Los Angeles Theater Review: BETTER (Echo Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on October 13, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

FOR BETTER OR WORSE

Based on her own experience with a dying father and marital breakup with playwright Hamish Linklater (whose The Vandal is currently running in Chicago), Jessica Goldberg created Annie, a restaurateur whose troubled marriage is put on the back burner when she returns to her family’s Ohio home to bid farewell to her terminally ill father. Leaving her self-help writer husband back in New York with their young son, Annie will be forced to confront the elusiveness of the pursuit of happiness.

Eve Sigall and Joe Spano in Echo Theater Company's production of Jessica Goldberg's BETTER. Photo by Darrett Sanders.

On the surface, the phrase “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence is clear: we are equally endowed with the right to follow our hearts. But look a bit deeper, and it easily becomes more complicated than it sounds. As seven more characters enter the scene in this 90-minute one act, we find that most have stumbled on their way to discovering what makes them self-satisfied.

Eve Sigall, Johnathan McClain, and Meredith Bishop in Echo Theater Company's production of Jessica Goldberg's BETTER. Photo by Darrett Sanders.

Marriage, Goldberg seems to be saying, may be complicated (is it a loss of freedom or does it strengthen our individuality?), but so is the so-called freedom of being single (do too many choices make choosing problematic?). Equally complicated is the playwriting, which has been given a compelling world premiere production by Echo Theater Company. Goldberg has taken on a gargantuan theme but has yet to elevate her absorbing dialogue and interesting characters into anything more than a slice-of-life family drama, which feels more like an episodic TV script than a fleshed-out play (Goldberg has written seven produced plays but also writes for NBC’s Parenthood).

Eve Sigall, Malcolm Madera, Meredith Bishop, and Sigute Miller in Echo Theater Company's production of Jessica Goldberg's BETTER. Photo by Darrett Sanders.

The characters all seem to have a place, and I enjoyed watching them navigate the waters of communication breakdown, including all the cutting and unpleasant criticism that entails. Yet even with convincing scenes (some of which end without building to the proper tension), naturalistic direction by Jennifer Chambers, Stephen Gifford’s expansive set, and wonderful performances (an Echo Theatre trademark), I found many of the character’s arcs unconvincing.

Eve Sigall, Meredith Bishop, and Joe Spano in Echo Theater Company's production of Jessica Goldberg's BETTER. Photo by Darrett Sanders.

As a result, Eve Sigall — one of L.A.’s greatest actresses — is wholly believable as Annie’s grandmother, a Russian nonagenarian who battles dementia, but her talent is frankly wasted. So, too, is the great Joe Spano as the father whose dying wish is that Annie take over the family grocery business, although I would be just as mesmerized watching him read a menu. Sigute Miller as the mom is more bedraggled than at the end of her rope by an all-consuming, somewhat trivial, decades-old secret that has kept her from being truly happy in her marriage. She interacts with every role in this Miller-esque kitchen-sink play, but there is no epiphanic “Attention must be paid” moment to make her suffering palpable to us.

Jeremy Maxwell, Malcolm Madera, and Andrea Grano in Echo Theater Company's production of Jessica Goldberg's BETTER. Photo by Darrett Sanders.

No wonder Meredith Bishop is such a marvel as Annie; she chews into a part which is rife with guilt, longing, confusion, and more. In fact, all of the better-drawn characters are far more memorable, even though the entire ensemble shines. Jeremy Maxwell barrels through his portrayal of the brother who thinks he’s grown up because he’s a health nut who can bench press. Annie’s old high school flame, Frank, gets a sympathetic turn from Malcolm Madera, and Andrea Grano as Frank’s ex Missy is hysterical even though the character is coming to terms with what looks to be a dead-end life. Johnathan McClain magically turns the rather unsympathetic role of Annie’s spouse, Cal, into an authentic plight of looming loneliness and defeat.

Meredith Bishop and Joe Spano in Echo Theater Company's production of Jessica Goldberg's BETTER. Photo by Darrett Sanders.

Cal is emblematic of the characters’ rich paradoxes. He actually makes a living off of those who find happiness elusive — he lectures us during a book tour of his The Happiness Paradox — but this semi-smug author is no poster child for happiness as he realizes his perfectly crafted world is disintegrating.

Meredith Bishop in Echo Theater Company's production of Jessica Goldberg's BETTER. Photo by Darrett Sanders.

Thomas Jefferson borrowed a phrase from 17th-century English philosopher John Locke, who spoke of “Life, liberty and property,” property perhaps being a key to happiness. But Locke had plenty to say about happiness in one of his essays. Pursuing true happiness was the foundation of liberty, he wrote. And true happiness may mean being “obliged to suspend the satisfaction of our desires in particular cases.” In that case, there are patrons who will be completely happy watching Echo Theater bring this play to life. Who among us can’t relate to the peeling away of secrets and that elusive pursuit of happiness? I just hope the script will one day be further developed. It’s a diverting journey that may ultimately reach a destination and not just pursue it. That would make me very happy.

Andrea Grano and Jeremy Maxwell in Echo Theater Company's production of Jessica Goldberg's BETTER. Photo by Darrett Sanders.photos by Darrett Sanders

Better
The Echo Theatre Company
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave in Atwater Village
Fri and Sat at 8:00; Sun at 7:00
ends on November 16, 2014
for tickets, call 310-307-3753
or visit Echo Theater

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