Saturday, December 13, 2014

Happy Holidays from THE DESK SET

The rumors are true: I'm going to be appearing in a play next summer for the first time in years. I'll be playing the supporting role of Elsa and serving as Dance Captain in a production of the classic 1950s office comedy The Desk Set, by William Marchant. The production will be directed by Stuart Bousel, produced by No Nude Men, and presented at the EXIT Theatre in San Francisco.

Above is a photo of the full cast (I'm standing, second from the right). The Desk Set takes place around Christmastime and though our production happens in July, we decided to start our promotional campaign early by doing a holiday-themed photo!

We also took photos of smaller groups of characters. Below are the four main women: Jeunee Simon as Sadel, Kitty Torres as Ruthie, Megan Briggs as Peg, Allison Page as Bunny.

Here I am with my fellow supporting women: Carina Lastimosa Salazar as Miss Warriner and Lisa Drostova as the Mysterious Lady. I am wearing one of my grandma's cocktail dresses from the '50s. It always amazes me that she had such a va-va-voom dress (there is a nude-colored fabric lining underneath the black lace, and the illusion is quite realistic in person) but Elsa is the office sexpot, so it's character-appropriate! Though also a little strange -- I have never played a sexpot or had to do a stage kiss before.
And here are our handsome gentlemen: Abhi Kris as Mr. Bennett, Andrew Calabrese as "Shirtsleeves," Nick Trengove as Abe, Alejandro Emmanuel Torres as Kenny, and Alan Coyne as Richard.

Randomly and bizarrely, we discovered that a teenage Barbra Streisand played my role, Elsa, in a summer stock production of The Desk Set just a few years after the original Broadway production. Here's a picture from the office-party scene of that production; Barbra is dancing, second from right.

And if you want to know the plot of Desk Set or what I think of it as a play, here's the review I wrote on Goodreads.

The Desk Set: A Comedy In Three Acts by William Marchant
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For a mid-century, middlebrow comedy, The Desk Set is kind of a bizarre play. On the one hand, it's loaded with 1950s kitsch: female employees running out of the office midday to buy party dresses at Bonwit's; jokes about philandering executives and sexpot secretaries; a rather un-PC joke about Mexicans. The main character is a super-smart, capable, acerbic woman named Bunny (something that really puzzled me when I saw the film version as a child -- how could the no-nonsense Katharine Hepburn play a woman with such a silly name?) who spends a bit too much time hoping that her boss/boyfriend, who's clearly not as awesome as she is, will put a ring on it.

On the other hand, The Desk Set is a play about four intelligent working women who fear that they are going to be replaced by a computer, which is a surprisingly modern problem. The depiction of Richard, the character who wants to install computers in the office, also feels perceptive about how "techies" behave: he's not a bad guy, but he's kind of single-minded and socially awkward. While the play has a happy ending that suggests that people and technology can coexist, 21st-century audiences may find it a little more poignant than originally intended. After all, the women in the play work for the research department of a broadcasting company, where their job is to do fact-checking and answer queries like "What are the names of Santa's reindeer?" (The play takes place around Christmas.) But these days, you can just pull out your iPhone and ask Siri.

All photos (except for the Streisand one) by Cody Rishell.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Happy 80th Birthday, Joan Didion -- On "The White Album"

It's Joan Didion's 80th birthday today and, as it happens, I've spent the last few weeks reading and rereading her essays. My Didion phase came about thanks to that controversial Theater Pub column I wrote, in which I combined analytical criticism and more personal confessions—and then, in the comments section, was criticized for my "heightened emotional state and hypersensitivity." (The implication being that I was crazy or hysterical. It was even suggested that "the full moon" was to blame for my emotional response!) Not to sound like an egomaniac, but it struck me that this whole experience was somewhat Didion-esque. After all, she's the model for young female writers who want to blend cool analysis with descriptions of their obsessive thoughts, feelings of doom, and moments when they've burst out crying; and she's received both praise and criticism for it. As I craved some reassurance that this style of writing is both valuable and powerful, I picked up a copy of The White Album.

The White Album: EssaysThe White Album: Essays by Joan Didion
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoy Joan Didion's first essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, but in The White Album she seems to come even more fully into her unique voice and style. And, while these essays are products of the '60s and '70s, their insights frequently had me nodding my 21st-century head in recognition. Whenever I see one of the beautiful old Victorian houses in my city gutted and re-built with an "open floor plan" and "luxury finishes," I'll be tempted to quote Didion's deliciously snarky words about the ranch-style house that Ronald Reagan built to serve as the new California governor's mansion: "It is a monument not to colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego, a case study in the architecture of limited possibilities, insistently and malevolently 'democratic,' flattened out, mediocre and 'open' and as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area in a Ramada Inn." But just when you think that Didion is composed entirely of acid, she displays a more vulnerable side, praising Victorian houses where you can imagine "writing a book, or closing the door and crying until dinner."

There is great vehemence, great passion in Didion, and you get the sense that her writing is the way she lets it out. In the preface to Slouching Towards Bethlehem, she describes herself as "so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests." In life, Didion may be a quiet, petite woman, but on the page, she can indulge in power-tripping fantasies of building shopping malls or controlling California's water system or mastering a difficult exit on the Santa Monica Freeway. Those aren't things that I've ever thought about doing, but Didion's passion is infectious, and she makes me want to do them, too.

Be it freeways, waterworks, shopping malls, Hollywood, or the women's movement, Didion is always trying to figure out and explain how the system works. Or how new systems replace the old ones but often replicate their same failures and blind spots (this, in a nutshell, is her rather damning indictment of second-wave feminism). She's skeptical of trends and received ideas, and rather aloof toward humanity as a whole; she admires the Getty Villa's antiquities collection for demonstrating that "not much changes. We were never any better than we are and will never be any better than we were."

Speaking of systems, the famous opening line of the famous opening essay, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live," basically acknowledges that an essay is itself a system, a way of deriving meaning and order from a series of images or events. Didion's blessing, and her curse, was to be a writer of probing intelligence in a place and time (the late '60s in Los Angeles) when all the systems seemed to be collapsing. Always frank, sometimes frightening, occasionally fragmented, The White Album is the result.

View all my reviews