Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Keeping It in the Family

Every family has its little secrets, and this fact has provided fodder for dramatists since Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex, at least. One of the most acclaimed plays of recent years, Jon Robin Baitz’s Other Desert Cities, is a current example and is having a superior production at International City Theatre (ICT) in Long Beach now through June 29th. Other Desert Cities was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play (which it lost to the equally acclaimed Clybourne Park) and was a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

It is the morning of Christmas Eve, 2004 at the upscale Wyeth home in perpetually sunny Palm Springs, California (Baitz named his play after a real-life freeway sign nearby). Daughter Brooke (Ann Noble) is visiting from New York City for the first time in six years. While she initially denies having an agenda for her holiday visit, Brooke soon informs her parents Lyman and Polly, younger brother Trip and her Aunt Silda that the “novel” she has written and due to be published in the new year is actually an autobiographical tome centered on the mysterious circumstances around her older brother’s death years before. Brooke’s conservative parents — Lyman once worked for Ronald Reagan — are upset by her allegation that they are ultimately to blame.

While what actually happened to their first-born son is eventually revealed in a rewarding twist, the dramatic journey as usual is in the getting there. Long-simmering family tensions are exposed, as are issues related to class, politics and religion. However, Other Desert Cities is a comedy at heart and Baitz wrings some major laughs out of his scenario. A number of them come courtesy of the dotty Silda, hilariously portrayed by ICT regular Eileen T’Kaye. Remaining cast members Suzanne Ford (Polly), Nicholas Hormann (Lyman) and Blake Anthony Edwards (Trip) are all great and obviously invested emotionally in the material. ICT’s Artistic Director, caryn desai, stages this production with her effective, characteristic combination of sensitivity and aplomb. Special mention must also be made of resident costume designer Kim DeShazo’s inspired yet authentic Palm Springs fashions, especially for Polly.

This is only the Los Angeles area’s second presentation of Other Desert Cities, and those who haven’t yet seen it shouldn’t miss it. Tickets may be purchased by calling 562-436-4610 or visiting their website.

The Catholic Church often refers to itself as a family in official texts and papal pronouncements. Now numbering over one billion baptized members, nothing gets church family members’ tongues wagging like intrigue at the top. One of the greatest, enduring controversies in the church is over the sudden death of Pope John Paul I in 1978, a mere 33 days after his election. More liberal and apparently bent on reform, many continue to suspect he was the victim of foul play on the part of conservative bishops. An autopsy, which has long been considered essentially taboo for a pope’s body, was not performed.

The Last Confession, a 2007 play by Roger Crane focusing on John Paul I’s brief reign, is having its stateside premiere and only US appearance on its current world tour at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles through July 6th. A superb, mostly British cast headed by David Suchet and director Jonathan Church wring maximum dramatic effect out of Crane’s text, yet unfortunately go overboard at times.

Suchet headlines as Giovanni Benelli, a bishop and member of the Vatican’s administrative curia who was named a cardinal by Pope Paul VI shortly before the latter’s death. Although he harbors a desire to become pope himself, Benelli instead proposes the humble Archbishop of Venice, Albino Luciani, as a “compromise candidate.” No one is more surprised than Luciani when he is elected by his fellow cardinals and takes his papal name after his two predecessors, John XXIII and Paul VI.

One of John Paul I’s most critical initial tasks was to investigate charges of corruption inside the Vatican Bank (not unlike the recently elected Pope Francis, still dealing with such allegations 36 years later). To that end, John Paul confronts American-born bishop Paul Marcinkus, the bank’s then-head. I can attest that Stuart Milligan’s performance as Marcinkus is one of this production’s most authentic elements, as I knew the man in his later years while he was retired in my home diocese of Phoenix. Although John Paul I apparently tried to remove Marcinkus from his position, it was John Paul II who finally did so… although not before promoting Marcinkus to the rank of archbishop.

It isn’t long in The Last Confession before John Paul I is discovered dead in bed one morning and speculation as to the true cause of his demise begins. While I was most looking forward to this “whodunit” aspect of Crane’s play, its real strength is in the depiction of Luciani’s rise to power through Benelli’s authentic admiration of and concern for the man. Suchet snarls excessively at times and Richard O’Callaghan risks making Luciani/John Paul I seem too flaky to ever be elected head of anything. One can’t help but respect their impersonations, though, in light of the ideals they are striving to live up to.

The production’s technical aspects are all first-rate with the exception of Dominic Muldowney’s excessive, Law & Order: SVU-esque musical cues during scene changes. As a member of the Catholic clergy and longtime Vatican-watcher, I also took exception to some inaccurate costume choices and sacramental gestures on the part of the director and cast, although these will be lost on most viewers. While it isn’t quite a heavenly night at the theatre, The Last Confession is, like its setting, undeniably absorbing. For more information and tickets, visit the Center Theatre website.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Other Desert Cities (ICT): A-
The Last Confession (CTG): B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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