San Jose Rep presents The Dressesr …a comic portrait of backstage life.
We are are born at the rise of the curtain and we die with its fall.
Jules Renard

The Dresser examines the backstage relationship between the self absorbed “Sir” played by Ken Ruta and his loyal, too devoted and very alcoholic dresser Norman played to perfection by James Carpenter. The play opens in 1942 during World War II when Britain’s very survival was in danger. We hear the sirens and air raid warnings even as the actors in this struggling repertory theater prepare to present their 227th performance of King Lear. “Sir” is so old that he borders on senility and his body threatens to give out on him. Norman, who has dedicated his entire life to taking care of this aging and decaying and autocratic old man fears his death not just because he will be losing his employer but because he will have to say good bye to the very fabric of his own life. The play is a tribute to theater and the to friendship, loyalty and human spirit of actors facing every kind of trauma both from within with their main character in a state of collapse and without with the world threatening to destroy their country. The show must go on and indeed it does despite falling scenery, failing wind effects, and impending disaster. “This play, which celebrates the power and love of the theater to sustain us, speaks very deeply to me,” says Director Rick Lombardo. “In its celebration of all things theatrical, it also celebrates the power of tradition, work and purpose to give meaning to whatever we do in life.”

The Dresser was written by Ronald Harwood and was based on his own experiences as dresser for the distinguished British actor Sir Donald Wolfit who is the prototype for Ken Ruta’s character. It was first presented in Manchester, England in 1980 and in 1982 was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play. “I am enormously excited to be working on this play with two of the Bay Area’s finest and most beloved actors, Ken Ruta and James Carpenter,” said Lombardo.

For this reviewer, it is James Carpenter who carries the play. He is in his role every moment and despite the many flaws in pacing and direction in the production, when Carpenter is on stage the drama glows. Rachel Harker as Her Ladyship is excellent and very real in her part and the rest of the cast does as well as can be expected with the cumbersome scene changes and dragging movement. The entire performance is runs over two hours and to this reviewer it seemed to go on and on and on. The lines were slow and dragged out until they were finally said and the magic of this beautiful drama of human need mingled with loyalty and love was lost. Only Carpenter managed to keep the audience with him and that is a magnificent achievement since really he did it almost alone.

The acting was good, the sets effective if a bit overdone and David Lee Cuthbert’s lighting masterful. One only wishes that everyone on stage would have just hurried up.

The Dresser continues through February 20, 2011 at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, in San Jose between South 2nd and 3rd Streets
Tickets $35-$74: 408 367 7255 or

Magic Theatre presents Theresa Rebeck’s What We’re up Against….a must see.

In the sex war, thoughtlessness is the weapon of the male,
Vindictiveness of the female.
Cyril Connolly

“I honestly believe that the act of finding humor in real despair is both courageous and life-affirming,” says Theresa Rebeck, author of this world premier drama at The Magic Theatre. “Some people think that comedy is a less-serious form than drama. I would say, ‘far from it’.”

She is speaking about What We’re Up Against the production now playing at The Magic Theatre. The action takes place in the offices of an architectural firm run by David (whom we never see), with Warren David Keith as Stu, outraged at the very thought that a woman like Eliza (Sarah Nealis) could possibly have the brains and the know how to compete with him professionally. James Wagner is the newest member of the firm but because he is male, he is way ahead of Eliza in the office pecking order.

All the discussions in the play revolve around installing problematical air ducts in an expanded shopping center and the immense frustration and anger of the men because the only one who has the solution is Eliza. Rod Gnapp as Ben is nothing short of amazing and acts as the “Devil’s Advocate” in the dialogue. In every argument and each encounter, he always brings the discussion back to the problem no one but Eliza can solve: those ducts. The plot is “An examination of the corporate work place where excellence is trumped by safe, mediocre ‘group think,” says Magic’s Artistic Director, Loretta Greco. “And a slippery ‘survival of the fittest’ mentality.....Nevertheless, despite it’s comedic size of spirit, the play’s gender politics are heartbreakingly true.”

Indeed, while we laugh at the language, the exaggerated bigotry and the hyped-up reactions of the masterful cast in What We’re Up Against,” we weep for Eliza as she comes to terms with the truth no one wants to admit: talent is never enough…nor is it even a deciding factor. Who you know, who you are, what you say and who likes you is a far better barometer of acceptance on the job. Eliza is abrasive, full of herself, haughty and judgmental. She sees Janice (Pamela Gaye Walker) the other woman in the firm as a stupid tool who allows herself to be demeaned and trivialized by the men in the firm and she will have none of it. She is smart. She knows her business and she deserves recognition for what she can do. Why then do the men in the firm hate her? Why do they put her down, ignore her and refuse to give her either work or respect? It has not occurred to her that she must assess the pecking order in the firm and work with it before she can become part of the team. “Of course I’m a malcontent,” she tells Janice. “They shoved me in a corner and ignored me for six fucking months. Only a fucking idiot would be contented with that.”

And Janice counters with, “They ignored me for a full year. When they weren’t asking me to bring them coffee.”

Eliza answers, “Oh so what? You’re better than me because you know how to put up with their bullshit? That doesn’t make you smart. That makes you a pussy.”

Every woman in that audience should have shut her eyes and recalled how many times the guy who knew less than she did got the promotion, or how humiliated she was when the woman who buttered up the boss got the raise. We watch Eliza and if we have taken any notice of the real world, we don’t just cry for her, we weep for us all. “Women’s liberation,” said Gloria Steinem, “Is men’s liberation too.”

We all lose, when ability isn’t recognized. We all pay when excellence is ignored.
“You have an attitude problem,” says Janice to Eliza and then continues, “You come in here with all your ‘I want to learn, I want to work,’ so that then what, you can go off and become Frank Ghehry or I.M. Pei or Julia Morgan?”

But Eliza cannot control her indignation. She knows the answer and they won’t listen. She points to her design and she says, “I’m talented, you motherfucker. I’m fucking talented….” And continues “I came here, you stuck me in a closet and expected me to just take it. You tried to erased me.”

And Bens sees what she is up against. He gets it. “Everybody’s collaborating on shit that is totally corporatized junk, but you still want your mark somewhere.”

”Everywhere I go, these fucking golden boys who are morons, what is it about a pretty boy with no brain that makes all these shitheads with power start singing love songs?” Eliza says, and continues, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. They said it wasn’t like this anymore. Why is it still LIKE this?”

Reality is tough to take and this fast paced production does not spare us. You may laugh at the dialogue, but you will leave that theater realizing how far we have not gone at all. This production shows what everyone of us is really up against. It will grab you by your tail and keep you engrossed from start to finish. The directing is right on the mark, and not a word is wasted. Make no mistake…those scenes aren’t superficial figments of a feminist imagination on a stage. They are the glass walls all of us smack into whether we are black in a white world, Latino in a corporate setting, female in a mechanic’s garage or young in an old boy’s club. Who we are matters more than we dare to admit and all those entrenched attitudes that we SAY have vanished are even harder to fight today because they are frosted with polite talk. In What We’re Up Against, Theresa Rebeck strips away the civilized language. We hear a string of four-letter-words that blacken the picture we hate to believe is really there.

What We’re Up Against continues at Magic Theatre, Building D, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco, CA 94123.
Tickets: ($44-$60) 415 441 8822 or
Preludes: Free introduction to the play: 7:00 -7:30 pm in the lounge. Free glass of wine served.
TalkBACKs after every performance with Magic Theatre artistic staff and artists.