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Summer Chills

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

It's official: Southern California is experiencing a heatwave. As if to coincide with Mother Nature's warm temperatures, the Matrix Theater in Hollywood recently hosted the world premiere of a new play with perhaps the hottest title of the season, a new work entitled Sex, Sex, Sex, Sex, Sex, and Sex.

Some people may pass out just hearing the title, but sadly there's very little heat on stage in this ensemble piece that's ostensibly about love--or what people mistake for love--in today's society. In fact though, Sex, Sex, Sex, Sex, Sex, and Sex acts as a sort of theatrical air conditioning. Despite flashes of nudity, Sex to the sixth power is bound to leave most audiences cold.

One does have to give the play's 73 year-old author George Furth some credit as Sex, Sex, Sex, Sex, Sex, and Sex is ambitious. The 18-character play does attempt to deal with the existential problems Eros creates, just as 25 years ago Furth attempted to inject the Broadway musical with a more modern sensibility in the groundbreaking work Company.

But there, Furth had his frequent collaborator Stephen Sondheim on hand to write some truly inspired songs--and it's these musical numbers that continue to make Company feel timeless. Sadly, the tuneless Sex, Sex, Sex, Sex, Sex and Sex has only been running for about a month and a half, and yet it already feels dated.

For those wanting to experience a different kind of theatrical chill this summer, the Pacific Resident Theatre is currently presenting the West Coast Premiere of Daisy Foote's When They Speak of Rita.

The play opens on a freezing New Hampshire January day and director Karen Landry's intimate staging is so effective that when actor Dan Verdin walks in the door shivering at the start of the play, you may find yourself wishing you brought a scarf to the theater.

But the literal frost of New England is nothing compared to the emotional chills that Foote's kitchen sink drama provides. When They Speak of Rita is subtle, insightful, and unafraid to look at American family life with both a critical but compassionate eye.

Like her father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Horton Foote, Daisy Foote has patience and a light touch, which allows for characterizations to build slowly and naturally. She doesn't yet have the graceful mastery of structure that the older Foote's work exhibits, but a few awkward scene breaks are all this otherwise excellent play can be faulted with.

Besides showing its superior instincts by staging this worthy American play, Pacific Resident Theatre also has assembled a first rate cast for this production. Joanna Daniels is a beautifully tender Rita, but most impressive is the actress's unwillingness to let the mother simply be a victim. Daniels creates Rita as a complex, lovable, but genuinely troubled soul. Her performance calls to mind the sensitivity of the actress Hallie Foote (Daisy's older sister) but never approaches imitation.

Equally strong is the actor playing Rita's road agent husband, Dan Verdin. One could not ask for more physically perfect casting, but Verdin's voice and gestures prove to have as many layers as his ample gut.

Scott Jackson's performance as Rita's ambitious son Warren bursts with energy; but it's Michael Redfield (as young Jimmy Reeves) who is the real find of this production. Not only does Redfield nail the -wicked- New England accent, but the young actor is able to quietly indicate, from his first moment on stage, the motivations that his character can't openly reveal until much later in the play.

Summer may not be the season when most people want to hunker down and watch a heavy domestic drama, but Foote's play is worth making an exception for. When They Speak of Rita may not be splashy or hip, but it's short and powerful and the heat of its characters' passions will likely remain with you long after this summer's record temperatures have cooled.

Daisy Foote's When They Speak of Rita continues at the Pacific Resident Theatre in Venice through August 7. George Furth's Sex, Sex, Sex, Sex, Sex and Sex continues at the Matrix Theater through Sunday.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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