The world-premiere production of Heather Woodbury’s epic “Tale of 2Cities: An American Joyride on Multiple Tracks,” presented as part of UCLA Live’s fifth Intl. Theater Festival, is a reminder of what a vibrant and endlessly inventive thing theater can be — a phantasmagoria of dramatic and structural ambition. That’s not to say it’s perfect — pulled together from Woodbury’s previous 10-hour solo version, not everything fits comfortably in this more compact form — but the two-part play is a triumph of unfettered creativity, given boisterous life via director Dudley Saunders and a gifted cast.
The two 2½-hour parts are “Grifters, Drifters and Dodgers” and “Mega Mixicana Waltz.” The overarching theme is how the transplanting of the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles and the subsequent creation of Dodger Stadium destroyed several neighborhoods in the Chavez Ravine area, and how this one devastating act affected generations of people on both coasts for decades. All the actors portray multiple characters, with the date shifting from scene to scene. Sometimes action in two time periods is presented simultaneously, woven together as the past impacts the future.
In 1947 Los Angeles, well-intentioned New Yorker Miriam Flieschman (Woodbury) arrives to help teach the children of La Loma, one of the mostly Mexican neighborhoods in the Chavez Ravine area. She grows fond of young Gabriela (Diane Rodriguez), encouraging the girl to write about her life. Meanwhile, in the Hobo Ridge area overlooking La Loma, elderly Samuel Wentworth (Leo Marks) and Texan movie extra Edward Portnoy (Ed Vassallo) talk and philosophize as crazy religious zealot Delbert Dreyfus (Tracey A. Leigh) builds a towering sculpture.
In 2001 L.A., Gabriela has died in her home; she begins her afterlife as a ghost, waiting for her DJ grandson Manuel (Michael Ray Escamilla) to find her body lying on the floor of her house. When Manuel finally discovers her, he decides to create a musical mix as a tribute. As Manuel goes MIA, his ex-girlfriend Lavinia Esmeralda (Winsome Brown) tries desperately to contact him.
At the same time in New York, the elderly Miriam has been assaulted by a group of young women and is in a coma. She’s visited covertly by Angela De Mayo (Leigh), whom the police suspect was responsible for the attack. Amiable cabbie Mike Rafferty becomes tangentially involved in the case by transporting both Angela and Richard (Vassallo), the detective in charge of investigating the crime. The twin disasters of the annihilation of La Loma and the horror of 9/11 connect and resonate.
As the benign if ultimately powerless Miriam, Woodbury gives the role a quiet dignity and pathos, particularly in a moment when Miriam finally realizes she’s unhappy. Woodbury also has a facility with accents, investing smaller roles such as gossipy hairdresser Viviana or an Armenian Counter Lady with uncanny skill. Brown is similarly chameleonic, equally capable as the Hispanic Esmeralda and Cambodian immigrant Mae Pho. Rodriguez, unfortunately, never completely convinces as Gabriela.
Escamilla is superb as Manuel, an artistic soul whose attempt to create the tribute mix mirrors Woodbury’s creation of this play. A scene in which he recounts his first DJing gig at a Hollywood club is an electrifying piece of acting. Marks brings a canny wryness and humanity to Samuel and Mike, and his furious despair as a fireman digging at the rubble of the Twin Towers is stunning in its raw emotion. Vassallo is a model of low-key diversity as tough-guy Richard and the obliquely cool Rabbi Dave, and his perf in a scene where Dave explains how baseball and feng shui are the same is an exquisite piece of work.
Even among this accomplished group, Leigh stands out. She manages to give loony Delbert a consistent madness; her acting as Angela is an expertly layered, three-dimensional wonder. A moment in which Angela relates a monologue about a trip to Coney Island is initially impressive for its speed and clarity of diction, but as she acts out all the characters she’s describing and never loses the persona of Angela telling the tale, it becomes a near-miraculous moment of art.
Woodbury’s writing is thrillingly poetic and daring. If occasionally she gets carried away, it’s OK — so do we. Saunders understands that the main thing in directing a work as complex as this one is keeping it comprehensible to the audience at all times, and generally he succeeds in this task. At the premiere, the lighting was intermittently laggard, with actors delivering their dialogue in darkness. The dates projected above the stage also didn’t always match scenes being enacted. Hedi el Kholti’s sound design is subtle and intriguing but is sometimes mixed so low it’s barely discernible.
Originally slated to star John C. Reilly, who dropped out due to a scheduling conflict, the production transfers to PS122 in New York Oct. 12-29.