I’ll confess it up front: for the first 6 or 7 minutes of Michael Matthews’s production of Philip Dawkins’s Charm, my heart sank. I thought the pre-show music was too loud and irritating; the opening monologue by Mama Darleena Andrews (Lana Houston) too precious and over-the-top; the introductory scene between Mama and D (Rebekah Walendzak) too broadly played; and then, when the rest of the cast entered, the decibel level of everything took a flying leap past my pain threshold, plus I couldn’t understand a word that was said for at least a full minute. I was very uncomfortable.
Before long, I realized that was precisely the point. This jarring opening was orchestrated brilliantly by director Matthews, to make the audience uncomfortable, and prepare us viscerally for the jangly-nerved atmosphere to come. For Charm isn’t an “easy” play. It takes place in an ugly room at an LGBT youth center in Chicago – the appropriately unattractive set is by Archer Altstaetter, lighting by Matthew Brian Denman, costumes by Allison Dillard, and sound by Cricket S. Myers – and is populated by an unruly group of trans youth who have signed up to be taught by Mama how to be polite.
Mama presents her motives as pure. As a 60-something trans woman, she had no role models growing up, and thus has volunteered to give this class so today’s trans kids will not only have someone older and experienced to look to, but will also learn what Mama regards as lifesaving information: everyone can have charm and manners, she insists, no matter their talents, shortcomings, or station in life.
The kids are a handful and then some. Dominating the room are warring divas Ariela (Esteban Andres Cruz), a Latin spitfire who turns tricks to make a living, and Jonelle (Armand Fields), a tall black queen who matches Ariela insult for insult. Victoria (Shoniqua Shandai) and Donnie (Tre Hall) are a couple – she’s sweet but what could be called “slow,” and he’s recently out of prison, where he fell in love with a fellow (male) prisoner he calls his “girlfriend.” Beta (Ashley Romans), glowering dangerously in hat and shades, always sits off in a corner, throwing in jabs every once in awhile, while Lady (Chris Aguila), painfully pale and thin, and in an ill-fitting dress, looks perpetually lost, occasionally talking to himself. The group is joined by Logan (Alexander Hogy), who’s not trans – just gay! – but who wants to sit in and observe for a school project.
Mama’s boss, if such a term can be used for a volunteer overseer, is D, one of the center’s put-upon administrators, good-hearted but under pressure to come up with programs to fit the Center’s mission and help the kids – yet keep controversy in check, lest Board members and donors get upset.
Mama, impeccably dressed and well-spoken, uses as her Bible an ancient copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette, trying to make these street kids understand that good manners are the basis of civilization. She believes – perversely but probably correctly – that the artifice of “charm” can help mitigate the dread reality of these kids’ lives, and lead them to a better place.
It’s an uphill struggle for some of them, but Mama eventually wins everyone over. Which is a good thing, for them and for her – for while Mama’s motives may seem pure, there’s more to it than she lets on. Seems that Mama, for all her talk of her many “girlfriends” and chic lunches and shopping sprees, is just as alone and lonely as many of the kids – she needs this connection as much as they do. And while Mama is filled with empathy – in one of the plot twists, she uncovers a secret one of the characters carries, and offers protection and love – she can be as fallible as anyone in misdiagnosing others’ motives and feelings; one result is a vengeful attack which almost brings the “charm school” crashing down.
As is to be expected at Celebration, the acting is first-rate, as is Mr. Matthews’s direction. Though there are dozens of fine moments, two in particular stand out, both in the first act: when Mama tells the kids how important it is not only to pay compliments, but also to return them, Ms Shondai’s Victoria zooms around the room, pigeon-holing each of her compatriots with heartfelt, sometimes bizarre compliments. It’s hilarious and heart-breaking in equal measure, as this “slow” girl desperately tries to make a human connection with everyone.
Not too long after, Mama shows the kids how to dance – “for real.” It starts awkwardly – who knows how to waltz in this group? – but gradually morphs into a beautifully-staged, dreamlike fairy-tale ball, which, soaring, is abruptly shattered by Mr. Aguila’s explosive no-holds-barred breakdown, as Lady – alone by the side of the dance floor – shrieks in pain, confusion, and despair. Just as Lady – and we – begin to recover, another character compares Lady to… I won’t spoil it here, but suffice to say it’s enough to change the scene from tragic to hilarious in a spectacular second. It’s a dazzling scene, in the writing, the direction, and the acting, and you will find yourself crying and laughing at the same time.
The play isn’t perfect. While Mr. Dawkins has given each character at least one moment to shine, and Mr. Matthews has staged each of them with his usual attention to detail, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. A moment designed to bring a tear to the eye and a catch to the throat can be wonderful, but when it happens for every character, the effect is diluted: too much pathos leads to bathos.
And the ending, with a hospitalized Mama meeting a white-clad Emily Post, and then being surrounded by her adoptive brood, is puzzling. Is she dead? Was she dead, and then came back? Was she just hallucinating? Huh? It’s unsatisfying, and leaves us with a question mark where we’d prefer a period (or, better yet, an exclamation point!)
But no matter. Charm is charming, to be sure, but also fierce and funny and moving and uplifting: a fine way to begin Celebration Theatre’s second season at The Lex. Last year’s inaugural season was a triumph, and it’s clear this dynamic theatre is on a roll. Bravo!
Written by Philip Dawkins
Directed by Michael Matthews
Through October 23
Celebration Theatre @ The Lex
6760 Lexington Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Tickets: 323-957-1884 or www.celebrationtheatre.com