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Review: Prove humans are worth salvation? In ‘Liana and Ben,’ that’s not so easy

Erotic chemistry colors the modern-day Faustian bargain between a cynical demon (Jonathan Medina) and his idealistic target (Kimberly Alexander) in "Liana and Ben."
(Jeff Galfer)

Imagine coming of age in a time of political activism and fervent idealism, only to see your dreams of building a better world betrayed again and again by the basest human impulses.

Now picture that disappointment spread over the last 200 years and you have the quandary facing the heroine of “Liana and Ben,” a mythology-steeped premiere from Circle X Theatre Co.

Susan Rubin’s tale infuses the Faust legend with a feminist gender reversal. Liana (Kimberly Alexander) is a former acolyte from the French Revolution who made a longevity pact with a hunky Mephistophelean figure calling himself Ben Stone (Jonathan Medina): In exchange for two centuries of youth and beauty, she must prove to him there are redeeming qualities that can make people worthy of salvation.

We first see Liana as a present-day therapist treating Alice (Mara Marini), a frustrated trophy wife who turns out to have a specific mythic origin of her own. Despite Liana’s efforts to help others, Ben points out, she has succumbed to the same human frailty, vanity and self-interest that have remained depressingly constant throughout history. With her deal about to expire, she still hasn’t made a convincing case for humanity.

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The stakes are equally high for Ben, a fallen angel in the Lucifer mold. If she can prove his worst fears wrong, then his outcast spirit might finally find peace within himself. Between them there’s also an erotic charge, which the passage of time has only intensified.

Director Mark Bringelson makes intimate, engaging use of his profile stage configuration, with the audience closely flanking both sides of a central runway. Scenic designer Alan E. Muraoka’s enormous seesaw planks add fluid movement to the characters’ amorous encounters, and the superbly executed projection design by Jason H. Thompson expand the play’s universe into celestial heavens and evocative dreamscapes.

In its mythological themes, modernist irony and imaginative visual styling, “Liana and Ben” is something of a companion piece to Circle X’s memorable 2006 production of Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice.” There’s even a descent into the underworld realm of Hades, amusingly played by Darrell Larson as a clueless Olympian chauvinist unable to control his piggish nature. “Eurydice” cast holdover Tim Wright appears as an astrophysicist named Michael, who supplies Liana with the secrets of the universe and casual sex (not necessarily in that order).

Where Ruhl’s play was a focused deep dive, however, “Liana and Ben” is a sprawling mythical-historical mashup ranging from lucidly on point social commentary to seemingly arbitrary fixation on figures from Greek mythology, Christian theology and the French Revolution. Rubin’s narrative gets a bit cavalier in upending its own dramatic tension for the sake of tidy wrap-ups. A key character’s sacrifice, for example, is robbed of any real consequence by an ending that plays more like baby boomer wish fulfillment than real life.

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♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Liana and Ben’

Where: Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; ends March 26.

Tickets: $25

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Information: circlextheatre.org

Running time: 1 hours, 50 minutes

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UPDATES:

3:40 p.m. Feb. 26: This article was updated to add a “Review” label to the headline, to clarify credit for a the projection design and to correct the playwright’s name to Susan Rubin. The first version of the article said Sarah Rubin.


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