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Entertainment & Arts

Review: In ‘Aunt Sally,’ a lonely teen, a teacher who crosses a line and the phone that witnesses everything

Thomas Piper (foreground) in “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally.”
Thomas Piper, with Adam Smith in the background, in “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally’
(Ed Krieger)
Theater Critic

Our phones have become so entwined in our lives it was only a matter of time before one became a stage protagonist. Kevin Armento’s “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally,” which opened last weekend at the Odyssey Theatre, is a clever drama narrated by a phone that sounds nothing at all like Siri.

The playwright has stipulated that the play can be done by several actors (as it was, to strong reviews, in New York) or by a single performer. Here there are two actors, one of whom speaks (Thomas Piper, billed as the Narrator) and another (Adam Smith) who remains silent, a youthful presence sitting at a desk behind a scrim as he conducts the show’s soundscape.

As the narrating phone, Piper speaks in a manner that’s too distinct for the assembly line. Large of frame and dressed in a futuristic jacket and slacks, without shoes and socks, the character exists in some liminal world between man and machine. He’s better at what he does than human beings but there are strict limits to what he can do. Emotion isn’t beyond his repertoire, but he’s helpless to act on his feelings. He lacks creative agency.

The story that this hyper-alert phone is tracking centers on its young owner, a 15-year-old high school student who has transferred to a new school in Orange County after his parents’ divorce. Red McCray, friendless and disaffected, acts like a smart aleck in math class after his phone goes off while his algebra teacher is explaining the order of operations. (The play’s title is a mnemonic device to help students handle complex equations.)

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The teacher weirdly slips the phone into her purse and takes it home with her. (The sentient device, which at times seems as unaccountably omniscient as the narrator of a Victorian novel, reacts like a kidnapped basset hound.) The teacher’s motivations are fuzzy, complicated and clearly libidinous. Still adjusting to cohabiting with her unemployed boyfriend who’s supposed to be working on a new app but spends his afternoons deflecting shame for not pulling his weight, she explores the kid’s unlocked phone while hiding out in the bathroom and becomes infatuated after discovering a series of artful photos of rock towers.

After she gives the phone back, she initiates contact by sending him mysterious photos that eventually become personal. Identities are revealed, and before you know it a furtive relationship is underway.

Piper slides into these various characters by changing his vocal manner. He’s required to talk more or less nonstop for an hour and 15 minutes, and he handles the challenge with theatrical brio and astonishing breath control.

The story, told rather than shown, requires us to listen attentively. You might close your eyes to imagine the events, but then you’d miss Pete Hickok’s entrancing geometric scenic design and Nick Santiago’s dancing projections of mathematical data.

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The tale is sensitively handled, though I felt troubled by the realization that this wouldn’t at all fly if the teacher were male and the student were female. Armento is aware of the damage that’s being done to Red, but he doesn’t editorialize on what is in fact a criminal act. Instead, he sympathizes with this young man’s lonely plight, seeing Red as a casualty of his parents’ bitter divorce — a mother who starts her drinking earlier and earlier each day and a father who can’t let go of his resentment. (The teacher, less creepy than the inappropriate school secretary of Tommy Smith’s “Firemen,” remains sketchy.)

There’s nothing by the numbers about “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally,” which follows neither the rules of dramaturgy nor morality. It’s impossible to predict how the story will unfold. Armento’s language has a rhythmic vibrancy that creates its own universe, which is accentuated by Smith’s nifty sound design. But it’s Piper’s invigorating incarnation of an eager-to-please phone, a computerized buddy as helpful as it is ultimately helpless, that powers the production.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally’

Where: Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends Oct. 8

Tickets: $20

Info: (323) 960-4429 or www.plays411.com/PEMDAS

Running time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

Follow me @charlesmcnulty

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