Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

A Pseudo-Whimsical Production of
Paul Weitz's Roulette

Also see Richard's reviews of A Number, Iphigenia at Aulis and Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me

Bill English
SF Playhouse is presenting the West Coast premiere of Paul Weitz's Roulette at their theatre located at 536 Sutter Street through June 10th. As Weitz wrote and directed the critically acclaimed film American Dreamz, based on the "American Idol" television series, and co-directed American Pie with his brother Chris, it is no surprised that there is a little bit of each of those films in this quirky comedy-drama about a dysfunctional family.

Roulette opens with well-dressed businessman Jon (Bill English) sitting down for breakfast in his upscale Westchester County home ready for another day at the office. He glances at the morning paper, drinks some coffee and pulls a gun out of his briefcase. He retrieves a bullet from his wallet and places it in the gun's chamber. He gives the chamber a spin, places the gun to his temple and pulls the trigger. Nothing happens and he smiles benevolently and heads off to the city. Strange beginning you say. We find out more as we meet his very dysfunctional family after he has left for the office.

All of Jon's family has emotional baggage that borders on the nonsensical. Daughter Jenny (Lauren English), a 17-year-old Goth "wise acre," loves liquor, drugs and sex. The aptly named Jock (Johnny Rende) is a glowering student just about to be expelled from college. Jon's wife Enid is full of happiness and smiles because she is having her daily sex fling with Steve the hunk next door while the kids and husband are away. Steve (Craig Neibaur) has a mousy, squeaky voiced wife named Virginia (Molly Stickney), who is naïve as to what is going on in the world around her.

Jon has known about the affair between his wife and Steve and does not seem to mind much. In fact, he worries about his wife's back when the couple is having sex in a motel nearby - he hopes the beds are firm enough. Most of the first act concerns silly shenanigans that seem to have come straight from a cable television sitcom. Virginia wonders about looking for a glass of milk, don't ask why, and Jenny suddenly comes back to house to discover some hanky panky going on with her mother and Steve. These are good comic situations for an HBO or Showtime series. The first act ending takes place at Jon's office with the harassed man putting the gun to his temple and pulling the trigger. The lights go out - intermission.

Roulette's second act opens seven months later with Jon returning home from a private institution for a brief visit. He has gone from a beleaguered businessman to a lovable maniac. It just might be that Jon has an early case of Alzheimer's, and the hospital doctors are hoping that seeing his real family might jolt his memory into reality. However, he thinks the home is a Vegas hotel and he is a high roller. He keeps trying to tip his wife, thinking she is a member of the hotel staff. He also has no idea who Jock is and calls him every name in the book. Jon believes that the mild-mannered Virginia, who now is going to become a nun, is his Las Vegas date. When he offers marriage to Virginia she says, "We're both married to other people, and you have cognitive problems, and I'm becoming a nun." Yep, this is an American Feydeau farce with the actors dashing about, going into many rooms and slamming the doors. This is wild comedy at its best.

Roulette boasts a fine cast that performs with fast paced energy, thanks to the superior direction of Suzi Damilano. Bill English (Artistic Director for the group) is very poignant as Jon. He gives the play a lift with his carefree, insouciant manner in the second act. You wonder if he is crazy like a fox. He even mentions that he is in the eye of a storm and watching everything whirling about him.

Lauren English (making her last appearance before going off to the Tisch School of Acting at NYU at the Playhouse) gives the role of Jenny a fun quality and looks like someone out of Cabaret. Joseph Rende (Dangerous at NCTC) plays the role of Jock like a spoiled child in a man's body. He gives an explosive physical performance that is part childlike and antagonistic to the situation. It is a good corporeal performance

Mollie Stickney (graduate of A.C.T. Acting company) plays the role of the childlike Virginia as an uneasy, comical naif. Playwright Weitz has not really fleshed out the role of wife Enid, played very well by Julia McNeal (Summer and Smoke at Center Rep). McNeal does insert substantial feeling into the role. Craig Neibaur (The Crucible, The Mystery Plays) plays the role of Steve, the "other man," efficiently. However, it is a stereotypical role that one sees in a lot of this kind of comedy.

Suzi Damilano has steered her six characters through their silly interchanges with a solid hand. The timing among the groups is very well accomplished. The set, designed by Bill English, is an excellent set of an upscale living area and kitchen in Westchester County. It folds into the modern office of Jon at the end of the first act. Lighting by Christopher Studley is very good as is the sound design by Steven Klems.

Roulette runs through June 10 at their theatre located at 536 Sutter Street, (one block off Union Square between Powell and Mason) in San Francisco. For tickets call 415-677-9596, or the TIX box office on Union Square. This will be the last show in the building since it is going through an earthquake retrofit. The temporary space will be across the street at 533 Sutter when they present Steven Sondheim's Putting It Together starting June 24.

Photo: Zabrina Tipton

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

- Richard Connema

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