Historic Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., NoHo | Through March 25 | Tickets $25 | roadtheatre.org
In its L.A. premiere, prolific playwright Ty DeMartino’s family drama Finding Fossils is a well-intentioned, if not sober affair that will certainly appeal to a mass audience—most notably straight people over 50.
The story about an elderly, widowed father whose gay soap-opera director son comes to visit him at the family cabin—the play deals with the estrangement between the two and the secrets they have both been hiding.
Vincent Monterelli (John Gowans) is an active old guy who lost his wife about a year prior to the events of the play. Having brought her to the cabin to die, he seems hopelessly connected to the place, but still content to be there. Spending his days drinking whiskey and playing cards, Vincent is stuck in his ways and pragmatic in his opinions.
Enter his son Gus (Chet Grissom), an earnest 40-something New Yorker with a husband and adopted child on the way. A bit pretentious in his materialistic preferences, he has enough of a nostalgic bent to keep him coming back home. Of course, there’s also the matter of guilt. You see, Gus promised his dying mother he’d take care of Vincent. The problem is—the two have never gotten along. Vincent is continually passive/aggressive (focus on the aggressive) and Gus knows how to endlessly push Vincent’s buttons. It takes about a minute and a half before the two are already needling each other. The play’s central question is if the two will ever come to terms with accepting who each other are—and if they can get to that point without killing each other.
It’s an oft-seen relationship and certainly relatable. The problem is that both characters are in many ways, unlikeable. Vincent has moments of humor, but for the most part he’s a crotchety drunk who repeatedly disrespects his son’s life choices. Gus, on the other hand, is so grossly sincere he comes across as a bit of a whiner. He has legitimate reasons for being upset with his father and how he was raised, but he tries to make up for that with hypersensitive self-importance. This makes both characters vaguely annoying and as a result, they are both upstaged with the arrival of their neighbor Johnny (Mark Costello), a jovial 50-something single man who spends his days caring for a chronically ill mother. Not only is he good-natured and accepting, he becomes the only voice of reason in the show. In fact, he has the best scene in the entire play when he finally tells Gus how to deal with his father and why.
Finding Fossils has its heart in the right place, but it’s really a theater piece for older straight people who will see themselves in Vincent and find Gus’ plight “edgy.” For gay audiences, they might relate to the family dynamic, but Gus comes across as a jumble of “modern gay man living in New York City” stereotypes. He’s a bit too affected for us to care about, and Vincent is too stalwart for us to hope he’ll come around.
The one thing that might have pushed the play into brilliance would be to have cut the last scene. After Johnny and Gus have their talk about Vincent, there is an original moment here that would have ended the play on a downbeat note, but would probably have been one of the more profound endings we’ve seen in a long time. Instead we go a more typical route—still harshly downbeat—but almost unnecessary in giving the audience closure.
While the actors are all fine, Costello shines as Johnny and wins over the audience with his charm and naturalistic performance. The set by Desma Murphy—with its intricate and nicely detailed porch setting and woodsy exterior—is lovely. And special kudos to the sound designer (Christopher Moscatiello) who kept sound effects realistic and not distracting. —Kevin P. Taft
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf
The Lyric Theatre, 520 N. La Brea Ave., L.A. | Through March 17 | Tickets $20 | lyrictheatrela.com
Since Ntozake Shange’s seminal “choreopoem” about the crushing limitations of gender and race debuted in 1976, we’ve seen African-American women serve as secretary of state and first lady, and we’ve seen Oprah rule the world. It is that much more notable and alarming to discover how relevant this searing series of poetic monologues remains when presented by an ensemble as capable and committed as the seven women performing under the nimble and nuanced direction of J.C. Gafford in this powerful Lyric Theatre production.
When first presented at New York’s Public Theatre (followed by a 1977 Broadway transfer), Shange’s idiosyncratic piece was hailed for its brutal honesty and, in backlashes, decried as a hopeless man-bashing exercise. The truth lies somewhere between, as seven women, identified only by different colors of the rainbow, share stories—sometimes their own, sometimes about others—with the common thread being the emotional and physical brutality suffered at the hands of black men, be they husbands, lovers, neighbors or friends. “Betrayed by men who know us,” the women recite in an unsettling sequence on rape.
Gafford has guided his cast to be fearless and free, and with minimal props or costumes, they create indelible characters and even whole worlds. Shange’s material is not easy, and the more skilled actors fare best. Yvette Saunders’ Lady in Blue is a standout, delighting us as a young woman who pretends to be part Puerto Rican with dreams of meeting Nuyorican salsa sensation Willie Colon, and later shattering us when she faces a cold, lonely abortion. In a work that offers tantalizingly frequent opportunities for actresses to cry, Mystic Galloway’s delicate Lady in Yellow finds wonderfully surprising alternatives, exploding in organic laughter at unexpected moments. And Darlene Bel Grayson’s ample and expressive Lady in Red nearly walks off with the whole show, hilarious as a no-nonsense Hoover Street hooker and heartbreaking in acting out an extended tale of domestic violence that is the piece’s devastating climax.
Josh Shaw’s stylized urban-decay set provides plenty of staging choices in the Lyric’s challengingly wide but shallow space. Music, movement and dance enliven and punctuate the tales, with Derf Recklaw providing welcome live embellishment to the recorded music. And when the women of varied sizes, ages and dance abilities explode in exuberant physical celebration of their individual sensuality, it is an inspiring display of self-acceptance that many of us—particularly in WeHo’s image-driven gay community—could learn from. —Christopher Cappiello