October 17, 2003





Keeping party going through war


The weekend after Sept. 11, 2001, the Evidence Room did some brave counter programming: a silly, disjointed romp, "Imperialists at the Club Cave Canem," which alternated elliptical two-character sketches by Charles L. Mee Jr. with wild dance pieces by Ken Roht. It was about as far from a response to the attacks as you could get, but it had a strange, unsettling resonance. Could we really boogie and chatter while the world burned?


Two years later, the company has revisited both impulses in light of world events: Roht's recent full-length dance show, "He Pounces," was considerably grimmer and more aggressive than his Imperialists bits, and Gordon Dahlquist's new one-act, "Messalina," has three couples drinking, talking and flirting--only now their irrelevance is italicized by the apparent world war raging outside while they party.


Dahlquist is a deft, droll writer with a knack for inspired non sequiturs and simmering, sneaky subtext, and Bart DeLorenzo's suggestive, unsentimental direction is an ideal match. Soon, though, the artful indirection and decadent diversion are lashed to a metaphor invoked by the play's title, as a bookish writer (Leo Marks) pitches some lurid stories culled from the late Roman Empire to a glib agent (Bruce McKenzie) and a lush Italian starlet (Dorie Barton). Joining the Rome-is-burning parlor game are a


conscience-stricken woman (Ames Ingham), a loopy medical researcher (Lauren Campedelli) and a Eurotrash hanger-on (Rhys Coiro). All that's missing is a fiddle.


Ultimately Dahlquist's central premise--that in tumultuous times our choice is either to be entertained and oblivious or "tense and questioning," as one character puts it--feels contrived, even inhuman. Theater artists, above all, should know that we're more complicated creatures than that--particularly theater artists with the stones to put on a silly romp while Ground Zero still smoldered.

Rob Kendt


"Messalina," Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Ends Nov. 16. $15-20. (213) 381-7118. 1 hour, 50 minutes.