Los Angeles Theater Review: SUNNY AFTERNOON (Gangbusters Theatre Company)

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by Tony Frankel on December 30, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


Remember E. Howard Hunt? This intelligence officer was one of Nixon’s White House Plumbers, that clandestine band of operatives who were assigned to fix any of those nasty little security “leaks” emanating from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Hunt, along with G. Gordon Liddy, plotted a burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in D.C. and ended up serving 33 months in prison for his role in the Watergate Scandal.

Andy Hirsch in SUNNY AFTERNOON - photo by Nathan Haugard.Hunt was also a writer. Among his many works, mostly novels, is a play entitled “A Calculated Risk.” But there is something about Hunt which has not been substantiated. Not long before his death, Hunt disclosed that he and several others (including LBJ) were part of the conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy, adding that the code name for the operation, “The Big Event,” was authored by Hunt himself.

Honestly, whenever I hear plausible conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination, my blood begins to boil. Not because I don’t believe they are grounded in truth, but because I firmly believe that this country took a fall on November 22, 1963 from which it has yet to recover. I also believe in the search for truth; most likely, we will never know exactly what happened, but the detective work, subsequent theories and movies such as Oliver Stone’s JFK are healthy ways to deal with the sadness behind the anger behind the inconsolable grief.

Darrett Sanders and Andy Hirsch in SUNNY AFTERNOON - photo by James Storm.Fresh on the heels of the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, another big event has landed on a small Los Angeles stage, where Gangbusters Theatre Company, “dedicated to staging the imagined truth with speed & violence,” is presenting Sunny Afternoon. The abstract narrative centers on suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald as he is grilled by a swarming team of local and federal investigators in the office of Dallas Police Captain William Fritz. Oswald is shuffled in and out of this cramped space belonging to the homicide and robbery division, so Fritz has precious little time to coerce a confession from Oswald.

Michael Franco and Gil Glascow in Christian Levatino's "Sunny Afternoon" at Theatre Asylum in Hollywood.It is believed that no tape recordings were made of Oswald’s remarks, and many notes taken of his statements were destroyed. Since there is no recording of the interrogations that occurred in the 48 hours before Oswald was to be reassigned to county jail, writer/director Christian Levatino has clearly culled through mounds of material to create a docudrama so thrillingly executed by a hotshot 13-member ensemble, that suspension of disbelief is unnecessary. Most astounding is the air of tension concerning Oswald’s fate, given that we know full well that these hours are leading up to his murder at the hands of nightclub owner and two-bit gangster, Jack Ruby.

Darrett Sanders in SUNNY AFTERNOON - photo by Nathan Haugard.I’m not going to give away details on what happens as that’s part of the fun. I assume one of Levatino’s sources was Mae Brussell’s compilation for The People’s Almanac of every known statement or remark made by Oswald between his arrest and death. For example, it is purported that Oswald, upon recognizing FBI agent James Hosty, says, “You have been at my home two or three times talking to my wife. I don’t appreciate your coming out there when I was not there.” Interspersed among such lines are mild-mannered conversations about Coca-Cola, B-movies and football. As a result, Levatino’s dialogue crackles with authenticity in an Aaron Sorkin-esque manner, and his cast list includes FBI and Secret Service agents, detectives, a postal inspector, a janitor and District Attorneys (missing, of course, is the public defender that Oswald consistently requests, namely John J. Abt from New York). And then there’s that detective sitting at an upstage table reading a paperback version of Hunt’s play, “A Calculated Risk.”

This 90-minute one-act is obviously a condensed version of the questionings and examinations, so a Twilight Zone-like contrivance of light and sound help to speed through time (this same device is also Levatino’s way to cleverly tease us that not all is what it seems regarding Oswald’s involvement). The effects are handled quite Donnie Smith and Darrett Sanders in SUNNY AFTERNOON - photo by James Storm.well, especially considering the low-budget trappings: John Zalewski’s directional sound design (offstage commotion, a transistor radio) is exceptional, and Matt Richter once again proves why he is the one to hire for an inventive lighting design utilizing limited instruments. David Mauer’s dioramic box set is chockablock with time-specific furnishings, paneling and artifacts, which are matched by Kaitlyn Aylward’s authentic costumes.

Levatino’s direction of his own play is surprisingly urgent; while some of his actors could create more nuance and depth, the ensemble really rocks. As Fritz, Darrett Sanders offers damn near the best performance of the year; every line drips with a rich background that the script does not afford. No pun intended, but Andy Hirsch blew me away as Oswald; he plays it cool, but his internal machinery is running on a full tank; at any given moment, I felt like rushing the stage either to hug him, shake him, or smack him.

Janellen Steininger and Andy Hirsch in Christian Levatino's "Sunny Afternoon" at Theatre Asylum in Hollywood.Yes, this is an exciting endeavor, but something is missing. While the characters are numbly or nonchalantly going about their business regarding events surrounding Dealy Plaza, Levatino skirts around the emotional impact of the assassination. A few characters are rightfully upset that their menial existence has been irritatingly interrupted, but we are kept at an arms-distance from a much-needed poignancy. Even though the play speeds along at a breathless pace, I missed that one “aha” moment—barely hinted at here—when one of them suddenly becomes palpably aware in the midst of his crime-fighting duties that his President is actually dead.

Patrick Hume in Christian Levatino's "Sunny Afternoon" at Theatre Asylum in Hollywood.Thus, the general emotion on display is testosterone-fueled hotheadedness (and a few actors mistake shouting for feeling). Fortunately, there’s a refreshing amount of dialect-rich humor: Assistant DA Bill Alexander states, “Mr. Oswald, I’m a forgiving guy, but not only did you quite possibly ruin the remainder of the Twentieth Century you put a Gotdamn shit stump in mahhweekend.”

With the exception of the aforementioned line, none of the other characters showed a keen awareness that the course of history has been changed. The conspiracy theory offered is most satisfying, but for Sunny Afternoon to move from thrill ride to devastating experience (and perhaps move from a storefront theater to a professional production), Levatino needs to evolve his script and make us palpably aware—as Kushner did with Angels in America—that the personal and political bonds between individuals have been irrevocably destroyed.

However philosophers define “truth,” Hunt once said that “no one is entitled to the truth.” That may be true in its own convoluted way, but I sure am glad that Levatino and Gangbusters are hunting for it.

Giovanni Adams in Christian Levatino's "Sunny Afternoon" at Theatre Asylum in Hollywood.

Andy Hirsch in Christian Levatino's "Sunny Afternoon" at Theatre Asylum in Hollywood.photos by James Storm and Nathan Haugard

Sunny Afternoon
Gangbusters Theatre Company
in association with Combined Artform
Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood
ends on February 1, 2014
for tickets, call 800.838.3006 or visit Gangbusters

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