessor ATCA New
Play Award for A Walk in the Woods.

The award was started in 1977 to honor plays that debut at regional theaters outside New York City, where there are many new play awards. No play is eligible if it has gone on to a New York production within the award year (in this case, 2008).

Lewis’ Song of Extinction debuted in November at Moving Arts in Hollywood after having been featured in NYU’s hotINK International Festival of New Plays and receiving a reading in the Atlantic Theater’s Next Page series. It has already won several awards, including the EcoDrama playwriting Competition, the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Ted Schmitt Award for a world premiere and the LA Weekly award for production of the year.

Blessing’s Great Falls is a wry drama about a stepfather and his disaffected stepdaughter trying to make connections on a road trip across the American West. It was produced in February 2008 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Letts’ Superior Donuts is a comic drama portraying the resurrection of a former ‘60s radical who is hiding from disappointments and tragedies by running a tiny Chicago doughnut shop. His isolation is challenged by a young black man seeking a job and running from some secrets of his own. It premiered in June at Steppenwolf Theater.

In Lewis’ Song of Extinction, Max, a musically gifted high school student, is falling off the edge of the world, and his biology teacher is the only one who’s noticed. According to the ATCA New Play committee, it starts as a realistic examination of ecology, genocide, isolation, music, family relationships and more, but it morphs into a dreamscape which weaves the disparate strands into a pattern of inter-connectedness.

“I’d like to thank the Steinberg family and ATCA,” said a visibly excited Lewis. “I feel so honored to receive this award for my play. It is an amazing gift.”

Lewis has accomplished a lot in a short playwriting career. Last year, she won ATCA’s $10,000 Francesca Primus Award for Heads, a hostage drama set against the war in Iraq that Edward Albee called “provocative and wonderfully threatening.” Her Infinite Black Suitcase, a large ensemble play about grief and survival in rural Oregon, received its world premiere in 2007. On her Web site ( Lewis quotes James Baldwin: “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions which have been hidden by the answers.” She comes from Oregon but now lives in Santa Monica.

Some two dozen scripts were nominated by ATCA members, and the winners were chosen by a committee led by Wm. F. Hirschman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Other committee members are Misha Berson, Seattle Times; Bruce Burgun, Bloomington Herald Times and Back Stage; Michael Elkin,
Jewish Exponent (Pa.); Jay Handelman, Sarasota Herald-Tribune; Pam Harbaugh, Florida Today (Melbourne); Leonard Jacobs, New York Press, Back Stage and The Clyde Fitch Report; Chad Jones,; Elizabeth Keill, Independent Press (Morristown, NJ); Elizabeth Maupin, Orlando Sentinel; Wendy Parker, The Village Mill (Midlothian, Va.); Michael Sander, Back Stage (Minn.); and Herb Simpson, (Rochester, NY).

Honorees since 1977 have included Lanford Wilson, Marsha Norman, August Wilson, Jane Martin, Arthur Miller, Mac Wellman, Adrienne Kennedy, Donald Margulies, Lynn Nottage, Horton Foote and Craig Lucas. Last year’s winner was Moises Kaufman for 33 Variations, now being staged on Broadway starring Jane Fonda. Each year’s honorees are chronicled in The Best Plays Theater Yearbook, edited by Jeffrey Eric Jenkins, alongside the 10 best plays produced that year in New York City. For a complete list of the 80 plays cited from 1977 through 2008, go to, under Awards.

Missing the Tonys

For the last four days I’ve been in Ashland, Ore., reviewing shows at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for the San Francisco Chronicle (more on that later), and while the Tonys were on Sunday night, I was at the opening of a new musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors. Of course I’ll watch the whole awards show on TiVo when I get home, but I was able to catch glimpses here and there (thanks to the spotty online coverage), and of course I couldn’t wait to find out the winners.

I must say I’m disappointed that Passing Strange only one award (for best book of a musical). I guess I’m feeling territorial because the show had its world premiere at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. Still, it’s better than nothing. Here’s what co-creator and star Stew had to say about his win:

“Music is something that comes easy to me, and I’ve received numerous accolades for my songs – but to be honored for my writing means a whole hell of a lot, especially when it comes from theatre people for whom words really mean something. Those words took shape at Berkeley Rep, a place that makes space for people like me to take risks and try out things that theatre isn’t used to seeing. We loved working there, and we miss that Berkeley scene.”

More on the Tonys later. In the meantime, here’s a complete list of winners:

Play (and playwrights): “August: Osage County” (Tracy Letts).

Musical: “In the Heights.”

Book-Musical: “Passing Strange” (Stew).

Original Score (music and/or lyrics): “In the Heights” (Music & Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda).

Revival-Play: “Boeing-Boeing.”

Revival-Musical: “South Pacific.”

Actor-Play: Mark Rylance, “Boeing-Boeing.”

Actress-Play: Deanna Dunagan, “August: Osage County.”

Actor-Musical: Paulo Szot, “South Pacific.”

Actress-Musical: Patti LuPone, “Gypsy.”

Featured Actor-Play: Jim Norton, “The Seafarer.”

Featured Actress-Play: Rondi Reed, “August: Osage County.”

Featured Actor-Musical: Boyd Gaines, “Gypsy.”

Featured Actress-Musical: Laura Benanti, “Gypsy.”

Direction-Play: Anna D. Shapiro, “August: Osage County.”

Direction-Musical: Bartlett Sher, “South Pacific.”

Choreography: Andy Blankenbuehler, “In the Heights.”

Orchestrations: Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman, “In the Heights.”

Scenic Design-Play: Todd Rosenthal, “August: Osage County.”

Scenic Design-Musical: Michael Yeargen, “South Pacific.”

Costume Design-Play: Katrina Lindsay, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.”

Costume Design-Musical: Catherine Zuber, “South Pacific.”

Lighting Design-Play: Kevin Adams, “The 39 Steps.”

Lighting Design-Musical: Donald Holder, “South Pacific.”

Sound Design-Play: Mic Pool, “The 39 Steps.”

Sound Design-Musical: Scott Lehrer, “South Pacific.”

Previously announced:

Regional Theater Tony Award: Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

Special Tony Award: Robert Russell Bennett.

Lifetime Achievement Award: Stephen Sondheim.

Ramping up to the Tony Awards

This Sunday, the Tony Awards will be handed out.
Here’s what you need to know (and get busy organizing your Tony party — we’ve got to get those dismal ratings out of the basement so CBS will continue broadcasting the darn things).

For the first time, there will be pre-ceremony Tony Concert chock full of juicy musical numbers from all the nominated shows. In the Bay Area the concert will be at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 15 on KPIX-TV. Mario Lopez (currently playing Zach in A Chorus Line) hosts, and we’ll see numbers from 10 musicals: A Catered Affair, Cry-Baby, Grease, Gypsy, In The Heights, Passing Strange, South Pacific, Sunday in the Park with George, The Little Mermaid and Xanadu—on stage at the Allen Room at Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center, with its spectacular, floor-to-ceiling views of Central Park South visible to viewers of the telecast.

Nominees who perform on the program include Laura Benanti (Gypsy), Daniel Breaker and Stew (Passing Strange), Kerry Butler (Xanadu), Daniel Evans (Sunday in the Park with George), Faith Prince (A Catered Affair) and Loretta Ables Sayre (South Pacific).

“We’ve tried very hard not to cannibalize anything that will be on the actual Tony telecast, but just to whet people’s appetites for June 15,” says The Broadway League’s Jan Friedlander Svendsen, who is an executive producer of the special. “We purposely didn’t want this in costume, we didn’t want big production numbers. We wanted it to feel very intimate. And we wanted to have those up-close-and-personal profiles.”

Actor nominees who are interviewed during the pre-Tony telecast include Laurence Fishburne, who talks about his role as a Supreme Court justice in Thurgood, and Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood, who reveal a touching story from the casting of their revival of Macbeth. Steppenwolf Theatre Company members Laurie Metcalf (November) and Deanna Dunagan, Amy Morton and Rondi Reed from the Best Play nominee August: Osage County celebrate the success of Steppenwolf-ers on Broadway this season—the roster also includes Martha Plimpton and Kevin Anderson—who all told represent six different Broadway shows.

“One of the issues with the Tonys is, often times, not all of our nominees are as well known as, say, Oscar nominees,” says Svendsen. “It’s great to let audiences be exposed to some of those who aren’t as well known. It’s kind of like the Olympics. Many of those athletes aren’t as famous, and one of my favorite parts of watching the Games is getting to know those athletes from a human interest side. Then I have an emotional connection with them and a more rooting interest in who’s going to win.”

The Awards, hosted by Whoopi Goldberg (thank God someone on “The View” cares about theater since Rosie O’Donnell’s departure) begin at 8 p.m. on TV, but watching the tape delay is so retro. Why not tune into the live Webcast? Past Tony winners Michael Cerveris and Julie White host. Log on to for all the details.

On the broadcast, we’ll get musical numbers from all four of the Best Musical nominees (Cry-Baby, In The Heights, Passing Strange and Xanadu) and the four Best Musical Revival nominees (Grease, Gypsy, Sunday in the Park with George and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific).

Also represented will be three other new Broadway musicals: A Catered Affair, The Little Mermaid and The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein. And just for good measure, Rent and The Lion King will also make appearances.

Video memories from past Tony winners, clips from nominated shows and a whole lot more await you at, your one-stop shop for Tony Award information.

To whet your appetite, here’s Passing Strange on “The View.”

SHN/Best of Broadway’s new season

Megan Hilty (left) as Glinda and Eden Espinosa as Elphaba from the original LA company of Wicked. Photo by Joan Marcus

Old friends, new winners mark 30th anniversary season

Carole Shorenstein Hays and Robert Nederlander’s new SHN/Best of Broadway season marks a milestone: 30 years of bringing Broadway to the Bay Area.

The new season, announced today, kicks off in February 2009 with a “third time’s the charm” production of Wicked, the monstrous hit musical that had its world premiere at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre. This time around, the musical about the witches of Oz, will play the Orpheum Theatre.

In March of 2009, Grease is the word. This is the production directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall that got famous for being the first Broadway musical to cast its leads on national television (through the NBC show “Grease: You’re the One That I Want.” This is also the production that marries the original stage version with the movie version, so songs such as “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and “You’re the One That I Want” are included.

Things get exciting in April 2009 with a world premiere musical. Ever After, with a book by Marcy Heisler and Theresa Rebeck, music by Zina Goldrich and lyrics by Marcy Heisler, is directed by Doug Hughes (a Tony winner for Doubt). Ever After, which plays the Curran, is based on the 1998 movie starring Drew Barrymore and is a new twist on the Cinderella story by banishing all the bibbi-dee-bobbi-dee boo elements and focusing on a spirited young woman defying societal constraints.

In August of 2009, the theater scene gets hot with Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner for drama. The Steppenwolf production (currently scorching Broadway) is directed by Anna D. Shapiro. The San Francisco production at the Curran Theatre kicks off the national tour.

A final show is yet to be named, but is described in press materials as a “Broadway blockbuster.” The show will be revealed, according to the Web site, in July.

Not part of the season but a “special attraction” is the umpteenth return of a Bay Area favorite: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. The show will run Nov. 26 through Jan. 4 at the Orpheum. Tickets go on sale Sept. 7.

For the new SHN/Best of Broadway season, subscriptions are $170 to $551. Call 415-551-2050 or 877-797-7827 or visit for information.

Listen to a podcast about the new SHN/Best of Broadway season here.

Review: ‘Bug’

At The SF Playhouse through June 14

Susi Damilano is Agnes and Gabriel Marin is Peter in Tracy Letts’ Bug at the SF Playhouse. Photos by Zabrina Tipton.


It sure is fun to watch an audience squirm. It’s even more fun to be part of that squirming audience.

Tracy Letts’ Bug, now at the SF Playhouse’s intimate, creepy-crawly theater space, has some juicy moments that make the audience cringe collectively. What else do you do when a probably crazy man attempts to extract one of his own molars with a pair of pliers? You squirm. You cringe. You have a good time – if horror-type thrills are your idea of a good time.

When it comes right down to it, Letts’ Bug, which has been a hit in London and off-Broadway, is a mix of paranoid sci-fi thriller from the 1950s and 1970s white-trash B movie. The fact that Letts is a skillful enough writer to make it all seem much more important means the work seems somehow more important than it actually is, and that’s a good trick. Bug is more fun than Letts’ trashy Killer Joe, which the Bay Area saw when Marin Theatre Company transferred its successful production to San Francisco. And it’s probably not as good as August: Osage County, the Broadway drama that just won Letts a Pulitzer Prize.

In Bug, Letts is dealing with lonely people and a whopper of a conspiracy theory, which makes them both feel a whole lot less lonely. Agnes (Susi Damilano) lives in a skeezy Oklahoma hotel room. She’s terrified her ex-husband, Jerry (John Flanagan) will get out of jail and come back to terrorize her some more. One night, while killing the pain with her friend R.C. (Zehra Berkman) and several lines of coke and a few puffs off the ol’ pipe, Agnes meets Peter (Gabriel Marin), a shy, intelligent drifter who needs a place to stay for the night.

You don’t have to ask Agnes twice. Just make her a cocktail – vodka and Coke – and you’re in. It won’t take long to learn Agnes’ biggest sorrow: her 6-year-old son disappeared from the grocery store about 10 years ago. Life just hasn’t been the same since. While Steve Wonder’s “Superstitious” plays on the radio, Agnes and Peter waltz through their strange courtship ritual. Agnes bares her soul and Peter theorizes about how none of us is ever really safe because of the chemicals, the technology and the information out there being generated by people and their machines.

Ah, the wondrous smell of romance and paranoia. Such a heady combination.

The titular bug first appears in the form of a chirping cricket, which actually turns out to be a faulty smoke alarm, which turns out to be more radioactive than plutonium (funny how you don’t read about that on the smoke alarm box). Then, one amorous evening, Peter awakes to find bug bites on his arm. He discovers aphids – he calls them plant lice – in the bed and the bug adventure really begins.

Peter sucks Agnes into his buggy world, a horrific place where soldiers are experimented on by demented doctors in the hope of creating bio chips to mark every human being since 1982. Or something like that. Peter, it turns out, is on the run and can’t let the bad people find him. They’re the ones that infested him with bugs. And Agnes believes every word.

Marin brings incredible intensity to his performance. When it looks like Agnes might leave him, Peter throws an incredible fit – it’s a wonder Marin doesn’t destroy Bill English’s superb hotel room set with his thrashing about. There’s also quietness in Peter – a sort of dim light of intelligence that belies all the weird stuff and makes you wish we were meeting him under less exterminating circumstances.

Damilano’s naturalness makes Agnes likable and understandable. We feel for her and watch helplessly as she gets sucked into the paranoia. There’s an incredible scene in Act 2, really the heart of the play, when Letts gives Agnes a monologue that makes a case for human faith, intelligence and gullibility as interchangeable pieces of our brain structure. Damilano sinks her teeth into the moment and makes it as powerful as it is sad.

Director Jon Tracy goes less for horror than for humor in this production. In Act 2, the tension goes slack when it should be taut, but Damilano and Marin (who appears bloody and shirtless through much of the play) somehow keep the play on track, making this a dramatic infestation you don’t mind squirming your way through.

Bug continues through June 14 at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $38. Call 415-677-9596 or visit for information.

Tony, Tony, Tony!

Tony Award nominations are out today. Here’s how it shook out:

August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
Rock ‘n’ Roll by Tom Stoppard
The Seafarer by Conor McPherson
The 39 Steps by Patrick Barlow

In The Heights
Passing Strange

Cry-Baby by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan
In the Heights by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Passing Strange by Stew
Xanadu Douglas by Carter Beane

Cry-Baby Music & Lyrics: David Javerbaum & Adam Schlesinger
In the Heights Music & Lyrics: Lin-Manuel Miranda
The Little Mermaid Music: Alan Menken; Lyrics: Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater
Passing Strange Music: Stew and Heidi Rodewald; Lyrics: Stew

The Homecoming
Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific
Sunday in the Park with George

Ben Daniels, Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Laurence Fishburne, Thurgood
Mark Rylance (right), Boeing-Boeing
Rufus Sewell, Rock ‘n’ Roll
Patrick Stewart, Macbeth

Eve Best, The Homecoming
Deanna Dunagan, August: Osage County
Kate Fleetwood, Macbeth
S. Epatha Merkerson, Come Back, Little Sheba
Amy Morton, August: Osage County

Daniel Evans, Sunday in the Park with George
Lin-Manuel Miranda, In the Heights
Stew, Passing Strange
Paulo Szot, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific
Tom Wopat, A Catered Affair

Kerry Butler, Xanadu
Patti LuPone (right), Gypsy
Kelli O’Hara, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific
Faith Prince, A Catered Affair
Jenna Russell, Sunday in the Park with George

Bobby Cannavale, Mauritius
Raúl Esparza, The Homecoming
Conleth Hill, The Seafarer
Jim Norton, The Seafarer
David Pittu, Is He Dead?

Sinead Cusack, Rock ‘n’ Roll
Mary McCormack, Boeing-Boeing
Laurie Metcalf, November
Martha Plimpton, Top Girls
Rondi Reed, August: Osage County

Daniel Breaker, Passing Strange
Danny Burstein (above), Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific
Robin De Jesús, In The Heights
Christopher Fitzgerald, The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein
Boyd Gaines, Gypsy

de’Adre Aziza, Passing Strange
Laura Benanti, Gypsy
Andrea Martin, The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein
Olga Merediz, In The Heights
Loretta Ables Sayre, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific

Maria Aitken, The 39 Steps
Conor McPherson, The Seafarer
Anna D. Shapiro, August: Osage County
Matthew Warchus, Boeing-Boeing

Sam Buntrock, Sunday in the Park with George
Thomas Kail, In the Heights
Arthur Laurents Gypsy
Bartlett Sher Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific

Rob Ashford, Cry-Baby
Andy Blankenbuehler, In the Heights
Christopher Gattelli, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific
Dan Knechtges, Xanadu

Jason Carr, Sunday in the Park with George
Alex Lacamoire & Bill Sherman, In The Heights
Stew & Heidi Rodewald, Passing Strange
Jonathan Tunick, A Catered Affair

Peter McKintosh, The 39 Steps
Scott Pask, Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Todd Rosenthal, August: Osage County
Anthony Ward, Macbeth

David Farley and Timothy Bird & The Knifedge Creative Network, Sunday in the Park with George
Anna Louizos, In the Heights
Robin Wagner ,The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein
Michael Yeargan, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific

Gregory Gale, Cyrano de Bergerac
Rob Howell, Boeing-Boeing
Katrina Lindsay, Les Liaisons Dangereuses
Peter McKintosh, The 39 Steps

David Farley, Sunday in the Park with George
Martin Pakledinaz, Gypsy
Paul Tazewell, In the Heights
Catherine Zuber, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific

Stephen Sondheim

Chicago Shakespeare Theatre

Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981), in recognition of his historic contribution to American musical theatre in the field of orchestrations, as represented on Broadway this season by Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific.

For a complete list of nominees visit the American Theatre Wing’s Web site.

In the director’s chair with: Jon Tracy

The cast and crew of SF Playhouse’s Bug. Director Jon Tracy is on the right in the hat.

Ask Jon Tracy what’s bugging him these days, and the answer is easy: Bug.

Tracy is directing the Bay Area premiere of the play, by recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Letts (August: Osage County) for SF Playhouse. The production begins previews May 7, opens May 10 and continues through June 14 at the downtown San Francisco theater.

Famously creepy and skin-crawly, Bug is a tale of paranoia – a man and a woman in a grimy, slimy hotel room suffer delusions of a bug infestation brought about by a nefarious government conspiracy…or mental illness…or actual bugs. A movie was made of the play in 2006 directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, the star of the original Chicago production of the play. The movie, which some hailed and others reviled, did not impress Tracy, who was a fan of the play.

“Seeing that movie only made me want to direct the play more,” he says. “When you see a version of something you love that you don’t care for, that didn’t grab the story correctly, you want to fix it.”

What appeals to Tracy about the play is that there’s more to it than just the gore and horror it’s famous for.

“It’s an unbelievably wonderful look at a love story,” Tracy says.

The lovers in Tracy’s production are Gabe Marin as Peter, the AWOL Gulf War veteran who thinks he may have been subjected to experiments by the military, and Susi Damilano as Agnes, a cocktail waitress with a propensity for partying.

“What we’re finding in rehearsals is that Letts has a distinctive rhythm and sensibility,” Tracy says. “We’re working with two different rhythms in a farce staging that includes some really interesting rules to live by. There is a wit that needs to come out of it. There’s so much subtext. In most contemporary plays we don’t really say anything we mean, but what we mean is down there somewhere. Letts is an unbelievable wordsmith. He’s not afraid to punch you twice before you realize you got punched the first time. The play is beyond clever. The emotional journey is mathematically precise and goes well beyond the shock value he has become known for.”

Where the movie went wrong, in Tracy’s opinion, was in missing the natural comedy of the piece and messing up the ending.

“Friedkin misstated the end,” Tracy says. “We weren’t along for the ride. It was all screaming people, spinning camera and aluminum foil covering everything. Any amount of belief was blown out and it became silly. The central relationship wasn’t the love story I’ve come to see as so important to the play.”

SF Playhouse is just about the perfect space for a play like Bug that trades on paranoia and claustrophobia. Set designer Bill English (also SF Playhouse’s artistic director) has created a seedy motel set that Tracy says is “a character in and of itself.” The audience, for good or ill, is going to feel trapped in that hotel room and the paranoia that’s building around something that may or may not actually be happening.

That’s exactly how Tracy likes it.

“It’s time for theater to get back to holding the audience accountable,” he says. “That happens less in our modern theaters. We like to tell them what to do and what to think. Here, let me turn my imagination off. That’s counterproductive to why we started doing this in the first place.”

Why Tracy, a Vallejo native who now lives in Oakland, started doing this theater thing was simple: he thought it would be a cool way to meet girls. These days, though, he has a different philosophy.

“My thought is that we live today in an unbelievably beautiful, giving world that masquerades as a horrible, treacherous place,” he says. “If you’re looking for the good in it, it’s not going to appear. It’s about realigning ourselves so we can see what’s been there the entire time, and embrace what’s been there the entire time. I have to believe that theater is that bridge. For me, that’s what I believe we do. We call ourselves artists, but that’s the worst possible title for us. Instead, we need to look at the fact that we are like every other person pursuing their craft for the betterment of the community. By that definition, the plumber or the accountant is an artist. The problem is, that in the trappings of life – the mortgage, three kids and so on – we lose our art. That’s why we commune in the theater or go to a museum – to find a little of ourselves again and maybe to see that everything is actually here to help.”

Plucked out of the Solano College theater program by George Maguire who suggested directing over acting, Tracy says he has been lucky to have great people shepherd him along. Joy Carlin (right, with Tracy) and the Carlin family have been “incredible influences,” and now he says he has been embraced by co-founders English and Damilano at SF Playhouse.

“I’m a huge, huge, unbelievably huge believer in the people I work with,” Tracy says. “I know I will always learn more than I dish out. I know I’m lucky to be in the room.”

So far this year, Tracy’s directorial plate has been full of darkness – Macbeth, The Diviners and Bug – and now it’s time to lighten up. His next project, which will open Friday, June 13, in the Willows Theatre Company’s Martinez theater, is Evil Dead: The Musical.

“I listened to the music and thought it was raunchy and silly and fun,” Tracy says. “I grew up with the Sam Raimi films and just couldn’t say no to this one.”

SF Playhouse’s Bug runs from May 7 through June 14. Tickets are $38. Call 415-677-9596 or visit for information.