Julian Sheppard, in the program notes of his new play Los Angeles, asks: "In the end, in L.A., is there really anything more than sex, drugs, and swimming pools?" Although there is plenty of that in his somewhat flimsy series of vignettes, there are a few moments in the overall production (well directed by Adam Rapp) where there's the sensation of striking something more fathomable than nihilism.
The show opens with an innocent but already damaged Audrey being led by her boyfriend, from the Midwest to L.A. The subsequent scenes, always jumping an unidentified period of time forward in Audrey's downward spiral of a life, take her from party to party and man to man (to woman). Despite the cliched encounters (a drug dealer, a married man, a high-powered agent, a model/actress), Sheppard's writing is fairly clever. It also offers a neat turnabout: the majority of people Audrey encounters actually want to help her, and the first few scenes end on upbeats -- the tragedy is that after the scene change, things are always worse than they were before. The intimate space under The Flea abets the character acting; the scenes are already familiar to the audience, but the close proximity of it makes us feel like the bystander at a really hot party where someone is being slowly stabbed to death for our amusement.
Audrey spends most of the play in a "comfortable fuckedupness," -- perhaps too much for us to care about the pain she keeps trying to drown out -- but the play itself, with the moody lighting of neon-stripped bars and dim, coffin-sized apartments, shows the squalor for what it is. The transitions between scenes are handled by Amelia Zirin-Brown's lovely voice (Life is a cabaret, my friends) and Audrey is shuffled from set piece to set piece like a prop herself (which, to be fair, is what she becomes). The inevitable overdose scene is handled well, with a chorus of spectral scene-partners; the only off-kilter choice is the tenth scene, which serves more as a confusing "lost episode" than an epilogue. (Other choices, like coloring all the drinks and money blue, are odd, not distracting.)
Over the course of the play, Katherine Waterson, who plays Audrey, is given plenty of time to shine, and there are a few scenes where she bravely succeeds at seeming like a stranger to her own body. The problem with a play like Los Angeles is that Audrey does not change, and each scene is just more of the same. The cast, made up of The Bats (The Flea's young repertory company), has the same dilemma, each being called upon to play a caricature that only a few of them manage to deepen (Ben Beckley and Emily Hyberger) or fully inhabit (Tanya Fischer).
A play like Los Angeles doesn't need to be written -- it's enough in our pop culture already -- but it has been, and it's enjoyable even if it's not brilliant. I hope Julian Sheppard will focus on actually developing a story in his next play, rather than just telling it; it's really the only thing holding his writing back.
[First posted to New Theater Corps, 3/7]
Thursday, March 08, 2007