Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Pear Slices 2017
Pear Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of Sister Act

Briana Mitchell, Ariel Aronica, and Bryan Moriarty
Photo by Ray Renati
Avid theatregoers in the mid-Peninsula of Silicon Valley have long known that a little gem exists in their midst, one whose sparkle particularly glitters each year around late spring. Under the visionary leadership of is founder Diane Tosca (soon to depart as the company's first and only Artistic Director), Pear Theatre offers each May Pear Slices, a collection of short, original vignettes created by its own group of playwrights known as the Pear Playwrights Guild. This year's version, Pear Slices 2017, features eight fifteen-minute plays performed in repertory by seven talented actors under the joint direction of Troy Johnson (also set designer) and Robyn Ginsburg Braverman (also sound and costume).

What becomes evident shortly within the first act of the two-hour, fifteen-minute evening is that a lot can be accomplished on stage in only a quarter hour. Stories are told; characters are developed; surprises happen while mysteries are solved; laughter ensues and tears suddenly well. And for the most part, all the short plays succeed in their mission to engage and entertain. Eight very different plays take place everywhere from the Southwest desert to a backstage vaudeville dressing room and involve such diversity as a would-be superhero, an aging Yiddish actor, grown-up orphans, and a feminist not sure she is ready for the proposal she is dying to receive from her boyfriend.

In the opening sketch (Elyce Melmon's For Art's Sake), a young maiden in a museum's nineteenth-century painting cannot help but notice that an art-enthusiast mother (a turban-wearing, smocked Alison Whismore) is having great difficulty getting her son (sullen Michael Weiland who can't help but slip out another, foul, four-letter masterpiece) to look up from his smartphone (whatever that is!) and to engage aesthetically with the hung paintings around him—including the one of her. A visit with the boy after the maiden magically emerges from her framed setting leads to new, important insights by both the boy, conveniently named Art, and the Girl. The battle between Rembrandt-and-Renoir-loving mother versus mega-bytes-and-mega-pixels-absorbed son comes to a happy, satisfying resolve as Art and his mom, Mona (see the tongue-in-cheek yet?), find new, common ground—all in just about fifteen minutes.

Conflict also erupts in the evening's final playlet when an independent-minded Brooke is ready to ask her boyfriend Carroll to exit her apartment and her life, all because she has discovered he is going to do a YouTube-worthy surprise proposal at the three-star, Michelin-rated Le Bernardin (and watch how you pronounce the name, for goodness sake) to her that very day. After all, who wrote the rules that it is always the guy who is the one to make the marriage proposal? Max Gutmann's The Proposal is funny, heart-warming, and definitely thought-provoking. Ariel Aronica and Bryan Moriarty excel as the couple who pit their wills and stake their love on their individual, stubborn-but-important principles.

One of the best aspects of an evening of multiple offerings like Pear Slices 2017 is the opportunity to see individual actors switch roles, personas, and entire looks from one play to the next. The evening's ticket price is a bargain just to watch Kyle Smith progress through four of the night's offerings. In Leah Halper's charming Mirror to Face—a turn-of-the-last-century, backstage mini-drama—Mr. Smith plays a recent, Russian-Jewish immigrant (with a wonderfully thick Yiddish accent) who has a chance to star as the one Jew that Shakespeare put on his stages and the character Jews ever since have despised: Shylock. His difficult decision becomes locked-in with the help of his aspiring, independent-minded actress/daughter Celia (cleverly played using both heart and mind by Briana Mitchell).

Just minutes after the lights go down in that 1906, vaudeville backroom, they come up on a 1946 desert scene (each scene's setting further clarified by helpful projections as part of Troy Johnson's simple designs). Kyle Smith re-appears as a gruff, semi-bent-over vagabond (Billy) with a strange, side-stepping limp. He shows up under the dark canopy of faraway stars to a startled Joyce (a nervously suspicious Tess Middlebrook), who waits for her sister Libby (Alison Whismore) to return from getting help for their stalled car. There is more to this Billy than meets the eye, and that is the mystery to be uncovered in the fifteen minutes of Douglas Rees' captivating Anasazi Breakdown.

The Kyle Smith travelogue continues in the opening of act two with perhaps the evening's strongest offering among many fine ones, Deuce Cooper: The Bloomfield Case by Paul Braverman. Mr. Smith is now small-fry detective Deuce, a character right out of the noir traditions of the 1940s. As he tries to halt the unraveling of an insurance case—his one success to-date—his deliciously played secretary Donna (yet again, Alison Whismore) swishes her mid-section, twitches her shoulders, and mimics phone messages in the stock character voices of the senders. She matter-of-factly informs him that in (yes, of course) fifteen minutes he has meetings with all three of his exes, his mother, a police officer, an informant, and Donny No-Sleeves (hilariously played by Michael Weiland)—the last of whom plans to "kill you a lot." Look for so many double-crosses and switchbacks to cause whiplash in the play's guffaw-producing climax.

And then Kyle Smith finally becomes a smiling, waltzing ghost named Benny—one whose presence is still very much alive in different ways for his two grieving (or at least one is grieving) sisters. In Leah Halper's Meantime in Between Time, the recently dead Lenny's legacy of years of both drug abuse and playing music on an old Victrola weighs in sharp contrast for an angry Diane (Alison Whismore in designer suit and with stiff disposition) and the younger, tearful Julie (Tess Middlebrook) who feels her brother's joyful presence as she recalls dancing the night away with him). What happens to bring both sisters to a new and common understanding of their deceased brother is powerfully moving to watch, with its impact worthy of a much-longer piece of new work.

"Last night, I used my hair to defeat an asteroid from destroying the planet," proudly declares the leader of the Cosmonaut Quartet, as a teen stands on her bed proudly in homemade super-hero outfit, lording over her exasperated mom. But is such a declared feat enough to convince Mom (Tess Middlebrook) that Stephanie (Ariel Aronica) can get away with an F+ on her algebra test? And what does it mean that Stephanie suddenly blurts—about ready now to be less a hero and more a little girl—that her mother has always loved her older sister more than she? Bridgette Dutta Portman's Stella Wind, a daughter-mother, coming-to-the-altar piece where peace is found once again for the planet and for their relationship.

Least successful among the eight plays is a confusing, even if well-meaning, Aboriginal by Susan Jackson. Four adult orphans stand before us telling their stories in snippets back and forth, but neither the individual nor the collective threads ever span into something totally understandable or meaningful. However, we are given one of the evening's most outstanding acquired dialects as Bryan Moriarty speaks his story in fascinating Australian Outback.

Having just viewed Pear Slices 2017, I can only hope the next Artistic Director of the Pear will continue this annual offering, for the taste left in my mouth is wonderfully delectable.

Pear Slices 2017 continues through May 28, 2017 at at Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View. Tickets are available at or by calling 650-254-1148.