If you are interested in a play about the decadent and sexually-charged 1970’s, run do not walk to The Group Repertory Theatre production of
“Otherwise Engaged” by Simon Gray running Upstairs at The Lonny Chapman Theatre in The North Hollywood Arts District through September 8th.
This is the story of Simon Hench, a sexually indulgent London book publisher whose life falls apart in a matter of two hours as he is visited by
neighbors, friends, relatives, strangers, aspiring writers and even his wife back from out-of-town with late breaking news when all he craves is a
This play is blessed with a life and equilibrium all its own. It is alive from the first taste of Wagner’s “Parsifal” to the last.
Humanity, dark humor and a sort of manic happiness explode from this production’s belly like a torpedo.
Sex is everywhere, everyone seems to be having an affair and children are to be avoided at all costs in Gray’s modern, frank and ripe glimpse
into the mind of a gifted artist going mad.
The playwright, who passed away in 2008, finds the problematic gray middle ground between being genuine and wicked.
The writing is a neon rainbow, a screaming peacock and a deep and abiding analysis of an anti-hero at his most challenged, confused and
The language has a breath, voice and rhythm all its own. It is penned with compassion, great wit and utter delight, but also great insight into
the volatile machinations of the human soul.
In this, the playwright’s masterpiece, even true love and faithfulness somehow find an exit out the back door.
The words sky rocket off the page like an Apollo mission and fill the mouths of the characters like a four-course meal, never seeming artificial or
straying too far from the glories of the human heart.
This play won Best Play from the New York Drama Critics Circle in 1975 and the Drama Desk Award for Best Play (foreign) in 1977.
Gray, a friend and collaborator of the British playwright Harold Pinter, was appointed Commander of the British Empire in 2004 for his service to
Drama and Literature for a career that also included the plays, “Butley,” “Quartermaine’s Terms” and “The Common Pursuit” along with
novels, television plays and a series of witty memoirs.
Director Linda Alznauer brings the disparate characters filling Hench’s flat into focus with a deft, gentle and sensitive touch.
The USC film school graduate fully understands the yearning in each character’s heart of hearts, but is also keenly aware that everyone who enters
Hench’s world on this day wants something from him except for his brother Stephen.
The veteran theatre director and actress directs the play moment-to-moment in real time and allows the actors to be themselves by getting out of the
Alznauer has a very real and bright future as a director because she knows how to stage and sculpt a play from the bumpy beginning to the troublesome
end better than many of her more renowned contemporaries.
This critic would very much like to see her bite off larger productions by more famous playwrights such as William Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill,
Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee.
The Los Angeles and New York City thespian has the talent, drive and theatrical chops to go as far as she desires.
Alznauer assembles a gifted cast that comprehends the unique, complex and naked throughline of the playwright’s work.
Stand outs include:
Fox Carney (Stephen) who almost runs away with the play by giving a confident yet tender turn that foreshadows a bravura portrayal of Hench’s married
father of a brother who is as different from his sibling as one can be. The veteran Group Repertory Theatre actor has excelled in nearly everything he
has done on stage for the company.
This role is no exception. With a toughness that belies a wounded yet galant soul, Carney scores yet again by finding the difficult balance between
sadness and grace.
But it is Michael Robb (Simon) who steals the show with a mesmerizing raw, fluid and natural performance as the deeply flawed book publisher.
In a characterization that embraces both the time and place it is set, the veteran stage and screen performer embodies his character with the zest,
intensity and ferocity of an African lion.
If Robb’s last few turns Upstairs at The Group Repertory Theatre are any indication, this unusual, emotionally edgy and offbeat actor has a deeply
promising future ahead of him cobbled in platinum and gold.
Here he is in every second of every scene as the lynch pin of the production. If he fails, the play follows. But the effusive entertainer misses nary a beat.
This critic would like to see Robb again soon on the stages of North Hollywood and Los Angeles.
Furthering the message of the play are the ingenious set design of Chris Winfield, the innovative lighting design of Kenny Harder, the brilliant
sound design of Steve Shaw and the timely and modern costume design of Victor D’wayne Little.
All in all, “Otherwise Engaged” succeeds because of, not despite, its embodiment of the time and place it is set.
This play is no mere small time dark comedy.
It is a testament to the sex-fueled, materialistic, me first decade that was the 1970’s.
It soars and falls with a new generation at that point in time.
Few other plays embrace their circumstances more vividly, realistically or dramatically.
Gray’s genius lies not in the fact that he does not get involved in the details and specifics of this play enough, but that he gets involved too much.
Only such a caring and daring playwright could write a chronicle or diary of a man losing his mind as well as his grip on life so accurately, poignantly and
soulfully that we, the audience, believe every crazy, tainted and tattered moment truthfully, sincerely and honestly.
That alone is a feat worth rewarding.
A play such as this would not have seen the light of day were it not for the wise appointments of Larry Eisenberg and Winfield as co-Artistic
Directors in 2010.
This perfect pair has brought a bolder, purer, more courageous, artistic and mainstream ambiance, environment and vision to the once
“community theatre” oriented and driven theatre ensemble.
No easy task.
It is with a heavy heart and sad soul that this critic has learned of the departure of both artistic directors come the new year.
One hopes that Doug Haverty, the new Artistic Director, can spark the same genius, spontaneity, determination, confidence and perseverance in the
company that Eisenberg and Winfield did.
But if there is a person and committed group of artists that can get through any difficult and trying transition, it is the multi-talented Haverty, who can
currently be seen both Downstairs and Upstairs and doing the graphics for both shows through September 8th, and this astonishingly resilient family of
theatrical high wire acrobats.
Change seems constant, yet probable, pliable and feasible on Burbank Boulevard.
By Radomir Vojtech LuzaTheatre, Film and Book Critichttp://www.atthetheatrewithRadomirLuza.com
Showtimes (Upstairs)Saturdays at 4 PM,Sundays at 7 PMTalkbacks with cast and staff on Saturday Afternoons, 8/17 and 8/24. After the Matinee. Ticket Prices:General Admission: $20.00Seniors/Students with ID’s: $15.00Information/Reservations: (818) 763-5990WHERE: Second Floor of The Lonny Chapman Theatre at The Group Repertory Theatre at 10900 Burbank Boulevard, North Hollywood, CA 91601 The Upstairs is not handicap accessible.