Guest review by Equity actor Jason Kane:
Undermain Theatre’s long history with playwright Len Jenkin fits very snugly within the company’s body of work, reflecting its respect for lyrical language and magical imagery. Jenkin is a master of language, a good thing. Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel might fade from memory as a cookie-cutter twilight-of-life story without his dynamic prose.
Mr. Zobell of the title convalesces at home after a sudden heart attack. His doting wife (played by Laura Jorgensen) falls asleep on the couch unintentionally, providing Zobell a chance to escape for what could become his final adventure. In a lesser playwright’s hands, such an adventure could try a little too hard to tug at the heartstrings, painting a cloying pastiche worthy of a second-rate Alexander Payne. Abraham Zobell finds congruence with the subject of Payne’s current Oscar-nominated film Nebraska: a man at the end of life sets out in pajamas on a fool’s journey that could hasten his demise.
Jenkin, unlike Payne, creates a world that may not exist, however. Zobell’s encountered archetypes seem almost a little too cleanly defined to breathe reality’s oxygen. Maybe this whole episode just takes place inside Zobell’s addled brain, as he’s hooked up to a morphine drip? And the archetypes, they do flow. From Zobell’s first boss, played with old-school Borscht Belt-style panache by R. Bruce Elliott, to the scrappy Stella, played with pluck by Katherine Bourne, an element of Central Casting underscores the vignettes. When Stella’s ex-boyfriend shows up, he exhibits every stereotypical iota of churlish thuggery you would expect, dished out handily by Marcus Stimac. Everybody crosses Lobell’s path just when needed, as if on cue. A cosmic hand plucks the puppet strings here, whether attached to the Universe or Zobell’s med IV tubing.
My main issues with the play focus on its women. With a few exceptions, they seem to only exist within the Madonna/whore paradigm. Rhonda Boutte gives a brilliant turn as Sister Fleeta, the blind soothsayer always attending to Zobell’s well being. The long-lost love of Zobell’s life, Lulu—played by the stunning Miranda Parham—epitomizes the misunderstood ideal of youth. If only he could have saved her….
And then we have Zobell’s Greek chorus: two barmaid/go-go dancer girls who stitch the adventures together. Mikaela Krantz creates a third-rate, trashy-attired Charlie’s Angel as “Crystal” (complete with an outrageously frizzy version of Farrah Fawcett‘s trademark hairdo wings), while Tovar’s Yuki looks like she could “love you long time”. Costume designer Giva Taylor must have made herself giggle while picking out some of these characters’ outfits, booting demure, tasteful discretion into the next state.
Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel packs in some of the best talent in town. It’s wonderful to see Teddy Davey back on stage (what a second career he could have, singing lilting Irish ballads around St. Patrick’s Day). Jonathan Brooks’ vaudevillian Uncle Monday evokes the perfect sad clown, equally menacing and lovable. In the end, it’s Fred Curchack’s Abraham Zobell that holds us entranced. The college drama teacher all of us wish we’d had, the grandfatherly soul we love the most, Curchack has earned national respect as one of the most naturally gifted actors on any stage in any region. His performance as Abraham Zobell? A joy to behold.
Much has been said about the fit of this particular play to the City Performance Hall space. Scenic Artist Linda Noland and Tony Award-winning Visual Consultant John Arnone invoke the perfect, rich void from which the fractured fragments of Zobell’s memories materialize. I’m a sucker for the visual device of keeping actors onstage observing even when they aren’t in the current scene. Director Katherine Owens knows exactly how to use the expanse of the Performance Hall’s proscenium. Austin Switzer’s projection design, bleak and haunting, echoes the danger inherent in Zobell’s urban walkabout.
The biggest challenge with City Performance Hall is location, location, and location. An expensive venue to rent, well beyond the budgets of smaller companies functioning without the grants Undermain has garnered, no convenient parking for patrons exists near the theater. On the night I attended, the bitter wind whipping across the Arts District’s canyon-like expanses almost did me in by the time I made it from my car to the Performance Hall’s front door. I’m all for creating exciting new performance venues in the region. Still, elected officials, city planners and venue managers need to consider the comfort and safety of the butts they hope to put in their theaters’ elegant seats as well as acoustics, architecture and profit margins.
Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel knits together an intriguing patchwork of a life well lived. By the time the cast launches into in the show’s rousing final number, you’ll be sufficiently warmed to brave that dark, frigid, windswept hike back to the car.
Abraham Zobell’s Home Movie: Final Reel, by the award-winning Len Jenkin and presented by Undermain Theatre, runs through February 2nd at City Performance Hall, 2520 Flora St, Dallas, TX 75201.
Tickets: www.undermain.org or 214-747-5515