Theater review: ‘Phantom Luck’ at The Lost Studio


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Fevered landscapes of the mind are a specialty of playwright John Steppling, whose new play, “Phantom Luck” uses the seedy, obsessive terrain of the professional gambler as a jumping-off point to explore the lives of loners who haunt society’s interstitial cracks.

A fiercely uncompromising deconstruction of a heist caper, this co-production between The Lost Studio and Steppling’s Gunfighter Nation theater collective marks the local return of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival veteran after more than a decade.


Trust Steppling not to settle for the conventional elements of the crime genre. From the opening monologue — a meditation on statistical odds and the Monte Carlo fallacy delivered by a grizzled gambler named Dunn (James Storm) — the play’s existential subtext becomes its primary subject matter. The surface events surrounding Dunn’s conspiracy with terminally ill ex-con Anson (George Gerdes) to rob a high-stakes card game, and the results, are relegated to background exposition and steeped in ambiguity.

The biggest challenge Steppling sets himself is finding deeply philosophical voices for this inarticulate pair: Dunn is by his own admission illiterate, and Anson can’t even pronounce the name of the disease that’s killing him. Nevertheless, their street-smart discourses on Old Las Vegas, horse racing and the origins of face cards resonate with timeless themes of coincidence and luck, aging and mortality, and multicultural theology.

Dunn and Anson are shadowed by their respective psychological opposites — the coarse Dunn by a supremely suave and cultured gangster (Mark Rolston, in a standout performance), and earthy Anson by a mysterious El Salvadoran mystic (Kadina De Elejalde). The minimalist staging by Steppling and Wes Walker emphasizes static monologues, relying heavily on Kathi O’Donohue’s atmospheric lighting effects. Heady stuff, not for the intellectually incurious.

–- Philip Brandes

“Phantom Luck,” The Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Blvd., Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 28. $20. (323) 933-6944 or Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes.