A Mount Washington clash of cultures in L.A. playwright's 'Mutual Philanthropy'

Class warfare manifests itself in a food fight with local flavor as two couples negotiate opposing financial, social and amorous agendas over dinner in the witty “Mutual Philanthropy” at Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles in Atwater Village.

Though stressful for the characters, their confrontation plays out much to the benefit of L.A. playwright Karen Rizzo’s sharply observed new comedy of bad manners.

Rizzo shrewdly sets the piece in Northeast L.A.’s socio-economically diverse Mount Washington neighborhood, where ruthless investment banker Charles (James MacDonald, who co-created the original storyline) and pretentious socialite Michelle (Brea Bee) play dinner hosts to talented but struggling sculptor Lee (Mark Carapezza) and hard-working breadwinner Esther (Xochitl Romero). The couples have little in common except the school their kids attend, and the initial laughs come from their awkward attempts to bridge that cultural divide. Charles’ overreaching boasts about his artistic bona fides and Michelle’s clueless patronizing are answered in equal measure by Lee’s hopeless impracticality and Esther’s self-righteous allegiance to her humble Latina roots.

The formulaic two-couple setup notwithstanding, Rizzo’s satire deepens with surprising and increasingly outrageous turns, cleverly turning the tables on each character’s posturing. As less-than-noble motives emerge, their arguments are at times more pointedly on-the-nose and self-aware than plausibly realistic, but they ring hilariously true. These are people whose foibles we’ve encountered. Veteran director Dan Bonnell’s ensemble staging and pacing provide a promising launchpad for a homegrown new play that leaves us wanting to see even more of the fallout from an engagingly comic falling out.

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‘Mutual Philanthropy’

Where: Ensemble Studio Theatre Los Angeles, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays (check for exceptions); ends Oct. 9

Tickets: $19.95 in advance, $28 at the door

Info: (818) 839-1197 or www.mutualphilanthropy.com

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

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