I'm pleased to report that 99-seat theater is alive and well in Sherman Oaks and just as happy that the Whitefire Theatre has comfortable seats with good sightlines and excellent air conditioning. So it's a cozy place to be on a hot Sunday afternoon, and you have the next five lazy, summer Sundays to catch this suite of six experimental one-act plays.
The title Love, Sex, Violence, Etc. made me wonder what playwright Helena Weltman could have possibly left out. In fact, what she and directors Paul and Daniel Cerny have not done, as small theater companies in this town too often tend to do, is suck up to Hollywood. These are not sitcom-wannabe scripts populated with dewy-eyed kids just off the bus ready for their network close-ups. This is minimalist, black-box theater, inviting the voyeuristic audience to join with the actors in their exploration of how oversexed human beings can entice and alienate each other.
If these plays have a common theme, it's teasing. How can I provoke a reaction from you? Don't just sit there, I want something from you. When you don't give it to me, I want to scream, sulk, lash out. Hence, we run the gamut from love and sex to frustration and violence. These are games, games adults play every day, but with the volume turned up on all the emotions. Just the stuff of living, breathing theater.
I'll comment on each of the pieces and try to hold back on the spoilers. But first I want to comment on the form. Traditionally, a suite of one-acts has two or three plays, one for each act of a comparable full-length work. Although Weltman's suite is not TV, it reflects the recent legacy of YouTube. I don't know what god of media decreed that a webisode must be no longer than 14 minutes, but that's today's reality. Maybe it's because that's the typical waiting time for the next bus, for a food order, or for the nurse to invite you into the doctor's office. We crave watching something short and diverting on our mobile devices while we wait, lest we succumb to the inexcusable disease of boredom.
So plays can be shorter now, in keeping with our distracted and fractionated attention spans. Here's what Weltman has on offer in her webisode-length scenes.
Saturday Night Date. A couple meet up in a bar. She's more than usually flirtatious and he makes no secret of what he wants. They cajole and bicker, and Weltman plants at least one telling clue to hint at the twist ending. Lizzie Czerner as the vivacious Vivian and Danny Grossman as the hunky-horny Clark are fun to watch, and it's a neatly done skit, telling an engaging story in a short span. Of all the pieces, this one is the most self-contained, the most like, say, SNL. If you wonder whether what will follow will get more and more out of hand, you are on the right track.
Sitting in a Tree. Stephanie T. Keefer as Marla is both literally and figuratively up a tree. Does she have a crying baby with her? Or is she delusional from the recent loss of one? Does she even want a baby or is she just tormenting her mate? Aaron, played by Lee Biolos, is worried to distraction looking for her and is mystified and just as confused as we are about her intentions when he finds her up a tree. Of all the pieces, this one is not so sure of itself. Sometimes screaming is not emotion -- it's just noise. We may be intrigued by Marla's plight but we're bewildered by her ambivalence. Firefighter Charles Wesley and Policeman Chad Wood play supporting characters and are featured later in much more ambitious roles.
Beauty Fiction. Hairdresser Arlene, played by Kat Primeau, and her customer Justine, Barbara Cole, are zany chatterboxes, interacting in the mystifying verbal shorthand that only two women who are totally familiar with each other can share. The pace is crisp and witty, and we're left wondering whether humans actually communicate anything worthwhile to each other.
Leaving Him and Her. Two sisters - Rita, Susan Sommer, and Melinda, Shannon McIntyre - have met reluctantly at a sushi bar. It seems baby sister Melinda is in the throes of a breakup with her sixth boyfriend (who is different from all the rest, of course), and self-righteous Rita's scolding is no help. There's a twist as the arguing and the mutual confessions go deeper. This piece could have used some humor, and the director no doubt gave the actors opening-night notes not to fuss so much with their props.
Number 11. Two women, a bag lady and a young hottie, meet at a bus-stop bench. Lithe young blonde Jennifer, played by Anastasia Savko, is in a gigantic hurry. Ditsy, rouged-up Gabriela Graciela, Georja Umano, is not. In fact, we sense that teasing the girl is her idea of entertainment, that she hangs out at the bus stop to escape the boredom of some extended-care facility. This is the funniest and most diverting of all the pieces because of the comic stylings Umano brings to her character and the close, lively interaction between the actresses. Umano's wonderfully wacky character is by far the best thing in the show.
Acting It Out. Two sexually adventurous women, - Lora, Alexandra Ackerman and Carla, Stepka Li - share the services of beefy gigolo Derek, Chad Wood. When they all bicker about who will end up on top, fictional-playwright Richard, Charles Wesley, barges onto the stage to adjudicate, perhaps even participate. This piece is like absurdist Ionesco or Pinter, and I wondered whether a similar dose of confusion and unreality might serve the rest of the suite.
Applause to Helena Weltman for understanding what intimate theater should be about. Some of the pieces come off as works in progress, but I'd much rather see the attempt than recycled, gag-strained Neil Simon. Pavel Cerny directed "Sitting in a Tree," "Number 11," "Leaving Him and Her" and "Acting It Out." Daniel Cerny directed "Saturday Night Date" and "Beauty Fiction."
Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.
Photos: Judy Preminger
Whitefire Theatre and the Orpheum Theater Corporation present
Love, Sex, Violence, Etc.
13500 Ventura Blvd.
Sherman Oaks, CA
Sundays at 3 pm, July 26 - August 30
www.theatermania.com or 1 866.811.4111