To say that playwright Julie Marie Myatt has a knack for understatement would be something of an understatement. The prolific Myatt, whose works have appeared on prominent Southern California stages for the better part of a decade, excels at using small details to evoke larger truths. That skill is apparent in two new L.A.-centric plays alternating in repertory at the Road Theatre Company's Lankershim Arts Center.
Myatt's "John Is a father" and "Birder" are directed with clarity and sensitivity by Dan Bonnell, using the same design team for a consistent overall look and feel. Both plays explore fatherhood, mortality, the post-recession economy and the illusory nature of the American dream, though they approach these themes in strikingly different ways.
As one play's title declares up front, "John Is a father." What emerges more gradually, though, is exactly what kind of father the character played by John Owens happens to be — not a very good one, it turns out.
Masterfully played by Sam Anderson, John is an aging ex-con whose weary voice and stooped gait immediately telegraph a man who's had all the fight beaten out of him by life.
In impeccably spare dialogue rarely longer than single-sentence exchanges, fragments of John's troubled past come to light during his encounters on a trip to reconnect with what's left of his estranged family. To his only friend, a homeless veteran (Mark Costello) not much further down the social ladder, John reveals that his son was a Marine killed in combat, leaving behind a wife and child whom John has never met. At LAX, a few more details surface under the nosy prodding of an affably chatty couple (Carl J. Johnson and John Gowans). The extent of John's disastrous failure as a father becomes clear only in a painfully awkward confrontation with his daughter-in-law (Hilary J. Schwartz).
At the center of this excellent ensemble, Anderson conveys the challenges John faces in pursuit of redemption with the simplest gestures — staring at a photo of his lost son, gingerly handling a gift for his grandson (Jackson Dollinger or Elliot Decker), scrambling in panic for an exit route when the prospect of a connection gets too real. It's utterly compelling naturalism rendered with economy and grace reminiscent of a Horton Foote play.
In contrast, the lighter, more intricately staged "Birder" revels in quirky, meta-theatrical artifice, complete with flashbacks, overt symbolism and fourth-wall puncturing monologues. Its protagonist, the accountant Roger (Chet Grissom), is a poor excuse for a dad, although unlike John, Roger always has played by the rules in pursuit of an affluent lifestyle. Like so many in the disappearing middle class, Roger grapples with the pressures of living beyond his means; his atypical answer to midlife crisis, however, is to quit his job and take up bird watching under the reluctant mentorship of Charles (Webster Williams), a lonely widower.
Roger's abundant flaws and missteps include keeping his unemployed status and looming bankruptcy a secret from his wife (Laurie Okin), his borderline creepy flirtation with Charles' daughter (Monique Marie Gelineau), and his territorial resentment of her preternaturally perfect boyfriend (Crash Buist). Nonetheless, in confessions addressed to the audience, Roger maintains a disarming boyish charisma as he chronicles how the growing appreciation of birds hiding in plain sight among us come to represent everything else that's missing from his life.
Each of Myatt's new plays offers a quiet vision of hard-won hope amid adversity, but "John Is a father" goes deeper. It's the difference between showing life as it's lived versus life as it's talked about.
"John Is a father," 8 p.m. Thursdays, 3 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends July 3. $34. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. "Birder," 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 19. $34. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes. The Road on Lankershim, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 761-8838, www.RoadTheatre.org.