Rediscovering Max Linder and Marcel Perez, finding Lois Weber’s lost “Shoes”

macel perez DVD2

Do we need superheroes today? Of course. Not the drek Hollywood is spewing out by the bushel but guys like silent film accompanist Ben Model—and the 153 people who funded his latest project on Kickstarter. “The Marcel Perez Collection, Volume 2” (available on Amazon later this month) presents eight more rarities starring the largely forgotten silent film comic whose rediscovery Model spearheaded with the first award-winning DVD in the series for his Undercrank Productions.

The rubber-faced buffoon, who began his career in Europe and was known under a variety of aliases, is seen here in one of his earliest surviving comedies from 1907; the remainder of these short films (all newly scored by Model) were made 1916-1921 during Perez’s American career. Some of these 2K scans look terrific, others not so much; many have scenes missing. But what Model has rescued from the scrapheap of history offers substantial evidence this was one very funny man. Perez’s leading ladies, Nilde Baracchi and Dorothy Earle, are also seen to good effect in these shorts, as is character actress Louise Carver.

“Max Linder: Father of Film Comedy” by Snorre Smári Mathiesen (available in paperback and hardcover from BearManor Media) is apparently the first English language biography of the pioneering French comedian. It attempts an overview of his life and career, rather than a definitive bio of the funster who was arguably the first superstar—most of whose hundreds of films, like Perez’s, are lost. Mathiesen succeeds admirably in his intent, an effort hindered by mounds of misinformation available heretofore, much of it perpetuated by Linder himself.

The author, a Norweigan cartoonist, gives us a sense of Linder on screen and places him in the context of his times to give us the broader picture. Mathiesen was assisted by the comedian’s daughter, Maud Linder, as well as a competing biographer whose book has yet to materialize. The book includes dozens of photographs, a scrupulous filmography, bibliography and footnotes but lacks an index.

mary maclaren-SHOES DVD copy

There aren’t many films I’ve waited 40 years to see. Silent film actress Mary MacLaren whet my desire to see Lois Weber’s “Shoes” (1916), the film that made her a star, when I interviewed her in the ‘70s; I never expected to see it at all, until word surfaced of a new restoration by the EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam (now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films).

The tale of a teenage shop girl whose meager paycheck supports her parents and siblings, and the pickup artist who takes advantage of her, the film is a ground-breaking social drama radically different from D.W. Griffith’s epic “Intolerance,” made the same year. MacLaren’s performance is remarkably understated compared to the broad style of the era; Donald Sosin provides an appropriate score. Bonus features include a commentary track by Weber biographer Shelley Stamp, and an interview with MacLaren by Richard Koszarski.

The Silent Treatment is now programming films at The Autry Museum in Griffith Park and the Arena Cinelounge in Hollywood, since the closure of the venerable Silent Movie Theatre in L.A. last year. They’ll present the latest Universal restoration of Lois Weber’s “Sensation Seekers” (1927) on DCP, March 10 (2 p.m.), at Arena Cinelounge; and a 35mm presentation of Victor Sjöström’s “The Wind” (1928) with Lillian Gish at her best, at The Autry on April 21.

Also on March 10 (7 p.m.) at Christ Lutheran Church in Burbank, Famous Players Orchestra presents Clarence Brown’s “The Goose Woman” (1925), plus “City of Stars” (1924), a behind the scenes promo film for Universal Pictures. Both films will have orchestra scores performed live.

My favorite silent film, widely considered the greatest silent ever made, premiered 90 years ago today–February 18, 1928–at the majestic Capitol Theatre in Manhattan. My book, “King Vidor’s The Crowd: The Making of a Silent Classic,” which tracks the film from rough idea to finished product features and includes a foreword by Kevin Brownlow, is available in ebook and paperback formats.

 

 

 

Q&A with Simon Levy, director of “The Chosen” at The Fountain in L.A.

Sam Mandel, Dor Gvirtsman and Alan Blumenfeld in "the Chosen." Photo by Ed Krieger.
Sam Mandel, Dor Gvirtsman and Alan Blumenfeld in “the Chosen.”
Photo by Ed Krieger.

“The Chosen,” based on Chaim Potok’s classic novel about two brilliant young men growing up five blocks and worlds apart in World War II Brooklyn, has been transformed into a play that’s somehow even more compelling than the book. Adapted by Potok and Aaron Posner and newly revised by Posner, it continues through Mar. 25 at The Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, on the edge of Los Feliz.

Director Simon Levy makes striking choices in staging the play, beginning with a baseball game between Reuven Malter, an Orthodox Jew (Sam Mendel), and Danny Saunders, an ultra-religious Hasid (Dor Gvirtsman), that turns into a Holy War; Levy’s use of sound effects is particularly noteworthy. The cast of four, fleshed out by fathers David Malter (Jonathan Arkin) and Reb Saunders (Alan Blumenfeld), is uniformly excellent; Blumenfeld’s outsized performance almost knocks you out of your seat.

Levy, who previously produced Posner’s adaptation of Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev” at the Fountain, agreed to a Q&A.

Q: I feel “The Chosen” is The Great Jewish American Novel, but it’s universal in its themes. What resonates most with you?

A: The play begins, “Ayloo v’ayloo.” “Both these and these.” Among the myriad themes that run through the book, Potok gives life to the concept that we can bridge chasms, that we can hold opposing ideas and views that can both be true—Zionism and Hasidism, the secular and the sacred, the modern and the traditional, adolescence and adulthood, fathers and son, the head and the heart. In this polarized world we live in we need to be reminded that not everything is about being right, about winning, that it’s possible, just possible, that two rights can exist at the same time.

Q: What compelled you to choose “The Chosen” to direct?

A: I was searching for a project that would be an antidote to all the negativity and toxicity we’ve endured for the past two years. I wanted to say to our audiences, “Even if we’re different, even if we disagree, we can still respect each other and communicate our differences with tolerance and understanding.” Not everything has to be right or wrong, left or right, good or bad, fake or real. Human relationships are far more complex than that. We are a complicated species. Let’s honor those differences without resorting to rancor and bullying and polarization.

Q: I was struck by the utter simplicity of the adaptation when I read the script (at least the original version).

A: Potok and Posner found a way to streamline the play so it focuses on the fathers and sons, two households with opposing points of view, and how a friendship can blossom in spite of those differences. It streamlines the coming of age story for both Reuven and Danny while giving life to the deeper themes in the novel.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect of the directing the play?

A: I wanted to make sure I got it right. The specificity of both the Hasidic and Orthodox aspects of the play require authenticity. Verisimilitude is very important to me. Although I’m Jewish, I’m a typical modern American secular Jew. So it was important to me to do in-depth research that included consulting with two rabbis, Rabbi Jim Kaufman and Rabbi Daniel Bouskila. Both were immeasurably helpful! I couldn’t have done it without their wisdom and generosity. Not only did they help with the Hebrew and Yiddish and prayers and clothing and books and behavior and the cultural underpinnings of Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, they also shared their time with the cast and our designers.

Q: You did a tremendous amount of research for the play.

A: I must have watched, listened to, dozens and dozens of YouTube videos, music recordings, and viewed hundreds of photographs. I also read through all the commentaries in the 50th Anniversary Edition of “The Chosen,” as well as Chaim Potok’s exhaustive “Wanderings: History of The Jews”… And, “Judaism For Dummies,” which is actually a pretty fabulous book. Like most directors, I love the research part of my job.

 

 

“Importance of Being Earnest” at the Attic, “Dear Brutus” at Stages

Christopher Diem, Rose London and Kayla Agnew in “Earnest” at the Attic.
Christopher Diem, Rose London and Kayla Agnew in “Earnest” at the Attic.

Two visits to the theatre this weekend to see two actor friends, after a much-needed hiatus of more than a month; plenty of family drama, mind you. J.M. Barrie’s rarely-staged 1917 fantasy “Dear Brutus” (through Feb. 11 at Fullerton’s STAGEStheatre) is a play about second chances that’s been called “Peter Pan for adults.” The underlying message, to quote one character, seems to be, “We have the power to shape ourselves.”

The ensemble cast did a fine job under Alexis Stary’s direction with a stellar performance coming from the youngest member, a sprightly little redhead by the name of Scarlett Clark (Margaret). Stand outs also included Paul Burt (Lob) as an eccentric host who invites an odd selection of guests to his house on a summer eve; and Kerri Hellmuth (Mabel) and Elizabeth Rodrigues (Joanna) as two of the guests.

First performed in 1895, Oscar Wilde’s wickedly funny Victorian era farce “The Importance of Being Earnest” (at the Attic Community Theater in Santa Ana through Feb. 4) rarely gets a production worthy of it. Bob Fetes’ attentively directed staging, buoyed by a talented cast, exceeded my expectations—no small accomplishment considering the cavernous space of the venue. The uncredited costumes (designed by Rebecca Roth in conjunction with the Long Beach Playhouse) did much to enhance the show.

Rose London triumphed as the no-nonsense dowager aunt Lady Bracknell, as did Kayla Agnew (as Cecily). Kyle Patterson (Jack), Maggie King (Gwendolyn) and Mark Bowen (as the butler) were exceptional in their characterizations, giving this Wilde soufflé about using the well-crafted fiction to escape one’s obligations just the light touch it requires.

 

“Sugar Plum Fairy” at SCR, “Doc Martin 8” on DVD, stocking stuffers

Shannon Holt, Sandra Tsing Loh and Tony Abatemarco in “Sugar Plum Fairy.” Photo by Tania Thompson/SCR.
Shannon Holt, Sandra Tsing Loh and Tony Abatemarco in “Sugar Plum Fairy.” Photo by Tania Thompson/SCR.

Having fun yet? Sandra Tsing Loh’s “Sugar Plum Fairy” (at South Coast Repertory through Dec. 24) is sure to double your pleasure this season whatever your religious preference; despite its Christmasy trappings, it has a multicultural elf aboard its sleigh to celebrate Chanukah and Kwanzaa. In addition to her first-rate abilities as a storyteller, Loh displays a genius for audience involvement here—singalongs, balloons, popcorn and more—that’s bound to pump up the fun quotient for your holidays.

As with Loh’s previous SCR outing, “The Madwoman in the Volvo,” it’s essentially a solo show for three actors; Tony Abatemarco (who’s especially good) and Shannon Holt support Loh playing mother and sister, schoolmates, ballerinas and other characters. Under Bart DeLorenzo’s canny direction, “Fairy” hilariously relates Loh’s adolescent experience auditioning for a dance school production of “The Nutcracker” when she isn’t making local jokes and joshing with the audience.

Speaking of fun, tops among TV shows newly available on home video is “Doc Martin: Series 8” (on DVD and Blu-ray from Acorn Media) with Martin Clunes, Caroline Catz, Ian McNeice, Eileen Atkins and other regulars. Despite the show’s endurance, I’m happy to report they’re all back in fine form, as are the scripts. The set includes 8 episodes, plus a bonus disc. I can also recommend an earlier Clunes program (on DVD from Acorn) equally perfect for binging, the tragicomic “William and Mary” co-starring Julie Graham.

Stocking stuffers worthy of your time: Marcel L’Herbier’s newly-restored 1924 avant-garde fantasy “L’Inhumaine” (available from Flicker Alley in a Deluxe Blu-ray Edition); the Muslim-Jewish romantic comedy “Peace after Marriage” (on DVD from Film Movement); “Family Life (Vida de familia),” a Chilean drama from two of the country’s most acclaimed young filmmakers (on VOD from Monument Releasing.

And still more: Peter Greenaway’s drama of love, death and revenge,“The Pillow Book” (on DVD and Blu-ray from Film Movement Classics); “Susie Blue and the Lonesome Fellas,” an award-winning Retro Western Swing album (available on CD from Seraphic Records).

 

 

“Mr. Burns” at Costa Mesa Playhouse, “Appropriate” at Chapman U

Brian Pirnat and Brooke Lewis in “Mr. Burns.” Photo by Amy Lauren Gettys.
Brian Pirnat and Brooke Lewis in “Mr. Burns.” Photo by Amy Lauren Gettys.

Can a play recover from an unsatisfactory first act, one that leaves you frankly wondering, what am I doing here? Absolutely, if Anne Washburn’s “Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play” and Branden Jacob-Jenkins’ “Appropriate”—both of which opened in Orange County last weekend—are any indication. Neither of these plays worked at the outset for me; both recovered enough after the first intermission to make me stick around for what were hugely rewarding third acts.

“Mr. Burns” (Alchemy Theatre Co. at Costa Mesa Playhouse through Dec. 16) is an offbeat musical comedy about what could happen to our beloved pop culture after the collapse of society as we know it, inventively directed by Jeff Lowe. The first act features a group of survivors attempting to recall the plot of their favorite episode of “The Simpsons” in bits and pieces, ad nauseum. The bizarre, stylistically different second act does nothing to prepare you for the original mini-musical that forms the finale, which gives you hope for the world in general not to mention the genre of musical theatre.

“Appropriate” (at Chapman University’s Waltmar Theatre through Dec. 9), a family drama about racism and racial violence in America, manages to survive a laborious first act that accomplishes little. It more or less gets to the point in the second act, with the discovery of a shocking photo album that proves a source of humiliation for some family members, and taps into the unlikely humor of the situation to give us a third act that’s nothing short of brilliant, all under the direction of Trevor Biship.

Both plays put talented ensembles through their paces, with Brooke Lewis, Phil Nieto, Emily Lappi and others playing a surprising array of characters with great finesse in “Mr. Burns.” With the exception of McKenna Ryan, who annoyingly shrieks her way through the first act, the cast of “Approriate” (Maggie Dorfman, Madison Gallus et al) proves highly capable. Christopher Scott Murillo’s scenic design for the latter is almost worthy of South Coast Rep.

 

Restored “Lost World” on Blu-ray, Lon Chaney Sr. and Marion Davies on DVD

“The Lost World” (1925).
“The Lost World” (1925).

If there was ever a silent film I never wanted to see again after my first viewing it was “The Lost World,” the 1925 original I clapped eyes on as a teenager. Or so I thought.

I was bowled over when this prehistoric adventure flick surfaced at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival this summer in a newly restored version, in spectacular image quality with about 10 minutes of rediscovered footage. Easily the surprise highlight of the event. For those who missed it, I’m happy to report it’s now available in a Blu-ray edition from Flicker Alley (a tandem effort with Lobster Films and Blackhawk Films).

Based on a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, “World” stars Wallace Beery, Lewis Stone and Bessie Love, who set out to find a fabled plateau in the jungles of South America. It was earmarked for extinction four years after its release to make way for another “creature feature” it somewhat resembled called “King Kong,” with the result that it’s been seen in crappy-looking abridged versions ever since—until now. The 110-minute Blu-ray release features a terrific new score by Robert Israel, restored outtakes, an essay on the restoration by Serge Bromberg of Lobster and more.

“Lon Chaney: Before the Thousand Faces” is a DVD compilation (available from Undercrank Productions) of three rare Universal features or what remains of them, from the early years of the actor’s career. The importance of this 83-minute collection lies more in the scarcity of the performer’s pre-1920 work than in the quality of the films themselves; it’s a must-see for Chaney fans, however.

Lon Sr. co-stars as a young husband—and a much older bearded version of the same character—in “A Mother’s Atonement” (1915). He plays the small supporting role of a doctor in “If My Country Should Call (1915), and is a “half-breed” hopelessly in love with a woman in “A Place Beyond the Winds” (1916). Jon C. Mirsalis’ scores are first-rate; he also did the restorations, newly scanned from 35mm archival prints.

Two Marion Davies features from 1922, “The Bride’s Play” and “Beauty’s Worth” (both on DVD from Undercrank Productions) offer an opportunity to see the actress shortly before attaining stardom. Both are entertaining romantic dramas (the former is set unconvincingly in Ireland), sweet stories that have Maid Marion forced to choose between a pair of suitors, and both releases are handsomely scored and produced by Ben Model.

“Whispering Shadows” (also on DVD from Undercrank) is a 1921 occult film lost to the ravages of time until now. Robert Barrat (who may be recalled from his supporting roles in such ‘30s films as “Heroes for Sale”) is wrongfully accused of embezzlement, his innocence known only to a dead man in this intriguing feature. “The Devil’s Assistant” (1916), a short film also on the disc, is plagued by a weak storyline and overly broad acting but offers some striking visuals—notably red-tinted scenes that take place in Hell. Andrew E. Simpson provides new theatrical organ scores for both films.

 

August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” at South Coast Rep, Britcom binging on DVD

Preston Butler III and L. Scott Caldwell in August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean. Photo by Jordan Kubat/SCR.
Preston Butler III and L. Scott Caldwell in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. Photo by Jordan Kubat/SCR.

August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” (at South Coast Repertory through Nov. 11) is one of those quirky character-driven plays it’s hard to get a handle on at first. It may be “monologue-heavy” as one of my fellow playwrights has observed, and it takes a while for something resembling a plot to develop. But my advice is to sit back and enjoy the ride, and not to miss it if you appreciate the distinction between live theatre and pre-recorded media. Vive la différence! After all, Wilson made up his own rules when it came to playwriting.

“Gem” has one of the richest characterizations of Wilson’s oeuvre in Aunt Ester, the 285-year-old matriarch who anchors the tale—which employs as a backdrop the migration of African Americans from the rural South to the racist North in search of a better life, in the first decade of the 20th century. The 2.5 hour length of the play affords Ester and others time to tell leisurely stories, creating a spellbinding tapestry of language.

Director Kent Gash has meticulously assembled a first-rate ensemble cast, most notably including L. Scott Caldwell as the feisty Ester, but also Cleavant Derricks (Solly Two Kings), who reminisces about his first taste of post-slavery freedom in Canada; Preston Butler III (Citizen Barlow), who visits Ester to have her “wash his soul clean”; Shinelle Azoroh (Black Mary), his love interest; and Arnell Powell (Caesar), her hot-headed brother. Scenic designer Edward E. Haynes and his colleagues collaborate to produce one of the best shows I’ve ever seen at SCR in 30+ years of attendance on and off.

Binging on Britcoms is easier than ever thanks to Acorn Media. Not that I do a lot of it, but lately I’ve been gobbling up BBC adaptations of P.G. Wodehouse on DVD like there’s no tomorrow, first with the juicy “Blandings” and then “Wodehouse Playhouse.” Timothy Spall and Jennifer Saunders are wonderfully wacky in the former; John Alderton and Pauline Collins wrap their tongues around Wodehouse’s whimsical dialogue in delightful fashion (her vocal range is phenomenal) in the latter.

Few British TV shows are more consistently satisfying than “Doc Martin,” featuring the ever reliable Martin Clunes as village curmudgeon/physician and set indelibly on the coast of the Cornwall. Series 8, recently streamed on Acorn TV, is due out on DVD and Blu-ray from the company in mid-December; Sigourney Weaver returns for the season’s finale.

Musée Picasso in Paris, Museum of Modern Art in Slovenia

Musée Picasso, Paris. Photo © 2017 by Jordan R. Young.
Musée Picasso, Paris. Photo © 2017 by Jordan R. Young.

The Musée Picasso seems to be closed every time I’m in Paris. I finally managed to visit the museum devoted to the celebrated artist on a recent trip to Europe, though it was (natch) partially closed. Better yet, I visited the Museum of Modern Art in Slovenia.

The Picasso is not the only Parisian museum housing the work of an iconic Spanish painter, of course; there also Espace Dalí in Montmartre. The former, housed in a private mansion in Paris’ 3rd arrondissement, is the more imposing of the two. The current exhibition, “Picasso 1932,” is a chronological survey of the artist’s work for the year, organized in partnership with Tate Modern in London.

The exhibit of more than 100 works (on view in Paris through Feb. 11, 2018) is drawn from public and private collections. His best known painting that year, “Le Rêve” (“The Dream”), depicts his mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter. More intriguing are the obscure sketches and studies of nudes and couples engaged in lovemaking and erotic games. The exhibit is in fact subtitled “The Erotic Year.”

The comparatively little known Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana, Slovenia (aka the Moderna galerija), is nothing short of a revelation. If you think New York City’s same-named institution offers more or less everything you need to know regarding 20th century art, you should have a glance at what you’re missing in the Balkans.

The museum’s permanent collection, “Continuities and Ruptures,” is anything but a boring survey of nationalistic art. The influence of such artists as Picasso and Rene Magritte is evident among the more avant-garde works on display, which exhibit an unexpected streak of originality. The work produced by Partisans, those active in the anti-Nazi resistance movement during World War II, is particularly surprising.

 “Slovenian Artists Exhibition” by Hinko Smrekar, National Gallery of Slovenia.
“Slovenian Artists Exhibition” by Hinko Smrekar, National Gallery of Slovenia.

My favorite work in the museum is a drawing by painter-illustrator Hinko Smrekar, who was murdered by Italian fascists in 1942, at the start of WWII in Slovenia. This piece, drawn circa 1910 and titled “Slovenian Artists Exhibition,” transcends time and place like all great art. More than 100 years later, it speaks volumes.

 

 

 

“Curious Incident” at SCFTA, “Once” at SCR, “In a Word” at Chance

James McHale and Amanda Zarr in “In a Word.” Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio.
James McHale and Amanda Zarr in “In a Word.” Photo by Doug Catiller, True Image Studio.

Give ‘em the old razzle dazzle—gets ‘em every time. I have no evidence this thought passed through Simon Stephens’ brain en route to adapting “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” from the novel by Mark Haddon, but it very well might have. This mega-theatrical show about an extraordinary 15-year-old named Christopher, who’s accused of killing his neighbor’s dog and attempts to find the culprit, is nothing if not big.

From scenic design (Bunny Christie) and lighting (Paule Constable) to music and sound effects, the Tony Award-winning musical (at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa through Sept. 17) is strikingly conceived and executed. Marianne Elliott’s astute direction is the key to making it all work smoothly; Adam Langdon is first-rate as Christopher. Unfortunately, Maria Elena Ramirez fails to project in the key role of Siobhan; between her British accent and the theatre’s acoustics, she’s largely unintelligible. (I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t hear her—there was a queue for hearing devices at intermission).

“Once” may not be everyone’s cup of tea but there’s no denying the stage production (at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa through Sept. 30) based on the 2007 movie written and directed by John Carney is hugely entertaining. The performance I witnessed drew one of the most enthusiastic standing ovations I’ve seen in years at SCR. This musical romance, which boasts a book by Enda Walsh with music and lyrics by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who co-starred in the film) is a wholly different animal from the picture but captures its essence.

There’s nothing particularly Irish about “Once” on stage or screen though it’s set in Dublin and centers on the relationship between an Irishman and a Czech woman, and that seems a missed opportunity. I don’t think you need 13 actors/musicians to tell this guy-meets-girl story; the Tony-winning stage version has a more substantial plot but I for one prefer the intimacy of the film. Rustin Cole Sailors is more than capable as Guy, while Amanda Leigh Jerry is exceptional as Girl. Kent Nicholson’s direction keeps it moving on a splendid set by Ralph Funicello.

And my favorite of the three shows I managed to see this week? That would be Lauren Yee’s “In a Word” (in its So Cal premiere at Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills through Oct. 8). Sometimes smaller is better. “Curious Incident” has more words, but “Word” arguably has more love of words. “Curious” and “Once” unquestionably have more pizazz but “Word” does a better job of telling a story. And story wins over spectacle every time, at least in my book. What the Chance lacks in budget it makes up for in imagination, and Christopher Scott Murillo’s set is a perfect example. Jocelyn A. Brown’s direction is simply magical.

I won’t spoil the story. Let’s just say this quirky dramedy concerns a missing boy, his adoptive parents and their day-to-day relationship as they ride a rollercoaster of emotions. Amanda Zarr gives a beautifully nuanced performance as Fiona, the boy’s mother, as those emotions play across the surface; Chance Dean provides good contrast as her somewhat detached husband. James McHale largely steals the show as the one-man supporting cast, playing the boy, a detective, a cat burglar and other roles with deft physicality and a wonderfully expressive face.

 

“King Henry IV” in Garden Grove, “Understudy” in Lake Forest, OC-centric in Orange

David Edward Reyes and Talia Goodman in Karen Fix Curry’s “Celtic Knot” at OC-centric. Photo by Kirk Huff Schenck.
David Edward Reyes and Talia Goodman in Karen Fix Curry’s “Celtic Knot” at OC-centric. Photo by Kirk Huff Schenck.

Theresa Rebeck’s “The Understudy” (at Modjeska Playhouse in Lake Forest through Sept. 3) is an example of what can happen when a playwright makes a name for themselves. This is not the ingenious author of “Seminar” and “Mauritius” at her best; put another name on the script and it would have a hard time getting produced. Director Deb Marley and two-thirds of her cast—Robert Downs and Hailey Tweter—appear to be giving their all, but their best efforts aren’t quite enough to make it work; Jaycob Hunter is less successful in the lead role but has his moments.

Actors will get the most entertainment out of this metatheatrical comedy. The play is full of existential jokes that fall flat on their face; though it aspires to the likes of Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” it sadly misses the mark. The highlight is a heart-felt rant about the lack of good roles for women, an all-too-real situation that will resonate with theatre folk but is none too amusing. Next up at Modjeska: “Cut” by Crystal Skillman, about the world of reality television.

A better bet is OC-centric’s 7th annual New Play Festival (at Chapman University in Orange through Aug. 27), one of So Cal’s best offerings of original works of theatre. A program of one-act plays pairs Sara Saenz’s “Crimson,” a clever get-even scenario hatched in the aftermath of a rape, with Karen Fix Curry’s “Celtic Knot,” a compelling family drama pitting a stubborn Irish woman against her kid brother’s American wife. Karly Thomas’ full-length “Fair” is an offbeat fantasy that spins the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” aphorism on its head.

Though I agree with the concept of colorblind casting in theory, I’m not sure I would have chosen a Latina to direct an Irish-themed play—or cast Latino and Asian American actors in it. Yet in “Celtic Knot” director Angela Cruz magically transports us to a farm in the middle of Eire, as well as an Irish pub in Chicago, with a surprising degree of authenticity. This drama, perhaps the most satisfying of the three plays, would be right at home on the stage of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Candice M. Clasby (Mary), David Edward Reyes (her brother Sean), and Bill Carson (Eamon, their father) all sound like the real deal; Talia Goodman (Beth, the wife) provides an ideal contrast.

If you haven’t had your fill of the Bard yet this season, Shakespeare/Summerfest Orange County is offering an intimate and innovative staging of the seldom-produced “King Henry IV, Part I.” Yes, this is one of the history plays, but it features Shakespeare’s most enduring comic character, the larger-than-life Falstaff. Furthermore, you can sit on the stage, smack in the midst of the action. It promises to be anything but boring. The catch is that the show just opened (at the Garden Grove Amphitheater in downtown Garden Grove) and it’s closing Aug. 26.

The play takes place in 13th century England. Henry IV, who has just seized the throne, is rarely onstage. The focus of this coming-of-age story is Prince Hal, the king’s ne’er-do-well heir. Will the crown prince stop wenching and carousing about town with his buddy (and surrogate father) Falstaff and sober up, and if so when? Will he best his rival, the volatile Hotspur, whose actions inspire him? And which one’s the real hero of the play? Don’t ask me, I haven’t seen or read it since I caught it up in Ashland, Oregon, 40 years ago; I’m coming this week to find out.