The Elephant Theatre complex on Santa Monica Boulevard has brick walls, which appear on the sets of two productions currently running there in adjoining theaters. Both are love stories by New York playwrights, and both offer acting showcases, which, I’m guessing, is the underlying motive of these productions. Yet the plays, Adam Rapp’s 2001 Blackbird, and Paul Grellong’s 2005 Manuscript, are inverse renditions of love.
Blackbird, presented by VS. Theatre Company, unfolds in a rented room in NYC’s Canal Street in the late 1990s. Danny Cistone’s set of desk and bed, a closet to the side and a taped-up window at which the eponymous blackbird keeps pecking like Poe’s raven, offers feelings of bottomless despondency. But until we meet the two characters who populate this room one Christmas Eve, those feelings of despair are a mere cakewalk. Even with triple-digit temperatures in the Southland and fires blazing in our mountains, the set, the layers of filthy, bundled costumes (by Gelareh Khalioun and Erin Mueller), and the actors’ authentic twitches from the imagined, icy confines bring the chill of Canal Street in December to Santa Monica Boulevard in August. And that brick wall is the great unifier — not only of two theaters but of opposite ends of the continent.
A young woman named Froggy (Jade Dornfeld), dressed in woolen cap and layers of sweats, emerges from within the closet, at the beckoning of her roommate and support system, Baylis (Johnny Clark). Baylis is bossy-tender, an army veteran of Desert Storm, a former musician of some sort, and a one-time furniture mover confined to a rolling desk chair because of an agonizing slipped disc. The war and/or accident has also left him impotent and incontinent. Froggy teasingly calls him “dickless” and makes jokes about him “pooping” his pants. Yes, she is an adult, though she floats through her life with a childlike dependency and eagerness to please, which is why — we learn — she’s happy to offer to fellate the landlord to cover the rent.
Froggy and Baylis met at a strip club where she danced. She performs an impromptu pole dance for him in the tiny room, because she so likes to please.
“Keep your shirt on,” he says in one illuminating scene. “I don’t want to see your tits.”
Much of the action is a series of negotiations between the two — no, Froggy, you can’t have the good coke to snort, I’m saving that for a special occasion; besides, we’re trying to get you clean; and no, you can’t have the last of my cigarettes. Baylis is stoic, quick to flare but not at Froggy. His fury is directed at the world outside that brought both of them to this pit.
Baylis isn’t the only one with physical problems: Froggy has visited a clinic, where she learned she has hepatitis, and God only knows what else. Actually God does know what else, and so, eventually, do we: She’s carrying another man’s child. All of this spurs Baylis into the role he plays best, that of caretaker. And that is the essence of their love, which has a rare and tender sincerity, reminiscent of Shelah Delaney’s 1958 romance A Taste of Honey, which studied the dynamics between a pregnant teenage prostitute and her gay male caretaker in a dreary Northern England industrial town.
Froggy’s diagnosis leads to the question of why, defying the shooting pains through his back, Baylis feels compelled to stagger outside to buy her some water. If she’s strong enough to dance for him, she’s certainly strong enough to make it down the stairs to the local grocery store. Yet when he leaves the apartment, he chains her to the bed, ostensibly to protect her from her drug habit. How then, did she make it to and from the clinic? Was this with or without his consent?
Baylis returns, having been beaten by the police, who mistook his agonized walk for public drunkenness. Her response to his misfortune, like her response to his changing his soiled underwear, lies somewhere between blithe and glib. She wants to be told what to do, a submission she equates with being cared for.
Meanwhile, Baylis prepares to send Froggy home to Detroit (odd, given Dornfeld’s New Jersey dialect), buying her a bus ticket and seeking to contact her estranged parents.
Despite the minor plot and dialect quibbles, Ron Klier directs an absorbing production laden with attention to this sweet relationship in a bitter world. Because the actors’ physical expressions and actions are so delicate and subtle, the play unfolds as though on a painted canvas, on which what happens is strangely less important than merely being there and basking in the truth of the gruesome atmosphere. Clark, bearded and stern, plays Baylis as a living trash can that somebody has set fire to. And now he must endure the flames, and somehow not reveal the agony he feels. Sometimes you wonder if that’s the real reason he goes to fetch that plastic bottle of water. Dornfeld has a similarly exacting approach to Froggy, turning her into someone as impish as a sprite in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, who hasn’t yet cottoned on that she doesn’t work for the Queen of the Faeries anymore. The lingering question is whether they’ll ever stop running into brick walls.
Tall Blonde Productions and Elephant Stageworks present Paul Grellong’s Manuscript, a play that’s impossible to describe without ruining its many intricate plot turns. Let’s just say it involves three recent Ivy League chums settling into a party in a Brooklyn Heights home owned by the family of Harvard student David (Adam Shapiro). (Nice, authentic set and lights by Matt Maenpaa.)
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At the start, childhood friends David and Chris (Patrick J. Adams) appear jittery over the visit of Chris’ new girlfriend, Elizabeth (Katharine Brandt). But nothing in this play, which involves a manuscript found by Chris at the home of a just-died author, is what it seems. Even the central characters of the love story are not who you imagine at play’s start. Everything that occurs concerns authenticity, loyalty and ethics. Oh, yes, and opium.
The production’s charm stems from the idiosyncratic rhythms and humor of Grellong’s snarky, literature-laced repartee, which spills so smoothly off the tongues of these very attractive actors, and the Ivy League attitudes that ooze from them, under Brianna Lee Johnson’s snappy production. This trio couldn’t be further from Rapp’s comparatively earnest bottom-dwellers. The somewhat contrived world of Manuscript is not such a rotten place. It just happens to be populated by these rotten people — a rottenness that forms a large part of the entertainment. And that’s how it’s the inverse of Blackbird.
BLACKBIRD | By ADAM RAPP | Presented by VS. THEATRE COMPANY at the ELEPHANT THEATRE LAB, 6324 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hlywd. | Through September 19 | (323) 860-3283
MANUSCRIPT | By PAUL GRELLONG Presented by TALL BLONDE PRODUCTIONS and ELEPHANT STAGEWORKS at the ELEPHANT THEATRE, 6322 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hlywd. | Through October 3 | (323) 960-5774