by Tony Frankel on February 14, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles


Groundlings Title CardQuite often in the theatre, directors must compromise the time they spend polishing their actors’ performances, largely due to restricted rehearsal time; once the director begins coordination of technical aspects, the actors may not be ready to go on. Sometimes – even well into the run – actors seem to be fending for themselves, trying to discover tone and nuances essential to a well-rounded performance. Even when sublime casting is involved (that is, when the actor practically is the character), motivations are murky and line deliveries are incompatible with the tone of the piece, made even more noticeable in a space where we are a few feet from the actors. As we saw at A Midsummer Night’s Dream at SCR recently, a director can be extremely creative, but his other essential job, that of interpreting the playwright’s work, takes a back seat. This, I believe, is the main reason why many productions are merely serviceable when they promised to be a moving theatrical experience.

Even the highly recommended production of Room Service at Open Fist had a moment that haunts me still: an ingénue sits on a couch next to her new paramour; between them is a gigantic bunch of plastic bananas. In that uncomfortable moment as they navigate their new-found love, the bananas went unnoticed. My God, not since a rubber chicken have I seen such a set-up. What would those characters have done with those bananas to alleviate their discomfort? Apparently, one of the two directors of that show was too busy or distracted to see what was right in front of them.

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Groundlings photo 2I used to think that Neil Simon was a terrible writer until I began to see productions where the actors did not play for laughs: they played the truth of the character. An actor must always be on his toes – what was funny one night may not be on another; therefore, they must improvise based on the veracity of their character. Before mention of the current plays lacking nuance, we must recognize where nuance is King: The Groundlings.

For 35 years, The Groundlings has proved to be one of the premiere comedy troupes in the nation, creating more stars than the Big Bang. Performers showcase material that arises from improvisation workshops; their weekly shows range from all-improv to all-sketches and anywhere in-between. The current sketch comedy offering from the Groundlings Main Company (only one of the seventeen pieces is an improv) is Groundlings Singles Cruise. Just watching the show should be a prerequisite for any actor; all of the eleven performers demonstrate nuance, invention, authenticity and commitment to choice – even when portraying their creations as expansive caricatures.

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In “Espresso Yourself,” the brilliant Mitch Silpa plays a nerdy, gay barista who recognizes a customer as the high school jock. Silpa combines discomfort, arousal and envy with aplomb; instead of wearing his heart on his sleeve, he allows these qualities to stew from within, thereby creating a relatable character. As the jock, David Hoffman downplays his emotions and keeps them so magnificently contained that the ending of the sketch is one of the finest moments in the theatre all year.

Groundlings photo 3Likewise Jill Matson-Sachoff as an attractive (yet creepy) woman who becomes aroused as she listens to a Dan Fogelberg concert at the Hollywood Bowl; she uses items from a snack bag to share her feelings with the men on either side of her with riotous results (Matson-Sachoff should be awarded a prize simply for her adroit skills with a celery stick and peanut butter).

When piano player Laurel Coppock auditions for an orchestra, she just can’t keep herself from achieving multiple orgasms as she pounds out an entire Beethoven piece. Coppock’s broad facial expressions are reminiscent of Vaudeville – the larger-than-life performance succeeds because she is coming (if you’ll pardon the pun) from reality. She’s not trying to get situational laughs: you can tell she really loves the music.

Groundlings photo 1The titular sketch involves cruise directors Andrew Friedman as Toby (whose oxygen was cut off for twelve minutes while scuba diving) and Kevin Kirkpatrick as the androgynous and passive-aggressive Jeré. The testament to the Groundlings’ formula of acting is most evident here as the two improvise with the audience, giving us tips on dating for single folks. It is so rewarding for the audience because we are in on the joke; we really believe that these guys exist.

Of course, a few of the sketches are clunkers, largely because they take an idea and never build on it, such as four sound editors who screw up their Oscar acceptance speech. The repetitive nature of the same joke becomes wearisome (as is evidenced every week on Saturday Night Live) unless it is going somewhere. However, it is used to optimal effect in “You Took My Spot:” Michael Naughton plays an unlikable jerk who harangues Charlotte Newhouse for taking his parking space; the insults are hurled at each other over and over, but the scene works because they are falling in love as they argue.

Any director will tell you that it is easier to pare down an actor’s performance than it is to build something from nothing. Director Mikey Day is to be commended for keeping these lovable loonies from getting out of hand. Combine smooth scene changes with Willie Etra’s rockin’ band, and (for a nominal ticket price) you will not only find yourself supremely entertained, but it may be the cheapest acting class you have ever attended.

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Crack Whore Galore poster

In a very funny performance piece, we meet Danny and Abbey Galore (Graham Sibley and Tonya Cornelisse), emigrants to Hollywood who formed the band Crack Whore Galore after meeting at rehab in the UK. Created by its performers (along with Ryan Oliver, Danny Roew and Gates McFadden), Galore takes a satirical stab at the punk rock scene: these oversexed Brits wield their sex life into their unpolished songs (“Bangers and Mash” ain’t about a pub dish), and even take a break to have sex backstage.

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The sophisticated performers create true amateurism when they barge in on an unsuspecting folk singer (Ashley Mills) with all of their equipment and props (such as mannequin pieces) stuffed into a shopping cart. Gates McFadden directs well, ensuring that a poignant moment is realized when Abbey crawls into the shopping cart, depressed that the audience has not put much change into her gigantic, plastic mayonnaise jar; Danny sings a ballad to his bird, reminding her that he loves to cover her face with…well, something that resembles mayonnaise. My only quibble is that the actors are excessively amateurish – the way they interrupt each other feels mannered and rehearsed sometimes. What’s missing is the nuance of discovery. Still, the one-hour, in-your-face act is quite enjoyable.

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stealing buffalo graphic BEST

Stealing Buffalo at Lonny Chapman was born out of playwright Vern Urich’s experience with his inability to secure the rights to David Mamet’s American Buffalo. Along with friend, co-collaborator and fellow actor Craig Ricci Shaynak, Urich creates a fantastic story of two Hollywood wannabes that decide to produce Mamet’s play without permission. The 75 minute piece (including an intermission in which we stay seated) is by all means a trifle of a piece, which is not to say that it can’t be very funny and engaging. Urich and Shaynak try to plumb the depths of friendship by having characters challenge each other to do something they would not normally do. Buffalo may be somewhat enjoyable, especially for those who can relate to The Biz, but the piece ends up as mere mimicry of Mamet’s parlance, with gratuitous f-bombs hurled at us for no other reason but to sound like Mamet.

stealing buffalo threat

Again, a serviceable production, but director Michael C. Kelly seems more intent on getting a chuckle than creating layers that the strained friendship needs to be credible. Shaynak, especially, falls into a trap: he clearly wrote the play with himself in mind, so why should he be anything other than himself, right? Not so. He plays the superficial overeater who is incapable of landing a girlfriend, but there is no pain behind Shaynak’s performance, making his explosive personality in Act Two seem predetermined and artificial. At one point, he even improvised lines to no comic effect. Certainly, it is not an unlikable performance, but it lacks the edginess that the piece needs to fly.

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Urich is more successful in his performance, but his despair and urgency are presentational, meaning they don’t seem to emanate from an organic place. Buffalo is a clever and irreverent piece: the creators are encouraged to continue working on the project, but the actors need to be less concerned with mimicking Mamet and more invested in the seriousness of their situation.

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trip to bountiful poster

In repertory with Stealing Buffalo is one of Horton Foote’s best plays: The Trip to Bountiful, the story of the aged Carrie Watts (Gwen Van Dam), who dares to return to her childhood home of Bountiful, Texas with just an uncashed Social Security check to her name. She must elude her son Ludie (Kent Butler), with whom she resides in Houston, and his wife, the self-centered and irksome Jessie Mae (Gina Yates). Carrie touches the lives of those she encounters on her way to Bountiful, including bus mate Thelma (Liza de Weerd) and a sympathetic sheriff (Patrick Skelton).

It is a testament to Foote that the play still resonates in our hearts – even on paper it evokes a tender and painful yearning as we examine our own attitudes about home and belonging. It is no accident that both Lillian Gish and Geraldine Page were attracted to the role of Carrie. Director Larry Eisenberg (also co-artistic director of Group Rep) has cast the play extremely well, so much so that we are still left with wistfulness at the end.


However, the actors speed through the dialogue, not really paying attention to the nuances of time, space and relation to one another – the reactions feel predetermined: thus, moments that should breathe are missed and we end up with a professional run-through. Eisenberg should have ditched that huge and very ugly set – he has Carrie sitting far stage right and Jessie Mae far stage left in what needs to be cramped quarters. No wonder why the actors don’t seem to be relating to one another. Still, even with the productions drawbacks, Bountiful is worth a visit for its uncanny casting and beautiful story.

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The Maiden’s Prayer is not one of Nicky Silver’s best efforts and is an odd choice as a showcase for budding talent. It requires actors of great skill and nuance to make it even partially soar. The story revolves around Taylor (Isaac Nippert), who has the love of his childhood friend Paul (Colbert Alembert) and his sister-in-law Libby (Courtney DeCosky). Taylor’s pregnant wife Cynthia (Lauren Hattaway) is in love with the image of Taylor. Ben Hensley plays multiple roles, mostly as Paul’s sexual conquests, but it is a role that seems to have been inserted for comedic relief in a play that centers on the sad subject of those who struggle with dysfunction and unrequited love.

Director Tim Landfield did not even bother to reign in his actors, some who are shockingly shrill as they screech and shriek in lieu of honesty. The layers of sadness, frustration and pain lay dormant, while screaming, shaking, and mugging are virulent. Nippert is the most successful at creating a well-rounded character, but he too is incapable of exploring the depths of his tragedy. The program notes that Landfield is a teacher at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I wonder what he teaches. Based on The Maiden’s Prayer, it most certainly is not nuance.

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Writer and performer Helie Lee has really hit upon a terrific idea: if the role that a woman plays in society is frustrating, especially a woman in the Korean community (which is myopically marriage-minded), why not live life as a man? Better yet, why not document the experience? With a sock in her pants and the pseudonym of Harry, Miss Lee was followed by cameras for over six months while she played basketball, visited gay bars, and took a job as an assistant to an aging architect. That’s a lot of work to take on for an author and lecturer just so she could examine sexism and feminine constraints. Not so surprisingly, she discovers that men have an entirely different set of sociological shackles.

Then she had another great idea: why not weave a monologue about her experiences with footage from the documentary into a one-woman show? The result is Macho Like Me, which, although its insights are not quite as deep as one would wish, still manages to be periodically poignant and sporadically hysterical. That is, when the footage is rolling.

You see, Helie Lee can’t act. I mean, She. Can. Not. Act. Even she admits as much in her blog. Although amiable and fascinating as a teller of stories, she can be wooden, a little awkward in her delivery, and about as vulnerable as steel. However, when the cameras are rolling – when she is not called upon to act – she exposes her emotions with sincerity. The show would have been so much more gripping had she been able to manifest that on stage.

The film clips of her parents chiding her for not being married are uproarious; the moments when Miss Lee has lost her sex drive while living as a man are tender and heartbreaking. Then the lights come up on Miss Lee and the energy shifts in the theatre; the footage upstages her. (Interestingly enough, her exploits have already been adapted into a full-length documentary, which is now being entered into numerous film festivals.)

According to Lee’s blog, director Sammie Wayne worked tirelessly with Miss Lee on her performance. Is it even possible to teach nuance through line-readings or some such trick? The bottom line is that her performance is nuance-free, and nuance is exactly what this show needs to resonate. (The material is so damn fascinating, though, that I wonder what it would have been like with someone else portraying Miss Lee on stage.)

Groundlings Singles Cruise
ends on April 23, 2011
for tickets, visit The Groundlings
photos by Shawn Bishop

Crack Whore Galore
ends on March 12, 2011
for tickets, visit EST/LA
photos by Danny Roew

Stealing Buffalo
ends on March 6, 2011
for tickets, visit Group Rep
photos by Sherry Netherland

The Trip to Bountiful
ends on March 6, 2011
for tickets, visit Group Rep
photos by Sherry Netherland

The Maiden’s Prayer
ends on February 27, 2011
for tickets, visit Raven
photos by Gabriel Parra

Macho Like Me
ends on March 12, 2011
tickets available at Macho Like Me
photos by Eric Sueyoshi

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