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Eleanor Roosevelt: Still Waiting for Her Closeup

Peter Dreier

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Olivia Williams (left) as Eleanor Roosevelt. (Photo: Nicola Dove)

Many younger Americans probably know very little about Eleanor Roosevelt, and if their first encounter with her is the new film Hyde Park on Hudson, what they’ll learn is incredibly misleading and inaccurate. Other films – including Sunrise At Campobello (1960), the two-part Eleanor & Franklin HBO mini-series (1976), Eleanor, First Lady of the World (1982) and Warm Springs (2005) – have depicted different aspects of her life. But Hollywood can’t seem to make a film that accurately portrays the depth and influence of Eleanor’s radicalism.

Hyde Park on Hudson focuses on the relationship between her husband, President Franklin Roosevelt (played by Bill Murray) and his distant cousin Margaret “Daisy” Stuckley (Laura Linney) during a weekend in 1939 when the King and Queen of England are visiting the Roosevelts at their second home in upstate New York. The film shows FDR and Stuckley having a sexual love affair, although many historians believe that their relationship was primarily a flirtation. Given its focus on the affair, perhaps it is not surprising that the film treats Eleanor (Olivia Williams) primarily as a ceremonial helpmate whose major function was to help FDR negotiate the social rituals of being president. In the film, the biggest controversy Eleanor dealt with was whether to serve hot dogs to the British royals.

In reality, Eleanor’s life – before she met FDR, during the 12 years she served as First Lady and after FDR died in 1945 – was filled with important public controversies, including her activism around such issues as workers’ rights, civil rights, women’s rights and human rights. She became FDR’s most important, and most progressive, adviser. FDR was the most powerful president in American history, and Eleanor (who died 50 years ago last month) wielded her own power, sometimes behind the scenes but often in public, breaking the mold for first ladies. No first lady before or since – not even Hillary Clinton – has had as much influence while her husband was president.

Eleanor consistently pushed FDR to the left on key issues and appointments. The left-leaning members of FDR’s inner circle (including Labor Secretary Francis Perkins, Agriculture Secretary, and later Vice President, Henry Wallace and Harry Hopkins, who formulated and ran many New Deal relief programs) often conspired with Eleanor to make sure he heard the views of progressive activists.

Throughout her life, Eleanor fought on behalf of America’s, and the world’s, most vulnerable people. Over time, she became friends with a widening circle of union activists, feminists, civil rights crusaders and radicals whose ideas she embraced and advocated for – both as FDR’s wife and adviser and as a political figure in her own right.

Born in 1884 and descended from a long line of privilege, Eleanor nevertheless had a difficult childhood. Her father, Elliott Roosevelt, was an early influence on her social consciousness, taking her with him when he visited the Children’s Aid Society or served up Thanksgiving dinner to newsboys. By the time Roosevelt was 10, both her parents had died. She was sent to live with her maternal grandmother, a formidable woman who wanted to groom her for New York’s elite society. Her prominent relatives included her uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, who became president when Eleanor was 17.

Her early education consisted of a private tutor and a year in an Italian convent school. Her first and most influential mentor was Marie Souvestre, who ran Allenswood, a feminist, progressive boarding school for girls outside London that Eleanor attended from 1898 to 1902. The school taught classical languages and the arts, and Souvestre gave Roosevelt special instruction in history and philosophy. Souvestre was a demanding thinker who challenged her students with her liberal ideas against colonialism and anti-Semitism. She invited Eleanor to be her traveling companion through France and Italy during holiday breaks from school and encouraged her to be an independent and confident woman.

In 1902, Eleanor’s grandmother insisted she return to the United States to get down to the business of becoming a debutante. Eleanor was nearly 6 feet tall and willowy, with prominent teeth and a weak chin – not the social belle that her mother had been and that her grandmother wished her to be.

Eleanor quickly realized that she preferred volunteering with social reform groups to going to fancy balls. From 1902 to 1903, she volunteered at the Riverton Street Settlement House on the Lower East Side, teaching exercise and dance to low-income immigrants. Unlike her peers, who arrived in carriages, she insisted on taking public transportation, forcing herself to overcome her fears and walking even at night through the Bowery, a low-rent area.

She also became immersed in the National Consumers League (NCL), led by pioneering social reformer Florence Kelley. Through the NCL, she investigated and publicized dreadful working conditions in garment factories, known as sweatshops. She also met many progressive activists who shaped her political consciousness.

In 1902, she was riding a train when her distant cousin Franklin, a Harvard student, happened to board, and they spent the next two hours in easy conversation. That began their discreet romance, which he at first kept hidden from his domineering mother. It was by accompanying Eleanor that Franklin was first exposed to New York’s dismal tenements. For the rest of their marriage, Eleanor was FDR’s unofficial guide and conscience regarding the suffering of the poor, workers, African Americans and women.

They were married in 1905, when she was 20 and he 22, with her Uncle Theodore walking her down the aisle. During the first several years of marriage and young motherhood, she grew increasingly depressed under the thumb of her mother-in-law, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who insisted on running the household. Eleanor was able to escape Sara’s domination when the couple moved to Albany, New York, after FDR was elected to the state legislature in 1910. She learned that she had a gift for politics and soon became one of FDR’s most trusted advisers. She also lobbied for causes she believed in – eliminating poverty, improving working conditions, women’s rights and education – and was better at connecting with people than was FDR.

By 1916, the couple had had six children, including one son who died as a baby. Franklin’s appointment as assistant secretary of the Navy in 1913 brought the Roosevelts to Washington, DC, and was the beginning of national prominence. It also marked a difficult turning point in their relationship, when Eleanor discovered Franklin’s long-term affair with her social secretary Lucy Mercer, one of several of FDR’s extra-marital relationships. Deeply distressed, she offered him a divorce. They remained married, however, in a loyal political partnership. Eleanor turned to others for emotional support and intimacy. According to her biographer, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor loved and frequently traveled with Lorena Hickok, an AP reporter assigned to follow her when she was the First Lady. Their daily letters included both political observations and expressions of love.

World War I offered Eleanor an outlet for her organizing talents. She organized a Union Station canteen for American soldiers on their way to training camps, led Red Cross activities, supervised the knitting rooms at the Navy League and spoke at patriotic rallies. She visited wounded soldiers in the hospital and led an effort to improve conditions at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, a mental hospital in Washington.

During the Red Scare following World War I, Eleanor renewed her reform impulses. She became active in several groups that the attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, considered dangerously radical. She coordinated the League of Women Voters’ legislative efforts, mobilizing members to lobby for bills. In 1922, she joined the Women’s Trade Union League of working-class women and radical activists. She taught classes, raised money and participated in the WTUL’s policy debates and legislative actions, including working for bills to regulate maximum hours and minimum wages for women workers. Through the WTUL, Eleanor forged a long-term friendship with Rose Schneiderman – a socialist union organizer from New York – with whom she walked picket lines. J. Edgar Hoover, a close aide to Palmer who later became FBI director, kept a file on Eleanor for many years.

As FDR’s political fortunes rose – first to governor of New York in 1928 and then to president in 1932 – Eleanor constantly had to find her footing as a public person. While governor, FDR was stricken with polio, which left him unable to walk. Eleanor became his eyes and ears, investigating conditions at hospitals, asylums and prisons.

Eleanor’s involvement with reform movements prepared her to become the most influential and politically progressive First Lady in American history. “No one who ever saw Eleanor Roosevelt sit down facing her husband and holding his eyes firmly [and saying] to him ‘Franklin, I think you should’ or, ‘Franklin, surely you will not’ will ever forget the experience,” wrote Rexford Tugwell, a key FDR aide.

She became a key player in the Democratic Party, not only mobilizing voters, but also pushing the party to support progressive legislation and to give women a larger voice in party affairs. She effectively pushed FDR to appoint women (including Perkins, the first woman Cabinet member) to key positions in government. She developed a tight circle of close women friends and social reformers who were her main confidants.

When she became First Lady in 1933, Eleanor devoted considerable time to those hardest hit by poverty, visiting an encampment of World War I veterans (called Bonus Marchers) in Washington, sharecroppers in the South, and people on breadlines in San Francisco and in the slums of Puerto Rico. Her public support for union organizing drives among coal miners, garment workers, textile workers and tenant farmers (including the racially integrated and left-wing Southern Tenant Farmers Union) lent visibility and credibility to their efforts. Eleanor was a longtime supporter and an occasional visitor to the Highlander Folk School, a radical training center for labor and civil rights activists in rural Tennessee.

As First Lady, Roosevelt donated the proceeds from her 1932-1933 radio broadcasts to the Women’s Trade Union League and promoted the WTUL in her columns and speeches. She invited women and union activists, including Schneiderman, to the White House and Hyde Park, seating them next to FDR so he could hear their concerns. As Schneiderman recalled in her autobiography, Eleanor overcame the trappings of privilege to become “a born trade unionist.”

Soon after becoming First Lady, she began holding her own press conferences, for women reporters only, in part to preserve their jobs during the Depression. Her influence was such that the president often had her float ideas to journalists and others to see how they would fly politically.

Eleanor was much bolder than FDR in opposing racism, segregation and lynching. She became a close friend of Walter White, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving as his advocate within the White House, and she made a point of publicly joining the civil rights organization. She urged FDR to support federal legislation to end lynching, but he refused to support the bill, worried that southern white voters – almost all of them loyal Democrats – would abandon the party.

In November 1938, 1,500 people, African Americans and whites, packed the city auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama, to kick off a four-day Southern Conference on Human Welfare. The gathering was organized to address the South’s serious social problems – including poverty, poor education and the infamous poll tax that prevented black citizens from voting. The next morning, the auditorium was surrounded by police. Police Commissioner Bull Connor ordered the integrated crowd to separate their seating according to race or face arrest. The crowd obeyed, with black people sitting on one side and white people on the other. Eleanor arrived later, accompanied by African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune and Aubrey Williams, head of the New Deal’s National Youth Administration. Eleanor sized up the situation and sat down on the side with the African Americans. One of the policemen tapped her on the shoulder and told her to move. Instead, she calmly moved her chair between the white and black sections and there she remained.

On civil rights issues, she agitated; he waffled. But sometimes she prevailed. In 1939, she resigned in protest from the Daughters of the American Revolution after that organization refused to rent its Constitution Hall to opera singer Marian Anderson, who had previously sung at the White House. Instead, Roosevelt worked behind the scenes to arrange for Anderson to sing to 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial. In February 1940, she shared the stage with the NAACP’s Roy Wilkins and the Socialist Party’s Norman Thomas at a National Sharecroppers Week forum at a New York hotel. Later that year, she persuaded FDR to meet with the NAACP’s White, and labor and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph, who were threatening to hold a mass march on Washington to protest the exclusion of African Americans from key defense industry jobs as the nation was preparing for war. After two meetings, FDR agreed to issue an executive order against racial discrimination in defense employment if the civil rights leaders would cancel their proposed march. He did, and they did.

Eleanor developed a strong voice as a public speaker and prolific writer of magazine articles and books. Her syndicated column, “My Day,” about her life in the White House, appeared six times a week in some 180 papers around the country. She also lectured and spoke frequently on the radio. Through her column and radio broadcasts, she described the desperate conditions and human suffering she saw during her travels, but she also gave voice to the activists fighting for change and the people helped by the New Deal’s relief programs.

The American people found Eleanor approachable and caring, even as she was ridiculed in the press as being both dowdy and a publicity hound. During her first year in the White House, more than 300,000 people wrote to her. She personally answered many of the letters and forwarded the rest to federal agencies for a response.

Eleanor was actively involved for decades in promoting peace and international understanding as well. She tried to convince FDR to support the Permanent Court of International Justice, commonly called the World Court, which had been set up after World War I to settle disputes among nations. Privately FDR agreed with the idea, but he considered it politically too risky and allowed the Senate to reject US membership in the court by a seven-vote margin.

Starting in 1939, as the Nazis were engaged in genocide against Jews, Eleanor fought for special legislation to admit Jewish refugees, especially children, to the United States, but without FDR’s public support the idea went nowhere.

During World War II – in which all four of the Roosevelt sons served – Eleanor visited troops in London and in the South Pacific. She won over Admiral William Halsey, who had derided her for what he considered her do-goodism and meddling, when she spent exhausting days personally comforting wounded soldiers. “She alone had accomplished more good than any other person, or any group of civilians, who had passed through my area,” Halsey said.

After FDR’s death in 1945, Eleanor assumed she would retire, but the new president, Harry S. Truman, sought her advice. He also appointed her to the five-person US delegation at the first meeting of the UN General Assembly, held in London in 1946. She played a surprising and pivotal role, addressing the full assembly, without notes, and swaying the vote against forced repatriation of refugees, allowing them to choose where they wished to settle.

For three years, Eleanor lobbied, debated, and maneuvered to get the United Nations to adopt a statement on human rights. In 1948, she chaired the UN Human Rights Commission, and under her leadership the General Assembly, meeting in Paris, passed at 3 a.m. on December 10, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a landmark document that still serves as a benchmark for activists around the world.

Throughout the 1950s, Eleanor remained active in public affairs. She continued to write her newspaper column, endorsed and campaigned for liberal Democrats, appeared frequently on television and radio shows discussing current events and averaged 150 speaking lectures a year in the United States and around the world.

At the height of the Cold War, Eleanor challenged the prevailing political wisdom. In 1953, for example, she was a charter subscriber to I.F. Stone’s Weekly, a controversial political newsletter written by the radical journalist whom conservatives and even some liberals accused of being a subversive. In 1960, she spoke to 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden – along with socialist Norman Thomas, labor leader Walter Reuther, civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph and singer Harry Belafonte – at a rally against the escalating arms race between the US and Russia, sponsored by the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy.

That year, Eleanor wrote one of the first checks to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a radical civil rights organization that student activists had formed to sustain the momentum of the sit-in movement at Southern lunch counters to protest segregation. In 1961, President Kennedy appointed Eleanor as chair of a new Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. Although Eleanor died the next year, just before the commission issued its final report, she had already played an important role in shaping the commission’s work, which helped catalyze the modern feminist movement.

Eleanor Roosevelt was a bold progressive and, from the 1930s until her death, one of the most well-known and admired people in the United States and around the world. There is probably no person alive today – with the possible exception of Nelson Mandela – who commands that kind of respect. It is time for Hollywood to make a film about Eleanor, the radical Roosevelt.

(This post first appeared on Truthout and is republished with permission.)

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Award-Winning Reporter David Sirota to Lead National Investigative Desk on Inequality for Capital & Main

The New York Times has credited Sirota’s Wall Street reporting for showing “that secrecy can hide high fees, low returns, excess risk and the identity of politically connected dealmakers.”

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LOS ANGELES — Capital & Main announced today that award-winning reporter David Sirota will lead a new national investigative desk for the California-based publication. His coverage will focus on the country’s historically high level of economic inequality, and the role of Wall Street, the private sector and government policy in perpetuating income disparity.

“I am thrilled to join one of the most promising young investigative publications in the country,” said Sirota. “There has never been a greater need for aggressive nonpartisan reporting that scrutinizes how corporations, lawmakers and the super-rich wield political and economic power. Capital & Main has established a reputation as an intrepid source of hard-hitting investigative reporting. I am excited to expand their capacity to shine a spotlight on how and why America now has the highest level of economic inequality in the country’s modern history.”

Sirota will join Capital & Main as a full-time reporter this summer, and prior to that will consult with the publication on editorial content and partnerships. The new position was made possible in part by a grant from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation in Oakland, CA.

Capital & Main is a non-profit publication founded in 2013 and its reporting has been co-published by (among others) The Atlantic, Time, The Guardian, Reuters, The Daily Beast, Slate, Grist, Fast Company, The Huffington Post and Newsweek. Capital & Main’s reporting has won recognition from the Society of American Business Editors & Writers, the Southern California Journalism Awards and the Best of the West contest. Its reporters have been featured on (among others) PRI’s The World, WNYC’s The Takeaway, as well as on programs on KQED and KCRW.

Sirota has reported extensively on the relationship between money and politics, and has gained a reputation as a journalist willing to scrutinize public officials of both parties. During his career, he has become one of American journalism’s most authoritative experts on complex financial systems including taxes, hedge funds, private equity and public pensions. He is a two-time winner of the Best in Business award from SABEW – most recently for his coverage of the 2017 Republican tax bill and its controversial “Corker kickback” provision. Before that, he won recognition from the Columbia Journalism Review for his reporting on how conflicts of interest shaped how Democratic Gov. Dan Malloy’s administration oversaw a proposed health-care merger. Sirota has also won Ithaca College’s Izzy Award and has been a finalist for UCLA’s Gerald R. Loeb Award and Syracuse University’s Mirror Award.

The New York Times has credited Sirota’s Wall Street reporting for showing “that secrecy can hide high fees, low returns, excess risk and the identity of politically connected dealmakers.” In one of its awards, SABEW said Sirota has produced “original, tenacious reporting that displayed a mastery of scouring documents, analyzing data and holding public officials accountable.” The legendary late columnist Molly Ivins said, “Sirota is a new-generation populist who instinctively understands that the only real questions are ‘Who’s getting screwed?’ and ‘Who’s doing the screwing?’”

“David Sirota is one of the finest investigative reporters in the country, and he promises to take Capital & Main’s reporting on inequality and related issues to a whole different level,” said Capital & Main board member Rick Wartzman, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Los Angeles Times business editor and the author of four books, including The End of Loyalty: The Rise and Fall of Good Jobs in America. “David’s fearless approach to holding the powerful to account is precisely what we need at this moment in time.”

From 2014 to 2018 Sirota led International Business Times’ investigative reporting team, where he broke major stories on how President Trump’s top adviser evades ethics laws as he shapes policies that could enrich his firm; CFPB chief Mick Mulvaney’s ties to the financial industry — and how he pressured regulators to back off predatory lending rules at the same time he was raking in cash from payday lenders; how Equifax lobbied against consumer protection rules just before its huge data breach; and how chemical companies that spewed toxins after Hurricane Harvey had worked to reduce safety regulations in the lead-up to the disaster.

In 2014, Sirota’s investigative series for PandoDaily about public broadcasting compelled a PBS flagship station to return a $3.5 million contribution from a hedge fund billionaire. That same year, Sirota’s investigative reporting about pensions for PandoDaily and then for International Business Times led the New Jersey state government to open a formal pay-to-play investigation and to divest state holdings in a venture capital firm. Sirota’s reporting for International Business Times also led San Francisco officials to delay a proposed $3 billion investment in hedge funds.

“We have been longtime admirers of David’s work, and couldn’t imagine a better fit for our reporting on inequality,” said Capital & Main publisher Danny Feingold. “David will give us the capacity to break important national stories on one of the country’s great existential threats.”

Sirota is also the author of two New York Times best-selling books, Hostile Takeover and The Uprising, as well as Back to Our Future, which became the basis for the National Geographic Channel’s miniseries “The ’80s: The Decade that Made Us.” He appears frequently on MSNBC and CNN, and is the host of a podcast on economic, political and social issues.

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Concert for Martin Luther King Jr.

The Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles’ Wednesday concert reflects on M.L. King Jr.’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

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Bobbi Murray

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Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

Today, April 4, marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death by an assassin’s attack in Memphis. The social justice leader had traveled there to support a strike by sanitation workers, who toiled long hours in sweltering heat for abysmal pay — a workforce that was virtually 100 percent black and whose work status would later be described as “the lowest of the low” by a former Memphis city council member.

“Fifty years ago, Dr. King was organizing with sanitation workers demanding a decent living wage, safe working conditions and recognition of their humanity and dignity,” William D. Smart, a former organizer of Los Angeles port truck drivers and the current CEO and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Southern California, told Capital & Main.

“Today, we are organizing with L.A. Port warehouse workers and truck drivers with the same demands.”

Smart is part of an April 4 celebration at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion hosted by the SCLC and the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, the largest African-American-majority orchestra in the nation. The Wednesday concert event reflects on King’s times, struggle and sacrifice, with the orchestra’s musical setting of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

It connects solidly with present-day events in the multi-choral work by Atlanta-based composer Joel Thompson, The Seven Last Words of the Unarmed.

The piece is performed in seven movements to mark the final words of seven unarmed African-American men killed by police or vigilantism.

“As we commemorate Dr. King’s sacrifice,” Smart said, “it’s not beyond us [to know] that while some progress has been made, [it’s] not nearly enough, so the struggle for economic and racial justice continues.”

Event tickets are free but may be scarce now that supporting organizations have been distributing them for the past several days. Doors open 5 p.m. at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown Los Angeles, with a silent tribute at 6:01 p.m. The program starts at 7 p.m. Contact ICYOLA for tickets at 213-788-4260 or www.icyola.org


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A Spiritual Mystery Play Fails to Enlighten

Yusuf Toropov’s drama, set in a contaminated, cancer-ridden community, involves a publisher and his brother — a priest struggling against the local archdiocese.

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Deborah Klugman

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Ann’Jewel Lee and Matthew Gallenstein. (All photos by Darrett Sanders)

Directed by Chris Fields, Yusuf Toropov’s An Undivided Heart, co-produced by the Echo Theater Company and the Circle X Theatre Co., is an aspiring work that aims to be deep but doesn’t get there.

The play, running at the Atwater Village Theatre, unfolds on several levels. First, it tells the story of a young Catholic priest who must decide whether or not to publicly expose the pedophiles among his fellow clerics. Second, the work deals with our human struggle to understand why bad things happen with seeming random cruelty (a conundrum whose answers are regularly dispensed by spiritual leaders of all faiths, not very satisfactorily). On yet a third level, the play seeks to express the paradoxical wonder and mystery of life, with an assist from the supernatural.

That’s a lot to cover in a little over two hours and, while the production is handsomely staged, its ambitious narrative is diminished by dangling threads, one major improbable setup near the end and too many bits of opaque dialogue.

Tim Wright, Alison Martin and Alana Dietze.

The setting is Holbrook, Massachusetts — a community whose residents have been exposed to contaminants, so cancer is rampant — in the summer of 1992. The story revolves around two brothers, both good guys: Mike (Matthew Gallenstein), a local priest who’s written a revelatory book that his superiors want him not to publish, and Max (Tim Wright), an editor, who’d like to help his brother proceed.

When Max arrives at some sort of civic facility (the background particulars of this scene are unclear), he promptly tangles with an angry pregnant clerk named Lynne (Alana Dietz). A few minutes into their altercation, she goes into premature labor, and he rushes her to the hospital — the beginning of a nurturing romance.

Mike, meanwhile, is having strange dreams involving a burning typewriter and a cryptic little girl (Ann’Jewel Lee) who appears to him brandishing a dead cat. The same young person manifests in the dreams of Janice (Tracey A. Leigh, alternating with Jennifer A. Skinner), Max’s Buddhism teacher, who is fond of posing riddles. Her favorite: If I am preparing to slice a cat in two, how would you prevent me from doing it?

The narrative shifts between Mike’s struggle with his archdiocese, personified by its Cardinal (John Getz, alternating with William Salyers) and Lynne’s problems with her dying mom Ruth (Alison Martin, alternating with Sigute Miller), a devout Catholic still in denial over her son’s abuse by a priest when he was a youth.

These two storylines are interposed with the baffling dream sequences and Max’s (and later Mike’s) sessions with the inscrutably smiling Janice and her eschatological brain teasers. One crucial scene that leads to the dramatic climax has Mike looking to entrap an abusive priest (Jeff Alan-Lee, alternating with Jesse Bush) by attending confession with him and pretending to be a pedophile himself. The interchange, in which the priest probes for salacious details, is awkwardly plotted and escalates into over-the-top melodrama.

Cricket Myers’ superlative sound design hints at the depth and scope that the playwright himself perhaps had in mind but was unable to attain. Amanda Knehans’ set is an effective arrangement of wooden beams, tables and chairs that lighting designer Rose Malone smartly shades with a reddish-orange chroma, like the hues of hell. Elsewhere, she spotlights the players well.

Wright’s warm and empathetic Max is highly likable, and he keeps you interested in the scenes he’s involved with. Getz is appropriately unctuous as the Cardinal, and Martin draws a richly textured portrait of a not terribly educated housewife, who, buffeted by adversity, still clings to her faith. Michael Sturgis steals the limelight as a singing, simpering cleric. A couple of the other lead performances need refining.

Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles; Mon., 8 p.m.; Fri.- Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 4 p.m.; through April 22. www.EchoTheaterCompany.com


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Recounting the Japanese-American Internments in a Musical

Stamped by their government as enemy aliens, the Kimura family is uprooted from their home and re-housed in a barracks-like setting where they are treated like criminals.

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Janelle Dote and George Takei. (All photos by Michael Lamont)

Produced by East West Players at the Japanese American Cultural Center, Allegiance features noted performer-activist George Takei, and draws inspiration from his personal experience in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.

One of the more shameful, racially-motivated episodes in U.S. history, the forced internment of approximately 120,000 people of Japanese descent commenced in February 1942 on the executive order of President Franklin Roosevelt, and only terminated seven months after Japan surrendered and the last of 10 relocation centers shut its gates.

The internees, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, were stripped of their property and dignity, and required to fill out trick questionnaires to assess their loyalty. Failure to comply or give the politically correct response often resulted in imprisonment. Young men of draft age filled out a separate form, indicating whether they were willing to serve in the military — in a segregated unit. Some said yes, others did not. The questionnaire — how to respond and even whether or not to do so — further rent an already divided and disheartened community.

Allegiance aims to recount these injustices, and it does so in a stirring and entertaining way. Directed by Snehal Desai, with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, and book by Marc Acito, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, it’s a high-caliber musical melodrama that relays history as it impacts on the fictional Kimura family. Uprooted from their home, re-housed in a barracks-like setting where they are treated like criminals, members of the family are torn further apart when father and son bitterly fall out over whether to pledge loyalty to a government that has stamped them as enemy aliens.

At the top, Takei plays an elderly retired soldier, Sam Kimura, who receives news of the death of his sibling, from whom he’s been estranged for years. That prompts him to recall his youth as the son of a prosperous, widowed farmer (Scott Watanabe) in Salinas, California. Sammy (Ethan Le Phong) is his family’s first college graduate, and dearly beloved by his elder sister Kei (Elena Wang).

The scenario darkens as the family and their neighbors are packed off to Wyoming’s barbed-wired Heart Mountain Relocation Center. Eventually, Sammy joins the army and distinguishes himself in battle, while his future brother-in-law, Frankie (Eymard Cabling), angrily challenges the government and goes to prison. So does Sammy’s dad for his defiant answers to the questionnaire. Father and son never reconcile.

Kuo’s 26 songs are a euphonious mix of ballads, upbeat dance numbers (choreography, Rumi Oyama) with a terrific 1940s swing, and elegiac melodies. Despite the weighty theme, the show’s pace is brisk, as the music sweeps the narrative to its poignant conclusion. The vocals, solo and ensemble, are strong across the board, with Le Phong’s powerful lyric tenor soaring above others, especially in his rendering of the ethically-themed “What Makes A Man.” A live 11-piece orchestra, under the musical direction of Marc Macalintal, lends superlative support throughout.

The non-musical aspects of the performances may not go deep, but like the story they’re telling, they never ring false. Special kudos to Jordan Goodsell, who so effectively portrays every nasty white bully and bigot the targeted Japanese-Americans encounter.

JACCC’s Aratani Theatre, 244 S. San Pedro Street, Los Angeles; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.; no performance March 18; through April 1. AllegianceMusical.com.


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“Happiest Song” Stage Production Hits Sour Notes

Playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes pays special homage to the folk music, food and familial culture of the Puerto Rican community, but her story winds through a mountain of prosaic exposition.

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Deborah Klugman

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Peter Pasco and Vaneh Assadourian. (Photo: Gio Solis)

The Happiest Song Plays Last ends happily for its pivotal characters —and also, perhaps, for discerning theatergoers, who can’t wait to flee this lemon of a production.

Produced by the Latino Theatre Company and directed by Edward Torres at the Los Angeles Theater Center, this is the final installment in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Elliot trilogy. (The two earlier titles were Elliot, A Soldier’s Fugue and Water by the Spoonful, produced by Center Theatre Group at the Kirk Douglas Theatre and Mark Taper Forum, respectively). Here, the playwright pays special homage to the folk music, food and familial culture of the Puerto Rican community. She also spotlights the current protest movements on the left (in the U.S., Mexico and Puerto Rico), tips her hat to the Arab Spring, critiques the American health-care system, and alerts us to the careless slaughter of Iraqi civilians by American soldiers and the problems of Iraqi expatriates. And that’s just the background stuff.

The story begins in 2010. As in Water by the Spoonful, it revolves around the fortunes of two cousins, who stay in contact via email: Elliot (Peter Pasco), an Iraqi war vet turned actor, and Yaz (Elisa Bocanegra), a music professor now living in poverty-blighted North Philadelphia, where she cooks for, and otherwise assists as many of her struggling neighbors as she can.

Elliot (who was played by a different actor in Water by the Spoonful) has undergone a transformation. In Spoonful, the character walked with a pronounced limp, the result of a war injury, and spoke with someone’s erroneous idea of how Philadelphians talk. Here, however, he’s been miraculously healed and is as spry as any athletic 20-something. Fortune has smiled on him; hired as a film’s combat consultant because of his military experience, he’s now starring in a movie about the Iraqi conflict, replacing the original lead who proved to be too truculent and unfit. His friends include Shar (Vaneh Assadourian), a young American actress of part Middle Eastern descent, and Ali (Kamal Marayati), a native Iraqi who’s emigrated with his family to Jordan for a better, safer life.

The three shoot their takes and chat about their pasts and news of the Arab Spring, which Elliot is itching to observe first-hand. Meanwhile Yaz, glimpsed in her kitchen amidst a pile of pots, is contemplating a fling with Agustín (Al Rodrigo), a guitarist and longtime married friend who wants her to have his child. She’s also playing mother hen to Lefty (John Seda-Pitre), a mentally displaced homeless person who addresses her as “mom” and relies on her for emotional support as well as for food and sometimes shelter.

Shifting between narratives, the play winds through a mountain of prosaic exposition as the characters talk about where they’re coming from and where they’d like to be (or in the case of Yaz, about neighbors and acquaintances whom we never see). The emails between the two cousins are about as exciting as the ones you may have received from your accountant cousin in Buffalo. Under Torres’ direction, the performances, which can often salvage and even elevate a so-so drama to great heights, lack texture and credibility. Only Marayati garners empathy as a kind and open man looking to bridge cultures and build friendships.

The staging (scenic design by Se Hyon Oh) does not help. The desert scenes are played out on the floor of the proscenium, without an effective backdrop to add ambience. The kitchen, always visible, is positioned upstage on a rise, in a cramped space that allows for little movement and makes for poor visibility. All I could see of Bocanegra much of the time was her back.

The best moments in the production are the musical interludes played by accomplished Puerto Rican guitarist Nelson González.

LATC, 514 S. Spring St., downtown Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; Mon., 7:30 p.m.; through March 19. Thelatc.org.


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The 2018 Oscars Are Woke, But Hollywood Can Get Woker by Recalling Its Past

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, producers knew that social issues sold tickets. It’s a lesson the film industry might be ready to re-learn.

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At first glance, this year’s Academy Awards ceremony and nominations seems as woke a lineup as the Oscars has ever offered. Films and actors honored touch on topics as varied and vital as LGBTQ love (Call Me By Your Name), veterans and overt racism (Mudbound), liberal covert racism (Get Out), police corruption (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), and the importance of the press (The Post). Jimmy Kimmel returns as host, after a year where he eased into the working-class champion role his bro schtick always aspired to but never quite nailed until now.

Expect much self-congratulation for these Brave New Oscars during the show, along with shoutouts for #TimesUp and digs at Trump (even as the show’s producers want it to be “a giant commercial for the movie business” instead of anything political). But the nominees also show that Hollywood will practice punch-card progressivism until it realizes what the Louis B. Mayers, Jack Warners and other movie moguls of yesteryear never forgot: social issues sell.

The 2018 nominations show we’re in a golden age of African-American characters, stories, and talent, and that a purge of the industry’s toxic masculinity translates into better films. But it’s as if Hollywood feels that tackling those two longstanding problems absolves it of trying to address anything else. Just look at today’s pressing issues that big-budget films in 2017 ignored: homelessness, class inequity, the housing crisis, gentrification, climate change and more.

And in an age where diversity matters more than ever, Hollywood’s depiction of Mexicans remain problematic. The touching Pixar film Coco (nominated for Best Animated Picture) notwithstanding, Hollywood still doesn’t seem to want to cast Mexicans as anything else than the maids, janitors and security guards that executives and screenwriters encounter in their public and private lives, and the criminals that the media and politicians obsess over. Chris Rock’s ruthless 2014 Hollywood Reporter essay on the lack of representation still rings true: Hollywood keeps Mexicans in a “slave state.”

The studios need to look at their own past to see that reflecting society’s people and problems are an easy moneymaker. Consider the films of the Great Depression, more relevant than ever. Films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, The Grapes of Wrath, Sullivan’s Travels, Gold Diggers of 1933 became beloved because they openly attacked the institutions that dared afflict the afflicted. Same with the 1970s: Rocky, Saturday Night Fever, Coming Home, Network and others harshly depicted the Me Decade all the way to the Oscars and massive ticket sales.

Two of this year’s most prominent Best Picture nominees show a way forward for producers. The Shape of Water (directed by proud Mexican Guillermo del Toro) used a supernatural parable to critique our federal government’s xenophobia. Get Out similarly used the horror genre to deliver its message. Both are in some ways the most Old Hollywood of the Best Picture bunch, as they recalled Universal Studios’ historic monster movies (imagine a ride based on Get Out? Actually, you don’t have to: it’s called South Orange County).

The Shape of Water and Get Out each grossed over $100 million worldwide despite tiny budgets. Couple that with this month’s record-breaking Black Panther, and the studios should realize that progressive films ought to be the norm, not a niche.

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A New Documentary Unspools the Life of Malcolm X

Most people know that Malcolm X began his public career by calling for black separatism. Lost Tapes: Malcolm X reveals surprising details that have not been seared into our collective view of the martyred activist.

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At the end of the Smithsonian Channel’s Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, Ossie Davis delivers a stirring eulogy for Malcolm X, the fallen Muslim minister and human rights activist. “And we will know him then for what he was and is,” Davis intones, “a Prince – our own black shining Prince!”

The haze of history has obscured some of the finer details of this remarkable leader’s life, one cut short by assassination at the age of 39 in 1965. Schools go into far greater detail about the life and times of another spiritual leader, Martin Luther King Jr., but in the shadows behind King’s narrative lurk remarkable stories of a prince that have been largely ignored. That’s why this episode from The Lost Tapes documentary series rises above almost anything available in mainstream media.


Above: Malcolm X in Los Angeles, 1962

Most know that Malcolm, as the dominant star in the Nation of Islam, differentiated himself from King and other African-American leaders by calling for blacks to break off from, rather than assimilate into white society. At the outset, Lost Tapes: Malcolm X, which debuts tonight at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST, and repeats Tuesday, underscores how his incendiary speeches and philosophy sparked both outrage and fear by showing footage from The Hate That Hate Produced , a 1959 Mike Wallace-narrated documentary shown on New York’s educational WNTA-TV that introduced the Harlem minister and the Nation of Islam to a wider (and whiter) audience.

Much of this doc treads on familiar turf: His meteoric rise and popularity, which caused NOI membership to swell exponentially; how Malcolm’s philosophy deviated from other civil rights leaders’, the rift with NOI leader Elijah Muhammad that led to Malcolm leaving the organization. Filmmakers Tom Jennings and David Tillman weave a fine story, thankfully bereft of any narration, using never-before or rarely seen footage to tell Malcolm’s story, only resorting to simple white text on a black background to deliver essential information. The result seems more urgent and intimate, powerful and profound.

But where Lost Tapes really triumphs is in revealing details that have not been seared into our collective view of the martyred activist. First there is the matter of Cassius Clay. Few know that the boxer’s conversion to Islam was mired deep in the divisions between Malcolm and the “prophet” Elijah Muhammad. Malcolm had grown to overshadow his mentor, and became a close friend to the charismatic contender. But soon after Sonny Liston failed to answer the bell in Miami on February 25, 1964, and Clay was crowned heavyweight champion of the world, Elijah Muhammad bestowed upon the boxer a Muslim name (an honor Malcolm had not been given) under one condition. The new champion had to end his friendship with Malcolm (something that Ali later publicly admitted was a mistake).

Later, there is an interview in which Malcolm publicly exposes Elijah Muhammad’s fathering of eight children by six underage women who were his personal secretaries. This footage makes it seem more understandable why the NOI allegedly waged such a persistent campaign to kill Malcolm, first unsuccessfully by firebombs and then, purportedly taking down their target in a hail of bullets.

The documentary also chronicles Malcolm X’s personal transformation shortly before his tragic death, which resulted in a revolutionary change in his outlook. After leaving the NOI, Malcolm went on a global spiritual journey that included a pilgrimage to Mecca in April of 1964, where he had a profound epiphany. Malcolm speaks of seeing Muslims of all colors interacting as equals and how the whites he had met there were not like those found in America, that their dedication to God allowed them to believe in the oneness of all people.

Inspired by this trip he started the Organization of Afro-American Unity (OAAU), a secular group that advocated Pan-Africanism, and promoted internationalizing the plight of African-Americans. This broadening of his views also made him make amends to those he criticized in the past. We see footage of an interview in which he not only forgives black leaders for having attacked him, but also apologizes to all he had ever attacked, culminating in him preaching solidarity and cooperation between leaders.

It’s a huge moment that seems to have been lost as the years have passed, and it makes this venture all the more invaluable.


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Weak Stage Production Mars Drama About Returned Vet

The second drama in playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trilogy juxtaposes one soldier’s post-war tribulations with stories generated by a group of recovering drug addicts.

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Deborah Klugman

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Luna Lauren Vélez (All photos by Craig Schwartz)

A 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, Water by the Spoonful is the second in Quiara Alegría Hudes’ trilogy revolving around Elliot, a young war veteran from a Puerto Rican family living in Philadelphia. The first play, Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue, is an interweaving of several narratives that relays the experiences of war from the standpoint of the working-class soldier. It’s a strong, lyrical work (although the production, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through February 25, doesn’t fulfill that potential).

In this second, less compelling installment at the Mark Taper Forum (yes, I know it won a Pulitzer, but that goes to show how subjective literary prizes can be), the playwright juxtaposes Elliot (Sean Carvajal)’s post-war tribulations with the stories generated by a group of recovering drug addicts. The play’s fractured narrative proves a liability, with problems related to the writing compounded by Lileana Blain-Cruz’s lax direction, weak performances, and an unimaginative scenic design (Adam Rigg) that drains the show of whatever dynamic a couple of the performers manage to scrounge up.

The story takes place in 2009, six years after Elliot, haunted by a ghost and nursing a pronounced limp from a war injury, returns from Iraq. He’s working at a Subway and hoping for a career as an actor, while maintaining a mutually supportive friendship with his cousin Yazmin (Keren Lugo), a music professor. Elliot is struggling with his PTSD but managing to cope until his world spins out of control when his adoptive mom Ginny, much loved by her family and the community, nears death.

Keren Lugo and Sean Carvajal

These scenes involving a family in crisis alternate with others that depict the online squabbling of the members of the recovery group, who bear the pseudonyms of Chutes&Ladders (Bernard K. Addison), Orangutan (Sylvia Kwan) and Fountainhead (Josh Braaten). Haikumom (Luna Lauren Vélez), the site leader, is (we later discover) Elliot’s biological mother, Odessa, and she also is in recovery. The play takes its title from a recollection by Elliot of an event in his childhood: He and his baby sister were ill and needed a spoonful of water every hour – something Odessa failed to administer, with tragic results. Elliot has never forgiven her.

Much of Act 1 is taken up with the repartee among the group, but these characters never physically interact, and these “online” sequences are long-winded and static. It doesn’t help that the actors are positioned willy-nilly about the proscenium, fronting a drab living room interior unrelated to their dialogue. Why these scenes were not mounted in a separate area of the stage and with a different lighting design is a puzzlement.

The play gets more interesting in the second act, with Elliot’s emotional crisis intensifying and brought to a head in his confrontation with Odessa. Unfortunately, the drama is done in by subpar acting. Carvajal, employing a weird pseudo-street dialogue (it’s as if he has marbles in his mouth), sounds an unconvincing one-note. (As someone born and raised in Philadelphia, I can personally testify that that is not how residents of Philly speak.) Lugo’s Yazmin lacks personality of any sort — she seems to be there just for Elliot to play off of. Vélez’s performance in a linchpin role projects neither charisma nor clarity.

The best work is by Addison as a 50-something white collar guy emotionally invested in the group and with a growing attachment to Orangutan, a much younger woman, and Braaten as a well-heeled cokehead, desperately trying to hold his life together. These actors bring a certain heft to their roles that the other performances are missing. It’s too bad we don’t get to see them perform at their best.

The third play in the trilogy, The Happiest Song Plays Last, opens at the Los Angeles Theatre Center on Feb. 22, with an entirely different ensemble. Here’s hoping they can do better.

Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sunday, 1 & 6:30 p.m.; through March 11. Centertheatregroup.org.


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Young Marx in Love

A revolutionary buddy film from the director of I Am Not Your Negro.

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August Diehl as a 20-something Karl Marx. (All Photos by Kris Dewitte.)

Actor August Diehl’s Marx is part revolutionary, part young Mick Jagger.


 

Among the best films about revolutionaries are 2000’s Lumumba, which documented the life of the Congo’s murdered independence leader, and last year’s I Am Not Your Negro, a brilliant reintroduction to James Baldwin’s revolutionary writing. Now the director of those acclaimed films, Haitian Raoul Peck, has once again trained his lens on revolution, but this time in a largely unexpectedly way.

While Peck’s past work has been marked by intensity and grit, The Young Karl Marx instead relies less on invention and on more conventional tropes. That approach is not necessarily a bad thing. It allows the filmmaker to make accessible the seemingly daunting challenge of documenting the young life of a philosopher/writer whose work takes place mostly in his head and on paper.

Dynamic Duo: Marx (August Diehl), right, and Engels (Stefan Konarske).

Written by Peck and Pascal Bonitzer, the film begins in the mid 1800s, when Europe’s Industrial Revolution has underscored the economic disparity between the ruling class and the working poor, or proletariat. This inequality has spawned a slew of young writers and thinkers who are circling philosophically, individually and collectively, what they hope will become a better society. Among them are journalist Marx (August Diehl) and his wife (Vicky Krieps), who live a meager existence–escaping creditors and cops, sleeping in and screwing when not discussing socioeconomic theory. The couple is soon exiled from Germany to France, where they meet Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), a factory owner’s son who has been the first to study and write about the plight of the working class. An instant bromance Between Marx and Engels ensues.

Most of the film follows the duo as they argue and pontificate their way through Europe, honing their philosophy until it can all be memorialized in 1848’s The Communist Manifesto. Diehl has incredible charisma and his Marx is part revolutionary and part young Mick Jagger. With Konarske’s Engels as his more grounded Keith Richards, they aren’t quite enfants terribles, but they do shake things up, quickly rising as leaders of those trying to understand the world around them. And what a glorious world that is. Production designers Benoit Barouh and Christophe Couzon have fashioned a stunning representation of 19th-century Europe. What emerges is a costume buddy film, as if Merchant Ivory produced Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Ultimately, though, viewers’ personal views of Marx, and their political views in general, will probably decide whether they enjoy the film. By focusing on the genesis of Marx’s ideological oeuvre, Peck avoids having to deal with the man’s ultimate mixed legacy. Regardless, some will undoubtedly find the filmic fuss over Marx misplaced. But for many, The Young Karl Marx will be a fulfilling view of a time when young idealists were trying to make sense of the world in a far more robust way than the current political spewing of modern-day television pundits.


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A Combative Immigrant Fights Her ‘Ironbound’ Destiny

Born in Poland and brought up in New Jersey by an immigrant mom who cleaned houses for a living, playwright Martyna Majok has fashioned her experience into a compelling feminist work.

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Bruised and bleeding in America: Marin Ireland's Darja. (All photos by Chris Whitaker)

In American theater, as in life, not all voices receive equal airtime — one reason why Martyna Majok’s pitch-black dramedy about a Polish-born factory worker/cleaning lady is so poignant and arresting. The play, first produced by New York’s Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in 2016, is currently running at the Geffen Playhouse under Tyne Rafaeli’s direction.

Majok’s insightfully written, unabashedly woman-centered tale is set at a bus stop in a squalid industrial neighborhood in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The central character is a hardscrabble female survivor. We first meet combative, down-on-her-luck Darja (Marin Ireland), an immigrant, in 2014, as she confronts her live-in lover, Tommy (Christian Camargo), over his sexual liaison with the wealthy woman she works for. Vulnerable beneath his swagger, Tommy pleads remorse and begs Darja not to leave him, to which she responds with an unsentimental demand for hard cash — money she needs to track down her missing wayward son, a drug addict. The pair negotiate; in the end, sexual attraction and codependence best rage and resentment, and they lock in fierce embrace, each extending a finger to the intrusive honks of passing motorists.

Marcel Spears and Marin Ireland, as Vic and Darja.

Scene 2 flashes back to 1992 and a more tender exchange between Darja and Maks (Josiah Bania), her Polish first husband and the father of her child. Maks is a musician, and the conflict between the couple revolves around his desire to relocate to Chicago to pursue art and fame — a move that makes Darja fearful (better the hell you’re living in now….). So, Maks departs on his own, leaving Darja to an uncertain and, and as it turns out, far more purgatorial future.

That fate manifests later, in 2006, when (in this production’s finest, most memorable scene) a teenage hustler, Vic (Marcel Spears), happens on a bruised and bleeding Darja, lying under a bench after a beating from her abusive second husband. A rich kid out at night sowing down-and-dirty oats, the youth is appalled by Darja’s appearance and wants to help. But Darja, who doesn’t know how to say thanks, rejects this offer of assistance, though she desperately needs it — till Vic points to the moon and offers a gift of surprising generosity.

Ironbound, which claims its title from a slum area in Newark, offers an illuminating portrait of a vulnerable, volatile woman most middle-class Americans would probably never look twice at. Yet Darja is no fool; despite being a stranger in a strange land, with limited language skills, she understands how the capitalist system operates to her disadvantage, and what she must do to get by. Her actions and choices, made in anger, fear or frustration (she sets fire to her fornicating employer’s clothes), work against her.

Ireland, who commanded the role to accolades in New York, performs with energy and commitment (her character never leaves the stage) but without the fresh edge that must have brought down earlier houses. Some of that may have to do with Camargo, with whom she has the most stage time. As with Darja, Majok has drawn Tommy as a complex ambivalent figure, but instead of exploring why this two-faced lothario still needs Darja to be his woman, the actor storms about, relying on heated dialogue and comic gesture to define his role.

Bania, who also reprises his role from the original production, is warm and likable — and especially on target in moments when he pleads with Darja to let him have his dreams. Spears’ glowing performance as a compassionate youngster determined to aid an abused, beleaguered stranger is the evening’s highlight.

Born in Poland and brought up in New Jersey by an immigrant mom who cleaned houses for a living, Majok has written about what she knows, fashioning her experience into a compelling feminist work.

Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., West Los Angeles; ; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through March 4.


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