This Labor Day "pay-what-you-can" for two stunning productions at the Lonny Chapman Theatre

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BY JACKIE HOUCHIN

Two stunning, character-driven plays are running concurrently at the Lonny Chapman Theatre in North Hollywood — “A Walk in the Woods,” directed by Richard Alan Woody and performed by two amazing and skilled actors, and Michele Lowe’s “A String of Pearls” directed by Sherry Netherland and performed by four talented actresses who play 27 different characters.

In “A Walk in the Woods,” Larry Eisenberg and Fox Carney star as Andrey Botvinnik, a career Soviet diplomat, and John Honeyman, a passionate young American negotiator, who meet in the peaceful woods outside Geneva, Switzerland sometime in the ’80′s, to see if they can hammer out an arms reduction treaty between their two super power countries.

Botvinnik has made a career out of dodging commitments that might threaten his country’s security, power, and position. He’s cynical, resigned, and uses his bag of avoidance tricks with skill and a touch of offbeat humor.

Fox Carney and Larry Eisenberg in "Walk in the Woods."

Honeyman is new at his job and confident (perhaps overly so) that an agreement can be reached quickly and easily. His budding career with the State Department depends on it, and he’s frustrated by Botvinnik’s constant skirting of the issues and desire to talk about “frivolous” things, like the color of leaves, chasing rabbits, and … friendship.  “Formality doesn’t allow for friendship!” he exclaims. “If we’re not deadly serious, we are wasting the world’s time!”

Eventually Honeyman pushes the Russian to a passionate outburst about the futility of their job. “In a nuclear arms race, we may make progress, but the weapons make more progress. Who steps back first?  Who gives up power? How can there be compromise when only one can win?”

But as the seasons pass and the talks continue without the hoped for treaty, a friendship of sorts grudgingly develops and they begin to understand each other’s fears and frustrations and failures. Nothing is decided in the end, except that one will walk away and the other will stay.

The story covers a span of nine months, from late summer to full spring; a period of “gestation” that ends in abortion. And although the subject matter is dated and the outcome already known, the hope for coexistence and peace is ongoing and universal

“A Walk in the Woods” is an intense, thought-provoking play, well performed and satisfying. As you watch Eisenberg and Honeyman you’ll glimpse how it might have been thirty years ago and how it could still be in today’s top-secret summit meetings. Bravo, gentlemen!

Friday evenings at 8:00 pm and Saturday matinees at 4:00 pm through September 4, 2010 General admission: $22; Seniors & students $17: Groups $15 Information & reservations: (818) 700-4878 or www.thegrouprep.com Lonny Chapman theatre 10900 Burbank Blvd

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“A String of Pearls,” staged with minimal sets and costumes,  follows a single strand of lustrous pearls over a period of 35 years; how it was bought, bestowed, appreciated (or scorned), stolen and sold, unstrung, and believe it or not, swallowed by a fish. This alone would make an interesting tale, but more fascinating are the stories of the women whose lives it touched.

The play opens in the year 2000, with 74 year old “Beth” (Lareen Faye) anticipating the upcoming nuptials of her granddaughter “Amy” (Sean Kathryn O’Connor). She wants the girl to wear the pearls in her wedding, just as her mother had. But although there are photographs of her late mother wearing it, Amy has never seen the necklace herself.  Perplexed and disappointed, Beth reminisces about when the pearls first came to her.

In 1969, at her unappreciative husband’s high school reunion, the frumpy 39 year old Beth is approached by his alluring former girlfriend who looks her over and states frankly that she should demand that Ethan give her a pearl necklace…as he did for her 20 years before. Beth does, with very surprising results. (Warning: an explicit sex scene follows.)

(L-R) "String of Pearls'" Lareen Faye, Kathryn O'Connor, Michele Bernath and Katelyn Ann Clark

1981 finds the necklace in the possession of Beth’s daughter, “Linda” (Michele Bernath) who is renting a basement apartment from a grudging and prudish landlady (Katelyn Ann Clark). The two develop an unlikely friendship (that speaks volumes about the 1980′s) and in a heart wrenching scene, the pearls go to her, instead of Amy, for “a job well done.”

Stolen and bestowed anew, the pearls end up scattered across a hotel room floor when an adulterous tryst turns sour. Forty-two of the lustrous globes are carefully collected by the maid with one lone pearl finding its way to an embarrassingly humorous location.

In an exclusive Paris jewelry store … at the bottom of the Hudson River … around the neck of a corpse … and finally, astonishingly, in the hands of Beth once more, who, alas, unwittingly sends it off on another journey.

Randomly or perhaps specifically, Lareen Faye was chosen to perform the most sexually intimate scenes. She does it with passion and aplomb.

Katelyn Ann Clark handles the “grungy” roles of landlady and mortician with sensitivity and style, her unpretentious yet genuine interpretations of these less than glamorous women is refreshing.

The emotionally charged roles seem to be Michele Bernath’s forte. This versatile actress makes us weep as the terminally ill mother; wince as the survivor of WW II atrocities; and laugh (as well as squirm) as the obese gravedigger looking for love.

Sean Kathryn O’Connor’s “women” are stunning, self-assured, sexy, and spiteful. We envy them and hate them alternately.  As Beth’s granddaughter in both the opening and concluding scenes, she brings closure to the story … and gets a bit of well-deserved come-uppance.

“A String of Pearls” is an ambitious play, but one the Group Rep at the Lonny Chapman Theatre pulls off beautifully.

Saturday evenings at 8:00 pm and Sunday matinees at 2:00 pm through September 5, 2010 General admission: $22; Seniors & students $17: Groups $15 Information & reservations: (818) 700-4878 or www.thegrouprep.com Lonny Chapman theatre 10900 Burbank Blvd North Hollywood, CA 91601

Jackie Houchin is a freelance theater reviewer, covering plays, musicals and readings for the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys. She also reviews books for several mystery magazines and writes articles for a local biweekly newspaper.  www.jackiehouchin.com

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About Karen Young

Karen Young is the founder of My Daily Find.

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