(Santa Monica, CA - March 20, 2010) Santa Monica Playhouse is the only theater company in Los Angeles that has continually produced shows for both young audiences and adults, nonstop for 50 years. In its rich history it has been first in Los Angeles to champion Jewish musicals, the works of Eugene Ionesco, father of Theater of the Absurd, as well as ongoing summer theater workshops for youth. The diverse offerings include not only plays and workshops, but also concerts, solo shows, standup comedy, jazz music festivals, film festivals, classic silent movie presentations, and dance performances.
For the past 16 years, much of this success, I am sure, comes from the energetic and enthusiastic work of its public relations director, Sandra Zeitzew. The theater finds itself in its anniversary season just at a time of dwindling economic resources. Zeitzew is helping the playhouse weather difficult times by increasing rather than cutting back on its contributions to the community.
Black Hole, written and directed by Peggy O'Brien, is part of the benefit series the theater is conducting to raise funds. The play is a workshop production looking to move to the next level. It's also a showcase with an opportunity to use the facilities of the theater and in turn support the theater with the price of admission.
This production is a great community and youth booster. O'Brien is the drama chair at Crossroads School in Santa Monica, where she directs and teaches. Three cast members come from her Drama Conservatory program there. The genesis of Black Hole was an actual incident that happened at Crossroads. It's the all too familiar news story about a teen fatality caused by a youthful driving accident. The driver survives and his best friend doesn't. The play expands the issues of coping with loss to include the local community and asks us all to examine the hole left by a life interrupted.
O'Brien was able to attract well-known TV and theater stars, including lead actress Belita Moreno, Broadway veteran and teacher, and perhaps best known for her recent six-year run as the pugnacious "Benny" on ABC's George Lopez. She plays Barbara Davenport, the mother of the deceased youth. She grieves throughout most of the play. She especially can't let go of her rage against her son's friend Chris (played masterfully by the young Jack Quaid). She develops a friendly acquaintance with a bookstore clerk ( Linda Kelly) whom she meets regularly for lunch, and with whom she can pretend that her son is still alive.
But with Barbara's own husband (Broadway veteran Ray Baker) or her daughter (the very talented Liz Nolan), she is unable to feel any joy and shuts down emotionally. She is even less open with her girlfriends ( Jamy Myatt and Colleen Tate). Her low tones are occasionally lifted by a welcome wisecrack. I couldn't help but chuckle at the "Benny" overtones when she gossips, or proclaims, "Death becomes me" and "there's nothing better for the figure than death." A few more witty and lighthearted moments could probably serve the piece well, add more color, and enhance the sad and heavy moments.
Barbara's scenes are interspersed with flashbacks of Chris and her son David
( Garrett Baer) as well as Chris conversing with David's ghost. David also interacts with their mutual heartthrob Jocelyn ( Sara Worth). Theirs has been a jovial and intimate friendship from their early childhood. The sweet-hearted David encourages Chris, whose life is tanking fast since the accident. Chris is weighted down by loneliness, guilt and regret.
The only thing that saves Chris and Barbara from falling deeper into a "black hole" is when, despite her best efforts to avoid him, they finally meet. Barbara lashes out at Chris and Chris welcomes the lashing, as nothing could make him feel worse about himself than he already does. When Barbara finally realizes the parallel hell he is living in, it brings a release and healing to her. The two end up hugging and sharing macaroons. The scene is about eighty percent there. I would like to see more made of this climax. It is a touching moment, and I would like to see the transitions more fully explored. The play is a work in progress, and it may receive a full production at another theater, so I am hoping O'Brien will revisit this crucial scene.
Hats off to the Santa Monica Playhouse. In this town where actors of this caliber are often busy doing more commercial fare, here is a roll-your-sleeves-up developing work in which both stars and up-and-coming actors can show off their chops.
Santa Monica Playhouse Benefit Series
All proceeds benefit the Save the Santa Monica Playhouse Campaign
Santa Monica Playhouse
1211 4th Street
Santa Monica, CA 90401
For tickets call (310) 394-9779 ext. 1
or buy online
Georja Umano is an actress/comedienne and animal advocate.
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.
Photo courtesy Santa Monica Playhouse