🎭 The First Time You Die | “Steambath” @ Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Steambath (Odyssey Theatre Ensemble)Back when I was 13, there was a production on TV that I remember to this day (although I can’t remember if I saw the original airing or a repeat): the play Steambath, written by Bruce Jay Friedman, was broadcast on our local PBS station (it might even have still been NET) station, KCET. Why was this broadcast notable?  Well, it could have been the subject: death and limbo and God as a Puerto-Rican steambath attendant. It could have been the talent: Bill Bixby, Valerie Perrine, Herb Edelman, Jose Perez, Stephen Elliott, Kenneth Mars. But for most 13 year old boys, it was the fact that KCET showed it uncensored, and you got to see Valerie Perrine’s tits (and, yes, that’s how they are referred to in the play — she doesn’t like the term “knockers”).  It is available on DVD, but I did find one scene on YouTube — and that scene demonstrates how stereotypical it was, and how reflective it was of its times. There are jokes that today would be insensitive — it is in many ways a period piece.

I mention all of this because Saturday night, we saw Steambath at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB). Yes, it had its dated aspects. But it was also laugh out loud funny.

Steambath is a comedy, but it is also a philosophical, perhaps even theological piece. When the play opens, we’re in a steambath. An older man, Tandy, has just arrived. He starts talking (as one does in a steambath) with the oldtimer there, who is constantly complaining about a man sitting on an upper bench in the steambath, being … well, gross. Spitting, clipping his toenails, etc. We also meet the other men in the bath: two gay men (or, as they are referenced in the play, the “fags”, as the term “gay” wasn’t common then), and a stockbroker. A woman comes in, takes off her towel, showers, and leaves. This gets the discussion going. Eventually, the woman returns; her name is Merideth. There’s lots of discussion back and forth while we get to know the characters, and for some, we start to get the notion this isn’t what it seems. Eventually, they figure that out as well. Specifically, they come to realize that they are dead. Tandy asks who is in charge, and he is pointed to the Puerto Rican steambath attendant. The attandant comes in, goes to a console, and starts doing god-like stuff: directing cars to crash, people to get shot, etc. Eventually, Tandy confronts him and gets him to prove that he is God. This proof takes up the remainder of the first act, and is very very funny. Pick a card type funny.

The second act gets a bit more serious, as our characters tell their stories, and one by one leave the steambath to go…. on. Tandy refuses to do so — he doesn’t accept his death. He’s trying to argue to God that he has turned his life around, and he deserves to go on. But God eventually shows him that he hasn’t changed as much as he thought, and he, too, eventually goes through the door.

At the play we saw the next night, they said something very profound: The first time you die is, well, when you physically die. The second time you die is when you are buried, and your physical body is gone. The third time you die is when you are forgotten. This play was about the first time you die.

Even with the what are now politically incorrect jokes, the play was very very funny. Under the direction of Ron Sossi (FB) and the choreography of Dagney Kerr (FB), the characters came to life and action was well paced. It didn’t help that God was extremely talented and funny, which is no surprise given that God was portrayed by Paul Rodriguez (FB) (who alternates in the role with Peter Pasco). Rodriguez inserted his own brand of funny, including adding some jokes that he admitted were from the future, and the characters probably wouldn’t understand. There was one particularly crude one about Monica Lewinsky, for example.

In the other lead positions were Jeff Lebeau (FB) as Tandy and Shelby Lauren Barry (FB) as Meredith (who had a well-secured towel). Both were excellent. Lebeau brought a nice warmth to Tandy creating a likable character who you didn’t want to see leave — he really did give the sense of a man who had turned his life around. Barry was also likable as the young woman into clothes, shopping, and the 1970s lifestyle; she proved a good sounding board for Lebeau’s Tandy.

In the next tier were John Moskal (FB) as the Oldtimer, and Robert Lesser (FB) as Bieberman, the other old man whose habits irritated the Oldtimer so.  Both captured their characters well. Moskal was great as the man who had been everywhere and seen everything, and thought that he knew everything. Lesser’s Bieberman captured the annoying quite well in the first act, and had an interesting story in the second.

Rounding out the steambath “residents” were Brian Graves (FB) as the Broker, and DJ Kemp (FB) and Devan Scheolen (FB) as the “Young Men” (i.e., “fags”).  Graves main role is to be athletic and concerned about business and he pulls that off quite well. Kemp and Scheolen get to have a more musical turn (you’ll get an idea if you watched the YouTube clip from the TV version). They portray the characters well and as written, but that characterization is a very early 70s view of homosexuals played for the humor. Just understand that’s what you’ll be getting, and you’ll enjoy their performance.

Rounding out the cast were Yusuf Yildiz (FB) as Gottlieb, the attendant for God; Anthony Rutowicz (FB) as the Longshoreman / Detective, and Shay Denison (FB) as the Young Girl. The latter two are smaller roles in the second act; Yildiz’s role is larger and is primarily a straight-man to Rodriguez’s comic God. He does that well.

Lastly, turning to the production and creative side: Gary Guidinger (FB)’s scenic design is simple and, well, a steambath — with copious “steam”. It is supported by Josh La Cour (FB)’s props — which are particularly good, especially the ice cream sodas. Mylette Nora‘s costumes are primarily towels, but they are very well secured. Christopher Moscatiello (FB) sound design provides great sound effects, and Chu-Hsuan Chang‘s lighting design effectively creates the mood. Other production credits: Margaret Starbuck (FB) and Alex Weber (FB) were assistant directors; Izaura Avitia was the stage manager.

Steambath continues at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB) through December 16. Tickets are available through the Odyssey Website, discount tickets may be available through Goldstar. Although the show is dated and politically incorrect, it is also very very funny and well worth seeing.

***

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 (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). 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 Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (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:

Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend brought Remembering Boyle Heights at Casa 0101 (FB) in Boyle Heights, which I’ll write up tomorrow. December starts with the Annual Computer Security Applications Conference (ACSAC). It will  also bring Come From Away at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Other than that, December is open while we recover (other than the obligatory movie on Christmas Day — our one day a year for filmed entertainment).

January is much more open, especially after the postponement of Bat Out of Hell at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Right now, all there is is a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Judea and a hold for the Colburn Orchestra at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) but the rest of the month is currently open (as few shows run in January due to complicated rehearsals over the holidays). We’ll keep our eyes open. February starts with the Cantor’s Concert at Temple Ahavat Shalom (FB), Hello Dolly at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and Anna Karenena at Actors Co-op (FB).  There’s also a HOLD for 1776 at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB), and Lizzie at the Chance Theatre, but much of February is also open.

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.

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The Chai Life | “Bad Jews” @ Odyssey Theatre Ensemble

Bad Jews (Odyssey)Friday night. I could have been at the synagogue, celebrating Israel’s 70th Birthday. But no, I was at the theatre. I’m a bad Jew.

Conincidentally, that was the title of the show we saw at the  Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB) — Bad Jews, written by Joshua Harmon. We missed Bad Jews the last time it was in Los Angeles (at the Geffen, in 2015); this time the timing was right for us to make it (and, coincidentally, another of Harmon’s plays, Significant Other, is currently at the Geffen). The description of the show just made it sound so intriguing:

After a beloved grandfather dies in New York, leaving a treasured piece of religious jewelry that he succeeded in hiding even from the Nazis during the Holocaust, cousins fight over not only the family heirloom, but their “religious faith, cultural assimilation, and even the validity of each other’s romances.”

The story itself is centered around the two Haber brothers, Jonah and Liam, their cousin Daphna Feygenbaum, and Liam’s girlfriend, Melody. Their common grandfather — a holocaust survivor — has died, leaving a Chai necklace. The essence of the play centers around who wants — and who deserves — the necklace.

The characters are constructed in — at least from this Jew’s perspective — a stereotypical way. Liam is the typical secular Jew — atheistic in belief, and barely Jewish in heritage, with the typical non-Jewish blond and blue-eyed girlfriend. Davna is the type you meet at a Jewish summer camp: wearing her liberal and Israel-supporting Judaism on her sleeve; she’s strongly proud of it, but you don’t know how deep under the surface that pride goes. Jonah is more of an enigma: quiet, not wanting to make any trouble, the good kid. Melody is the non-Jewish girlfriend of no particular outward religious faith, but perhaps the most religious and moral of them all.

Bad Jews (Cast Photos)The play itself was at times laugh out loud funny, and at times darkly angry. My wife came away from it a bit disturbed. She felt the characterization of Daphna was too much of the “Jewish bitch stereotype”. It wasn’t something that would have been noticed three years ago when the play first arrived in LA, but in today’s #MeToo environment with a great sensitivity of how women are portrayed, it was a bit problematical. I also saw stereotypes in Melody: there was the immediate assumption that anyone blond and blue eyed was non-Jewish. Melody could very easily have been Jewish and just not saying anything; the question was never asked. We both noted that the playwright was a man: could this have been a problem with a man writing a role for a woman, and thus putting his perception of what Jewish women are into the characters, with them being shaped by a real Jewish women. This then raised the question of where the director, Dana Resnick (FB), came into shaping the play. After all, the current revival of My Fair Lady has been slightly reshaped for the modern era and a more liberated Eliza; was there enough directorial leeway to reshape the characters in a more realistic way (or was it forced by the dialogue). It was something we couldn’t answer, but we felt it was an interesting debate.

Other than that, we felt that the debate captured in the show represented a dilemma common with younger Jews today: what constitutes a “good Jew” in the modern era? Which character was the most deserving of the Chai? They all had legitimate claims. It is certainly a play that will leave you asking that question.

The performances themselves were strong. As Daphna, Jeanette Deutsch (FB) embodied the modern Jewish woman esthetic quite well. In other words: I remember her type from camp; I knew them and know them, and she captured it well. I thought she just went to the edge; my wife felt her a bit over-strident.

As her cousin, Jonah, Austin Rogers (FB) was much more in the background, not wanted to get involved. He didn’t scream; he observed and provided the rational foil for the characters around him.

As his brother, however, Noah James (FB)’s Liam was a different story. He was in your face and argumentative, seemingly wanting to pick a fight.  I will never forget the scene of him screaming at Dephna.

Lastly, Lila Hood (FB) captured the outsider nature of Melody quite well. Although all the characters had remarkable facial expressions, hers spoke the most while she watched the other characters arguing. She had an entire dialogue and reaction going on in that face that said volumes. She was just fascinating to watch.

As an ensemble, the four worked well together and had a believable family nature. As I said above for Lila, just watch their facial expressions. These actors are saying loads with their reactions while the other actors go at it. I don’t know if this is direction or something organic from the actors, but it was just a joy to watch.

Turning to the production side: David Offner‘s scenic design was a modern New York apartment, complete with mess, two air beds, and working appliances. It was supported by Josh La Cour‘s properties and Tom Ash (FB)’s lighting. Vicki Conrad (FB)’s costumes captured the characters well, and Marisa Whitmore‘s sound design provided the requisite sound effects. Other production credits: Emma Whitley (FB) [Stage Manager]; Gregory Velasco Kucukarslan [Asst Director]; Matthew Gold  [Assoc. Casting Director]; Ron Sossi (FB) [Producer].

Bad Jews continues at the  Odyssey Theatre Ensemble (FB) through June 17. Tickets are available through the The Odyssey Theatre; discount tickets may be available through Goldstar.

***

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) in the West Adams district, a mini-subscription at the Saroya [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:

The third weekend of April has one more show: The Hunchback of Notre Dame at 5 Star Theatricals (FB) (nee Cabrillo Music Theatre (FB)) on Saturday. The last weekend of April sees us travelling for a show, as we drive up to San Jose to see friends as well as Adrift in Macao at The Tabard Theatre Company (FB).

Continuing into May and June: The first weekend in May will bring School of Rock at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), with the following weekend bringing Soft Power  at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). The middle of May brings Violet at Actors Co-op (FB).  The last weekend will hopefully bring a Nefesh Mountain concert at Temple Ramat Zion; the weekend itself is currently open. June — ah, June. That, my friends, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB), including The Story of My Life from Chromolume Theatre (FB). Additionally in June we’re seeing the postponed Billy Porter singing Richard Rodgers at the Saroya (the venue formerly known as the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)) (FB), The Color Purple at  the Hollywood Pantages (FB), and possibly Do Re Mi at MTW. The latter, however, is on a Sunday night in Long Beach, and so Fringing may win out. Currently, we’re booking all the way out in mid to late 2018!

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.

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