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Circumstantial Evidence 

Larry Atlas' new play about moral eclipse

Wednesday, Jun 3 1998
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When he was only 11, Paul Rosario took $240 he'd earned from his newspaper-delivery route and invested it in Comsat. "Not G.M., not even G.M. preferred," he explains to the audience in Larry Atlas' scintillating new play, Yield of the Long Bond, now at the Matrix Theater. "A new issue, on the market at 20, at three weeks I'm out at 60-and-a-fraction, and margin in . . . with a $700 stake - Mom, my unwitting co-signee - to an early big merger, ITT-Sheraton, 45* out at a 150, and suddenly I'm the only kid I know with an open line at Merrill Lynch! . . . $16,000 in the bank!"

Gregory Itzin's Rosario is one of many reasons to see Atlas' play. In his late 40s as the action unfolds, he's an enviably clairvoyant embodiment of self-interest, untarnished by flickers of conscience. What's the point of working so hard on Wall Street if, after paying a Securities and Exchange Commission penalty, one ends up with only $150 million to show for it? - so complains Rosario without so much as a wisp of irony. The world exists for his convenience, and he's (almost) cunning enough to master it. Rosario bilks his business partners the way Richard III dispatched his rivals, although it's a spiritual rather than a physical deformity that spurs his compulsion. Rosario always wanted to be "special," he tells us - the only psychological clue to his obsession with making money. And yet it suffices in an age in which greed requires no explanation.

Yield of the Long Bond is a sparkling, ferociously intelligent chamber piece even though it ultimately reneges on its promise. A Titanic for thinking people, it studies three souls who, initially propelled by their respective ideals, founder then sink - like bloated corpses - into icy depths. More meditation than drama, more poem than play, Atlas' work owes a greater debt to David Hare's early spiritual-political matrix and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land than it does to the 1980s school of playwriting it appears, at first, to emulate. (Howard Korder's Search and Destroy and Caryl Churchill's Serious Money spring to mind, with their taut, episodic dramatizations of get-rich-quick schemes and their articulate, ethically bankrupt characters.)

For one thing, Yield keeps referring to faith. Rosario's first name is Paul. Add an Episcopalian priest named John, then stir in Rosario's attorney-mistress, Ellen - whose name gets mangled at least once into "Magdelena" - and the whole endeavor suggests something far loftier than the psychological melodrama that eventually unfolds.

Then there's the lure of the erotic triangle between rich bachelor Rosario, his wealthy lover, Ellen (also single), and the financially struggling, outwardly gentle Father John - to whom Ellen finds herself drawn and to whose church programs Ellen urges Rosario to contribute in an effort to impress the SEC, hot on Rosario's trail. Before the end of Act 1, we learn that Ellen has been killed - and with her, the dramatic love triangle. What remains is a baroque recitative of sorts, a glimmering collage of flashbacks and monologues amid an appealingly perverse attraction of opposites, of two men who use each other to resurrect the woman they both loved - excuse me, needed. By talking and arguing about her, they keep her alive in spirit.

The play's most tantalizing virtue is that everyone in it is guilty of something. Rosario uses his prodigious knowledge of biblical history against his hypocritically pious rival (who should know better), systematically deconstructing John's "murdering, whoremaster, slaveholder" hero, King Solomon. Inevitably, John counters with his own knowledge of how Rosario degraded Ellen sexually, and how her tolerance - enjoyment, even - of their rude liaisons in grungy hotel rooms might have stemmed from her self-contempt after she'd betrayed her own ideals.

Most of the speeches are magnificent. Ellen, who works for a law firm that charges up to $800 an hour for helping people subdivide Arizona real estate, speaks of her dream, not so long ago, of helping to rewrite labor law and represent immigrants in California. "I believed . . ." becomes a motif in an aria so rhythmically hypnotic it almost eclipses the meaning behind the sounds. In fact, Atlas' words are so intoxicating he could, like Brian Friel, probably get away with two hours of audience-address, bypassing dialogue completely.

But in Yield, Atlas drifts from the structural equivalent of Raymond Chandler to that of Samuel Beckett. Which means that he changes his rules of engagement in midstream, and consequently has to contend with those audiences and critics who insist, not unreasonably, that writers finish the play they started.

In what's become a Matrix Theater tradition - maybe even a survival mechanism - the play is double-cast with an ensemble that rotates in such a way that, should you feel compelled to return, you may be mathematically precluded from seeing the same cast twice. I saw Yield of the Long Bond two times and viewed equally effective, if quite different, interpretations - just different enough to imply alternative possibilities for characters' motivations and attractions.

Although I didn't catch alternate Ian McShane on either night, it's hard to imagine a better Rosario than Itzin, whose energy is something akin to that of a pit bull. Dressed in a stylish silk suit, he barks out his lines rapid-fire, sometimes with sarcasm but never with mirth. (Neither of the men in this play ever laughs - or, frankly, has much to laugh about.) There's something uncannily persuasive in the way Itzin rolls his lower lip over his teeth, producing a sucking sound to punctuate his verbal barrage.

Rosario describes Ellen as innocent, and lanky Julia Campbell fits the bill - a baby-faced beauty who was inexplicably wearing high-heel shoes at least a couple of sizes too large on the night I attended. How the woman is supposed to walk, let alone perform, with such a literal impediment is a mystery; somehow, though, Atlas' words came tumbling out in the right sequence, snugly fitted to Campbell's earnest, almost childlike performance. Anna Gunn, her equally leggy alternate, has sharper facial features and cheekbones - and a demeanor more chiseled - than Campbell, altogether more suitable for a high-powered attorney, though further removed from the character's youthful ideals.

To see Father John infatuated with these women is, in fact, to see two different men - an observation accentuated by watching Byron Jennings on one night, David Dukes on the other. Dukes plays the priest as a slightly befuddled teddy bear, with nasal inflections and a blustery style; Jennings' interpretation is somehow more angular and self-assured. Both casts hit Andrew J. Robinson's efficient, minimalist staging right on the numbers - all the dynamics, the glances between the words, are perfectly calibrated, even as their implications vary with the shifting chemistry of the different casts.

The goal of this double-casting policy is, understandably, to ensure the production's integrity in the face of actors leaping on short notice from the stage to TV and film studios (a.k.a. making a living). While it's easy to give tongue-clicking lectures about some actors' dubious commitment to the stage - an argument that has much the same effect as spitting into the wind - performers, lured by Hollywood, have been known to bolt even from the Royal Shakespeare Company. Yes, even from England! Shocking, isn't it.

The policy's consequences have more to do with aesthetics than ethics. I'm not at all sure what Atlas, seeing his world premiere kaleidoscopically twist and turn night after night, must make of it - particularly as regards a production that is the theatrical equivalent of a finely tuned concerto. If the orchestra keeps playing musical chairs, how does the conductor realize a definitive interpretation of the score? With a number of local companies now double-casting their shows, a new stage movement has been born right here in L.A. Call it Theater of Circumstance.

Reach the writer at smorris@laweekly.com

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