French playwright Yasmina Reza seems particularly interested in how small things become blown out of proportion. In her ubiquitous play Art, the close friendship between three men is threatened when one of them buys an expensive painting that another one thinks is crap. The Unexpected Man depicts two strangers on a train obsessing over the coincidence that one of them is reading a book that the other one wrote. And in God of Carnage, her 2006 comedy now making its Bay Area debut at San Jose Repertory Theatre, two couples meet to discuss an incident of playground violence between their sons, but their pleasant and civilized chitchat gradually gives way to chaos and savagery.
The primary selling point of Scorched is Oscar-nominated actor David Strathairn’s return to his native San Francisco for his second show at American Conservatory Theater, where he previously starred in artistic director Carey Perloff’s 1996 production of The Tempest. All the poster and flyer art is a close-up of his face, even though he’s strictly in a supporting role in the play. His may the primary male role, but this play belongs strictly to the women. Strathairn is, however, easily the best thing about the production.
American Conservatory Theater doesn’t do new plays all the time, but it likes to throw the occasional world premiere into the mix from time to time. Last season there was the musical Tales of the City; a year before that was The Tosca Project; the previous year was War Music; a couple years before that there was After the War. This season the company’s also presenting a world premiere, but not on its main stage on Geary Street. This one’s tucked away at the space formerly known as Zeum, now rebranded the Theater at Children’s Creativity Museum, and it’s by ACT’s own artistic director, Carey Perloff.
It’s a remarkable coincidence: In the last couple of weeks both Berkeley Repertory Theatre and American Conservatory Theater have opened plays about sons grappling with their memories of their fathers, both prominent Bay Area figures of the 1970s. Ghost Light at Berkeley Rep is a fictionalized play based on California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jonathan Moscone contending with the specter of his father, the assassinated San Francisco mayor George Moscone. Humor Abuse is Lorenzo Pisoni’s one-man show about growing up as a baby clown in San Francisco’s Pickle Family Circus under the unrelenting tutelage of his father, Pickles founder and clown Larry Pisoni (who thankfully is still around and was in the audience opening night).
It’s a good problem to have: Looking over the list of the 118 local shows I saw this year, I had a hard time narrowing it down to a Top Ten. There are plenty of ways in which 2011 was a tough, lousy, no-good year, but in terms of what I saw on the Bay Area stage, it was pretty damn good. It was a great year for solo shows, between the Marsh (Marga Gomez’s Not Getting Any Younger, Don Reed’s The Kipling Hotel and Geoff Hoyle’s Geezer) and Berkeley Rep (Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and The Last Cargo Cult, Anna Deavere Smith’s Let Me Down Easy and Rita Moreno’s Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup). There were a couple of great visiting performances by screen stars: Kevin Spacey as Richard III, John Malkovich as mass murderer Jack Unterweger. And there were any number of other shows that thoroughly charmed me in one respect or another but didn’t quite crack the Top Ten: Crowded Fire and Asian American Theatre Company’s Songs of the Dragons Crying to Heaven, Sleepwalkers Theatre’s The Nature Line, Shotgun Players’ Beardo and Care of Trees, Impact’s Disassembly, SF Playhouse’s Tigers Be Still. As for what did make it onto the list, I tried to rank them in order of preference, but no matter how many times I tweak it the ranking feels arbitrary. So let’s say that, like one’s own children, I love them all equally, and just hope they buy that.
David Mamet’s play Race is a fine example of truth in advertising. It’s a play about race, and pretty much nothing but race. A powerful old white businessman has been accused of raping a young black woman, and he’s looking to switch law firms to represent him because one of the partners at the new firm is black. Pretty much all the conversation among the lawyers—a white male partner, a black male partner, and a young African-American woman who’s some sort of junior associate or otherwise new hire at the firm—about whether to take the case or how to defend the client comes down to second-guessing racial preconceptions.
American Conservatory Theater has kicked off its season with an oddity: Once in a Lifetime, a revival of a 1930 Hollywood satire by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, the writing team much, much better known for the comedies You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner.
I was born and raised in Berkeley, where most people can be safely assumed to be pretty liberal, and nothing sets my teeth on edge more than the belittling portrayal of the place I grew up as some kind of wacky radical madhouse, the view embodied in terms like “Berserkeley” or “San Francisco values.” My native Bay Area may make a mockery of itself on occasion—hometowns do that sometimes—but I’m always mighty sensitive about anything coming along to make it look silly.
Even people who don’t know much about Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy may have heard his quotation “Hell is other people,” and maybe thought that handily encapsulated what this Existentialism thing is all about. And no, that’s not it at all, but it does describe the play that sentence is from—No Exit, in which three strangers find themselves in the same tastefully appointed drawing room for all eternity. They know they’re in Hell but find no torturers or torments of any kind except each other’s company, which they quickly find intolerable.
Even if they’ve never read Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, a lot of people have at least heard some variant of the opening sentence: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The characters in Harold Pinter’s 1965 play The Homecoming are unhappy in the most vicious ways possible. “They’re very warm people, really,” the eldest son Teddy says to his wife before she meets his father and brothers. “They’re my family. They’re not ogres.” It’s a funny line because by the time he says it we’ve already met his family and know perfect well that’s not true.