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Review: 'Derby Day' makes its L.A. premiere at the Elephant Theatre

Arts and CultureReviewsSam Shepard

For much of Samuel Brett Williams’ “Derby Day,” in its L.A. premiere at the Elephant Theatre (which gave Williams’ “Revelation” its world premiere last year), the sole sympathetic character onstage is Becky (Kimberly Alexander), a waitress at Oaklawn Park Race Track in Arkansas.

Lovely Becky has the misfortune of waiting on “the Ballard boys,” three grown brothers who have rented a luxury box on Derby Day. Frank, Johnny and Ned came straight to Oaklawn from their father’s funeral (sharp suits courtesy of Michael Mullen), where Ned (the fast-talking, comically gifted Malcolm Madera) was observed studying the racing form graveside.

These boys certainly don’t mourn their father — their private nickname for him, “Big Bastard,” evokes one of this playwright’s literary if not literal ancestors, Tennessee Williams — but that doesn’t mean their day at the races will be a pleasant one.

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They have too many scores to settle, bones to pick and axes to grind, as well as the most combustible fraternal rapport since Sam Shepard’s “True West.” Factor in their nasty tempers, their rapidly increasing intoxication and the vigorous fight scenes directed by Edgar Landa, and you will begin to see the challenge faced by set designer Joel Daavid, whose luxury box must withstand a Led Zeppelin-style trashing with each performance. (Thank goodness for washable paint.)

At first, Becky tentatively welcomes the clumsy overtures of Johnny (Jake Silbermann, an “As the World Turns” alum), the sweet, feckless baby of the Ballard family, who can be trusted only to make the worst possible choice in any situation, to the exasperation of his irascible eldest brother, Frank (Robert M. Foster). But their romance withers in the bud, devolving from flirtation to physical abuse in the break between races.

Although Becky sticks up for herself admirably, and even gets her revenge in a particularly apt way, you may still begin to wonder why you are spending time with these awful men. (Is it a social action drama about the plight of the Oaklawn waitstaff?)

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Then, at the end, a brief, unexpectedly heartbreaking moment makes it clear that, although he may be dead and buried, the abusive Big Bastard lives on in every ruinous step his sons take, in their every stunted attempt at generosity, in their mutual resentments and in their doomed bond. This revelation, which deftly reframes the coarse comedy as a tragedy, would not work as well if the characters were more sympathetic earlier. Williams, who also directs, engineers the transformation brilliantly.

“Derby Day.” Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends March 22. $20.  (323) 960-7779 or www.plays411.com/derbyday. Running time: 80 minutes.

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Arts and CultureReviewsSam Shepard
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