Hold onto your hats, playgoers. It’s time for silly, surreal love and friendship.
By Melanie Hooks
Two shows, both down to their last two weekends — one here in Pasadena, the other a few blocks from the ocean in Santa Monica. The first: A Noise Within (ANW)’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” (“R and G”)— a beloved, dark spin on (dis)connection. The second: playwright Jeff Gould’s original sci-fi twist on long-term commitment, “The Marriage Zone.”
Head to ANW for a refresher on dialogue that sings with double meanings and philosophy, as well as to bone up on your 2018-19 Academic Decathlon knowledge. (The play constitutes 40% of this year’s literature curriculum.) Laugh at the head-spinning swirl of “Who’s on first? What’s on second?” style humor. Stay for the meaning of life insights.
Head to Santa Monica Playhouse for a “dimension of sight and sound and imagination…the Marriage Zone.” Laugh as three couples, one in their 20s, one in their 40s, one in their 60s, realize they’re one and the same, all present on the same day at their family home’s sale. Stay for the utterly entertaining gander into the cost of love on a couple’s friendship – and meaning of life insights.
Tom Stoppard’s “R and G” won the Tony when it premiered in 1967, and ANW breathes new life into any of the classics it presents, especially so whenever the vivacious Kasey Mahaffy (Rosencrantz) is onstage. Even without the recognizable red hair, Mahaffy shares a palpable joy with the audience, a spirit akin to Melissa McCarthy’s sparkly dimples and pathos. He’s a perfect foil to the erudite, ever somber Rafael Goldstein (Guildenstern), a fellow Resident Artist famous for his word perfect memory.
The plot is deceptively simple: two minor characters from “Hamlet” wander the stage in search of their grander purpose, and many times, their own memories. A fan favorite ever since its first staging, Director Geoff Elliot describes the play’s effect as magical: “Although it ends in their deaths, as we know from the title, getting there is an absolute hoot.” The pair’s awareness of their own impending death spurs them to try and avoid it, however fruitless their efforts might be. They meet a band of Players along the way, outfitted like a circus of death, led by a cynical philosopher of commerce, The Player, a perfectly cunning performance by Wesley Mann. You might be forgiven for wondering if these characters are facing death or are already wandering purgatory, albeit quite an entertaining one.
Over in Santa Monica, no such obvious darkness shadows the set – a bright, suburban living room. Quickly we realize though that Beth (Rene Ashton*) and Cal (Matt Harrison) are fighting for their lives too – their lives together with their disaffected teenage son Ryan (Kody Fields). Cal wants to stay where they are. Beth puts up a For Sale sign. Cal is happy with their status quo. She feels like she’s suffocating.
Enter a young, engaged couple, played by Leslie Stratton and Ben Bergstrom. They can’t keep their hands off each other, thrilled to be facing their new lives together. They want the house and all its promise. Cal doesn’t want to let it go. Beth can’t wait to offload it.
So far, so standard. Until the doorbell rings again and in walk an unhappy, retired couple, played the night of performance by standouts Michael Dempsey and Jacee Jule. Dempsey’s resentment isn’t just based on anger; its core lies in a broken heart. Jule’s does as well, but hers is only occasionally ruffled by regret, a chilling contrast to Dempsey, who seems to be dripping in it. Both dip into empathy long enough for us to recognize that they once loved one another, but their refusal to dwell there illustrates the reasons for their brokenness far better than dialogue can. Not to mislead you, Gould’s dialogue and direction (and the rest of the pro cast) keep the evening fresh and briskly moving through the 90-something minute performance without an intermission. It’s an intimate evening, a stolen moment of fun and ‘what if’s.
Santa Monica Playhouse’s performance space is small but homey. The entrance down a cobbled alley leads into a Diagon Alley-style courtyard, followed by a book-lined anteroom one could mistake for Dumbledore’s study. In fact, it’s quite the opposite of the new, large, important ANW house.
Both shows however leave an impression of permanence. Playgoers are spoiled in the L.A. metro area. For choice, quality and subject matter. We may experience a dazzling classic or a struggling, fine new show. It can feel surreal, but just like any great ‘what if?,’ in the end both these shows enlarge your inner world. The best reward I can think of for a night out.
*All actors listed for night of viewed performance. Alternate casting occurs between performances.
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