“Breaking Legs”: Simpler Times, Simpler Crimes

When “high crimes and misdemeanors” are making headlines, we may need to get away and laugh a bit. Currently, Oxnard’s Elite Theatre offers a retreat to a simpler (if only imaginary) world where crime may pay, but it definitely isn’t organized.

Tom Dulak’s Breaking Legs throws together a play-writing college prof and three goombahs; he’s hoping they’ll finance his latest script. They meet in a restaurant one of the fellas owns, where his daughter (who’s near 30 and unwed) is the manager.

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Larry Shilkoff, John Comstock, Reef Noelle, Ray Mastrovito (photo: LJ Stevens)

The story shows us the clash between their worlds, and the little bits they have in common. One thing they share is the title phrase, a tradition in both the theatre and the mob – but with very different meanings. Another is murder: The prof’s latest play examines it philosophically, while the would-be investors have, um, more hands-on knowledge. Indeed, the play’s turning point comes when they enact a murder before his eyes (but, mercifully for us, offstage).

Two worlds colliding is the basis of this comedy, but the best of it comes from the characters. They seem like familiar cartoons – yet each bounces like a pinball between who they are and who they imagine themselves to be.

The professor (Will Carmichael) thinks he’s superior but flounders in every scene, trying to swim in shark-infested waters and salvage a scrap of dignity. Lou (John Comstock), the restaurant owner, likes to play the genial host – but he’s so charmed by his own voice that he can barely hear anyone else. And Tino (Ray Mastrovito), the senior mobster, tries for the silent wisdom of a don but can’t hide his timid naivete.

Mike (Larry Shilkoff) is the one the others actually defer to – he’s clearly the smartest, and has an unsettling ability to play hardball. But given a shot at Broadway, Mike also reveals a hidden side – a secret showbiz fan, he itches to get his hands in making art. Mike drives most of the play, and Shilkoff makes the ride worth the price of a ticket.

Lou’s daughter Angie (Bethany D’Ambra) is a part waiting to be written. Typical of playwriting 30 years ago, Dulak has thought about how others see the play’s only woman, but not about how she sees herself (and them). In her stage debut, D’Ambra tries steadily to let Angie emerge – but the playwright has her boxed in.

Frankie (Reef Noelle) has a similar problem. He’s a deadbeat, who’s been invited here to be whacked, so we don’t get to know him or see him change. Noelle, an opera singer, throws all he’s got into it, but the container’s too small.

Despite these weaknesses, Breaking Legs is an amusing, fast-paced tale. These artists have tucked some fun Easter eggs into the mix, nods to classic comedy. And it’s a welcome relief to spend an evening with folks whose moral failures don’t threaten the republic.
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Breaking Legs, by Tom Dulak, directed by Allan D. Noel.
Presented by the Elite Theatre Company at the Elite mainstage, 2731 S. Victoria Ave., Oxnard 93035.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 2:00,
through March 24th.

Tickets: <www.elitetheatre.org>

 

“America Adjacent” shines light in a hidden corner

Immigration is a hot political issue. Theatre must, of course, address it — but not by lecturing or arguing. Theatre’s way is to bring together characters and audiences, and let the characters’ stories become part of the audience’s lives. It’s a kind of magic.

Seven women are performing that magic right now, at the Skylight Theatre. In America Adjacenta smart, densely packed new play by Boni Alvarez, they’re creating the experience of a group of women who’ve come to America from the Philippines.

[Sandy Velasco, Toni Katano, Arianne Villareal (photo: Ed Krieger]

But these aren’t your usual immigrants. In fact, they’re not immigrants at all. One is a US citizen, and the other six have arrived not to become Americans — but to give birth to them. They’re pregnant, and  babies born here have automatic US citizenship. For mothers-to-be from Asia, LA is the place to come. This semi-clandestine practice, called “birth tourism,” isn’t actually illegal — but ICE swiftly deports any woman they suspect.

Of course, we don’t know any of this when the lights come up. We just watch woman after woman enter an apartment living room jammed with recliner chairs being used as beds. The five of them are pregnant and keeping a low profile — no noise, no going out except to the back yard. They remind each other of the rules, bicker when one returns from a forbidden off-site jaunt, and invoke the feared power of “The Administrator.”

Then there’s a knocking at the door. Everyone hides. The administrator bursts in, bringing food, housekeeping supplies and a newcomer, a “country girl” who gets teased by the others (who are from cities – Manila, Quezon, Davao, Cagayan.) The administrator, no older than they are, chastens and warns them while taking the new resident’s money and passport “for safekeeping.” They complain that they haven’t seen Hollywood or Disneyland, as promised. We wonder — as do they — whether the administrator is honest or running a racket.

Later, when the newcomer follows the rule-breaker out the back gate and into the wilds of LA, we begin to realize just how innocent and at risk these women are. And we learn, as they talk and wonder, how profoundly going to America to have a baby has disrupted every one of their lives. None of them is sure what she will find when she returns home (and none can imagine the “reverse culture shock” that awaits).

Enough plot. The heart of this play is the women – the state of anxiety they live in, triggered by everything from jets flying over to sirens and door knocking. And the threads of pleasure they grasp – sharing memories and songs, choosing baby names, peering over the back fence into the lives of a neighboring couple.

The actors, who work together as smoothly as an ensemble company, bring the women clearly to life. Toni Katano floats as a languid courtesan who may be losing her position, while Samantha Valledon’s country girl vibrates with fear but drives the group to hard questions. Evie Abat, as the rule breaker, nicely hides the anguish of postpartum depression beneath her daredevil exterior; Arianne Villareal’s timid piety, meanwhile, concealsan awful, complex secret. Angela Baesa deftly portrays the anxious peacemaker, while Sandy Velasco shines at injecting playfulness – and hope – into the stress-filled mix. Hazel Lozano’s administrator surprises us with her youth, her briskness, and her caring.

Director Jon Lawrence Rivera keeps these several brooks running swift and clear; his pace allows the moments in Alvarez’s text to pop like fireworks, keeping us as off-balance as the anxious women. Christopher Scott Murillo’s set gives us familiarity and discomfort, and Mylette Nora’s costumes mark the characters and their uncertain perch in an unknown world.

America Adjacent is a world premiere that addresses an explosive political issue. “What an indictment of our messed-up system,” a seat mate said afterward. But Alvarez’s text, and Skylight’s lively, skillful staging, introduce this American story – one few of us are aware of – by letting us live in a hidden corner of the immigrant experience. Come to the little theatre in Los Feliz and let it open your world.

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America Adjacent, by Boni B. Alvarez, directed by Jon Lawrence Rivera.

Presented by Skylight Theatre Company, at the Skylight, 1816-½ N. Vermont Ave., LA 90027.

Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30,
Sundays at 3:00,
Mondays (in March) at 8:00;
through March 24.

Tickets: <http://SkylightTix.org>