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The Pulitzer People Hit LA!
Wit and Jitney

Just a note to tell you all that theatre is alive and well in Los Angeles! What with the recent world premiere of the new Neil Simon show The Dinner Party, starring Henry Winkler, Edward Hermann and John Ritter; the imminent arrival of Martin Guerre; and the currently playing Buddy, among others ...

This past week I was privileged to see Margaret Edson's Wit, the Pulitzer Prize winning play of 1999, with Drama Desk, Outer Critics, Obie, and Lucille Lortel Award winning Kathleen Chalfant recreating her Off-Broadway triumph. Made ever more poignant by the January 17th death at age 38 of its director, Derek Anson Jones, Wit is a surprisingly uplifting work which celebrates the discovery of life in the face of certain death.

For those who don't know, the luminous Ms. Chalfant portrays Vivian Bearing, Ph.D., a scholar of English literature, focusing primarily on the works of the 17th century metaphysical poet John Donne. Dr. Bearing has been diagnosed with stage four (incurable) ovarian cancer. The play, at an intermissionless 90 minutes, allows us to watch Bearing's academic life in flashbacks and some of her time spent in the hospital.

What we come to find is that Bearing has hidden behind her academic brilliance and Donne's tremendously complex poetry to the point that she has never connected with her own humanity. As she plainly states in the play, Bearing always thought her intelligence, her Wit - a conceit often employed by Donne in his poetry - would see her through life's most meaningful passages. Bearing - always thinking, rationalizing, criticizing, intellectualizing, even during the explanation of her diagnosis and the plans for the experimental chemotherapy regimen planned for her given by her lead physician, Dr. Kelekian (played by musical theater actor Walter Charles) - hides behind her intelligence, her method of disconnect. In a flashback with her scholarly mentor, Evelyn Ashford (played by Tony nominee for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning 'night Mother, Anne Pitoniak, last seen as Broadway with Dame Judi Dench in Amy's View), we are witness to Bearing's refusal to abide by Ashford's recommendation to balance the intellectual with the emotional and experiential. Bearing is shown living and teaching with an uncompromising, hyperbolic iron fist.

One of her former students turns out to be the number two physician in her treatment, Dr. Jason Posner (played by Alec Phoenix), a man to whom the research is the thing, not the patient, not the feelings. His journey is a fascinating one in this play. On the other hand, we meet Bearing's caring and sensitive nurse, Susie Monahan (the lovely Paula Pizzi), who starts out almost idolizing the doctors around her, but comes to see the humanity and thus fear residing in Bearing, and ultimately and very courageously becomes the protector of Bearing's final wishes. The key to both of these riddled situations is the recognition of the purpose of the discovery - the enlightenment and enrichment made possible. Thus, the process is, as always, what is most important.

Ms. Chalfant (who has been a Tony nominee herself for her performances as the Oldest Living Bolshevik, a rabbi and the Mormon mother in both parts of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America) is truly a wonder to behold. She embodies Vivian Bearing, with all of the character's brilliance, arrogance, sarcasm, (yes) wit and charm. She is challenging, but indeed she is somehow endearing, in that her greatest strength is her biggest frailty. Chalfant lays it all out there in a bravura performance in which she is sometimes vomiting, at other times articulating incredibly textured poetry and at all times bald. It is a no holds barred performance, and Chalfant succeeds on every level. And she is surrounded by an able supporting cast. The aforementioned Ms. Pitoniak brings a tenderness and ease to her role that brought this reviewer to tears. Mr. Charles makes a fine transition from the musical theater to his ever-so-preoccupied Dr. Kelekian. Mr. Phoenix and Ms. Monohan exude such realistic human qualities as insecurity and generosity to their roles. The young actors who round out the cast playing Bearing's students in certain flashbacks and present-day medical interns (Christian Anderson, Jose Mercado, Holly Ricciuti and Cheri Smith) demonstrate very clearly the anonymity and lack of humanity possible at such a medical facility. (And on the subject of Pulitzers, Mr. Anderson recently assayed the role of Mark on Broadway and Roger in the first national tour of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Rent", and Ms. Smith also performed with the first national touring company of "Rent" as well.)

Wit is a must-see for any serious theatregoer. Disguised as a play about death, it is in fact a play about life. Though it may seem grim, the work is not impossible to watch despite the painful subject matter inasmuch as the audience needs not worry about whether Dr. Bearing will die, but rather how she will die. The final scene is transcendent - an overwhelming release that is incredibly beautiful to behold. As is the rest of Wit. Wit has been extended at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood until March 5th.

At the Music Center, just across from the Ahmanson Theater where a very good touring production of Les Miserables is playing, the Mark Taper Forum is the venue for two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson's (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Fences, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars) play Jitney, first-written in 1979, completed in 1982 and revised in 1996. Wilson's plays have each been set in a different decade of the 20th century; Jitney is set in Pittsburgh's Hill District, 1977.

Entering the performance space, one can't help but admire the set on the Taper's thrust stage, basically a storefront of an unlicensed cab service, and the graded street outside with three actual cars. What realism, what colors, what texture! Credit David Gallo for his amazing set design. Jitney is a slice of life of a few black men who work, scraping by, at a gypsy cab (Jitney) service which is soon to be closed down by the city. There's Becker (Paul Butler), who runs the place in no uncertain terms; Turnbo, the old, bitter gossip of the group, played wonderfully by Stephen McKinley Henderson; Youngblood (Russell Hornsby), the brash young man with dreams of working his way to the suburbs; Youngblood's girlfriend, Rena (Michole Briana White), who is also the mother of his child and caught in a web of suspicion; Doub (Barry Shabaka Henley), the nebbishy nice guy of the group; Shealy (Willis Burks II), the numbers runner who uses the car service's phone to take incoming bets: and a couple of other characters who inhabit the Jitney world.

The first act establishes what these men's lives are all about. We hear their hopes, their dreams, their disappointments and their rationalizations. We also see conflict. There are stories around card games and checkers with characters as rich and full-bodied as can be. As all this is going on, Becker is awaiting the return of his estranged son Booster (Carl Lumbly), who has been in prison for twenty years for the murder of a white woman who framed him as a rapist.

This two-act play, which quite honestly is about 15 minutes too long, is an amazing, visceral ensemble piece. Each actor is in full control while on stage, and one feels as though they are watching reality. Marion McClinton's staging is right on. The humor, fear, sadness, tension and regret flow so naturally. The performances of Butler (as the terrifically soulful anchor for the piece) and Henderson, who savors his self-righteous, gossipy character, are particular standouts. This piece, so much about misunderstanding, the importance of communication and generational expectations, is another example of why Mr. Wilson has won two Pulitzers and is regarded as one of America's premier playwrights. I do not hesitate to recommend this production of Jitney, playing at the Mark Taper Forum through March 19th. Again, who said there's no theatre in LA?


-- Jerry Howard




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