Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Shopping and F***ing is Bleak and Captivating and
Cole Porter's Let's Face It is a Disappointment

This is not a play for everyone, certainly not for your maiden aunt or nice grandmother. It is repugnant, ugly and offensive to anyone who has faith in the human spirit. However, this is a captivating play.

The play opened at the Ambassador in London in September 1996 and then transferred to the Queen's Theatre in the West End in June 1997 prior to an international tour. It was a smash hit in London and it played in many countries in Europe. It stormed New York last year and won the Outer Critics award for best play and created an enormous buzz as well.

The Theatre Rhinoceros is presenting the West Coast premier of Mark Ravenhill's play with a sterling cast of performers. This is a show about addiction, dependency and need on many different physical and metaphorical levels. It slaps us in the face in a most mundane way.

The first image of addiction is Mark, an upper class ex-businessman in England, who is in withdrawal from cocaine. Mark is trying to break away from Robbie and Lulu, his "gimp like" drug and sex buddies. They stick to him like leeches.

When Mark goes off to a drug rehab program, Robbie and Lulu find themselves hooked with Brian, who is a distributor of ecstasy. He is a diabolical person who talks about The Lion King and shows videos of his fair haired son playing the cello. Brian snares the couple into drug dealing and eventually involves them in a get rich quick telephone phone business.

Mark is released from drug rehab clean and is told the 12 steps to keep clean. However he finds Gary, a 16 year old boy who has been seriously sexually abused, looking for someone to love but on the his own terms. Mark launches into a troubled sexual and criminal relationship with the boy.

This social critique becomes a kind of numbing roar by evening's end. Everything in their lives spirals downwards. In the end, the characters wind up seemingly unchanged and just as downtrodden as before.

What saves this play is the talent and the production itself. Flynn DeMarco, who has been playing on the local stages for 10 years and who is much older then 16, plays Gary, the abused teenage searching for someone to own him. DeMarco is no stranger to the stage, and he was able to illustrate his diversity as an actor within the one role, portraying a silly child forced to mature too quickly. Mr. DeMarco has played many excellent roles in the past and has also appeared as a good drag actor playing Joan Crawford and Betty Davis. Here he adds another impressive talent to his list of abilities. Andrew Abelson, son of the late entertainer Frankie Vaughan, anchors the show with his performance of Mark. He plays the role with keen, understated desperation and bitterly blurted 12 step euphemisms.

The other performers are sharply focused and defined. Tirza Naramore plays Lulu and she is hauntingly edgy with a feral weakness. Paradox Polack plays Robbie who is feverishly obsessed and keenly sadistic. Jason Armstrong plays the sleazy Brian and he plays it to the hilt. He really is smarmy in this role.

The set is an environmental piece made up of graffiti-covered advertising posters that fill all the walls of the auditorium. The set itself is a stark, simple set that cries out its impermanence. The direction by Michael Donald Edwards is crisp with no dull spots.

It would be comforting to dismiss Shopping and F***ing as mere pornography, or the cynical excess of a tyro playwright determined to create a stir. Comforting but dishonest, the playwright dialogue is spare, atmospheric and often wickedly funny. What is also interesting is that the F word is not used very often in this play. The production has been extended to October 30.

The 42nd Street Moon Group has tried valiantly to resurrect the 1941 Cole Porter's musical Let's Face It. This was Danny Kay's first starring role on Broadway. He had made such a sensation in Lady In the Dark, which I had the privilege of seeing as my very first Broadway musical. I also had the pleasure of seeing him in this original production. Danny played the role of Pvt. Jerry Walker while Eve Arden played the role of the rich Mrs. Ritdorf. Also in the production in 1941 were Vivian Vance and Nanette Fabray. The musical was a great farce for war time America. It was also one of Mr. Porter's best musicals in ages. It ran the longest of any Porter show until Kiss Me Kate in 1948. It was one of the longest ever for a musical at that time, running an impressive year and half on Broadway.

This was a musical version of a 1925 farce called Cradle Snatchers , a farce about three wives who engage three young gigolos to make their husbands jealous. The three gigolos were changed to three young soldiers and the three wives became older rich women at a health farm on Long Island. The husbands were always going out to fish, however what they were fishing for young girls. The wives hired the soldiers to pose as their lovers to make the husbands jealous. Of course to complicate matters, Pvt. Jerry Walker is engaged to a young female worker at the health farm. She gets wind of the arrangement and throws a few surprises of her own at a big party at Mrs. Ritdorf mansion in New York.

It was a great hit in New York with sophisticated lyrics by the master. Many personalities of the era were jokingly mentioned in Mr. Porter's lyrics. Anyone under 40 years old probably would not know the names of people like Monty Wooly, Kit Cornell, Michael Strange. etc. etc. However all of us older theatre buffs who attended Sunday's performance knew them.

Porter was asked to tone down some of the sophisticated lyrics and write some songs for "the common man". Many of the songs are unknown to the general public such as "Ev'rything I Love" and "Rub Your Lamp". Even the title song "Let's Face It" is rarely heard these days. Most of the melodies are of the swing 40's area and are not memorable.

I got the feeling in this production that the cast members were not having a lot of fun with the show. Their timing was completely off. It looked like they were in rehearsal. I was happy to see that one of 42nd Street's best character actors, Bill Fahrner, got the lead role of Pvt. Walker. He did a terrific job with the Danny Kaye number "Let's Not Talk About Love" as did his co-star Leslie Hamilton, who played Mrs. Risdorf. These are some of the best lyrics that Mr. Porter has ever wrote. His rhyming was wonderful and the high point of the show.

However, on the whole Bill and Leslie did their best to put life into this outdated show and try as they might, it just look amateurish. It had no zip and it was sluggish. I place some of the blame on the poor outdated book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields. When I saw the show in 1941, it had zing and of course, I had a lot more zing then as well. Before the show, the person sitting next to to me said, "I wonder why this show had never been revived before." After the show I said to her, now you see why.

There was one other number that was fun in the first act. It was "Farming," sung by a great group of talented performers. The song is about farming in trendy Bucks County by celebrities of Broadway and film personalities. Everyone in the early 40s was mentioned. One other actor I would like to mention is the very talented dancer singer Kirk Mills. He is one of the most professional actors that this group has retained. He was excellent in On a Clear Day and also played Robert in Lisbon Traviata in the recent production here. He had little to do in this production to show his talent.

One little interesting thing about the original production.: two of Eve Arden's solos were dropped in the 1941 version to make room for Kaye's comic routines. Mr. Porter protested to no avail and Sylvia Kaye pushed through these numbers. Eve Arden, who was only 31 years old at the time, made no protest realizing she could do a lot of scene stealing from the flamboyant Mr. Kaye. In this production, Roy Casstevens put back one of Eve Arden's solo called "Pets". It represents Mr. Porter at his naughtiest. "Let's Face It" runs until October 17th.

- Richard Connema

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