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Theater review: ‘The City’ at Son of Semele is dark, confusing

Sarah Rosenberg and Dan Via star in a scene "The City."
(Matthew McCray)

Enigmatic anecdote is the currency of Martin Crimp’s “The City,” having its U.S. premiere at Son of Semele Theater in a production directed by artistic director Matthew McCray. The characters don’t so much engage in dialogue as indulge in a cryptic form of storytelling, in which puzzling incidents are set against a background of warfare, brutality and personal desolation.

A foreboding air of menace invokes the work of Harold Pinter, though Crimp, a playwright better known in the States for his springy translations of French dramatic classics, is more abstract and diffuse. The one-way talk in “The City” lacks the peculiar comic panache and verbal bite that define “Pinteresque.” What would Crimp-ian suggest? Something a bit more intellectualized — imagine a hall of mirrors, in which narratives reflect and distort one another in a context that seems distantly, though nonetheless alarmingly, apocalyptic.

Marital strain is quickly apparent in the way Clair (Sarah Rosenberg) and Chris (Dan Via) interact. She’s a translator who’s fixated on some bizarre occurrence involving a writer who has been tortured and his young daughter. Chris is about to lose his corporate job in the globalized downturn. They have two children (only one, played by exquisite Elise Ramacciotti, appears) and little sexual spark. An eerie night-shift nurse neighbor (Melina Bielefelt) brings reports of a savage foreign military campaign and requests to Clair that Chris play with the children indoors because the noise disturbs her daytime sleep.

The performers don’t supplement their shape-shifting roles with much personal color. The characters, living in an age of spiraling war, are bombed out internally, and they are portrayed with deadened neutrality. This adds to the intrigue and the tedium of a drama that has more atmosphere than meaningful action.

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Nick Benacerraf’s scenic design, arranged like a series of Chinese boxes partitioned in black, sharpens the production’s focus. Yet Crimp’s blasted urban vision, as bleak as it is elusive, makes it difficult to gain a foothold.

“The City,” Son of Semele Theater, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A., 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. (No shows Sept. 7-9) $18 to $20. (213) 351-3507 or https://www.sonofsemele.org. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com


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