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Theater review: 'The Sonneteer' at the Gay & Lesbian Center

March 2, 2011 | 11:36 am

The weight of guilt, warranted or not, can resonate through generations. That's the dramatic crux of “The Sonneteer,” now in its world premiere at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center's Davidson/Valentini Theatre. 

Veteran playwright Nick Salamone may have written his new play decades after Arthur Miller's “All My Sons” and "A View From the Bridge," but echoes of Miller abound, and comparisons, all flattering, are obvious. The dramas all deal with titanic sins that cause Greek repercussions for the sinners.  But whereas Joe Keller in "Sons" is undone by very real capitalist greed, and Eddie in "Bridge" triggers tragedy through incestuous lust and betrayal, Salamone's “offender” is destroyed by the very perception of sin -- his own deep-seated homosexual shame.

"Sonneteer" opens just after World War II, an era beautifully delineated by Shon LeBlanc’s period costumes.  Michael (Ray Oriel) is a first-generation Italian American, steeped in Catholicism and unbending societal expectations, who struggles to conceal his love for Joey (Ed Martin), his best friend and comrade-in-arms.  However, when Michael's macho older brother, Louie (Paul Haitkin), gets wind of the affair, he's outraged, as is his sister, Vita (Cynthia Gravinese), whose disgust is exacerbated by her own love for Joey.  After tragedy strikes, Michael construes it as the fiery hand of retribution for his perceived degeneracy and escapes into a penitential marriage with Ella (Victoria Hoffman).

The sonneteer referenced in the title is Livvy (Sandra Purpuro), Louie's wife, whose verse monologues link the scenes.  So shattered by grief she barely skirts madness, Livvy ossifies into a stony shell of her former self.

The second act fast-forwards to post-Stonewall 1975, when society has somewhat softened its notions of acceptable norms.  Not for Michael, whose homophobic rage masks his own self-hatred.  And certainly not for the emotionally frozen Livvy, whose adamantine hatred endures intact. When Livvy dies, it's up to her openly homosexual son, Lucius (Haitkin), a professor of Italian Renaissance poetry, to suss out her inner life through the hand-scrawled sonnets she has left behind.

Jon Lawrence Rivera, Salamone's frequent collaborator, directs with a matter-of-fact virtuosity that extends from the rich humor of everyday family interactions to the operatic proportions of actual tragedy.  A truthful cast brings the material a wrenching immediacy, finding all the levels of these colorful, complicated characters

Like Miller before him, Salamone's deceptively simple drama exposes the roiling undercurrents in ordinary lives. Ironically, by tenaciously denying his true self, Michael achieves the cover of ordinariness –- but it’s a poisonous veneer that erodes his soul.

-- F. Kathleen Foley

“The Sonneteer,” Davidson/Valentini Theatre, the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center’s Village at Ed Gould Plaza.  8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends April 3 (dark March 18-20).  $20-$25.  (323) 860-7300.  Running time:  2 hours, 10 minutes.

Photo: Sandra Purpuro, Paul Haitkin, Cynthia Gravinese, Ed Martin, Ray Oriel, Victoria Hoffman.  Credit: Katie Pomerantz