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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Beggars in the House of Plenty
The first act is a vivid collage of family events: the marriage of Sheila; the return of sailor Joey; the visit of aunt and nun Sister Mary Kate. All occur simultaneously in an absurdist style, seen through the eyes of Johnny, a five-year-old in a Davy Crockett hat and PJs played by an adult and sometimes speaking in adult vocabulary.
The characters speak the subtext, expressing feelings little Johnny picks up. While Sheila in her wedding dress is painting Johnny's face she cheerfully tells him "I'll have my husband Ray and my own children. And when you come and see us, I won't care about you very much."
The boys, in terror of their father, a bullying butcher, fruitlessly look to their shrewish mother for love. Johnny gets no support from his hero brother Joey who is so traumatized by the father that he threatens to beat Johnny up if he's disrespectful to this monstrous Pop.
Joey becomes a dissolute loser. Johnny's not in much better shape, having been kicked out of everything from kindergarten to college, "doin' stuff" like setting fires, breaking windows, stealing, and, oh, yes, he "hadda problem with lyin'." It's Johnny, with language at his disposal, who rages, "I have licked water off the underside of every leaf in this fucking desert" and, finally, goaded beyond endurance by Joey's fantasies, screams "I'm gonna make it! No matter what I have to do! And that scares me."
Act II takes place in the basement of Joey and Johnny's old house which looks like an ante-room of hell and where Joey lies curled up in a fetal position and Johnny evokes the dead. The first ghost is his father, striding out of the red glow of the boiler room like a demon or "some kinda Celtic rampaging fuckhead." This gives Johnny no clues to his father's secrets but does make him realize that he is frightened " Because of what's in me!" When he tells the ghost of his father "I will never think of you without being shocked by your lovelessness!" the ghostly father reminds him of a rare moment of kindness when he gave Johnny his ring -- but ultimately there's no answer to the mystery of Pop. Johnny's mother appears next as a pretty young woman in a dance dress and tells him she gave him "the only decent thing she had to give." She tries to dance with Joey but it's too late and the play ends with a powerful climax and the lasting sorrow of children who were beggars in the house of the plenteous love their parents gave only to each other and victims of their father's high expectations. The image is reminiscent of Ronald and Nancy Reagan with their exclusive romantic love.
This dark play is saved from utter sorrow by Shanley's gifts of humor, poetry and originality, as well as the resonant performance of Eddie Jones as Pop. His Irish brogue is flawless and Jones builds elements of Irish charisma into his monster that demonstrate why Pop is such a force to his wife and children. Johnny Clark holds the stage in the difficult task of portraying a very young Johnny and Jeffrey Stubblefield projects pity and terror in the more nuanced role of Joey. Annie Abbott plays the shrewish Ma who inspires both desire and apprehension in her sons without losing any of her irritating hypochondria Kimberly-Rose Wolter's Sheila evokes a porcelain ballerina on a music box which seems to be the way the men in her family see her and Amanda Carlin is a pungent Sister Mary Kate, the character who appears to represent the cheerfully implacable Catholic influence.
After a somewhat slow first act, the production picked up and director Anita Khanzadian found an ironic blend between its realistic and surreal qualities. John G. Williams' set follows the family from an old shabby house to a new house with 1960s décor to the dank cellar where Johnny tries literally to get to the bottom of his family's behavior. Carol Doehring's lighting design defines the dream world and the real world. In a recent interview for LA Stage, John Patrick Shanley told me, "Although all my plays are illuminated by my sensibility, I made a decision that in the first half of my playwriting life, I would write about my problems as a man. In the second half, I would turn towards society." Doubt represents the second half of his life. In this earlier play, we have a Shanley's-eye take on the problems of the first, fascinating both for who he is and in itself. With productions of Beggars, Doubt and The Dreamer Examines His Pillow in Los Angeles this year, we're fully grounded to see where he was and where he's going. br>
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Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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