San Francisco Values

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.

Mary Birdsong and Wesley Taylor in Tales of the City. Photo by Kevin Berne.

I have to confess that I’ve never read Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, neither as a 1970s San Francisco Chronicle column nor in book form, nor have I seen the TV miniseries. I knew that Maupin supposedly drew freely on his own life and adventures in 1976 San Francisco while writing the ongoing adventures of naive Ohio transplant Mary Ann Singleton and her various new age, gay, pothead or free-loving neighbors at 28 Barbary Lane. But I didn’t have any particular expectations to fulfill when I went to American Conservatory Theater to see Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City: A New Musical, ACT’s much-ballyhooed world premiere by the director (Jason Moore) and book writer (Jeff Whitty) of Avenue Q and songs by Jake Shears and John Garden of the Scissor Sisters.

The musical takes newcomer Mary Ann (a bright-voiced Betsy Wolfe) to Barbary Lane pretty quickly, where she’s welcomed with open arms by the landlady, earth mother Anna Madrigal (Judy Kaye, radiating gentle warmth). There she meets neighbors Michael (a sensitive and sympathetic Wesley Taylor), a young gay man searching for true love, and his best friend Mona (live wire Mary Birdsong), whose interests include drugs, drugs and more drugs.

Mary Ann gets a secretarial job at the ad agency where Mona works, where the boss’s son-in-law Beauchamp (a marvelously smarmy Andrew Samonsky) comes on strong to her until she agrees to a fling.  His sleazy tango “Bolero” with her is one of the musical highlights of the show. Meanwhile her gruff actual boss, Edgar Halcyon (a stodgy Richard Poe), finds out he’s dying and starts taking stock of his life, conveniently meeting Anna Madrigal at just the right time.

There are a zillion costume changes in the show, making the ensemble seem much larger than it is, and Beaver Bauer has dreamed up a dazzling assortment of flamboyant getups for them. Douglas W. Schmidt’s multilevel set centers on the stairwell of the apartment building, conjuring any other locations from there.

A patchwork of rock, disco, cabaret and Broadway styles, the songs don’t all have one particular sound, but by and large they’re a lot catchier and more fully formed than in your average new musical. The repeated “nobody’s city but my own” refrain in the extended opening number does outstay its welcome, and some of the songs, like Mona and Michael’s tune about how much they like to get stoned together, work fine if you don’t pay too much attention to them.

Kaye’s beatific Mrs. Madrigal is an endearing character even if you think she might want to offer party refreshments other than joints once in a while. Unfortunately she also gets the most insipid songs about being reborn citizens of Atlantis, while a very minor character like Beauchamp’s neglected wife DeDe (a chirpy Kathleen Elizabeth Monteleone) gets some delightfully saucy numbers. Kaye does pour herself into those sappy songs, though, particularly her big Act I-closing number “The Next Time You See Me.”

Some of the ballads are lovely, though, particularly Michael’s sweet coming-out letter to his conservative parents (“Dear Mama”). Even Mona’s lament “Seeds and Stems” is touching if you can get past the silliness of its central metaphor. (Did I mention she likes drugs?)

Michael and his hunky new boyfriend Jon (Josh Breckenridge) are easily the sweetest couple in the show. The script seems to put more emphasis on the growing bond between Anna and Edgar, but it also doesn’t give us much reason not to be troubled by the fact that he’s married. (Maybe that’s a blessing; the last thing this musical needs is a “My wife doesn’t understand me” song.)

The story is a bit disjointed, and perhaps inevitably, all the characters are underdeveloped, including Mary Ann. When she sings a song about having been a fool to think she was in love with Beauchamp, you can’t help but be reminded that as far as we saw she never thought anything of the sort. We don’t get much sense of Mona aside from that she really likes drugs. If serial dater Brian (amiable Patrick Lane) or old school chum Connie (Julie Reiber) are at all important in the books they sure aren’t here, and the clearly relevant characters of Mary Ann’s seemingly nice and boring romantic interest Norman (a drab Manoel Felciano) and salty old madam Mother Mucca (a no-nonsense Diane J. Findlay) are reduced here to plot devices. When it comes along after three hours, the end is a bit anticlimactic.

In short, the musical still needs some work if it’s going to have a life beyond the city it celebrates, but there’s enough good material here for it to be well worth working on. When all’s said and done it is very much a play pandering to the popular notion of San Francisco as some kind of outré wonderland. There’s an amusing disco meat market scene, a tighty whities competition emceed by a drag queen, and a decadent anti-election pageant. But if this is the happy, shiny Disneyland version of 1970s San Francisco, it could be a lot worse. It could be Hair.

Brian Martin, John Caldon and Christopher Struett in The Edenites. Photo by Cody Rishell.

People seeking a slightly more grounded and recognizable portrayal of San Francisco values would be advised to wander just a few blocks south to the ever-so-humble Exit Theatre to see No Nude Men Productions artistic director Stuart Bousel’s bare-bones staging of his own play The Edenites. This reportedly semi-autobiographical relationship comedy (which I caught in its second preview performance) follows a group of aimless thirtysomethings in San Francisco, most of whom are old friends from Tucson.

The ten characters meet, chat and occasionally hook up in various combinations in a series of very short scenes, each with a chapter title that one member of the cast says aloud. The play is staged in the round with actors sitting in the corners among the audience when they’re not in a scene (and sometimes even when they are). Christmas lights are strung above the almost bare black-box stage, and there are two white tape outlines of bodies on the floor like a murder scene, although people usually lie there when they’re in bed together.

The first couple we see there isn’t really a couple—both guys have boyfriends, but they’ve been seeing each other for a while. Hugo is in an open relationship with Xavier, whom we don’t meet until surprisingly late in the play, and the more seldom-seen Aurillo is just saving money to leave his much older, wealthy husband, whom we don’t see at all.

Hugo’s friend Chester has come visiting from Arizona, where he’s just sold his video store that couldn’t compete with Netflix. Chester spends most of his time brooding over his ex-girlfriend Imogen, a newly successful writer who also lives in San Francisco but is pretending to be out of town to avoid him. Because his friend is busy with his multiple romances, Chester winds up hanging out instead with Hugo’s easygoing housemate Deva, who becomes his confidante. Hollywood logic dictates that these two would wind up together, so it’s refreshing that Deva isn’t attracted to Chester in that way.

There’s a lot of upending of expectations in this play, not in a gimmicky way but in a gently funny way that suggests that life is just more complicated than that. Almost everybody’s got issues to sort out—Hugo about his inability to commit, their friend Jenny about hating her newborn baby, et cetera—and the thorniest of these issues are the ones that are discussed a lot without ever quite being worked through. The question of whether Chester and Imogen are or were meant for each other, which preoccupies Chester so much, isn’t really of much interest. Everyone tells him to move on, and you’ve really got to agree with them.

Ryan Hebert’s Chester is funny just because he’s so very serious and socially awkward because of it. Kira Shaw is delightfully playful and pixieish as the happy-go-lucky Deva, who lives like a teenager despite being in her 30s. Kai Morrison is casually charming as Hugo, a trust fund baby who both wants everyone to love him and not to be tied down. (Actually, hardly anyone in the play seems to have a day job, at least not for long.)

Ben Kruer has a certain deadpan charm as stoner dad Trent, although he has a tendency to rush his lines. Megan Briggs is effectively understated as Trent’s depressed wife Jenny, who turns all conversations to how much she resents her newborn baby. Xanadu Bruggers’s Imogen carries herself with brittle, superficial poise rooted in insecurity.

At first Lisa, a loud drunk chick Hugo meets in a bar, just seems obnoxious, but as played by Kirsten Broadbear she’s actually kind of awesome, a former wallflower (from Tuscon, of course) who’s reinvented herself as a brassy, ballsy pleasure-seeker. Christopher Struett is super-swishy as Lisa’s gossipy gay BFF Hamish, another latecomer to the play, who’s not just living a stereotype but owning it. Brian Martin is every inch the patient, gentle guy as Xavier, and John Caldon’s Aurillo has the slight edge of someone who just wants to do as he pleases and not take any crap for it.

As down-to-earth as his characters are, Bousel stages some scenes in a stylized way to keep us from getting too comfortable. Characters pace around each other in a circle while talking on the phone, or actors sit side-by-side among the audience while their characters have separate conversations with different people in different parts of the city.

Hardly any of the threads are resolved, and somehow that’s okay, because this play is just a slice of life, and life’s like that. In fact, the only subplot to get a real Hollywood ending in the play feels outlandish because of it. Bousel describes the play as “a stylish piece of theatrical fluff,” and in a way that’s true. It’s a simple, bittersweet comedy about a group friends and lovers, but its funny, likeable characters and sharp, sparkling dialogue make it one well worth watching.

Celeste Russi and Michelle Jasso in Juno en Victoria. Photo by William Boice.

The Edenites is only one of two plays written by Bousel onstage in San Francisco at the moment. The other one, Juno en Victoria, is playing just five blocks away at Stage Werx, directed by Claire Rice under the aegis of Wily West Productions. Juno is a more ambitious work in concept: It’s a play about Hera’s marriage reimagined as a Victorian comedy of manners.

Hera’s husband Zeus may be the best-known philanderer in all of mythology. Half of Greek myth in some way involves Zeus knocking up some goddess, nymph or unsuspecting mortal. Consequently Hera has traditionally been depicted as a jealous, vengeful wife who mercilessly punishes his lovers and their children, because it’s easier than taking it out on her husband, the king of the gods.

The Hera seen in Juno en Victoria is not like that at all. First of all, though all the characters share the names and more or less the relationships of their equivalents in Greek myth, in the play they’re not gods but upper-class humans in Victorian England. Bousel also simplifies their relationships somewhat: Here Hera and Zeus are not siblings as well as spouses, and Hebe is their daughter but her fiancé Heracles is not Zeus’s son, at least not as far as we know.

Here too Bousel’s witty dialogue shines, with clever nods to Austen and Wilde and moments of profanity that are all the more effective surrounded by all the highly cultured banter. Each of the characters gets a spotlighted monologue addressing the audience—and the person who least seems to warrant a soliloquy is all the funnier because of that.

The action takes place around Hebe’s upcoming wedding, but what’s really concerning everyone is that Zeus is home more often these days, which means he’s screwing around with someone close to home, most likely one of the household staff. Hera affects unconcern (“How disappointing,” she says. “And I was having such a good day.”) but her sister and confidante Hestia makes it her business to weed out whichever one of the servants he’s “diddling,” as indeed she’s hunted down many of Zeus’s lovers on Hera’s unknowing behalf on the past.

Despite any slight panic that the words “There will be two 10-minute intermissions” may cause, the three-act play is scarcely over two hours, each act surprisingly short. The dialogue sometimes gets bogged down with references to characters who aren’t in the play—various relatives from the Olympian pantheon and ravishees of Zeus familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Greek mythology—and some anecdotes of days go by go on a bit too long. Zeus doesn’t appear in the play either, but he’s never far away.

Rice’s staging has a sprightly pace, despite the necessity of the cast parading across the stage at the beginning and end of each act, presumably because there isn’t much of a backstage in the tiny black-box space. Quinn J. Whitaker’s set is a rough suggestion of an elegant Victorian setting room, and Miriam Lewis’s costumes lend a touch of period elegance, particularly Hebe’s delightfully ludicrous wedding dress.

Celeste Russi’s Hestia is a charming constant companion to Hera, well able to keep up her end of a droll exchange, but she’s also a shrewd busybody who’s haughty with the help, and Russi nicely captures both sides of her personality so that her winning and infuriating qualities are always present.  Kat Bushnell’s Hebe is an amusingly high-strung flibbertigibbet, tying herself in knots with nervousness about the wedding.

Bryce Duzan has a winning amiability as the foppish Heracles, but his portrayal is a bit too flat, and it’s hard to tell if he’s attempting a British accent or not. Kalinda Wang gives a good sense of the hard-edged working-class resentment simmering under the civility of the maid Iris, and Travis Howse is aptly cocky and surly as Zeus’s young footman Ganymede. Unfortunately, the combination of Cockney accent and subdued servitude means both servants mumble a lot.

Michelle Jasso is tremendously self-assured as Hera—perfectly poised, wryly glib and seemingly unflappable, the very model of social graces. Bousel’s depiction of Hera, and Jasso’s realization of it, is the great triumph of this play. She’s such a rich, nuanced and formidable character if that the only thing this play did was give us this vision of Hera, that would be enough to call it a success.

What’s really refreshing about this play is its portrayal of how Hera makes her marriage work. She’s perfectly aware of her husband’s infidelities, if not the specifics, and firmly considers them no one’s business but hers and her husband’s. How she feels about them—and how she feels is in a sense the heart of the play—is her affair. It’s a nice touch of San Francisco values in Victorian England, where they’re needed most.

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City: A New Musical
Through July 31
American Conservatory Theater
415 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA

The Edenites
Through June 25
Exit Stage Left
156 Eddy St.
San Francisco, CA

Juno en Victoria
Through July 2
Stage Werx
533 Sutter St.
San Francisco, CA

Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City: A New Musical: Show #54 of 2011, attended June 5.

The Edenites: Show #50 of 2011, attended June 3.

Juno en Victoria: Show #59 of 2011, attended June 17.

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