Stage Review: ‘An Inspector Calls’ at the Wallis

Playwright J.B. Priestley’s social drama, An Inspector Calls, directed by Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours, Trash, TV’s The Crown, Billy Elliot) and now playing in the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, unspools a dastardly tale of one woman’s demise in sometimes shocking, sometimes compelling and often dreary and distracting detail. Its theme that each individual must morally serve others or be damned unfolds with predictable moralizing. The exclusive West Coast engagement at the Wallis, which runs an hour and 45 minutes without an intermission, plays through Sunday, February 10.

This uniquely staged version was revived in London in 1992 after the original play’s run following its premiere in Soviet Russia (which, with the play’s anti-capitalist ideals, is fitting). This version won awards during runs in the West End, Broadway and elsewhere, including Los Angeles at the Ahmanson theater in 1996. Besides the very convenient Wallis venue in tony Beverly Hills, An Inspector Calls currently tours theaters in Washington, DC, Chicago and Boston.

The talented Mr. Daldry reimagines the original 1945 script, which is set in 1912, about an inspector who abruptly imposes himself on a wealthy English family, interrupting their dinner party with an accusatory and quite pointed inquiry about what he claims is the death of a young woman. The capable cast includes Liam Brennan in the title role, Christine Kavanagh as Sybil Birling, Jeff Harmer as Arthur Birling, Andrew Macklin as Gerald Croft, Lianne Harvey as Sheila Birling, Hamish Riddle as Eric Birling and Diana Payne-Myers as Edna. As prospective son-in-law Gerald, Mr. Macklin (TV’s Mr. Selfridge, as well as King Lear and The Picture of Dorian Gray in theater) fares best, though there wasn’t a bad performance.

As the mysterious visitor interrogates each family member, one by one, about the apparently suicidal young woman’s demise, a strong presumption of guilt emerges. As it does, those in the audience may watch and wonder: why is each character prejudged as bad? Who, besides the unseen and mysterious woman presumed to have killed herself, is conceivably to blame?

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Everything in An Inspector Calls revolves around these questions and the answers become dreadfully and glaringly obvious as the play’s morality, altruism with a collectivist-socialist twist, becomes clear. With stark, dramatic music by Stephen Warbeck and elaborate staging specifically designed to accentuate and dramatize the idea that no one is self-made and everyone who’s wealthy, productive or successful must come down, really crashing down, to the level of the common man to whom he’s tethered, An Inspector Calls rings and rings its smashing climactic points.

A mob gathers in silent, condemnatory moral judgment, like a Me, Too march (there’s admittedly an air of that lynch mob movement’s influence throughout the production) as the angry white male inspector demands to know about an act of charity for which the giver is presumably supposed to be guilty: “How much did you give?”

Amid an unasked and unanswered question of paternity, bestowing of blankets for the rich and the unspoken conclusion that money is the root of all evil (with you as thy brother’s keeper), the family’s house literally crumbles, crashes and explodes as the Birling family comes undone.

Or do they? On top of the socialistic moral mystery, the raging and elusive police inspector implants the question “How do we know (what we think we might know)?” Therein lies the play’s deeper mystery that nothing is knowable and, unless you renounce yourself, property and individualism, you are likely to be doomed…at least to the extent these things can be known. This is the upshot of An Inspector Calls, officially billed as “the National Theatre of Great Britain’s Landmark production of J.B. Priestley’s classic thriller An Inspector Calls”. If it sounds rather tedious, it is and can be, depending on one’s tolerance for seeing the same ideals laid bare in moralistic melodrama, if with inventive staging and a booming score to match.

Tickets to An Inspector Calls range $35 to $105 and are on sale now for shows on weekdays at 7:30 pm; Saturdays at 2 pm and 7:30 pm; and Sundays at 2 pm and 7 pm. The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Zoltan Paliis of Studio Pali Fekete architects and located at 9390 N. Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills, is housed in the building featuring the restored, original 1933 Beverly Hills Post Office, the 150-seat Lovelace Studio Theater, space for arts education and the 500-seat Bram Goldsmith Theater.

New Year’s Preview

Twenty Nineteen topics I plan to write about on this blog include an app for the Church of Scientology, a newly revised book by Thomas Sowell and a song by Smashing Pumpkins. After 10 years of writing this informal forum for my thoughts on movies, culture and ideas, with today’s media market getting thinner and dimmer and more fragmented, it’s time to focus on other forms.

Proposals and copy for aviation and military defense technology as well as uncredited fiction and non-fiction for screen and publication are among assignments I wrote last year. I also develop projects for customers in construction, real estate, movies, journalism and literature.

I regard the blog as advertising. Readership has increased and I’ve kept it informal, but the blog takes effort to sustain. Accordingly, I started a PayPal donation campaign to support my writing, including this blog. Please consider making a donation.

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What’s to come includes new movie, television, book and stage reviews. I’m looking forward to attending local theater productions in Southern California. I look forward to seeing and writing about a new stage production starring Psych‘s Dule Hill as Nat “King” Cole. I plan to review a show at the Wallis Center for Performing Arts in Beverly Hills this month. Comedienne Julia Sweeney will be staging another one-woman show, which I’m excited to see. The same goes for a new production of a play by Sophocles which one of my mentors calls one of eight great plays.

I also aim to write about apps, TV shows and, of course, classic movies. I’ll be posting an exclusive interview soon with screenwriter and director Robert Benton, with whom I recently met for an interview again, this time in Hollywood, to honor the 40th anniversary of his underrated Oscar-winning Best Picture, Kramer vs. Kramer and the 35th anniversary of his seminal film Places in the Heart. I’ve received positive feedback to my classic movie writings. There are more analyses to come. I am exploring possibilities to publish books of my interviews, reviews and other writings.

A few of my short stories are in contest contention. I continue to teach media and writing to adults in Southern California. Last year, I hosted an alumni networking event in a small venue near Hollywood. Current and former students met, mixed and talked about first-look deals, options, events, readings and tips, resources and platforms. I announced a new partnership and had the privilege to encourage fellow writers and sole proprietors. I’ve added another mixer next month.

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Ventures and endeavors for new media, books, movies, TV series and stories (mine and work for others) are in the works. I’m often busiest during the summer, but I’d like to attend 2019’s OCON. This summer’s event celebrates 50 years of Ayn Rand’s The Romantic Manifesto in Cleveland, Ohio. So, I’m enthusiastic about prospects for the new year. Feel free to reach out, inquire and/or donate.

Happy reading in the meantime.

The TCM Classic Film Festival Preview

Read my preview of this week’s festival of classic movies, the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, at The New Romanticist here. The theme of this year’s event is the movie with literary origins. Accordingly, and happily, Turner Classic Movies is honoring writer and director Robert Benton, screenwriter for Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Superman (1978), with new interviews including Q&As surrounding his dramatic classics, Places in the Heart and Kramer vs. Kramer.

‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ at 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival

To honor the New York City screenwriter and director, whom I’ve previously urged TCM to invite as a guest to the festival, I’ve recently reviewed both of Benton’s featured movies. As an admirer of his films, which are often marked by shocking violence and humor yet always meant to be taken seriously, it’s been a pleasure to go back to these movies, especially his Oscar-winning Best Picture for 1979, which was that year’s top box office hit. I’ve interviewed Benton about his outstanding if lesser known pictures, such as The Human Stain and Feast of Love, read writings by John O’Hara upon his recommendation and received valuable feedback from him on my own fiction writing.

Read my new reviews of his motion pictures Places in the Heart (1984) and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). Also, this weekend is the final LA curtain call for playwright Neil Simon’s biting take on writing for television, which I previewed for the Los Angeles Times‘ local edition here. Look for new information, posts and updates about TCM’s event, classic movies and opportunities to enroll in my summer courses in the near future.

Stage Review: Laughter on the 23rd Floor (2018)

Playwright Neil Simon’s hallmark intelligence, wit and, briefly, pathos remains on display in a revised version of Simon’s 1993 comedy, Laughter on the 23rd Floor, playing at the Garry Marshall Theatre (formerly the Falcon Theatre) in Burbank. The two-act play runs through April 22.

The setting is a New York City television writers’ room in the early 1950s, when a band of comedy writers, a secretary and a brash TV show host banter, clash and strive to tap what’s humorous about news, politics and culture amid a major media transition from radio-friendly routines to the onset of televised sports, variety and situational comedy. This is Neil Simon’s homage to early television figures such as Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Revised through a modern perspective by director Michael Shepperd, neurotic creatives try to please the blustery boss of a weekly 90-minute show. Though a recent Saturday night performance was a bit sluggish in the first act, and some of the acting was overdone, cast, crew and show come through.

You can tell from the caustic humor that this is an early 1990s take on the early 1950s. The 40-year difference lies in a few too many McCarthy jokes and flat lines about the deaths of Josef Stalin and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The basic narrative with young Neil Simon stand-in Lucas (Jason Grasl in his Garry Marshall Theatre debut) punctuates and frames the story about the strain of storytelling when making sharp jokes about Ibsen and Shakespeare was about to fall prey to the less literate post-war culture. Not that these writers for the fictional Max Prince Show put on high brow material. They don’t, which inevitably is part of the play’s point that writers are human and must deal with the culture, too. Laughter‘s funniest shtick mines this self-awareness, which goes to Neil Simon’s strength in portraying ordinary people making light of life’s indignities — enduring damage, digs and hardship — without making fun of what matters.

Like Simon’s Lost in Yonkers and his 1980s trilogy of coming of age-themed plays, Laughter on the 23rd Floor recreates artistic struggle with a wistful longing that wrestles with the Fifties’ deficiencies, too. Neil Simon is a master storyteller. Here, too, he sets forth arcs of loss and love in life and work. With a standout performance from understudy Jason Weiss (also in his Garry Marshall Theatre debut), filling in for Jeff Campanella as hypochondriac Ira, a pivotal role that helps Pat Towne bring the show to a climax as TV host Max Prince, the 130-seat Garry Marshall Theatre delivers with Laughter on the 23rd Floor, which marks the final production in its four-play inaugural season.

Tickets, starting at $45, are available by calling (818) 955-8101 or visiting

Stage Review: Driving Miss Daisy

The performance-driven Driving Miss Daisy opened this weekend at Burbank, California’s Colony Theatre at Burbank Town Center. It’s been 30 years since playwright Alfred Uhry brought this quietly elegant and understated work to New York City and slightly less since this piece in his Atlanta trilogy won literature’s Pulitzer Prize. Like a play from another racially-themed city trilogy, August Wilson’s Pittsburgh-based Fences, Driving Miss Daisy is a simply structured slice of life. So, don’t expect something other than a display of naturalism.

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With infectiously transitional pop music such as songs performed by Doris Day and Burl Ives, and Genetra Tull’s finely detailed, creatively applied scenic design for a small stage, the setting for this story about a wealthy white woman in the South and her black driver begins neatly in the late Forties. These assets become liabilities as the sparse design barely changes — and the music’s occasionally too obscure or out of order — which fails to mark the passage of time. The sense of time passing is crucial to Driving Miss Daisy‘s success.

This is because the bond between Daisy (Donna Mills, Knots Landing) and chauffeur Hoke (Arthur Richardson) evolves organically. Daisy is a prickly old lady of 72 years old and, as a pre-civil rights era Southern Negro, Hoke is a second-class citizen. As in the outstanding and undeservedly maligned 1989 motion picture, which won Oscar’s Best Picture award, their bond builds at the patronage of her son and his employer, Boolie, played here with precision, subtlety and skill by James Leo Ryan.

Ms. Mills is an accomplished actress and her acting has never been better. Playing down her character’s fear and narrow-mindedness without diluting either, Mills modulates and intones just exactly to the right extent. She’s softer but no less guarded and difficult as the aging Jew in Georgia. Mills knows when to let a co-star take the lead in this uniquely drawn character arc. She delivers a biting look, she rubs her knees, she visits her late husband’s grave and, always, the veteran actress leaves room for the wider perspective.

Uhry’s hardy tale of three distinctive lives revolves around the tension, separatism and distance of mid-20th century undercurrents of race, sex, age, ethnicity and other factors. In this sense, Richardson’s Hoke, too, well played by the actor, thinks about his own wants and worth and rightly acts in his own interest. Hoke, who speaks of having wrestled hogs north of Macon, prejudges people, too, gently chastising his boss for choosing not to have kids and constantly referring to the family’s being Jewish. “You Jews,” the chauffeur declares, as the times, tales and subcultures both change and, in some ways, remain the same. But, Richardson, too, plays perfectly against his co-star, specifically Ms. Mills’ somewhat volatile Miss Daisy. His Hoke cautiously checks in the rear-view mirror, expresses an intention to work, admits to a deficiency and, watchfully, checks and indulges his pride as meticulously as he polishes the car.

Ryan’s performance as Boolie adds depth to both Hoke and Miss Daisy while offering a certain context on how the white, male, Jewish businessman advances progress through his own achievement. Indeed, Boolie’s business success underwrites what drives his mother, Miss Daisy, and his employee, Hoke, even as lynching, subservience and Martin Luther King put the strife and struggle for individual rights front and center. That I saw this play on the day a church was attacked almost 59 years to the date that a temple was bombed — an attack which serves as a plot point — underscores the play’s relevance. Driving Miss Daisy‘s contrast of harmony amid agony is at once truthful, thoughtful and reassuring.

This production, directed by Heather Provost and scheduled to run at the Colony Theatre through December 10, can build on this theme with greater period detail in music and staging, if not necessarily its three performances, which were, this opening weekend, extremely well done.

Stage Review: The Rainmaker

Small theatrical productions in Los Angeles are one of my favorite artistic activities. Over the years, I’ve worked on, seen, covered, reviewed and supported many local stage adaptations, from Ayn Rand’s Anthem, Night of January 16th and Ideal to plays by Neil Simon, Agatha Christie and Edmond Rostand. So, when one of my Writing Boot Camp students — a season ticketholder at the Lincoln Stegman Theatre in the San Fernando Valley — invited me to a new production of The Rainmaker by N. Richard Nash, which I’ve seen produced on film but not on stage, I couldn’t resist.

The play is the thing, as someone once said or wrote. This remarkable, simple and subtle story of human sexuality, unspooled in a barnyard one-night stand between a charismatic con man and a lonely, intellectual spinster, really holds up well. Set in Kansas in 1937 during the drought, The Rainmaker‘s about the Curry family’s encounter at their farm with a fast-talking stranger who takes a liking to the clan, especially their mentally challenged Jimmy, a character which in retrospect might’ve been considered autistic, and Lizzie, a plain woman in the motherless clan who dresses like a sack of potatoes. With a father who feeds her idealism if not realism, Lizzie’s all worked up with no place to channel her wants. If you’ve seen the somewhat stagey Fifties movie version — with Earl Holliman as Jimmy, Katharine Hepburn as Lizzie and Burt Lancaster in the title role — you know what happens.

On the Stegman’s confined stage, which continues for another week or so in North Hollywood through November 19, it’s as magical as it is on film. The Rainmaker is carefully structured as a drama. It is talky, as brother Noah comes closest to a villain trying to get everyone on the farm to level themselves with reality, and the show suffers in stretches from the slow, claustrophobic staging. But, fundamentally, The Rainmaker dramatizes the prospect of man-woman sex through its contrast between two types of men for Lizzie’s asking: the introvert and the extrovert. I’ll let you guess who’s who in this tradeoff but the suspense lies in watching both men bring out the best, which is to say the whole man, in themselves.

As the small town’s awkward lawman, AJ Sass is excellent and, as Lizzie’s physically imposing, domineering older brother Noah, Mark Dippolito is spot on.

So is the Stegman’s lighting, set and production design, mostly by director Joe Fiske in cooperation with lighting designer Jamie Hitchcock, Stanley Brown, who capably plays Lizzie’s father, and Mark Stegman. The whole cast and crew are generally fine, though director Fiske, who plays the sexually voracious con man, errs in casting and directing himself as a more restrained or New Age rainmaker, lacking the magnetism to convince the audience that he’s got the appetite and character of a man who does what he does to and for repressed Lizzie (Carla Betz).

The Rainmaker, with its drumbeat theme that being greedy for living in (not to be confused with for) the moment is perfectly human, still makes an impact. “Stop wondering if you’re good enough,” a wise man instructs a spirited if wounded soul halfway through the plain, prairie tale. “Know that you are and start acting like it.” One hears a lot these days about what everyone says, does and knows in Tinseltown. It typically comes from those who’ve already made it in Hollywood, often for the worst reasons, or from those who’ve got an axe to grind, often for the best reasons. But people like Joe Fiske and this small, hardworking cast and crew put on thoughtful shows every day here in La La Land without much notice. They do it honestly and diligently and they barely get the recognition they deserve.

See The Rainmaker (produced by two women, for those keeping score, Norma Burgess and Debbie Sadlouskas) for $12 a ticket at the Lincoln Stegman Theatre (which ran Night of January 16th earlier this year) at 6020 Radford Avenue in North Hollywood, California 91606. Call for information and tickets at (818) 509-0882.