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Entertainment & Arts

Review: In ‘Water Tribe,’ the butcher knife is a turn on. The play goes downhill from there

Christopher Reiling and Hannah Prichard in the EST/LA and Vs. Theatre production of “The Water Tribe.”
Christopher Reiling and Hannah Prichard in the EST/LA and Vs. Theatre production of “The Water Tribe.”
(Glover Burk Photography)

If you want to pique the interest of your audience, go for that all important “hook” first.

However, there’s a crucial difference between hooking viewers and alienating them. Don Cummings crosses that line — early and often — in his thematically confused play “The Water Tribe,” a joint production of Ensemble Studio Theatre and VS. Theatre Company having its premiere in L.A.

The action opens with the financially down-and-out young couple Claudia (Hannah Prichard) and Johnny (Christopher Reiling) arousing each other with a butcher knife. That’s what gets them hot, as do graphic nature videos. (A lion tearing apart a newborn zebra proves particularly stimulating.) Also, Claudia wants to be bitten — hard — during foreplay. All in good fun, of course.

It’s creepy, but hey, they’re psychologically wounded, as is everyone else in the play. Claudia’s mother, a drug addict, abandoned her early on. Claudia was raised with her cousin Sonia (Alexandra Daniels), whose mother was too preoccupied with men to be an effective parent. Johnny’s mother (Jayne Taini) is still very present in his life, but he grew up fatherless; he has been sheltered from the truth about what became of his dad.

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Brian (Jon Joseph Gentry), an intellectual young man who’s steadily employed and taking college classes (but who also may have been abandoned by his father), is an outlier among these marginalized hangers-on. He accepts the friendship of the screwed-up Claudia for some reason never sufficiently explained.

The actors, under the workmanlike direction of Tricia Small, do their best to flesh out Cummings’ cursory characters, with mixed results. The point of the play, one supposes, is to explore alienation and the desperate need of the “feral” Claudia to find a “tribe” of friends who will function as her family. Reiling is quite good, and Prichard is a gifted performer who almost rises above her material. Unrelenting ditziness is a hard act to sell, and this play ultimately exhausts even her considerable resources.

'The Water Tribe'
Where: VS. Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Feb. 9

Tickets: $25-$30

Info: (818) 839-1197, www.estlosangeles.org

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

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