Theatre Review by Janet Bernson

Enhancing the audience perspective of the sublime of/in the ridiculous, and the ridiculous of/in the sublime, is the Sisyphean Stone of playwrights old and new.  John Patrick Shanley is one of America’s greatest living/working artists who elevates the stone by his relentless pushing of it and our conceptions of mind/body/soul.  His abilities to make one think while feeling, and vice-versa, are RIGHT NOW in full array at THEATRE 68, the little-Theatre-that-could, in Hollywood.

For a 99-seat theatre to presume to take on 13 plays in repertory, while simultaneously continuing their run of another recent Broadway success, is audacious in the extreme.  To pull it off with grace, charm and verve, in a putative “down,” economy, in a town where theatre is more often than not a “beggar in the home of American cinema plenty,” is more than worthy of notice these upstart artisans have not gotten…yet.

Last night I saw a full pendulum swing in the pairing of OUT WEST, the overtly operatic (soap- and horse-,) one-act, playfully directed by actor Robert Costanza.  OUT WEST artfully blended into the surreal autobiography-as-art BEGGARS IN THE HOUSE OF PLENTY, masterfully staged by actress Deborah Geffner.  The transition of actors living into one play from another was a sly setup to the emotional mayhem that was to ensue.

Perry Smith as MOM, is a dreary delight as she makes the house ready for Dan Bender’s (JOHNNY) fine-tuned, raucous roller-coaster ride through the fierce family circus in which he always made himself center ring.  Hailey Agnew, grand-daughter of noted writer Phillip Barry and soap star Patricia Barry, makes her L.A. stage debut as SHEILAH, the daughter on the wedding day which will be her life-pass outta the eighth Circle of family hell-at-home.  Michael Blum is engaging as JOEY, the older son-who-never couldda, but wouldda’…Elise Hodge portrays SISTER MARY KATE, the cousin/nun who exemplifies reasons the Catholic Church “slouches towards Bethlehem,” still.  Max Middleton is the rough-hewn, fearsome POP, who whipcracks the family thither and yon with a meat cleaver, a 12-ga. shotgun and a shillelagh, to Johnny’s transcendent realization of the necessary triumph of humanity over nature AND nurture, which is the laser-fine point of the surgical needle where these all-too-human angels waltz,  riverdance, tarantella and cha-cha-cha…The ending WILL haunt you, as true theatre artistry always does.

The 13 BY SHANLEY festival runs through late August.  My friend, who was an agent at CAA years ago, said, of the BEGGARS production,  “Why isn’t this play at the Ahmanson?”  It is a real treasure I uncovered and wanted to share with you.  Now, I’m buying a festival ticket to see the rest of this great venture.