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Sloppy scripting and LGBT stereotypes make for a painful “Death Before Cocktails”

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Paul Keany, Ariel Hart, Tom Kearney and Damien Diaz in “Death Before Cocktails.” Photo by Alex Rotaru.

Suicide, as a general rule, is not a funny subject.

In an era when we have gotten better than ever about promoting awareness of depression and other mental health concerns that often underlie the decision to take one’s own life, finding comedy in such a decision – or its aftermath – seems, on the surface, an exercise in poor taste.

Even so, it can theoretically be forgiven that “Death Before Cocktails,” a new play by Laureen Vonnegut now in its World Premiere run at Theatre 68 in NoHo, uses just such a tragedy as the jumping off point for its comedy.

After all, dark humor has its place; while it may not be to everyone’s taste, it’s an important, time-honored tool for facing the harsh realities of our existence.  Handled skillfully, it has the power to make us more resilient, to help us find peace with things we can’t control, and to strengthen us in our struggle to change the things we can.

The key word in that sentence, though, is “skillfully.”

Vonnegut’s grimly comedic piece is set at a Palm Springs cocktail lounge, which has been designated in the suicide note of a famous actress as the location for an impromptu wake with a very limited – and very calculated – guest list.  Her twin, a not-so-famous science fiction writer named Lana (Ariel Hart), arrives as instructed with a boxful of sister’s ashes in hand; meeting her there are two former lovers – a washed-up rock star named Clive (Paul Keany), and the bar’s owner, Will (Tom Kearney).  Rounding out the gathering are Clive’s “friend,” flamboyant dentist Mario (Damien Diaz), and their waitress Ruth (Rose Hunter) – who also happens to be Will’s daughter.  This awkwardly-mixed quintet is forced by circumstance to hash over their unresolved conflicts, as they try to figure out why they have been brought together for this occasion and come to terms with their grief – not just over the loss of their dear departed, but over all the failures and unfulfilled dreams of their own lives.

Given its provocatively ambiguous title – particularly in combination with Argent Lloyd’s “galaxy black” set and its sparse highlights of utilitarian furnishings and garishly neon-esque signage, the production at first invites speculation that we are in for one of those avant-garde, absurdist theatre pieces of a bygone era; we suspect that, much like the characters in Sartre’s “No Exit” or Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” the inhabitants of this unnamed, barely formed space are in a kind of limbo.

Though this may be true in a metaphorical sense, Vonnegut’s play is more connected with conventional reality than it is with the esoteric thought-scapes of the surrealist forebears that likely influenced it.  These are not characters trapped in some waiting room of the after-life, doomed to grapple with their egos and their expectations for all eternity.  They are meant to be flesh-and-blood, and they must do their grappling in the real world.

Unfortunately, it still feels like an eternity.

Though Vonnegut’s script is full of interesting ideas and savvy observations, it’s also full of repetition.  The characters discuss the same subjects, albeit in different configurations, over and over; they have the same arguments, they get hung up on the same sticking points, and they come back to the same dysfunctional blend of self-pity and projected recrimination with which they started out.  While it’s no doubt part of the play’s intention to observe this looping behavioral pattern at work, there is a point somewhere past the middle of its 95-minute running time when it becomes more tiresome than illuminating.  That effect is compounded by the characters’ self-absorbedness; clinging to fantasies that never came to fruition, they spend the bulk of the play trying to prevent the bursting of their own respective bubbles while trying to stick pins into each other’s.  They are, for the most part, insufferable.

All of this could be said to be part of the point; but what makes it more unpalatable is that, all too often, the play falls back on cliché.  This is disappointing with regard to its discussions of mental health – an important central theme – which seem to exist without awareness of any current understanding of the issue; but it is especially glaring when the play delves into the subject of sexuality, which it does frequently.  One character claims to be bisexual, another is gay; there are ample opportunities within the show for each of them to give voice to authentic issues and experiences, and there are moments when it almost happens – only to devolve into oft-repeated cultural tropes that are, at best, dated and, at worst, offensive.  The reinforcing of attitudes that contribute to “bi-erasure” is particularly troubling.

Not that the straights are given any fairer treatment; hetero-normative bigotry, middle-American prurience, and the jaded cynicism of the sophisticated intelligentsia all get their moments in the spotlight.  Any good will or empathy that may be generated for these people is quickly squandered, and most of the audience will likely be past caring by the time the show reaches its conclusion – which seems more motivated by running time than any actual developments in the action, and is utterly predictable for anyone who has ever seen a play or movie about people ruminating on death.

Not that any of this is the fault of the actors.  Hart brings a lot of honesty and presence to her performance as Lana; she effectively allows the character’s deep insecurities to show through the well-put-together exterior she presents.  She is at the center of the piece throughout, and she occupies that place with confidence; it’s a shame the twin never appears in the show – it would be a treat to see this actress tackle a double role.  Kearney is appropriately douche-y as Clive, yet still manages to be somewhat endearing; and Diaz, refreshingly theatrical as Mario, provides an over-the-top element to his scenes that almost compensates for the number of stereotypes he is saddled with representing.

Damien Diaz and Rose Hunter in “Death Before Cocktails.” Photo by Alex Rotaru.

Considering its players’ talents, the fact that “Death Before Cocktails” comes off as a one-note affair must be laid at the feet of its directors, Alex Rotaru and Vonnegut herself.  While they have done an admirable job in guiding their actors to honest performances, they seem to have paid insufficient attention to giving shape to the overall piece; by staying rooted “in the moment,” they have left out the necessary rises and falls of action that make a play into a narrative rather than just a series of small moments that bleed into each other.  It’s also likely that Vonnegut, as the playwright, is too close to the material to have been truly objective in the directorial process.  Indeed, many of the play’s flaws could be remedied with judicious cutting; tightened to something around 70 minutes, it could be an entirely different – and much more enjoyable – experience.

Still, editing would not resolve the show’s deeper problems.  Its approach towards the issues of sexuality and mental health would need to be re-examined and brought up to date with contemporary attitudes.  To do so would require considerable rewriting – and in the end, given the underwhelming payoff delivered by the play’s final moments, that much work might be more trouble than it’s worth.

 

“Death Before Cocktails” runs thru May 13th at Theatre 68, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood, CA. 91601.  Performances are Friday & Saturday 8:00PM and Sunday 7:00PM. Tickets & info at: http://buytickets.at/deathbeforecocktails/155994

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Travel

July 4 travel woes in flight cancellations, record number Americans driving

A record number of Americans are expected to travel by car this upcoming July 4th holiday weekend, per the Triple A auto club

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Photo Credit: County of Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES – As the 4th of July weekend approaches, Americans getting underway to travel are facing heavy delays and cancellations amid staffing strains, weather, among other issues with U.S. air carriers.

On Friday according to tracking website FlightAware.com as of 7PM Pacific there were 27,544 total delays, domestic flight cancellations were 2,975 and international flight cancellations within, into, or out of the United States were 571.

(See the MiseryMap for a live visualization of flight delays.)

CNBC reported that consumer complaints are piling up. In April, the latest available data, the Transportation Department received 3,105 from travelers about U.S. airlines, up nearly 300% from April 2021, and at nearly double the rate during the same period last year.

The unprecedented number of airline cancelations and delays is causing travelers to choose to drive and fly. Delta, American Airlines and United are all trimming their schedules even further to accommodate staffing shortages, despite passenger levels hitting post-pandemic highs.

Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have sparred over who’s to blame. Airlines chalk up the disruptions to bad weather, their staffing shortages and staffing problems at the government’s air traffic control.

Yesterday, the FAA’s acting Administrator Billy Nolen and other top agency officials held a call with airline executives to discuss weekend planning, including the agency’s use of overtime to staff its facilities, traffic and routing plans, according to a person familiar with the meeting. The call was in addition to regular planning meetings with airlines.

U. S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg speaks with reporters on Zoom call about flight cancellations and expected delays this July 4th holiday weekend.

U. S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg: “It is time for the airline industry to deliver.”

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told reporters Friday that, “passengers have high expectations from an industry that we have supported with tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer funding through the pandemic to keep it up and running so that it can serve passengers. Now we need them to deliver.”

Concerned about flight cancellation trends, Buttigieg said he has spoken directly with airlines.

“Something I’ve asked them to do so that if you’re selling a ticket, you know you can back that up, that you have the staffing to do it,” he added.

A record number of Americans are expected to travel by car this upcoming July 4th holiday weekend, per a new report from the Triple A auto club.

Screenshot/NBC News

Just in time for that Fourth of July travel, gas prices are continuing to drop from their record high points of two weeks ago as the Energy Information Administration reports that gasoline stockpiles across the country have increased, according to the Auto Club’s Weekend Gas Watch.

Since Monday, the national average for a gallon of regular gasoline has decreased by four cents to $4.85.

Despite the highest 4th of July gas prices on record, 42 million Americans are driving this holiday.

Travelers Driving This 4th of July Weekend To Avoid Airport Chaos:

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Sports

Welsh Olympic distance swimmer Dan Jervis comes Out

Jervis, who placed 5th in distance swimming at the Olympics in Tokyo said he was inspired by Blackpool FC soccer player Jake Daniels

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Dan Jervis (Screenshot via British Swimming Livestream-archive)

NEATH, Talbot County Borough, Wales – In a recent interview with BBC Radio Cornwall, 26-year-old British Olympian distance swimmer Dan Jervis revealed that he had given considerable thought before announcing to the world that he is gay.

Jervis told the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast; “I was adjusting to everything else, just trying to fit in — until I thought, Just be you.”

Jervis, who placed 5th in distance swimming for the British team at the Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan, told the BBC he was inspired by 17-year-old Blackpool FC forward Jake Daniels, the professional soccer player who made history as only the second person in the past 30 years to acknowledge their sexual orientation publicly in that sport in the United Kingdom.

The swimmer also told the BBC it was important to be seen as a role model as he readies to compete in the upcoming Commonwealth Games. Jervis has previously competed winning a 1500m freestyle silver and bronze at the 2014 and 2018 Games in Glasgow, Scotland and Australia’s Gold Coast respectively.

“It took me 24 years to be who I am,” he said and added, “You know, we’re just before the Commonwealth Games and there are going to be kids and adults watching who will know that I’m like them, and that I’m proud of who I am.”

The Olympian reflected on his decision to announce he was gay: “For so long, I hated who I was – and you see it all the time, people who are dying over this. They hate themselves so much that they’re ending their lives.

“So if I can just be that someone people can look at and say, ‘yeah, they’re like me,’ then that’s good.”

Jervis then said he revealed his sexuality to a close friend when he was 24: “At that point, I’d never said the words out loud to myself.”

“I said to her: ‘I think I’m gay.’ I couldn’t even say: ‘I’m gay.’ I was basically punching the words out.

“She was quite shocked but great, and it was exactly the reaction I wanted. I’ve had all good reactions, and the way I’ve described it is I’m not going to change as a person.

“Everyone’s journey is different, but I think I’ve always known.

“It was something in the back of my mind, bugging me. I thought I was bisexual and had girlfriends that I loved – but it came to about three years ago where I knew I had to deal with this.

“It wasn’t affecting my swimming, but me as a human being. It sounds quite drastic, but I wasn’t enjoying my life. Yeah, I was smiling, but there was something missing to make me properly happy.

“I’m still the Dan you’ve always known. You just know something else about me now.”

The Commonwealth Games open in Birmingham, UK on July 28.

Listen: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0chqfhn

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Online Culture

FCC asks Apple & Google to remove TikTok app from their stores

Its pattern of surreptitious data practices that are documented show TikTok is non-compliant with app store policies and practises

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Graphic by Molly Butler for Media Matters

WASHINGTON – In a series of tweets Tuesday, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr disclosed a letter sent to both Apple and Google’s parent company Alphabet asking the two tech giants to remove TikTok from their app stores over his concerns that user data from the wildly popular social media platform is disclosed and used by bad actors in China.

In his letter dated June 24 to Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai, Carr noted that because of its pattern of surreptitious data practices documented in reports and other sources, TikTok is non-compliant with the two companies’ app store policies and practises.

“TikTok is not what it appears to be on the surface. It is not just an app for sharing funny videos or meme. That’s the sheep’s clothing,” he said in the letter. “At its core, TikTok functions as a sophisticated surveillance tool that harvests extensive amounts of personal and sensitive data.”

Carr stated that if the companiest do not remove TikTok from their app stores, they should provide statements to him by July 8.

The statements should explain “the basis for your company’s conclusion that the surreptitious access of private and sensitive U.S. user data by persons located in Beijing, coupled with TikTok’s pattern of misleading representations and conduct, does not run afoul of any of your app store policies,” he said.

Carr was appointed by former President Trump in 2018 to a five-year term with the FCC.

In March of this year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a nationwide investigation into TikTok for promoting its social media platform to children and young adults while its use is associated with physical and mental health harms to youth.

The investigation will look into the harms using TikTok can cause to young users and what TikTok knew about those harms. The investigation focuses, among other things, on the techniques utilized by TikTok to boost young user engagement, including strategies or efforts to increase the duration of time spent on the platform and frequency of engagement with the platform.

TikTok’s computer algorithms pushing video content to users can promote eating disorders and even self-harm and suicide to young viewers. Texas opened an investigation into TikTok’s alleged violations of children’s privacy and facilitation of human trafficking last month.

TikTok has said it focuses on age-appropriate experiences, noting that some features, such as direct messaging, are not available to younger users. The company says it has tools in place, such as screen-time management, to help young people and parents moderate how long children spend on the app and what they see, the Associated Press reported.

“We care deeply about building an experience that helps to protect and support the well-being of our community, and appreciate that the state attorneys general are focusing on the safety of younger users,” the company said. “We look forward to providing information on the many safety and privacy protections we have for teens.”

TikTok has also had a problematic relationship with the LGBTQ+ community. Recently The Washington Post confirmed that the ‘Libs of TikTok,’ an influential anti-LGBTQ account regularly targets LGBTQ individuals and their allies for harassment from its more than 640,000 Twitter followers while serving as a veritable wire service for Fox News and the rest of the right-wing media to push anti-LGBTQ smears.

Libs of TikTok regularly targets individual teachers and their workplaces – releasing their personal information that includes school and individual names as well as social media accounts, and leading its audience to harass the schools on social media.

A year ago, an investigation by Media Matters found that TikTok’s “For You” page recommendation algorithm circulated videos promoting hate and violence targeting the LGBTQ community during Pride Month, while the company celebrated the month with its #ForYourPride campaign. 

Numerous LGBTQ+ content creators have shared stories with the Blade about TikTok’s seemingly arbitrary algorithms that target otherwise benign content that is not listed outside of the platform’s polices and removed the content. In many cases restoring the posts after appeals or in the worst case scenarios banning the users.

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