During Alena Smith’s play “Icebergs,” in its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, thirtysomething screenwriter Calder (Nate Corddry) sets up an air mattress in his Silver Lake living room for a visiting friend.
The mattress is the self-inflating kind, and after Calder plugs it in, he sits lost in thought, the whirring noise of the motor just loud enough that he doesn’t hear his wife come in and deliver bad news.
It’s an unexpectedly theatrical device, this air mattress. Watching it fill up is at once soothing and suspenseful. We don’t worry that it won’t inflate. We know the rubber mat will become a bed — unless, of course, it explodes.
Calder and his wife, Abigail (Jennifer Mudge), are in the air-mattress phase of life, a chapter in the development of L.A. entertainment industry professionals for which Smith should win some sociological award for delineating so sharply here. Calder and Abigail have an airy and funky house (an enticing set by Anthony T. Fanning) filled with books and plants, a surfboard leaning against one wall. For want of a guest room they have the air mattress.
Not that it gets much use anymore. As Abigail tartly reminds Craig, at 35-ish, “We’re not that young.” Their friends are married, settling into careers, thinking about starting families. Calder and Abigail are too. They made an independent film together — he wrote it, she starred in it — and are working on another one. The air mattress of their life is inflating right on schedule.
Calder is on the phone with his agent about his new film when old college buddy Reed (Keith Powell) arrives for a visit, sweating in his suit. He’s a paleontologist, in town for a conference, and on a sultry early November day he reports on his journey in language that will resonate for the Geffen’s traffic-app-addicted audience: “Waze almost killed me, but I made it. It took me like two hours to get here from UCLA.”
Playwright Smith is a TV writer too, and having lived in Los Angeles for about four years, she sends up Angelenos with spot-on cultural references and sly but affectionate insight. Recognizable figures from the long history of Hollywood satires show up in “Icebergs,” but Smith endows them with souls.
Calder may be a typical scruffy, T-shirted screenwriter, prone to pretentious catchwords and on the cusp of selling out, but he’s also a genuinely good guy. He tries to keep things light in his reunion with Reed — the two have a solid rapport — but his banter keeps exposing his gnawing fear that he and Abigail won’t be able to have a child. They’ve been trying for a year, and it’s a blow to Calder to learn that Reed and his wife are expecting a second baby.
Abigail, we learn when she stumbles in from a nap, has her own anxieties about starting a family — what a baby will mean for her faltering acting career, for example — as well as about the future of the planet. She compulsively lists environmental phenomena: 35,000 walruses stranded in the Arctic because of melting ice, oceans dying, methane trapped on the ocean floor. “Don’t go on the Internet anymore,” Calder begs her.
But Abigail’s preoccupation with man-made ecological disaster isn’t a psychological quirk: Smith’s deeper point is that ecological fear weighs on all of us, even if we believe or pretend it doesn’t, and she shows how this dread permeates every aspect of her characters’ relatively privileged lives. Their most mundane conversations revert compulsively to the peril facing Earth, as when the prospect of ordering a pizza dissolves into an argument about whether the box is recyclable (apparently not, once the grease gets on it).
Calder’s new screenplay touches on the theme too: It’s based on the true story of a disastrous Arctic expedition way back in the 1990s. He’s resisting inevitable Hollywood pressure to add a happy ending because, he explains, his whole point is that “everything is ultimately random, that life is chaos.” Reed, whose research specializes in prehistoric extinction known as “the great dying,” may be able to look at climate change from the perspective of geologic time, but this African American dad has his own fears about racism back home in Missouri and how he will protect his children.
To this core trio, Smith adds two other characters that, while perhaps not vital to the story, contribute enormously to its entertainment value — familiar L.A. types whom she imbues with a fresh energy and makes at once absurd and winsome.
The first is Molly (the hilariously deadpan Rebecca Henderson), a childhood friend of Abigail’s and conflicted lesbian who reads Tarot cards, believes that UFOs are real and thinks that her cat, Taco, is the reincarnation of Michael Jackson, an enlightened being and an oracle.
The second is Nicky (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), Calder’s longtime agent, who arrives with a magnum of Champagne to announce an exciting casting development in the film. A stereotypical hustler, Nicky strides self-importantly into the room in his too-tight, flashy suit, speaking inanities with glib assurance (“Where is Missouri?” he asks Reed casually. “Oh, OK. Not the South?”), spinning negatives into positives, getting tearful at his own eloquence, boasting about conquests and then in the next breath confessing his loneliness.
Randall Arney directs his excellent cast with playful warmth and a keen sensitivity to the generosity and complexity of Smith’s characterizations. The performances feel authentic and lived, and the characters’ rapports convey the richness and surprise of real-life interactions while deepening the play’s themes. At one point they all dress up in skeleton costumes — it’s the Day of the Dead, and there’s talk of going to a party — and dance in wild abandon, rebelliously celebrating the inevitability of destruction. “Icebergs” is aptly named: There's a lot going on under its sparkling surface.
Where: Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse, 10866 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 18.
Information: (310) 208-5454, www.geffenplayhouse.org
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
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