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
In writer-director Marios Stilianakis' Water, at Hollywood's Lounge Theatre, a U.S. Army soldier, Bill (David Bennett), and an Iraqi insurgent, Ali (Bobby Naderi), find themselves in adjacent prison cells in Baghdad. A kind of cosmic joke is being played on both of them, perhaps by their captors or perhaps just by their playwright. There's a dumbwaiter rig by each of their pillows — a tube extending to the ceiling. Next to the tube is a button labeled "water." When one of them presses it, a small, plastic water bottle drops out of the tube — but in the other man's cell. This is obviously a formula for a kind of sadistic dependence. Furthermore, their sacks of possessions, containing vestiges of memory from a place called home, have been swapped. And so the pair engage in a series of exchanges: a true story for a sacred scarf, or a pair of sunglasses for a bottle of water.
Their captors, meanwhile, have left the building, not unlike God. Or, to be more hopeful, God lies within each of them.
The metaphysical conceit requires a suspension of disbelief, which is hard to achieve in such a realistic setting. It's a distant cousin to The Arabian Nights, in which a bride must tell her husband a new story every night in order to avoid being killed and replaced by a new bride. Even Stilianakis' conceit of imprisoned characters telling stories in exchange for obtaining sacred relics from their past might be persuasive, were the stories structured to build suspense, or delivered in a style more compelling than having the actors gaze blankly into the audience as they recite their respective horrors against a projected photographic backdrop. Watching the two of them is a bit like watching Mel Gibson and Alfred Molina in Clash of the Titans — but with more introspective confessions than clashing. As textured as these actors may be, it's still a path to lethargy.
Through the stories comes to us — and to them — the revelation that each was involved in a battle and each is responsible for the death of the other's brother. (Ali has survived the death of his entire family of nine.) And their personal culpability is what leads to the intended, shifting dynamics between friendship and volatility, which are not yet palpable.
Technical details defy plausibility. Bill's combat boots look spanking new, as if they'd just been purchased from the military-supply shop down the street. Though both describe charging through bloodbaths, there isn't a trace of blood or dirt or even wear on either of their costumes. The prison cells similarly appear to have been newly constructed and painted, creating quite a facility to be dumped — and abandoned — in.
This is a problem in a work that aims to reveal larger truths through details. Says Ali, "It's not the big stuff, it's the personal stuff that has us locked up here." He removes a Penthouse magazine from Bill's bag, accusing him of betraying his girlfriend's love. Bill argues that "thoughts" of his girlfriend are sometimes not enough. Ali replies that all he has are thoughts and memories rather than pornographic diversions; it is the cerebral that keeps him going.
This is a fascinating philosophical divide. All that's needed is dramatic tension. And that's a big need.
HAPPY ENDING (WHO WILL LIVE, WILL SEE) | Written and directed by JOHN SINNER | Presented by THEATRE REVELATION at HIGHWAYS PERFORMANCE SPACE, 1651 18th St., Santa Monica | Closed
WATER | Written and directed by MARIOS STILIANAKIS | LOUNGE THEATRE, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through Oct. 17 | (323) 960-7711