What a fun time my friend Laura and I had at LATC last week-end! The occasion was the opening of the new play Whittier Boulevard by the Latino Theater Company. And let me tell you, they really know how to throw an event. The excellent comedy was surrounded by a duo of receptions. How generous of them!
More on all of that frivolity a bit later, but let’s get to the actual review first.
The clever script was written by the quintet of founding members of the company—actors Evelina Fernández, Sal López, Geoffrey Rivas, and Lucy Rodriguez along with director, Jose Luis Valenzuela–which I found interesting. When I read the cast’s bios in the program before the show, the first one I noticed said, “Playwright,” in the same space as her character’s name, so I assumed the actress was playing a playwright in the show. And then I noticed that same designation for the other three actors, as well! By reading further, I finally realized that they all wrote it together. What an undertaking! I wish I had four other pals I could work with so well!
Speaking of the charming director, Jose Luis Valenzuela, he spoke at the beginning, letting us know that Whittier Boulevard is a “cautionary tale,” which he is totally correct about.
The overriding message of this play set in 2042 is about how society discards their seniors, which I think about myself sometimes when I’m reaching-out to my “grown-up” pals. I hate being made to think about aging ever, but Whittier Boulevard presents the topic with so much mirth that it’s easy to watch, and just let the lesson seep into our brains.
I know there are some other subtle admonitions about the state of the world, and Los Angeles, in particular, in the play, but I wasn’t into all that—there are too many current problems in real life to worry about. I just took it as the comedy I saw in front of me. But I appreciate that the production provides some words to the wise without being preachy about them.
The whole time, I was thinking that the aging actress character, played by Evelina Fernández, looks like Dorothy Lamour in her later years, but reminded me more of Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. And then it dawned on me that that famous film is most likely what inspired this new play to begin with! I have to be honest and admit that I didn’t put that together for a while. But I’m happy to report that it turns-out that I totally got what they’re going for. (I can say no more on the subject.)
I panicked at first when the play opened with three actors draped in white gowns with ornate beadwork on the front, standing in separate spotlights, dramatically uttering profound sentences which are simultaneously appearing in script on the walls. I immediately thought, “Oh no—not another self-indulgent presentation in LA!” But my concern was soon lifted by the lights coming up to a set featuring a big-but-sparse classy living room, and then characters in normal attire showing up. And the fun began!
The show is very amusing, and thought-provoking, as mentioned above. And all four actors are excellent. There are a few wonderful effects in the show from time to time, mainly images of falling snow and flower petals. I loved those!
And great use is made of the very wide stage—the “blocking” (i.e. the movement of the actors,) is interesting at all times and very well done.
On a side note, on opening night, there was an ASL signer off to the side of the front of the stage. She was positioned in the perfect place to be seen well enough while also being out of the way. And she used a quick flashlight movement to show the people who needed her where she was when everyone was seated, which was so smart. I really appreciated that whole situation. And I enjoyed watching a bit of beautiful signing, as well.
On another language tip, it might help to know a bit of Spanish for a word here or there, but it’s far from a requirement to enjoy Whittier Boulevard. I laughed the entire time, even at expressions that I didn’t quite understand.
All that being said, I have to be honest and tell you that, along with all those laughs, there were three annoyances for my friend Laura and me throughout. When we compared notes post-show, we discovered that we both had the same trio of minor gripes.
The first of those is that even though the show is listed as a mere eighty minutes, (which is perf for today’s very short attention spans,) it feels much longer. About ten minutes could easily be cut.
Secondly, there’s a very confusing horizontal rectangle cut-out in the back wall of the set. It’s really distracting to wonder why it’s there the entire time; I waited in vain for its purpose to be revealed.
But the worst problem for us is that there’s one-note impending-doom music playing for almost the entire time! It’s torturous.
However, I adored the surrounding music at the entire event, especially all the pre-show ’50s tunes, even though I still can’t figure-out what that era’s music has to do with a show set in 2042, (except that one character sings a couple of lines from one of them down the line.) And the hip tunes played at the post-reception were really fun, and at the perfect volume for a soiree.
Someone said something curious to me after the show that boggled my mind. She thought the entire time that the characters were talking about the Whittier Boulevard in…Beverly Hills!!! So when the topic of “cruising” on that street came up a couple of times, she was really confused because she couldn’t picture that anyone had ever cruised that inconspicuous BH street! She didn’t see what the story had to do with it. [Note: The play featured some enlightening projections of the famous East LA boulevard, along with some other interesting images along the way, but that darn wall cut-out obscured them quite a bit.]
So, even though this play is definitely not just for the Latino community, if you’re not a part of it, you might want to look up the history of the famous Whittier Boulevard in East LA before you go. It’s good to be familiar with that area, even though it doesn’t really matter much to the scenario. (And you might also need to look-up “cruising”—in this case, they’re referring to the activity of young people just driving up and down popular streets to socialize and see what’s happening, not the homosexual activity of looking for sex with strangers in places like parks. Oysh—so much for audiences to learn for such a short story!)
Now to the festivities we enjoyed on opening night. I loved that the whole evening was made extra-special by throwing not just one but two receptions! Pre-show, we were treated to creative cheese and charcuterie platters that also featured crackers, little breads, fruit, jams, honey, and…chocolate chips! I’ve never seen those in the mix before. And we were offered glasses of prosecco as we waited in line to pick-up our tickets. It was all so classy. And cheery.
And post-show, the theater’s staff, including the guards, were happy to let us know, “We have tacos for you outside.” I assumed they meant “in the lobby,” but when we got up there, and it was empty, I then figured that they were going to hand us each a packaged taco as we went on our way. But instead, we followed the trail out to the building’s front patio, and there was…an entire taco situation—nice men grilling them up fresh for us, with all the garnishes and condiments, and even three kinds of refreshing drinks, (served by the sweetest teen-ager,) including Laura and my favorite—horchata! It was all such an upbeat situation, with everyone discussing the play and the food, that not one person was upset to be on a line to get the refreshments!
We ate back in the spacious lobby, and the night ended with a celebratory cake and cupcakes, all featuring the Whittier Boulevard logo.
There was even a sighting of movie star Bill Pullman, rocking long hair now, which made me not recognize him at first. He looked to be having a really good time, with his party mingling with that of Whittier Boulevard‘s Sal Lopez. (I loved seeing such trim and fit men in the biz, by the way. I had thought that Mr. X was the only one still looking like that!)
Even though you won’t have all that auxiliary fun at LATC, you will still really enjoy Whittier Boulevard. And most of that area of downtown LA is really happening now. Right down the block on Spring Street are lots of hip eateries, and most interestingly, the famous and fabulous The Last Bookstore. So whether you attend a matinee or nighttime performance of the show, be sure to make it a full experience for yourselves.
Now I do have one tiny caution for my fellow bad-knee sufferers. Luckily, there’s an elevator down to the biggest theatre in the LATC complex, where this play runs. But then there are many very steep steps down to most of the seats. So I suggest you choose to sit in the very top row if stairs are hard for you. Since it’s all stadium seating, I have a feeling you’ll enjoy the show just as well from up there.
And the absolutely lovely LATC staff will be happy to help. No other theatre any place in this country can possibly have as accommodating personnel as this one!
Whittier Boulevard running through May 28, 2023
LATC 514 S. Spring Street