April 1, 2005
Len Jenkin's fascinating if inchoate 1984 play "My Uncle Sam" loosely sets a surreal detective story within a prosaic memory-play frame. It's a shape-shifting picaresque with tenuous dramatic grip, but director Joshua Moyse's new production gives it a stunningly clear, fluid style, with a monochrome set haunted by Jason Mullen's stark side-lighting and animated by Rachel Eberhard's sharply demarcated period costumes.
The tightly focused setting often lends this rough diamond a genuine gem-like gleam. Jenkin begins and ends the play with a narrator (Paul Plunkett) recalling his childhood awe for his Uncle Sam (Joe Jordan), a retired novelties salesman who spent his waning years resolutely alone in a Pittsburgh hotel. These scenes point us in a conventionally wistful direction, with the ramrod Jordan, though barely in his 30s, confidently evoking age and regret.
The play then whiplashes into an increasingly fanciful tall-tale version of Sam's young manhood amid a noirish nightscape of hoods, molls and other shady characters. It follows young Sam (laconic Ben Cubbedge) on a fool's errand at the behest of his purported fiancee, dance-hall hostess Lila (sleek Amanda Decker)Ņa search for a missing person that soon makes Sam the true absentee.
Moyse's committed cast throws itself into this shaggy-dog fantasy with engaging verve. Not all the performers are quite on point with Jenkin's wide-ranging voice, which aims for a pulp-poetic hybrid of sales pitch and home truth, and the play has speculative codas rather than a satisfying conclusion. But like the luminous crucifix Sam hawks with a convincing patter, "My Uncle Sam" is a seemingly trifling conjurer's trick with a resilient glow.
"My Uncle Sam," Sacred Fools Theatre, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays (no performance Apr. 1). Ends Apr. 30. $20. (310) 281-8837 or at www.sacredfools.org. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.