I've often suspected that Pictionary had the makings of a cutthroat sport, but it took "blitzkrieg" at West Hollywood's Actors Circle Theatre to really drive the point home.
Effectively spicing contemporary situations with classic elements of suspense, Brooke Berdis' taut little thriller begins innocuously enough as Paul (Stuart McKinney), a comfortably middle-class tax attorney and his wife Maria (Monica Garcia) nervously prepare to entertain another couple they've only met on the Internet.
Even before their ice-breaking game of Pictionary gets underway, it's immediately apparent that beer-swilling construction worker Ron (Doug Purdy) and his loud, very pregnant wife, Dina (Berdis), are from a very different side of the tracks. Ron's penchant for fraudulent workers' comp claims and Dina's nonchalance at his borderline abusive behavior signal early on that Paul and Maria have a pair of sociopaths on their hands.
As the real reasons for this unlikely social engagement come to light, the stakes become increasingly more dangerous. Midway through, what was shaping up as a cross between "The Baby Dance" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" takes a sharp turn into "Wait Until Dark" territory.
Derivative influences notwithstanding, Berdis' script skillfully employs a highly cinematic, action-packed style of storytelling to keep her audience on the edge of its seats while her sharply crafted dialogue doles out character revelations at a satisfying pace.
The twists and turns take us in unexpected directions, though some of these revelations don't hold up to much scrutiny. Both Ron and Dina lapse at times into stinging sarcastic eloquence that belies their trailer-trash personas, and while it might have been fun to leverage that angle into multiple levels of people being not what they seem, the primary emphasis once the action gets underway is on visceral rather than cerebral stimulation.
All four actors turn in committed, well-timed performances, with no holes in the all-important momentum.
Joel Daavid's nicely detailed scene and lighting design (augmented with Purdy's numerous stage effects) allow us to vicariously delight in the violent disruption of Paul and Maria's orderly home. Precision staging by Arthur Mendoza ensures that pacing and mechanics more commonly associated with the silver screen translate into flesh and, of course, blood.
* "blitzkrieg," Actors Circle Theatre, 7313 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends July 29. $15. (818) 771-8100. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.