Los Angeles Theater Review: THE MANY MISTRESSES OF MARTIN LUTHER KING (Atwater Village Theatre in Glendale)

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by Jason Rohrer on March 24, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


A smart play is usually a provocative play, but a provocative play is rarely smart.  Many playwrights competent to stir controversy have neither the chops nor, sadly, the intention to say much of benefit except to their own notoriety; and really talented writers don’t always invest in the skills necessary to develop a thrilling idea.  Even when they do, the vagaries of casting and execution can underserve the material, especially when nobody’s getting paid.  Rod Menzies’ world premiere of Andrew Dolan’s The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King displays such discipline of command, such consistent excellence of presentation, that to miss it may be the worst mistake this year involving a trip not made to Glendale.

Sociology professor Simon Case (Philip Casnoff), married to his much younger former student Lashawna (Tracey A. Leigh), and reluctant host to her ne’er-do-well brother Anquan (Theo Perkins), will pick a fight with anyone at any time.  High on his list of favored sparring partners are his department head Augustus (Carlos Carrasco) and Augustus’s theater professor wife, Janine (Judith Moreland).  In a fragmented series of house parties and lectures, the middle-aged, very white Case and his four black friends reconstruct the traditional debate of race in America.  What’s not traditional about this play is how much credit it gives its audience for bringing to the theater informed opinions about that debate, and about the nature of the theatrical experience.

To discuss the play’s plot would be not only to rob the playgoer of much joy but to make the play sound very like something that playgoer has seen before.  Yes, a conservative Wasp, confronted by liberal African-Americans, attacks their sacred cows (including the titular reverend) and has his conventions thrown back at him.  The playwright has stated his dissatisfaction with American plays about race, and their tendency to pander to a white liberal audience.  Arguably, he does provide a lot of that sort of thing in this play, certainly spending enough energy on both sides of the polemic to provoke many an Oleanna-style post-show sidewalk argument.

Of greater significance is that Dolan plays here with theatrical conventions (like the Greek chorus and the anti-hero) in such a refreshingly blatant subversion that the inevitable becomes the desirable, and the desirable, the tragically frightening.  And with the single exception of an unnecessary final scene, he never underestimates his audience enough to give us the same information twice.  Without that redundant denouement, we would leave emboldened and ecstatic, not least by the respect given our intelligence; as it is, it takes a moment to shake off that last moment before recapturing the congratulatory fervor felt during the previous two acts.

This cast, among the most outstanding ensembles in recent memory, deserves a large part of those congratulations, for generously interpreting the nuance hidden in these deeply-written characters.  Casnoff has arguably the least to do, as his protagonist is the most straightforward persona, but the actor does nothing wrong and makes all the correct choices, which is not faint praise.  Leigh, as his wife, makes a part that might be played (to less advantage) as a slowly awakening ingenue into a rounded, painfully strong human being; Moreland’s whip-smart professor informs much without overselling any of her moments.  Theo Perkins, as a ghetto product struggling toward assimilation to a larger society, is so subtle that his transformation surprises (even though, as with so many elements of this play, it feels irresistible).

Carlos Carrasco, however, may give the show’s most layered performance, an especially neat trick given his limited stage time.  Introduced as an academic schmoozer, as in love with his success as he is trapped by it, Augustus seems a bland product of his professional habits; Carrasco’s performance captures this caricature beautifully enough, but then his story unravels and a man emerges, much like the play he inhabits, much sadder and more valuable than he might at first appear.

Along with that denouement, another minor element makes this a near-perfect production. While he has clearly done a yeoman’s job shaping the characterizations to a uniform quality, Menzies wisely stays out of the way of the narrative, propelling the action by not interfering — with, again, one exception. The play’s fractured time structure has been written so cleverly that it needs no external assistance; the production’s time transitions, primarily lighting dissolves, therefore feel a bit labored. It’s a really small point, but with a piece this good, every little problem becomes magnified. Because unlike a lot of recent Broadway plays about race, this one could become a part of the American canon.

photos by Maia Rosenfeld

The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King
Ensemble Studio Theatre at Atwater Village Theatre in Glendale (Los Angeles Theater)
scheduled to end on April 29, 2012
for tickets, visit www.ensemblestudiotheatrela.org


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Phillip Kelly March 28, 2012 at 5:22 pm

After your thoughts on my review, thought I’d take a look.

Very nice. I agree. With a little extra care, this show could become canon.

Best regards,



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