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‘Gary Plays': three bleak walks in one man’s shoes

Special to The Times

“He who has never hoped can never despair,” George Bernard Shaw once wrote. If Gary -- the chronically unemployed, middle-aged Los Angeles actor in Murray Mednick’s “The Gary Plays,” now in repertory at Venice’s Electric Lodge -- ever had high hopes for his future, it’s not clear what they were.

Gary’s despair, on the other hand, is palpable, almost unbearably raw, in the three “Gary” plays. So is the thoroughgoing malaise of erstwhile Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop leader Mednick, whose worldview here can only be described as apocalyptic. Violence, abuse, abasement and impotent rage are these plays’ thematic tent poles.

It’s all so poker-facedly bleak, in fact, that it verges on self-parody. Two shorter plays performed in one program, “Tirade for Three” and “Gary’s Walk,” are repetitive chamber pieces tracing Gary’s dissolution after his twentysomething son is shot, apparently in a random drive-by. After much hand-wringing and tense negotiations with two ex-wives, the haggard actor ends up a self-styled homeless wanderer, toting his dead son’s ashes to the Pacific shore.

All three plays use a pair of narrator-chorus figures who goad and cajole Gary along in his journey across Jason Adams and Alicia Hoge’s distressed set, splashed by Jeff Atherton’s lights and video projections. In the trifling “Tirade,” stiffly directed by Guy Zimmerman, these two are played by perky Shawna Casey and clownish Jack Kehler, who bounce awkwardly around Christopher Allport’s crumpled, stonewashed Gary.

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In “Gary’s Walk,” more stylishly helmed by Mednick, Donald Berman and Dana Wieluns make sharp foils for John Diehl’s more authentically stoic Gary. Unfortunately, the play itself, accompanied live by jazz cat Don Preston, is a grab bag of literal-minded metaphors, bald declarations (“We’re disappointed and then we die,” “There are no friendships, only transactions”) and self-conscious stagecraft.

The full-length “Girl on a Bed,” although clearly the work of the same playwright, nevertheless feels light-years away from the first two plays’ tiring roundelays. Here, under Zimmerman’s seamless direction, Mednick has a richer canvas and a surer hand -- and, it must be said, a lot less Gary. Played again by the querulous Allport, Gary is ostensibly our guide into the doomed histories of his son Danny (a grungy, affecting Andy Hopper) and a 17-year-old goth named Laura (Niamh McCormally, emotionally stark and hauntingly pale).

The youngsters soon seize center stage and our attention, and self-involved Gary becomes just another well-meaning specimen among a quintet of ineffectual elders. Joining him in his anguish over the next generation are his exes, Marcia and Gloria (both played exquisitely by Shannon Holt), and Laura’s pathetic, co-enabling parents (Casey and Kehler).

Acting as a kind of surrogate parent is Rondell (a dryly witty Hugh Dane), the kids’ unapologetic but perceptive dope dealer, a self-described “addict monk” who offers cautionary wisdom at no extra charge. Rondell’s associate, the eerily courtly cholo Antonio (David Carrera), offers no-strings-attached perdition.

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The precociously world-weary Laura takes him up on it, despite the sensible but hollow discouragement of a teen friend (Devon Carson, a real find). In convincingly capturing Laura’s acute disillusionment with life, and tenderly counterpoising Danny’s halting efforts to soldier on, Mednick finds a more moving vehicle to convey his own despair at our culture’s soul-sickness than the dissipated Gary.

Even the chorus figures here (Holt and the laconic Gray Palmer) seem more attuned to the task. Where “Tirade for Three” and “Gary’s Walk” are scattershot, “Girl on a Bed” is a direct hit at the broken heart of the matter.

*

‘The Gary Plays’

Where: Padua Playwrights at the Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice

When: “Tirade for Three” and

“Gary’s Walk” 8 p.m. Thursdays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. “Girl on

a Bed” 8 p.m. Fridays and Sundays,

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3 p.m. Saturdays.

Ends: May 8

Price: $20, or $30 for both days

Contact: (310) 823-0710, Ext. 4, or www.paduaplaywrights.net


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