From the title of Jerry Lieblich's play "D Deb Debbie Deborah," I was ready for an exploration of the fluidity of identity, perhaps at different stages of a woman's life. But in this West Coast premiere at Theatre of Note in Hollywood, the blurring of selfhood cuts a lot deeper than names. In Lieblich's trippy universe, identity is a mere collection of affectations that any number of actors can, and do, perform.
Even the protagonist, a woman called Deb (played primarily by Jenny Soo), is liable to find that an understudy has replaced her in the role of herself. Are her experiences real? Is she delusional? Is she caught in an absurdist metaphor that, for all its playful theatricality, never quite figures out what to do with itself? Audience members may draw different conclusions, but along the way, they'll have no idea what to expect next from this inventive but ultimately inscrutable script.
Deb, a recent art-school graduate, has her share of problems even before the concept of identity theft becomes disconcertingly literal. Her phone and laptop get stolen. Her boyfriend, Karl, preoccupied with his mother's illness, is acting distant. (She might as well be living with a stranger.) She begins an apprenticeship with a famous painter, Mark, who not only looks completely different from one moment to the next but also requires Deb to impersonate somebody else.
Mark would be a super-creepy boss and Karl an inattentive boyfriend even if they didn't keep fragmenting into multiple actors (Greg Nussen, Travis York, Alina Phelan and Kerr Lordygan). But Deb endures their shenanigans with remarkable equanimity. At the apex of the weirdness, the opening of Mark's exhibit, Deb negotiates a squawking crew of artsy types (the roles zestfully rotated among the cast members), tries on a few of their identities herself, then has the composure to deliver a sophisticated defense of her boss' work.
Who is Deb, anyway? Compared to the other characters, who have quirky mannerisms like pausing mid-sentence or whinnying with nervous laughter so that we can track them as they jump from performer to performer, she is written mostly as a blank. All the character-swapping business may distract us from this central absence for a while. The director, Doug Oliphant, and the cast have clearly poured effort into very tricky staging, but after the surprise fades, the transitions start to seem sluggish and forced. Joe Holbrook's set, with walls that get wrested into different positions by disembodied hands from the wings, contributes to the clunky feel.
But even if the seams were invisible, the gimmick that powers "D Deb Debbie Deborah" might not give it the impact of great absurdist theater, or even sustain it for its brief length despite the charms of the cast. We need to know a little bit more about a world before we can truly mourn, or celebrate, its loss.
"D Deb Debbie Deborah," Theatre of Note, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 17. $25. (323) 856-8611, www.theatreofnote.com. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes (no intermission).
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