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Amy Brenneman as a damsel in distress? 'Rules of Seconds' has some surprises up its sleeve

Amy Brenneman as a damsel in distress? 'Rules of Seconds' has some surprises up its sleeve
Amy Brenneman and Matthew Elkins in "Rules of Seconds." (Grettel Cortes)

The characters in "Rules of Seconds," a new play by John Pollono at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, are a lively anachronistic mix. Their boots and pistols suggest the drama's 1855 Boston setting, but their F-bombs could get them cast in Quentin Tarantino's next movie.

This Latino Theater Company production, directed by Jo Bonney, isn't much concerned with historical accuracy. A 21st century comic melodrama set in the 19th century, the play constructs its own scattershot theatrical universe — a perfect playground for a cheeky ensemble featuring a seductively distressed Amy Brenneman, a dashingly villainous Jamie Harris and a roguishly heroic Josh Helman.

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Pollono, author of the play "Small Engine Repair" that Bonney directed off-Broadway (after the work's successful world premiere at Rogue Machine Theatre), wants to entertain and mostly succeeds after a bumpy start. Melodrama has a bad name, but its tense plots, whiplash turns and weepy reconciliations have been hooking audiences for ages.

A tale in which even the most minor infractions to male self-esteem are settled through the arcane code of dueling, "Rules of Seconds" exploits the suspense of its situation with an insouciant tongue-in-cheek spirit. Like any effective comedy, the play takes its own contrivances seriously. The actors never lose faith even when the gags grow ludicrous.

Martha Leeds (Brenneman) and her gentle, germophobic son Nathaniel (a lovably fretful Matthew Elkins) have been struggling to keep the family shipping company afloat. Forced to eat their horse after selling everything else they have of value, they are relieved when haughty Walter Brown (Harris) inexplicably offers to buy their business.

At the contract signing, however, Walter insists on shaking hands with Nathaniel, who instantly sputters into a full-blown panic attack, spilling tea on Walter's expensive boots and humiliating himself with incoherent muttering. Walter, who harbors a deep resentment toward Martha for spurning his advances years ago, challenges Nathaniel to duel, an anomalous situation for Nathaniel, who despite his strapping size wouldn't be able to chase a squirrel out of his backyard.

Nathaniel's brother, James (Helman), who has been estranged from the family after a mysterious blowout, returns just in the nick of time. As James girds Nathaniel for battle, Martha, in the play's most shockingly original scene, tries to flirt her way into Walter's forgiving graces to save her inept son from a near-certain death sentence.

The sexual negotiations that take place, while not the kind of thing you'd see in classic literature from the period, hint that evil, manipulative men were as perversely nasty in the distant past as they are in hidden camera videos today.

The cheeky ensemble of "Rules of Seconds."
The cheeky ensemble of "Rules of Seconds." (Grettel Cortes)

Pollono populates "Rules of Seconds" with doctors who are up to their elbows in blood fishing out bullets and a slew of bickering servants, two of whom wistfully imagine a world sanctioning gay marriage. A starchy old-school gentleman (Ron Bottitta) pops out from time to time to enumerate the elaborate set of fussy rules governing those who believe the merest slight must be repaid by a flesh wound, amputation or agonizing death.

The basic creed, that "honor can only be restored by the spilling of blood," is the oppressive patriarchal target of Pollono's freewheeling attack. The satire here is disguised as farce masquerading as a stage potboiler.

The sexual politics of the story are enlivened by the luminous clear-sightedness of Brenneman's Martha, who turns out to be a good deal more formidable than her damsel-in-distress demeanor might make her seem. Jennifer Pollono, the playwright's wife and a regular performer in his plays, provides invaluable assistance as Hannah, a hardy Irish Catholic housekeeper who works for Walter but whose heart and loyalty still belong to James.

The back stories are rather extensive for a play that sticks largely to the surface. There are some dips — scenes that aren't fully integrated and that seem like placeholders for a later draft. But Bonney, who directed Suzan-Lori Parks' more ambitiously anachronistic drama "Father Comes Home From the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3" in New York and at the Mark Taper Forum, keeps things briskly moving in a production that features dancing projections by Hana Kim that would seem perfectly at home between sets at a Staples Center concert.

"Rules of Seconds" is the inaugural offering of the Temblors, a new Latino Theatre Company collective of seven Los Angeles-based playwrights. It's a bouncy start that, in conjunction with the musical "Hamilton," could renew interest in the obsolete art of dueling.

A word of warning: The production doesn't stint on fake blood. Chances are, however, that you'll be chuckling too much to squirm when it gushes.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Rules of Seconds’

Where: Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., L.A.

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When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; ends April 15

Tickets: $22-$52

Info: (866) 811-4111 or thelatc.org

Running time: 2 hours

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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