Theater Review: YELLOW (World Premiere by Del Shores at the Coast Playhouse in West Hollywood)

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by Harvey Perr on June 30, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles


The Westmorelands of Vicksburg, Mississippi, are, on the surface – at least when one first encounters them – just too perfect for words. Bobby and Kate have been married for nineteen years and are still in a state of wedded bliss, he still romantic with her, she still horny for him. Their son Dayne is cut from the same ideal genes; he is blonde and blue-eyed and the football hero of Vicksburg High, where his father is coach, and he is certain to be on the winning side of the big game. Mom, who, of course, knows best, is a therapist, though it’s hard to tell, under such precious circumstances, who would need her services. Gracie, their daughter, can be a little bitch but, after all, aren’t all teen-age girls lovable little bitches? She wants to grow up to be Meryl Streep, but though she is most assuredly blessed with acting talent, she can’t sing, and the big production this year is Oklahoma! She knows, and we know, she won’t get the part of Laurey, but that just makes for happy grousing. There is a gay uncle whom we never meet – maybe he’ll show up on a future episode (oops, this is a play, isn’t it?, and not a sitcom) – but, thanks to him, the Westmorelands are absolutely giddy about the presence of homosexuality in Mississippi. So, it is no wonder that Kendall Parker, Gracie’s young friend – who doesn’t know yet that he’s gay but whose jaw literally drops whenever a shirtless Dayne walks into the room – would rather hang out with them instead of at home with his Bible-thumping mom, Sister Timothea Parker, who thinks that everything is a sin and should be exorcised whenever and wherever encountered. Familiar? Well, sure, they are every perfect family from that era in television history when all families were perfect, except maybe that one little bratty kid that nobody takes seriously but everybody adores just the same, because she and her tantrums provide amiably strident comic relief.

It is in this irony-free environment that Del Shores’s Yellow goes on for some time, making it nigh-impossible to know if he’s pulling our collective leg and just having fun with the genre or if he’s dead serious and loves these ridiculously cliché-ridden people. Well, we know he doesn’t like the Bible-thumper because she is decidedly a caricature of aggressively pushy unenlightenment. But, despite the obviousness (or perhaps, because of it), we are not entirely sure whether to laugh at her or throw tomatoes or just give her the proverbial hook.

And then, as they say in less polite society, the shit hits the fan. Everything that could go bad – starting with Dayne turning yellow (is the title a metaphor or is it the merely the color in his eyes?) and developing a rare and possibly fatal liver disease – goes terribly bad. From sitcom territory, Shores drifts off into the land of turgid melodrama. So, if the first act is a drawn-out set-up in one tired style, it adopts another tired old style when what is actually intended, I’m pretty sure, is to show what happens when the perfect family is forced to face reality. But reality, in this case, is as fake and time-worn as the fantasy is overly familiar.

And yet, and this is nothing less than a miracle, we really do care about these people; they become more and more persuasive as the evening moves on and, no matter how reluctant we are to buy into their tiresome ordinariness, we get profoundly caught up in their human behavior and, once we do, we realize that something real has been brewing from the moment the curtain went up on the lovingly detailed Westmoreland suburban home, which Robert Steinberg has designed and which Kathi O’Donohue has lit with such imagination. It starts with the genuine affection and sexual longing which David Cowgill and Rachel Sorsa Khoury (who played Kate at the performance I attended) project, even though the moonlit sky they are under is a big fat cornball joke. At the end, when their relationship has gone through what seem like almost too many horrific goings-on for a single couple to experience, the power of their performances stands out. Cowgill is memorably vivid in one dramatic outburst. And Ms. Khoury’s combination of anguish and anger is as bruising as her seething sexuality is cleansing. Luke McClure as the dying son reveals a tenderness that brings tears to the eyes. The transformation of Evie Louise Thompson from a self-absorbed little pain-in-the-neck to a self-aware adolescent struggling with growing pains is genuinely convincing. Even Susan Leslie’s religion-rattled harridan taps into some deep maternal instinct and becomes touchingly credible. But it is Matthew Scott Montgomery – as Kendall, the potentially gay, musical-comedy-loving young boy – who gives the evening’s most triumphant performance. At first, his jaw-dropping seems silly, a gay cliché if ever there was one, but, upon reflection, we see that it is precisely the right unashamed behavior for someone who doesn’t yet understand who or what he is to honestly exhibit. As he grows before our eyes, we genuinely like him, and the grasp he finally gets on his own true self is lovely to observe.  This may be the best ensemble work one is likely to see for some time.

In answer to the theater’s unwritten law that playwrights should never direct their own plays, I offer up Del Shores as a contradiction of that law; I defy any director to do a better job than Shores has done. As a matter of fact, I think that Shores is a better director than he is a playwright. He knows, against all dramaturgical odds, what works in the theater. He trusts his actors and allows them to display their strengths even when it is hard to tell what style or mode he himself, as writer, has tried to explore. He has taken his his own sow’s ear of a play and turned it into a silk purse of a theatrical evening, making it one of the main events of the Los Angeles theater season.

photos by Rosemary Alexander

Coast Playhouse, 8325 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on July 25, 2010 EXTENDED to December 19, 2010
for tickets, visit Yellow by Del Shores

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