For introverts of a certain stripe, a guest who won’t leave is essentially a horror-movie monster. Wendy McLeod’s comedy “Things Being What They Are,” now at the Road Theatre, plays with the primeval terror of this scenario — then subverts it.
Bill (Bernie Zilinskas), who has just moved into an apartment (Stephen Gifford’s spot-on set is a bland, pleasant space overlooking a courtyard), is contentedly nesting when a neighbor, Jack (Chet Grissom), barges in to welcome him. Bill leerily, but cordially, shares his beer and endures Jack’s probing questions, unsolicited disclosures and inability to take a hint. “Why don’t you stay at my place?” Jack keeps asking, when he discovers that Bill doesn’t have his furniture yet.
Running out of polite excuses, Bill finally admits, “Because I don’t want to.” Does this brutal frankness slay the monster? No. Jack approves: “You know what you are? Honest.”
The whole excruciating scene is a clever piece of misdirection: The audience, aligned with Bill in eagerness for Jack to go home, unwittingly learns a great deal about both men. Jack is divorced, unhappily, after cheating on his wife — who has since, gallingly, found new love. “I never would have gotten a divorce if I knew I’d be alone,” he complains.
Bill’s own wife, Adele, a beautiful actress, is coming to live with him in this new suburb. But, as he gradually reveals, there’s a complication: another man.
Director Andre Barron and the two fine performers make the most of the comic suspense in this encounter. At one point, Bill has a hand on Jack’s shoulder, and they’re heading for the door, when Jack whirls around and launches into another anecdote. It’s as upsetting as when the movie monster, despite having been killed, lurches to his feet.
We don’t blame Bill when, in desperation, he promises to do Jack a big favor next week — a promise that will come back to haunt him, in a distressingly literal manner, after intermission.
But as so many children’s books remind us, if you can’t slay a monster, you can befriend him. The men’s second encounter promises a nightmare, but eventually Bill is comforting Jack over a past tragedy; Jack is helping Bill understand that waiting for Adele is as fruitless as waiting for Godot.
It’s hardly a cheerful ending. Neither man has much of a handle on life, or much to look forward to. “The hope of her unhappiness is what you must keep close to your heart” is Jack’s bitter advice on recovering from romantic disappointment. But at least they have each other.
This show will close this weekend. Take your dad to see it on Father’s Day: He’ll be even more grateful to have you.
“Things Being What They Are.” The Road on Lankershim, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sunday. $34. (818) 761-8838 or www.roadtheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.