Ask any real estate agent: People love a view. We’ll go out of our way — and far above asking price — for an elevated perch with a sweeping panorama. A view makes us feel at peace and in control. Maybe it’s the same rush our forebears got when they surveyed their hard-won territory from the treetops.
Real estate agents also will tell you: People won’t pay as much for that view if other humans are part of the picture.
Jonathan Caren’s sharply observed and suspenseful new dark comedy, “Canyon,” a premiere co-produced by IAMA Theatre Company and the Latino Theater Company, suggests that we haven’t changed much since our tree-swinging days. The play’s progressive protagonists — a 30-something married couple — genuinely want to make the world a better place. They buy all-natural deodorants. They work for nonprofits. They don’t discriminate on the basis of race. But all it takes is one bad afternoon to push them to the brink of tribal warfare.
The story is set in an unnamed Los Angeles canyon — one of the rustic neighborhoods winding through the Santa Monica Mountains — in the retrospectively ominous September of 2016. Daniel Soule’s set transforms the audience at the Los Angeles Theatre Center into the landscape around the deck of the couple’s house. R.S. Buck’s lighting and Jeff Gardner’s sound design subtly summon the woodsy, coyote-haunted romance of a canyon sunset.
Proud new homeowner Jake (Adam Shapiro) is out on the deck, chatting with his handyman, a Mexican immigrant named Eduardo (Geoffrey Rivas), who’s working in the yard. They bond over an arrowhead Eduardo has found — maybe a relic of some long-ago bloody fight. Things are more civilized now.
Or are they? The strained chumminess can’t disarm flashes of antagonism between Jake and Eduardo. Will the lower-ranking male challenge the alpha? Is the alpha comfortable being an alpha, or does he suffer from alpha guilt?
Eduardo is not a licensed contractor. Jake is paying him under the table. Eduardo is trying to talk Jake into enlarging the deck, ostensibly to improve the view but really to earn more cash. Jake sort of knows Eduardo is playing him, and he’s sort of OK with being played (that liberal guilt), although wife Beth won’t approve.
Eduardo’s teenage son, Rodrigo (Luca Oriel), isn’t easing the tension. He has grudgingly agreed to help his dad on this job, but he has never mastered the servile mask Eduardo puts on for employers, and he finds Jake’s apologetic but smug entitlement infuriating. Once women come onto the scene, the men’s unspoken contest takes on a sexual intensity.
“Uh-oh. The boss is home,” Eduardo quips upon hearing Beth’s voice. Beth (Christine Woods), a pretty, smug, self-involved doctor, is the couple’s breadwinner. Unemployed Jake has bravely, if self-deprecatingly, stepped up as house husband. It’s newish territory, but they seem to be navigating it with mutual goodwill — until their friends from New York show up for the weekend.
Like funhouse mirrors, Will and Dahlia mercilessly reflect the flaws in Jake and Beth’s marriage, exposing their worldview as a grotesque delusion spun out of centuries of oppression.
Will (Brandon Scott) is a “do-gooder” lawyer who earns less than he could on principle. Dahlia (Stefanie Black) has chosen to stay home with their children and sees her mixed-race marriage — he’s black and she’s white — as her crowning achievement. “I love having half-black babies,” she declares. “I win.”
But the instant their own prospects are threatened, Will and Dahlia jettison their ideals with comical speed. For all his noble championing of underdogs, Will proves well versed in the tactics of the oppressor. When construction noise makes it hard for Dahlia to hear her cellphone, she screams at Eduardo and Rodrigo, “I know you hate me because I’m white!”
If Caren lays on their odiousness a bit thick, he does it with shrewd humor, and the actors take an infectious pleasure in sending up uncomfortably relatable characters while also making their choices seem plausible throughout the many twists of the plot.
The in-the-round staging means that not everybody in the audience can catch every significant expression, but director Whitney White choreographs the action with a sure hand and deft comic timing. The play stumbles only at the very end, but by then “Canyon” has unnervingly reminded us: None of us really knows how we’d behave in a crisis.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays; ends March 24
Info: (866) 811-4111 or thelatc.org
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Support our coverage of local artists and the local arts scene by becoming a digital subscriber.
See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.