Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Theater District"

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note: entire contents copyright 2005 by Larry Stark

"Theater District"

by Richard Kramer
Directed by Wes Savick

Set Design by Jenna McFarland
Lighting Design by Ken Elliott
Projection Design by Erin Turner
Costume Design by Seth Bodie
Sound Design by Jeffrey Alan Jones
Properties Master Audra Avery
Production Stage Manager Jane Siebels

George.........Bill Brochtrup
Kenny.............Liam Torres
Lola............Melinda Lopez
Ben............Barlow Adamson
Wesley.........Edwin Tournier
Theo.........Jaime Cepero III
Mario/Orderly...Neil A. Casey

Date: Fri, 07 Oct 2005 10:47:15 -0400
From: Larry Stark
Subject: Your review of THEATRE DISTRICT

Dear Carl,
I read your review, and then went to see "TheatER District". Did you? See the show, I mean? Were you perhaps so offended by the press-packet information that "Richard Kramer, a veteran television writer, director and producer, has written his first stage play entitled THEATER DISTRICT which premiered in Los Angeles with Bill Brochtrup of 'NYPD Blue' fame..." that you decided you could sleep through what must be a sit-com pilot? (That's why I always throw press-packets away unread; I like to get all my information from the stage.) I mean, it's a play about a Situation surely, but another in the sort of play I'm fascinated by, that tries to do on a stage things that can be done more easily but perhaps less powerfully in other media. Still, its "West Coast" t-v roots are no reason for your airy dismissal (while "dropping quips left and right" yourself) of the work of Director Wes Savick. Hmmmm. I guess this is indeed "A Minority Report" isn't it?

Or were you too mesmerized by the tiny snippet of "The Nun's Story" that starts the show pasted into an abstract window high stage-right in Jenna McFarland's set by Projection Designer Erin Turner? I admit neither the director nor the actors, nor I suspect even the playwright, have solved the problem of that first scene. Perhaps a playwright schooled by television overly depends on the t-v shorthand that mistakes stereotyps for characters. Still, as you yourself admit: "If you concentrate on the two men you will have the jump on me who settled for Audrey Hepburn ... --- for awhile I thought George was Wesley’s father ... "

You sure got that right, Carl. That IS the Situation here: Wesley (Edward Tournier) is a kid some months under sixteen in desperate need of a role-model either to accept or revolt from. He has elected to live with his famously-gay-lawyer father (Liam Torres) rather than his successful-but-never-successful-enough novelist mother (Melinda Lopez) --- and her cherishing doctor-husband (Barlow Adamson) is much too bland to compete with his dad's live-in-lover (Bill Brochtrup) for that role-model role.

You see, Carl, "The Nun's Story" is described in detail later in Richard Kramer's play as being about career-choice and life-choice, and that's why in your words "The evening belongs to Edward Tournier, hands seemingly grafted inside his pockets, who beautifully captures Wesley’s confused adolescence as he straddles various crossroads;" After his intiial establishment of slacker-slouch indifference, the play first comes alive when this kid admits to a serious interest in words and their real meaning. He's getting at the choice that preoccupies a sixteen-year-old most, and the only persons in the play who will talk to him seriously are his best-friend basketball-buddy (Jaime Cepero III) who came out of his homosexual closet running for 10th-grade president --- and his dad's lover.

That's the "Situation" here: every significant grown-up in this kid's life is hiding from this confrontation in self-defensive smokescreens and glaringly unfinished sentences. That gives the trio of actors playing the "parents" near-insurmountable difficulties because, through most of the play, the playwright has given them nothing to work with but subtexts. And I suspect Wes Savick worked very closely with the cast to make it very clear whenever they drop from the frothy flurries of avoidance-reactions and actually Say Something Important. But you have to be awake to notice them.

The illustrative characters here are played by Neil A. Casey. As a restaurant second-banana he exemplifies avoidance by saying "Can I ask a Personal Question here? --- What ever happened to Butter in restaurants?" But only moments later, in a stunning shift of gears into an overly-officious hospital orderly, he breaks that impersonal facade to remind George that he, at least, still remembers an almost momentary long-ago sexual encounter. The sincerity that he and Bill Brochtrup bring to this exchange serves to underline George's direct, human responses to everyone else in the play --- and Wesley's dilemma.

The scenes between Jaime Cepero III and Edward Tournier are the only ones in which each is freely and automatically honest about everything --- yet even here there's a subtext glitch: when friends, even "Best" friends start spending more time with girl- or boy-friends, what's a nearly-sixteen-year-old to do about his life-choices? An off-stage dust-up with gay-bashers where they defended one another thus turns out a dangerous bonding-experience.

The trio of grown-ups, however, work very hard to breathe some life into characters as transparent and spineless as Kleenexes. (Both parents, hearing that Wesley's basketball-buddy's father plays trombone with the Philharmonic, quip "Is he first-chair?" That is So New York, and so Easy.) Liam Torres does it by emphasizing his escape-asides to the point that he quite rightly looks a live-in-yet-absentee father. Melinda Lopez goes physical, again and again breaking off sentences that could even remotely reveal her fear that her ex-husband's homosexuality might be inherited. Barlow Adamson plays Ben as ... fat. He looks literally 20-pounds lighter off-stage, and his character avoids significant confrontations by being ponderous.

In a sense, Bill Brochtrup has it easy playing the only honest grown-up onstage, but the "situation-style" writing here sidetracks the play once or twice into restaurant-jargonfests between him and Casey. It is significant for the kid's dilemma at the heart of the play that George made a rational choice between his love of food and of auditions. Unlike Wesley's parents, he insists on the smallness of his acting career ("In EQUUS I played a Horse!"), but his successful restaurant is always an aside interrupting the main action of the play.

But back to those two brief clips from "The Nun's Story" that overly mesmerized you, Carl. They're not the only lunges toward media-techniques here, and they must be dictated by the script because they're expensive. In early scenes, people talk to live-action slave-cameras that project their close-ups into that same stage-right window --- a method that gets in the way of true character-explication that the cast realizes much more successfully through dialogue. Then there are scenes interrupting scenes, in which the kids describe to one another what happened in the scene --- from their point of view. In one case, Wesley Describes George inarticulately whipping an entire table-setting in his beloved restaurant to the floor in angry frustration. What this technique does beyond saving SpeakEasy Stage the costs of shattered crockery every performance I can't understand.

Is this a great play? Well, no --- but it IS a play and deserves attention as such. And its cast --- including the "star" "of 'NYPD Blue' fame..." --- and its director are taking it seriously. Maybe the seriousness of their commitment has deepened since press-night. When you comment that "...on the night I attended, the SpeakEasy audience happily ate it up" you must refer to the gay-style quipping. Well, maybe they all read the press-kit as you did. Last night "Theater District" (an explanation of the lame title is buried late in the play) drew fewer guffaws and much respectful attention. And, since it's not a Sit-Com but a Situation-PLAY, that's the attitude I wish You had taken to it as well.

What shall we review next week?


"Theater District" (30 September - 29 October)
Boston Center for the Arts, 527 Tremont Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 933-8600

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