Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King
an original play by Andrew Dolan
Directed by Rod Menzies
and presented by Ensemble Studio Theatre of Los Angeles

The writer of this premiere I think might appreciate the following sentiment, as I've seen it often in LA: a play about social issues will typically get a great review or a pass by reviewers simply because it's about social issues relevant to our time and place. Issues do not make a play great. Likewise, simply attempting to turn an issue on it's head does not make a play great. The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King is an incredibly well produced play. The acting is top notch, the direction is very competent and inventive, the set, lighting and sound design are some of the most professional I've seen in LA, the writing is intelligent, clever and involving. My first time seeing a show at EST Los Angeles, and I'm without a doubt impressed. In spite of all of this, the show itself falls short of being great. It has all the necessary elements, but doesn't quite know how to piece them together to make them impactful or to create a relevant whole.

This is a play about the anger and honesty of the misunderstood white man and the people who assume he's racist because of it. Great! It's as provocative as the title, kind of. It pretends to be as provocative as the title, which honestly didn't provoke me that much. I'll explain. The main character, Simon (Philip Casnoff), male, white, late 40's, the voice of the play is a supposed provocateur; a professor that lost tenure for writing his request for tenure in crayon simply to make a point. He's hyper-intelligent, more so than those surrounding him, and has the ego of a God. The play asks us if he's a tragic character. A character asks him this at the end, he dreams that he is, a cleverly created Greek chorus implies that he might be. But the only mistake he makes throughout the show is that he's a prick. He cares so passionately about what he believes that he doesn't allow for any other opinions to be relevant. Okay, so that makes him a prick, but it doesn't make him wrong in what he believes. It doesn't make him uncaring or inhuman. The tragedy here is that people are so ingrained with what they are told to believe that any dissent from that or anyone who asks a question putting those beliefs under scrutiny is immediately thrown on the fire and thought of as evil or racist - the type of arguments I see thrown around on Facebook all the time. Great. Outstanding point. An appropriate critique of the world and how it works. But having a great point also does not make for a great play. Stay with me...

The writer, Andrew Dolan, sets Simon up with a younger black wife, a bright student of his, Lashwana (Tracey A. Leigh), who is not afraid to tell him he's full of shit. It's why he's attracted to her. Her brother Anquan (Theo Parks) has been put on probation from school for stealing an iPod from another student - I will take the leap and buy that (You get the feeling this is a very conservative, politically correct college campus.) - and is staying with them, because he doesn't want to go back to his family living in a rough part of town. They have invited over one of Simon's fellow ex-teachers Augustus (Carlos Cassasco) and his wife Janine (Judith Moreland), both of whom are black, and for reasons that really have no emotional relevance to the story - it's simply a reason to get them all in the same room. You have one white man espousing his ideas of the black culture and where that culture is at and what the real problem is while surrounded by black people. Both sides have valid arguments. Simon is willing at times to admit this and even apologize for his candidness and anger; the other four are not willing in any way to admit that Simon has valid points because he is, after all, white.

The first half of the play was exceptional, it handles all of this with competence, wit, heart and fire. Here's where the play loses me: Yes, Simon is white, but he's quick to point out that he was a social worker for nine years in a poor, black neighborhood. That's it. The play leaves it at that. That's as much as we get to know about Simon and why he is the way he is. Mr. Casnoff, along with no doubt excellent direction, fills in the blanks beautifully, bringing a level of dimension to the character that is not in the writing, as do the other performers. But that's the problem, through the writing we never get to know who these characters are. In the end it's literally black and white. The joy of seeing O'Neill, Shephard is that we not only get to the heart of the theme or argument, but we get to see the hearts of the characters exposed. Not just their ire or passion, but why it exists. In the end, while I understand Simon's arguments, I don't understand Simon, and that can be said for all of the characters in this show, except for Anquan. He has the fewest lines in the play, yet we see who he is in the beginning, we hear why he is that way, and we see how the events in the play effect or don't effect him. He is a fully developed character with a clear arch. It doesn't take much. For Simon, all it would have taken is a few more brush strokes, what happened to him during those 9 years as a social worker, but we're left to guess. And because we have to guess, the drama of the show suffers. Yes, there are still incredibly effective moments throughout, brought on by intelligent and creative directing and palpable performances, but we're only allowed to see shadows of who these people are, and never truly begin to understand them.

The biggest problem with the play is the macguffin, the book itself that Simon writes and publishes, "The Many Wives of Martin Luther King". I cannot begin to tell you what the purpose of it was or why Simon wrote it, except to provoke his readers, but I don't buy that. There's too much passion instilled in Simon for that to be true. Maybe he's simply tired of a single train of thought that really isn't getting us anywhere, so he's shaking the boat, much like Andrew Dolan is trying to do. So delve into that. Don't simply allow Simon to tells us what he thinks is wrong, but let us hear those outlandish ideas about what should be done about it, something that could really, truly get him in trouble for saying. Instead we get to hear an argument that's familiar. Dolan doesn't give the audience credit in this regard; he's not the first to make this argument. In the end, like Simon, Dolan has forgotten the hearts of the people he's writing about, who they are as individuals. They shouldn't exist on the page and on stage just to make a point.

In spite of these drawbacks, there is much to like about the production, particularly as I've mentioned the layered performances, the beautifully written, often funny and striking dialogue and the atmospheric and balanced direction. Some of the hopping around in time killed a little of the emotional continuity - a minor complaint. No doubt Dolan has talent as a writer, I hope with his next piece he works on the core of the characters as much as he does the thesis of the argument. Until that happens, the arguments presented remain slightly convoluted and in the end lacking a level of thoughtfulness and weight.

The Many Mistresses of Martin Luther King. Written by Andrew Dolan. Directed by Rod Menzies. March 17 - April 29, 2012. Fri + Sat 8pm, Sun 2pm and 7pm.

Ensemble Studio Theatre of Los Angeles, 3269 Casitas Avenue Los Angeles, CA 90039. (323) 644-1929. For more info: ensemblestudiotheatrela.org


Jason Rohrer said...

Sir, I love your MMMLK review. I do not agree with all of it, but I am always relieved and gratified to read literate, considered commentary. Thank you for exemplifying the best of Los Angeles theater writing.

Phillip said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phillip said...

Mr. Rohrer,

Thank you for taking the time to read and I appreciate the compliment!

The writer spent so much time giving life and intelligence to this show, I'd be remiss not to approach with the same level of care and insight he's provided.

I don't necessarily agree with the bittersweet that Bitter Lemons tagged to my review. Although I had my issues, I thought there was more to like about the show, much more that resonated, than did not. It's something people should go see for themselves, as not everyone has considered race in the same way that I have. The show, in that way, is a bit of a Rorschach Test. I guess that's why Ebert hates the star ratings he's forced to give his reviews.

It may not be the venue, but I'd be curious what you didn't agree with, if it was on a sociological level or a show level.

Best regards,