DAYTONA Theater Review
As the Nazis ride again, British playwright Oliver Cotton’s brilliant play Daytona is about how fascism impacts and haunts survivors throughout their lives (and those are the “lucky” ones!) and what may be the first postwar “Antifa” in America. The two-acter opens mundanely enough, with an old married couple practicing for a dance competition in their rather routine, drab Brooklyn apartment, expertly designed with her usual deftness and eye for detail by Hillary Bauman.
But what is about to befall the seventy-something Elli (Sharron Shayne) and Joe (George Wyner) is anything but typical, as out of the blue, the long lost Billy (the peerless Richard Fancy) shows up to upset the proverbial applecart. Billy’s arrival from out of nowhere reminds first Joe and then, in Act II, Elli about who and what they really are and their deep dark past, as long buried secrets are excavated and revealed.
Without committing the unpardonable offense of disclosing a plot spoiler (a capital offense for critics!), let me try and dance around what happens a bit. In Act I Billy executes an action that would arguably be applauded by today’s Antifa - those brave antifascist activists who use militant tactics to resist Nazis and defend their intended victims. Let’s just say that Billy goes rogue - which is apropos, as this stellar production, the American premiere of Daytona, is by one of L.A.’s leading, edgiest theater companies, Rogue Machine.
His feat takes place while Billy is, of all things, on vacation at Daytona, in that not-so-sunny Sunshine State just rocked by hurricanes. Like Irma, Billy blows back into Joe and Elli’s life while he is on the lam, and all hell breaks loose, as he divulges his daring deed to Joe while Elli is gone for the day.
She returns at the end of Act I before the intermission, and when the proverbial curtain lifts for the second act, Billy is now alone with Elli in the apartment she shares with her husband. Here, Cotton’s plot twists as it turns out there are more deep dark secrets to be uncovered, as Billy and Elli expose their own clandestine history.
Enough said about the plot. Suffice it to say that this is a superbly written, acted and directed (by Elina de Santos, Rogue Machine’s Co-Artistic Director) drama that may have you on the emotional edge of your seat. It is full of moral conundrums regarding life, death, assimilating to hide your true ethnic identity and self, fidelity and more. Daytona provoked total strangers to hold serious debates in their theater seats during the intermission about ethical and other questions.
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Audiences are used to seeing couples portrayed by younger, more conventionally handsome and pretty, sexually
appealing if not outright glamorous actors. But these veteran thesps fully inhabit their roles, delivering performances that will be long remembered by auds - and, hopefully, critics when it’s accolade-dispensing time. Fancy is the three-hander’s standout, although all cast members acquit themselves admirably. Fancy’s long list of credits include portraying Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman (LADCC and Ovation Award nominations); Uncle Morty in Awake and Sing (LADCC Award) and on TV Fancy has appeared in Seinfeld and NCIS.
Wyner’s L.A. stage debut was with Henry Fonda in The Trial of A. Lincoln and in the Fonda-directed The Caine Mutiny Court Martial. On the big screen he was in the Coen Brothers' Best Picture Oscar nominee, the Jewish-themed A Serious Man, as Rabbi Nachtner, plus in Mel Brooks' Spaceballs and Mel’s anti-Nazi remake of To Be or Not To Be. The venerable Wyner also appeared in more than 150 TV shows, including a recurring role as Deputy D.A. Irwin Bernstein on Hill Street Blues. Like a fine wine, Wyner only improves with age.
An Actors Studio alumnus, Sharron Shayne has trod the boards in Death of a Salesman, Come Back Little Sheba, etc. Her sly performance as Elli belies the character’s petit bourgeois persona - her penchant for dancing reveals the remnants of a smoldering, sensuous self. I wondered if Cotton meant Elli’s name to suggest genocide survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel’s moniker? In any case, Billy’s parting with Shayne’s character had all the longing of little Brandon De Wilde running after Alan Ladd in George Stevens’ classic 1953 Western, crying out: “Shane. Shane! Come back!”
During the 1980s, as the Reagan era clouded and “conservatized” America with a sort of “Me Decade”, I remember anti-nuke activists tried to appeal to the pervading bourgeois self obsession with a slogan that went something like: “A nuclear war could ruin your career.” The same could be said about how fascism can ruin your life, as Cotton incisively, dramatically unfolds in Daytona. The two and a half hour production could also be seen as a dramatization of the perception that radical psychiatrist Frantz Fanon argued the only way the oppressed could regain their “manhood” was by cutting off the heads of their oppressors.
The playbill sets the play’s time as 1986 but I thought there were references in the dialogue to the story taking place in the early 1990s. However, this is a mere quibble and serious theatergoers enraptured by mature subject matter and characters should meet the Met and experience this must see meditation on fascism - and resistance to it. Alas, Daytona - which perpetuates Rogue’s rep as one of L.A.’s top theater companies - remains timely and helps explain what the counter-protesters in Charlottesville and beyond are courageously fighting against.
Rogue Machine’s production of Daytona runs Saturdays and Mondays at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m. through Oct. 30, 2017 (no performances on Monday Sept. 25 and Oct. 2). Rogue Machine is located at The Met, 1089 N Oxford Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90029. Reservations: (855)585-5185 or at www.roguemachinetheatre.com.
Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Dziga Vertov’s documentary The Man With the Movie Camera on Friday, 7:30 p.m., Sept. 22, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November. For info: firstname.lastname@example.org. Rampell is a co-organizer of the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of the Hollywood Blacklist(see: https://www.generosity.com/fundraising/hollywood-blacklist-tribute).