Reviewed by Paul Birchall
Dorie Theatre at the Complex
Through January 29
Playwright Paul Shoulberg’s dark sardonic comedy is a tale of finding love within the rubble of one’s damaged psyche. It’s a work that brings to mind Hemingway’s old koan, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Frankly, if Hemingway were in the audience, he might very well be talking about Shay (Anne Kathryn Parma), the protagonist of Shoulberg’s piece: a recovering heroin addict who, while in rehab, falls for Ready (Michael Minto), a charming cokehead.
Shay has developed the belief — and it may not be a delusion — that she’d been pregnant with the next Jesus Christ, but had lost the unborn baby due to her heroin use. Ready is so smitten with Shay that he starts to think he is her chosen messiah – which leads him to develop some startlingly possessive traits. Also entering Shay’s orbit are her jaw-droppingly inept shrink Lana (Maahra Hill), and her porn-addicted community college professor (Clayton Farris) — both of whom have so many psychological problems that they make Shay the focal point of their existence.
Back in the 1990s, David Hare wrote a brilliant play called The Sacred Rapture, about a young woman who becomes the repository of the desires and wants of everyone around — so much so that she can no longer exist, and perishes under the burden of their needs. Hare’s play isn’t channeled in Shoulberg’s piece — but if it had been revised as a dark comedy, director Stan Zimmerman’s comically acrobatic production is just how it would work.
Zimmerman utilizes an unusually perceptive psychological awareness in his staging and in depicting characters who are flawed but still powerfully involving. He is also one of the town’s great directors of comedy, with a flair for precise comic timing and the nuances of situational humor. There’s no moment here that is too tragic to be leavened with comedy — and no joke that doesn’t carry with it a nugget of sorrow.
Shoulberg’s play isn’t perfect by any means. The story embraces too many concepts and doesn’t flesh them out beyond a few lines. This leaves a choppy impression, especially during the play’s religious digressions. The attempts at whimsy — particularly those involving the characters’ treatment of potted ferns (which seems a metaphor for something or other, I’m not sure what) — seem more successful in the abstract than in reality.
And yet, this remains an excellent character-driven piece, with strikingly evocative performances from an ensemble that could easily win awards for portraying neurosis piled atop neurosis. Parma’s lovely damaged Shay is extremely appealing — and so is Farris’s consummately charming if untrustworthy James. Hilarious in their roles are Hill’s brittle but desperate shrink and Farris’s super-self destructive professor — each an embodiment of pure emotional need.
Dorie Theater at the Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; through January 29. http://synthesisplay.bpt.me. Running time: 70 minutes with no intermission.