Dog Show

Sylvia, go home

A.R. Gurney's Sylvia, returning to the Laguna Playhouse after doing boffo box office late last year, is a hateful, unsettling piece of misogynist drivel that suggests all a man really needs is compliant, unconditional devotion from a woman. It's further proof that Gurney is a hack of a playwright and a plague on contemporary American theater.

The play, which is about a man who pisses off his whining harridan of a wife by bringing home a stray dog, comes off like Neil Simon with more swearing. Gurney insists on belaboring potentially funny situations with pseudo-intellectual musings on contemporary life. Since he can't decide whether to be funny or profound, he tries to be both, and the result is the worst kind of sitcom crap.

That said, Don Took is awfully good as Greg, the middle-aged WASP whose life opens up by taking in the play's titular stray. It is to Took's eternal credit that he manages to make Gurney's half-assed philosophical musings about animal nature vs. human society sound vaguely meaningful. Carolyn Barnes vamps it up as the tough and sassy Sylvia (she took home an OC Weekly Theater Award for the same role last year), but there's an inescapable feeling that she's acting by the numbers. It's tempting to daydream that perhaps after a six-month hiatus from the role, Barnes finally realized how truly offensive it is to women and is staging a not-so-silent protest.

Less forgivable are Lisa Robinson and Michael Sandels. Robinson plays into the traps inherent in Kate, a shrill, jealous harpy who is a high school teacher and social crusader off to save inner-city youth by teaching them Shakespeare. That gives her the excuse she needs to pretentiously cite Shakespeare at every opportunity, a transparently cheap device designed to elevate an otherwise pedestrian script. Sandels, meanwhile, mugs hideously in multiple roles. Director Andrew Barnicle is partly to blame, allowing everyone to play things in the broadest musical-theater style, when a more naturalistic approach is probably the only way this dreck could be made palatable.

Sylvia at Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Through Aug. 15. $40-$45.

—Kelly Flynn

Just Wounded

Really important art really hurts

Wounds to the Face, Howard Barker's vignettes exploring the illusion of beauty, should be unsettling and disturbing. And for the first 45 minutes of this Cal Arts Women and Co. production, it's just that—but for all the wrong reasons. Incoherent language passing itself off as intellectually relevant; angry diatribes sold as trenchant social commentary; an attempt to bludgeon the audience into thinking that what it's watching is Really Important Art by injecting stony-faced seriousness into every moment—all in all, the kind of thing that gives experimental theater a bad name, an oppressively solemn experience that might work in a Bergman film but that should be criminalized in the theater.

Yet something unexpected happens in the play's final stretch: director Francis Hearn's nine-woman cast warms to the task, and we realize there really is a play here. But it's too late, too little.

Barker's provocative play explores the near-pathological ways in which personal appearance defines who we are, principally through the recurring character of a plastic surgeon (Keri-Anne Telford), the "critic of God." But subpar characterizations and faulty direction render this intriguing material mostly incomprehensible and dull. For a play that includes a high sex-and-violence quotient, that's hella-disappointing.

Hearn does capture a mood in this production, and her direction never feels simple or thoughtless. The problem might be that she has tried too hard to make this play feel grave and important; she ought to let the script and her actors do the work. The result is a cold, austere staging that feels disjointed and heavy-handed. This makes even the vignettes in which Barker's knife is sharpest feel dull. A scene in which a mature lesbian slices her younger lover's face nearly put me to sleep.

The actors are rarely able to overcome the self-important stylizing. They pose and posture and are hard to hear over the poorly chosen music that underscores most of the scenes. Barker's writing is already complicated; actors who feel disconnected from it make it sound terrible as well. Only Pascaline Bellegarde, as the aforementioned young lover, seems as if she's really enjoying herself and imbues Barker's words with any life.

That is until two later vignettes: "He Saw Himself, Officially," in which Hearn plays an emperor angered by a commissioned portrait from a painter (Jesse Miller), and "I Was Not Always Thus, but Adorable," in which Miller plays a man who shows up at a whorehouse with baby pictures of himself affixed to his coat, are kinky, funny and highly disturbing. The fact that these vignettes work so effectively prove that there's a play—and talent—at work here. But that sudden scrap of hope only fueled my frustration with the piece as a whole.

Wounds to the Face at the Empire Theatre, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Sat., 9:30 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through Sun. $10-$12.

—Joel Beers

Capacity: Two Stories

The Balcony collapses

An aging woman yearns for independence. A mother harbors a dark secret about her daughter. A young woman wants to marry her boyfriend before he's drafted. A son-in-law swindles his mother-in-law. A business goes bankrupt. Senior citizens meet and fall in love. A Jewish family grows weary of life in Argentina and debates moving to Israel or California.

All that and more is packed into Jorge Albertella's The Balcony, which is receiving its world-premiere production at the Actors' Playhouse in Long Beach. And did I mention the Falkland Islands War setting? Or that the primary framing device is a series of letters written by two old friends, one of whom now lives in the United States?

There's so much story and so many plot devices that about the only thing missing is character development. The result is a work in dire need of focus.

Because Albertella's play tries to tackle everything, it ends up saying almost nothing. The backdrop of war feels unnecessary, as does the letter writing between old friends Sara (Jo Black-Jacob) and Flora (Elaine Barnard). The war and the letters get in the way of what's really engaging: the self-generated conflict among the fractured family at the heart of the play.

The two characters who work nicely are Sara (the aging, pill-popping, memory-wandering matriarch) and her daughter, Marta (Julia Silverman, in an effective performance that blends quiet desperation and simmering rage). Both are complex and their stories compelling. In telling their stories instead of the play's many tales, Albertella might yet have a solid play.

The Balcony at the Actors' Playhouse, 1409 E. Fourth St., Long Beach, (562) 590-9396. Sat., 4 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Aug. 8. $13-$16.

—JB
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