Every Thursday night in April in Sherman Oaks, Charles Dennis stars in a play that is his true masterstroke, allowing himself to inhabit a captivating character for the ages.
By John Lavitt
Sherman Oaks, CA (The Hollywood Times) 04-9-2022
As the audience files into The Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks for the opening night of King Solomon’s Treasure, they come upon a stage overflowing with knickknacks and vintage curios, tchotchkes, and forgotten antiques. It feels like the memories of an eclectic lifetime have been left to gather dust in this old store. Set in midtown Manhattan in 1990, Holocaust survivor Franz Altman hangs onto his store with a passionate vengeance as a billion-dollar development corporation tries to force him to sell. After all, even the finest bric-a-brac in the world must give way to the steel-and-concrete Siren’s call of modern progress.
Before the actors take the stage, the director Ron Orbach tells us how Charles Dennis came to inhabit the role of Franz Altman. At first, many legendary actors were considered for the premiere of this play, and George Segal was a hair’s breadth away from taking on the role. However, when Segal heard Charles Dennis read the script during a rehearsal, he backed off from playing the part. Segal said he could never play it as well as the man who wrote it. Indeed, there is an argument that such a compliment is very close to the truth. After watching Charles Dennis perform, it is hard to imagine anyone else in the role, and it is not surprising that tickets to King Solomon’s Treasure are now selling fast.
At The Whitefire Theatre, as the venerated local playhouse celebrates its 40th Anniversary, Charles Dennis fully inhabits a multi-dimensional role for the ages. Both alive and now past, other actors could have played the part well. Raging from the late Eli Wallach to Alan Arkin and the late Don Rickles to Mel Brooks, a multitude of intriguing interpretations of Franz Altman could have taken over the night. However, there is a visceral honesty and passionate love that resonates in the performance of Charles Dennis. Without giving too much away, this critic celebrates the character’s journey from childhood to a living hell and then the complex redemption of modern purgatory.
However, it is essential to note that the play is not a dramatic downer. Instead, it rattles on by with a snappy poignancy thanks to the excellence of Franz Altman’s foil. The drama and comedy of the play are fueled by the interview of the ninety-year-old man by Susan Carmichael, a People magazine reporter played with dynamic, frustrated energy by Stevie-Jean Placek. Indeed, the fiery frustration is reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story and Woman of the Year. Once again, here is a woman battling against men to find success in a world still dominated by the traditional patriarchy. She is not happy about being given this assignment, and she does not like the dusty old shop. Stevie-Jean Placek inhabits the role with a jittery passion and intelligence.
Together, the characters of Franz Altman and Susan Carmichael bring out the very best in each other, leading to evolution and growth not only between each other but also within their souls. Such evolution often seems forced in any narrative context, but this is not the case in King Solomon’s Treasures. Instead, it feels like one of those moments when two people meet each other at the perfect time, despite neither feeling such synchronicity to be the case.
Despite resistance, they grow together, from bumping heads in a professional yet somewhat adversarial manner to becoming friends and colleagues who look out for each other. Such an intimate connection that has nothing to do with sex but every-thing to do with life and meaning is rare to behold in any context. The play succeeds based on the success of this unexpected union that reflects the heart of what we often describe as humanitarian.
The Whitefire Theatre requires all patrons and artists to show proof of vaccination or current negative test (within 72 hours) for entry. Masks are recommended but not required.
Photos by Ulrika Vingsbo-Dennis