Thursday, May 6, 2004

'Dinner' offers much to digest
Special to the Register

'Dinner with Ribbentrop'

However one characterizes "Dinner with Ribbentrop," Norman Hudis' modest chamber drama about Eric Portman tackles the big subject of anti-Semitism in a modest way.

Hudis, famed as the screenwriter of the six classic British "Carry On" film comedies, wrote "Dinner with Ribbentrop" in the early 1970s but has made continuous rewrites as recently as this year. The play has never received a full staging, making Rude Guerrilla Theater Company's fascinating production its world premiere.

Now obscure, British leading man Portman was known in his day for distinguished work on the London stage and the occasional film role. Set in 1951, "Dinner with Ribbentrop" picks up the actor's life during roughly the final third of his career. While its focus is whether Portman will accept a prized film role from a renowned British producer who's Jewish, "Ribbentrop" keeps looking over its shoulder at an incident from 1937.

While ambassador to Britain, Germany's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, met Portman at a dinner, assuring him that, after winning the coming war, the Nazis would make Portman "the greatest English star in the New Europe." This apocryphal story, repeated verbally in person by Portman to Hudis after the end of World War II, is the frame through which Portman is perpetually viewed.

Just to ensure that we don't get too slanted a portrait, Hudis paints the actor as an equal-opportunity bigot whose dislike of Irish, blacks and England's Labour Party is nearly as intense as his paranoia that Jews controlled everything from the economy to the worlds of theater and film. "Ribbentrop" also deals overtly with Portman's homosexuality and his guilt over the death of his most recent lover during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. As such, the play is more seriocomic character study than serious treatise, and that's how it's handled by Rude Guerrilla's director, Sharyn Case, and Steven Parker as Portman.

Though Parker is obviously much younger than 48 (Portman's age in 1951), he delivers on the actor's star power and mercurial nature, whether bluffing male lover Dennis (Keith Bennett) out of exposing Portman's homosexuality to the press, gently revealing his Yorkshire roots to the mother (Sally Norton) of his murdered beau, or defending his virulent hatreds as "pure instinct" in a heated debate with Jewish producer Theo Aronson (Vince Campbell).

Initially, Hudis' text is lightly funny, as Portman, all cultured posturings, exchanges pointed backstage repartee with his dresser, Tom (Norman Wilson). As the script peels back the layers, we learn that Portman's belief that "they" are to blame for England's ills is rooted in his having witnessed his mother's grocery store driven into the ground by rivals (Jews, minorities, take your pick). Though this is pop psychology at its worst, it is halfway believable; more chillingly credible is Portman's claim that his deep-seated anti-Semitism is a traditional, deeply rooted part of England's national character. Through it all, Parker's Portman is the suave, polished leading man while at the same time appearing driven by unseen demons.

The other figures in this partly factual, partly fictional character study exist only to illuminate our view of Portman. Wilson's Tom is both amused by and protective of his temperamental employer. Bennett's Cockney accent is only partly successful in painting Dennis as a streetwise ex-convict, but the younger man's devotion to Portman is undeniable. Norton's Mrs. Prescott has a wonderfully comforting effect on the celebrity. As Aronson, Campbell has a British accent that is mild and not always convincing, but he and Parker ensure that the producer's climactic war of words with his would-be star is never less than riveting. Cynical of his country's creation of the state of Israel, Portman insists that it's a move Englishmen will ultimately regret. What's more, he vows that he'd have never taken Ribbentrop up on his offer.

Dave Barton's set keenly evokes Portman's dressing room, handsomely appointed by Jessica Aldridge and Jay Fraley and lit by Dawn Hess. Like the set, Fraley's sound design conjures the now-quaint feeling of postwar London.
LA Times
David C. Nichols

'Ribbentrop' unmasks actor

Before Norman Hudis wrote the "Carry On" comedies and many television scripts, he was a publicist for J. Arthur Rank's famed Islington Studios. Here he encountered British lodestar Eric Portman.

Portman, a box-office draw and stage fave after his Nazi villain in "The 49th Parallel," was an unrepentant bigot and a closeted homosexual. These aspects dominate Hudis' "Dinner With Ribbentrop," now premiering at the Rude Guerrilla Theatre.

It is 1951, in Portman's London dressing room between performances of his latest hit. Assistant Tommy (Norman Wilson) struggles to keep his employer from learning of the death of his former lover. Such news will shatter Portman (Steven Parker) even more than the arrival of ex-colleague Dennis (Keith Bennett), who has his own secret.

When Jewish producer Theo Aaronson (Vince Campbell) arrives to offer a plum movie role, Portman's inadvertent discovery spurs an anti-Semitic outburst. After Portman faces the dead man's mother (Sally Norton), Aaronson's return sparks an ethical battle disguised as negotiations.

Hudis understands structural motivation and character, and he certainly knows this milieu. Unfortunately, his ambitious text vacillates between static polemic and acrid quips.

Despite smart designs, director Sharyn Case's staging permits her tireless
crew inscrutable pauses and errant, distracting dialects. Parker's innate
sensitivity seems closer to Leslie Howard than to Portman, though he and Campbell valiantly attack the talky climax. Backstage buffs, Anglophiles and ACLU members may be intrigued, but this murky stew needs revised ingredients.

"Dinner With Ribbentrop," Rude Guerrilla Theatre, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Also May 20, 8 p.m. Ends May 23. Mature audiences. $12-$15. (714) 547-4688. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

OC Weekly

Dinner with Ribbentrop

The greatness in the world premiere of Norman Hudis’ Dinner With Ribbentrop lies not within its look at the perils of bigotry and anti-Semitism; nor within the framework of its golden-age Hollywood plot; nor in the final audit of the protagonist, Jew-bashing überthespian prick Eric Portman. No, what rocks about the Rude Guerrilla staging is they serve you a complete stankin’ slice of theater pie, with a little extra theater on the side, just in case.

Sharyn Case’s character-driven, spot-on direction combined with Hudis’ queeny barbarisms and clever retorts sets a foundation the Rude Guerrilla builds promisingly on. The commitment of the actors (led by Steven Parker as Portman) is unwavering, with solid period performances and flawless hardcore accents throughout. But what really makes the piece work is the aggregate—the sense of the completeness of the show. It achieves the theater cliché that is so rarely delivered: we are actually transported to another place—in this case, to a melodramatic bastard actor’s dressing room in the posh theaters of long ago, watching as he readies for his next show and ponders Nazis, Hollywood and buggery. The piece is at times heady, at times sorrowful, at times so funny and bitchy and bigoted that you’d start a fuss—if you weren’t enjoying yourself so much.

Dinner With Ribbentrop at Rude Guerrilla’s Empire Theater, 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through May 23. $12-$15.

—John Beane