Aliyah Conley and Trevor H. Olsen star in Sharon Yablon's Hello StrangerEXPAND
Aliyah Conley and Trevor H. Olsen star in Sharon Yablon's Hello Stranger
Darrett Sanders

Day of the Dead in the Inland Empire Comes to Life as a Fever Dream

Though it would be a stretch to call Hello Stranger a Halloween horror, Sharon Yablon's poetically pitched homecoming drama looks an awful lot like a ripping haunted-house yarn. It features restive spirits tied to the unsavory history of a proverbial old dark house; it is driven by the uncanny occurrences that both express and are conjured by its protagonist's inner demons; and it recognizes that the shadowy corners of the unconscious harbor specters far more harrowing than the sort that rattle in the attic on a moonless night.

But as anybody familiar with Yablon's prolific if mostly guerrilla stagings of site-specific, one-act evenings can attest, the ghosts that haunt her signature pastiches of midcentury pop culture and celebrated Los Angeles lowlifes hail from the sordid realm of Hollywood Babylon rather than the eternal. The misfits of Hello Stranger, which marks the playwright's welcome return to the mainstage in director Sarah Figoten Wilson's attractive Theatre of NOTE premiere, are worthy additions to Yablon's gallery of morally stunted and marginalized L.A. grotesques.

What passes for a plot gets off to a fairly straightforward start. Trevor H. Olsen plays Mike, a disheveled, middle-aged ne'er-do-well from Los Angeles who turns up bleeding, concussed and bewildered at the weathered Victorian home of Fontana single mom Carla (the fine Reamy Hall). It seems that after attending his 30-year high school reunion the previous night, Mike drunkenly wrecked his car and has followed the siren song of the peculiar young girl Audrey (Aliyah Conley) to Carla's back door.

That's when he loses consciousness and the play abruptly lurches into the hallucinatory, looking-glass surreality and symbolic logic of a fever dream. Mike's arrival at the Fontana home is quickly revealed to be anything but accidental as Yablon steers the play into a deepening quicksand of malevolent mystery that surrounds the Victorian house and the shocking chain of events that increasingly implicates the characters in a gruesome history. To that end, Audrey reappears in Day of the Dead skull facepaint as an otherworldly angelita who guides Mike in what develops as a time-warping journey of self-discovery and identity.

Not surprisingly for a Yablon play, her version of the Inland Empire is peopled with a supporting cast of outlandishly dysfunctional emotional cripples. Not the least of them is the sultry, aggressively amoral and self-destructive Mandy (in a dexterous performance by Elinor Gunn). Making her entrance draped over a 1960s cocktail caddy and uttering X-rated innuendoes, she is both the sexually ravenous town whore and, in one of the story's archest ironies, Mike's decidedly un-nurturing and Jocasta-like train wreck of an uncaring mother.

An antic Alex DeLaRosa plays Jesus, a cadaverous victim of the town's history as a cancerous toxic waste dump, who is Mandy's emotional opposite when it comes to the unconditional love he expresses for his own developmentally disabled son. And although DeLaRosa is clearly enjoying himself, Jesus is a seat-squirmingly crude and patently offensive exercise in priapic, sombrero-wearing caricature — presumably a distorted figment of the fatherless Mike's ambivalence toward paternal figures of any kind.

Possibly the most redemptive of the bunch is Christopher Neiman's drawling urban cowboy Carpy, who as one of Mandy's most loyal customers may be the best candidate for Mike's genetic father. He is also the one character in the play who expresses any genuine warmth or tenderness, which makes for one of the evening's more oddly affecting comic moments of physical intimacy even as it showcases Neiman's impressive mimicry chops when Carpy ages 30 years in plain view of the audience.

As the narrative advances and the many disparate elements of the mystery knit together, Yablon dials back the brutal black comedy and the explosive shock imagery of the early scenes in a way that allows the lyrical power of her language to take command. It's an astonishing tonal reversal that somehow allows even seemingly irredeemable characters to back into moments of tragic pathos.

At least some of the credit goes to Wilson. The director not only marshals a reasonable facsimile of the performance style that Yablon and her own informal stock company of actor-collaborators have spent years perfecting (Conley is particularly effective as a weirdly ethereal spirit child), but she delivers a lavishly sensual feast. Designer Fred Kinney represents the Inland Empire as a witty metonymy of weedy and patched industrial fencing set against a smog-gray sky, while lighting designer Martha Carter animates the landscape in a vividly sculpted chiaroscuro. Marc Antonio Pritchett sets the mood with a sound montage of vintage pop that underscores the kitschy glory of Yablon's encyclopedic wealth of Southern California culture.


Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hollywood; through Nov. 18. (323) 856-8611, theatreofnote.com.

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