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.

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.