Julia, the protagonist of Wendy Graf's new play, "Closely Related Keys," is a single, Ivy League-educated African American attorney who lives for her job. Smart, ambitious and happy to sacrifice her personal life for professional advancement, she's one of those corporate control freaks who believes she should be able to subjugate the world with her smartphone.
Diarra Kilpatrick plays Julia with the manic air of someone burying themselves in work to avoid more painful feelings. Even the furtive romantic tryst she's having with Ron (Ted Mattison), a fellow shark from her law office, is conducted with the brutal efficiency of a weekly business meeting. Their passion is slotted between appointments and kept under wraps so as not to affect how they're seen at the workplace.
From the way Julia's character is established it's clear that the play — now having its world premiere at Hollywood's Lounge Theatre in a production directed by Shirley Jo Finney — will force her to confront whatever it is she's running away from.
The plot that Graf contrives is a complicated affair involving an unknown sibling, Neyla (Yvonne Huff), an Iraqi woman in her early 20s, who shows up at Julia's
Charlie (Brent Jennings), Julia's chemist father, was working in Iraq when he fell in love with Neyla's mother. His marriage to Julia's mother not yet dissolved, Charlie was unable to bring his new love to the U.S. This turned out to have tragic consequences, as the rising tide of anti-American sentiment during the lead-up to the first Gulf War left an unmarried Iraqi woman impregnated by an American in a precarious position.
A violinist, Neyla has ostensibly arrived in New York to audition for a place at Juilliard, but Julia is suspicious. Neyla is clearly angry at what America has done to her country. And Julia's post-
This unwieldy synopsis, which disregards various other narrative strands, is symptomatic of the problem of "Closely Related Keys." The author hasn't decided which story she wants to tell. Unlike a novel, which can accommodate sprawl, a play demands a greater degree of storytelling economy.
Graf's drama, mixing geopolitical suspense with domestic turmoil, juggles way too much. Worse, the resolution (and much of the psychology) has a conventional aspect. At times, "Closely Related Keys" resembles a Lifetime movie making a foray into international affairs.
The play calls for nonrealistic stage effects that Finney's production heavy-handedly supplies. (Video projections by scenic designer Hana Sooyeon Kim ensure that we know the content of Neyla's post-traumatic dreams.)
The cast is uneven. Kilpatrick boldly attacks her role while drawing attention to the invisible wounds underlying Julia's Type A personality. Unfortunately, her thunderous performance isn't adequately modulated for the smallness of the venue.
Kilpatrick's most effective scenes are with Mattison's quietly (sometimes treacherously) assertive Ron. Neither Jennings' Charlie (with his distractingly slow and neutral manner of speech) nor Huff's one-note Neyla provide an effective counterweight for Julia's titanic energy.
The title, a musical term spelled out for us by Neyla, pertains to the sisters, who have more in common than Julia suspects. It's one of several points that the playwright feels compelled to sort out before bringing her busy drama to a close.
'Closely Related Keys'
Where: Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays (call for exceptions). Ends March 30.
Contact: (323) 960-7774 or http://www.plays411.com/relatedkeys
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes