Los Angeles Theater Review: I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND (Theatre of NOTE)

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by Jason Rohrer on August 8, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

STRAWBERRY FIELDS

I’m not sure what, but it says something about our young writers and aging audiences that the most durable millennial genre is the coming-of-middle-age medical trauma family drama.  David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, car accident), Jenny Schwartz (God’s Ear, drowning), Margaret Edson (Wit, cancer), Kathryn Walat (Creation, struck by lightning), Brian Yorkey & Tom Kitt (Next to Normal, mental illness), Steven Dierkes (Land Line, cancer) are some top-of-my-head writers who have recently essayed the relationships frayed and strengthened, the core values challenged, the aberrant behavior manifested after spending time in hospital waiting rooms.

Erik Patterson provides a new entry with I Wanna Hold Your Hand.  It’s brain aneurysms this time, and for good measure the author has allowed his characters to include actors and a writer.  It’s a missed opportunity to let audiences visit a world where art doesn’t eat itself; especially since the play has real strengths.  It’s full of dynamic characters going through interesting changes, and they say funny and moving things all the time; the emotional flow is well-ordered and effective.  Exciting images, such as a spiritually bereft agnostic using John Lennon as an understandable face of God, populate a lively story.  This premiere production by David Bickford, Jenny Soo, and Alina Phelan is beautifully acted by a well-chosen cast, unobtrusively dressed by Kara McLeod, lit with Spartan beauty by Bosco Flanagan, and crisply sound-designed by Cricket S. Myers.

Producer Phelan plays a caretaking daughter with sympathy, credibility, most of all immediacy: Her moment-to-moment work never drops.  She is wonderful to watch.  Judith Ann Levitt plays her recovering mother with enormous presence and gravity.  Kirsten Vangsness’s terrified fiancé-of-a-stroke-victim develops nicely; the actor wisely takes her time revealing new dimensions.   As the stroke survivor, Phil Ward gives what I can only describe as a breathtaking performance.  The pain and need in his character are spooled out so compellingly that I hung on his every syllable.  As a dimwit thespian, Keston John is well-timed, his character arc perfectly plotted, though he may be too intelligent a person to act quite as dumb as this character is written.  At the performance I attended, understudy Jonathan Lamer gave a tearful and persuasive portrayal of a lost, lonely (and a bit underwritten, borderline dramatically unnecessary) son.  This is very safe company for the discerning theatergoer.  Sincerity rings off the walls.

(l to r) Judith Ann Levitt, Phil Ward, Kirsten Vangsness, Keston John, Alina Phelan, Nicholas S. Williams in I WANNA HOLD YOUR HAND at Theatre of Note - photo by Jacqui Zadik

McKerrin Kelly’s direction of actors has always been superlative; this skill helped her to make much out of Frank McGuinness’s flawed Dolly West’s Kitchen at Theatre Banshee a few years back.  Here again she pulls energy from a whole stageful of talent.  The performances are among the best-directed I’ve seen this year.  But with Dolly West, Kelly efficiently directed the large scene changes, providing business for actors to play over the transitions on a large, realistic set.  In the case of I Wanna Hold Your Hand, the transitions involve a disastrously complicated set of performance blocks (set by William Moore, Jr.) on a tiny playing area.  The scene changes are very well orchestrated, and once or twice Kelly does meld dialogue into the transitions.  I was repeatedly amazed that the actors could remember the intricate choreography of re-ordering the furniture. But it takes too long, because there are too many set pieces; and it happens too many times, because Patterson has written the second act with what I think are too many short scenes.  (The set once again injures the production just at curtain, when an ingenious room-sized Rube Goldberg contraption provides an unintentional howler, destroying the pleasant afterglow with an outsized, on-the-nose stinger.)

Except for extraneous opening and closing soliloquies, the play is well-structured.  But it is not particularly conscious of its position as a stage work.  Short scenes work in filmic montage, but onstage they usually have to flow in a specialized universe, and this play is written quite realistically.  Perhaps hampered by the writer’s style, Kelly does not weave these brief scenes into one another, maintaining the thematic and tonal continuum.  Instead we get well-directed 5-minute scene followed by 30 to 45 seconds of moving furniture, several times running.

The show is intermittently powerful enough to make me tear up; I was usually fascinated, gape-mouthed, my default position at an engaging entertainment.  As the society ages, and as a Kafkaesque health-care system informs an increasing percentage of the American experience, we may in fact need as many of these comfort plays as we seem to be producing.

photos by Jacqui Zadik

I Wanna Hold Your Hand
Theatre of NOTE
1517 North Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood
scheduled to end on August 30, 2014
for tickets, call (323) 856-8611 or visit www.theatreofnote.com

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