Disclaimer: I first saw Joe Spano with Julie Paine and others in a version of Dracula at the Zephyr in Hollywood in the seventies. Then, much later, I shared a dressing room with him while working on the pilot of Trapper John, M.D. The guy is a terrific actor and a friend. That said, Spano’s character, Marty, is the hub around which the plot of Jessica Goldberg’s world premiere play, BETTER, turns.
Jennifer Chambers’s direction of Goldberg’s new play keeps the action cooking with the audience’s attention drawn left and right to represent several locations as the story unfolds. We find ourselves at once remembering the not so distant past in small town Ohio as well as dealing with maturing siblings and others in the present day.
Marty (Spano) is the patriarch of his family and has supported them by owning and operating a grocery store successfully for years. His stage four cancer has him on his last legs as his children return home to comfort their mother, Laurie, (lovely Sigute Miller) and spend time with their failing dad.
As the daughter, Annie, Meredith Bishop, brings life to a young woman pushing forty who is beginning to question her life’s pathway. Middle age crazy or crisis is going around as she arrives back home reluctantly morphing from her adult self as a mother and owner of her own restaurant in New York, to the teen she was while growing up in small town Ohio. Annie’s battle with her past, her present and her future is well presented as she reunites with her high school squeeze, Frank (Malcolm Madera) who is now an older, divorced, handsome and very “interested” contractor who is assessing issues with Marty and Laurie’s aging house.
Goldman is not Arthur Miller, however the depths of her appreciation for the feeling of family Miller exudes in Death of a Salesman and All My Sons creeps in. Strong personalities clash and clatter. We meet John, Annie’s brother (pumped Jeremy Maxwell), a health nut with pressing issues that may land him in jail back in California. Maxwell’s rapid speech made some of the exposition a bit difficult to follow, but as with all of BETTER’s characters, he imbues his disappointed initials in the fabric of the play. Frank’s Ex, Missy (far out Andrea Grano), inserts herself into the situation and winds up in the sack (well, heels to the ceiling in an easy chair!) with John!
Annie’s husband and father of their child, Cal (slick Johnathan McClain) is a successful and very self involved self help guru who admits that he has lost the ability to see the future. Annie has also had serious thoughts about her life goals while being prodded by Marty to take over the family business.
Marty’s aging and confused mother, Anya (Eve Sigall) is slightly out of sync with the rest of the cast, none the less, the importance of this woman also near the end of her life, brings the story full circle.
BETTER moves well with great energy that hurries the pace now and then, but brings each character and their issues solidly together. The comparison with Arthur Miller’s work is mostly about the relationships of the characters to one another. Eight different people with eight agendas that are all focused on one goal. The conflicts are real.
Stephen Gifford’s beautifully executed set with subtle lighting by R. Christopher Stokes creates the perfect atmosphere for the story to unfold. Goldberg’s ability to bring these three dimensional characters to life: emerging through twenty months of workshopping by The Echo pays off.
BETTER by Jessica Goldberg
The Echo Theatre Company
@ The Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039
Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays
Through November 16, 2014
Tickets and information
310 307 3753