FACE IT: Southern California Comes Of Stage

I review theatre in New York, primarily, on and off Broadway. Yet, I have to say two of the most interesting shows I have seen recently are currently performing at a tiny venue on Vermont Ave in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. The Skylight Theatre is notable not only for having a loyal following in a city suddenly bursting with small stages, but it presents only original work. You would be surprised how rare that is, it being so much easier to get audiences off their couches when the names of the live shows in town include words like "Fiddler."

When I was growing up in Los Angeles, in bare feet and not a sunscreen in sight, there were perhaps two legitimate theaters in the city. We also heard about something down there in San Diego that did a lot of Shakespeare, but who cared? Well, it turns out the Old Globe has become an incubator for shows that end up on and off Broadway, as has the nearby La Jolla Playhouse. (Both more than 20) Right now, La Jolla has the new play written by Ayad Akhtar, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Disgraced. Unlike that searing drama, Junk: The Golden Age of Debt does not take place at a tense dinner party in Manhattan, but on Wall Street during the wild '80s. Meanwhile the Old Globe is presenting a new--well, actually 20 years old but first time up---play by Steve Martin entitled Meteor Shower. This one does, in fact, take place over cocktails among bickering couples. (This is the theatre that also allowed Martin to work on Bright Star which this season opened--and closed, on Broadway) This one may not move too much further, based on the review in the Los Angeles Times, whose critic not only belittled the play, but lambasted the idea of theatres presenting projects just because they have a well known name behind them. Ouch.

Back to L.A., where there are literally countless venues offering works old and new: The Antaeus does classics, The Fountain usually gets the premieres of new Athol Fugard plays, The Odyssey is currently doing an acclaimed revival of Clifford Odets' Awake and Sing. My new fave, the Skylight, is doing two in repertory, Church and State and Obama-Ology. The former, written by Jason Odell Williams, will be heading East soon as it makes its well deserved journey across country. This is a powerful, often humorous, and highly contemporary piece about a North Carolina senator running for re-election. A school shooting has just occurred, causing him to do some ridiculously brave things like questioning the role of prayer and promising to enact gun control legislation. The play has several surprises, four fascinating characters, and so many lines that resonate. Even though the character is not Trump-like, per se, those on his campaign beg him not to go off script, at onetime asking, "sir, are you trying to self-sabotage"? The playwright, of course, is happy to see the play get such strong attention, but also admits he hopes it becomes obsolete....meaning that the country finally stops embarrassing itself and does something about guns.

Obama-Ology--an odd and, in fact, off-putting title--is written by Aurin Squire and follows the trajectory of a gay black man's year in Cleveland in 2008. It is his story, not that of the candidate for whom he works--in fact, opponent John McCain is never even mentioned-- and has some fine moments and lines. It could use another draft, but still, leaves one with much to think about and features four excellent performers. That's the other thing about these small plays on the West Coast--whose restaurants, bars, casting offices, and drama classes are filled with those hungry to show their talent. Here are top notch actors working, literally, for car fare. I kept thinking of the great song in A Chorus Line--a fantastic revival of which, by the way, I just saw at the Hollywood Bowl. They may do it for nothing, but they do it for love.