Wednesday, May 13, 2015

63 Trillion by John Bunzel

By Joe Straw

Money is the foulest thing that lithers between your outstretched members.  And the smell, although not sickening, severely coats your olfactory organs. It is filthy, go ahead, take a whiff, paper or coin, it makes no difference.   

The underlings usually handle all the money once they get their sweating mitts on it.  Those with a conscience worry about doing the right thing, knowing that with every misstep, they might be flushing the fruits of someone else’s grunts down into an unending cesspool. And, that is not a good thing. 

But most men, like the men in the play, don’t have a conscience. They put up a brave front as the coins start trickling away, through no fault of their own, of course.   – Narrator

"63 Trillion" is about loyalty. But loyalty is not evident among of this devilish group of sycophantic men who only worship the almighty dollar.  Backbiting, double crossing, and undercutting are their good traits.  They live and survive this deep dark world of wealth management because their humanity dial is set on “Predatory” mode.  And let’s face it; they are all implacable in looking out for number one.  

The New American Theatre in association with Mud Bay Partners presents “63 Trillion,” a world premiere comedy by John Bunzel, directed by Steve Zuckerman, and produced by Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin through June 7th, 2015 at the Odyssey Theatres in Los Angeles.

Frank (Robert Cicchini), pouring himself a cup of coffee, asks about dogs, his dog in particular.  

“Do you know anything about dogs?  Are dogs supposed to be nice?” – Frank

Of course Tom (Ken Lerner) is taken aback by the question and asks for more details.

It is seven o’clock in the morning at the brokerage house where Tom is a partner.  Frank has a separate office somewhere down the hall and only comes into Tom’s office when he really wants something, like eating his sausage sandwich in the conference room or getting a cup of coffee, or maybe just looking for information.  

Frank and Tom are throwing small talk around. It’s a rather strange discussion this morning - talking about Frank’s dog, which bit his mother, salivating all the while, and with a raging hard-on, to boot.  And to top it off his mother is an invalid, in a wheelchair, probably unresponsive and salivating as well.  

Tom says you can’t train the dog because it’s in his DNA. 

Hmmm, this is an interesting thought.  One wonders if certain attributes of the men in this brokerage house are connected because of their DNA.

Jonah (Noah James), an underling in the firm, runs to his desk, in a worried state, and tells the guys the stock market is down.  But Frank, Tom and Kenny (Jack Stehlin) are not troubled, not in the least.  They have war stories about the 2000 crash and the 2008 crash, which they came through with flying colors and seem unperturbed about this impending crash, believing that the market will correct itself within a day. They know this world; it is in their DNA.

But, what does concern them is that Peter Black (Jordan Lund) is coming to visit the firm that very day with 10 million dollars in the bank.  It just so happens that his name is Black coming in on a “Black Friday” type of day.  The quest is to get him to sign the papers and hand over the nasty coins.

They need to talk to Dick (Jeffery Jones); he is the man, the savant, a brilliant wealth manager, and a one time financial advisor to the Dali Lama.  He also has an elevator in his one story ranch house and an ATM in his bathroom.

Dick enters, the seas part, and they bow to his reverence. (Not really, but thinking this could be a grand staging idea.)

“Do you have an ATM in your bathroom? Why?” – Jonah

Dick, the savant, provides anecdotes but his answers are not clear. Fatuously jostling with coffee mug in hand seems to be the order of his day. Still, he is a very likeable fellow who isn’t interested in the small money details but keeps his eyes wide open to seize every opportunity and chance he gets.

Peter Black arrives with cash in hand, figuratively. He is a huge man with fists of steel willing to break anyone who doesn’t do right with his money.  He is the son of a circus man who has worked hard for every penny.  He is not ashamed that he has stepped on a lot of toes, and he is a little hesitant about turning over his money on this dark day in the stock market.

Later we learn that things did not go well.  Money has been flushed that day and Nancy (Megan Gallagher), the firm's lawyer, arrives to dismiss a few employees.  But when the feds arrive downstairs, ready to come up and to take action, Nancy regroups and changes tactics for the time being and this is the point in the play where we find where the true loyalties lie. 

The world premier of the play “63 Trillion” by John Bunzel is like a soup.  The elements of this soup have to settle a bit before we know we’ve got the right taste, feel, texture, and that’s the way it is with this production.  What is not clear is Frank’s relationship with the firm. Also Peter Black takes it in stride when Kenny says his money is missing. Further development is needed to take the characters to extremes so that this comedy works. Each character has to be different, and that difference needs to be accentuated.  Sure, the characters are cut from the same cloth, they all speak the same lingo.  The savant is different somehow but we don’t really see it.  A little diversity in character would greatly enhance character differences and possibly motives. Still, there is a lot of very clever dialogue and we never know what is going to happen until the very end, which makes for an overall delightful evening.

Steve Zuckerman, the director, keeps the pace moving along briskly but we might want to have the actors doing their work,  in their job space as they are speaking their dialogue just to get a true sense of the workplace, rather than having the characters at times speaking downstage center.

There’s enough here for this exceptional cast of names and faces to have you smiling at the end of the performance.

The grand thing of small intimate 99 seat theatres is that it places you in the same room and in some instances a few feet away from actors you’ve come to know over the years. Jeffrey Jones was the reason I came, and he did not disappoint.  His facial expressions, exquisitely absurd, are every bit the price of admission and this is a performance not to miss.

Robert Cicchini plays Frank and gives it his all, the instrument, the voice, character, are all fine attributes of this actor.  Only there doesn’t appear to be a reason why he is in the office other than to eat, tell stories, and have coffee.  To come in the room and chat about money doesn’t really creatively work. Finding a reason will give the character a lot more viability.

Megan Gallagher plays Nancy the lawyer.  Nancy is a strong vibrant woman, with a lot of smarts who is caught off guard at the most inopportune moments.  Gallagher is wildly funny and the most rounded character in this play.  She appears to come in to dismiss a couple of employees and finds herself throwing a barrier between the men in the room and the feds. Her work is delightful.

Noah James gives an impressive performance as Jonah an intern who works hard to get what he wants. Jonah will man the phones, watch the market, talk to the headcheese, and schmooze with the best of them all in the name of the all mighty dollar. In the end, they should all bow down to him, literally. Without giving anything away, they might put him on a pedestal.

Ken Lerner plays Tom, one of the partners in the firm, who finally gets fed up and has to punch someone.  By the way, that little action, played to perfection. But we really need a creative objective from the character especially when he is trying to solve a problem and turning down all sorts of calls with just a wave of the hand with each call.  That scene needs a lot more action, taken to extremes, to find the grand definitive moment.

There is a very interesting scene when Jack Stehlin who plays Kenny convinces Black to give him the money. This was the moment when this character justifies his existence. It was like stepping up to the plate and hitting a home run and Stehlin is marvelous when he completes that moment.  Funny, but the moment passed with hardly any reaction from the other characters. Stehlin's work is a job well done. 

Jordan Lund plays Peter Black.  And Black is not a man you want to mess with because he is physically imposing.  When he has money he is mean, vicious, and vile and not someone you want to be nose to nose with. But Lund has to make a creative choice as to the kind of character he becomes when his money is lost.  That aside, Lund had some very exciting moments, has a grand voice, and is very believable in the role.

Jeannine Wisnosky Stehlin, Producer/Managing Director, New American Theatre, does a fantastic job bringing all of the elements together.

Jeffrey R. McLaughlin’s set was impressive – a multi-layered design that ran true to life of an office environment, and the hills outside the window, somewhere on the west side gave us a grand idea of where this is all taking place.  The Lighting Design on this night was slightly confusing in that some of the actors were in deep shadows when speaking down to someone sitting in a chair.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Christopher Moscatiello – Sound Design

Florence Kemper – Costume Design

Roger Bellon – Composer

Caitlin Price – Stage Manager

Michelle Briddell – Production Assistant

Judith Borne – Publicist

Run!  And take someone who likes to spend a lot of your money, like an ex.


Or: 310-477-2055 Ext 2

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Oh My God by Anat Gov

Mike Burstyn - Photos by Michael Lamont

By Joe Straw 

“Lo he goeth by me, and I see him not:  he passeth on also, but I perceive him not.” – Job – The Book of Job, Chapter 9:11 – The Holy Bible – The King James Version.

West Coat Jewish Theatre presents an American Premiere starring Mike Burstyn in “O My God” by Anat Gov directed by Howard Teichman and produced by Howard Teichman & Jean Himmelstein through June 7th at the Pico Playhouse.

I am not familiar with Mike Burstyn, or his career, but there was a point in the show when he spoke emphatically as God. I heard his voice, I felt it in my chest cavity.  It was an inspired voice and one that nearly lifted me from my seat.  Instead I raised my eyes from my notepad and took note of the actor before me. Surely, I have missed something.  And I soon realized that I needed to catch up on my knowledge of  internationally acclaimed American/Israeli actors. – The Narrator.  

After a successful run of “The Whipping Man,” also directed by Howard Teichman at the Pico Playhouse, I really had to see what Mr. Teichman was doing next.  And because I had recently been inundated with “God” at the Unitarian Universalist Church (go figure) and other places, God kept appearing in disquieting peculiarity. I pondered the notion that someone, some being was trying to tell me something.

Lior (Joseph Rishik) sat and played his cello.  All decked out in drabbed New Balance sneakers, black socks, brown shorts, and a worn brown Hawaiian t-shirt. His face projected little emotion. The notes, the fingerings, were just there.  The vibrations from the music affected little of his soul, and his expressions were mechanical at best. On the chair, in his quaint living room, with an enormous blue sky projected through the window, Lior played on.  What was bothering him? Why wasn’t he connected to the passionate moments of the notes?

Ella (Maria Spassoff), Lior’s mother, throws off her enormous garden hat and attends to her son. She doesn’t ask, and doesn’t expect certain words to come from his lips.   At this moment Ella is beaten by the heat, complains little about the lack of rain, and life in general.    

And Lior says little – no, that’s not right – he says nothing, not even hello mom, mother, mama, nothing. He utters only guttural sounds, muttered squeaks and thrusts of vocal nothings.  Not being understood, he resorts to being an obstreperous child by throwing toys – too old for him to play with – and then throwing Orson Welles’s “The Third Man” poster to the floor, which Ella calmly repairs and hangs back on the wall.

Moments later, Ella gets a call from someone saying that he needs to see her right away so she hustles her son out of the room, with cello in hand, and prepares for the appointment. When there is a knock on the door, Ella opens it and finds no one. Strange.

Not thinking much of it, Ella returns to her desk.  Behind her, the door magically opens, and a figure in a dark hat and suit enters It is God (Mike Burstyn), an enigmatical tranquil being, with a problem.

Ella, the psychologist, is all business.  She methodically grabs her note pad and asks the gentleman to sit down before she starts the disquisition.

“Name?” – Ella

“You can call me, G.” – God

“What is your age?” – Ella

“Five thousands years old.” – God

“What do you do?” – Ella

“I’m an artist.” – God

“Father?” – Ella

“None.” – God

“Mother?” – Ella

“None.” – God

After more questions, Ella realizes this man knows everything about her and she suggests he might be a part of the Israel intelligent agency. But this man claims he is God.

“How long have you felt like this?” Ella

“I don’t feel like, I am.” – God

An exasperated Ella is not having any part of this discussion.  Slightly frightened, she steps back and says she has the name of a good psychiatrist.  She wants this man to leave her home right now.  

But God has a few tricks but his robes, um sleeves, and freezes Ella.

Lior comes back in and God unfreezes Ella and, by this time, Ella has gotten the message and starts listening to God. She takes a drink of water, the glass rattling on her teeth.

God tells Ella that she has talked to him for forty years and he can remember her prayers from the age of four.  Ella says that she doesn’t believe in God.

“You talk, but you don’t ask.” – God

But God reveals a little vicious streak in him when he tells Ella that she believes that her autistic son will call her mother one day and that her husband will come back to her. The words stab at the heart of her entire being.

Anat Gov, the writer, has written a very moving play which was voted Best Play in Israel in 2012, the year of her death, at the tender age of fifty-five, after a long struggle with cancer. This is the American Premiere and a translated version of the Hebrew text.  (Translations between languages are tricky and hopefully nuances were not lost in the translation.)

“God hath delivered me to the ungodly, and turned me over into the hands of the wicked.” – Job 16:11. The Holy Bible

Howard Teichman, the director, does a nice job putting it all together, nice show, nice evening with remarkable talent. But there more to be had in the moments that should collectively make the production soar.  On this night, they struggled to make the emotional connection that one hopes to get in the theatre. And that connection is the one thing that causes a reaction, an emotional moment, that keeps you in your chair long after the light come up.  And also, I have to be hit over the head of “Why this woman?  Why today?  Why now?” One is not sure these questions were answered in the execution.   Also, G appears dressed in the manner of the Orson Welles character in “The Third Man” in a moment that isn’t fully realized. There is a reason “The Third Man” poster is on the wall and a reason that G enters Ella’s home dressed like Orson Welles, coming in as the wind in one moment and Orson Welles in the next.   Comedy, and this is a comedy, is best served on a cold plate of pain. And the pain is inside all of the characters who are reaching for the one thing they truly want. There is more to be had here.  Still, it is early in the run and tweaks will make it that much better.

Maria Spassoff and Mike Burstyn

Mike Burstyn plays G and does a tremendous job.  G has a problem and he comes to get counseling. He is still feeling guilty about the way he treated Job. He needs help and he needs it right now or else he will die and take everyone with him. There is a time element here in which the character, God, must feverishly pursue his objective and there is little time to lose. Burstyn is an amazing actor, his moments are carefully constructed, and there is a delightful simplicity to his work, and I’ve already mentioned his great voice, but I’ll say it again, great voice!   

Maria Spassoff does some amazing work as Ella, a strong vibrant professional woman who will do anything to help her clients.  Ella is at the end of her rope.  Her son will never get better and that part of her life is a daily struggle.  She needs her husband to come back but more than anything she needs to move on.   She needs her son to call her mom.  She needs inspiration. But what she gets instead is more trouble.  Ella suddenly finds herself in a position of trying to save the world; the weight of humankind is on her shoulders.  Her job is to help God and in doing so save humankind.    

Joseph Rishik plays Ella’s son Lior. His playing of the cello is fine, with some very lovely music coming out of his instrument. But his role as an autistic son requires a better-developed character and a clear and meaningful objective.

Jean Himmelstein and Howard Teichman are the Producers, and once again have done an outstanding job.

Other members of this outstanding crew are as follows:

Bill Froggatt – Associate Producer & Sound Designer

Kurtis Bedford – Set Designer

Gil Tordjman – Stage Manager and Lighting Designer

Michael Lamont – Photographer

Ken Werther Publicity – Press Representative

Run!  Run!  And take someone who likes to read The Holy Bible.


Reservations:  323-821-2449

The Pico Playhouse
10508 W. Pico Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA  90064

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Generation Sex by Liza Ann Acosta, Rocio Alvarez, Arielle Julia Brown, Jasmin Camarillo, Sindy Castro, Kristiana Rae Colón, Alice daCuhna, Amanda dela Guardia, Melissa DuPrey, Khanisha Foster, Christina Igaraividez, Maya Mackarandilal, Maya Malan-Gonzalez, Jennifer Lainez, Amanda Martinez, Ysaye McKeever, Ayssette Muñoz, Enid Muñoz, Yee Eun Nam, Johannil Napoleon, Elizabeth Nungaray, Marci Portugal, Patsy Radford, Paula Ramirez, Alyssa Vera Ramos, Deanalis Resto, Karen Rodriguez, Angelica Roque, Allyce Torres, Pili Valdés, Ana Velazquez, Denyse Walls and Kelley Williams

Abigail Vega (l.), Elizabeth Nungaray, Pili Valdes, Kelley Williams, Khanisha Foster - Photo Joy Sequina

By Joe Straw

Yipes, there are a lot of writers on this show, and all women.  Good thing because I was looking for another perspective, a female perspective, a Latina perspective.  

Teatro Luna (Moon Theatre), the nation’s only All-Latina theatre troupe (Really?) from Chicago, presents “Generation Sex”, a world premiere engagement of a new comedy directed by Alexandra Meda and developed by Abigail Vega at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, through May 17th, 2015.

The show time varies 7:00pm and 9:30pm and Sundays at 3:00pm.  Please check with the box office for show times.

Generation Sex is about sex:  straight sex, same-sex, androgynous sex, rough sex, sweet sex, romantic sex, celibacy, virginity, promiscuity, hooking up, feminist sex, but especially Millennial sex and the impact that new technology has had in the search for and acquisition of sex and hopefully, connection.”  - The press release.

Dear Mom,

I saw a show on Saturday night with six lovely women in this All-Latina comedy troupe. Except I think they were four Latinas and one African American woman.  Their names were Khanisha Foster, Elizabeth Nungaray, (she looks a lot like Mickie), Pili Valdés, Abigail Vega, Kelley Williams, and Denise Walls (who did not perform the night I was there).

 Elizabeth Nungaray

They came out and… you know, here’s the thing… we never spoke about sex while I was growing up in the South.  And these women let all of this information out like it was on the tip of their tongue. They weren’t embarrassed by it – not in the least.

I remember riding back in the car from grandma’s house when you spoke about of woman who was raped; it was kind of disturbing for us as well as for you. 

Certainly, this show was an eye-opening experience and there were some things that I just didn’t quite get. Some things worked really well, others not so well. I suppose you could consider this show a series of vignettes, not linear as usual in a play.  And yet, the performers in this show are very open, they want to be heard, and they want to give you a story. Some of it was like a Latina Chorus Line without the songs.

Pili Valdes, Khanisha Foster, Kelley Williams

There was this one scene where Australian women are in the outback chasing down the elusive clitoris.  Sorry, I didn’t mean to be so out there.

Kelley Williams

And then there was a woman who was raped and her circle of friends told her that it wasn't really rape.  I’m 100% sure they weren’t her real friends.

I loved the one about this old lady, in the Deep South.  Being a Georgia girl, I thought you would like this one too.   Her voice was so rich and southern.  I wanted it to go all night long.  That sounds kind of weird, a double entendre, and no pun intended. And no, I’m not talking about sex, but she was.  Lord have mercy.

This was one of them shows that you could participate in and take snap shots if you wanted to.  No flash though, or some lady was going to come down and take your camera away.  And you could whop and holler all you wanted during the performance. Some did.  Some didn’t. I had a bad cough, so no hollering for me.  Don’t worry, I’m okay.

This was a user-friendly theatrical experience where they took you out at one point in the show to buy drinks and then escorted you back in, after you were a little high.  And while those folks left, we got to play some games.  But that didn’t work so well on this night.

I still didn’t understand why sex was such a mystery in our household.  Remember when you told Jim to tell me about the birds and the bees?  He took me out on the front steps and talked about corn.  Wow that was confusing – I hope that got a laugh out of you.

I always loved your laugh.

Anyway, I got the show, I got what they were trying to say and I learned a lot, not a lot about sex, but about women’s lives and their day-to-day living.  And here’s a reality, I really cared about these women, each and every one of them.

Overall some things worked to perfection, others, well, no so well.

I’ll tell you what I really liked was the thing that looked like a film, a woman and her diary. The character was a 40-year-old virgin (oops, an unmarried lady) looking for the right person and wasn’t that the ideal way to find love. It was a movie that was a book, about a girl and a guy, and getting naked.  Sorry.

Alexandra Meda was the director and there were so many things that were right about this production. 

I get it and it made me think. I think I understand what you went through, being a single mother with five kids. And the writers of this show tackled a lot of issues including domestic abuse and overcoming adversity in the face of grave dangers. And, you know, I don’t have to remind you about that. Family secrets.

I’m going to send you some pictures I took.  The women were really pretty and they were smart too and, in the end, I can’t help but wish them the best, in the same way that I wish my girls the best.

Ysaye McKeever did the choreography and was also an important part of the show, I mean look at those women dance! 

 Elizabeth Nungaray

Sorry, I didn’t write more often.  You know me and letters.

Anyway, I hope this letter finds you.  I miss your laugh, the way you’d throw your head back.  I catch myself doing that too.  

And I hope you can hear me whisper, “ I love you,” this one last time.


Run! And take someone, well why not make it your mother. 

Reservations:  866-811-4111