The Boondawgle Estate

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By Philip Pearce

I REALLY WANTED TO LIKE The Boondawgle Estate. It’s a farce that has just opened at The Western Stage, a company responsible for The Arsonists and The Liar, two of the best local comedy productions of the past five years. The cast includes six actors who’ve been giving outstanding stage performances for as long as I’ve been watching Monterey Peninsula theatre.

There’s the effervescent Pat Horsley (Nice Work if You Can Get It, Woody Guthrie) and the incisive Suzanne Sturn (The Clean House, The Cherry Orchard, All My Sons). With them are Mindy Pedlar (The Sound of Music at Western Stage and the superb Santa Cruz Seetheatre’s 1915 Copenhagen). There’s Anna Schumacher (a memorable Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret), Dale Thompson (a brilliant Curly in MPC’s recent Oklahoma!) and Bill Wolak (magnificent as the tragic Frank in A Song for My Father). These regulars are joined by three younger newcomers, Thomas Perry, Isabel Cruz and Peter Ray Juarez, who show purpose, energy and skill as farceurs.

With all that talent at work throughout the evening, what’s lacking? The answer, I’m afraid, is a good script.

For a play that had its first performance only last year in Santa Barbara, The Boondawgle Estate is a curiously old-fashioned product. It begins with a lengthy conversation between Perry and Cruz setting up the eccentric events to come and telling the audience facts they need to know before they meet the eccentric people who are going to initiate and carry out those events. It’s a lot of info to take on board and it isn’t helped by the fact that Perry, though physically and emotionally adept, sometimes speaks too quickly and too softly to be easily understood.

Program notes say playwright Peter McDonough loves cinema comedies of the 1930s and 1940s and his stage and cinema borrowings abound in Boondawgle. As in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) a literary hero and his lady love have to cope with some screwball maiden aunts. Cary Grant had only two, Entrance Overhill (Perry) has three, and unlike Arsenic’s pair of sweety-pie poisoners, Boondawgle’s Aunties Gertrude (Horsley), Edna (Sturn) and Mabel (Schumacher) are a sharp-clawed trio of self-willed middle class alleycats. As in Charley’s Aunt (1941), MacDonough finds a reason to have a main character (in his case Juarez as Entrance’s brother Exit) prance around in drag for a portion of the action. As in I Hate Hamlet (1991) the setting is a mansion once occupied by an important recently deceased character. Unlike John Barrymore, family patriarch Edward Boondawgle, MD never materializes permanently; he only glowers from occasional holograph wall images and from an irritable portrait which is like the patriarchal painting that features prominently in The Cat and the Canary (1944). As in that Bob Hope hit, the plot of The Boondawgle Estate centers in efforts to uncover the secret of which member or members of the family the old man has left his fortune to.

It’s fun sniffing out the old movie homages, but each of the stage and screen comedies McDonough selects to borrow from starts from an overriding plot mechanism and sticks doggedly to it right to the end of the movie, Jack and Charley must provide and maintain a fake lady chaperone in order to woo Kitty and Amy, Paul and Annabel must try different ploys to solve the mystery of the eyes which keep menacing Annabel  through a spooky portrait of her dead uncle, and Mortimer must decide what to do with a dozen corpses buried by his maiden aunts in their Brooklyn cellar. Boondawgle also starts from a far-fetched but controlling plot idea involving a search for hidden documents and a safe deposit key. But where the funny stuff that happens in his depression year models are logical results of the controlling ideas, Boondawgle trots out comedy sequences arbitrarily, like entre-act olio skits unrelated to the central story.

And they aren’t, at least in the eyes of one jaded audience member, as funny as the originals. Stuck-up fashion conscious Aunt Edna arouses scandal by putting on a pair of trousers, a decision that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in movie comedies as early as Theodora Goes Wild (1937). Aunt Mabel has a dual personality that lurches between Little Merry Sunshine and Cloris Leachman in Young Frankenstein. At one point, she leads a group rendition of a tweet-tweet-tweet nursery song, an arbitrary decision that raises some laughter but has nothing to do with the search for the missing will.

Another unrelated joke involves Jaurez, as Entrance’s histrionic and hypochondriac brother Exit, drinking what turns out to be a bottle of urine. Anyway, Juarez plays the role with an over-the-top assurance that’s impressive, unless you harbor any gay pride indignation at the script’s merry explosions of homophobia.

An actually funny though equally irrelevant piece of foolery is the fate of crosspatch Auntie Gertrude. She gets knocked cold by events I won’t try to describe or justify. Juarez and Perry then manage to keep staggering past other characters who, just by a hair, keep missing the fact that the brothers are lugging Horsley’s unconscious body to hiding places elsewhere in the house. Jeff McGrath’s direction skillfully handles these shifts and turns of action. I just wish he had better written material to deal with.

The Boondawgle Estate plays weekends through October 8th. If you go, you’ll see hard working effort by a good cast. It took quite a while, but there was laughter on opening night, so you might dismiss my words and give it a try.

Photo by Richard Green

All My Sons

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Photo by Steve DeBartolomeo

By Philip Pearce

ALL MY SONS  is still a stunning piece of American theater seventy years after it launched Arthur Miller’s distinguished playwriting career. In an early artistic manifesto, Miller declared he wanted to write plays “that would grab an audience by the throat and not release them, rather than presenting an emotion which you could observe and walk away from.” The new All My Sons at Jewel Theatre Company, Santa Cruz, does just that.

Like subsequent Miller master works, Death of a Salesman and The Price, it’s about human responsibility. What deceptions do we feed ourselves and others when we fail to take responsibility? What happens when people and events demand that we face up to our failures? As in all of his early body of work Miller focuses on the family as the immediate setting for this crisis of human obligation. But, like The CrucibleAll My Sons also reaches out beyond the home town and family of its likeable, everyday hero, forcing him to explore what he owes to the wider community and nation that have formed him and the family he loves.

One of many glories of the new Jewel production is Kent Dorsey’s brilliant scenic design, which forces us, even before the play begins, to make this leap of awareness above and beyond the folksy immediacy of the Keller family’s mid-Western back yard. The set’s hometown porch and doors, its windows and back lawn are covered not with a patina of Sherwin-Williams period colors but with a skin-tight wrapping of blown-up headlines from the troubled journalism of World War 2.

For the people who live in the house and yard, it all looks untroubled enough when the play starts. Allen Gilmore’s Joe Keller seems an outgoing, almost exuberantly sociable neighborhood figure. Then, in a chance piece of crime thriller horseplay with a neighborhood moppet named Bert—the personable Jake Miller the night I went—Joe and the boy agree that the Keller basement is now a jail full of imaginary crooks. This passing bit of backyard foolery sparks an immediate angry eruption from Joe’s wife Kate (Nancy Carlin) and we gradually learn that factory-owner Joe has had his own brief stay in a real prison. Accused of selling faulty warheads to the U.S. Army, he’s been exonerated on a claim he was ill the day of the shady transaction. But he has returned home, leaving his neighbor and business partner Steve Deever to serve time for the crime.

Joe’s trial and brief imprisonment may be topics Kate avoids but it’s a different matter when it comes to the fate of their two sons. Chris (in a fine performance by Tommy Gorrebeeck), has returned from wartime active duty; his elder brother Larry hasn’t. Missing in action for three years, Larry is presumed dead by everyone but the emotionally sensitive Kate. She homes in feverishly on newspaper reports of miraculous returns of long-missing war veterans, seeks signs in nature and horoscope readings to shore up her obsession that Larry is still alive.

These cracks in the surface of the Kellers’ domestic peace deepen dangerously when Chris announces that he plans to propose marriage to their former next-door neighbor Ann Deever, who is not only the daughter of Joe’s imprisoned business partner, but the fiancée of the missing war hero Larry.

Art Manke directs the cast of nine with precision and passion. They project emotion with an assured power you might expect in a Greek tragedy. Characters function as parts of an overriding theme, but, true to Miller’s text, they are always recognizable humans, never predictable one-note stage ideologues.

As the obsessed Kate, Carlin never loses touch with the woman’s warm-hearted underlying motherhood. She keeps insisting that Larry has to return because having him back is the secret, risky scaffolding that holds together her commitment to her family and her culpable spouse.

In the central demanding role of Joe, Gilmore is a challenge and a surprise. He is an actor who catches the spark of a reaction or a burst of feeling with such a quick sensitivity and moves with such an athletic ease that he is a very different guy from solider patriarchal Joe Kellers I have seen in other productions. The youth and immediacy of his approach often make his encounters with Tommy Gorrebeeck’s intense and idealistic Chris seem more like the clash of siblings than the conflict of a father with his son. But you can’t stop liking everything he does or watching him move, listen and respond to others with such adroit clarity.

Sierra Jolene is a beautiful, strong and coherent Ann. In many ways the play’s most courageous character, she holds a secret that sparks the final explosion of tragic truth. Brian Smolin is effectively scary and puzzling in a white-faced second-act appearance as her indignant, brooding brother George. Down to the smallest supporting role the cast tell the story with a thoroughness and commitment that deserves bouquets all around.

Trudging back to the parking lot, I crossed paths with two fellow patrons who professed themselves “stunned” by what they had just seen. It’s that kind of play and production.

It continues at the Colligan through October 1st.