Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Distracted, Miss Julie and
The Homecoming

A Provocative and Spiffy Production of Lisa Loomer's Distracted

Gabriel Hoffman and Rebecca Dines
TheatreWorks recently presented   Lisa Loomer's Distracted, with a lot of bells and whistles for this intimate play about a young boy who has symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD.   Over 2.1 million children in this country have been diagnosed with the disorder.  

Distracted premiered at the Mark Taper in Los Angeles in the spring of 2007 and is currently playing in New York with Cynthia Nixon playing Mama. I   saw   the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production during the fall of 2007. Here, Director Armando Molina and video specialist Jason H. Thompson have surrounded the huge stage at Mountain View Performing Arts Center stage with at least ten huge video screens to provide interior and exterior backgrounds for many of the scenes.

Distracted is the story of Mama (Rebecca Dines), who is overwhelmed by her nine-year-old son Jessie (played mostly off stage by Gabriel Hoffman until he appears in the final scene). The boy swears, he's in trouble at school and he just can't stay focused. The play questions what ADD is in a world where there are many distractions.

Mama and Dad (Robert Yacko) want the best for their child, but they are not sure how to achieve that.   In their roller-coaster journey, Mama visits teachers, neighbors, an allergist, homeopaths, a psychologist, a psychiatrist and environmental physicians. She even goes to New Mexico where a homeopath doctor is willing to take the child into care. The big question is does Jessie need medication like Ritalin to be "just a normal boy"?   Distracted examines the balancing of a child's need for self-expression and growth with the discipline needed to keep him from becoming a self-centered jerk. There are really no answers.

Rebecca Dine is outstanding in the role of Mama.   She keeps her character fascinating, funny and always real.   She has to be the punch line of a series of ridiculous specialists, all played marvelously by Cassidy Brown. However, she gives all of these specialists' great zingers to defend her self.   She even knocks down the fourth wall and talks to the audience.

Robert Yacko is excellent as Dad, who refuses to buy into the findings of these preposterous specialists. His anti-authority stance makes him a jerk, but he is only trying to protect the boy from all of these absurd ideas. Dena Martinez and Elizabeth Carter stand out playing four or five identities each. Suzanne Grodner is hilarious as the pill-popping neighbor. Jayne Dee plays vividly plays Natalie, a young teenager who loves to abuse herself with knives. Tara Blau is very effective in a small role.   Gabriel Hoffman gives a very lively performance in the final scene dancing about the stage.

The pace of Distracted is very fast, and the timing between the large video screens and the action is perfect.   Melpomene Katakalos' set is exciting, with strips of neon lights that change colors to fit the various mood of each screen. These are strung across the stage behind the monitors. Lighting by Michael Palumbo is excellent, and sound designer Cliff Caruthers adds a great accent to this comedy-drama.

Distracted played through April 26 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.   This ends the Theatre Works season.   Opening their 2009/2010 Ruby Anniversary Season will be the world premiere of a new country musical called Tinyard Hill, opening on July 15th at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto.

Photo: Mark Kitaoka

A Riveting Production of August Strindberg's Miss Julie

Mark Anderson Phillips and Lauren Grace
George Bernard Shaw once described Henrik Ibsen and August Strindberg as "the giants of the theatre of our time."   Even today we are haunted by their presence.   This is especially evident in the brilliant 90-minute production of Miss Julie at the Aurora Theatre through May 17th.   The controversial chamber play was first seen in 1888 and was called "shocking" by the critics. For a time it was banned.   This version by Helen Cooper condensed to 90 minutes of love, desperation and high ambitions during a midsummer night in a Scandinavian county.

It has been a long time since I saw this intense drama. The last time was at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in London in 2000 with Christopher Eccleston playing the servant and Aisling O'Sullivan playing the aristocratic Miss Julie. The Aurora theatre features the electrifying Mark Anderson Phillips as Jean the servant and the invigorating Lauren Grace as Miss Julie.

Miss Julie takes place during a party where Jean (Mark Anderson Phillips), employed as a manservant, lusts after the daughter of his aristocratic employer.   Jean exudes meticulousness in his own domain—the kitchen of the large manor house. He pours himself a glass of wine, taken from the master's own wine cellar. He pretends to be both master and servant. He has aspirations of opening a hotel for the elite gentry in Switzerland; however, he needs money to back such a venture.

Miss Julie, the daughter of a nobleman, comes into the kitchen looking for some light entertainment. She is a reckless and very spoiled young lady who does not realize what is about to happen to her.   The power struggle between these two is not predictable. There is a capricious, edgy switching of control and status between them.   It becomes a complicated sex play that borders on sadomasochism, at one time obvious and stimulating and sometimes very alarming and poignant.   There is a third character in this thought-provoking love triangle: Kristin (Beth Deitchman), working class cook and Jean's "intended," who knows her place in the class system in the noble household.

Mark Anderson Phillips (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Abraham Lincoln's Big Gay Dance Party) is superb in the role of the highly ambitious valet Jean.   He keeps the character an aggressive, masculine man and his articulation is perfect. It is a magnetic performance.

Lauren Grace (Emma and Ice Glen) is mercurial as Miss Julie in this cat and mouse game.   She is demanding when telling Jean to fetch her some wine and kiss her shoe just like Marlene Dietrich did to Emil Jennings in the 1930 Josef von Sternberg film Blue Angel. However, as the intense drama continues, Miss Julie is the author of her downfall. The actress brilliantly changes from Miss Julie being so demanding, to a vulnerable person who desperately wants to see what possible future she has with or without the support of the sometimes cruel Jean. It is a skillfully seductive and virtuosic performance.   The confrontations between these two great actors are exhilarating.

Beth Deitchman (Dancing at Lughnasa) shines as the pragmatic kitchen-maid Kristin, the voice of reason in the play.

The production looks very impressive, from the period costumes of Fumiko Bielefeldt to Giulio Cesare Perrone's vast kitchen set. Director Mark Jackson has the actors make effective use of the spacious set.   He gives the production strikingly compelling moments, such as knocking over a chair or slamming a beer bottle down onto the table to make a point. Lighting director Heather Basarab's colors against the back wall of the three-sided theatre are very useful and change with the mode of each scene. Music by the Real Vocal String Quartet adds to the tension between Jean and Miss Julie in many of the confrontations.

Miss Julie has been extended through May 17th at the Aurora Theatre , 2081 Addison St. Berkeley.   For tickets please call 510-843-4822 or visit Their next production is the Off-Broadway hit Jack Goes Boating, opening on June 12th and running through July 19th.

Photo: David Allen

An Intriguing Production of Harold Pinter's The Homecoming

Conor Hamill, Sylvia Kratins, Nicholas Russell
Thomas Wolfe once said "You can't go home again," and Harold Pinter's 1964 drama The Homecoming proves that point.   The play won the 1967 Tony Award for Best Play and its 40th anniversary Broadway production at the Cort Theatre was nominated for a 2008 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

Off Broadway West Company recently presented a fascinating production of the early Harold Pinter work at the Phoenix Theatre.

The Homecoming is set in North London where one of the most repulsive fathers reigns over his two sons and a brother. Max (Graham Cowley) gets the award as one of the most curmudgeonly persons you are likely to see on the stage. Living with him in the flat are his brother Sam (Randy Hurst), a chauffeur; Lennie (Nick Russell), who appears to be a pimp; and Joey (Conor Hamill), a would-be boxer who works in demolition.   Teddy (Gregory Daniels), an expatriate American philosophy professor, decides to revisit his father on his visit to England.   He brings along with him his wife Ruth (Sylvia Kratins), an ex-model who is now suffocating from her marriage and their two children back in the states.

  The play concerns the couple's homecoming and it becomes a battle of confrontations among all of the characters. This two-act drama has distinctly different emblematic and thematic complications with the married couple.   One becomes sorry for the disgusting father at the end of the play. The impressive dialogue is raw and rough and even the silences are impressive.

All of the actors have excellent Northern England accents, and Graham Cowley is outstanding as the father. His venomous words against his sons are potent. Nick Russell is very good as the disdainful and obnoxious Lennie.   His attempted seduction of Ruth at the beginning of the drama is well done.   Sylvia Kratins is marvelous as the sphinx-like wife of Teddy, and, even when not speaking but listening to the war of words, she excels just by her facial expressions.

Randy Hurst is very good as the laid-back brother Sam. Gregory Daniels is cool as husband Teddy.   Even when the words heat up toward the end of the play, he is the coolest of actors.   Joey is properly feisty as the boxer Joey.

Director Joey Henderson keeps the action at a fever pitch. Scott Nordlund's set of a Northern English flat is excellent.

The Homecoming played through May 2nd at the Phoenix Theatre, 414 Mason Street, San Francisco.

Photo: Barbara Michelson-Harder

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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