From an opera about Jerry Springer to the monumental drama of Willy Loman, the theatrical landscape of 2011 will plumb the highs and lows of the human condition.
But rather than a preview story that merely lists the most interesting plays of the year or, much more enjoyable for venomous curmudgeonly theater scribes, those plays carrying the spore of literary plague, how about we all go back to school and grade the major OC theater entities’ classes of plays this year?
Those theaters that choose plays with substance and literary merit or work that is new or rarely performed will receive sterling marks. Those whose seasons lean more toward mindless entertainment or tried-and-true formulaic fare? They get the dunce cap.
The Chance Theater: Only four non-holiday mainstage shows have been announced so far, but they’re newish and interesting. Late January brings the West Coast premiere of Adam Szymkowicz’s Nerve, described by The New York Times as “sweet, sexy (and) neurotic-friendly.” Following that is the world premiere of The Boy in the Bathroom,a musical about a boy who—surprise!—never leaves the loo; after that, the Southern California premiere of Jerry Springer: The Opera and the California premiere of Bridget Carpenter’s Up, a darkly comedic family drama, take the stage. Grade: B. www.chancetheater.com.
The Hunger Artists: It’s a typically literate season from the county’s most diverse storefront. You can’t argue with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane or Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. Then there’s the theatrical adaptation of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity and something called The Great American Trailer Park Musical. Not too sure about this thing called Matt and Ben, a theatrical biopic of the friendship of Ben Affleck and Matt Damon. Grade: B-plus. www.hungerartists.net.
The Laguna Playhouse: There’s no arguing the craftsmanship at the heart of the only two mainstage plays at OC’s most venerable theater producer, but they both beg, Who gives a fuck? The first, which opens this weekend, is Maestro, the Art of Leonard Bernstein, a musical homage to a master of American music composition. That’s followed in March by Noel Coward’s immaculately crafted, but infinitely played-out Private Lives. Grade: D. www.lagunaplayhouse.com.
The Maverick: It’s a disappointing season, at least on paper. A musical version of The Wedding Singer, The Count of Monte Cristo, Chicago and Get Smart might all prove ferociously entertaining, but they remain guilty pleasures at best. At least the season begins on a high note on Jan. 7 with a puppet version of Shakespeare’s favorite Dane, Hamlet Has No Legs. Grade: C-minus. www.mavericktheater.com.
The Monkey Wrench Collective: The season at OC’s most experimental company doesn’t begin until March, but its first play, Disappeared, is from Los Angeles-based playwright Phylis Nagy, who got her start at the same English theater that helped to spark edgily explosive writers Joe Penhall, Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill. There’s also experimental stuff such as Damnee Manon,Sacree Sandra,two interweaving monologues delivered by a drag queen and a religious zealot, respectively, and Blank Slate, which consists of a team of actors and designers working from scratch for 12 weeks in hopes of producing a theatrical event that doesn’t blow. Grade: A-minus. www.monkeywrenchcollective.org.
South Coast Repertory: OBIE Award-winning comedies such as Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation (opening next weekend); suspenseful thrillers such as Irishman Conor McPherson’s The Weir; the return of the inimitably talented director Mark Rucker to a big and brash Shakespearean comedy, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; and the world premiere of Itamar Moses’ play about high-tech love in the 21st century, Completeness, show that, in its 47th year, SCR remains the standard to which all theaters in Southern California should aspire. Grade: A. www.scr.org.
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STAGES: The year starts promising this weekend with The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ meditation on the final fate of history’s most notorious betrayer, with courtroom testimony from such luminaries as Mother Teresa, Sigmund Freud and Satan. Then there’s Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, a play difficult to enjoy for many, but one with substantial literary heft. Later in the year is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, merely the greatest American play ever written; Charles Busch’s riotously funny, Hitchcockian spin on beach movies of the early ’60s, Psycho Beach Party; and a drag version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, aptly titled Dragula. All interesting plays, absolutely. But what’s up with the six-week run of Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple in April and May? It’s easy to understand the reasoning behind scheduling this safe, harmless, ubiquitously produced comedy, but it’s also easy to understand why people might puke in their own mouths at hearing any theater of STAGES’ merit mounting such pedestrian dreck. Grade: Incomplete (ought to be an easy A, but any Neil Simon play, especially this one, earns a huge demerit). www.stagesoc.org.
THEATRE OUT: The most interesting plays on tap at OC’s gay-and-lesbian theater seem to be Stephan Karam’s comedy Speech and Debate, about three misfit teenagers in a sexually repressed Oregon town; A Catered Affair, a 2007 musical written by theater icon Harvey Fierstein; and Richard Greenberg’s intensely elusive The Violet Hour, which debuted at SCR in 2003. Most yawny choices? Tennessee Williams’ emotionally tiresome Suddenly Last Summer and Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy, an admittedly funny comedy that has basically been ruined by high-school-theater festivals. Grade: B. www.theaterout.com.
This article ran in print as "Preview Review Revue: A look at what OC’s best local theater companies will stage in 2011."