Bad Jews in the Valley | “Family Schmamily” @ Eclectic Company Theatre

Family Schmamily (Eclectic Company Theatre)This seems to be a bad year for small theatres in Southern California. Last month,  Chromolume Theatre (FB) announced that their landlord had kicked them out of their space at the end of May; luckily, they were able to find space at the Hudson Theatre (FB) in Hollywood to finish out their season. Reading the news last weekend, my wife discovered that this was happening to another long-time company in North Hollywood: Eclectic Company Theatre (FB). They need to be out by early June; the building will be demolished, but the company has plans to continue… somehow. Their final production in the current location was to be Family Schmamilya series of five one-act plays developed by the Valley Beth Shalom Writers Roundtable. Translation of all of this: Last night, I set aside the work on the highway pages for my other love, theatre, to see this final show at Eclectic in North Hollywood (don’t worry, roadgeeks, I’ve been doing some more edits this morning, but expect more interruptions due to the beast that is the  Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB)).

The evening didn’t start well, because there was a large boisterous party of older Jewish ladies (I’m guessing friends of some in the cast) who were busy chatting with their friends, constantly switching seats, complaining about the view, complaining about… Let’s just say they established the stereotypes we would be seeing in the first two mini-plays.

As for the five plays themselves, they were hit and miss. I’ll go through them in order, but there were only two that we liked. The others all played up stereotypes to the points of being annoying. Reading the bios, these were coming from skilled writers — so I guess this is an issue of a “first outing”, and these one-acts needing a lot more polishing. In some ways, especially given the minimal staging, these shows might have fit much better at the Fringe Festival across the hill in Hollywood. I’m not sure the future lives of these — few of them seemed to fit well into a story that could be expanded beyond the 10-20 minute playlets.

The first play, Franny and Fidelia, was written by Beth Polsky (FB), and featured Leda Siskind as Franny and Marilyn Lazik as Fidelia. The story was about two older women — supposedly sisters according to the program, but unclear in the script — discussing how one of them is constipated and needs to go to the bathroom. It turns out the constipation was emotional, and all comes out — literally and figuratively — when one confesses an affair to the other. This, in turn, triggers a corresponding confession. I found that the story seemed to play on the stereotypical kvetching of sisterhood gals, combined with the “tittering” of the notion of old-ladies being sexual creatures and a bit of constipation humor. The performances were good, but the story did nothing for me.

The second play, Dinner With The Girls, written and directed by Andrea Rosenwein (FB), tells the story of three older friends: Phyllis (Elena-Beth Kaye (FB)), Denise (Patty Sherman (FB)), and Judy (Marjorie  “MJ” Scott) working on dividing up the bill after dinner at the Red Fire Deli somewhere in San Francisco (the waiter was played by Jeremiah Benjamin (FB)). The story, again, is the typical sterotypical kvetching older Jewish women — this time, single and perfectionist — attempting to divide a check and complain about their married friends. This is the level of pettiness of check dividing one might expect: no, the Matzah Balls were cold. I’m not paying for that — there weren’t enough pickles. I wanted crushed, not lumped ice. The audience was laughing hysterically at these arguments — but that’s because they were clearly coming from that era and milleau. For those of us that find such sisterhood ladies annoying (and I can say this as a past-president of a Mens Club), it wasn’t funny. We later discover that these women all became this way — were doomed to this life of pettiness — because they were afraid to take risk, and they were really in “the bad place” … with one chance to get out … if only they could take a risk. Naturally, they go back to arguing over the check. Again: Good performances, but stereotypical characters of the annoying variety made this very uncomfortable and uninteresting for us.

The third play, Abram and Sarai: My Sister, My Wife, written and directed by Mona Deutsch Miller (FB), was vaguely more interesting. It was a dinner table discussion between Abram (Steven Robert Wollenberg) and Sarai (Linda Rand (FB)) about Abram passing Sarai off as his sister, when she was her wife. This eventually touches on all sorts of biblical events, and we learn that somehow this is Abram and Sarai in Brooklyn sometimes in the 1950s or early 1960s, but still with references to the biblical.  I liked the conceit of this story and the references, but figuring out the actual time frame was a bit difficult and disconcerting. Still, I found this one enjoyable, and again, the performances were good.

The fourth play, Estate Sale, written by Michael Goldstein (FB) and directed by Cloe Kromwell (FB), was the best of the bunch. It told the story of David (Kevin Ragsdale (FB)) and his wife Lisa (Laura Bolcik (FB)) at an Estate Sale being run by a clerk (Hamilton Matthews (FB)). The central notion here is that the husband is a horder; the wife is a minimalist. Through the story, we learn why the husband is hoarding, and see the relationship between the husband and wife and how deep it is. This one wasn’t as stereotypical: it captured the characters well, it told an interesting story, was performed well, and was quite enjoyable.

The last play, Sudden Death, written by Robin Russin (FB) and directed by Thomas Prosser (FB), told the story of a young couple: Terry (Layal Badaro (FB)) and Jake (Jeremiah Benjamin (FB)), who have fallen madly in love after meeting at a bar two days ago and having numerous incidents of wild passonate sex. Jake proposes to Terry, and the fun begins as they start to learn about themselves. This seemed to start out OK, but once it came out that Terry was Catholic and Jake was Jewish, it started to fall into stereotypical tropes that landed a bit flat. It needed more depth than it had. The performances were good, although the actress’s hint of a middle-eastern accent was a bit disconcerting in a situation where you would think — aha, Israeli, but she’s Catholic, so WTF? (it turns out she’s Lebanese, so the Catholic does actually work, but it seemed odd at the time).

On the technical side: the set was … what set? Lighting and sound was by Cal Olivier.

There are two more performances of these shows: tonight and tomorrow night. Tickets are available through Brown Paper Tickets, discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. Two of the five are worth seeing, the others are more hit and miss. We’ll be at Fringe.


Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) [the company formerly known as Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)], the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), the Chromolume Theatre (FB), a mini-subscription at the Soraya [the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

It’s June — ah, June. That, my friends, means only one thing: the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), Here’s our June schedule:

July will get busier again. It starts with the 50th Anniversary of Gindling Hilltop Camp, followed by On Your Feet at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The next weekend brings Jane Eyre The Musical at Chromolume Theatre (FB) at the Hudson [yeah! Chromolume found a new location]. The third weekend in July brings a Bat Mitzvah in Victorville, and Beauty and The Beast at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) that evening on Saturday, and a hold for the OperaWorks (FB) “Opera ReConstructed” at CSUN on Sunday. The last weekend may be a Muse/ique (FB) show. August starts with Waitress at the Hollywood Pantages (FB) on Saturday, and the Actors Co-Op Too! production of Always Andrews: A Musical Tribute to the Andrews Sisters on Sunday at Actors Co-op (FB). The next weekend brings the last Actors Co-Op Too! production, Twelfth Night, or What You Will at Actors Co-op (FB). There may also be a production of The Most Happy Fella at MTW — I’m not sure about it, but the hold date is on the calendar.

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.


How Much Would You Be Willing to Pay for a Cheap Vacation?

Timeshare (Eclectic Company Theatre)userpic=theatre2If you’ve ever walked down the Las Vegas Strip or along a beachfront walk in Hawaii, you’ve run into them: the salescritters in the little booths, enticing you to come and see a timeshare presentation. In exchange for your time, you’ll get something valuable: tickets to a Vegas show, tickets to a luau, a flat screen TV, a free vacation. Perhaps you’ve succumbed to their offer. Perhaps you’ve gone to a free show. Perhaps your the lucky owner of a timeshare now.

I can say this as the owner of a timeshare, although not one I purchased personally. Back in the mid-1970s, my parents purchased an interval at one of the first timeshares in Maui, the Whaler on Kaanapali Beach. While they were alive they went regularly, or rented it out. I was there for my honeymoon, and regularly went with them in high school and early college days. I inherited it after they died, and have been there… once (this year, for my 30th wedding anniversary). Why? The primary reason is cost: although staying there is free (well, it really isn’t: you have HOA dues), getting there is not. Airfare for two to Hawaii, plus rental car, adds up fast. So the years we haven’t gone we’ve exchanged our interval, usually for someplace in driving distance (Las Vegas, Palm Springs, Tucson, Escondido, Sedona). The first time we exchanged for Las Vegas, we did exactly what most people do: went on a timeshare sales presentation to get tickets to a show. This is so common there are loads of websites talking about the tactics that timeshare salescritters use (and here), and how to get your free stuff for free (example, example, example, example), and most importantly, how to say “no”. So, when I was at The Colony Theatre (FB) recently, and picked up a postcard with the following description, I was intrigued:

Trying to change his life and save his marriage, Tom takes a job as a timeshare salesman. He learns the latest sales techniques, and hypes himself up several times a day with the “One Minute Sales Talk”. As he struggles with his learning curve and the ethics of the Timeshare industry, he is tricked and threatened by his co-workers, harangued by his boss, and seduced by the sexiest salesperson of all. Tom perseveres, learning new sales skills and maybe even a new career. However, just as he begins to become a competent salesperson, a disgruntled Customer pulls a gun, shoots the sales manager, and takes the Timeshare showroom hostage. Tom must now use his new sales skills to convince the gunman to let everyone live. It’s life and death capitalism, and now Tom must close this big sale, or die.

I was so intrigued I hunted down tickets (hmmm, succumbed for the sales pitch); thus, last night saw me at The Eclectic Company Theatre (FB) for a performance of their new comedy, Timeshare, written and directed by Steve B. Green (FB) [who we last saw onstage in “Green Grow the Lilacs].

The store of Timeshare is pretty much as detailed in the pitch above. In the first act, we’re introduced Tom, his Sales Manager Frank, and his co-workers in the New Jersey sales office: Jack, the fast talking salesman more interested in telling stories of his sexual conquests; Christine, the New Jersey “goil”  who has learned how to use sex and attitude to close sales; and Mike, the ex-jock co-worker more interested in getting a timeshare of Christine. We’re also introduced to the tactics of the industry. We see these tactics  in how salescritters are motivated both by team pep talks and individual sales talks in front of a mirror. We also see them in a series of vignettes with customers coming in and being “sold” by salesman, to varying degrees. These customers include a couple clearly there only to receive the flat-screen TV — antagonistically so (Martin and Maria); a single mother cashier with her baby (Tiffany); an older couple where she is interested (because of what she can wear), but her husband is a realist and only sees the cost (Ira and Melanie); a couple of New Jersey playas (Bart and Amy); and an older couple where she would love to travel, and he is pressured (Neil and Gretchen). What the salescritters don’t know is that Neil has just been “downsized”, and the pressure of the sales presentation causes him to snap (Falling Down” style), pull out a gun, and shoot the sales manager and one of the customers. Thus endeth Act I. Act II consists of the sales staff working to convince Neil to give himself up. It’s hard to describe, but it permits one to see these people bettter. Most importantly, it provides the opportunity for Tom (who is the lead character in all of this) to grow as a salesman.

Before going into the performances, let’s assess the book and its realization by the director. In general, I liked the story quite a bit: it reflected my experience with timesale sales presentations quite well, and had a large number of very funny lines (none of which I can remember this morning, alas (thank you Mr. Migraine)).  The problems — and I usually don’t say this — were primarily directoral. I felt the interstitial music between the various scenes in Act I was overdone and cheesy (this isn’t a book problem; it’s a directoral decision), and made the scenes come across more as a sitcom or an episodic cartoon (think the scenes with the Sheriff and Bart in Blazing Saddles). It would have been much better to just have silence there. I was also unsure whether there might have been one too many individual customer scenes. Two could have been combined (perhaps with different salescritters). They just seem to go on a pinch long, although I can see storywise why they were there and what they were showing. This could have just been due to the transition style.

Additionally, the pep talks had some staging problems. It wasn’t clear, especially in the beginning, that the talks in front of a mirror in the bathroom were in a bathroom; they initially came across more as a talk to the audience. This could have been addressed through better scenic design; lacking that, some performance queues (such as combing hair, washing hands) might suffice. The group pep talks had the sales manager walking away from the sales staff and walking up and facing the audience, which suspended the belief that it was a pep talk. Judicious rearrangement and restaging could have made it so both the sales manager and the sales team were partially facing the audience. The second act seem to have resolved the staging and pacing problems (except for the final pep talk, which had the problem above).

The problems noted above weren’t major failures — they certainly didn’t make the show bad or unwatchable. But they created some unnecessary distractions that — at least to this untrained layperson — could have been corrected with a little tweaking.

Whatever the staging problems, the performances more than made up for it. In the lead was the handsome and personable Tony Pauletto (FB). Pauletto played the role with charm, and really came across as a down-on-his-luck man who grabbed at the timeshare sales opportunity, but really didn’t want to be there (and didn’t have the salesman in him). This is something I related to, as the ability to do sales is a skill that I don’t have. It was interesting to watch how the actor transformed over the course of the evening into a real salesperson. I would say that indicates there is hope for those of us who can’t do sales, but I wouldn’t consider being transformed into a salescritter necessarily a good thing 😃.

As Tom, the hard-sell sales manager, Jon Mullich (FB) was fun to watch. I had been familiar with Mullich solely from his wonderful artwork he had been posting to the pro99 group on Facebook (examples here); by lucky happenstance this show provided the opportunity to meet him and see him on stage. Mullich has quite a skill with comedy and comedy movement: watch him twitching in Act II after he has been shot. He was also able to do a nice turn of character, as demonstrated when he pivoted from his manic salesman mode to being a loving father. In short, he was very fun to watch. Hopefully, I’ll see him more (and not just on Facebook) — I had never connected that he was the evil mastermind behind USS Pinafore that I had seen quite a few years ago at Crown City.

The remaining timeshare salescritters were Sarmarie Klein (FB) [Christine], Kerr Lordygan (FB) [Jack]; and Travis Quentin (FB) [Mike]. Klein’s Christine was pure New Joisey, down to the accent and the attitude. She was a delight to watch, especially how she used her sexuality and looks to play and manipulate both the other salescritters and the customers (as an aside, I’ve never been able to understand how women can cross their legs that tight or wear heels that high — it must be horribly uncomfortable). Her interactions with all the salescritters were well played, and it was interesting to see how she was able to bring out the different personalities when talking to Tom (who she was sexually interested in) vs. Mike (who she clearly wasn’t) vs. Jack (who she just seemed to not see). Lordygan I’ve known from the pro99 Facebook group; it was nice to see him on stage. He had the sexually-obsessed slime role down well; he made you believe that you would want to wash your hands after meeting him. Well played. Quentin’s Mike came across as the typical jock interested in only one thing; it was hard to see why he was there as he appeared to have a worse sales technique than Tom.

Most of the customers that we meet are caricatures, archetypes of the types of folks that frequent timeshare presentations. The only ones we really get to know are Bart and Amy (Zachary Davidson (FB) and Madelyne Heyman (FB)) and Neil and Gretchen (Paul Messinger (FB) and Marbry Steward).  Davidson and Heyman were the playas, putting on a gangster attitude.  They captured this well in both style and dress (although I have no idea how one can move in a skirt that tight), which made the ending transformation quite endearing. The two made a believable couple. [As an aside, I hadn’t noticed Madelyne’s last name before, and now wonder if she’s connected to the Heyman side of my father’s family — although based on her FB page, I don’t know of any family in her hometown. If she reads this and is connected to the Heyman’s from New York, let me know]  Messinger and Steward were essentially the antagonists of the story (well, Messinger’s Neil was); they essentially drive the transformation of Tom’s character. Messinger captured the downtrodden downsized worker well: he personified a character who believably snapped, and then found himself in a situation he was unprepared for. His reactions as he tried to cope with that situation were great to watch, although the ending was perhaps predictable as there wasn’t a good alternative resolution. Perhaps that was a writing problem (there should have been a possible other out, making the ending more poignant and more of a commentary on where society is taking us); nevertheless, Messinger portrayed it well. Steward’s role was smaller but equally important: she represented the anchor to Messenger’s breakdown. She captured that slightly kooky new-age anchor well, and provided wonderful voice-acting in the latter parts of Act II.

As noted earlier, the other customers appeared only in the vignettes in Act I: Maria and Martin (Victoria Yvonne Martinez (FB) and Gerard Marzilli (FB)), the customers only there for the flat-screen TV; Ira and Melanie (David Datz (FB) and Randi Tahara (FB) [understudy for JC Henning (FB)]), the older couple where she was interested in the travel, but he was the realist interested in the cost; and Tiffany (Alyssa LeBlanc (FB)), the single-mother cashier. Of these, two stand out in my memory: Martinez was wonderful as the no-nonsense Maria, focused not on the sales pitch but on the flat-screen; and Tahara’s Melanie, who was going along with her husband only for the fashion she could wear.

Understudies († indicates they had non-understudy roles) were: Alyssa LeBlanc (FB)† [Christine]; David Datz (FB)† [Neil]; Gerard Marzilli (FB)† [Jack], Zack Pappas [Bart / Martin]; and MZ Runyan [Tiffany].

On the production and technical side…. the set design by Marco De Leon (FB) worked reasonably well in portraying a timeshare office, given intimate theatre budgets. I had only two notes with respect to it. First, the backstage access to the restroom needed better camouflage,  as seeing either the door or the ladder was disconcerting, if not distracting. Second, as noted earlier, the design could have established the bathroom a little better: just the top of a bathroom faucet and a “Lave su manos” sign was insufficient. The sound design by MZ Runyan was good, although the volume of the intermission music was a little loud. The lighting design by Yancey Dunham (FB) worked well to establish scene and mood; I’ll note that Leko that was illuminating the bathroom seemed to have a little flicker. Poster and postcard design was by MZ Runyan and must have been effective — it brought me in 😄. Program design was by Jon Mullich (FB), who I thank for including actor URLs (although there is a typo in Marco’s URL). Other production credits: Music Compilation – Maureen L. O’Connell; Music/Sound Editing – Edwin Stauss; Propmaster – Victoria Yvonne Martinez (FB); Production Advisor – JC Henning (FB); Production Stage Manager – MZ Runyan; Producers – Steven B. Green (FB) and Rochelle Perry (FB).

Timeshare – A Dark Comedy continues at The Eclectic Company Theatre (FB) through December 13. Tickets are available by calling (818) 508-3003 or visiting the Eclectic Company Ticketing Website. There are no discount tickets on LA Stage Tix, but may be available through Goldstar. I found the show enjoyable; you might as well.

Valley Village Discovery of Note: A block away from the theatre I discovered an intriguing music venue: Kulak’s Woodshed (FB), which appears to be a music venue for songwriter/artists to perform and have their performances webcast. In a sense it is like McCabes (FB) or Boulevard Music (FB), but smaller and seemingly for the more up-and-coming. It looks like someplace I’ll want to keep an eye on (as it is much closer, at least time-wise). It also seems to fit the spirit of Woodsongs (FB)’s  Woodsong Coffeehouse movement — they should connect there to get some additional publicity. On the other side of Eclectic Company is the wonderful Russian Dacha (FB) restaurant — we ate there before Uncle Vanya, and it was great to eat there again.

Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre critic; I am, however, a regular theatre audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted. I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I subscribe at three theatres:  REP East (FB), The Colony Theatre (FB), and Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals).  I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows: The last weekend of November sees us back at Zombie Joes Underground (FB) for the intriguingly-titled “The Jew That Saved Christmas“. December starts with High School Musical at Nobel Middle School (FB) (running December 1-4), followed by “El Grande Circus de Coca-Cola” at The Colony Theatre (FB) on December 5. During the week I become a producer, when we present The Nigerian Spam Scam Scam as the dinner entertainment at the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). The weekend after the conference sees us at the NoHo Arts Center (FB) for Theatre 68 (FB)’s production of Who Killed Santa?, which sounded so warped as to be either extremely funny or extremely stupid– should be fun to watch! The third weekend of December brings the touring company of “If/Then” at the Pantages (FB). The last weekend of December is held for “The Bridges of Madison County” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). I’m just starting to plan 2016 — I’ve been waiting on the REP schedule. So far, January shows “Bullets Over Broadway” at the Pantages (FB) on January 9, and “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” at Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB) on January 30. There are also “holds” (i.e., dates blocked, but awaiting ticketing) for “Louis and Keeley – Live at the Sahara” at The Geffen Playhouse (FB) for either January 2 or 16 (pending tickets on Goldstar) and “Stomp” at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) (pending confirmation we’re doing a mini-subscription). There is currently nothing on the schedule for February, but February 28 has a hold for The Band of the Royal Marines and the Pipes, Drums, and Highland Dancers of the Scots Guards at the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC) (FB) (pending confirmation we’re doing a mini-subscription). March brings “Another Roll of the Dice” at The Colony Theatre (FB), and has two potential dates on hold for “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) (pending Hottix). As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Bitter-Lemons, and Musicals in LA, as well as productions I see on Goldstar, LA Stage Tix, Plays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves.