Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Aliens, Now Circa Then
and High

An Excellent Production of Annie Baker's The Aliens

Brian Miskell and Haynes Thigpen
SF Playhouse is currently presenting a brilliant production of Annie Baker's The Aliens with a superb cast of three New York actors under the direction of Lila Neugebauer. This is not a sci-fi drama featuring aliens. It is like a play from another planet, populated by people who don't fit in. These are leftover kids from American Idiot and Rent ten years on, the ones who survived their 20s and are entering their 30s with no artistic talent, no practical skills, and a bad drug habit.

Jasper (Peter O'Connor) and KJ (Haynes Thigpen), the two scruffy, bearded slackers, hang out on the back patio of a diner in world rural Vermont. They treat this spot as their private sanctuary where they can hide from the real world, indulging their pretensions of being an artistic genius (Jasper) and a mystic healer (KJ). Into this imaginary world comes 17-year-old Evan, a part-time coffee shop worker who stumbles nervously upon the two. He is a thin, wallflower type kid who goes to band camp and takes high school seriously.

The script specifies that "at least a third of the play is silence" and the playwright notes that "pauses should be at least three seconds longs—silence should last from five to ten seconds—long pauses and long silences should, of course, be even longer." In one scene KJ is talking about a conversation he had with his mother. He suddenly stops at the word "ladder" and what follows is a howling word storm of the word "ladder" as he goes into an almost Zen state after which the ears of the audience are completely pricked up. It is a remarkable performance.

The tightly constructed play benefits from sharp direction by Lila Neugebauer who has a real feel for the material, and a compelling cast of wonderful actors. Peter O'Connor brings a wiry intensity to would-be novelist Jasper, and Haynes Thigpen is so laid back as a 30-year-old college drop out that he is literally horizontal for great stretches of time.

Brian Miskell is charismatic as the shy, skinny and pathologically lonesome Evan. He looks like he is about 14 but has the acting chops of a veteran. This is a rare find in a young actor. He nails it all—the quaking voice, the caved-in chest and the longing eyes of a boy who desperately needs a friend.

Bill English once again shows that he is one of the best set designers in Bay Area theatre today. The set of a dingy back area of a restaurant contains a picnic table sandwiched between a trash bin and the recycling area. You can almost smell food coming from the restaurant on the left side of the stage. Michael Palumbo's lighting is perfect as is Brendan Aanes' sound. Christine Crooks' costumes are strictly stoner outfits for the two slackers.

The Aliens runs through May 5th at the SF Playhouse, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. For ticket call 415-677-9596 or visit Coming up next is A Behanding in Spokane by Martin McDonagh, opening on May 19th.

Photo: Jessica Palopoli

A Charming Production of Now Circa Then

Kimiye Corwin and
Matt R. Harrington

This sweet-spirited two-character comedy-drama is by Carly Mensch, who writes for the Showtime series "Weeds." The charming one-act play is currently playing at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto.

Gideon (Matt R. Harrington) and Margie (Kimiye Corwin) are historical actors at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, playing a West Prussian Jewish immigrant couple in 1890s New York. Gideon is a man-child whose life has been spent playing historical characters. "I've done Plymouth, I've done Salem, I've done Shaker Village and I've done Daniel Webster," he says with unpremeditated smugness.

Margie is a mid-twenties Japanese American who has just moved to New York from a small town in Michigan and has no experience in this field. She needed a job and has no reverence for history. After a few days on the job she thinks the make-believe wife is "like, slavery." She thinks people should "stop worshipping boring old facts" and that she is not personally responsible for what a "bunch of racist white guys did a hundred years ago."

However, like an onion the layers are peeled away and a budding romance begins to parallel the historical characters they portray, embracing the immigrant spirit of personal reinvention.

Both Matt R. Harrington and Kimiye Corwin give superb performances. Corwin has a ball playing Margie, with all of the stiff posturing of an amateur performer in an amateur profession. She gives the play its depth. Her Margie is a little bit crazy, a little bit sad, and a little bit desperate. It's a volatile performance.

Harrington is a perfect foil for Corwin with his sarcastic asides and casual narcissism. One of the great hilarious scenes is one in which he provides Corwin with acting "lessons." He gives the character plenty of pathos, since he is pining for his dead mother, hence the desire to live in the past. His German Jewish accent when he is in the role of the immigrant is perfect.

Meredith McDonough smoothly directs the proceedings. Andrew Boyce has designed a fantastic detailed set of an 1890s tenement set with bedroom, kitchen and living area that move to center stage when a scene is playing. Costumes by Jill Bowers are authentic late 19th century clothing. Accurate music by sound designer Christopher Graham, interspersed between what passes for individual acts, takes this play to a whole new level.

Now Circe Then plays through April 1 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd, Palo Alto. For tickets call 650-463-1960 or visit Coming up next is John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men opening on April 4 and running through April 29th.

Photo: Tracy Martin

A Challenging Production of Matthew Lombardo's High

High provides a satisfying theatre experience. A power to connect with the audience is displayed again and again in the touring version of this 90-minute penetrating drama with wry one-liners and plot revelations.

Kathleen Turner stars as Sister Jamison Connelly, a drug counselor agreeing to sponsor Cody, a 19-year-old drug user, in an effort to combat his addiction. The sister has her own "baggage" to contend with, having lived on the streets for 3-1/2 years before hitting rock bottom and returning to the Catholic faith of her childhood. She continues to wrestle with her own demons as she endeavors to liberate the addicts from theirs.

Cody (Evan Jonigkeit), a gay junkie hustler, has been found in a motel room after a botched suicide attempt, alongside the dead body of a 14-year-old boy. The muddy details of this event develop gradually; Sister Jamison's supervisor Father Michael (Tim Altmeyer) has somehow convinced legal authorities to commend the boy to his institution's care. She will accept no excuses or apologies from him.

High talks an unflinching look at the realities of chronic drug use; scenes of Cody shooting up and having convulsions are as terrible as anything you will see on a television reality show. Since the playwright has his own drug-bingeing past and a "spiritual awakening," his experience lends genuineness to the insights into getting high, the mindset of avoidance and self-destruction, and the workings of recovery programs.

Kathleen Turner is magnificent in the role. She has more in common with a gritty film noir Barbara Stanwyck than a nun from The Sound of Music. With her basso growl, "street smart" intelligence, and a flair for self-dramatization, she is brilliant in the role. She exposes a deep well of compassion underneath a gruff exterior.

Evan Jonigkeit is superb in the role of the junkie Colby. He dazzlingly plays the character as raw and real in a performance that ranges from grimacing attitude to animalistic cunning, from seductive flirtation to pitiful pleading. In one scene he runs naked on a meth high and sexually taunts Sister Jamison.

Tim Altmeyer is excellent in his portrayal of Father Michael. He brings a strong congeniality to the priest in his scenes with Jonigkeit and Turner. He chooses calm over the excitability of the sister and the junkie.

Rob Ruggiero's direction is tight and clean.

High played one week at the Curran Theatre from March 21 through March 25th. Opening on March 28th is Jonathan Pryce in The Caretaker at the Curran. It runs through April 22nd. PHOTOS: Username: pr-ima

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

- Richard Connema