Surf City Theatre does Christopher Durang
Surf City Theatre presents “An Evening of Christopher Durang”
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Everyone loves an old chestnut, but on the other hand who can resist a fresh bowl of cherries?
Surf City Theatre dishes out the staples, and generally they do a good job of it, too, but this weekend we’re getting a taste of something different: five short plays by Christopher Durang.
Durang is an established writer known for his darkly humorous, satirical, absurdist works, and these include “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You,” “The Marriage of Bette and Boo,” and “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike,” the latter earning a Tony Award for Best Play in 2013.
Thanks largely to Darrin Reed, who’s been involved with Surf City Theatre for a few years and had meaty roles in “The Odd Couple” and “Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” Durang’s work was brought to the attention of the theater board. And then…
But let’s have Reed tell us how it went down.
Short and semi-sweet
“I came up with the idea a couple of years ago,” he explains. “I said, We need something in between shows. And the other thing I wanted to do was expand our base because I like to do shows that are not strictly catered to our audience, to try to draw a younger crowd.”
Reed’s not talking about introducing work that might alienate the existing audience, which does tend to be older, although not exclusively so. Besides, the subscribers most likely became subscribers because they like or prefer the general tilt of what’s being offered every season. Furthermore, they’re the ones keeping the company solvent.
Anyway, Reed suggested to Lisa Leonard, Surf City’s artistic director and executive producer, that they attempt something singularly but not vastly different and then see how it flies.
Okay, but then what would be a good test pilot?
Among the books he owns is “Christopher Durang: 27 Short Plays,” and apparently it was shared among the company’s other board members (who certainly weren’t bored once they began reading).
The initial idea was to present a sampling of plays by different writers.
“But what happened,” Reed says, “was that everybody kept reading Durang and going, ‘Oh my god this is so funny! Oh my god!’”
After a while, the outcome was pretty much assured: Why not just do an evening of Durang?
Five plays were chosen. Two of them seem to be half an hour long, give or take a few minutes, and three are very short: blink twice and you’ll miss them.
The longer plays: “For Whom the Southern Belle Tolls” is a parody of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” This time it’s Lawrence instead of Laura as the withdrawn child, and instead of glass animals it’s glass cocktail stirrers. “Wanda’s Visit” is about what happens when a husband’s former girlfriend shows up 13 years later, and it’s not all cheese and pretzels.
“Mrs. Sorkin” is about a middle-aged suburban matron scheduled to lecture on the meaning of theater. But she’s lost her notes. “Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room” lets us witness what develops when a writer sits down with a new Hollywood producer and she pitches him some crazy ideas. “DMV Tyrant” conjures up trouble with its very title: A lady clerk at the DMV is on one side of the (en)counter, and a man who just wants to renew his driver’s license is on the other.
I think we can see the opportunity for disaster, humorous or otherwise, in all of these. Testing the waters
Darrin Reed’s part here is pretty clear. He’s producing “An Evening of Durang,” which is actually two evenings and an afternoon, but who’s counting?
Apart from his involvement with Surf City Theatre, Reed works professionally as a producer and scriptwriter. He created a show called “Bar Rescues” for Spike TV and a few years ago produced the movie “Lila and Eve,” starring Viola Davis and Jennifer Lopez. As an actor, he looks like he’d be perfect for the role of a police chief… which, now that we’ve mentioned it, is how casting directors have eyed him as well.
He moved to Hollywood from New York 20 years ago, got in line at Pink’s, the hotdog joint on Melrose, thinking it was for a casting call. Someone in line corrected him, but also told Reed the hotdogs were the best, hands down: “So I waited 45 minutes for a hotdog and it was the greatest hotdog I ever had!”
Eventually, Reed found a job bartending in Hermosa Beach, and then 15 years ago moved to Redondo Beach. He can’t say enough good things about the area, with an emphasis on the weather. Although Reed gets to New York periodically to see his parents and brother, he’ll gladly do without New York winters and presumably humid summers as well.
Now, producing and writing (and bartending) may be one thing, but directing is another, and after the Durang plays were greenlighted Reed turned to his fellow thespian Gary Kresca, who seemed perfect for that task.
Kresca has directed plays for Surf City and also the Torrance Theatre Company, plus he’s quite an expressive actor, one you’ll like from the get-go, as we saw recently when he and Reed partnered the leads in Neil Simon’s “The Odd Couple.” So, who better to ask than Gary Kresca to helm “An Evening of Durang”?
That’s not to say he was eager to step in, but Reed had him look over a couple of the plays, maybe twisted his arm a bit, who knows, and before long Kresca was solidly on board.
Reed, of course, was highly pleased “because there are people that (Kresca) had worked with before that he knew could do the comedy. Then we started the audition process and the beauty of it is we got a lot of people from outside the theater to come drive down from Hollywood.”
In other words, some new faces and younger talent. Reed’s only concern was that, once they’d said “yes” that they not renege when they realized just how bad the traffic can be.
Here and there an actor appears in more than one role because, Reed says, “we want to get a different look for each play.”
Naturally, the company is hoping the weekend is a smash success, and as local theatergoers we should be rooting for them as well.
Reed hopes they can present similarly offbeat shows once or twice a year, “plays that are a little off, not mainstream but at the same time (not so unfamiliar) so that most people will at least have heard of them. There’s probably still going to be a lot of subscribers who don’t know who Christopher Durang is, but he’s an established author.”
Reed lets on that perhaps one day they can do a set of originals, and even reveals that he’d like to do a night of “Twilight Zone” episodes: “Maybe four episodes, half an hour each.”
Yeah, go for it!
In the meantime, though, the company won’t be straying far from established, recognizable fare: “Steel Magnolias” is next, scheduled for June 16 to July 1, and we’ll see another Neil Simon next season.
“We have a built-in audience and they love what we do,” Reed says. “So we want to make sure they keep coming back.
“At the same time, I want to give them a little variety. No one will leave (Durang) offended; these plays are just funny. They’re a little weird, a little odd, but they’re not offensive.”
It’s beginning to sound like a safe bed for an entertaining night out.
An Evening of Durang is being presented on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Second Story Theatre, 710 Pier Ave., Hermosa Beach. Tickets, $25. Call (424) 241-8040 or go to surfcitytheatre.com. ER