THE BLOG
12/16/2013 04:14 pm ET Updated Feb 15, 2014

Midwinter's Magical Festival at The Actors' Gang

The Actors' Gang has a treat for the season. Rather like A Midsummer Night's Dream -- this is its "Midwinter's Magical Festival." I saw The Queen Family's Very Special Holiday Special on one of L.A.'s rare cold nights, when you get to wear gloves and mufflers. The Actors' Gang was serving hot cocoa and coffee on the patio. Worst cocoa since hot mayo. Nevermind: This is the best, liveliest show around.

I was cross before we got there. "I'm going to hate this," I said to my friend, "I do not want to laugh. Mandela just died."

"But you have tickets for tonight." My friend is a Ph.D who writes crime novels and tends to look for reason in most moves.

"It's going to be a lot of crazy singing and dancing by no one I know. I'm going to hate it."

"That's an excellent attitude."

"No. But that's my attitude about cheerful shows."

The theatre is dazzling with lights, Christmas ornaments; costumes, zany, festive. You're there about 15 minutes; you are at home. With family. Which is, after all, what is familiar. The true modern family is a composite of many different families, but the Actors' Gang, for me, is one family. We've all learned to invest our energy, our trust in various groups of people we come to heal with, know, to guide, to accept and, even, love. You dive into a pool, hop on a bike, sink into a chair someone's saved for you, and you're in one of your home places.

Tim Robbins must have dreamed of theatre troupes long ago. Troupes were, indeed, real families. They'd paint up a wagon, organize their talents, and take their shows on the road. Gypsies. Homeless artists, figuring out a way to get by. The Actors' Gang remains my favorite L.A. troupe. Maybe the only one you truly come to know, to see your favorites do their star turns. I'm not certain Tim Robbins knows how magical his own presence is.

Unlike most stars he is more an artist, and when he is there at one of the shows he's like a bright kid at his own birthday party who would rather be upstairs making a new plywood airplane which also plays music. I imagine Tim was a merry kid -- loving music, inventing images, falling in love with dances, magic, wild expressions, jokes, and games. This is what the Actors' Gang is made of -- this is what makes its original angle, the characters and talents it finds, so very appealing (even when they're not). Even when you have no idea what the hell they're doing.

Yes, I love everyone. But I do have pets, as one does in every family. Robbins -- goes without saying. But also, I am wild for Adam Jefferis, the guy who played Demetrius with his mustache; this time he knocked me out in the quartet of dancing Santa guys with tight red ever so sexy Santa Claus shorts. (I can remember every curve; and possibly they had bow ties on the adorable green t-shirts.) If you'd like to see more of the boys, here's a tip: catch the 10:00 show on Saturdays.

Then there is Zoë Hall -- a snazzy young star in this show, leaning out of a window, singing about Chanukah. She's also a member of the Amish family with the cups (see to believe). There Zoë plays it mean as toast and just as delicious. She defines zest, and, by the way, watch her eyes: yeah, you can bet she does write those brilliant raunchy nursery rhymes I've heard about. I'd like far more of Zoë. The audience was gleeful, watching her move in her scarlet satin skirt and emerald lamé blouse.

However I was baffled (so was everyone I talked to) by the play on Gravity -- a curious game of "Let's Pretend" which was in a different mode -- more a dense ballet -- for another mode. Another mood. I would also have loved to see this show presented like one of the New Faces shows long ago.

The family-money raising story may have been designed to generate suspense. But the 'plot' becomes a distraction. With so much talent; the suspense is present in every move: can this character really (?!) pull this off? Each performer's originality and mobility springs up, tells a fine story.

Live theatre needs support, but hanging one's Holiday Show on a family which needs money, makes uneasy, not funny, drama. Better to have a lottery: you buy in: if your number comes up you get to join the square dance. The director, Will McFadden, a presence on stage in his red holiday sweater, could pull that off. He has the sophistry. He's choreographed all these choice bon mots into a feast.

But a low point is soon forgotten when suddenly this astonishing long blond woman (Whitney Kirk) begins making sculptures of herself as she literally winds herself way, way up to the top of the theatre on a silk scarf, and spreads her legs, hanging mid air; a golden jet plane, a truly modern angel suspended by a twist of silk, an Art Deco tour de force spinning down at, oh, 70 miles per hour.

And then there's the magician (Michael Rayner). Artful at seeming not of interest, (did he just wander in with his wheelbarrow?) and, it's got a tennis racket, blue drumsticks, orange parasol. And small rubber Rambo doll minus its hand. (What on earth is this?) Tim is such a sweet guy he probably saw him by a newsstand with the stuff and the guy saw Tim and told him, "I always sort of thought I'd like to be in show biz too and I've kind of got these tricks I could..." Tim's heart goes out to everyone, so you guess he said, "I got a spot for you in the new show." Then -- when you're convinced that this wheelbarrow guy is just here for a touch of errant whimsy, then he does... what?! with THAT and THIS as well as! Oh my God! NOT REALLY and you remember when magic meant MAGIC, and required no lights, webs, waves, buttons, texting, Tweeting -- well here's real magic! As there also is with Jason Rodgers (the tap dancer: does he spend evenings tap texting his love with his steely toes?). He taps your socks off; does Gene, Fred, everyone and more. I'd like to see him three times in the show, dancing.

We could sing along. These magicians are of the classic tradition -- also wanted more of wheelbarrow. And more of Mary Eileen O'Donnell who plays the tipsy grandmother; she is heaven; each move has a quirky original resonance, evoking people we've watched, found irritating, crazy, engaging and riveting even so. I'd love her to introduce the show -- then be pulled off -- and go right to Jason the tap dancer.

So where do I get off making suggestions? Well, for one, I'm audience; we, as audience, can feel when our response goes low. The balloon settles on the floor. People frown, "What's going on...?" I think this show could run big and full as one of those old New Faces shows if it didn't distract itself from what everyone absolutely raves over: The music! The magical feats, the characters who set you laughing when they just turn their heads. The bits: witty plays in a nutshell: the Amish family; all so Grant Wood severe. Even Miss Zoë Hall looking grim. And the teenagers: four of the top troupers achieve the art of the hipsters -- loose hip slump; quartet conversing on cell phones. One says, "Do you want to marry me?" The girl shrugs, "Whatever." This exchange is four star perfection.

I do know why I like a play or a movie, how it works for me, and when it doesn't, what I'd do to fix it. And here's how I know.

Long long ago, in the 40s of the last century, my dad was running MGM; And every night the projectionists would come over with massive metal chests. Big as bomber engines, they held all the film shot that day and, if my sister, my brother and I had done our homework, we could watch all the scenes, the screen tests and hear our father give notes to MGM's executive film editor Margaret Booth. There'd be directors there, writers, other producers and occasionally, stars. Margaret had a button, connected to Johnny in the booth, where two projectors sat behind small square windows.

My father went through screen tests fast. By the time an actor got half way across the screen, he'd nod -- or say, "No motor."

We learned a lot about timing, listening to Gene Kelly talking to Arthur Freed or Leslie Caron speaking with Gower Champion. What was boring, what scenes worked, and why some would have to be re-shot or cut out. Basic course in filmmaking. We "took this course" just about every night for ten years. This critical eye. I want to tell everyone that I love every moment of a show, every word of a book, the light in every photograph. I'd rather be liked, be a friend -- but there is so much excellence on stage here, I want perfection.

I loved the moments of audience interaction -- would love even more of that -- and why not wind up with some well-known songs for a Holiday sing along? The Gang is a family, and we want to be part of it, involved. But these are quibbles. You will not have more fun, more delight, and, yes, astonishment anywhere else right now.