Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally
Reviewed by Julio Martinez
Working Barn Productions at the Odyssey Theatre
Through October 8
The title of playwright Kevin Armento’s dramatic excursion through the inner life of a cell phone is taken from the mnemonic word tool utilized in high school math classes. “Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally” (parenthesis, exponents, multiply, divide, add, subtract) helps students into the proper order of operations for solving algebraic equations. It also serves as a proper metaphor for the contemporary state of electronic isolation experienced by new-boy-in-school, 15-year-old Red McCray, as narrated entirely by his cellphone (Thomas Piper).
As communicated by Piper, Red’s cellphone is stocked with accoutrements of the boy’s life, including photos, music, artwork, messages, notes and even telling phone calls he refuses to acknowledge. An errant phone call in class causes its confiscation by his teacher. A causal investigation of the phone’s photos unleashes a longing that causes her to reach out to him in a provocative manner. And the ensuing relationship between the boy and his teacher creates an escalating series of events that changes the lives of everyone around them.
As directed by Peter Richards, who modified the play for its West Coast debut, the work offers a great deal of emotional journey for the cellphone, while disappointingly skimming through the machinations experienced by the other characters circumnavigating Red’s life. Richards channels the whole play through the voice of Piper, who very capably projects the voices of Red’s forever tipsy mother and macho father, his sexually repressed algebra teacher, and his teacher’s loser of a boyfriend. They all gain access to Red’s life through chance perusals of his phone but there is simply not enough offered from these folks to counter balance the overly omnipotent outpourings generated by the cellphone itself.
Piper offers a fluid, cadenced delivery that can be likened to a drummer riffing while he accents the salient points of his narrative with verbal rim shots. It is an impressive display of vocal dexterity. Director Richards, while mounting a stage work of near stunning virtuosity, has managed to house Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally in a minimalist intellectual casing that reduces the range and viability of the story being told.
Piper’s observations of the changing life and circumstances of Red are enhanced by onstage sound designer and foley artist Adam Smith, who is visually and digitally caged within the set and lighting designs of Pete Hickok and Kelley Finn, respectively, as well as the projections of Nick Santiago.
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles; Fri. & Sat, 8pm, Sun., 2pm. Through Oct 8. www.plays411.com/PEMDAS Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission.