Review

The young and the self-involved: 'Cafe Society,' an L.A. story at the Odyssey

One unintended consequence of the communications age is the increased difficulty of putting together a believable plot.

Smartphones have essentially obviated the situations that promote dramatic conflict -- getting trapped or stranded with other people, say -- and the omnipresence of Wi-Fi makes it impossible to preserve a mystery.

These developments, if a boon to humanity overall, pose challenges to playwrights.

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In his sly, astute new comedy, "Café Society," in its world premiere at the Odyssey Theatre, Peter Lefcourt tackles these hurdles head-on. He takes us to a Starbucks on Pico Boulevard (an uncanny set by Amanda Knehans), and throws in a crisis that forces the self-involved customers to interact. But not even a mortal threat can pull these electronics junkies away from their phones and laptops for long. 

So Lefcourt and his director, Terri Hanauer, with the help of their designers (projection designer Yee Eun Nam, sound designer Dino Herrmann and videographer Troy Hauschild), display the contents of the customers' devices on screens onstage, turning their text messages and emails into voices in the unfolding drama. 

The technique mimics the texture of our plugged-in lives so accurately that it feels almost like a new form of entertainment: a play with comic-strip thought bubbles or real-time footnotes.

Subtext and back story, those demons that have plagued writers since the birth of drama, get dispatched with a few keystrokes, leaving the cast free to amuse us with their deft portrayals of Los Angeles archetypes.

There's a struggling actress, Kari (Chandra Lee Schwartz), killing time between auditions for bit parts. A Realtor on the brink of a big closing, Marilyn (Susan Diol), stops in for a blind date with Bob (Eric Myles Geller), a money manager she met on a dating site for dog owners, Bark.com.

The inevitable screenwriter, Jeff (Eric Wentz), smirks over his laptop, taking frequent breaks to pontificate about "the human condition" and hit on women. The barista, Darnell (Donathan Walters), is kind to a homeless schizophrenic man, who self-identifies as the late Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia (Ian Patrick Williams). 

Also, a mysterious guy with a bowling bag (Nick Cobey) keeps lurking about.

Lefcourt, a TV writer and producer as well as a playwright and novelist, has a sharp but affectionate eye for human weakness. Although everybody in the coffee shop has the means to summon help when disaster strikes, they're too involved in their digital worlds, closing deals and taking selfies, to bother.

The outside world, even when alerted, seems equally oblivious. Kari's offstage agent, in fact, thinks he can sell a movie about their plight, which Jeff starts writing -- and fantasy-casting -- on the spot.

Although Hanauer keeps the comic pace generally brisk, it does lag in spots. The script neglects certain characters for long stretches, and some of them prove more entertaining than others (Anastasia, for example, gets stretched pretty thin).

Lefcourt has a gift for swatting aside logistical questions ("Why don't they just…?"), but some peskier ones continued to bug me -- not enough, though, to dampen my pleasure at being so insightfully mocked.

Los Angeles has always excelled at self-parody; "Café Society" belongs squarely in this tradition, but with up-to-the-minute technology.

"Café Society," Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Oct. 11. $25-$30. (323) 960-1055 or www.plays411.net/cafe. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

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