Donald Margulies’ “Model Apartment,” Paul Linke’s “It’s Time” in LA

Annika Marks and Giovanni Adams in “The Model Apartment.” Photo by Jeff Lorch Photography.
Annika Marks and Giovanni Adams in “The Model Apartment.” Photo by Jeff Lorch Photography.

Donald Margulies may be one of our best contemporary playwrights, but he had to start somewhere. Among his earliest efforts is “The Model Apartment,” now playing in a revival at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through Nov. 20. It’s one strange duck of a play, a bizarre blend of family drama, screwball comedy, nostalgia, fantasy and surrealism that careens wildly from one style to another and back like a vehicle out of control. It’s fascinating to visualize young Margulies experimenting, trying to determine what works on stage, what doesn’t, and what he can get away with; in the end it doesn’t quite fly despite the Geffen’s valiant efforts, but you have to admire the theatre—where he’s something of a favorite—for taking chances.

The play takes place in a Florida condo, where a pair of senior citizens have come to spend their retirement years in the lap of luxury. That they are New York Jews is almost immediately apparent; that also they happen to be Holocaust survivors (or appear to be, for everything that takes place is open to question) is not immediately obvious. When their plump, ungainly daughter shows up uninvited we’re thrust into a wacky farce, which soon grows dark when the skeletons of the past rear their ugly heads in nightmarish fashion.

It’s to director Marya Mazor’s credit that she keeps the show from going off the tracks, where a less-experienced director might well falter. Whatever else the four actor-five character piece is a triumph for Annika Marks, who plays two radically different daughters with such finesse one actor seems to be missing from the curtain call. Marilyn Fox and Michael Mantell acquit themselves admirably with the material, taking a leap of faith with it into dark corners where the ground doesn’t always support them. Giovanni Adams plays the unlikely boyfriend of one of the daughters with equal aplomb. Tom Buderwitz’s set and Brian Gale’s lighting contribute substantially to the effort. GeffenPlayhouse.org.

Paul Linke in “It’s Time.” Photo by Ed Krieger.
Paul Linke in “It’s Time.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

Also on the Westside is a new one-man show that’s exemplary of the genre, Paul Linke’s “It’s Time,” at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica through Dec. 4. You might not expect much from a 70-minute play with a guy standing on a piece of carpet talking about his life, in an intimate space about the size of a living room, but you would be wrong. This is a life well-lived and eloquently expressed by a master of solo performance.

Linke begins by reminiscing about his initial and much less assured foray into acting five decades ago in a class at USC before we get to “the main event.” Renowned for his show “Time Flies When You’re Alive,” about the death of his first wife from cancer at age 37—leaving three young children behind—the actor devotes this piece to the healing process that took place in the aftermath, and his second wife, Christine, who made his life and family whole again.

Though you won’t sit through it with a dry eye it’s an uplifting show that gladdens the heart, amidst the realization the clock is ticking perhaps faster than we admit to ourselves. Linke doesn’t try to suppress the emotions or the tears when they come and that’s part of the magic he brings to the stage, under the astute direction of his accomplice Edward Edwards—it’s one of the most honest and candid performances you’ll see all year. RuskinGroupTheatre.com.

 

Shakespeare-inspired “District Merchants” at Costa’s Mesa’s South Coast Rep

Montae Russell and Matthew Boston in SCR's District Merchants by Aaron Posner. Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.
Montae Russell and Matthew Boston in SCR’s District Merchants by Aaron Posner. Photo by Debora Robinson/SCR.

Don’t know much about Shakespeare? Steer away from productions and adaptations of his plays for fear you won’t understand them? Aaron Posner’s “District Merchants” – “inspired by ‘The Merchant of Venice’ ” – was written with you in mind. Set in “the theatrical 1870s,” the play (at Costa’s Mesa’s South Coast Repertory through Oct. 23) opens with Shylock, an Old World Jew, and Antoine, “a free man of color,” talking directly to us, and continues for the most part in plain every-day English.

This is a different animal from “Venice” that takes some unexpected twists and turns but preserves the essence of the original. Yes, you’ll hear Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech and Portia’s “The quality of mercy” monologue, but you’ll understand them even if you don’t know your Shakespeare. You’ll also hear things you’ve decidedly never heard in any play of The Bard’s before, such as “I really like you and that scares the crap out of me,” and “You merciless mofo” (or rather its uncensored equivalent).

Ultimately this is a seriocomedy with a timely message—a plea for racial equality and religious tolerance that makes a powerful argument against bigotry and anti-Semitism. Best of all, Posner manages to do it without getting preachy. He’s aided and abetted by Michael Michetti’s attentive direction and a first-rate ensemble; the cast is headed by Matthew Boston as Shylock and Montae Russell as Antoine, with Akeem Davis shining in the small role of Lancelot. Visit Scr.org.

The making of Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity”

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Blake Ellis & Nick Searcy in “Billy & Ray.” Photo by Ed Krieger.

What would it be like if you could go back in time and watch Billy Wilder’s classic seriocomic film noir, “Double Indemnity,” in the making? Not on the set, mind you, but in the director’s office at Paramount Pictures as he puts together the script with legendary novelist Raymond Chandler? That’s the premise behind Mike Bencivenga’s “Billy & Ray” (now at Laguna Playhouse through Oct. 30). Set in 1943-44, it’s a clever comedy with some dark moments; your enjoyment of the show doesn’t depend on your familiarity with the film.

Laguna’s highly polished production is nearly flawless, except for one thing—Blake Ellis, the actor portraying Wilder, is about a foot too tall for the part. No doubt the filmmaker himself would voice an acid remark, scorching the backsides of all concerned were he here to witness the performance. Ellis, however, splendidly conveys the essence of Wilder’s acerbic personality and his Viennese accent is spot on. The script neatly captures his rapier wit though sometimes resorts to mere profanity, where Wilder’s invective was more inventive.

Nick Searcy’s gruff, avuncular Chandler is a great contrast to Ellis’ Wilder, as different as could be. There’s plenty of built-in conflict here, pointing up the smartest element of Bencivenga’s play. Above all this is a clash of personalities, a la “The Odd Couple.” Scott Lowell does what he can with the largely thankless role of producer Joe Sistrom; Joanna Strapp has some nice moments as secretary Helen Hernandez, and makes the most of them. Director Michael Matthews keeps things moving, no easy task on a stage this small. LagunaPlayhouse.com

I was fortunate to meet Wilder in the later years of his career and visit the set of two of his films, experiences I detail in “Directing Lemmon and Matthau: On the Set with Billy Wilder.” As to its merits I’ll just quote Walter Matthau’s son, Charlie, if I may: “I get sent a lot of this type of thing and it is refreshing to read something so well written and accurate.”

The Making and Influence of ‘I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’ ” by Scott Allen Nollen (newly available in paperback from McFarland & Co.) gives us an in-depth look at the memoir this 1932 masterpiece was based on as well as its author, Robert E. Burns. Nollen offers a fascinating account of the film’s production, for which the fugitive Burns served as an advisor. The many films “Fugitive” influenced, including “Cool Hand Luke” and “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” are also discussed.

Hal Ashby and the Making of ‘Harold and Maude’ ” by James A. Davidson (also available in paperback from McFarland & Co.) gives us the well-researched back story of the unlikely 1971 cult classic–how a neophyte Colin Higgins developed and sold the screenplay while working as a pool boy; how “acid freak” Hal Ashby, destined to become one of the era’s top directors, was assigned to take the reins; and how the box office bomb eventually became a money-maker.

“Seminar” at Anaheim’s Chance, “Monique” at Fullerton’s Stages

Karen Jean Olds and Ned Liebl in “Seminar.”
Karen Jean Olds and Ned Liebl in “Seminar.”

What does a writer do when she has something outrageous to say? If she’s Theresa Rebeck, she might put it in somebody else’s mouth and put that somebody center stage. As in “Seminar,” now careening across the Cripe Stage of the Chance Theater in Anaheim through Oct. 23. This edgy comedy set in Manhattan (where else?) gives you the vicarious thrill of being in a room awash with thinly-veiled snobbery, pretentious bull and monumental ego, without having to set foot in one—as I did when a renowned playwright invited me to sample his living room workshop in L.A. a few years ago.

Rebeck’s wildy entertaining five-character play is treated to a first-rate staging in its OC premiere. Ned Liebl heads the crackerjack ensemble, excelling as Leonard, the sharp-tongued hotshot know-it-all who can judge the whole of a writer’s worth on the basis of five words. Karen Jean Olds, Casey Long, Asialani Holman and Christian Telesmar more than hold up their end of the bargain with vivid characterizations of the aspiring novelists, whose hopes and dreams rise and fall with Liebl’s every breath on the craft—and crass—of writing. Elina De Santos cracks the director’s whip measure for measure. ChanceTheater.com

The 1955 Hitchock-like thriller, “Diabolique,” was once required viewing for cineastes. “Monique” by Dorothy and Michael Blankfort
(now playing at Fullerton’s STAGEStheatre through Nov. 6) may not ring a bell, but it’s the play that inspired the French film classic and a slew of remakes. For a plot so cinematic it works surprisingly well in its original theatrical setting, at least in this rare staging skillfully directed by Rose London.

Sean Hesketh is more than credible as Fernand, the schoolteacher at the center of this noirish whodunit; Christine Cummings and Heather Enriquez are especially good as his long-suffering wife Lucienne and her doctor friend, Monique, who happens to be his mistress. Sam Tanng contributes a terrific cameo as a handyman. This is the kind of play that could be easily be given a wink-wink nudge-nudge treatment without a word being changed; to the credit of the director and her cast it’s played as it was intended, and works beautifully. Stagesoc.org