Icebergs at Geffen Playhouse

A new comedy by Alena Smith:


On an uncomfortably hot evening in November—the Day of the Dead to be exact—a group of thirtysomething friends convene in a house in the trendy Silver Lake hills of Los Angeles and proceed to melt down ensemble, as their anxieties blurt out, stack and compound like debt. They worry about career success in Hollywood, about the decision to have a child, sexuality, identity, and yes, global warming—hence the play’s clever title.

At the center are married couple Calder (Nate Corddry), a promising writer-director, and Abigail (Jennifer Mudge), an actress. The worries come like embers blown in on the Santa Ana wind: will Calder’s newest movie, based on a true-life female polar explorer, be greenlit by the studio? Will he have to cast an A-list name, rather than giving the lead part to his wife, who, at 35, is still booking mostly commercials and bit parts and looking for her big break? Will Abigail get pregnant? The couple have been “trying” for some time, and her period is late.

So far, mundane fretting at the end of the work day. But Abigail is also harried by a dread of climate change, and spends too much time on the internet looking up the grim facts of melting ice, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and the coming collapse of planktonic food webs. As these worries begin to overwhelm Abigail, the couple’s close friends gather in their picture-perfect Silver Lake house: Reed (Keith Powell), an old school buddy of Calder’s, now an unlikely, nerdy black paleontologist from Missouri, who is visiting LA for a conference; Molly (Rebecca Henderson), Abigail’s girlfriend who very recently and precipitously married a younger woman, a woman who she is now fretfully contemplating divorcing because the new wife rejects her cat, Taco; and finally Nicky (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), Calder’s agent, a smooth-talking, tight-suited avatar of the type who is one of the best California characters since Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, gleefully zinging the business lingo and insincerity, while simultaneously holding out the golden promise of Kirsten Dunst accepting the lead in Calder’s movie and right-swiping his Tinder screen.

Smith, a veteran playwright who is also a TV writer for The Affairon Showtime, has a deft hand at sitcom banter and laugh lines, at moments winding the action up into frenzied, manic, often hilarious crescendos. And LA is there is all its legendary superficiality: the latest buzzwords, attitudes, poses, and tech—Instagram and Tinder and smartphones handled nervously and continuously, like rosary beads. But there is method: by considering the city’s superficiality profoundly, Smith employs it like a portraitist’s brush to delineate the true contours of her demographic, her industry, and the anxieties of our time. And she uses them to burrow deeper, driving a spiral of worry and revelation that cuts to the heart of our confidence in who we are, exposing our essential fragility and barely-buried fear that in the unnerving evening heat, everything could melt down around us.

At times the play’s preaching on the serious themes of global warming, parental responsibility, and racism is too much, and as a result the action drags, with the lessons overwhelming the characters. But mostly Smith manages the impressive feat of integrating TV-style situation comedy, often riotous, with weighty themes of love, career, life, death, and the acceptance of loss—symbolized by the cheap Day of the Dead skeleton costumes the friends dance maniacally in, a little buzzed, and the tarot card Death that Abigail picks from Molly’s deck twice in two days. And there is progress: acceptance, and softening; Nicky the agent’s arc in particular is touching, and hopeful.

The cast, too, strikes the right balance of confidence and vulnerability, evidently enjoying the material and the play. Icebergs is a fine-grained photograph of a slice of Southern California life in the Obama, now Trump, era, of alternating hope and foreboding, levity and fear, soaked in the hipster LA sunshine.

Stoppard's Arcadia in Pasadena

“Arcadia at A Noise Within: Stoppard play explores the conflict between Enlightenment and Romanticism,” theater review.


Arcadia, written in 1993, is Tom Stoppard’s deepest and probably his best work. The comedy is set in a country house in Derbyshire, England, at two moments, one in the early 19th century, and the other in the late 20th. Through this double time frame it explores the parallel mysteries of human nature and the order of the universe.

Septimus Hodge, played by Rafael Goldstein, is the brilliant tutor to the daughter of the house, 13-year old Thomasina, a mathematical prodigy played by Erika Soto. Together, they puzzle on the limits of Newtonian theory, whether the universe is predetermined or if other, unpredictable forces are at work to knock it off of its mathematically precise course, and how feedback between these two dimensions might work. These quandaries are mirrored in the romantic action taking place among the various denizens of the house in 1809: seductions, attractions, rendezvous, jealousies, and demanded duels—in which Septimus, and his school mate, Lord Byron, who is an unseen but ubiquitous player in the story, are enmeshed.

These in turn are set against backdrop of the grand cultural drama of the 18th and /19th centuries, the debate between between Enlightenment and Romanticism on whether reason or sentiment should guide our affairs. The debate is embodied in the proposed refashioning of the Sibley House estate grounds, done by Capability Brown in the natural style, into the fashionable Gothic picturesque style, by Mr. Richard Noakes, a landscape gardener, played by Eric Curtis Johnson.

Stoppard moves back and forth between this layer and a contemporary moment in the same house, when an historian, a mathematician, and a self-aggrandizing academic, circle around one another to try to unravel the events in the house back in 1809, and what they may have had to do with Lord Byron’s mysterious decision to quit England for a permanent exile on the Continent.

Through the collapsing of the time frames Stoppard unleashes intellectually provocative and delightfully naughty layers of aesthetic landscape theory, mathematical chaos theory, poetry, and ruminations on desire—or, as one character summarizes, sex, “the attraction that Newton left out.”

The actors are assured, ebullient, and uniformly good. The direction is subtle and economical, and the staging in a single, simple room is enlivened by excellent sound design, lighting, and original music.

Arcadia is a top-notch, high quality production, from this consistently classy company.


At a gas station in Moab, a Thursday afternoon in June, the temperature a little over 100, heat rising from the oily asphalt. The pumps are lined with vehicles gassing up: 4 x 4 pickups, lots of Jeeps, old, local and dented, and new, jacked up, stud-tired, and rented, offroad Tonka toys for the slickrock trade; also little nondescript rental sedans packed with tourists, mostly apparently Chinese couples in shapeless cotton clothes in primary colors, and clutches of Euro dudes sporting horizontally striped shirts, spiky, dyed haircuts, and sunburns. They’re headed for the national parks, the Indian ruins, the river, the redrock desert, what they don’t have at home. What they have in Utah. Inside, I wonder what is edible: there are racks of coral reef colors, every kind of soda pop, candy, and chips in taut, pneumatic, mirrored bags, as though a new product line by Jeff Koons, priced for retail. Steamy, filmy glass cases with revolving red hot dogs and jalapeño cheese poppers. A pimply cashier guy shrugs. In apology? Or just to say, This is it, these are your choices. I get Cool Ranch Doritos in a metallic blue bag and chat about the weather. He says it’s the only place he’s lived where it tends to rain while the sun is shining. Maybe clouds drift down off the peaks of the La Sals? I suggest. He rings me up.

The main street, Highway 191, is four lanes of traffic, bumping along a line of red lights, past rental outfitters offering Jeeps, Hummers, quads, mountain bikes, rubber rafts and inflatable kayaks. There are fleets of vans to shuttle customers between trails, river put-ins and take-outs, and dirt roads. Brewpubs, diners, motels, more gas stations, too many for a town this size. There is Uranium Avenue, and there, is the Uranium Building, a little modernist storefront from when this old Mormon farming settlement struck Cold War gold in radioactive dirt. After the boom decades of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, it bottomed out. Down by the Colorado River, a dune of uranium mining tailings crouches by the snot-green water flowing past, and looms in at least a few of the minds of the 30 million or so people downstream.

On the radio, a Grand County commissioner, a woman, laments the traffic on 191, calling it the area’s biggest problem. The morning commute can be 20 minutes in bumper-to-bumper traffic, she says. South out of town, the road rises onto a pinyon and juniper-covered plateau, where, without warning, a field of tall, blindingly white wind turbines turns slowly, then is gone. We see no others.

On the San Juan River, in rented rubber boats, we pull ashore to see ancient Ancestral Puebloan Indian stone houses set in the cliffs, and panels of drawings, strange anthropomorphic figures, doodles, bighorn sheep, and tricksters etched into the vertical red rock. They are layered up, willy-nilly, graffiti accreted over thousands of years. The artists disappeared from these canyons and mesas hundreds of years ago, fleeing South and leaving these traces. Drought and a changing climate played a central role, making it harder to grow their crops and game more scarce; forests and meadows retreated up the mountains. The stress worsened conflict with their neighbors, who became enemies. A culture with magnificent art and architecture, and good technologies, but it couldn’t adapt to a changing, drying world.

Kayaking the LA River: Wilderness scenes in the city

For anyone looking for a little wilderness-style adventure this weekend— without leaving Los Angeles—notch your first kayak descent of the mighty Los Angeles River. The Frogtown run (that’s “Elysian Valley” to you realtors and politicians) is open, from the Fletcher St bridge to the end of the soft-bottomed section where the 110, 5, and Figueroa St. all cross over, about two miles. Drag your boat down the concrete bank (watch for broken glass and condoms, honestly) and put in. It starts with a nice calm lake that you could float on all afternoon, but point yourself through that hissing gap in the arundo grass and bounce down a rocky class 2 chute into the weirdest wet rabbit hole this side of Waterworld. Never mind the roar of I-5, or the graffiti, trash, power lines and Metrolink trains banging by, never mind the fact that you’re floating on treated sewage (er, secondary-reclaimed effluent), just dig the 60-foot sycamores and willows, the night herons and diving grebes, the geese and coyotes, and the complete solitude (that’s the weirdest part). This could be Montana…except it isn’t. Slow, deep pools alternate with boneyards—getting out and dragging the boat over rocks is part of the fun. There are 2-3 more exciting, narrow chutes, and at least one wrong (left) line into a fast concrete slot with strainers that could be hazardous. (My 7-year daughter had the good sense to suggest we drag back out of that one.) Kid-friendly, if your kids are ok with this sort of thing.

Tales Of The Old West

Blog Post for The Autry National Center’s production of Tales of the Old West. Sold out production April 3-6, 2013. Los Angeles, CA.

Set in wild and woolly Wyoming Territory, Tales of the Old West—adapted by Barbara Bragg from the award-winning short stories of her father, William F. Bragg, Jr.—faithfully portrays the hair-raising adventures and harrowing predicaments that Anglo, Native American, and African American men and women faced following the Civil War. The performance—with ten actors performing 25 roles in three acts—will lead audiences through the galleries and feature live music of the period in a manner reminiscent of tales told around a campfire. Production directed by Corey Madden with original new music by Bruno Louchouarn.

When is a tale true, or tall? In the Old West, myth and history were always blurred, two sides of the same spinning coin. Think no further than Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, sometimes featuring Sitting Bull and his Sioux warriors, acting out cowboys and Indians for paying crowds before the Indians were even fully subdued. From the beginning the American West was both things, mythic history and historical myth- (in-the-) making: a terrain of experience and fantasy, at once physical and psychological; a stage for deadly serious action and for enacting individual, cultural, and national dreams. It was where post-Civil War America worked out a new national narrative of race, destiny, and violence, and renewed its myth of individual freedom, shimmering on the wide horizon of “empty” lands ripe for the taking.

The Bill Braggs, Senior and Junior, were exemplary Westerners—ranchers, soldiers, politicians, and writers of fiction and history, simultaneously curators and creators of Wyoming’s mythic history. Wyoming was of course the scene of some of the last Indian battles, and the last of the Plains and Rockies territories to succumb to statehood, in 1890. And where Buffalo Bill, returned from entertaining Kings and Kaisers across the Atlantic, minted a town of his very own—Cody, WY, five years later.

When is fiction literature, or history pulp? Even as it was being invented, the Western was genre—popular, lowbrow, pulp—full of exotic scenes and characters, violence, danger, thrills, and suspense. The audience member, or the reader, could be the hero, rescuing the girl, shooting the Indian, beating the Mexican, outsmarting the evil banker/rancher/miner/thief. The gunfight, the horse chase, and the shady, greedy frontier characters were renewed versions of ancient archetypes, set on a new, raucously colored American stage.

Every era needs its own pulp. Cheap entertainment for ordinary folks, that stirs the passions and doesn’t take too long to get to the climax. Shakespeare wrote a version of it. American pulp is said to date from 1896, when the first cheap magazine filled with exciting stories was steam-printed on thin paper. It’s no coincidence that three years before, at the Chicago World’s Fair, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner announced the end of the American frontier. Thereafter, most Americans would live in towns and cities, not on remote farms or ranches. But, following Turner, they believed even more fervently that it was the frontier that defined them as Americans. As the direct experience faded, the frontier became ever more important as vicarious experience. As the country became more homogenized and places became more like any other place, the regional flavor and specific exoticism of the West became ever more alluring. The West, so recently new, became Old.

If pulp fiction’s heyday ended in 1941, when the war effort hoovered up all the paper, it didn’t disappear. Far from it: pulp found new media and new relevance. From short stories to radio plays to dimestore paperback novels like Louis L’Amour’s. Genres multiplied: crime, horror, war, sci-fi, adventure, romance. The magazine became the comic book, and the hero became the superhero.

Pulp was first printed on paper because movies and then TV hadn’t been invented yet. The Western ruled the screen, as pulp entered its real golden age, transubstantiated into moving, talking images. Each era rewrote the scripts: The Lone Ranger, John Wayne. Then, for a more cynical age, Clint Eastwood’s mysterious stranger. Today, Quentin Tarrantino has rewritten the Western as a Southern, with Django Unchained. But it remains exemplary of the genre, with the same dramas of racial struggle, manly valor, romantic love, challenge to authority, horse chases, gunfights, and ignoble, and sometimes noble, death.

These tales of the Old West being put on stage at the Autry are also perfectly exemplary of the genre, containing every trope in the bag, deployed with wit and showmanship. They also show how the Western can open up for a new era, stretching its horizons for new dimensions of action and dreams. Bill Bragg, Jr’s tales are definitely 20th-century Westerns, allowing space on the wild frontier for other, multiple perspectives, those of people who hadn’t been included in Turner’s white male American saga: Indians, half-breeds, women, Mormons; even ravenous wolves are granted a sort of humanity. Bragg’s Old West is no longer simply a space for manly heroism, but is reinterpreted, in postwar existential fashion, as a place where good and evil are no longer fixed, clean categories, where unintended consequences and accidents push events out of any individual’s control, where bad things happen to good people. In Bragg’s West heroism only goes so far in guiding the story. The motive force is more like Greek fate, with its chains of happenstance and spiraling consequences, mostly death and the eventual continuation of the story.

And so, pulp lives on, even in fiction—some of it “literary,” but most of it in cracklingly successful lowbrow genres: young adult, sci-fi, ghosts, vampires. If today the screen is ruled by superheros and teenaged vampires, the Western still has an honored place. All of it testifies to the ongoing vitality of what some would classify as minor literature, of regionalism—the persistence of which demonstrates the persisting need for a history and mythos of places in America, and to the timeless allure of good stories, yarns, and tales, tall or true.

Butterfly Time

Last Monday, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, was so calm and clear that you could see trees on Santa Cruz Island 26 miles away across the channel, and even, it seemed to me, trees 30 or 130 years in Santa Barbara’s past. I walked with my kids and some friends through the eucalyptus groves and fields at Ellwood Mesa, seeing monarch butterflies alone or in chasing pairs floating on the warm air. Along a muddy drainage and up a hill more butterflies appeared, until we found the spot in a knot of shaggy trees where a small crowd of people stood staring upwards. Among the leaves, greyish in the slanted, yellow light, were clots of bright orange and black hanging from the branches, honeycombs of layered wings blinking with motion. Thousands of the insects were there, clinging to one another or drifting on the air between trees, occasionally falling in orange puffs when a clump got too heavy and lost its grip, like snow falling from an eave.

I brought my kids, ages 5 and 9, to experience something that moved me immensely as a child. When I was a 11 or 12, my family lived on Eucalyptus Hill in Santa Barbara, named for the probably 100-year-old blue gum eucalyptus grove that covers its south slope. I would play in the slatted shade of the giant trees, as in a dank cathedral, crunching over the heaped-up bark and leaves that blanketed the ground. Once I found a sheet of old plywood, wet and slimy on its under side, and made it into a forest surfboard: I nailed a 2 x 4 near the front to hold my foot in place, positioned the sheet at the top of the slope above an open slot through the tree trunks, then ran and jumped onto it, sliding down 20 or 30 yards before crashing in the leaf litter. One day in the dark center of the grove, I looked up and was astonished to see the branches and leaves alive, shimmering and undulating with thousands, or tens of thousands, of monarchs. I had never seen anything like it, never even heard of it. I stood still with arms held out, and a few monarchs slowly began to land on my head and arms. Interested in each other and indifferent to me, more landed, until a gob covered my hair and smaller gobs my arms, and, scrabbling to hold onto one another, butterflies began dribbling down my face. I remember the tickling of their tiny, sticky feet on my forehead.

Most North American monarchs travel, famously if not incredibly, up to 3,000 miles from summer territories as far north as northern Canada, all the way to overwintering groves in the mountains of central Mexico. But western populations, west of the Continental Divide, fly to the California coast to spend the winter — demonstrating the insects’ excellent judgment. From Northern Baja to Sonoma County, butterflies habitually hibernated and mated in sheltered groves of Monterrey pine and Monterrey cypress, and in stands of coastal sycamores. But most of these have fallen before the chainsaw to make room for us. Here in Goleta, the sycamores were cut down by men like Ellwood Cooper, who arrived from the East in 1870 and planted acres of walnuts and olives in their place, becoming the largest olive oil producer in the US before cheap Sicilian imports crowded him out. He replaced the olives with eucalyptus trees in the tens of thousands, believing these fast-growing, drought-tolerant Australian transplants would make him rich. Others followed, and before they realized the wood was nearly worthless, millions of eucalyptus trees had been planted up and down the coast.


In a happy congruence, the butterflies accepted the substitution, and now hundreds of blue gum groves shelter monarchs from November to February. Alas, the few butterfly-laden trees we marveled at are just a slim echo of the 25,000 seen in the same grove 15 years ago. The last decade or so has seen drops of 90% or more in some sites. Natural Bridges State Beach near Santa Cruz had 120,000 butterflies in 1997 and just 1,300 in 2009. No one knows exactly what is causing the declines: possibly loss of milkweed, the plant required by monarch caterpillars to develop, obliterated by development; likely the 10-year drought that has gripped much of the western US.The severe Midwestern drought of last year devastated the migration of monarchs through Texas to Mexico. Climatic stress spares few. And as trees are replaced by ever-more houses and asphalt, the butterflies’ outlook would seem grim.

Maybe these clusters in the Goleta blue gums are the last, and will be just memories to my children, something they will only be able to tell their own kids, not bring them to witness. But the butterflies are adaptable. They adopted new Australian trees in an evolutionary eyeblink, and somehow transplanted themselves all the way to Hawaii and the South Pacific in the 19th century, just as human migrants did and probably on the same ships, arriving in New Zealand and then Australia the year after Ellwood Cooper came to Goleta.

Blakeney Spit: On moving ground

On a bright Sunday morning I set out to run to the end of the Blakeney Spit, about 3 1/2 miles from where you can leave a car, across the marshes from Cley-Next-the-Sea. It was a classic North Norfolk scene: huge blue sky stippled with clouds headed for Holland on the westerly wind, whitecaps on the water. The spit is a narrow shingle-pebble bank piled up by waves, a hundred or so feet wide, pushed by the longshore current from the shore into the sea to the east-northeast, it is land building seaward. Between the spit and the coast are marshes, whose vegetation laps the top of the stone ridge, which then drops steeply towards the sea.

The going is trying: the pebbles are rounded, impossibly hard, and slick; my feet slide and slip and plunge into soft spots. It is hard to walk, Sisyphean to run. I steer my track down the slope, searching for harder substrate. Nearer the water line the ebbing tide has left the shingle glistening wet and even more treacherous. Mid-slope, there are finer particles, smaller pebbles, and glimpses of sand. Here is better footing, harder, and more stable, but it occupies a narrow and shifting line. The trick is to follow it, but it isn't perfectly visible, and not continuous. My eyes give a hint, but my feet the proof: sinking in, giving way, ankles betrayed by soft spots; occasionally and briefly, pavement as good as a sidewalk. The land, if it can be called that, is like a sponge, suppurating, giving back to the retreating North Sea.

Gradually the pebbles get smaller and there is more and more sand in the mix. The fleeing tide reveals sand flats at the base of the shingle bank, widening as the spit extends away from the coast. There is a beachy litter: jackknife clam shells, crab carapaces, feathers, and plastic trash, mostly bottlecaps, like another genus of bivalve shells. Wind scallops the sand flats into a tessellation of tiny dunes and valleys. Gulls pick at the remains; terns dive beyond the surf line; two seals surface in it, watching.

To the south and west the Norfolk coast is fronted by low marshes backed by higher forested dunes, with the square flint towers of Norman churches nine centuries old protruding above even more ancient villages – Cley, Blakeney, Stiffkey (pronounced Stewkey). To the east it rises into soft cliffs at Weybourne; beyond I can just see the town of Sheringham; the bigger town of Cromer lies unseen beyond on the cliffs' edge. There, the sea, instead of building out is cutting in, taking back the coasts of Norfolk and Suffolk at a rapid rate. Residents there may become the first modern climate refugees in Europe, as the rising sea reclaims land their ancestors drained over the course of centuries with oxen and windmills.

This is geological process in real time, the ground moving beneath our feet. It has always been like this, but it’s getting worse, fast. Out to sea, a line of white windmills is faint on the horizon; beyond them are unseen oil rigs of the North Sea fields. The machines are in sharp dialog, full of recrimination, two industrial canons, modes, totems and tools of different belief-systems. Both speak of a past, and a future, at-odds, competing over the path of the present.

On land, little has changed outwardly in generations. A crazy-quilt of hedged fields enfolds villages of flint-walled houses characteristic of the region, which has almost no stone besides glacial till; the square-towered Norman churches were built the same way. The lines on the ground are ancient: the historical geographer H.G. Hoskins showed that "nearly every village on the map of England today – except in certain industrial districts – existed by the eleventh century and is described in Domesday Book."

Now, the narrow, jerking lanes are crowded with Range Rovers – hulking, guzzling, aggressive, blingy, redesigned by the company's American owners for a rapidly Americanizing British haute bourgeoisie. They are too wide to pass safely on these paved cart tracks, and always going too fast. Shaky at driving on the left, I am over and over nearly forced into a ditch. North Norfolk is the UK's Hamptons: call the posh villages Burnham Market-Hampton, Brancaster-Hampton, Blakeney-Hampton. Maybe there is irony in the fact that the village-and-field landscapes of eastern Long Island, New York, now real estate catnip irresistible to Wall Street hedge-fund guys in Range Rovers, were made in the 17th century by people from East Anglia – from here. Aspiration come full circle in a Chelsea Tractor.