Circle X’s Premiere of Sheila Callaghan’s “Lascivious Something” in LA (Review)

Back in 2002, when South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa, CA, commissioned Sheila Callaghan’s latest play, Lascivious Something, a Dionysian drama set on a Greek isle vineyard in November 1980, just as Reagan took office, audiences had not yet met with films such as Sideways and Bottleshock that wax witty and wise on the same general subject.  Those living in wine country and those with a real passion for vino will never tire of this topic, but I, unfortunately, have.  (Though I, admittedly, wasn’t someone that Sideways really spoke to in the first place.)  None of this is to say that Callaghan’s play is a theatrical replication of these films because it certainly is not—after all, Callaghan puts her own commentative twist on the subject by creating in August, the lead male role, a winemaker who is an American ex-patriot and Marxist thinker, not a Yuppie wine snob.  Nonetheless, timing, obviously, affects how (an artistic treatment of) a topic impacts audiences, and the wine wave has, arguably, lost its novelty, even if Callaghan’s added exploration of the residual effects of Reagan era politics represents a thoughtful departure.

Subject matter is only one of the many potential drawbacks to Callaghan’s script and Circle X Theatre Co.’s premiere production currently running at [Inside] the Ford in Los Angeles.  Given the play’s fairly lengthy gestation period (some 8 years, which included development at SoHo Rep and a workshop production in 2006 at Cherry Lane Theatre) and given how much I enjoyed (reading) one of her earlier plays Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake), I went into this show not just wanting, but expecting it to be awesome, fairly free of kinks and fairly full of insights and eccentricities (like those that so endeared me to Crumble).  Before going further, I want to be clear that I saw Lascivious Something this past Friday in previews, so the creative team may tweak things further.  In fact, I sat near director, Paul Willis, who was jotting notes throughout, so I imagine tweaking will happen, though I’m not sure how much any changes made at this point would significantly improve my experience.

Casting may have been the greatest stumbling block to this production.  Only Olivia Henry as Daphne appeared both visibly suited to the part and at ease in it.  Though the script calls for August (and for that matter, Liza, his former lover who comes looking for him in Greece) to appear weathered and old for his age, Silas Weir Mitchell was (made to appear) so physically unkempt that he was simply not believable as a love match for the strikingly beautiful Daphne.  As Liza, Alina Phelan overcompensated at least the entire first half of the evening, causing the character to nearly collapse into the cliché American tourist (ignorant of other cultures, reared on McDonald’s, etc).  As “Boy,” the tomboyish girl who assists August on the vineyard and also, suggestively, Daphne in the bedroom, Alana Dietze delivered a performance that can only be described as awkward; her mawkish grimaces and fretful physicality precluded her from evoking, alternately, sympathy and titillation as it seems her character is meant to.

Tom Ontiveros’ lighting design and John Zalewski’s sound design both effectively supplied the darker moments of Callaghan’s plot with an ominous mood.  With the exception of the large watercolor inspired blue backdrop, Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set was largely naturalistic—and possibly too literal for a play that tries to create a dialectic between classical and contemporary Greek literature and culture.  In addition, actors almost tripped several times when maneuvering on stage where it was elevated on the left to resemble a hillside and on the right to resemble an entry access to the upstairs.

The play itself contains some noteworthy formal and stylistic elements.  One such stylistic element occurs later in the play, during the scene in which the actress Alina Phelan, who played “Boy,” doubled as August Jr., the deceased lovechild of Liza and August.  In this dark, disturbing interlude, a single spotlight shone on August Jr. while he spoke aloud the contents of his suicide letter, so brimming with in-the-moment authenticity that he noted scratch outs and scribbles, occasionally revealing their meaning in anticipation of his mother’s curiosity about these omissions when she would eventually read it herself.

One noteworthy formal element that occurs several times throughout the play is the back-to-back, purposeful repetition of select scenes that would begin the same, but end quite differently—a feature rather reminiscent of one of my favorite movies, Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow.  With regard to these scene repeats in the play, the first rendering of a scene would be markedly more passion-driven and reminiscent of Greek tragic characterization in terms of the baseness, bizarreness, and sheer violence of a character’s response; in the second rendering, character responses would be more reason-driven, socially appropriate, and modern in sensibility.  In one such scenario, pregnant Daphne asks her husband August if he wants to have sex with his old lover Liza: In the first performance of the scene, he openly admits that he does, and Daphne takes a utensil from the kitchen table and stabs herself in the stomach.  In the second performance of the same scene, August assures her he doesn’t want to sleep with Liza and tragedy is averted.   While this feature of the play was in and of itself among its more interesting ones, it did not entirely work, and I’m still trying to pinpoint why.  It may be because, on the whole, whatever Callaghan was trying to accomplish by riffing on Greek tragedy, including legends about Dionysus, Zeus, and others, didn’t feel sufficiently artistically realized in production.  Readers with more insights on this front feel free to shed some light.  As a final sidenote, Callaghan’s play is in keeping with nearly every other play I’ve seen in the last year, featuring full (female) nudity (in the character, Liza) and depicting non-normative/non-heterosexual gender/sexual identity (in the character, Boy)–See my previous posts on “A Gay in Every Play.”

This spring Daniella Topol will direct a production of  Lascivious Something at Women’s Theatre Project in NYC. This production will run from May 2-June 10.  I would be interested to see the differences in concept and reception between the LA and NYC stagings of Callaghan’s play in order to better sort through my overall lukewarmness to what I just saw in LA.

Lascivious Something, produced by Circle X Theatre Co., opened March 27; plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 pm; Sun., 2 & 7 pm; through May 1. Tickets: $12-$20 (pay what you can at all Sun. matinees). [Inside] the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood; 323.461.3673 or

12 Responses to “Circle X’s Premiere of Sheila Callaghan’s “Lascivious Something” in LA (Review)”
  1. Juniper says:

    Allow me to suggest skipping plays that wax anything on subjects that tire you. Also, reviewing plays in previews feels quite unfair (as you almost admit).

    • nstodard says:

      Hi Juniper,

      I appreciate your comment. I honestly had no idea what the play was about until the performance began; it was my fondness for Callaghan’s play Crumble that led me to elect to see Lascivious Something while I was still in LA. I saw it on Friday, before its official opening on Saturday, because it was my only option since I was heading back to the other coast. I actually disagree that it’s good to avoid works of art on topics that don’t interest you; instead, I think it’s entirely possible that a new work may make you rethink your sedimented position. This simply didn’t turn out to be the case in this instance for me personally.

      My review of the show, obviously, is informal; it’s on my personal blog. I purposely note that I saw the show in preview because I know how sensitive it can be to be on the other side–the side of the creative team. Andrew Lloyd Webber has just expressed his problem with bloggers reviewing his new musical in previews. And I may experience this exact scenario myself in a few weeks when a show I’m directing opens in previews. Blog theatre criticism isn’t going to go away, many are still adjusting to this new form of criticism, and one of my primary concerns is that those like myself, who write about theatre in this forum, approach it with the same professionalism, integrity, honesty as they would a formal and/or paid reviewing position. I do believe I have done that here. My review isn’t scathing; it’s constructive criticism, at least that was and always is my goal. I’m by no means discouraging anyone from seeing this production; and in fact, I look forward to reading reviews by LA reviewers and I hope a conversation will unfold that does the play and production justice.


  2. Aaron says:

    I can’t wait to see it at Women’s Project, especially since Topol and Callaghan have a good working relationship (Dead City). Even when I’m not totally in love with her writing, I’m always bowled over by her risk-taking, from “Crawl, Fade to White” to “Crumble,” and even to “That Pretty Pretty.” Looking forward to following up with you then. And don’t listen to people telling you not to write about a show during previews–if you bought the ticket (i.e., no strings attached), then go right ahead. See this thread for more:

  3. nstodard says:

    Thanks for the comment and for pointing me to Esther’s latest post. I hope to see “LS” when it’s in New York also, and if I can’t make it, I’ll be looking for your review to see how the different creative teams treat the work.


  4. Fletch says:

    Regarding the ethics of blogging about a preview performance, I believe your forthright, full-disclosure caveat adequately settled any “unfairness” issue.

    That said, I saw the following evening’s performance and found both the production and the performances very tight and kink-free. This includes Mitchell’s unkempt appearance, which IS called for by the script since his character has been in the vineyards harvesting his grape crop.

    I also believe your beef about the play taking on a subject exhausted by recent films is somewhat off-base; Callaghan is using the whole wine-fetish aspect of August’s character (and the films you cite) as a criticism. Her dialectic is between the personal and the political; her quarry is boomer-activists like August who betrayed their own progressive ideals for a decadent materialism that ironically helped usher in the age of Reagan-Bush-Cheney.

    As far as your sidebar gripe about “non-normative” sexual identity, gimme a break! The bisexuality and drunkenness of the boy character were both central to Callaghan’s Dionysian conceit. Anyway, I’d like to know what you consider “normative” sexual identity — Ozzie & Harriet?

    • nstodard says:

      Hi Fletch,

      Thanks for the comment.

      I am glad to hear you enjoyed the opening night performance. While I didn’t LOVE it, I certainly didn’t NOT LIKE it. And I most definitely recognize that the production, on the whole, is high caliber.

      After seeing the play, I took the time to read the excerpt of the script that is available on Callaghan’s website, so I realize that August’s appearance is supposed to be ‘unkempt.’ And Silas Weir Mitchell’s talent as an actor is without question; beyond his stage presence, his impressive credentials speak clearly to this fact. In my personal viewing experience, however, I had difficulty accepting him as a love match to Olivia Henry’s Daphne.

      As far as Callaghan’s exploration of ‘wine-fetishism,’ I do note that her doing so by way of a character like August, “an American ex-patriot and Marxist thinker,” and within the context of “the residual effects of Reagan era politics represents a thoughtful departure” from the films I mention. I think that Callaghan’s play is complex—far richer and more interesting than these films, and for this reason, I think I would appreciate the play more if I read it in its entirety. I can’t speak for anyone else who cares about and writes about theatre, but I recognize that for me personally, there are limits to what I can take away from a denser drama (which I believe this play is) when I am unfamiliar with the script and am only seeing it in performance for the first time.

      And, finally, to be clear, I have no “sidebar gripe” about “non-normative” sexual identity on stage. My own approach to/position on gender and sexual identity is, in fact, a Queer one. I’ve not ever seen an episode of Ozzie and Harriet, so I can’t speak to whether or not they represent ‘normative’ sexual identity (which, for what it’s worth, I take to be the division and enforcement of gender and sexual roles according to the heterosexual imperative that has prevailed to this day, in spite of historical pockets of gender and sexual fluidity, progressiveness—Ancient Greece (fittingly), the English Restoration, the roaring 20’s, etc. being among the few exceptional periods). My comment was not a criticism; it was a comment, a note, a ‘by the way.’ I pointed readers unfamiliar with my blog to previous posts where I have been chronicling LGBTQ references and representations in shows I’ve seen in the past year. My ongoing concern/question has been whether or not more depictions of LGBTQ life on stage is a sign of true progress, equality, etc. or a token gesture and, therefore, a more mixed bag, and one that LGBTQ folks and advocates should be cautious about celebrating. I noted it in Callaghan’s play because it’s there, and the play is a new play; thus, it fits generally within this line of inquiry I’ve been considering. Obviously, the fact that Dionysian mythology underlies Callaghan’s depiction of a young girl called “Boy” who is sexually involved with a woman (Daphne) in 1980’s Greece makes evaluating it alongside other contemporary plays that depict LGBTQ characters a trickier matter, and one I did not delve into.


  5. Nancy says:

    I just saw the first half of the play in NYC. I was completely bored with all the yap-yap-yapping about things that happened elsewhere some other time, so I got the hell out of there at intermission. Riding the N train home to Astoria to hang out with Greek expatriates was far more interesting.

    And all the characters were annoying and I don’t care if they all had a big Dionysian orgy and Zeus came down in the form of a swan and fucked them all. Well actually, that would have been interesting. I would have stayed if there was a chance of that happening.

    More pretentious shallow crap for highbrow wanna-bes.

    • nstodard says:

      Hi Nancy,

      Can you say more specifically what it is about the play/and or the production that repelled you so?

      I’ll grant you it’s a talk-heavy play, but lots of new-ish plays are talk, talk, talk about distant (both in terms of time and location) things. I’m thinking of works like Sarah Ruhl’s “In the Next Room,” or even works by other contemporary women playwrights that riff, as Callaghan’s does, on greek tragedy, such as Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” Marina Carr’s “By the Bog of Cats,” Sarah Kane’s “Phaedra’s Love,” and so on…how do these or similar style works strike you by comparison to Callaghan’s?

      The use or reworking of classical tragedy has long been something each generation of playwrights feels compelled to grapple with, at least once in their careers it seems. For those not familiar with the Greek myth or work being appropriated, this kind of contemporary play can be very offputting… Is it this aspect of the work you found ‘shallow,’ ‘highbrow,’ or the ex-patriot Marxist angle?

      I’m sorry to hear you left at intermission. I can’t say I’ve ever been so turned off by a show that I left. By leaving early, you left before you could see one of the more dramatically interesting and memorable moments in Callaghan’s play–when Boy plays a young August, writing and editing aloud for the audience, his last letter to his mother.

  6. Nancy says:

    Oh and also I hated all that resetting the Matrix shit.

  7. Aaron says:

    Just saw the NY production and I’ll be writing about it for the opening tomorrow. I have yet to revisit the script, so I’m still left with a few questions about the role Boy plays, and the purpose of the Legend about Zeus that opens the second act was perhaps too Significant to sink in dramatically. But to me, the repeated scenes worked well–little flashbulbs as directed by Daniella Topol that actually used the potential of what could have happened to fuel what actually DOES happen. They also fit the final context of the show, the idea of Cowardice (particularly coupled with the failure to combat Reagan, and where that backsliding has led us–and Greece–30 years down the line); in each scene, we see what a brave man would do–be honest, even at the cost of bloodshed on par with Greek tragedies–only to be thwarted, time and time again, by his inability to be the Man both women think he is. (And perhaps that’s why Boy–who shows no fear, and is in fact a woman–is in the play.)

    I haven’t fully thought this out (I almost wish I could interject those scribbles and illegibles of that brilliant monologue into this comment), but I remembered skimming over this post before, and wanted to revisit it. Cheers!

    • nstodard says:

      Hi Aaron,

      I like your thoughts on Boy’s function…I actually had not considered the contrast of his bravery with August’s cowardice, but I find that reflection compelling. I’m with you regarding the legend that opens act 2; it came and went too quickly for it to register with me, left me frustrated.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ll be looking for your review…

  8. Nancy says:

    I’ll grant you it’s a talk-heavy play, but lots of new-ish plays are talk, talk, talk about distant (both in terms of time and location) things.

    Yes and that’s why I go to see so few newish plays. But apparently I’m in the minority about this since Callaghan and others are making a good living, and getting critical adoration for writing tiresome talky-talk plays – so why not keep doing it? Having people sitting around talking is easier than actually plotting out a story that unfolds in the now.

    When the play started with the dude doing his tiresome blood-is-wine metaphor monologue I knew there was trouble ahead.

    For those not familiar with the Greek myth or work being appropriated, this kind of contemporary play can be very offputting… Is it this aspect of the work you found ‘shallow,’ ‘highbrow,’ or the ex-patriot Marxist angle?

    Unless the second half of the play was very different from the first, the play has nothing to do with Greek myths, excepting whatever the PR copy that was used to promote the play said.

    Why should not knowing the myth or anything else being referenced be “off-putting”? Shakespeare appropriated all the time and millions have enjoyed HAMLET without having any information at all about either the Third Book of Gesta Danorum or Kyd’s Ur-Hamlet.

    No that’s just the standard blame-the-hoi-polloi for not being smart enough for the the playwright (and not incidentally the critics who CRAVE intellectual validatio) It’s not the audience – it’s the playwright.

    And the “Marxist” issue is a joke. Marx is name-dropped and that’s all the play had to do with Marxism or any other political philosophy. That’s one example of how the play is shallow. But I guess some people are impressed if you mention Marx at all. It seems all intellectual and shit.

    That’s what I mean by pretentious shallow crap.

    And I’m so glad I did miss the scene you described. It sounds insufferable.

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