Ah, the perils -- and pleasures -- of live theater. Unrehearsed and on book, playwright Oliver Mayer stepped in for the ailing actor Ahmad Enani last Sunday in “Laws of Sympathy,” Mayer’s world premiere, presented by Playwrights’ Arena at Studio/Stage. Mayer’s last-minute substitution as Mohammed, an aid worker whose fledgling romance with a young refugee woman is star-crossed, made it somewhat difficult to assess the full scope of Jon Lawrence Rivera’s original staging. Yet in spite of the circumstances, the result was surprisingly full-bodied.
In Mayer’s seriocomic play, two immigrant Somali Bantu women, Mother (Anita Dashiell) and her daughter Jaspora (Diarra Kilpatrick), struggle to assimilate into American society. Slaves in Somalia, the duo has been relocated to Atlanta by their care workers, Mohammed and Betty (Celeste Den). But work is scarce, and when Jaspora falls under the influence of disgraced former Olympian Gerald (Will Dixon), she may be forced to sell her most marketable commodity -- herself.
The striking production includes Dennis Yen’s sound, Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting and John H. Binkley’s labor-intensive set, which features a flat on casters that rotates, busily and sometimes unnecessarily, to indicate different locales. Mylette Nora’s costumes are a colorful amalgam of tribal and Western attire.
In light of the serious subject matter, the play is unexpectedly playful, and Rivera emphasizes the piece’s comic elements at every welcome opportunity. Yet under the deceptive lightheartedness lies a savage topicality. In recessionary America, the plating on that welcoming golden door has worn thin -- as these hopeful refugees will soon learn to what, we suspect, is their peril.
Among the exemplary cast, Kilpatrick stands out as the girlish, ravaged Jaspora, whose innocence has been prematurely tempered by sad experience. However, the play’s political aptness is occasionally undermined by disingenuous cultural relativism. More problematic is the progression of stupid and/or hostile white Southern women, all played by Barbara Lee Bragg. The over-the-top stereotypes may have been comically intended but tip the proceedings into mean-spiritedness.
-- F. Kathleen Foley
“Laws of Sympathy,” Playwrights’ Arena at Studio/Stage, 520 N. Western Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 29. $20. (213) 627-4473. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.
Intervals in a war-torn marriage
The “Greatest Generation” that shouldered the brunt of World War II and its aftermath is justly renowned for its tough-minded endurance in the face of adversity. But playwright Sharr White cautions that stoicism does not always equal sanity in his antiwar drama, “Six Years.”
Written in response to the start of a new round of warfare after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, White’s play receives an earnest staging from the fledgling Momentum Theatre Group, whose ambitions for the moment exceed its artistic reach.
As a structuring device, White uses snapshot scenes at six-year intervals to chart the marriage of a St. Louis couple between two crisis points in 1949 and 1973. The first is a seedy motel room confrontation in which rain-drenched Meredith Granger (Wendy Kaplan Foxworth) tracks down her wayward soldier husband, Phil (G. Scott Brown), who’s been wandering aimlessly after returning from the war. In the complementary closer, it’s rain-drenched Phil who barges into troubled Meredith’s motel room amid the turbulence of the Vietnam era.
Each confrontation reflects the war-torn fabric of American society. Yet despite director Keven Kaddi’s obvious commitment to the play’s overarching theme, the most successful scenes are the relatively off-message portraits of Americana in the intervening years.
A well-played 1955 dinner party (with fine period props) brings the tensions underlying the complacency of postwar prosperity to the surface, as Meredith’s pushy salesman brother (Justin Bloomer), his primly obedient wife (Dre Slaman) and their shy business partner (Alex Gunn) try to recruit Phil in their scheme to erect affordable Levittown-style planned communities.
A particularly poignant split-stage scene set in 1961 contrasts Phil’s naive optimism at the dawn of the JFK administration against Meredith’s cynical adultery, with a subtle eye for cultural detail that foreshadows the appeal of “Mad Men.”
Unfortunately, White pulls out the sledgehammer for the predictably melodramatic Vietnam War segments. While Foxworth turns in an emotionally persuasive performance throughout, the miscast Brown swings wildly for the fences in depicting Phil’s instability, and misses more often than he connects.
-- Philip Brandes
“Six Years,” Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 22. $20. (323) 871-1150. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
The indelicate art of growing up
As Mark Twain once lamented, “Ah, the dreams of our youth, how beautiful they are, and how perishable!”
For the three hopeful art students in Jennifer Rowland’s new play, “The Contest,” which has reopened at the Powerhouse Theatre after a run at the Pacific Resident Theatre, those dreams start to spoil with dismaying rapidity.
Amanda (Jules Willcox), the most talented of the three, seems a shoo-in to win the top contest at her elite art academy. Not so sanguine is Karl (Albert Meijer), Amanda’s sculptor boyfriend, who struggles in the shadow of Amanda’s proven precocity. The couple’s new friend, Faith (Heleya de Barros), a deceptively hapless student with designs on Karl, takes Machiavellian measures to secure her own desires.
Whether Faith’s sabotage of the young lovers is volitional or not remains a tantalizingly open question. Rowland’s cleverly constructed tale has few pat answers and, despite an occasional turn into mawkishness, a psychological deftness that resonates.
Steve Marcus’ versatile set convincingly transitions from the art school where the defining contest takes place to a luxury flat in TriBeCa some 15 years later, where we are privy to the repercussions of youthful dreams both realized and deferred.
Director Sarah Zinsser and her cast, which includes Daniel Kozlowski as a narcissistic art professor, invest Rowland’s stylish play with gut-wrenching immediacy.
Perhaps the production’s transition to a new space might explain why De Barros swallows so many lines in the first act -- a failing that largely disappears as the fumbling Faith reaches assured adulthood. Barros’ volume requires a bit of fine-tuning, as does Kozlowski’s comically supercilious professor, who sails just this side of caricature. However, in Zinsser’s sensitive and keenly paced staging, Willcox, Meijer and De Barros chart their characters’ progression into adult disillusionment with devastating accuracy.
F. Kathleen Foley
“The Contest,” Powerhouse Theatre, 3116 2nd St., Santa Monica. 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays. Ends March 14. $25. (800) 595-4849. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.