Friday, November 18, 2011

Hart & Kaufman, Mamet & Muller, Moreno & Mom

In this post, I mentioned three stage performances I wanted to see. I was only able to see two out of three.

Once in a Lifetime was a comedy by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman; the first of their eight collaborations. It was showing at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) on Geary. Premiering in 1930, Once in a Lifetime is partially set in Hollywood during the dawn of the talkie era. They screened clips of old-timey films between scenes. I recall one of Al Jolson singing. I was mild about Once in a Lifetime. It looked every bit of its 81 years and some of the plot devices have become tropes (assuming they were fresh in 1930).

I was more enthusiastic about David Mamet's Race which just closed at the ACT - I have a season subscription at ACT. Race premiered on Broadway in 2009 with James Spader, David Alan Grier, Kerry Washington and Richard Thomas which is outstanding casting in my opinion. Spader seems perfect for the role of Jack Lawson.

Race tells the story of two partners at a law firm (one white and one black) and their African American associate attorney who become involved in the case of a wealthy white man accused of raping a black woman in a hotel room. Over the course of the 90 minute play, the four of them examine their attitudes towards race through their interactions. Lawson views the associate (Susan) through the prism of being attracted to the younger woman. Susan is more adept at navigating through the world The Man controls. Not militant but with just-under-the-surface black pride and white bigotry. Henry Brown, the African American partner, is the cynical one. Strickland, the accused, has a serious case of jungle fever but seems to be the least racist of them all despite his decades old derogatory comparison of tropical humidity and a black woman's genitalia.

If I had to give a thumbnail description of Race, I'd call it a sophisticated and racially charged Glengarry Glen Ross transplanted to the legal arena. The ACT production featured strong performances by Anthony Fusco and Chris Butler as Lawson and Brown, respectively.


The Thrillpeddlers' production of Eddie Muller's three plays, collectively called Fear Over Frisco, closes this weekend. The final shows are sold out so I will not be able to see the production.

Speaking of Eddie Muller, Noir City has announced that Noir City 10 will be held January 20 to 29, 2012 at the Castro Theater. The film line-up will be announced December 14 at the Castro. If it's like last year, the December 14 announcement will be accompanied by a double feature.


On the day before her show closed, I caught Rita Moreno's one woman show at Berkeley Rep. Titled Rita Moreno: Life Without Makeup, the "play" featured Ms. Moreno reminiscing, singing and dancing along photos and with clips from her films and television appearances. Actually, she claimed an injury so two male dancers did most of the dancing while she moved around a little. A month shy of 80 years old, Ms. Moreno looks incredible. From my seat in the audience, she could easily pass for 30 years younger.

The audience ate up every word that she said but I was largely familiar with he life story. I recall several of the details from a San Francisco Chronicle story earlier this year and one from (amazingly) seven years ago (I recall the portable CD incident).

For a woman who dated Brando for eight years and ended the relationship with her suicide attempt, Life Without Makeup is largely devoid of any hint of the churning emotions which must have played such a major role in her youth. I was left wondering how someone survived Brando could look and sound so good (in every sense of the word) 50 years later. I suspect Ms. Moreno was holding back some of the more intense memories and emotions. Her relationship with Brando merited less than three minutes of monologue. She sums up the relationship with a joke at Brando's expense. Indeed, she used humor exclusively. I thought the show could have benefited from some more raw emotions from Ms. Moreno. From the program notes, I suspect getting her to open up as much as she did was an accomplishment for director David Galligan and writer Tony Taccone.

However, Rita Moreno didn't win an Oscar, an Tony, two Emmys and a Grammy for no reason. If not a natural, she is a skilled raconteur. She has a knack for accents. Her comedic talents were on display for all to see so it was an enjoyable two and half hours.


I've long been a fan of Rita Moreno but I couldn't point to a specific performance(s) that justified my outsized admiration. During Life Without Makeup, I had a eureka moment. Seeing her old photos and seeing her up on stage, it dawned on me that she bears a resemblance to my late mother. Born two years after my mother, both were petite and dark skinned. For the last 30 years of her life, my mother kept her hair short like Ms. Moreno wears it now. In fact, there is a famous Life magazine cover photo of Ms. Moreno that looks like photos of my mother from the era. I think Ms. Moreno looks a bit silly in it and I've never seen my mother in such a pose but the haircut reminds me of old photos of my mother.

It also struck me while watching a clip from The Electric Company that I watched the show as a child and still associate it with my childhood. Given the resemblance to my mother and her association with The Electric Company, I must unconsciously have transferred maternal (hopefully not oedipal) feelings towards her. They did show a clip from The Lieutenant Wore Skirts (1956) with her in a swimsuit, doing a Marilyn Monroe impersonation, which resulted in decidedly non-maternal feelings towards her.

I miss my mother but without her around anymore, I guess Rita Moreno is the next best thing.

Rita Moreno


This Saturday (November 19), the El Rey Theater celebrates its 80th Anniversary. It has been operating as a church for several years. I recall that the church at the El Rey was the subject of Audience of One, a documentary I saw at Indiefest a few years ago. They are screening The Smiling Lieutenant starring Maurice Chevalier on Saturday. That film was the first one screened at the El Rey in 1931.

The El Rey is located at 1970 Ocean Avenue in San Francisco. The one night event is limited to 400 seats. All proceeds go to the Geneva Car Barn and Power House. Buy tickets through the event website. There was also a recent SF Chronicle article on the event.

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