Friday, May 21, 2010

An Audience Of One

I’m not quite sure why I’m posting this particular item. It will only make sense to six people and just one of them is likely to read this blog. I’m not being self-deprecating when I say that either. There really are just six people who will totally understand what I’m including below. Let me lay out the situation. Last week was my birthday (Feel free to imagine me doing the cabbage patch dance and chanting “Yeah, it’s my birthday, go Richard, go Richard!” Feel free to gag at that image as well. I did, when I caught my reflection in the window.) Some friends of mine, six of them to be exact, were nice enough to throw me a birthday party. Since these people are friends of mine, they are, by definition, weird. Again, I’m not being self-deprecating. All my friends really are weird in some way. If you don’t think so, ask me and I’ll tell you how you are slightly strange, a trait I prize in a friend.

For instance, for John it’s the tomato thing. You’re not actually allergic to them, so don’t flip out so much. It’s just a tomato. Ask them to re-do your order without it. I promise you- they aren’t trying to poison you. It’s a tomato, not Ricin. For Cheryl, some of her favorite things are fencing, horses, motorcycles, running, Dobermans and playing with her dragon. Wait, strike those last two. Reverse them. (Yes, I really do wish I was Willy Wonka. Why do you ask?) That’s a weird assortment for a girl, especially one who’s not a lesbian. Plus I just found out that one of her all-time favorite movies is Clint Eastwood’s “The Unforgiven”. It’s a great movie but no one I know has ever named it an all-time favorite. Although it’s brilliantly written and directed, it’s also dark, violent, angry, sad, bitter and heart-breaking. For Adam Rifkin, well, I’m not sure where to start. If you know Adam, you’ll agree with me. If you don’t know him, suffice it to say he sometimes goes by anagrams of his name.

So what does making affectionate fun of my friend’s eccentricities have to do with anything? Well, it means that when the six people alluded to above put their heads together to come up with a birthday gift for me, I was not in the least bit surprised that they decided to perform three short selections from David Mamet's “Goldberg Street”, a collection of short plays and monologues. No, they aren’t professional actors. In fact, three of them claim to be really shy and don’t even like having their picture taken much less getting up and performing for a small audience in their backyard. But they did perform and it was awesome. Not necessarily the actual acting but just the fact that they did this goofy, entertaining, original thing. I was bowled over by the fact that they took the time to do this, including some rehearsals and even creating a playbill. Ironically, the day that they decided to do this we were also scheduled to see one of the plays in our subscription series at the Studio Theatre, a play called American Buffalo by David Mamet. Afterwards, we went inside and had a dinner that included several of my favorite foods, meaning shrimp, more shrimp, bread, meat and a blackberry dessert. To show my appreciation for their efforts, I wrote a review of their play. I approached it pseudo-seriously, pretending I was writing a real review for the paper and in the style that such things are usually written.

So if you weren’t one of the six performers, or me (and if you were me…Whoa!), then you won’t catch every reference in the review. You won’t realize that the dog I’m referring to is Humphrey, a plush novelty dog that humps your leg and makes doggie sex noises. You won’t know that Leona actually is an accountant and a lawyer or that the actors in American Buffalo did a fantastic job while my friends were… very enthusiastic. Nor will you realize that they often call me retarded, in jest. I think. Why post this fake review then? Because you may enjoy it nonetheless. Because I’m a hoarder- I can’t dispose of useless things that have sentimental value. Because I adore my friends, even if they have leg-humping toy dogs, tomato anti-fetishes and they empathize with murderous cowboys. I want them to know that I appreciate them, whether they are performing a play exclusively for me, making jokes over dinner, watching a movie with me, or reading about me poking fun at them. Your friendship nourishes me even if I don’t tell you that very often, or out loud with spoken words. You complete me. Okay, now I’m getting a bit sarcastic and the self-deprecation has started, an ugly thing if done incorrectly or if spelled incorrectly, so let’s get to the review now that I’ve put it in context.

A G#d D%mn F&*k$ng Treat! 3 Plays From “Goldberg Street”
(Special report for the Washington Post Mini-Pages, by Richard Goodman, May 2010)

Art can be found in many different places. Sometimes you find it in big red rooms in major museums. Sometimes it’s in the architect’s design for an opera house. Other times it’s a child’s drawing of a cherry tree or the way a dancer moves through a ballet. On a sultry Saturday night, it was found in the comfortable backyard that is home to the Leewood Community Playhouse. The Leewood Players were staging a one-night only revival of some of David Mamet’s lesser-known works as part of a benefit performance for mentally handicapped adults, one of whom was in the audience that night.

The evening got off to a strong start with the short play “Doctor” featuring Leona Taylor as Mrs. Rudin and David Taylor as the titular doctor. The plot was a simple one, an interaction played out a million times a day around the world. A patient, angry about a bill from her uncaring doctor, storms into his office to deliver a scathing dress-down about his attitude, his methods and his diagnosis. Fumbling for a response in the face of her searing anger, the doctor is systematically taken apart until Mrs. Rudin discards him when she righteously tells him to “Kiss my ass!” David Taylor ably played the defensive doctor but the night belonged to Leona Taylor. It has been a long time since this reviewer saw such a powerhouse performance from a relatively novice actor. She embodied the role of the unflinching and indignant patient, who might have some unpleasant surprises in her future. The actress herself though, should face nothing but smooth sailing in her career. She has the versatility to play anything from an irate patient to a steely lawyer, from a nerdish accountant to the sympathetic wife of a raging alcoholic. In fact, her resume already boasts some of those roles, with her multiple appearances in the Law & Order franchises and the Broadway chestnut “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. Here’s hoping there are more such impressive performances in the future.

For the next play, “4 A.M”, the director herself stepped onto the stage to put her distinctive stamp on the proceedings. Although she had no experience portraying the hard-boiled streets essayed by David Mamet, having cut her teeth on mainstream fare like Police Woman and Diagnosis Murder, Elizabeth Glowicz ably acquitted herself as the slightly bemused talk show host egging on a possibly deranged caller. Nancy Manning had the role of the off-kilter caller, who might be insane, might be a prophet or might simply be lonely and looking for a sympathetic ear. The caller thought that the movie “2001” secretly unveils a plan to bring the dead back to life and re-populate them on the planet Jupiter. Ms. Manning embodies the role of the caller of uncertain mental stability and draws on her vast life experience to make the caller believable and touching. The director deftly juggles healthy skepticism and logistical conundrums. How do we decide who gets brought back to life? Do the old get reconstituted? What about suicides who don’t want to be alive to begin with? Assuming there is some process to handle these questions, how do we then get them to Jupiter? Will they get along once they are there? After a few days, won’t they be bored by the lack of nightlife and entertainment on Jupiter? Will it acceptable to call these reconstituted people “zombies” or will they be referred to by the more politically correct term “life-challenged individuals”?

Although the actors sometimes stepped on each other’s lines, they found a previously undiscovered humor in Mamet’s work. As you laughed along with their inspired line readings, you also gave serious thought to the questions that were brought up and whether having an insane idea automatically makes someone insane. Ms. Glowicz switched cadences at times, both as an homage to typical Mamet-speak and to maximize the laughs in the dialogue, which is the same approach she took to staging these plays. The intensity was amped up for serious parts and the normal stuff was mined for laughs. The other Mamet work currently appearing in DC, American Buffalo, swipes this style for their show but to a much less effective degree. The Leewood Players outperform those appearing in the Studio Theatres’ play and they give a more crowd-pleasing performance, to say nothing of the marvelous dinner included as part of their dinner theatre concept. When you compare to the two plays to each other, Leona Taylor takes the Studio lead, Edward Gero, to school while Nancy Manning “out-Bobby’s” the Bobby character and the unfortunate actor playing Teach can’t manage to find the subtleties and nuance that David Taylor or Ms. Glowicz regularly brought forth.

The last actor of the night matches this level of excellence as well. Paul Manning did the night’s only monologue and it was a fitting close to the night. His acting in “The Dog” hits all the right notes. He finds the human element that sometimes gets missed in a Mamet play. Rather than focusing on the tough exterior that is all too easy to showcase, Manning makes the story one about a man’s love for his dog. Even though the dog shit on the floor, which his owner considers an act of betrayal, he still loves his dog. He loves the dog so much that he takes the time to teach him a lesson and then instructs him to never again shit on the floor or, by extension, on their relationship. The dog apparently takes this lesson to heart and by the end of the monologue, the dog has ecstatically proven his devotion to his owner. He covers his owner with love and the audience goes crazy for this atypical but unabashed love story. It was a perfect way to end the evening.

David Mamet, the playwright, was in the audience and gave a standing ovation to the performance. He tipped his hat in appreciation before heading in to dinner with the cast who brought his words to such vivid life. In his usual fashion, he chomped on his stogie during dinner, stopping only to push in some more shrimp and grits or to down a large glass of wine before shoving the cylindrical object back in his mouth. The colorful character was looking relaxed and tanned and made lengthy discourses on numerous subjects before eventually calling it a night. What a successful night it was too. The city was treated to a rousing show, a respected playwright was celebrated and lots of money was raised for those retarded people.