Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Rich and Famous, Twentieth Century and Falsettos

John Guare's Rich and Famous is a Madcap Musical Comedy

Brooks Ashmanskas and Stephen DeRosa
American Conservatory Theatre is presenting a revised version of John Guare's 1974 surreal musical comedy at their theatre on Geary Avenue. You could call John Guare's farce a vaudeville with six separate scenes since it has wonderful one-liners delivered by four fine actors.  There is music, dancing, singing and slapstick which makes this an entertaining one-hour forty-minute fast-paced production.

The rambunctious comedy is about a failed playwright who has written 844 misfires and is now presenting, at an Off-Off Broadway theatre which is described as being "in a toilet on Death Street," a play about the lost civilization of the Etruscans. The play is called The Etruscan Conundrum and you know this arty play will be a complete flop since its two main actors are extremely ego-minded airheads: over-the-top nellie queen Aphro (played campy by Gregory Wallace) and air-brain Leanara (played splendidly by Mary Birdsong). When the play becomes a "floperoo," everything goes downhill for the playwright

Brooks Ashmanskas, as failed playwright Bing Ringling, gives a sparkling performance and also has a smooth voice in some shining song and dance numbers. Mary Birdsong, Gregory Wallace and Stephen De Rosa play multiple roles in this parody of the Broadway theater in the 1970s.

Rich and Famous incorporates many styles of acting as well as several scenes that are strictly avant-garde. One scene could be something out of a Samuel Beckett play. It certainly helps if you are into the New York theater scene of the '70s; I am sure many of the audiences won't get that message.

The opening scene, which takes place in the toilet of a theatre, is side-splitting, thanks to the funny one-liners delivered by the actors.  Mary Birdsong not only plays the nasal-sounding dumb actress but later is producer Veronica Gulpp-Vestige, who looks and sounds like the aging Katharine Hepburn. Gulpp-Vestige has had 21 hits in a row and wants to experience failure in her career. She wants desperately to be a comeback producer after this turkey folds. (The idea of this character might be lost on some of the audience without knowing Katharine Hepburn was called the "comeback" actress twice in her movie career.)

As expected, The Etruscan Conundrum flops, becoming the playwright's nightmarish phantasmagoria; as Aphro says, he understands the Hindu meaning of "the sound of one hand clapping." 

The best scene in the production takes place outside the Algonquin Hotel where Bing Ringling confronts Aphro, who has now become a transvestite hooker.  Gregory Wallace is a real hoot dressed in the wildest drag outfit he has ever worn on the stage.  The dialogue in this scene is pure John Guare. It is witty and urbane and the two actors are perfect together.

The scene involving fey egomaniac Anatol Torah goes on just a mite too long. Stephen DeRosa is completely over the top as the "infant terrible" composer, a combination young Leonard Bernstein and Jerry Herman.  When he plays his own compositions—such as Symphony No 1, Concert No 1, and Broadway score No 1—they all sound the same. He wittily describes certain dress codes for gays in S & M bars and also talks about the bar scene in New York where boys meet boys, girls meet girls, boys meet girls and "there is a bar in the upper 80s where boys meet dead people."  Now, that is a little gross, and even the audience groaned.

A museum scene where the playwright meets his first romance also seems out of place. I suppose John Guare wanted the audience to have a breather in the form of a romantic interlude, but it slows down the pace of the play. The same holds true in the last full scene where Bing meets his boyhood friend, a huge action film star, on a steel beam high above Times Square. It is more of a philosophical diatribe by the two actors on being rich and famous.

In one of the better scenes toward the end of the show, Bing returns to his roots in a meeting with his zany parents who look like something out of a Eugene Ionesco comedy. It's a droll scene with the sentence structure of the dialogue like a combination of David Mamet and Eugene Ionesco styles, with some wordplay that sounds like it came from an Edward Albee play.  Mary Birdsong and Stephen DeRosa as the parents have perfect timing in their rapid speeches.

Rich and Famous features several songs, mostly sung by Brooks Ashmanskas. They are primarily in the first scenes and are tuneful and lively; musical director Laura Burton provides the accompaniment on an upright piano directly below stage left. In the very last scene, the company sings an effective song that sounds like it came from a Brecht/Weill 1930s musical.

John Rando's direction is creative and keeps the action at a lively pace. Scenery by Scott Brandley is ingenious, with a large billboard showing an action film star's face in his latest blockbuster movie, and an elaborate living/bedroom that moves to center stage in one scene. The pink bedroom set of composer Anatol is a fantasy gay trip and there is a museum set, with a very large painting of the Hudson Valley. These sets slide easily stage forward as each scene changes.

Rich and Famous runs through February 8th at the American Conservatory Theatre, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco.  For tickets please call 415-749-2ACT or visit  Their next production will be Judy Kaye in Souvenir opening on February 13th.

Photo: Kevin Berne

Hecht and MacArthur's Twentieth Century is Off and Running at TheatreWorks

Suzanne Grodner, Bob Greene, Dan Hiatt and Rebecca Dines
TheatreWorks is presenting the regional premiere of Ken Ludwig's new adaptation of Twentieth Century, by Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur based on a play by Charles Bruce Milholland. This screwball comedy first opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1932 with Moffat Johnston and the wonderful Eugenie Leontovich. I first saw a production in 1950 at the ANTA Playhouse with Jose Ferrer and Gloria Swanson. The most recent production and the new adaptation by Ken Ludwig was presented at the American Airlines Theatre in 2004, starring Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche.

This is a bang-up, wildly paced production with a great cast of Bay Area favorites.  egocentric and down on his luck Oscar Jaffe (Dan Hiatt) needs his former star, whose original name was Mildred Plotka but is now a Hollywood goddess with the glamorous name of Lily Garland (Rebecca Dines), to star in an upcoming production. He believes she would be perfect as Mary Magdalene in a grand passion play. The twisting and turning plot takes place on the famous Twentieth Century Limited train running from Chicago to New York in the early 1930s. Lily gets on the train just outside of Chicago and Oscar has managed to get the compartment next to her in order to try to convince her to leave the dazzling life of Hollywood and return to the Broadway stage. All of this is performed at breakneck speed under the imaginative direction of Robert Kelly. It is the most immensely entertaining evening of nuttiness you probably will see this year.

Dan Hiatt is terrific as Oscar Jaffe and is tops taking on the physical demands of the part, prowling the stage with craftiness and astuteness to accomplish Oscar's goals. His tour de force of comic acting in the second act as Oscar reenacts the Passion Play is hilarious. Rebecca Dines lights up the stage when she makes her first appearance as the Hollywood goddess Lily Garland wearing one of Fumiko Bielefeldt's stunning costumes. She is wonderful in a gorgeous blonde wig looking a lot like Jean Harlow in an angular, vivacious performance. The adversarial chemistry between the two actors is first rate. Her hairbrained delivery is priceless as Lily believes Jesus' last words on the cross were "Let my people go" or "We're only real between curtains."

The supporting cast captures the spirit of this depression era madness. Bob Green and Suzanne Grodner are perfect as Jaffe's two opportunistic assistants, the inebriated Irishman Owen O'Malley straight out of a Damon Runyon story, and Ida Webb, who turns their submissive assignments into show stealers.

Jackson Davis as Dr. Glover Lockwood, who has written a play for Oscar to read, and Ayla Yarkut as Anita Highland, who is with him on an adulterous venture on the train, are incomparable as the doctor pops into Oscar Jaffe's compartment at the most poorly timed moments. Gene Carvalho is very good as Lily's boy toy and agent while Edward Sarafian looks and acts wonderfully as the ever patient train conductor.

Veteran stage actor Gerry Hiken almost steals the show as the nutty religious millionaire. Each time he is on the stage you can't help but notice his faultless timing in remarks and facial expressions. Michael Gene Sullivan gives 100% playing four parts: a porter, the bearded actor of the Oberammergau Passion Players, a detective and producer Max Jacobs.

Andrea Bechert has created an outstanding set of the Twentieth Century Limited. She has devised a luxurious Pullman car that moves backward and forward to showcase the frenetic action of the train. The art deco style of the train is a delight to behold. Costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt are authentic 1930s era outfits. Lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt is excellent.  Robert Kelly's direction is exceptional and he manages to get a 1930s screwball comedy feel about the show.

Twentieth Century plays through February 8 at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center, 500 Castro Street at Mercy, Mountain View.  For tickets please call 650-903-6000 or visit  Their next production will be It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues opening on March 11th at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Rd, Palo Alto.

A Savvy Production of William Finn's Falsettos

David Kahawaii, Leanne Borghesi and Christopher M. Nelson
Theatre Rhinoceros is currently presenting William Finn and James Lapine's buoyant musical Falsettos. Director Hector Correa has smartly staged William Finn's bar mitzvah musical with excellent actors portraying the members of the dysfunctional family.  First produced in New York in 1990, Falsettos comprises the second and third parts of the writers' musical trio In Trousers, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. The mini-opera score of has infectious melodies that are interesting to hear and a witty quality, thanks to the clever lyrics.  All of the six characters are distinctive with their own hang ups.

This is the story of Marvin, a married homosexual; his wife; his son; his psychiatrist; his lover; and two nice lesbians who live down the hall in his apartment complex. The musical propels each of the eccentric characters though a cleverly berating-filled environment.

Self-centered but likeable Marvin (Christian Bohm) wants to live with his lover Whizzer (Scott Gessford) and is seeing his phobic psychiatrist Mendel (Christopher M. Nelson) about making the move. Mendel suddenly finds himself falling in love with Marvin's wife Trina (Leanne Borghesi).  Marvin and Trina's son Jason (David Kahawaii) is very disturbed by the change of events. He suddenly finds himself in analysis to face the situation.

Falsettos' first act is zany while the second act becomes more sobering as we learn that Marvin has broken up with Whizzer, Mendel is living with Trina and Jason is preparing for his bar mitzvah. The audience first hears about the AIDS epidemic when family friend and lesbian Dr. Charlotte says that "something bad is happening" to Whizzer. The outbreak touches the hearts of the characters.

This cast is strong across the board, with an excellent performance by Leanne Borghesi playing the wife Trina. She runs the scale of emotions, and her greatest moment is singing the hilarious song "I'm Breaking Down," as she looks and sings like she is just breaking down with life.  Christian Bohm plays Marvin effectively. He is a standout when singing "The Baseball Game" and "Everyone Hates his Parents" to his son Jason.

David Kahawaii, who was very good in Ben Franklin in Paris, holds the stage with the adults in this fast-paced musical.  He is fine when singing "My Father's a Homo" and "Miracle of Judaism."  Scott Gessford as Whizzer gives terrific work in his difficult transition from being a healthy gung-ho lover to an AIDS patient.  Christopher M. Nelson who has great singing chops is first rate as Mendel. As the lesbian couple from next door, Laurie Bushman and Amanda Dolan give strong performances. The four leading characters are outstanding singing "Four Jews in a Room Bitching."

Hector Correa directs basically but with great lucidity and wit.  The humor is never overdone while Dean Shibuya's set design is clean and simple. At the piano, Mark Hanson is a great asset to the musical.

Falsettos plays through February 8th at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th Street at South Van Ness, San Francisco.  For tickets call 415-552-4100 ext 104 or go to their website at

Photo: David Wilson   

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

- Richard Connema

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