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Tesich’s Dark Humor Drives This ‘Open Road’

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“I sure wish I had a favorite philosopher,” sighs Angel, a habitual lynch mob target poised with a noose around his neck. “I could sure use one now.”

Couldn’t we all? The precarious perch between life and death in which Angel repeatedly finds himself starkly mirrors the human condition in the late Steve Tesich’s “On the Open Road” at the Stella Adler Theatre.

Following handsomely in the footsteps of Beckett and Sartre--yet adding a unique dash of postmodern whimsy despite the bleak themes it deals with--Tesich’s 1993 apocalyptic black comedy traces the attempts of two refugees seeking a safe haven in the aftermath of a devastating civil war. As they wander through the ruins of civilization, the self-proclaimed “scum of the Earth,” Angel, (Michael Piscitelli) seeks education and improvement from his erudite rescuer and fellow vagabond, Al (Matt McKenzie).

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Not that higher learning does either of them any good as they haul art looted from burned-out museums through set designer Evan Bartoletti’s abstract landscape. On the heels of the Second Coming, the pair strike a devil’s bargain to obtain their freedom by betraying a silent, cello-playing Jesus (Gabriel Cade), then wrestle with the ethical implications. More concerned with preserving the institutional church than with divine truth, a callous Monk (Spencer Belgarian) rationalizes that their assignment is not a sin, because the Bible contains no prohibition against killing God.

Though democratically unsparing in his scorn for philosophical, religious and social hypocrisy amid his grimly hilarious satirical barbs, Tesich reserves his most savage indictment for the misguided pursuit of culture as a substitute for a moral foundation. A powerful caution, but a rigorously cerebral one. Building on the play’s raw, undifferentiated anguish and fear, director Richard Hochberg and his talented leads adeptly supply the nuances of feeling needed to augment intellectual argument with emotional impact. Highly recommended.

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* “On the Open Road,” Stella Adler Theatre, second floor, 6773 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 12. $15. (323) 960-4478. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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