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Arts and Entertainment

Theater Review: Little Flower of East Orange Grows in Hollywood

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Stephen Adley Guirgis's The Little Flower of East Orange is a large, enjoyably sprawling play, containing multitudes of theatrical perspectives. For the most part it's a kitchen sink Irish-American family drama as related to us by Danny (Michael Friedman), a young man in and out of rehab whom we learn in the play's opening scene is presently serving a prison sentence. Yet intermittently through much of the first act, we also enter the mind of Danny's hospitalized, hallucination-prone mother Therese Marie (Melanie Jones).

When the action focuses on the hospital staff and law enforcement officials who hover around Theres Marie's bed, the play assumes the tone of a gritty realistic New York urban narrative. When Danny's sister, Justina (Marisa O'Brien) first takes the stage, however, her panicked phone call to Danny is a Hunter S. Thompson-esque outburst of content-free emotion, and later when she's visiting their mother in the hospital, she incongruously accompanies her own conversation on the violin.

Despite the play's tendency to stray in varying directions, the drama remains coherent and indeed powerfully moving thanks to an array of strong performances by an absolutely perfect cast, under the direction of Elephant Theatre Company Artistic Director David Fofi. (The production is a collaboration between the Elephant and New York's LAByrinth Theater Company, where Guirgis is a co-Artistic Director).

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Jones and Friedman mine the tension of their dark family history and their conflicted contemporary mother-son relationship in an extended pas de deux at the opening of the second act that shifts on a dime between heartbreaking and hilarious and back again. Alex Furth and Leshay Tomlinson Boyce brilliantly convey an unusual brand of tough-minded empathy as a pair of New York nurses on the hospital front lines. And Kate Huffman shines in what could have been a thanklessly under-developed role as Danny's drug-addled girlfriend Nadine.

There's a lot going on in The Little Flower of East Orange, and it's not easy to digest every bit of it over the course of the evening. But each of the play's various parts is fully rewarding, and many of them are truly memorable, whether they all add up in the end or not. It's exactly the kind of production that gives "experimental theater" a good name.

The Little Flower of East Orange plays Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings through December 12 at the Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Boulevard, in Hollywood. Tickets $34 ($28 Sundays) on the Elephant Theatre Company web site, $19.50 ($16.50 Sundays) on goldstar.com, $19.00 ($16.50 Sundays) on lastagetix.com, and $18.50 ($16 Sundays) on plays411.net (using Promo Code 008).