“Highest Standard of Living” gives some of South Coast Repertory’s funniest character actors the chance to double as sinister Russians and as friendly-sinister Americans. Everybody has such a good time at the masquerade, audience included, that it’s hardly noticed when Keith Reddin’s play poops out.
The doubling has a point. The play concerns an American graduate student’s misadventures on the streets of Moscow and their continuance when he gets back home. That’s what really spooks the student, played by Jeffrey Combs. It’s one thing to suspect that everybody in Moscow is KGB. It’s another thing to suspect that everybody in New York is CIA.
And when the CIA man bears a definite resemblance to the KGB man, it’s clear that something’s out of joint here--either the times, or one’s perceptual apparatus. About three-quarters of the way through the play, we suspect that Reddin is going to leave the question open.
Are “they” really out to get his hero, or is it all in his head? Little boys in red uniforms don’t really attack Americans with hatchets in the streets of Moscow, do they?
Yet there’s a disturbingly plausible scene where Combs tries to fathom the lunch conversation of a college chum, now on somebody’s staff at the White House (Michael Tulin). Combs can’t tell if he’s being recruited to work as a Soviet spy or if he’s being set up. He’s insulted either way and he tells off his former friend with a speech that would have made a fine peroration for a 1930s Frank Capra-Jimmy Stewart movie.
But times have changed, and “they” keep at Combs and his defector girlfriend (Patricia Lodholm) until they get them. Unless, that is, the whole thing is a nightmare, and Combs is still in Moscow. Even if we go for that explanation, “Highest Standard of Living” reminds us that paranoia seems an ever more realistic way of life in the 20th Century.
That’s worth saying, but Reddin’s refusal to commit to an explanation removes a tension from the play that a true political thriller would have had, and the plot becomes increasingly arbitrary just as we’re looking for increased ingenuity--for a real windup, rather than a clever punch line.
But under David Emmes’ direction, “Highest Standard of Living” does live up to the highest standards of comic acting. South Coast has the closest thing to an ensemble company in California theater, and here they are again--the faces you love to recognize behind the disguise.
It takes time in some cases. Ron Boussom is fairly apparent as a fervent Party member; but you have to check your program to believe that Boussom is also Combs’ laid-back tennis buddy back in New York. It’s not just the wig and the LaCoste outfit (Susan Denison did the costumes); it’s the body language, that of a 25-year-old who’s never suffered any deeper pain in his life than shin splints. Sell your friend to the government? Hey, no problem!
Hal Landon Jr. goes from a dying Russian senior citizen--complaining that he has to wait in line to do that too, as with every other activity in Moscow--to a jaunty assistant CIA investigator who just loves to punch up neat stuff on the computer.
Anni Long is both an iron-clad Muscovite who makes frosty jokes about being with the KGB (which she is) and a dingbat American psychoanalyst who seems to have tapes of all of Combs’ life-- before he comes to see her.
Robert Machray is equally convincing as a Leningrad car salesman (at least that’s his KGB cover) and a guy who shoots people at random in Manhattan. John Ellington works at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and recruits people for Scientology in New York. Even the Youth Pioneers show up again, masquerading as American Boy Scouts.
It’s prime theatrical fun, and the following will show you how thick the paranoia gets. At one point a character says to a man on the street, “Do you have the time?” and the man answers: “You mean right now?” This actually happened to me on the street last spring in London. Are we all tapped?
‘HIGHEST STANDARD OF LIVING’
Keith Reddin’s play, at South Coast Repertory. Director David Emmes. Set design Ralph Funicello. Costumes Susan Denison. Lighting Peter Maradudin. Music/sound Nathan Wang. Projections Cliff Faulkner, assisted by Christa Bartels. Dramaturgs Jerry Patch, John Glore. Production director Paul Hammond. Stage manager Bonnie Lorenger. Production assistant Delphine Urbien. Production consultant Raissa Danilova. With Art Koustik, Jeffrey Combs, Patricia Lodholm, Anni Long, Richard Doyle, Irene Roseen, Ann Siena-Schwartz, Hal Landon Jr., Ron Boussom, Michael Tulin, John Ellington, Ken Jensen, Martin Henke, Brennan Howard, T. Bradshaw Yates, Corbett Bufton, Jason Cast, Laurie Cast, Steven Gribben, Zachary Okun, Nicole Parker, Paul Root, Jon Schnitzer, Kathleen Corey Straiger, Todd Williamson. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with Saturday-Sunday matinees at 2:30 p.m. Tickets $15-$24. Closes Oct. 12. 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. (714) 957-4033.