Los Angeles Theater Review: REVISITING WILDFIRE (Right Down Broadway Productions at the Odyssey)

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by Tony Frankel on July 16, 2011

in Theater-Los Angeles


I was actively angry after the opening of Revisiting Wildfire at the Odyssey Theatre (bad theatre will do that to you). I had to tell myself myself over and over, “No, no. Calm down. No one got hurt. It was just a bad play.” In a state of stymied shock, I could not shake the feeling that this was a showcase of some kind. But a showcase for who? Why would Jamie Rose (Falconcrest), Denise Crosby (Star Trek: TNG) and director Eve Brandstein (ubiquitous television producer and casting director) jump on board with this schlock? How could such a trite script find not just a producer but attract star talent as well?

Jamie Rose and Denise Crosby in REVISITING WILDFIRE.The play: Theresa (Ms. Rose) has lost her job and is now in a boozed-up, sequestered state of depression in a lovely NYC apartment on her birthday. As she consoles herself by listening to the sappy 1975 hit “Wildfire,” Pam (Ms. Crosby), her best friend from Ohio, bursts in unexpectedly because she hasn’t heard from Theresa in months.  But it turns out that Pam has ulterior motives for being there, to wit: a health issue.

These fine actresses are left to flounder for some seventy minutes because the playwright, Kari Floren, has written such a pedestrian, manipulative, irrational, and flat script that suspension of disbelief could only be achieved through Quantum Physics. It’s a spineless remembrance of the 1980’s (including a coke binge) that masquerades as a catharsis of mid-life identity. Are we actually to believe that Theresa is moving to Nebraska in two weeks because she identifies with that syrupy song? Are we to take her move seriously when all she does is drink, be in denial, order snowshoes, and read “Backyard Poultry” magazine? Why is Theresa so irrationally hostile when Pam shows up? The play has nowhere to go, especially given questionable design (monotonous music and blurry projections), specious direction (placement of actors trumped work on their relationship), and illogical casting (Pam is supposed to be thinner than Theresa, yet the comely, full-figured Ms. Crosby is at least three dress-sizes larger than Ms. Rose)

The examples of absurdity and illogicality are too numerous to cite, and frankly a waste of time; there is simply no saving this script. Understandably, my job is to critique the show itself, but a perusal of the program and press release unlocked a sham that is so transparent, self-serving, and shameful that I feel more like a cub reporter with a hot story than a theater critic.

Get ready. The “presenter” of this fatuous script is Right Down Broadway Productions (herein RDBP). This is a 501(c) (3) corporation that is supported by major foundations, funds, and trusts. Led by Michael McKenzie, their goal, according to their press release, is to “bring together disparate elements of the theatrical community and provide original, quality, theatrical entertainment to the Jamie Rose and Denise Crosby in REVISITING WILDFIRE at the Odyssey.public. If invited regional theatres attend, they will not only discover talent and new plays that fit the interests of their communities, but save them money on producing as well.”

Very noble indeed. But of course, if a regional theatre does pick up a production such as this, the producers stand to make some cash; if it goes to Broadway, it can lead to a very bloated bank account. The very long mission statement ends with, “Weaving together an imaginative group uniquely suited to each project, we provide opportunities for experienced and underserved theater professionals. Audiences are rewarded with exposure to fresh ideas and new faces as well as compelling, entertaining theatre.”

Sounds almost like producers as philanthropists of some kind, yes? Yet, their web site tells us otherwise: Wildfire’s playwright Kari Floren is the Producing Artistic Director and Director of Development for RDBP. Astoundingly, all five of their produced shows (including Wildfire) have been written by none other than the same Kari Floren. Plus, “under the leadership” of executive producer Michael McKenzie, Denise Crosby and Jamie Rose in REVISITING WILDFIRE at the Odyssey.RDBP has seen fit to cast Michael McKenzie in most of their plays. Fittingly, McKenzie is also one of five of the folks on RDBP’s Board of Directors.

Inside Wildfire’s program, the producers especially thank artist Martha Sedgwick (a painting of hers takes up half a page in the program, but could not be found anywhere on the set). Ms. Sedgwick is also on the Board of RDBP, and she did the graphics on Wildfire. Moreover, the only ad in the program is for the on-line degree program of CUNY (City University of New York), of which board member Brian Peterson is the Associate Dean. Also on the board is a model/actor/gardener turned Roman Catholic Priest.

Sure, a board member may want ad space for their contributions to a production company, but what kind of “Advisory Board” is this when the goal seems to be the careers of Florin and McKenzie?

Discreditable, to say the least. But who cares if artists want to promote and better their goods in the guise of doing a service to the theater world at large? You gotta do what you gotta do to get noticed these days. Certainly, if the ambiguous altruism translated as new works that deserved attention, I would not protest. However, two reviews from previous productions shed light on Ms. Floren’s inability to hear criticism and incorporate it into her subsequent works.

RDBP’s website quotes Backstage’s 2007 review of Floren’s If Wishes Were Horses: “Her play has heart and dramatizes a situation many may find all too familiar.” But read the entire original review and you’ll find: “She’s handicapped by her plot…and by an uneven production…lines are often too on-the-nose… jarring tonal shifts…the theme should be integrated throughout the drama…lingers in a situation rather than following a story.”

The same could be said about Revisiting Wildfire.

Also on the website, compliments were culled from Backstage for another Floren play, Voices of Swords, but snippets of the same 2008 review mirrored my thoughts about Wildfire exactly: mediocrity, spiky and staid development, low stakes, unnecessary backstory, and ultimately unsuccessful as a drama. The reviewer also noticed that Floren focused on coming to terms with the past with such line openings as “Remember the time…” and “You were always…”

By God, Floren does it again here.

Jamie Rose and Denise Crosby in REVISITING WILDFIRE at the OdysseyA major reason that Regional Theaters do not check out more local plays, especially in Los Angeles, is the huge number of showcases masquerading as “fresh ideas and compelling, entertaining theater.” Regional theaters have dramaturgs and literary agents who know a stinker when they read it. Perhaps Floren and McKenzie (and their ilk) would better serve the theater community by using the money they raise to stand firmly behind their mission statement: “Fostering leadership and unity in the theater community and bringing high-quality, deserving, well-developed projects to the Off-Broadway stage.”

To revisit the lyrics of “Wildfire,” here’s hoping the theater world will bust down some of these stalls before we get lost in the blizzard of self-serving showcases. Talk about a killing frost.

photos by Elisha Schaefer

Revisiting Wildfire
Odyssey Theatre
scheduled to end on July 31, 2011
for tickets, visit www.RevisitingWildfire.com or call 310-477-2055

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