By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
The American road, we’ve always been told, is both a great emancipator and a hanging judge — the asphalt river of freedom and the stern tester of wills. In Unfinished American Highwayscape #9 & 32, playwright Carlos Murillo’s ensemble piece premiering at the Theater@Boston Court, eight individuals are driving somewhere in the American night, each burdened by problems comic and ominous. James (Patrick Thomas O’Brien) is a high school biology teacher whose true passion is his magnet collection; Delia (Carlease Burke) is a woman leaving her singer husband (Karim Prince), whose blues hit bearing her name haunts her every time she turns on the radio; a disillusioned evangelist, David (Will Collyer), writes letters to his sister Emma (Meghan Maureen McDonough); Amy (Ashley West Leonard), a woman on the run with a kid, gets spooked by the sight of abandoned cars; Samuel (Matt Foyer) is the son of a dead scrap dealer and of Eleanor (Casey Kramer), who presides over her late, unfaithful husband’s main legacy, a giant junk sculpture.
This steel-and-rubber assemblage also dominates set designer Sibyl Wickersheimer’s fragmented stage and serves as an ambiguous lodestone. Early on, the ensemble switches on flashlights around it in the theater’s darkened gloom, invoking the cars and the roads they travel. It’s a more effective image than the sculpture itself, and director Jessica Kubzansky’s shadowy mise en scène is most memorable when it’s darkest. (Her midnight world is ably punctuated by Jeremy Pivnick’s dim shafts of light and John Zalewski’s jangling sound design.)
Murillo’s narrative, however, takes a while for us to comprehend and comes together only at the very end, when the eight characters are fleetingly paired up. (One character quotes Fitzgerald about there being no second acts in American lives, and, as if taking heed of this, Murillo confines his piece to one act.) For 100 minutes, the drivers talk to us, sing, recount histories and ruminate back and forth in an evening of presentational performance that has some tender moments but never really adds up to a sum greater than its parts.
Perhaps our expectations were raised too high, too early. Highwayscape’s long title is joined by an equally lengthy subtitle: The Broken Tractor Graveyard. The compound title’s free-associative quality hearkens back to the apotheosis of free association, the 1960s (“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and to that era’s rebellious romance with The Road. However, here there’s little sense of our insurgent passion with spaces and the wide-open roads that thread through them. Murillo’s characters are not the anarchic highway spirits of Jack Kerouac and Ken Kesey, but small people bedeviled by life’s petty indignities and destiny’s larger insults. There’s nothing wrong with this, but viewers will feel as though they’ve sat on the business end of an artistic bait and switch. It’s a dead end any way you look at it.?
BLUEBONNET COURT| By ZSA ZSA GERSHICK | At Hudson Mainstage Theater, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through August 27 | (323) 960-7721
UNFINISHED AMERICAN HIGHWAYSCAPE #9 & 32| By CARLOS MURILLO | Theater @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena | Through September 3 | (626) 683-6883