October 22, 2004    




Relationships as dicey real estate


"Atmosphere" is one selling point of the cozy London home at the center of politely tense negotiations in Martin Crimp's "Dealing With Clair."


Atmosphere is also a key element in the play's nuanced suspense -- the unspoken desires and resentments in the air as a cool young real estate agent, Clair (Abigail Brammell), handles the sale between a bickering couple (Jay Karnes and Rachel Robinson on the night reviewed) and a weirdly charming businessman, James (Morlan Higgins on the night reviewed; the show is double-cast except for Brammell).


Clair is compelled to represent each party to the other in ways that are unavoidably intimate, emotionally taxing and borderline creepy. The key word is "borderline": Storm clouds that gather around Crimp's characters never quite burst.


The Matrix Theatre's U.S. premiere production artfully skims along the play's implacable surface while subtexts roil below.


Director Andrew J. Robinson, who's mounted expert Matrix productions of Pinter and Beckett, mines every exchange for maximum transactional value: the way the husband unconsciously condescends to, and comes on to, his child's Italian nanny (Abigail Revasch), or the way James draws out the reserved Clair, for personal reasons that are never clear.


If there's a drawback in Robinson's approach, it's that some subtleties are italicized too broadly, particularly between the self-involved marrieds. Their escalating contention, which is more demonstrative than seems entirely English, tends to overwhelm the play's central enigma: the deceptively brisk, businesslike Clair.


The muted tones of Stephanie Kerley Schwartz's set and Dan Weingarten's lights situate the property on the edge between comfortable seclusion and spooky isolation.


If we're more unsettled than satisfied by the play's icy denouement, that is surely as Crimp intended. We can be haunted more, in the end, by what's unsaid and unseen.

--Rob Kendt


"Dealing With Clair," Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. Performances resume Oct. 30, in repertory with "Bold Girls." 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Mondays. Ends Dec. 19. $20. (323) 852-1445. Running time: 2 hours.