Smart as a Pistil

Flower Power: Hunter Foster with baby Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors.Photo: Paul Kolnik

Ontogenesis, we were taught, repeats phylogenesis—or, if you’ve been out of school too long, the development of the individual organism reiterates the evolution of the species. It now seems that phytogenesis, plant evolution, replicates theatrogenesis. Meaning that the puny, scruffy plant of Little Shop of Horrors that evolves into a huge, tentacular carnivore reflects the history of this cutesy, campy musical that went from a small Off Broadway show to a big Off Broadway show, and now, 21 years later, takes over a vast Broadway house.

Where will it end?

Audrey II, as the plant-protagonist is called, feeds on blood and eats humans. What does that reflect? Well, the original director and cast of this revival were similarly devoured on its journey to Broadway, and it emerges, recast and redirected, with clear ambition to eat up Hairspray, which plays across the street. Based on a no-account Roger Corman horror movie, the 1982 Howard Ashman (book and lyrics) and Alan Menken (music) show, after its initial success at the tiny WPA Theatre, progressed to the spacious Orpheum for 2,209 performances. How long it will last now, and what competitors ingest, remains to be seen.

Visible already is that the so-so lyrics and even more so-so tunes don’t matter much as long as the performers are sanguine and the plant sanguinary enough. Re-created (with the Jim Henson Workshop) and manipulated by its original designer, Martin P. Robinson, and robustly voiced by the bass Michael-Leon Wooley, Audrey II is both comic and creepy, and finally truly menacing, as you may find out for yourselves, if you survive. The cast, headed by Hunter Foster, Kerry Butler, Rob Bartlett, and Douglas Sills in a number of kitschy roles, is good enough to eat from top to bottom. Scott Pask (sets), William Ivey Long (costumes), and Donald Holder (lights) do tastily under Jerry Zaks’s zesty direction. Kathleen Marshall’s choreography is sufficient, and the show, though without redeeming social or even botanical value, manages to be chuckably esurient.

Finally, finally, a real play! Not just half-baked or unbaked prattle that pretends to playdom (see below). This is Lisa Loomer’s Living Out, where writing, directing, acting, and design come excitingly and memorably together. It is, at first glance, about the problems of a Hispanic nanny, Ana, and her employer, Nancy, an attorney. About their troubled relationship, and how they overcome mistrust and social barriers, but then … It is about Nancy’s marriage to Richard Robin, a public defender who makes less money than she does but would like her to stay at home more with their infant daughter, Jenna, and him. Just as Ana’s husband, Bobby Hernandez, who has a hard time finding employment, would still prefer Ana, a mother, to work less, certainly not overtime, only . . .

There are magisterially parallel scenes between the two marriages, and about parent-child relations: Ana hasn’t seen her elder boy, back in El Salvador with his great-grandmother, in eight years, or her younger son, here in L.A., play soccer, what with all her overtime. Richard bickers with Nancy about her long trips as an entertainment lawyer, also about money problems, as do Ana and Bobby.

By a bold but germane and effective device, the Robin and Hernandez apartments share the same space, so that two sets of actions, with striking similarities and differences, overlap. No less thrilling are the parallels on a park bench where, alternatingly, Nancy and two upscale young mothers, and Ana and two fellow Hispanic nannies, take turns sitting and gossiping.

This, ultimately, is a play about existential resemblances and contrasts, kinships and irreconcilables, uncomfortable truths and futile lies that underlie delicate relationships and unbridgeable chasms. It is all made special by the author’s talent for understatement, suggestion, lacerating implication—leaving things eloquently unsaid yet shadowingly present. The struggle of illegal immigrants for papers, of spouses to understand each other, of the affluent and impecunious to coexist are all here; the play is a marvelously witty comedy that seamlessly turns serious and, in the end, even tragic.

Loomer, with the help of her director, Jo Bonney, has devised brilliant ways of playing with space and time so as to make the seemingly distinct flow into provocative fusion. Even the way English and Spanish intermingle is telling, but what registers most profoundly is the contradictoriness of the human condition with all its ploys and pitfalls, humor and heartbreak.

The principals, Kathryn Meisle (Nancy) and Zilah Mendoza (Ana), are superb, as are Gary Perez (Bobby) and the droll Joseph Urla (Richard); but so, too, are all the others: the hilarious Liza Colón-Zayas, Judith Hawking, Kelly Coffield Park. Add Bonney’s masterly directorial touches, and Neil Patel’s streamlined yet cunning scenery, and you’ve got yourself an evening to reinvigorate your dwindling faith in the power of theater.

We have had some plays about dinner parties lately, but Omnium Gatherum is the first about a dinner party in hell—or is it merely the hellish world we have made for ourselves to live, or partly live, in? The play carefully cultivates that ambiguity, although it eventually oversteps the boundary into allegory, and allegories, as Mrs. Malaprop has informed us, belong on the banks of the Nile.

The authors, Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, have assembled paradigmatic diners: a typical ditzy American foodie and hostess; a brashly cantankerous American novelist; a cynical, half-Jewish, British Cambridge graduate; a firefighter hero of the Twin Towers; an eccentric feminist and vegan; an edgy, proto-intellectual black woman; one philosophical, pacific, elderly Arab, who drinks wine; and one hate-filled young Arab terrorist, who doesn’t. How much more omnium can a gatherum get? Fancy food pops up from unexpected places without benefit of visible servants, muted explosions are heard from afar, ominous helicopters thunder above the socially charged and politically contentious conversation, which periodically uses the word hell.

It is well designed (David Rockwell), costumed (Junghyun Georgia Lee), and lit (Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer). Also sassily directed by Will Frears, jovially caricatured by seven cast members, and horribly hammed up by the eighth (Kristine Nielsen) as the Martha Stewart–ish hostess. Omnium Gatherum is the classical dance on top of the volcano reconfigured as dinner under the helicopters. It is sporadically funny, intermittently irritating, and finally too contrived. Trying too hard to be symbolic and trendily allusive, it collapses under the weight of its ambitions.

Herewith a dozen salient features of Recent Tragic Events by Craig Wright, a non-comedy that gratuitously exploits the 9/11 disaster. (1) Preposterous coincidence. (2) Unbelievable characters. (3) Unfunny jokes. (4) Uninspired direction by Michael John Garcés that doesn’t subtract only because you can’t subtract from zero. (5) Actors who may or may not be incompetent—hard to assess in a hopeless piece, although Kalimi A. Baxter, playing the stage manager, is indisputably obnoxious. (6) What action there is, is kept offstage. (7) Attempts at fancy theatrical devices that remain stubbornly adventitious. (8) Pretentious pseudo-discussions of free will, presumably a remnant of Wright’s having formerly obtained a degree in divinity. (9) Dialogue to bore the pants off you even if (10) the play were not stretched out beyond endurance. (11) Joyce Carol Oates performed as a poorly manipulated sock puppet. (12) Cravenness: The claim that this is not the, but another, Joyce Carol Oates.

Smart as a Pistil