Photo by Fred Goudon

Baudelaire’s Children

There are plenty of hip, jokey moments in Fifth & Spring, particularly when some young slackers decamp their rave for a desert “protest party” supporting a death-row celebrity — “some dude Mammy Abooboo” — only to completely forget Mr. Jamal and their lofty mission thanks to the portable pharmacy they bring with them. On the other hand, there’s much romantic give-and-take on display here. “Did I send you some kind of ‘pathetic’ signal?” the vulnerable heroine sharply inquires of her boyfriend’s reason for singling her out at the rave, to which he replies, “Yeah, actually I felt sorry for you.”

Such are the erratic pleasures of Alyson Croft’s play, in this premiere of a new work that emerges as part urban drama, part Generation Y comedy of manners. Blue Sphere Alliance’s production at the Lex Theater stars Croft as the story’s center, Sandy, and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role. Croft is achingly sweet as a hard-drinking 25-year-old living with her card-gambling mother, Nancy (Peggy Mannix), while daydreaming of tap-dancing her way to New York. Instead of this, however, she falls in love with a junkie named Tony (Ronnie Walsh) on the day she loses both her jobs. Tony’s a confused tough guy from “Joizie” who makes a living as a bare-knuckle street fighter and who’s just gotten out of an eight-month stretch in County because of some unpleasantness connected with his vocation.

Sandy and Tony come from two wildly different worlds that happily intersect at the aforementioned rave and desert debauch. Things fall apart, however, shortly after they return to L.A. (he, to the hellhole of downtown’s Fifth and Spring streets; she, to her “self-employed” mother, who talks of winning a big tournament at “the Bike,” as she calls the Bicycle Club casino). The young couple’s daily burdens are both lightened and weighted by various friends. Tony’s archangeleno is a middle-aged man named Mark (director Anthony Barnao) who bears a strong resemblance to The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy; in fact, Mark is similarly in the memorabilia business, selling forged-autographed 8-by-10s of Marie Osmond and the like; he also provides Tony with cash, a place to stay, 8-by-10s to hustle and much unheeded advice.

If Mark seems like a better-grounded version of Sandy’s dotty mom, then Tony’s speed-tweaked, trick-turning pal and boxing “manager” Dino (Hans Bodenweiser) is flakery incarnate, a cutely wayward kid who never seems to have Tony’s cut from his fights ready. On the other hand, Sandy’s longtime confidant Ziggy (producer Joel West) may also have a sweet tooth for whatever drug comes his way, but at least he’s supportive of Sandy and bears himself with a noble clown’s affability.

From the play’s very start, a cloud of doom hovers over every moment, a cloud emanating from the toxic milieu of the predatory street life at Fifth and Spring, a vortex populated by whores, users and the homeless. It doesn’t take long for the viewer to realize that the title does not refer to the Los Angeles Theater Center or the address of the Alexandria Hotel (once downtown’s Crack Hilton).

If, at first, we’re tempted to ascribe Tony’s conspicuous lack of upward mobility to heroin and a cavalier disregard for the laws of feng shui, we soon learn there’s a much more powerful narcotic at play here — self-delusion, a drug that nearly everyone in the story seems hooked on. Tony clings to the notion that his deadbeat dad is a standup guy who’s going to help him, while Mark vainly wishes to be Tony’s surrogate father. Sandy practices tap on her apartment’s roof so that no one will ever see her, and Nancy crams as hard for a card tournament as any law-school student boning up for the bar. The affable Ziggy, too, who works at a Zankou Chicken outlet, dreamily mentions his “Armenian blood,” even when Sandy reminds him that he is strictly German-Irish-American.

There isn’t much action driving this play, but the story wins us over nevertheless, through Croft’s sharp-edged dialogue, and her meticulous creation of characters who are simultaneously familiar and strange to us. Her Sandy — a bundle of anxiety camouflaged by a 20-something cynicism, appearing onstage as a kind of zaftig Veronica Lake — steals the show through a remarkably restrained portrayal. Oddly, though, Croft’s play comes most alive not in her love scenes with Tony, but early on in interludes with a former high school friend and love interest, Lindsay (Anna Bocci), a prissy, manipulative cunt who delights in humiliating Sandy in public but who craves her attention when they are alone. This all-too-briefly explored relationship recalls the funniest and cattiest moments of a Justin Tanner play, and, in fact, Bocci herself cannot help but remind us of Tanner’s lead actress, Laurel Green, in the way she shifts from vulnerability to bitchiness.

West is another standout, as the bewildered and bewildering Ziggy, a tall, angular figure whose near-stream-of-consciousness pronouncements on human nature somehow, and scarily enough, make sense when we think about them. Tying the acting and writing highlights together is Barnao’s astute direction, which, like Croft’s performance, allows the show to grow on us through a dozen small gestures and facial tics — the turning over of a card, the tilt of a head.

Croft beautifully captures a landscape filled with an irony unintended by the characters: an unchanging terrain echoing with the passing music and slang of pop culture, mingled with Tony’s introduction to the kicks of nitrous oxide as he trades one kind of drug balloon for another. It is in moments like these that Croft’s play lights a match on a transitory bohemia that is as solid to its partisans as Baudelaire’s Paris was to absinthe drinkers more than 100 years ago and, incidentally, puts to shame a lame facsimile of underground life like Rent.

The play has its drawbacks, however. It’s a little on the long side, chiefly due to Sandy and Tony’s four-scene desert idyll, and to an unnecessary hospital meeting between Sandy and Mark. Ultimately, though, there seem to be two plays going on here, and sometimes they are at war with one another. There is first the smart, cool comedy about a generation both finding and losing itself in designer drugs and throbbing techno beats — in this exciting, uncertain mix, we feel, anything can happen. But then there is a more traditional tale of love and redemption, which creeps into some of Sandy and Tony’s dialogue, as well as into Mark’s I’m-there-for-you rhetoric. In the end, we feel somewhat as though Fifth & Spring’s dangerous, swaggering spirit has been hijacked by the need to end the play on an uplifting note. (This was not Croft’s initial impulse, as is revealed in an earlier version of the script that ended the play with an ambiguous, wordless response to a tragedy; whereas the play at the Lex now cheerily concludes by succumbing to the Myth of the Audition — specifically, the Myth of the New York Audition, as Sandy makes a decision regarding her tap-dancing career.)

There are also nagging questions of verisimilitude. The characters who inhabit Blue Sphere’s vision of Fifth and Spring are pale, gaunt and hollow-eyed wraiths who long ago forgot how to smile — in other words, this corner could easily double for the lobby of a top modeling agency. Also, just where does Tony hawk those bogus autographs of Marie Osmond? The last I checked, there are not too many tourist buses gliding through Skid Row these days (and the nearest Mormon temple is a good 15 miles away).

If these kinds of questions give the viewer pause, they should be put in the context of a cast that cannot conceal its youth and of a promising playwright searching for her stride. Neither a “rave play” nor a kitchen-sink melodrama, Fifth & Spring captures a place somewhere between the gorgeous and the ugly, between adolescence and the melancholy wisdom of age.

FIFTH & SPRING | By ALYSON CROFT | Blue Sphere Alliance at the Lex Theater, 6760 Lexington Ave., Hollywood | Through April 7


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