October 15, 1998        




at the Los Angeles Playhouse (the Open Fist Theatre)


Reviewed by Rob Kendt


I can't recall a better, more fully realized world premiere production of a flawed but fascinating play. More than any other newish troupe on the L.A. theatre scene, Circle X--a group of savvy, embarrassingly talented artists, most with heavy regional credits and theatre degrees--raises the bar for local stage productions to a level of both sturdy professionalism and imaginative stagecraft that seems almost dangerously, headily high.


Louis Broome's peculiarly touching new play, about a poor Southern family riven by an inexplicable tragedy, offers the Xers plenty of rope to stretch out their theatrical imagination--and occasionally taxes their chops in its more confused passages. It opens neatly with a narrative prologue about a paradigmatic Southern couple--the suburban cowboy, Eddie (Burton Curtis), and his lacy small-town belle, Emma (Cindy Basco)--and the ignorant marital bliss that produces the cutely named Houston (Paul Morgan Stetler) and Dallas (Alice Dodd). With out-of-nowhere suddenness, Eddie thoughtlessly kills Emma, leaving the already solitary Houston speechless and traumatized, and sending Dallas off with her own more muddled issues, as we see when we find her in Seattle with her lover Morgan (Dina Gardner).


From there, Broome cross-cuts between three spaces, delineated with telling strokes on Gary Smoot's raked set (maps of Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas, painted thickly by Adrienne Klotz like giant cuts of steak, form the grid, but Smoot saves some some diverting surprises): Dallas and Morgan's present-day return to the South to retrieve Houston from a mental institution; Eddie's long night of the soul--which he claims not to possess--as he receives visitors from his electric chair in the Oklahoma State Pen, and Houston's imaginary parallel world of Western-movie fantasy, in which he's a righteous gunslinger with a pair of cornpone sidekicks (William Salyers and Todd Beadle) and a Hamlet's-ghost commission from Emma to avenge her murder.


Under Allison Narver's crisp direction, the play's humor and pathos play out as beautifully as a Western swing record, with the Houston fantasy sequences reaching a comic high in a second-act fireside reverie and Eddie's bittersweet Death Row musings, though tending toward the purple, taking on a strange dignity. The present-day quest of Dallas and Morgan is bumpier; Dodd and Gardner have an intermittent chemistry that's appealing, but their arc--from distance to understanding, trust, facing the past and its demons, all that--is pat and over-signified. The effervescent Dodd, a young Cherry Jones type, struggles especially to convey Dallas' stake in the family horror.


The only other false notes, it must be said, are musical ones: While Jonathan Westerberg and compatriots provide tasty live instrumental accompaniment, the cast's vocal qualifications vary, and Narver hasn't found a way to integrate the songs with the same surety she's integrated Broome's far-ranging narrative strands.


But the show is worth seeing just for the all-around brilliance of its realization, from M.E. Dunn's telling costumes to Matthew O'Donnell's expansive lighting, and for the impeccable cast. Standing out especially are Salyers' sneaky, spooky deadpan, Beadle's gallery of sharp caricatures, Basco's frighteningly pert self-possession, Curtis' sere, contrite wonder and despair, and Laura Kellogg Sandberg's drowsing fierceness as Eddie's mother. Stetler's finely honed, obsessive yearning to make sense of the terrible crime at the heart of his life is the thread we hang on through the play's windier diversions.


By the end, an unconventional new family rides into the sunset, away from the graves where they've decided to leave the family mystery unsolved. Circle X likewise sends us riding into the night after a rich meal of theatre that doesn't surrender all its secrets either.


"Texarkana Waltz," presented by the Circle X Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Playhouse, 1625 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. Oct. 9-Nov. 14. (323) 969-9239, ext. 2.