Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mutually Assured Destruction

written by Peter Lefcourt
directed by Terri Hanauer
presented by Theatre Planners
 world premiere debut at The Odyssey Theatre

review by Phillip Kelly

Mutually Assured Destruction is a play that focuses on the lives of three just over middle aged married couples, all friends, and the one sordid detail that creates a slew of possible sordid scenarios that dance between them in their imagination and on the tip of their tongues, threatening to explode at any moment into a flurry of melodrama and comedy gold. But it never quite happens. Peter Lefcourt shoots for a certain level of sophistication, the Annie Hall Woody Allen years come to mind. A continuing analogy during the show is made between the situation at hand and the Cold War, it brings about some good opportunity for jokes, but like much of the show Lefcourt can't help but get in the way of his own ambitions by overdoing it.

Lefcourt makes two of my least favorite mistakes that seem to be trending in current original plays. First, his narrator, Arnie, an enjoyable and energetic Kip Gilman, doesn't simply narrate. He manages to, not only step in between every scene to say what just happened, is happening or about to happen, he even stops scenes midway to do this - sometimes more than once! Mr. Gilman, and the director Terri Hanauer, have directed and performed these beats so there isn't a break in energy, but after awhile, I just wanted a scene to finish so I could enjoy something from start to finish without being told what I was watching. If the writing is good enough, the audience will know what they're watching. Let something surprise us, don't tell us a surprise is coming. Let us laugh at a situation, don't stop to tell us how crazy a situation is. We know! Let us enjoy it without holding our hands. I want to see a story unfold, not be told about the story unfolding.

The second is the number of short, shorter and really short scenes. Theatre isn't film or TV. No matter how tight your transitions are, the audience still has to wait, over and over again. There's no build. Maybe this is why Arnie was given a monologue between every scene. I remember thinking to myself during a scene at a party nearing the end that something was going to happen, that this scene might build and go somewhere and I was becoming invested, but just as I thought this, Arnie steps forward, tells me nothing happened, tells me months and months pass, that there are other parties, and we not only see one more party, but two - in which nothing happens! The reason why there isn't a movie about the entire Cold War is that nothing happens, there's no third (fifth) act. It doesn't make for interesting drama from beginning to end. Hidden within however there are moments in which very interesting stories happened. Those moments are hidden throughout this show, but are never brought forward to their full dramatic potential. I would suggest to Lefcourt to focus on one of these parties, build up to it, and leave the rest of the play within that party. In the Mutually Assured Destruction is a series of misunderstandings, situational comedy without real punch.

This isn't to say there aren't funny and entertaining moments. While Lefcourt is shooting for Husbands and Wives Woody Allen, Hanauer sprinkles in Everything You've Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask Woody Allen. Other characters pick up the narration, our narrator comes out into the audience, they address the fact that they're in a play (allusions to Mel Brooks), there's a giant map in the back with silly pictures of the characters as global chess pieces. In its more inspired moments these beats are a lot of fun, but the two tones don't always mesh, and the sillier side sometimes ends up feeling tacked on.

The performers, all pros in the industry, all charismatic and very talented, embrace the proceedings, and with Lefcourts sometimes clever writing and Hanauer's direction, can be quite funny, but other times they're left lingering on stage with nothing particular to do - especially as the play nears the end. They watch each other with bemused expressions. And at the end, Arnie steps forward and tells us nothing happened, which is something we knew

To keep in mind, that while I didn't particularly like the show, (I enjoyed elements) there was a very loud and very vocal part of the audience that enjoyed it far more than me. The audience seemed split in this regard. Take a chance, you never know.

Mutually Assured Destruction
Presented by Theatre Planners at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S.Sepulveda Blvd, West LA 90025.
Through Aug. 26. Fri-Sat 8pm, Sun 3pm. Tickets $25.
www.plays411.com/destruction. 323-960-5772

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