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In the Red and Brown Water

New & Noteworthy 2013
By Jon Magaril

The Parisian Woman (through May 5)

Always leave them wanting more. This could be the mantra for Chloe (Dana Delany), a Capitol Hill wife who's got lovers eating out of the palm of her hand. She has a habit of withholding, which frustrates and turns on political insider Peter (Steven Culp). The only one who fully accepts the limited amount she's willing to give is her husband Tom (Steven Weber), a potential nominee for US Attorney General. Beau Willamon's play, inspired by the largely forgotten Henri Becque's La Parisienne, is as irresistible as Delany's Chloe: smart, tart, attractive, but just a bit bloodless.

The play that put him on the map, Farragut North, was another DC tale of personal relationships sacrificed for political ambitions. George Clooney turned that into Ides of March, for which Willamon shared an Academy Award nomination. Currently he's the show-runner for the Netflix TV series House of Cards, about a congressman whose thwarted desire to be Secretary of State drives him to commit extreme acts of revenge.

Willamon's only perceived failure, the off-Broadway disappointment Spirit Control, focused on an air traffic controller. I was impressed by that play's emotionality, but can't argue with a writer who decides in his next works to mark a territory that is definably his. He's now the go-to guy for setting sharp turns of phrase and plot within a skillfully observed world of DC skullduggery.

NY's Flea Theatre brought the Becque novel to Willamon's attention and he smartly recognized how well a realigned adaptation, moving the action to contemporary Washington would fit into his wheelhouse. He keeps the contours of its famous first scene intact. A man and woman in a well-appointed townhouse have a jealous squabble. He wants to see her phone and e-mails. She can't believe he's serious. We take it for a typical marriage spat until she hears something and shuts him up with “Ssssh. It's my husband.”

While Becque initially finds a bracing humor in the typical French love triangle, he uses his five acts to strip away the gooey sentiments and expose the hard truths at the center of most relationships. Willamon attempts to go even farther, removing Becque's own excesses to create a gleaming ninety-minute one-act that's, like Delany's fetching figure, without an ounce of fat.

Most everything lands. Chloe sets out to get the nomination for Tom, who needs all the help he can get. He's willing to be happily blind to the details of how she intends to do it, just as he has little interest in her dalliances. Here as in Becque's play, Tom isn't treated as a fool. Their bond is intriguingly solid, but like everything else it's presented as just another cog in the plot's machinery. I wanted more but, in this respect, not because it's so satisfying. This is promisingly untrod ground in the culture that's unfortunately also unexplored by Willamon.

There's a moment when Weber drops the charm and laces the banter with a bracing directness. The production's emotional temperature is raised, but just briefly. Breeziness returns a moment later and for the most part holds steady.

When Peter gets petulant over Chloe's giving him the cold shoulder, he uses his influence to block Tom's advancement. So she turns to acquaintance Jeanette (Linda Gehringer), a Treasury Secretary nominee. In the play's longest scene, Chloe defends her lack of personal ambition and demonstrates how far she's willing to go to get what she wants. It's the only time the play has an airiness and, in this case, it seems a bit ill-considered. One wonders why mover-and-shaker Jeanette has this extra time to kibbitz. But it leads to gasp-inducing plot revelation that gets the audience's juices going.

Pam McKinnon's cast is as bright and charismatic as the characters. Culp, in particular, gets all his laughs while finding soupcons of grit in Peter's desire for Chloe. The luxe design elements are similarly top-notch, though David Kay Mickelsen's costumes for Jeanette's daughter Rebecca (Rebecca Mozo) are dismayingly unflattering. When it comes to outfitting Delany, he gets everything right.

Delany carries every scene as if it were the lightest load. She has a habit of looking out at the audience in the middle of scenes. One realizes Chloe can't resist trying to seduce everyone she comes across, including us. She ultimately gets her quarry.

South Coast Repertory/ Julianne Argyros Stage 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa (714) 708-5555

Fela! (through May 5)

Rarely has a show so fully earned its exclamation point. This concert/biography is ecstatic and explosive in equal measure. The driving beats from the phenomenal onstage band penetrate down to the marrow. The harrowing story digs into the soul. It all makes you want to get up and do something, dance, protest, or, to follow Fela Kuti's own legendary example, both at the same time.

The touring production's return to the Ahmanson after only eighteen months away is welcome and maybe even necessary. The effect of Bill T Jones' vision, Fela's music, and the cast's spirit gains with repeated viewings. The first time it's easy to be distracted by the ways Jones, in his first work as director/choreographer, doesn't play by the conventions of musical theater. The final sequence for instance is an extended fever dream that isn't the clearest way to wrap-up a life story. But it's imaginative, inimitable, and altogether indelible.

Several of the nine female ensemble members have been with the show for all its incarnations. Their authority helps give distinction to the dance-only roles of the twenty-seven women Fela married all at the same time. It's fascinating material that isn't developed. Neither is Fela's relationship with his beloved mother, the famed activist Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, who died from injuries sustained when the Nigerian military threw her from a second-story window during a siege on Fela's compound. The piece ignores altogether the illness which killed Fela, AIDS.

Jones isn't interested in traditional story development, but he's brilliant at making sure every aspect of the production lands. As Funmilayo, Melanie Marshall's beautiful voice makes such a big impression, one feels the effect she much have had on Fela. Michelle Williams, formerly of the Destiny's Child, lends her sparkling voice and bright presence to the role of Sandra, the African- American who introduced Fela to the work of Malcolm X and Angela Davis during Fela's time in the states.

As Fela, Adesola Osakalum doesn't have the larger-than-life charisma of the role's originator Sahr Ngaujah. Nonetheless he's thoroughly impressive, helping to make the two-and-a-half hours fly by. Bill T. Jones' essential theater piece continues to honor, and add to, the legacy of a leading cultural figure of the past fifty years.

Ahmanson Theatre 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. Reservations: (213) 628-2772

Slipping (through May 5) The Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre is one of the best off-Broadway companies in NY turning out productions year in year out that make a large impression. Their range is remarkable. Currently running there, they've got the captivating charmer Buyer & Cellar, the one-man comedy starring Michael Urie as an out-of-work actor who takes a job working in the famed underground mall below Barbra Streisand's house. They just closed The Revisionist, the sold-out hit with Vanessa Redgrave and its playwright Jesse Eisenberg. Getting to watch Redgrave in a tiny house was a highlight of the season and Eisenberg's plot had a twist that still resonates months later. Earlier this season, 3C the existential parody of Three's Company made waves not just from the critics and audience's strong reaction, both positive and negative, but also from obstructive actions (unmerited, in my opinion) taken by the TV show's legal representatives.

Now the audacious company is setting down some stakes in LA. This is welcome news, made more emphatic by their fascinating first production here, Slipping. Written and directed by the company's literary manager, Daniel Talbott, the play is a coming-of-age story that goes backwards and forwards with a fragmented timeline. The structure palpably evokes the pull of the past, but the herky-jerky strategy palls toward the end. Too many scenes feel like they're covering the same emotional ground. The characters are running in place, and that starts to infect the play's momentum. Still, Slipping gets a grip on our emotions.

The story is framed by Eli (Wyatt Fenner) and Jake (MacLeod Andrews) meeting up for a drink in New York. Lots of water's passed under the bridge for these two. Scenes of their friendship and burgeoning college romance are intercut with Eli's more tortured bond with Chris (Maxwell Hamilton) back in high school. Complicating both is Eli's difficult relationship with his mother Jan (Wendy vanden Heuvel), who's a teacher at his Iowa college, and the death of his father.

Talbott builds his short scenes cinematically, featuring one plot point or bit of character revelation. This puts pressure on the director to keep the multiple transitions fluid and fast. Fortunately, he's working with a good one, Talbott himself. In concert with set designer John McDermott, he makes inventive use of the Lillian Theatre. Video and projection design by Kaitlyn Pietras, along with Leigh Allen's lighting and Rachel Myers' costumes, also impress.

The actors are an ingratiating lot. Fenner, who took over the role mid-run, doesn't deny Eli's prickliness, yet keeps us on his side. He and Hamilton over-emphasize, one assumes under Talbott's guidance, the physical discomfort of characters whose bodies can't easily tamp down their unprocessed emotions. The hyper-tension verges on mannerism and keeps both of the talented actors from going to more interesting places. Andrews' Jake exhibits a more frisky physicality, which is charming. But the role is idealized. His abiding openness seems increasingly unbelievable as Eli starts to behave more destructively. Best of all may be vanden Heuvel, whose relaxation gives her the space to fill in the complexity of her character.

I look forward to more from Rattlestick LA and from Talbott, who seems interested in finding forms and language that respect the messiness of most experience while bringing clarity to it.

Elephant Stages’ Lillian Theatre 1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles, CA 90038 800-838-3006

Falling for Make Believe (through May 19) This brand new musical developed by the Colony is an intimate look at the dizzying life and times of Lorenz (Larry) Hart, one of Broadway's all-time great lyricists. The Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, at the corner of Cypress, in the heart of the Burbank Media Center. (818) 558-7000.

The North Plan (through June 1) When a ruthless splinter group seizes power in Washington, a bureaucrat for the State Department runs off with the new regime’s top-secret Enemies List. This new play by Jason Wells is a sharp, dark, dystopian comedy set in the here and now. The Elephant Space 6322 Santa Monica Boulevard, just west of Vine, in Hollywood. (855) 663-6743

Cops and Friends of Cops (through June 1) is a classic morality play, occurring roughly in real-time about regret, loss, explicit and implicit racism, and wrestling with masculine identity in constantly-changing contemporary America. VS. Theatre Company, 5453 W. Pico Blvd. Los Angeles. 323-739-4411

Hot Cat (through June 1) is an original play created with the unique talents of Theatre Movement Bazaar using a synthesis of dance and theatre to recreate an American classic inspired by the work of Tennessee Williams. It explores the mendacity in family dynamics, unrequited sexual yearnings, mortality and sibling rivalries. Theatre of NOTE 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd in Hollywood 90028 323.856.8611

Rain (May 7 – 12) The internationally-acclaimed Beatles concert returns. Rain’s intention was not just to cover Beatle songs, but to do songs that The Beatles had never performed live, and do them note-for-note, just like the records. Pantages Theatre 6233 Hollywood Boulevard Los Angeles, CA 90028 800-982-ARTS

At the Flash (May 15th to May 26th) A fierce and funny show that condenses LGBT history into the story of five characters – a closeted man in the 1960s, a black drag queen in the 1970s, a club kid in the 1980s, a budding lesbian activist in the 1990s, and a family man/entrepreneur in the 2000s. Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd in Hollywood.  (323) 957-1884

Dying City (May 18 – July 8)Winning upwards of 50 awards (including Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, LA Weekly, Ovation, and Garland Awards) in just the past five years, Rogue Machine returns to kick off their 2013 season with the Los Angeles premiere of by Christopher Shinn (OBIE winner, Pulitzer Prize finalist). In this psychological showdown of wits by Pulitzer Prize finalist Christopher Shinn, Peter faces off against his sister-in-law, having not spoken since the funeral of her husband, Peter’s twin brother. 5041 Pico Blvd., LA, CA 90019.855-585-5185

Heart Song (May 18 – July 14) In Stephen Sachs' world premiere comic drama, three friends embark on a joyous journey of sisterhood, discovering their inner ‘duende’ through a flamenco class for middle-aged women. The Fountain Theatre 5060 Fountain Ave. Los Angeles CA 90029 (Fountain at Normandie) (323) 663-1525

A Midsummer Saturday Night’s Fever Dream (May 31 to July 7) In this return of one of Troubadour Theater Company’s best productions, the star-crossed lovers steam and scheme, and the Bard‘s most famous fairy, Puck, does some Jive Talkin’ as this assorted band of merrymakers heats up into a Disco Inferno. Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank, CA 91505 (818) 955-8101

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