"Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you will find the real tinsel underneath," Oscar Levant once famously quipped. He certainly had the personality and career to understand the truth in that line, or the real tinsel underneath it. But as John Fisher's new play shows, Hollywood in the 1940s did have a surface to scratch — witness the otherwise unlikely encounter between Levant and Arnold Schönberg, the latter a part of Los Angeles's community of German Jewish émigré artists and intellectuals on the run from Hitler.
Fisher, who skillfully plays the title role as well as directs, sets this real-life encounter between the formidable modernist composer and the Broadway-Hollywood composer-actor-pianist and mordant wit (played with coolly neurotic panache by Matthew Martin) against a present-day story of rattled sexual identities. As the play gets under way, a frustrated history professor named John (Matt Weimer), in a state of midlife crisis, breaks off his long-term relationship with his lover, Chris (Michael Vega), to start an affair with his best friend, Ash (Stefanie Goldstein), breaking up her long-term relationship to Jane (Maryssa Wanlass) in the process.
The resulting "emancipation of dissonance" brings forward a number of themes, as these overlapping attempts at reordering spark, chafe, and fly apart again in a state of ghostly proximity to one another. The scenes between the hip but nervous, pill-popping Oscar (a dedicated hypochondriac and phobic) and the imposing but dryly humorous Schönberg are especially riveting, serving, among many other things, to measure the tension between the incessant commodification of culture and some notion of pure art. The John and Ash affair, while well acted, seems less developed. Even given a certain fuzziness, however, it's a completely worthwhile evening, suggesting that the fault lines running beneath Los Angeles are many and varied. As Levant once wrote, in a line that could speak for his culture, "I am, as I've told everyone, deeply superficial." SFBG
THE DEVIL ON ALL SIDES
Through May 27
Thurs.–<\d>Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.
Traveling Jewish Theatre
470 Florida, SF
$12–<\d>$30 (Thurs., pay what you can)
Through May 20
Wed.–<\d>Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
2926 16th St., SF