Theater review: 'Five Mile Lake' at South Coast Repertory flows nicely

Among the revivals and West Coast premieres that dominate our theatrical offerings, the startling phrase “world premiere” implies an exhilarating, possibly risky novelty: You can’t help expecting pyrotechnics.

But Rachel Bonds’ “Five Mile Lake,” receiving its world premiere at South Coast Repertory, is a small, quiet play in which nothing particularly momentous happens.

In fact, you may forget you’re watching a play at all, and that the people in whose every fleeting expression you have become so deeply absorbed are actors reciting memorized lines.

Mary (Rebecca Mozo) and Jamie (Nate Mooney) work at a small coffee shop in their (fictional) Pennsylvania hometown. It’s the kind of town kids grow up to leave, but these two, in their late 20s, didn’t.

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Mary has a troubled older brother, an Afghanistan veteran she’s trying to rehabilitate (Brian Slaten); Jamie looks after his ailing mother. But while Mary, dreamy and ambitious, feels stifled and resentful, Jamie radiates contentment, teasing her affectionately as she glares at him.

“Don’t you ever get claustrophobic?” she demands. “No. Because I live on a giant lake,” he replies.

Jamie’s lake is literal — a backdrop on Marion Williams’ attractive set — and metaphorical: Its source is his unrequited love for Mary.

Of course something drops in to ruffle its surface. His brother, Rufus (Corey Brill), who has been away for years earning a doctorate, suddenly arrives, bringing a glamorous girlfriend, Peta (Nicole Shalhoub). But things aren't perfect for the two of them. And Rufus, unlike dogged, principled Jamie, is a star: charismatic, complicated and glib. To Mary, who had a crush on him in high school, Rufus is the one who got away.

It’s easy to imagine how the scenario would unspool in another type of play: Two brothers divided by their love for one woman. “Five Mile Lake” contains all that passion, betrayal, violence and heartbreak in the pauses between words. There are no gunshots or shouting matches — and nobody even drowns in the lake. (Somebody does dive in, in a melodramatic sequence that doesn't quite work.) Only subtly does Jamie emerge as a hero who accepts what life has given him and quietly works to improve it.

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Bonds, a rising East Coast playwright, has a gift for quotidian dialogue with a deep well of subtext. It doesn’t really sound like dialogue. It sounds like the way people talk. Rather than announcing “I want to spend time with you” or “I’m jealous that you spent time with my brother,” her characters ask, as any of us might, “Do you want some gummy worms?” or “So you and Rufus are like best friends now?”

This is hardly a new playwriting strategy: Bonds’ most obvious antecedent is Chekhov; in very different cultural contexts, both writers create characters who helplessly reveal their innermost yearnings even, or especially, when they try not to. This type of writing is a gift for actors, because the conflict between what they say and what they feel is inherently theatrical. On the other hand, only extraordinary actors can pull it off.

A great deal of credit for these five lucid, persuasive performances belongs to director Daniella Topol. Only meticulous attention to pace, body language and facial expressions could result in such miraculous naturalism.

Brill and Mozo deliver lengthy monologues, the sort of set pieces that so often feel stagy but don't here  because both actors appear to be speaking these particular words for the first time. For this accomplishment, “Five Mile Lake” lives up to all the expectations that accompany a world premiere.

"Five Mile Lake," South Coast Repertory, Julianne Argyros Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends May 4. (714) 708-5555 or www.scr.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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