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‘Café Society’ at the Odyssey…

Is it real or is it Starbucks?

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Here you have reviews of two shows The Princes of Kings Road at the Neutra Institute Museum and Gallery, and Café Society at the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. I suggest you read them jointly as both function in revealing the strengths and flaws of the other. Along the way I promise to disclose some secrets to success in tackling theatrical productions and will share as well perhaps more L.A. history than you would expect. But if you’re game, then push on brave reader!

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Well, I regret to say that I feel it necessary to take up my great big nasty critic bat with the words carved deep into its solid oak “This Machine Kills Fascists – And Mediocrity” then use it to bash Peter Lefcourt’s Café Society into itty-bitty bits.

Take The Time of Your Life, Kennedy’s Children, Dog Day Afternoon, ball them up, squeeze out any originality, insight or nuance, stir in a heaping handful of lifeless comedic “husks,” carefully remove all dramatic logic or characterization, then place briefly in the oven before serving half baked.

There you have the recipe for Mr. Lefcourt’s latest work now at the Odyssey.

Set in a Los Angeles Starbuck’s, Mr. Lefcourt populates his well-worn and uninspired story with a menagerie of characters so cardboard you almost expect to pour Wheaties out of them: The ditzy actress, the Lothario screenwriter, the pushy Portfolio Manager CEO, the pushy real estate agent, the tacked on black guy to show how liberal the writer is, the obligatory crazy street person (because we all know how funny they are), and the brooding loner whose lashing out at the world because he’s crying inside.

Mr. Lefcourt has chosen some great targets to ramp up his audience with – Globalization, the multi-national pashadoms’ stranglehold on politics, viral corporate greed, but he fails to infuse his targets with real substance.

He touches on the threat posed to small business by globalization, rants some about Howard Schultz and the 22,551 Starbucks world wide but it ends there.

He’s not taken the time to delve into this subject resulting in a presentation that’s entirely surface. No mention of Globalization facilitating the spread of infectious disease or its potential to impede development of less economically stable countries.

No mention either of the benefits of globalization, such as operating as a disincentive to war (Trading partners don’t bomb each other.)

Mr. Lefcourt doesn’t set up an intelligent threat or believable impediment for any of his characters to fight against, not even a half way decent windmill; because Mr. Lefcourt’s play has no real conflicts, no legitimate character arcs, no plot points, no…well, just no all the way around.

Because everything on stage has been put there by Mr. Lefcourt as a spring board for his jokes, sitting in the audience is like watching someone take pot shots at a fat fish in a small bucket.

And still missing.

The play comes across like the first draft of a Love American Style episode, one that isn’t worth a re-write. Painfully clumsy writing, smothered by smug “cuteness” and dispensing such fresh bon mots as, “What am I chop liver?”

I’ve seen an earlier work by Mr. Lefcourt, The Assassination of Leon Trotsky – A Comedy of which the title was the sole redeeming feature. That production was directed by Terri Hanauer (Mrs. Lefcourt), who takes on that responsibility here as well.

My last encounter with Ms. Hanauer was The Trip Back Down which she mounted for the Whitefire Theatre. Both of these shows were plagued by self-conscious blocking, a pacing all but calcified and a tendency to fall back on technical accouterments as a means to compensate for an overall lack of directorial flair.

There is in Café Society an attempt at technical razzle-dazzle as well, by projecting cell phone calls, Facebook pages and text messaging on the over head menus above the counter.

But rather than serving to counterpoint pertinent points in the play, the projections were ill timed to the action on stage coming up too soon or too late. Worst, still, they underscored when an actor went up on their lines.

It was not a bad idea; however, like the rest of the show, it was feebly executed.

Now normally, when coming across a show as dire as this, I do the decent thing, and simply ignore it.

Life is too short to write bad reviews.

But Café Society I’m afraid touches a nerve within me.

Okay, by “touch” I mean “pounds it repeatedly with a hammer.”

You see, Café Society is not the work of some young tyro.

Mr. Lefcourt, according to the program notes, is a successful television writer and producer (Beggars & Choosers and Desperate Housewives.)

Now being a playwright is a pursuit fraught with problems, but when you happen to be a successful-television-writer-producer-playwright there is an additional and extremely daunting problem dropped into the stew.

It is the flip side of that most indisputable dictum concerning the film industry coined by
William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.”

Which is: Nobody will tell you the truth.

The audience I sat with through Café Society seemed to enjoy the show quite a bit, and the house was full. Now some were likely friends of the cast, some friends or professional colleagues of Lefcourt and Hanauer. Meeting with the playwright in the foyer after the closing curtain, I’m sure the critiques and appraisals were diplomatic. And being as the industry is a massive “Puppet Mill” for pumping out the worst breed of obsequious little toadies no doubt the lickspittles were there in force gushing out their praise.

And of course there would be some in the house who genuinely liked the show. Probably the type of folks who think it’s amazing how Gilligan’s Island just gets funnier every time you watch it.

But there is a final pronouncement in these matters, something I like to call “The-Ikearney-Twoness-Matic.”

Well actually it’s just me and my wife Marlene.

Marlene, you need to know, brings sunshine into any room with her smile. She is intoxicated by the arts, and places creative types slightly above the rest of us. Marlene is a great audience, sincere and enthusiastic. Just about every show we see, Marlene loves.

Myself now, I am somewhat jaded, and have been known to squish the sunshine straight outta a room just by setting foot in it. I’m the hard one to please, and generally, “don’t” love every show.

Marlene is wonderful to have by me when reviewing. She brings me balance.

Sometimes, not too often, but not too seldom either, we’ll see a show which we both love, and the world is a happier place for it.

Sometimes we see a show we both hate.

Café Society we both hated. Really hated.

In a show like this the cast is difficult to judge. You rate the breed by how well they take the hurdle, as an equestrian would tell you. Same in theatre. Same in life, really. You need to see how well they take a “hurdle,” but if there are none in a flat script…you see the problem.

Cafe Society-play

Ian Patrick Williams, Eric Myles Geller, Nick Cobey, Donathan Walters, Susan Diol, Chandra Lee Schwartz (photo by Ed Krieger)

  I will give nods to Nick Coby, who manages honest moments in a near vacuum of sincerity on stage, and to Ian Patrick Williams.

Mr. Williams has some sand, and set the tone of his performance adeptly.

Mr. Williams also deserves a heartfelt thank you from all the Los Angeles theatre community.

Like The ProVisional Theatre, Paul Kent, Thaddeus Taylor, Daryl Larson, Richmond Sheppard, J.F. Smith and his Déjà vu, ZAZ and the Kentucky Fried Theater, Tim Robbins and the Actors’ Gang, Bert Smith, Ron Sossi, and Ye Little Club (thanks Joan); Mr. Williams was in at the beginning of the revitalization of theatre in L.A.

Mr. Williams co-authored and appeared in Bleacher Bums.

(I pause here for the collective “huh?” to subside, as I sadly shake my head.)

Along with Joe Mantegna, Stuart Gordon and Dennis Franz and other members of Chicago’s Organic Theater Company Mr. Williams collaborated on a play called Bleacher Bums. This wise cracking little comedy was a hit in Chicago, and soon it made its way out to L.A. opening on April 24, 1980 at the Century City Playhouse. It would run there for the next eleven years, making it one of the longest running shows in L.A. theatre. (I believe the Odyssey now holds that record for Kvetch.)

But Mr. Williams’ presence does nothing to save this play.

What condemns this production is a deficiency of deliberation and commitment.

No thought, at least no deep thoughts, seem to have been given to this effort.

Yet those behind this presentation are industry professionals.

I have not seen Desperate Housewives but have been told by some it was grand fare, and it was certainly successful.

So what’s the deal with Café Society?

Did they approach the undertaking as easy” as compared to the “real” work of television? If so, it certainly shows.

Café Society is empty of that center; which is achieved by long hours of deliberation, at a desk staring at small wads of crumbled paper overflowing a stylish wired waste bin; a process which takes commitment.

I don’t believe anything about Café Society.

I don’t believe Ms. Hanauer knows her way around a stage.

I don’t believe one character or line of dialogue in his play.

I don’t believe he’s given one hour serious thought to his argument.

The play even leads me to believe he’s never set foot in a Starbucks.

And I know he doesn’t understand the difference between “libel” and “slander.”

In the end nothing remains to be said except, “It is a pity when talent gathers and nothing fine results.”

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Café Society Runs
Thu, Aug 20 – Sun, Oct 11
Friday/Sat @ 8pm
Sun @ 2pm
Sun @ 7pm (Oct 4 & 11)
Show Calendar

Special Events:
NOW 2 added Sunday night performances!
Oct 4th and 11th at 7pm!!

Special Show Info
Running time: 90 minutes.

Odyssey Theatre
2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90025
Ample Street Parking
Area Map

For more Info and Reservations: (323) 960-1055

Official Website: www.odysseytheatre.com

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Written by

An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, Among the Vipers was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist three times in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest's stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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