After all these centuries as a literate species, and with only seven basic plots in circulation (according to the late critic Arthur Quiller-Couch), human beings have developed a sense of where stories are likely to go — expectations that prompt us to complain when we can see an ending coming ("predictable") and when we can't ("what?").
Yusuf Toropov's new play "An Undivided Heart," in a co-production in Atwater Village by the Circle X and Echo theater companies, certainly couldn't be described as predictable.
The script sets out to tell several stories: One is inspired by the toxic drinking water scandal in Woburn, Mass. (subject of the book and subsequent movie, both titled "A Civil Action"). Another is based on the Catholic Church's coverup of child molestation by priests (the subject of a Boston Globe investigation and the subsequent movie "Spotlight"). One weighs the virtues of Zen Buddhism against Catholicism. One explores the individual's duties to authority and to the truth, and what to do when the two conflict.
These are big topics, and unsurprisingly, the play can't give each the care it deserves. Like an overwhelmed parent, it pays scattered attention to some and benignly neglects others. The play even abandons one or two by the roadside.
But "An Undivided Heart" is never dull. Toropov has a zany, theatrical imagination, and his willingness to pursue odd moments at the cost of narrative coherence has its payoffs. For instance: a character's surreal, spontaneous performance of "Stand by Your Man," which is all the more compelling because it is never explained or mentioned again.
The action, set in Massachusetts in 1992, revolves around two brothers, a Catholic priest named Mike (Matthew Gallenstein) and a practicing Buddhist named Max (Tim Wright). They debate theology and Zen koans when they get together, but good-naturedly. Both have bigger problems.
Mike keeps dreaming about a little girl (Ann'Jewel Lee) who speaks in scriptural-sounding riddles. Sometimes she's holding a knife and a dead cat, other times she's wearing a white leisure suit. She seems to want to tell Mike something about a book he has just written, an exposé of pedophilia in the church. But her messages aren't very helpful when a sinister Cardinal (John Getz) summons Mike to talk him out of publishing the book. (It's in Cardinal's office that Mike meets the unforgettably weird Tammy Wynette fan Father Keenan, played by Michael Sturgis in the reviewed performance; some roles are double-cast.)
For his part, Max gets involved with an ill-tempered widow, Lynne (Alana Dietze), who blames a chemical company for the illnesses in her community. He courts her with a selfless patience that is hard to credit until we watch one of his sessions with his Buddhist teacher, Janice (Jennifer Skinner). After spending so much time with Janice, who is serene and twinkly eyed and maddeningly committed to opacity in conversation, anybody might find Lynne's belligerence refreshing.
Max mentions Mike's strange dreams to Janice, and she seems to know what they mean — but can't come out and say it. The most she's willing to do is drop some hints. Mike follows these, with the zhelp of the dream girl's riddles, to a local child molester, Father White (Jeff Alan-Lee), whom he sets out to bring to justice in a highly implausible sting operation in the confessional. Mike's tough-talking pal Father Tony (Bob Clendenin) tries to talk him out of this scheme, reminding him that making a false confession is a mortal sin "even if someone in a dream suggested it" — to no avail.
At this point, the story has accumulated more loose ends than cloth. A last-ditch effort to knit all the threads together into a mystical revelation just increases the confusion.
But by focusing on the offbeat and knotty intelligence in the writing, and by taking the plot twists in stride, director Chris Fields and the cast do manage to smooth over this rough terrain, making the odd characters ultimately appealing and conjuring an air of suspense.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
‘An Undivided Heart’
Where: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles
Where: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays; 4 p.m. Sundays; ends April 22
Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.
MORE L.A. THEATER