Roger and Vanessa

As the pre-show music fades out, the bluesy strains of piped-in chords are taken up by Roger on a dilapidated upright.  After a few minutes, the song segues into  "There's a Place for Us," from West Side Story, rendered in a strong, scratchy growl reminiscent of Tom Waits.  Barely fitting under the piano, wresting the love song from his broken-down body in a broken-down, dirty living room, Jack Conley as Roger sets the scene for the hour-long relationship sketch, Roger and Vanessa, now playing at the Actor's Gang. 

Roger and Vanessa

The writing is strong.  Playwright Brett C. Leonard does lovely work putting poetry in the mouth of toughs.  The first half of the play is quick and funny, raw and true and sweet.  The direction by Silas Weir Mitchell is sound - as active as two people talking in a room can be.  And the circumstances are as timeless as two mismatched people drawn irresistibly together by a physical attraction; two cultures clashing painfully and loudly within the confines of a relationship; a pair of soul mates born to love and harm each other with the sharp teeth of their desires.   It's Romeo and Juliet or Tony and Maria if they had live.  Or rather, it's Ralph and Alice without the unshakeable confidence in their love and its durability. 

Roger and Vanessa

Roger is just back from prison and his get-rich scheme is a musical act they can perform in together.  Vanessa (Elizabeth Rodriguez) has a secret, works at a nail salon, and is nervous and suspicious of where all this is leading.  She calls him her teddy bear and he calls her his pussycat - and they fight because as she puts it "I ain't no pussycat!  I'm a tiger, I'm a lion,  . . . I'm a f***ing miracle!  She tells him he doesn't look as good as he used to (in the name of honest communication) and they fight because she "didn't mean it like that."  She tells him he can't sing; he tells her he's had 11 lovers better than her.  By the time Vanessa's little secret is out in the open, the seesaw of their volatile relationship has been firmly established and we know that nothing will really change the dynamics of their future.

Roger and Vanessa

The acting is strong; Rodriguez conveys Vanessa's personality - feisty, unreasonable, and literal, without making her stupid.  Conley as Roger is powerful, vulnerable, and selfish.  The back and forth in the first half of the play crackles with chemistry, which makes it all the more disappointing when the second half of the play degenerates into an uninspired tennis match of monologues, ably delivered but strangely disconnected.   Each has beautiful moments to express all the pain of loss and loneliness and difficult decisions, and as they dutifully take their turns, the energy seeps from the room.

Roger and Vanessa

In the end - we've seen this before, and although the characters are endearing, the writing evocative, and the direction honest, there are no surprises.  They'll stay together or they'll break up.  As the exit music says, "Che Sera, Sera," whatever will be will be.

To find out more about The Actor's Gang Theatre you can call there box office at 323.465.0566 or visit their website at: www.theactorsgang.com

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