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STAGE REVIEWS : Imperfect ‘Search, Destroy’ at Upside Down

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Howard Korder’s remarkable “Search & Destroy” is having its Los Angeles premiere at the former China Club on Argyle near Selma, renamed the Upside Down Theatre. The right place for the right play? Yes and no.

The trappings of an ex-nightclub are apt context for this galvanic piece (a soupcon of sleaze doesn’t hurt it), if only the rudimentary setting and the absence of the right technical equipment didn’t slow scene changes quite so much.

That and a level of forced intimacy dictated by the space are the chief drawbacks of a production headed by Jeff McCarthy as the ambitious Martin Mirkheim, a young man who will go to any lengths to get his American dream, and Matt McKenzie as the mysterious Kim, a “friend” who proposes to help him get at it.

“Search & Destroy” is a study in how dreams become nightmares in a society driven by greed rather than ethics. Its opening scene sets the tone: a hilarious non sequitur wherein Mirkheim, who neglected to pay thousands in back taxes, tries to explain to an impervious IRS bureaucrat that paying them was “outside my main focus.”

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Mirkheim’s main focus is “leaving something behind, something good, something lasting.” Like a movie about self-realization maybe? What if he has to lie and cheat his way to his dream? What if he ends up traveling in the wrong direction--on the bus and in life?

Grist for the mill. Mirkheim is a latter-day Everyman trapped in the 20th-Century quagmire, who only sinks deeper as he learns to play the game as ruthlessly as it demands to be played. There is devastation at the end of this rutted road, but dressed in the gaudy plumage of a Pyrrhic public success.

Written with a stiletto as a snappy series of cinematic scenes, Korder’s play fares better at a certain remove, which the Upside Down can’t provide, but which was one of the unsurpassed strengths (among many) of the dazzling original 1990 production at Costa Mesa’s South Coast Repertory.

A subsequent staging of the play by the same director at New York’s Circle-in-the-Square had no such luster, which suggests that the play is a lot more daunting than one might think--a suspicion borne out at the Upside Down where, to make matters worse, director Daniel O’Connor has surrounded the savvy McCarthy and McKenzie with an uneven cast.

Tom Celli, Pat DiStefano and Joe Lala provide strong and often vivid support, but Ninon Aprea and Butch Harman break down the rhythm with a weak showing in a variety of roles.

Combined with the sluggish scene changes and journeyman work from the rest of the company, it leaves this “Search & Destroy” in a limbo rather like the one Mirkheim finds himself in at play’s end--a limbo matched by the equally Pyrrhic ironies in Robert Altman’s film, “The Player,” made, however, well after Korder had written this astonishing play.

* “Search and Destroy,” Upside Down Theatre, 1600 N. Argyle Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Feb. 27. $15; (213) 466-1767. Running time: 2 hours.


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