"Testing Negative," at McCadden Place Theatre, begins as an unsettling look at collegiate hedonism, spoken in a blitz of what is apparently the up-to-the-minute slang of the less-than-"Less Than Zero" crowd. By intermission, however, the specter of AIDS suddenly looms large. The party's over.
So is the play, for all practical purposes. The second half doesn't develop the conflicts that cry out for development. The story becomes all too ambiguous, to the extent that it's hard to tell exactly what happens. Specifically, does one of the characters commit suicide, or is that someone's dream?
If the title didn't give it away, we wouldn't even know whether the characters actually came down with AIDS--in fact, maybe we don't know even now.
The final scene is a song. The lyrics couldn't be easily understood over the hum of the air conditioning at the performance I saw, so the play ended with a whimper instead of a bang, with moodiness instead of muscle.
Rewrites should begin with the ending (and, in fact, rewrites reportedly have been ongoing since the play opened).
There is talent here. Writer Justin Goldberg, who co-wrote the story with Joe Malone, is tuned in to the profane, pitiless chatter of extended adolescence. And the basic idea--to demonstrate how the threat of AIDS can ravage already fragile friendships, even among heterosexuals--is certainly more original than it would have been to write another standard-issue AIDS play.
If only we witnessed a little more of the ravaging, "Testing Negative" might take off.
The performances of Goldberg and Malone, as a selfish young pianist and a heedless druggie, respectively, are impressively tough-minded; the actors make no attempts to ingratiate.
Keith Henderson's character, something of a jock, is more sympathetic but isn't dominant enough to serve as the surrogate for the audience.
Perhaps most impressive is Dana Dowell as the pathetic Ashley, who sleeps her way around the house but then goes out to face the real workaday world instead of a college classroom.
A fifth character is heard only as an answering machine voice--and not even that at the performance I saw, for the machine was broken.
Kevin Causey directed on his own set, a litter-strewn lair for the most recent lost generation.
At 1157 N. McCadden Place, Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays at 7 p.m.; through Sept. 25. Tickets: $10-$12.50; (213) 466-1767. 'Don't Quit Your Day Job'
The three guys who make up "Don't Quit Your Day Job," a comedy-improv group at the Cast, look like wallflowers. Two of them, Dave Higgins and Steve Higgins, are lumpy and sad-eyed; the third, Dave Allen, is a tall longhair with a crooked grin.
Just looking at them, you would not assume that they were the life of the party. So when they cut up successfully on stage, they evoke an extra empathy--gee, maybe there is untapped wit in all of us.
Not that they light up the sky. They're too bound to traditional subjects (game shows, dissolute kidville hosts, sex surveys and forms). One improvised bit, set in a Seoul diner, went nowhere--when they could have used the recent news story about Korean cafes that have taken dog off the menu during the Olympics.
Nevertheless, they get at least a dozen good chuckles out of a relatively brief show.
At 800 N. El Centro Ave., Fridays and Saturdays, 10:30 p.m., through Oct. 8. Tickets: $6; (213) 462-0265. 'Supreme Bean'
Another example of a misleading title: "The Supreme Bean," at Haunted Studios. Not only is this single phrase funnier than anything else in the play, but the connection between the title and the story is almost as marginal as in "Thorns of Fire."
This one is set in an attorney's office in East Los Angeles. But the location, which hints that real issues might be addressed, is a red herring; "Supreme Bean" is a cheesy sex-and-caper comedy.
Maria Eugenia Abraham and David Laporte wiggle through their roles as if they took lessons from Charo. As the attorney, Julia Morgan is overshadowed by all the va-va-voom in the room. The play essentially puts down the lawyer's serious pursuits in favor of one long "Party!" The "caper" elements of the plot are murkily motivated and lead-footed.
Designer Norma Montoya painted the low-rent law office in kiddie-show pastels.
William Zamora directed.
At 6419 Hollywood Blvd., Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Tickets: $10; (818) 966-5629.
'Thorns of Fire'
The title, "Thorns of Fire," aims for poetic effect. But it has nothing to do with what we see at Act One Stage--literally or figuratively. There are no thorns of fire in this play, nor any poetry, nor much of an effect--other than one of dreary ineptitude.
Fernando Haro's hero is a Mexican national (Danny Del Ma) who has made some money north of the border and married a sniveling, heartless American (Laurie Jean Milham). By the time the play begins, most of the drama has already occurred--the wife is about to crack, and so is the marriage.
It's impossible to imagine what attracted these two to each other in the first place.
The wife turns her husband in to immigration authorities, but he talks his way back across the border. The play hits rock bottom here, in the ludicrous characterization of a border guard (John P. McCann) who's transformed from ogre to nice guy within a few minutes.
The other scenes aren't much better; Haro has no ear for dialogue or characterization, and his direction of his own work is woefully limp. The subject--the strains of a cross-border marriage--deserves much better treatment than this.
At 9214 W. Pico Blvd., Thursdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $10; (818) 997-1320.