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Entertainment & Arts

Review: Echo Theater’s new play shows a sex act. Should we watch?

Steven Culp and Michael Rishawn in “Handjob” by Echo Theater Company.
Steven Culp, left, and Michael Rishawn try to read each other’s behavior at Echo Theater Company.
(Darrett Sanders)

We know how to react to theater that’s entertaining or thought-provoking. But what about when it makes us profoundly uncomfortable?

The title sex act of “Handjob” is performed in full view in the play’s premiere by Echo Theater Company in Atwater Village. The actors wear prosthetics, but the illusion is unsettlingly convincing.

Attention-getting as it is, the sex is just one of many times that Erik Patterson’s dark comedy pulls the rug from under us, compelling us to reassess what we’re witnessing. This, in turn, prompts us to consider what’s “authentic,” “genuine” or “real,” mining the subtle distinctions among those terms. Dial out for a look at the big picture, and you might appreciate the way the play grapples with the very nature of theater and how it could or should reflect life.

Along the way, the show plunges into enough hot-button social issues to fuel a week’s worth of TV news round tables: consent, harassment, privilege, visibility, racial and sexual stereotyping, and more. In all of this, the show ably succeeds, supported by terrific acting, directing (by the Echo’s artistic director, Chris Fields) and production elements.

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Patterson, an Angeleno who also writes for TV, has a fondness for messed-up people trying their best to navigate life, as seen in his plays “One of the Nice Ones,” “Red Light, Green Light” and “Sick.”

Little of his new, six-person play can be recounted without ruining surprises. Suffice to say that the action begins with a service being negotiated between a bookish, middle-aged white guy (Steven Culp) and a younger black man (Michael Rishawn). Then, with some variations in ethnicity, temperament and dialogue, a similar encounter unfolds between two other men (Stephen Guarino and Ryan Nealy). In each case, the men are trying to read each other, often getting it wrong.

Ryan Nealy and Stephen Guarino in “Handjob” by Echo Theater Company.
Ryan Nealy, left, and Stephen Guarino negotiate.
(Darrett Sanders)

This is the Echo’s first production since the canceled “Pass Over,” which had its rights yanked after Fields fired the show’s black female director. Intriguingly, the new play mirrors some of that incident’s optics regarding ethnicity and authenticity. Patterson says these were already in his script.

The Echo provoked a different kind of discomfort last year when it depicted an office shooting in “Gloria.” Does its new production earn the right to push buttons as it does? Not entirely. I feel the ideas could be presented just as forcefully if the sex were treated more discreetly. But given the play’s title, I can’t complain that I wasn’t warned.

'Handjob'
Where: Echo Theater Company, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village
When: 8 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays; 4 p.m. Sundays; through Oct. 21
Tickets: $20-$34
Info: (310) 307-3753, EchoTheaterCompany.com
Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

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