By sheer coincidence, it seems, a pair of new plays being performed in different corners of the city takes a mocking yet poignant look at the ability of people to bring their pure ideas, and ideals, into the real world. We're invited to watch and cringe at how these dreams get driven to their knees.
In Paul Fontana's Resurrection of the Ants, the central character is a poverty-entrenched novelist, a handsome young man named George, living in a decrepit Los Angeles apartment and imbued by the playwright with an amiable yet dogged confidence in the quality and resonance of his just-completed manuscript — written by hand, because George doesn't own a computer, or even a typewriter. It's unclear whether George's hermetic, theological devotion to spending two years, on borrowed money, hand-writing his opus is intended as a mark of his poverty or his purity, or both. Regardless, he is eccentric, at the very least.
His novel, The Prisoner and the Ant, is the saga of a wrongly incarcerated convict who engages in philosophical ruminations on the meaning of life with a single ant whom he befriends in his prison cell. A publisher, Bob Green (Peter Trencher), who actually calls George in for a meeting, complains that the novel has no action. He then finds a thesaurus from which he reads an avalanche of synonyms for "bad," in order to fully articulate his contempt for George's manuscript. Though George cringes through the entirety of Bob's gratuitously sadistic rite, George remains largely unshaken by the abuse — at least when it comes to his belief in his own writing. And that's to George's credit. Less to George's credit is his willingness to cut the book by two-thirds and add a vampire, in order to please the publisher, because George needs the money. He doesn't get the money. People like George never do. But that's another story.
We're meant to believe that George's plight is truly hopeless, because he's so out of touch with a culture that has the attention span of an ant — though not George's ant; the insect's reflectiveness is condemned by everybody who glances at the manuscript. The play also aims to savage the culture that savages guys like George. The satire would be aided were there even the glimmer of a possibility that George's book had some merit. Unfortunately, this is a comedy about an idiot savant who's really just an idiot — sort of like Joan of Arc but without a cause that might actually gain him entry into Heaven.
There are other characters who test the purity of Saint George. A drug dealer, Miguel (Claudio Pinto), who loaned George $4,000 for him to devote to his book, now needs his money back, and payment is several months past due. Miguel carries a crucifix necklace, a swagger and a gun, and he knows how to use them all. Miguel is convenient for the drama, but the Hispanic drug-dealer cliché does neither George nor this play any favors.
Then there's George's chirpy fiancee, Billie (Amy Main), whom he met while she was stripping in a club. Billie now has ambitions of being a professional dream interpreter. She needs money to attend a one-week course in Iowa that will get her credentials. Here, playwright Fontana is mocking her ambitions, too. And why she couldn't or wouldn't obtain the necessary funds for her course by stripping goes unexplained.
Their only source of money, and of George's potential salvation, comes from his nemesis brother, Dean (Ken Arquelio), who as a kid set George's ant farm afire and now produces a reality TV show. He offers George and Billie a spot on the show. George is understandably wary, fearing the show will ridicule him, his pending marriage and his book. The play's best scene is an interview between the engaged couple and the show's executive producer (the slyly imperious Meeghan Holaway) — a scene that wryly decimates everything George holds dear. As he alone stands up for his principles, he looks partly noble and partly like a prat, which is a marvelous balance of contradictions.
Before the performance I reviewed, there had been some dispute over an unpaid DWP bill, leaving the upstairs theater without air conditioning — speaking of ideals being compromised. The actors and the audience both sweated through the play's humor. The quality of the actors, and of Allison Schenker's whimsical set design, was obvious. But in addition to the aforementioned dramaturgical issues, the play's ultimate point of view — that oh-so-delicate chemistry under Gary Wolf's direction, which determines what is actually being belittled and where lies the play's soul — got further disrupted by the heat.
Kemp Powers' One Night in Miami takes a semi-biographical, satirical look at idealists and the toll taken by their ideals when they enter the body politic. Here, that body is represented by a Miami motel room in 1964, after upstart 22-year-old boxer Cassius Clay (Matt Jones) has just won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston. He's accompanied by his friend and mentor, Malcolm X (Jason Delane), football star Jim Brown (role shared by Kevin Daniels and Jason E. Kelley) and blues star Sam Cooke (role shared by Ty Jones and Burl Moseley).
Clay is on the brink of converting to the Nation of Islam, thanks to Malcolm's influence. Brown, bruised from his professional calling as well as from his life growing up black in the South, wishes to remain apolitical, which means he also wants to have sex with white woman and eat pork, two no-no's in the Nation of Islam. Meanwhile, Cooke believes that getting royalties and supporting other black artists with those funds is political enough for him. Malcolm ridicules Cooke's songs as superficial.
Carl Cofield's energetic and captivating production derives from the charisma of the performers and the quality of the clashing ideas they express.
In one scene, Malcolm opens a Bob Dylan album and sets it on a turntable, to goad Cooke.
We hear "Blowing in the Wind." "How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?"
Don't you understand, says Malcolm, this white boy from the Midwest has captured the struggle of black men through the decades in one line. What have you done? What are you doing?
The historical impersonations by these actors are as delightful as the wit in Powers' writing.
Fontana and Powers are realists — both in their worldviews and in the style of their plays. They approach their idealist-protagonists' agony with a certain bemusement, hoisting their plays into the sky. When their plays are airborne — in Powers' play, that's a constant; Fontana's tumbles at times — they strategically arouse the audience's skepticism, imposing on those characters a certain naivete, while at the same time leaving a tinge of optimism in the crowd that perhaps some beautiful and pure idea can actually withstand the corroding forces of the real world. There's hope when playwrights, in their new works, believe that such concerns still matter.
RESURRECTION OF THE ANTS | By Paul Fontana | Presented by Autumn Jump Productions at the Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., Westlake | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through July 28 | (323) 960-4443 | plays411.com/ants
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI | By Kemp Powers | Presented by Rogue Machine, 5041 W. Pico Blvd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through July 28 | (855) 585-5185 | roguemachinetheatre.com