Mutual Philanthropy Review - Is There Equality in Real Life?

Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA presents the world premiere of MUTUAL PHILANTHROPY; a tale that explores the cultural and economic divides in Los Angeles, one of the most heterogeneous cities in the United States. Written by EST member Karen Rizzo, MUTUAL PHILANTHROPY is a thoughtful and funny play exploring income inequality and gentrification in the hilly enclave of Mount Washington, just at the edge of downtown Los Angeles. Ms. Rizzo’s plays have graced the stages of Ensemble Studio Theatre in both New York and Los Angeles; she has written two books and dozens of magazine and newspaper articles. Helmed by the internationally recognized director Dan Bonnell, whose awards include the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, LA Weekly, NAACP, and GLAAD Media, the play delves into the more realistic truth beneath the surface of that often-glittering facade in Los Angeles.

Mark Carapezza, Paige Lindsey White, Xochitl Romero, and James MacDonald - Photo by Lew Abramson

MUTUAL PHILANTHROPY takes a look at a social evening shared by two couples from very different backgrounds. East-LA-born Esther, a full-time chef’s assistant, and her stay-at-home sculptor husband Lee are invited to dine at the home of a wealthy couple, parents of their child’s playmate at school.

Mark Carapezza and James MacDonald - Photo by Lew Abramson

Power plays and propositions infiltrate the evening as the American Dream begins to take form – and rupture at the same time. Investment banker Charles (James MacDonald) and his socialite wife Michelle (Paige Lindsey White) have little in common with Hispanic Esther (Xochiti Romero) and her sculptor husband Lee (Mark Carapezza) – except for their children, who happen to go to the same school and have become buddies. An awkward evening ensues while the well-to-do couple tries to find common ground with their paycheck-to-paycheck “friends.” When the bombshell agenda for the evening is dropped, the play really catches fire. Playwright Rizzo masterfully serves up a utilitarian and seemingly moral dilemma that offers audiences an opportunity for lively debate on the way home.

Mark Carapezza and Xochitl Romero - Photo by Lew Abramson

The actors do an excellent job of highlighting their characters’ strengths and flaws – from the vapid but oddly sincere Michelle, to her husband Charles – who has vast appetites and has never settled for the word “no,” to the ambitious and overwhelmed Esther, and finally to her passive husband Lee who tries to cut through all the fluff and get to the core of the matter in a happily inebriated state. Director Dan Bonnell does an excellent job fleshing out the four characters in realistic ways as emotions slowly heat to a boil. Although the ending is somewhat ambiguous and abrupt, MUTUAL PHILANTHROPY sustains audience interest throughout  90 minutes of intriguing entertainment. 

James MacDonald and Xochitl Romero - Photo by Lew Abramson

Amanda Knehans’ set fills the bill effectively, as does Chris Wojcieszyn’s lighting, David B. Marling’s sound design, and Marly Hall’s costumes. MUTUAL PHILANTHROPY should provoke a lot of questions, some of which probably have no pat answers. It is a play worth seeing and discussing. 

MUTUAL PHILANTHROPY runs through 9/25/16 with performances at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Sundays (with added performances at 8 p.m. on Thursday 9/15 and 9/22). Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA is located in the Atwater Village Theatre Complex, 3269 Casitas Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90039. Tickets are $19.95 ($28 at the door; $14.95 for students with identification at the door). For information and reservations, call 818-839-1197 or go online.

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