A Place at Forest Lawn

[The following review will appear in Variety the week of October 30th.]

As one ages, priorities and perspectives change. At such a time, with thoughts moving from the moment to the eternal, we find retired entertainment industry buddies Clara, Gertrude, and Albert at the Forest Lawn Rest Home in Hollywood, California—where their past secrets inform their present denial.

If Luke Yankee and James Bontempo's world premiere of their award-winning script (winner of the 2003 New Noises Playwriting Award and a 2004 Palm Springs International Playwrights Festival Finalist) seems slow-paced, that's because the yet cantankerous and kicking residents of this upscale rest stop on the highway to kingdom come are painfully aware that the next leg of their journey is the last; yet there's plenty of humor at the gallows.

With some minor exceptions, director Terry Dodd deftly navigates his seasoned cast through the script's bombshells and mine fields. Like the proverbial gun on stage, a stainless steel casket at the opening curtain sets the tone for what's to come—while Clara, Gertrude, and Albert debate the merits of the latest funeral service by the local new age Catholic priest, not far off Clara's long-absent son, Jack is on his way to the site, expecting to find his mother dead after receiving a bill for a $75,000 mausoleum.

Photo of Left to Right, Patty Mintz Figel as Gertrude and Judy Phelan-Hill as Clara
(L to R) Patty Mintz Figel as Gertrude
and Judy Phelan-Hill as Clara
Photo: P. Switzer
Judy Phelan-Hill, the formidable and hard-boiled Clara, is masterfully understated, delivering her punch lines, both sarcastic and solemn, with timely effect. Clara's best friend, Gertrude, develops from fastidious eccentric to forgiving saint in a finely-tuned performance by Patty Mintz-Figel.

When cell phone and Blackberry-obsessed Jack arrives looking to hear the bad news from his "Aunt" Gertrude and instead finds his mother alive, the plot lines kick in, and the well-guarded secrets that change each character's relationship with the others are gradually revealed.

Reacting to Clara's steady stream of revelations, Marcus Waterman, as the live-wire son, provides all the infusion of contemporary commercial compulsiveness that the drama needs to make us appreciate the considerations of the geriatric mind.

Photo of Left to Right, Jordan Leigh as Sonny and Marcus Waterman as Jack
(L to R) Jordan Leigh as Sonny and
Marcus Waterman as Jack
Photo: P. Switzer
The contrast between Jack and his two boomer contemporaries—the rest home's van driver and Walkman-adorned stoner from LALA land, Sonny, and the Aquarian-minded priest who gets no respect, Father Gabriel—raises compelling questions around the definition of meaningful work and offers a telling counter-point to the misleading self-images nurtured by the old folks.

The truth-saying fool in this mix is the man of a thousand faces, Jordan Leigh, who fits Sonny like a glove—whether rolling a joint while schlepping his senior charges on the freeway, giving advice to all in need of chilling out, or providing compassion and pharmaceuticals for his elderly friends.

With obvious relish, William Denis plays the former actor Albert, whose embellishments of romances with starlets and dinner parties with studio bosses would put Barrymore to shame. Eyes sparkling as he regales us, Denis is every bit the smoking jacket clad, cane-tapping former matinee idol that Albert has made himself out to be.

Josh Gaffga transfigures Father Gabriel from a fresh-faced novice who releases balloons at funerals (symbolizing the departing spirit) to a confidant worthy of his frock.

Yankee and Bontempo cleverly interweave a slew of issues around death and dying with a cohesive dramatic arc between mother, son, and best friend, producing a tapestry in which forgiveness brings a final peace.

The Arvada Center's world premiere of A Place at Forest Lawn runs through November 13th. 720-898-7200.

Bob Bows


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