Hot and heavenly: My Three Angels
Trouble in the tropics
“My Three Angels” onstage in Manhattan Beach
by Bondo Wyszpolski
If we mix in a few ingredients — French Guiana, 1910, Christmas Eve, and 104 degree weather — I think we’ll have the makings of a compelling play. Samuel and Bella Spewick certainly thought so, and in 1953 they wrote a dark comedy called “My Three Angels.” You probably haven’t seen it, not many people have, but the Manhattan Beach Community Church Theatre is about to change all that. They’re presenting their take on it for two weekends, starting this Friday.
It’s a pretty straightforward play, no flashbacks or cliffhangers you’ll be scratching your head over for the next month. We have a shopkeeper, Felix Ducotel (Ari Polidi), his wife Emilie (Lyn Coulter), and their daughter Marie Louise (Jessica Lombardozzi), immigrants from France, trying to make a go of it on the other side of the Atlantic. Felix has a cousin, Henri Trochard (Chris O’Connor), who’s about to arrive from France with his nephew, Paul (Biagio Schutt). Henri wants to see the shopkeeper’s books, because he believes Felix isn’t doing a good job. He wants to take charge, after which the Ducotels may be finding themselves without a roof over their heads.
And speaking of which, there are three men on the roof, hammering away. They’re all convicts — the territory was used as a penal colony, and Devil’s Island was just offshore. The three criminals are played by Jerry Bennett, Lawrence A. Moreno, and Michael Thorpe. That’s pretty much the cast except for shop customer Madame Parole (Tamarah Ashton), a Lieutenant (Jeff Caldwell) who shows up late, perhaps to save the day, and, in a small but crucial role, Adolphe the snake.
As soon as the three convicts descend the ladder from the roof we’ll have ourselves a play.
Convicts on the roof
“My Three Angels” is directed by Steve Norris, and on a recent afternoon at the theater he and several other cast and crew members threw in their two cents and a few nickels as to what this production was all about.
Norris says that he and his wife, Susan (who happens to be the producer), were looking for shows that the church theater could stage this fall. Apart from a Christmas variety show last year, this is the company’s first presentation since before COVID. Now, they’re hoping, they can return to their former schedule of one straight play in the fall and one musical in the spring.
“We were looking through our Christmas movies,” Norris says, and this included “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” They wanted to try something different, however, and chanced upon “My Three Angels,” which they hadn’t known about. Norris was impressed: “This is really quite a chestnut!” he told Susan. “I said, you know, I’d like to do that show.”
Furthermore, he adds, “We thought it would be fun to do something in the tropics. We haven’t done anything like that.”
Ironically, during the rehearsals the tropics came to them. This was when all of L.A. was suffering record-breaking heat and unbearable humidity.
We’re sitting at a long table with the stage in front of us, already decked out with props and an almost completed set — a little more bamboo to the left and a thatched roof on the right and it’ll be ready for opening night. It was designed by both Norrises, with carpentry by Bob Manning.
The Ducotels’ shop is actually behind the curtains at the back of the stage. In Europe, the living quarters might have been on the floor above the shop, but here in French Guiana, well, it’s a little different.
Although the script came with stage descriptions and describes the set, the company has added a few embellishments of their own, a lush garden and also a ferry crossing, the latter a few feet below the stage, from which one of the convicts is sent off with a bon voyage, or words presumably to that effect, and then a bit more: “I get to sing a song in the pre-show,” Victoria Alfvin says. “It’s the one that Edith Piaf did, ‘Ma Vie En Rose.’”
Alfvin, a company regular, is not actually in the show itself, but during the scene in which one of the convicts comes in with a cooked chicken she and Susan Norris will be heating up a real one in the kitchen that’s back near the entrance to the theater. Using a fan, they’ll waft the aroma of it into the auditorium. Scents-o-rama at its finest!
Steve Norris also points out various details in the set that evoke the French architectural style of the time, including the wrought iron truss beam reminiscent, he says, of the Eiffel Tower and Parisian train stations.
Michael Thorpe, who’s been a lighting designer not only for this company but for the now-defunct Surf City Theatre, will again be working out the lighting patterns, since “My Three Angels” begins on Christmas Eve, goes through the night and into Christmas Day. Presumably he’ll also be working the thermostat since the temperature has to exceed the century mark.
Thorpe is also one of the convicts, and just now they’re coming down the ladder from the roof. They’ve heard the conversation in the shop below and want to help Felix retain control of his business.Likable villains
“I’m playing Jules, I’m one of the convicts,” Thorpe says.
“Typecast,” quips Norris.
“Hey now!” Thorpe pretends his feelings are hurt. “Jerry is also one of the convicts. We’re up there working on the roof and we come down and do our good and not so good things to help.”
Jerry is Jerry Bennett. “I’m one of the convicts, Joseph,” he says. “It’s a bit of a departure for me. I’ve done dozens of musicals, and this is my second play. So I’m used to coming out and saying two lines and singing a song and leaving.” He pauses. “Now I have 470 lines.”
Well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but what can we expect from a convict?
And the third convict? At the moment he’s nowhere in sight.
“I think he’s escaped,” Manning says.
Lawrence A. Moreno, as Alfred, will be recaptured in time for the first performance.
Manning himself probably won’t be on stage this time. However, he says, he’s “stand-in number one. It gives me something to do at night.”
When the convicts come down from the roof and enter the shop the Ducotels don’t know what to expect and neither do we — except that, this being a Christmas play called “My Three Angels,” we’re probably not expecting this to end like a slasher movie.
Although they have committed crimes, the impression we get is that the three men had some justification for what they did, be that as it may. But now, having been eavesdropping while literally on the eaves, they know a rat when they smell one, and so they’ve decided to use their skills to help Felix keep his store. By doing so, by fixing the books (Bennett’s Joseph, for instance, is a forger), and by showing how it’s possible to sell almost anything to anyone, they take charge — all within a few hours of Henri and Paul disembarking from their steamer in the harbor.
The play, therefore, is “a kind of redemption,” says Norris. “They are angels, and they do great things, but they do it at sort of a dark cost. It’s a dark comedy, but it’s a fun one. It’s a Christmas movie.”
The three convicts work effectively as a team, and because of its often funny and rapid pace it occurs to this writer that they might resemble the Marx Brothers.
“It’s very much like the Marx Brothers,” Norris says. “In fact, I’ve been trying to put some Marx Brothers into the show.”
I think it’s Coulter who says, “They play off each other, almost finishing each other’s lines. They know what [each of the others] is thinking.”
“If you compare them with the Marx Brothers,” Manning says, “these guys are a lot smarter, in the dialogue and the things they bring up. It’s just that they got caught, whereas most of us don’t get caught.”
Susan Norris points out that the convicts use their skills to improve the lives of the imperiled Ducotels, “and that’s why they’re the angels at the end. And, in the end, it is a merry Christmas because of all the things that they’ve done.”
Hmm, but are we to see them as criminals or as angels?Beyond good and evil
Steve Norris says we see them as convicts in the beginning, but that they begin growing on us. They steal flowers from the governor’s mansion and pilfer a chicken as well for their Christmas Day feast, but the family buys into it because it’s all for a far more nobler purpose, to ensure that the Christmas dinner — to which the convicts are soon invited — will be one that’s memorable.
Well, memorable it is, because then cousin Henri and his nephew Paul come barging in.
As Henri, Chris O’Connor is convincingly nasty and evil, says Norris. Someone else sitting at the table quotes one of the convicts who says, “What justice is there when he is walking around free and we’re in prison?” And another person notes it’s because “he’s the evil one and the convicts are really the guys with a heart of gold.”
In short, as Norris says, “You start to love the angels and everything they’re doing, and the two guys from France you start to dislike them more than you do the convicts. So when Adolphe basically bites them (Henri and Paul), you’re like, Hooray! ‘Cause they’re the bad guys.”
Wait a second, who’s Adolphe?
“The real star of the show,” jokes Thorpe.
Adolphe is kept in a woven basket, but when given a job to do, does it without a word of complaint. First he connects with Henri, and then with Paul. But why Paul, Henri’s nephew? You mean apart from jilting Marie Louise for a girl who has a lot of money and, apparently not much else?
In the play, Norris says, “There’s a scene, when his uncle dies, where he turns from a very nice and confused guy into his uncle. In the dialogue itself, he adds, it’s pointed out that “His uncle didn’t die after all. He lives on — in him!”
However, Paul doesn’t have long to savor the promotion.
As Felix, Ari Polidi is gracing the church theater stage for the first time.
After trying out for the role, Polidi says, “I went home and told everyone, ‘How wonderful that I got to audition’ — I didn’t even think about succeeding; it was the audition I was excited about.”
“Felix has a really sweet demeanor,” Norris says, and points out that Polidi has a similar nature and thus brings that likeability to the character. After all, it’s important that we are sympathetic to Felix even if he’s too kind-hearted to make a good businessman.
Perhaps the most enviable role belongs to Jeff Caldwell’s Lieutenant. He appears after most of the hubbub has (literally) died down.
“He comes in and says five lines and goes to sleep,” Norris says. “That’s his whole thing. So he’s only come to like four rehearsals.”
“I wanted that part,” Coulter says, laughing.
“He’s like the bright future,” Susan Norris says. You’ll have to see the play to find out what she means by that.
We’re wrapping up, and again taking in the impressively built and arranged set.
“I did the upstairs garden,” Alfvin says, which at first glance might remind one of something outside the entrance of a tiki bar.
“The best thing about that,” Manning says, “is there are no bugs.”
No bugs, no mosquitos, no malaria or yellow fever. Just the tropics without all the unpleasantness that often comes with it.
“The one nice thing about this show,” Alfvin continues, “is [that it’s] the first one on our regular schedule. It’s fun, it’s interesting, it’s upbeat, there’s no lulls, and everybody I think will have a good time. We don’t have any set changes to worry about. Three acts, but it just kind of goes boom-boom-boom.”
My Three Angels opens at 8 p.m. on Friday at the Manhattan Beach Community Church, in the Community Hall Theatre, 303 S. Peck Ave, Manhattan Beach. Additional performances: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Oct. 2 at 2 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 7 at 8 p.m.; Saturday, Oct. 8 at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 9 at 2 p.m. Tickets, $25 general; $50 patrons (which includes a patron party at 7 p.m. on Oct. 8, prior to the show). Reserved seating. Contact Victoria Bailer Alfvin: firstname.lastname@example.org or Susan Norris: email@example.com ER