BACK STAGE WEST
January 29, 1998
at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
Like documentary filmmaking, theatrical naturalism implicitly lays claim to direct, unmediated truth: This is how things really are, how people really behave, how time really passes. That's rot, of course. From the time we're children, it is storytelling and play-acting, and the distorting stylizations that accrue to them naturally, which come to us easily, almost unconsiously, and which thus express much about who we are and imagine ourselves to be. Authentic observation and reportage, on the other hand, take herculean effort and soul-searching--and inevitably involve more conscious interpretation, circumspection, and, yes, stylization.
Take Mike Leigh, and his 1995 play Ecstasy, now in an excellent if imperfect staging by Chicago's Roadworks Productions. Leigh is a dramatist with a highly developed point of view, equal parts humanist and lab-rat behaviorist. He unflinchingly pins his characters--in Ecstasy, working-class Brits in the 1970s--and their outsize ugliness or tackiness under a glass for observation. It's the unflinching part that gets to us: By simply logging time with them, Leigh teases out their humanity, and the unlikely drama of their lives, without the special pleading of a "problem" play. This, along with the damaged humor that bubbles unforcedly from the unease, is the fruit of dexterous, transparent dramaturgy, not simply throwing a lifelike reflection up onstage.
When director Abby Epstein's sere, affecting production is on fire, which it is more often than not, Leigh's characters sing--literally as well as figuratively, in a moving second-act reverie--amid the meticulously drawn squalor of Geoffrey M. Curley's set and Joel Moritz's lighting. Jean (Rachel Singer, a striking Joan Allen type) is a mousy, marginally resilient petrol-pump cashier whose misunderstanding hausfrau friend Dawn (the flawless Debbie Bisno) wants Jean to get out and find a man, though Dawn herself is a river of complaint about her own arrogant rotter of a husband, Mick (a tragically buoyant Scott Denny). Dawn's candidate for Jean is an estranged old friend, sweetly square Len (Lance Baker), but what Dawn doesn't know is that Jean has been having sad, no-strings sex with a brutish house painter, Roy (Nick Offerman).
This all comes to a head one fateful evening, and if the show misses anything, it's that unity of time. The first act builds to the end of Jean's tryst with Roy (via the violent intervention of Roy's wife), and the second act is set later that night, as Jean, Len, Mick, and Dawn come back from the pub for a "session" of drinking, reminiscing, and listening to Elvis. But we lose the urgency of this one manic-depressive night and its impact on Jean, I suspect mainly because the production concentrates more on recreating behavior than on building a throughline for its characters. While Singer's melancholy, especially in her long scenes alone onstage, can be blankly stunning, the production loses track of her a bit when the second act's delicious, perfectly calibrated four-way interplay, which has the deceptive ease and joy of good improvisation, takes over.
There is nothing to quibble with in the show's realization. Kristine Knanishu's costumes are dead on and the cast's dialects are bleatingly perfect. What this Ecstasy lacks in character arc it makes up for in an admirably Leigh-worthy attention to detail--unflinching, you might even say.
"Ecstasy," presented by Odyssey Theatre Ensemble and Roadworks Productions at the Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A. Jan. 10-Mar. 8. (213) 477-2055.