San Diego's Jazz

Pat Launer, Center Stage

Funding for "Center Stage" is provided in part by The Board of Trustees of Young Audiences of San Diego — Arts for Learning.
  • “UNCANNY VALLEY” – San Diego Repertory Theatre

    “UNCANNY VALLEY” – San Diego Repertory Theatre

    Immortality – would you choose it if you could? And if you did, would you want all your knowledge and personality in a computer system for eternity – or reconstituted in a perfect simulation of yourself? At what age would you want to be replicated? Would your avatar have all the rights of any human?

    These are some of the provocative – and troubling – questions raised in “Uncanny Valley,” by Thomas Gibbons. The title refers to the instinctive reaction to human simulations: the more lifelike, the more fascination gives way to repulsion.

    It’s 2042. Claire, a scientist, is training her fourth mind clone robot.

    At first, startlingly, Julian is just a head on a desk. Scene by scene, he acquires parts and skills. It’s thrilling watching him develop – how much knowledge he already has, how quickly he learns – about humor, nostalgia and feeling, which he can describe but not sense.

    His creation is complete when he takes on the life and persona of a wealthy, 76 year-old, businessman, dying of pancreatic cancer which, like Alzheimer’s, has still not been eradicated. The new Julian is robust, attractive, in his mid-30s.

    He flouts protocol to come back and visit Claire. In his well-tailored suit, he’s less charming: arrogant and narcissistic, fluent in corporate-speak. What had been an enthralling experiment suddenly turns into a terrifying reality.

    Gibbons casts his net too wide, posing many questions, taking no sides, providing no answers. The details of Claire’s personal life seem intrusive and unnecessary.

    At the San Diego Rep, the scenic and sound design are excellent. Under Jessica Bird’s taut, well-paced direction, Rosina Reynolds and Nick Cagle are superb. A very human scientist, she’s getting a glimpse into the Uncanny Valley. Cagle is a wonder, thoroughly mastering Julian’s jerky moves and acute curiosity.

    In a discussion of Artificial Intelligence, things inevitably turn dark. Just how far should we go with this?

    The National New Play Network has chosen this drama for a ‘rolling world premiere.’ That means audiences around the country will have their sleep disturbed by this unsettling piece of theater.

    “Uncanny Valley” runs through May 10, at the San Diego Repertory Theatre in Horton Plaza.

    Aired: 4/24/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “BUYER AND CELLAR” – The Old Globe

    “BUYER AND CELLAR” – The Old Globe

    “What’s it like?... To have been at the top for so long?,” Alex asks Barbra. Though he’s a fictional character, she’s, well, Barbra Streisand. The question is valid, and the answer remains the same, across the centuries: no matter how much fame, fortune or celebrity is attained, people still carry the beat-up baggage of their damaging youth.

    Ms. Streisand will never shake off her Brooklyn poverty. And maybe that’s why she obsessively buys and hoards, at least according to Jonathan Tolins, who wrote the charming solo show, “Buyer and Cellar,” now making its San Diego premiere at The Old Globe.

    Streisand does, in fact, have an entire shopping mall in the basement of her Malibu mansion. She is its only customer. Tolins has created Alex, an under-employed actor, to become the shopkeeper of those Streisand stores, spending his days dusting, arranging, coveting, and waiting for his demanding purchaser to arrive. Gradually, they develop a friendship of sorts, and he even becomes her acting coach.

    The 2013 comedy doesn’t ridicule Babs, except for suggesting that she treats people like objects or acquisitions. And that she’s not a terrifically happy camper.

    Broadway veteran David Turner is delightful company as Alex… and Barbra, and her supercilious house manager, and his snarky, jealous boyfriend, Barry. Turner doesn’t exactly impersonate Streisand, but he nails her facial expressions and mannerisms. He takes us into his confidence, sharing his stories as he switches effortlessly among the characters, who are subtly differentiated.

    He flops around the spare, ultra-modern set on the White’s arena stage; we’re meant to imagine the shops and the whirring frozen yogurt machine, and the descriptions are vivid enough to pique our imaginations.

    Amid all the name-dropping, pop culture and theater references, and quippy one-liners, an undertone of sadness lurks: a sense that there’s a considerable amount of loneliness at the top – and on the lower rungs as well. The play’s comical conceit underscores the delusion of our blind, envious idol-worship.

    “Buyer and Cellar” runs through May 10, in the Old Globe’s White Theatre, in Balboa Park.

    Aired: 4/17/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “SUNSET PARK” – Scripps Ranch Theatre

    “SUNSET PARK” – Scripps Ranch Theatre

    If you’re of a certain age, and your parents are getting up there in years, there comes a time when you need to have the dread discussion about what to do if Mom and Dad can’t take care of themselves at home.

    This is the crux of “Sunset Park,” a 2005 serio-comedy by Marley Sims and Elliot Shoenman, longtime TV scriptwriters for shows such as “Home Improvement.”

    Seventy-five year-old Evelyn lives alone, and her eternally bickering middle-aged offspring – one married and well-to-do, the other divorced and struggling – alternate Sunday visits. Her best friend, Rose, another widow living in the Brooklyn building for 50 years, is a God-fearing Roman Catholic. Evelyn is a Jewish atheist.

    A letter casually left on the kitchen table triggers a protracted series of memories, arguments and admissions. Evelyn’s building is going co-op, and she has to buy or leave. In the family tsunami that follows, it turns out that, predictably, each character has a long-held secret. After a generally amusing first act, Act 2 is a relentless tumble of misconceptions and misunderstandings, revelations and resolutions. It all feels a bit too sitcom pat by the end, a kind of pale shadow of a Neil Simon play, with one-liners masking the serious central issue.
    Given a rat-a-tat pace and genuine New York moxie, the piece could fly – and land some gut-wrenching insights about aging, caregiving, inheritance and independence.

    Though there’s a comic earnestness about the Scripps Ranch Theatre production, directed by Eric Poppick, the pace is too pokey, and the regional dialect is wildly varying throughout the cast. But the two native New Yorkers – Carm Greco and Brenda Adelman, playing scrappy mother and daughter -- naturally nail the accent and attitude. The rest seem to be working so hard at it, the effort interferes with fully inhabited characterizations.

    Still, there are some funny and poignant moments – between elderly friends, parent and children, and in flashback, a pliable young Evelyn and her irascible father-in-law, convincingly played by Haig Koshkarian.

    The set is a perfect grandma’s place, unchanged for half a century. And the subject matter? Well, it could bring a chill to your aging bones.

    “Sunset Park” runs through April 19, at Scripps Ranch Theatre, on the Campus of Alliant University.

    Aired: 4/10/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • “THE WHITE SNAKE” – The Old Globe

    “THE WHITE SNAKE” – The Old Globe

    Magic happens when you fall in love. But the course of love is a circuitous path, and happily ever after rarely happens.

    And so it is in the gorgeously theatricalized Chinese legend, “The White Snake,” adapted and directed by Tony Award-winner and MacArthur “genius” grantee Mary Zimmerman. Within her poetic text, she considers various versions of the 2000 year-old tale. At every bend in the road, she chooses the more whimsical, magical option.

    Zimmerman, who has a particular penchant for myth and ancient lore, is one of the most imaginative, ingenious theatermakers in America. Her brilliant work, created in collaboration with a magnificent design team, includes eye-popping lighting, costumes and projections, and a distinctive, evocative original soundscape, here played live by a superb 3-musician, multi-instrument band.

    In this 2012 creation, the snake of the title is a spirit who can assume human form. She and her sidekick, the hyper and hilarious Green Snake, descend their mountain as young women, to see what the human world is like. White Snake, now the beautiful Lady Bai, falls deeply in love with a poor pharmacist’s assistant, the reincarnation of a gentle man who saved her life many centuries ago. But an evil monk is determined to sever this ‘unnatural’ bond.

    Many powers are mustered, much magic is invoked to combat the formidable challenges to these star-crossed lovers, which Zimmerman playfully calls in her program notes, ‘Romeo and Snakulet.’.

    The stunning production at the Old Globe, with its jaw-dropping visuals, is a wise, funny, heart-warming romantic fable, replete with fabric rain and slithering puppet serpents, and a battle between the Wind and the Sea, all accomplished by a stellar ensemble, presented in a stylized minimalism and simplicity befitting the Asian origins.

    Despite the many zigzagging detours of the love story, we learn, at the end, that “all forking paths come to the same place.” And when the piece concludes with the soothing suggestion, “Don’t be afraid; it’s impossible to die alone,” we eagerly, gratefully believe.

    “The White Snake” runs through April 26, at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.

    Aired: 4/3/2015 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2015 Pat Launer

  • GLOBE FOR ALL – The Old Globe

    GLOBE FOR ALL – The Old Globe

    The Old Globe is takin’ it to the streets. Well, maybe not the streets, but out of the theater box and into the community.

    Renowned producer Joseph Papp created the Mobile Shakespeare program in 1957, and decades later, Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein re-animated Mobile Shakespeare while he was at The Public Theatre, bringing the Bard to underserved communities.

    This fall, he tried out the concept in San Diego, with Globe for All, a free touring production of a Shakespeare play, brought to such varied venues as a military base, centers for the elderly, a homeless shelter and a correctional facility.

    The 90-minute production featured a cast of 10 professional actors, including recent alumni of the Old Globe/University of San Diego graduate theater program. Each facility was offered a one-hour pre-show workshop about the language, themes, characters and plot of the play.

    The intention, said Edelstein, is to “overcome whatever barriers – economic, geographical or cultural” prohibit some community members from seeing or appreciating Shakespeare. “Theater in general, and Shakespeare in particular, are necessary to living a full and rich life,” says Edelstein, who directed the project’s first production, “All’s Well That Ends Well.”

    I saw the streamlined show at Father Joe’s Villages, San Diego’s largest residential service provider for the homeless. What was most impressive, besides the talent and commitment of the cast, was how well they interacted with the audience (dogs, infants and all), and how rapt most of the spectators seemed to be, catching all the humor and commenting freely on the action. It was a very exciting and energizing experience.

    If the Globe can once again secure funding from local Foundations, it intends to repeat the process next year, with another play and director.

    Here’s a toast to the Old Globe for helping to bring theater to every corner of our diverse county. Bravo!

    The newly-launched Globe for All will, hopefully, be an ongoing, annual program of the Old Globe.

    Aired: 12/5/2014 9:01:00 AM

    Copyright © 2014 Pat Launer

For an archive of all of Pat's reviews, going back to 1990, use the 'search' function at

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