Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

How the Other Half Loves
and Spunk

How the Other Half Loves

Carrie Paff and Mark Anderson Phillips
The swinging '90s in England is alive and well in Center REPertory Company's production of Alan Ayckbourn's British clockwork farce, How the Other Half Loves. Ayckbourn is the world's most frequently produced playwright, with the exception of Shakespeare. His plays are madly popular in the U.K. but they have not been as successful in this country.  Most American actors just cannot get the timing of the "Britishness" of his plays. When the play premiered in New York the producers tried to "Americanize" the production, which did not work.

Director Michael Butler is helming a fascinating production of the farce with a stylish cast speaking with perfect English accents. The timing is impeccable and several of the actors go deliciously over the top in their performances.  This travesty about two couples' marriage infidelities has two scenes being played simultaneously on the same set. Scenic designer Eric Sinkkonen has superimposed one upon the other to gave the look and feel of a swinging London set with psychedelic postures and bright and cheery colors.

Fiona (Carrie Paff) and Frank (Mark Anderson Phillips) are upper-middle-class while Bob (Darren Bridgett) and Teresa (Sarah Nealis) are lower to middle class.  Frank and Bob work at the same firm and each are involved in a marriage tinged with long-established forms of frustrations. Teresa feels ineffectual and ignored by her boorish husband who is more interested in getting a cup of coffee in the morning. Frank and Fiona's marriage is no more heavenly since Frank seems distracted by mundane things such as to how to fix an electric toothbrush.

Bob and Fiona have been carrying on behind their respective mates' backs. The Detweilers, dull William (Jeffrey Draper) and extremely nervous Mary (Lizzie Calogero), become their alibi. The kicker is that these two lackluster persons hardly know the naughty couple and have no idea of their role. 

How the Other Half Loves' second scene is an uproarious encounter that involves the Detweilers coming to dinner first at the Fosters' and then at the Phillips' with both evenings presented at the same time, events overlapping with ever-gaining speed. This is a tour de force with superb timing of comic acting on the part of the six actors.

Mark Anderson Phillips is excellent as the dense upperclass Frank. He plays the role as idiotic individual with a "stiff upper lip" British accent like a character in the J. Arthur Rank's comedy films of the '50s and '60s. He is the perfect cuckold husband spouting insane remarks with razor-sharp timing.

Carrie Paff is impeccable as the chic Fiona. Her manner of speaking to her husband as a wayward child is flawless. Her acting and looks remind me of the late Kay Kendall.

Darren Bridgett gives an engaging performance as the loutish husband Bob, and he is especially good as a somewhat intoxicated fellow in the dinner scene. Sarah Nealis as Teresa displays splendid acting ability as Teresa proceeds to get intoxicated and loud on a bottle of wine.

Jeffrey Draper and Lizzie Calogero are charming as the decidedly dull Detweilers. Ms. Calogero is outstanding as the guest with no social skills.  Her facial expressions are brilliant.  Draper plays William as a perfect nerd and his timing is impeccable in the wild dinner scene.

Sound designer Will McCandless has incorporated music of the late '90s for an overture and scene changes. Three lovely ladies straight out of an Austin Powers movie dressed in short, plastic, brightly colored checkered shirts dance and move the furniture around during the scene changes.

How the Other Half Loves plays through June 16 at the Dean Lesher Center, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek.  For tickets and information call 925-943-7469 or go on line to  Center REPertory Company's next production will be Hank Williams Lost Highway, opening September 6.

Photo: Kevin Berne

An Evocative Production of Spunk

The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre recently presented Spunk, three tales by folklorist Zora Neale Hurston. Darryl V. Jones directs this lively production featuring the internationally acclaimed jazz and blues vocalist Kim Nalley as Blues Speak Woman with talented guitarist Rodney Street intertwined in three interesting tales by novelist, folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston who helped make the Harlem Renaissance in the 1930s. The score is by Chic Street Man; however, Kim Nalley, Darryl V. Jones and Rodney Street have contributed new music throughout the production.

Adapter George C. Wolfe premiered the moxie drama in 1989 in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  Since that time the two-hour comedy-drama has rarely been produced. Hurston's evocative style and Wolfe's unique theatrical approach blend to create an evening of theatre that celebrates the human spirit to overcome any adversities in life. The production utilizes blues, choral narrative and dance in the three tales focusing on men and women. Spunk is a rich tapestry of rural and urban black America in the early 20th century.

The show opens with Sweat, the story of Delia (Carla Punch), the badly maligned wife of good-for-nothing Sykes (Donald E. Lacy Jr.). Sykes, who has a pet rattlesnake and spends all of his money on other women, leaving his wife with little or no income. However, the man gets his due at the end of the tale.   Donald E. Lacy Jr. is spellbinding in the role and Carla Punch gives a heartfelt performance.

Spunk's second tale is the fast-talking cool Story in Harlem Slang. This is a 1942 story bout Jelly (Donald E. Lacy Jr) and Sweetback (Hosea L. Simmons, Sr.) jiving with each other in melodic Harlem street talk   (there is even a glossary of Harlem Slang in the program). It's a very cool tale and the actors, dressed in "zoot suits with a reet pleat," are "right on."

The Gilded Six-Bits is a lovely story about a young husband Joe (Hosea L. Simmons Sr.) who is madly in love with his wife (Carla Punch) until a smooth operator (Donald E. Lacy Jr.) spoils their paradise.  However, the couple learns to cope with the rift between them. Carla Punch (substituting for C. Kelly Wright) is appealing while Hosea L. Simmons Sr. gives a good performance.

Kim Nalley replaces two of the Chic Street Man numbers; "Groceries Poppa," a bawdy down and dirty blues song full of double entendres and her "Killer Diller Queen" is a boogie-style song that introduces Story in Harlem Slang.  The blues artist gives a sensual reading to these songs.

Spunk played through June 3rd at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter Street, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-474-8800 or go to

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

- Richard Connema

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