Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay


Good, Better, Best, Bested
The Custom Made Theatre Co.
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Jeanie's reviews of Stairway to Paradise and Patrick's review of A Walk on the Moon


The Cast
Photo by Jay Yamada
Let me be upfront about this: I don't like Las Vegas. Other than the Cirque du Soleil shows and the amazing Fountains of Bellagio, there is almost no place that depresses me more than the Las Vegas strip, pullulating as it is with hucksters, hookers, hawkers, and the homeless—not to mention a seemingly endless stream of tourists, intoxicated less by the spectacle of neon and overwrought architecture than by the "free" drinks offered by casinos to those foolish (and innumerate) enough to try their hands at Caribbean Stud or feed one of the city's nearly 200,000 slot machines.

But this review is not about Las Vegas, it's about the world premiere of Jonathan Spector's Good, Better, Best, Bested at Custom Made Theatre Co. in San Francisco. Which is good, because I enjoyed it so much more than the city in which it is set.

Good, Better, Best, Bested imagines a night on the strip during Super Bowl weekend, when Vegas reaches its zenith of debauchery and bad decisions. To make matters worse, something terrible (but which, specifically, remains mostly unnamed) has happened in India that threatens to alter life on the planet forever. But hey! It's Super Bowl weekend! And there are bachelorette parties to vomit at and unwise bets to be made and johns to be serviced.

Ordinarily, I'm most impressed by a good story. Something with a beginning, middle and end that early on establishes high stakes for its characters and pays off with a satisfying resolution. But while Good, Better, Best, Bested is pretty light on story, mostly being a collection of vignettes about characters who generally have little connection to each other (except for a small reunion that I won't elaborate on to save the surprise, but was perhaps the most touching moment in the play), its dialogue is so crisp, its characters so compelling and real, that I was happy to sit back and enjoy watching humanity take a nose dive into the pile of glass shards of the broken dream of America that is Las Vegas.

Director Lauren English keeps the action moving on the small stage, though her taut direction is undercut somewhat by Randy Wong-Westbrooke's flat and unimaginative set design and Theodore J.H. Hulsker's projections, which accomplish little more than establishing that we are in Vegas. Despite this, English's direction is true to the thrilling and sometimes chaotic vignettes playwright Spector has written.

But her best work is accomplished in collaboration with her cast of seven, each of whom play multiple roles, and each of whom present their characters not as clichés (though each—from a costumed centurion at Caesar's Palace to a teen poker phenom to selfie-taking, pathologically self-absorbed tourists—has some stereotypical elements) but as actual humans. Humans often making poor choices, or dealing with the fallout from previous poor choices, but humans nonetheless.

All the actors are excellent, but several deserve special mention. As call girl Simone, Jessica Lea Risco put me in mind of Anna Gunn (who played Skyler White on "Breaking Bad"), delivering the same fierce (and rare) combination of self-preservation and empathy that Gunn brought to her breakout role. Tim Garcia's turn as Sheldon, a teenage poker player grinding out a living in Vegas card rooms, has such a twitchy intensity that I'm surprised propmaster Stephanie Dittbern didn't think to put a can of Red Bull in his hand. David Sinaiko does wonderful work in all three of his roles, but he is at his most vulnerable, human and relatable as Sheldon's father. The power dynamic between the two of them often inverts the usual father-son roles, and Sinaiko exhibits a sense of impotence, tempered by paternal love, that is remarkable to behold.

By the time this 90-minute journey into an American heart of darkness is over, none of Jonathan Spector's characters will have changed much, but it's clear that nothing will ever be the same for any of them. Or us—for, despite the flaws and foolishness of these denizens of the Strip, locals and tourists alike, they will reveal aspects of yourself that may surprise (and perhaps frighten) you.

Good, Better, Best, Bested, The Custom Made Theatre Co. in conjunction with Just Theater, through July 7, 2018, at The Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco CA. Shows are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm, with matinees Saturdays at 2:00pm. Tickets range from $35-$45, and are available at www.custommade.org.


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