Theatre West: “Acting: The First Six Lessons” and “The Life and Times of A. Einstein”

Kres Mersky in "The Life and Times of A. Einstein" (Photo: Paul Gersten)

“ACTING: The First Six Lessons” is a clever adaptation of a sort of 1933 manual on the art and craft of Method acting by the Polish-born Richard Boleslavsky. This actor/director studied at the renowned Constantin Stanislavski’s Moscow Art Theatre and was a director of its First Studio. After reportedly defecting to America, Boleslavsky directed Hollywood movies featuring stars such as John and Ethel Barrymore, Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford and Irene Dunne in the 1936 screwball comedy Theodora Goes Wild. In 1923 Boleslavsky also established what may be the first U.S. school to teach the Stanislavski Method, the American Laboratory Theatre; his students included Stella Adler (Marlon Brando’s famed teacher), Harold Clurman and Lee Strasberg, who eventually established the Group Theater, which played a major role in stage history.

Beau Bridges and his daughter Emily have adapted (what I assume is) Boleslavsky’s Six Lessons of Dramatic Art into a play with 10 scenes. (In a clever bit of marketing during these hard times, copies of the play’s source book were on sale in Theatre West’s lobby.) The play stresses Boleslavsky’s acting teaching career and only alludes to his accomplished movie directing career, although he does defend screen acting to his student, who is baffled by the bits and pieces out of joint nature of movie acting.

Suffice it to say that in the play the Bridges have concocted a novice overacting actress seeks out the noted maestro so that Boleslavsky can teach her how to act. He starts with the importance of concentration for actors, who must be able to focus, use their imagination and transmute emotional memories from actual past occurrences to the dramatic material at hand. In the course of the drama we watch the development of the wannabe thespian as a stage and screen actress. Along the way the audience learns much about the technique and creative process of acting.

I found this to be absorbing and highly educational in an entertaining way. However, a female playwright and actress in the audience was critical of what could be viewed as the Svengali-like nature of the plot, wherein an older male molds the younger woman. Of course, never having been a female actress I did not have this subjective point of view (although can see how others might) and did not consider this story to be, shall we say, a Bridges too far.

I thoroughly enjoyed the charming story and the father-daughter interaction of Beau and Emily Bridges, a voluptuous beauty who seems destined to continue the “family business.” The pony-tailed Beau told the audience he was 68, but he seemed far younger; as the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote: “There’s no gray hair in his soul.” Recently I saw his brother Jeff in person at the Independent Spirit Awards in March, and he was the best-looking 60-year-old male I’ve ever seen. The Brothers Bridges inherited their father Lloyd’s good looks and genes, and Beau has been appearing onscreen since the late 1940s, in Abraham Polonsky’s 1948 Force of Evil, the 1949 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony and in the early 1960s in his father’s Sea Hunt TV series (which I remember watching as a kid). Beau’s endless screen credits include 1970’s integration film The Landlord and 1979’s labor drama Norma Rae. So it was a kick to see Beau perform in person.

Beau Bridges and Emily Bridges in "Acting: The First Six Lessons" (Photo: Paul Gersten)

And unlike other thespians, such as Brando who frequently derided acting as an unworthy profession (well, if your father repeatedly put you down during your childhood as a big nothing, even if you later won two Oscars, millions and vast critical acclaim, you’d still hear your father’s voice in your addled head insulting you and belittling whatever you did), it was a joy to see the pleasure that Beau continues to take in his lifelong avocation, and the pleasure Emily also takes in this art and craft, as the latest member of this show biz dynasty. And their clear enchantment in being able to perform together in this family affair.

“ACTING: The First Six Lessons” is playing at Theatre West in repertory with “The Life and Times of A. Einstein” at separate performances (that is, it is not a double bill and separate admissions are required to the different plays at different show times). Because blabbermouth reviewers and press notes often divulge plot spoilers without alerting readers first, when I’m interested in seeing a show I try not to read about it beforehand, so some big mouth doesn’t ruin it for me by depriving me of the joy of discovery. This practice, however, doesn’t always serve me well, and The Life and Times of A. Einstein (not to be confused with another piece playing at L.A.T.C. called The Einstein Plan, a sort of cross between agitprop theater and a town hall meeting featuring Jamie Cromwell) is a case in point.

Well, what is one to make of that title? Of course, I assumed it was a play about Albert Einstein, but it’s not. Rather, it’s a one-woman show about the physicist’s secretary and housekeeper portrayed by Kres Mersky. Yes, you guessed it, this play is also written by one Kres Mersky. She portrays Ellen Schoenhammer (based, I guess, on Einstein’s actual secretary/housekeeper Helen Dukas), who migrated from Nazi Germany to Princeton, N.J., and served the Einsteins for a third of a century. Some may believe this gives the Einstein saga a feminist twist by making a woman the primary (actually, only) character and storyteller, but I disagree. It is telling that Mersky’s TV credits include Charlie’s Angels, a pseudo-feminist TV series. Those eponymous angelic detectives were subject to the orders of their boss, Charlie (voiced by the recently deceased John Forsythe), just as Ellen’s entire life revolves around the scientist, who she was smitten with. Ellen’s unrequited love is played for laughs in this play, as audiences are once again expected to be tickled pink by the notion that women over a certain age can be sexual (to wit ABC’s current TV sitcom Cougar Town, that finds endless mirth in the notion that 40-plus-year-old women might be sexually active).

Mersky is fine and witty as Ellen, but I felt gypped by the title of the play as a sort of false advertising. It reminded me of that otherwise forgettable Billy Crystal/ Debra Winger 1995 comedy Forget Paris, which I’d gone to see in Hawaii hankering to feast my eyes again on the City of Lights. However, as I recall the eponymous city appeared in only an opening sequence and the rest of the dreary movie took place in the USA. But the studio had cleverly marketed its boring film by using a well established brand name others had created (i.e., Paris), just as Mersky appears to have done.

I don’t think many people would buy tickets to see a one-woman show called The Life and Times of E. Schoenhammer – a far less marketable, sellable title. I was also disappointed that while the play touched upon Einstein’s pacifism, it did not mention his socialist leanings. During the HUAC/Blacklist era, Einstein courageously wrote a piece called “Why Socialism?” in the very first issue of the venerable Monthly Review in 1949, and audiences need to be reminded that the greatest genius of all time chose to be a socialist.

“ACTING: The First Six Lessons” is being performed through May 16 on Fridays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. The Life and Times of A. Einstein is being performed through May 16 on Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 7 p.m. at Theatre West, 333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles. For more info: (323)851-7977;

Ed Rampell

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