Review: "Sweat" at the Mark Taper Forum

Review: "Sweat" at the Mark Taper Forum

It was a homecoming for director Lisa Peterson of The Pulitzer Prize-winning play SWEAT as she watched her nine actors perform on opening night at the Mark Taper Forum. She was once the Resident Director at the Taper for ten years from 1995-2005. A lot has changed in the nation since she was last directing in Los Angeles, making this American drama so compelling and enlightening for the audience.

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Review: 'Disgraced' at the Mark Taper Forum

Erin Conley

  • OnStage Los Angeles Critic

LOS ANGELES CA - What happens when you mix four people from vastly different ethnic and religious backgrounds, a lot of alcohol, and a multitude of hurtful secrets? The answer is a disaster of a dinner party, and also the 2013 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Disgraced, which opened this weekend at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. 

Written by Ayad Akhtar, Disgraced is a powerful and topical examination of societal racism and identity. The play first premiered in Chicago in 2012, followed by runs both Off-Broadway and Off West End prior to a Broadway transfer in 2014. Unfolding slowly over the course of an intense 90 minutes, the events that occur left the Los Angeles audience audibly gasping in shock as tensions boiled over to a point of no return. 

Amir (Hari Dhillon, who previously played the role on Broadway), the main character, was born in America and raised Muslim. Now a successful lawyer, he has taken rather extreme measures to distance himself from his Pakistani heritage, including changing his name and denouncing the Islamic faith. His wife, Emily (Emily Swallow) is a WASP and an artist who has made a name for herself by creating pieces inspired by Islamic culture. When the play begins, Amir’s nephew, Abe (Behzad Dabu), recruits Emily’s help in convincing Amir to appear in court in support of a local imam whom he believes was arrested without cause. Amir has serious concerns about associating himself with someone accused of financing terrorists, but ultimately agrees to help. 

A few months later, Amir’s colleague, an African-American woman named Jory (Karen Pittman) and her husband, Isaac (J Anthony Crane), a Jewish art dealer interested in Emily’s work, come over for dinner. As cocktails flow and secrets come out, their four contrasting worldviews and Amir’s increasing paranoia over how the incident with the imam will affect his career lead to a shocking confrontation. 

 Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

 Photo Credit: Craig Schwartz

While Disgraced is specifically a look at Islamophobia in post 9/11 America, its smart, complex messages about race and self-acceptance can easily be applied to many situations in today’s volatile political climate. Amir is not a likable protagonist. He has spent his life struggling to separate himself from a racial and religious identity he resents, and as a result, has a lot of deeply internalized self-hatred that ultimately manifests itself in the way he interacts with the world, particularly with those who are different from him. When Amir goes through airport security, he volunteers himself every time to be singled out and searched in a misguided attempt to embrace what he sees as inevitable. He resents his female, African-American colleague for having what he perceives to be an easier path to the top of their profession. He refuses to accept himself as Muslim-American, and in the process projects his fears and hatred onto others. 

It is incredibly easy to see why Disgraced won the Pulitzer. Directed by Kimberly Senior, its one act is meticulously constructed to masterfully build tension, and the characters manage to avoid stereotypes, even while representing specific racial and religious archetypes. Just when you think things have reached the ultimate boiling point, the plot has more tricks up its sleeve, just waiting to surprise you. While I could have done without one specific twist involving Emily that felt a bit too contrived and expected for such a smart play, Akhtar’s pacing and dialogue are smart and loaded. The cast, led by Dhillon’s powerful, difficult performance, is top notch, creating an intimacy that makes the audience feel like an uninvited guest in someone else’s home. 

In light of recent events and the abundance of hatred that seems to exist in the world these days, this production could not be better timed. It is a crucial reminder about the importance of embracing your identity and not making assumptions about others that is all too needed. 

Disgraced runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through July 17th. Tickets range from $25-$85 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. 

Review: 'Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2, & 3' at the Mark Taper Forum

Erin Conley

OnStage Los Angeles Critic

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LOS ANGELES, CA - What happens after freedom? This question, and many others, are smartly explored in Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2, & 3, a play by Suzan Lori-Parks currently running at Los Angeles’s Mark Taper Forum. Largely inspired and staged like a Greek tragedy, the three, linearly connected extended scenes explore the effect of war and slavery on African Americans during the Civil War era, and sadly suggest that technical freedom may not be the end of the battle, a sentiment that is still all too relevant in the modern era. 

 Photos:Craig Schwartz

 Photos:Craig Schwartz

Father Comes Home From the Wars debuted at The Public Theater in 2014 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. While the scope and implications of the story are wide, it is presented primarily through simple conversations, directed here by Jo Bonney. Part 1, entitled “The Measure of a Man,” introduces us to Hero (Sterling K. Brown, recently fantastic as Chris Darden in American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson), a slave and husband staring down the prospect of following his master to the war. The ensemble of other slaves on the plantation form a Greek chorus of sorts, partially narrating the play, which draws intentional, non-subtle parallels between Hero’s story and Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.” We meet Hero’s devoted wife, Penny (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris), who promises to wait for him, and learn of a morally questionable choice in Hero’s past that begins the process of painting him as the incredibly multi-dimensional character he turns out to be.

Part 2, entitled “A Battle in the Wilderness,” follows Hero and his master, the Colonel (Michael McKean, Better Call Saul) to the war, where the Colonel has captured a Yankee, Smith (Josh Wingate) who ends up having a profound effect on Hero. Finally, in part 3, “The Union of My Confederate Parts,” Hero returns home a changed man, and the reunion the audience anticipates is not at all what unfolds. 

The tone of this play is rather fascinating—while it obviously deals with incredibly serious subject matter, there is an air of tragicomedy about it. For example, we hear frequently about Hero’s devoted dog, aptly named Odyssey, and when we finally meet him in Part 3, he is played by a human actor—and, he can talk. Layering in an absurdist element like this with commentary on the implications of war and slavery is a bold choice that helps the play remain vivid throughout its nearly three hour running time. A musician (Steven Bargonetti) helps ease the scene transitions while also remaining on-stage, a voyeur of sorts overseeing the action. 

Photos:Craig Schwartz

Photos:Craig Schwartz

The fantastic performances are the highlight of this Center Theatre Group production. Brown especially is fantastic, humanizing a character I found to be almost shockingly unlikable by Part 3. While I may have disagreed with some of Hero’s choices, I did understand them. McKean was also excellent as the villainous, cringeworthy Colonel, playing up the ridiculousness of the character perfectly. 

While I found some moments, particularly near the end, overstayed their welcome a bit, the final beats were incredibly poignant, as both Hero and the audience were left to contemplate the true meaning of freedom and how it is often not as simple as it sounds. Even on the other side of the war, things aren’t always clear, the journey is often just beginning, and sometimes it is a struggle to maintain a sense of identity. What happens when you get what you’ve always wanted and it’s still not the final answer? While it may be set in the 1860s, many of the themes of this play still ring frighteningly true today, and while more questions may be raised than answered, you will still be riveted. 

Father Comes Home From the Wars Parts 1, 2, & 3 runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through May 15th. Tickets range from $25 to $85 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org.

Review: “The Mystery of Love and Sex” at the Mark Taper Forum

Erin Conley

The Mystery of Love and Sex, which opened this weekend at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum, certainly leaves no stone unturned when it comes to controversial topics. Sexuality, race, religion, and, perhaps most importantly, family and friendship are covered extensively in this provocative play by Bathsheba Doran, who has also served as a television writer on Masters of Sex and Smash. While this simply staged play that is certainly for mature audiences only may not actually demystify love or sex, it explores the many complex facets of relationships through the eyes of two generations of characters.

photo credit to Craig Schwartz

photo credit to Craig Schwartz

When the play opens, parents Lucinda (Sharon Lawrence) and Howard (David Pittu) are visiting their daughter, Charlotte (Mae Whitman), and her childhood best friend, Jonny (York Walker), at college. Bathsheba does an excellent job with slowly revealing information—the exact nature of Charlotte and Jonny’s relationship is intentionally muddled in the opening scene, and the stage is immediately set for the many issues that come up throughout the course of the play. Howard, a Jewish author of detective novels, and Lucinda, free-spirited and perpetually dissatisfied, are concerned about Charlotte’s close friendship with Jonny turning romantic. Charlotte is quick to assume they don’t approve of Jonny, whom they have known since he was 9 years old, because he is black; they insist otherwise. Meanwhile, Charlotte and Jonny are each dealing with their own issues. Charlotte thinks she is in love with Jonny, but also might be in love with Claire, a girl from one of her classes. Jonny is in denial about his mother’s declining health, and also distancing himself from all romantic relationships for reasons he refuses to admit. Bottom line is, it is all very complicated, much like life.

Robert Egan’s direction is smart and rather simple, allowing the hefty amounts of dialogue and emotions to take the spotlight. The set is sparse, with the cast moving props and furniture around themselves as needed to convey changes in time and location. One thing I enjoyed about Bathsheba’s writing is that she never holds her audience by the hand—the play moves quickly through time, with act two taking place five years after act one, and there are never unnecessary amounts of exposition. She trusts that the audience will follow the action, and information is revealed only as needed.

The cast was excellent, helping to create four incredibly well-drawn characters—by the end of the two and a half hours I felt I understood them inside and out. One minor criticism I have is not of the actors, but rather of the space—the 739-seat Mark Taper Forum is kind of an in-between venue in terms of size, and as a result the actors do not wear microphones. While this has never bothered me in previous productions at the theater, here I sometimes felt like the actors were shouting to be heard, which sometimes clashed with the tone of the scene. Regardless, the cast gave emotional, convincing performances. Lawrence and Pittu received many laughs for the more comedic moments, while Whitman (so wonderful in NBC’s dearly departed Parenthood) and relative newcomer Walker created a bond that became the true heart of the show. Rounding out the cast in a tiny but very memorable role is Robert Towers as Howard’s father.

I cannot stress enough that this play is not for younger audiences—there is rather extensive full frontal nudity, in addition to the discussion of many adult topics. The scenes in question walk a fine line between being provocative for the sake of being provocative and really adding something to the plot. Could the show have done without it? Yes. But did it add to the story and character development? Also yes—in a play that explores the impact of secrets on relationships, the nudity served as a clear metaphor for full honesty and baring it all emotionally.

That being said, I do think some moments in the play crossed the line into being provocative for the sake of being so—at times it felt like we were working through a checklist of controversial topics or things that will get an audience talking. While incredibly topical and valid points, all of the talk about religion and discrimination sometimes distracted from the messages about friendship and love and trust that I found to be the most poignant, well-developed aspects of the show.

The Mystery of Love and Sex runs at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum through March 20th. Tickets range from $25-$85 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org

Review: "Appropriate" at the Mark Taper Forum

Erin Conley

The posters for Appropriate, a play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins that opened Sunday night at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum, proclaim it is about uncovering “a haunted past and historical sin.” While the play certainly does focus heavily on the impact of past events, at its core it is about a family who is struggling to escape their history before it defines their future. 

The title intentionally has two pronunciations and meanings, one more literal than the other. The play certainly has no shortage of inappropriate behavior from its extremely dysfunctional cast of characters, but on a more literal note it is about three adult siblings who come together in the wake of their father’s death and must literally “appropriate” their family home and everything in it. Appropriate, which had its world premiere in 2013, is set in a largely abandoned Arkansas plantation. Despite the racially charged setting and its implications, the entire cast is white (although writer Jacobs-Jenkins is African American), and none of the characters are originally from the south. 

photos by Craig Schwartz. 

Directed by Eric Ting, the story is told over a period of two days as the family prepares their late father’s home for an estate sale. Emotions are high—the three siblings have not all been in the same room in over a decade, their family tree has no shortage of secrets, lies, and traumas, and the implications of their father’s death bring out the worst in them. To make matters worse, midway through act one they find a startling, disturbing antique in the house that makes them question if they actually knew their father at all. 

The cast of 8 consists of, as one character astutely points out in act three, a bunch of “misfit disaster people.” Toni (Melora Hardin of The Office and Transparent) is the eldest Lafayette sibling who is attempting to recover from her life recently imploding by taking control of dealing with the estate, although not in a manner anyone else agrees with. She has a troubled teenage son, Rhys (will Tranfo) who was responsible for said implosion. The middle sibling is Bo (David Bishins), who does the best job of pretending his life is together. He is accompanied by his opinionated, Type A wife, Rachel (Missy Yager) and their children, teenage Cassidy (Grace Kaufman) and young Ainsley (Alexander James Rodriguez on opening night). Finally, there’s Frank (Robert Beitzel), the youngest sibling and black sheep of the family, and his new fiance, artsy, part-time vegan chef River (Zarah Mahler). All of the characters were impressively well-drawn, and the cast did a phenomenal job at keeping up the dramatic, darkly funny tension over the lengthy three acts, which managed not to drag aside from a couple of eleventh hour monologues that overstayed their welcome.

The subject matter of Appropriate is, unfortunately, rather appropriate for the current political and racial climate in the United States. The characters approach the many pieces of evidence pointing to their deceased father’s racism with discomfort and an eagerness to sweep it all under the rug. Even when it is directly affecting their lives, they go out of their way to avoid dealing with it. The Lafayette family are experts when it comes to revisionist history—whether it’s regarding their father’s character or specific, tragic events in their shared past, no one seems to remember things quite the same way. They remember events and people the way they want to, the way that is easiest for them. As is commented on towards the end of the play, every character would likely have a very different recollection of the weekend depicted if asked about it later. 

This play works well because while the specific situations may be extreme, the familial themes are relatable. I did find the ending ventured a bit too eagerly into heavy-handed symbolism, but this was never the kind of story that would be wrapped up in a neat little bow. It is not by any means a comfortable theater experience—in addition to racism, the play deals with religion and religious slurs, mentions of pedophilia, and vague references to mental illness that I frankly wished were explored more deeply. There were definitely moments that could have easily been played for pure shock value, but they were woven well enough into the characters and situation that they felt organic rather than controversial for the sake of being controversial. 

Ultimately, the play seems to take the stance that people don’t change—even after nearly three hours of arguing, the Lafayettes mostly show little to no growth as people. Although I felt time could have been redistributed a bit to elaborate on some storylines and linger less on others, Appropriate is a provocative, well-written, timely piece that raises some interesting questions. 

Appropriate runs through November 1st. Tickets range from $25-$85 and can be purchased at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.