So here are two smart new plays in two intimate theaters across town from one another, both with lovingly conceived productions. Here we see it once again: L.A. as an incubator of the kinds of works that simply wouldn't be born in other cities where union actors aren't permitted to goof off in projects they love, earning just a stipend for expenses. The question is, do the six union actors (of nine total) in John Fazakerley's play Corktown '57 at the Odyssey Theatre, feel that their dignity has been trodden on by their appearance in such a carefully designed and directed show. Would they be better served, as their union, Actors' Equity Association, is currently suggesting, if the Corktown Company, which produced the show, had jettisoned Joel Daavid's 1957-era Philadelphia basement set and Jackie Gudgel's era-evocative costumes, in order that the actors be paid $9 an hour for rehearsals and performances?
This presumes, perhaps wrongly, that the producers would even have produced the show at all. Would they be willing, in a nine-character play such as this, to have their shirts financially ripped off their backs by the union's new promulgated plan, rather than settle for those shirts being merely torn — i.e., settle for the current, comparatively modest financial losses that are de rigueur for L.A.'s up-to-99-seat theaters. Where lies dignity for the actors?
In a way, that is the question at the heart of the play itself, as well as in Micah Schraft's new play at the Elephant Stage, A Dog's House, in a splendid production by IAMA Theatre Company. Let's start there: Rachel Myers' gorgeous set places a generic, modern living room within an outdoor, brutal desertscape. Unemployed Michael (Graham Sibley) is in a panic. He was walking his Rottweiler, Jock, when he took a cellphone call regarding potential employment. He got distracted and turned his back.
Next thing he sees, Jock has mauled a neighbor's poodle, Phoenix, into bloody pieces, which Michael has now placed into a plastic bag. We learn this from the frenzied opening scene in which Michael conveys the details of the doggie debacle to his longtime girlfriend, Eden (Christine Woods), with whom he lives. The scene and eventually the play itself echo the moral wasteland in God of Carnage, which is why this very good play does not feel quite as original as it otherwise might. The play uses the canine battle, along with Michael and Eden's conflicted views on whether to tell the truth to Phoenix's grieving owners (Katie Lowes and Dean Chekvala), to open a window onto their deeply troubled pairing.
They never do tell the whole truth, opting instead to perpetuate a charade of ignorance via posting "missing dog" posters around the neighborhood and blaming coyotes. This serves a certain philosophical view of human nature, but hampers the drama's potential. The play almost aches for an Edward Albee–like showdown, where the human canines let body parts fly. That potential certainly resides in Chekvala's marvelously demented Bill, the kind of neighbor you'd sell your home to avoid meeting.
Director Trip Cullman has these fine actors rolling along beautifully, with jocular music to punctuate scene transitions, setting an oh-bla-dee, oh-bla-dah tone. It isn't as deep as it might be; then again, neither is the play.
Corktown 57 unfolds entirely in the Irish-quarter grocery-shop basement of Frank Keating (John Ruby), who's having difficulties with his wife (Natalie Britton, in a nicely textured performance). Frank's brother John (Andrew Connolly), whom Frank has never met, is in from England. Though an Irishman, John is now a general in the British Army. Worse, he once served in the dreaded paramilitary Black-and-Tans regiment, which slaughtered IRA revolutionaries en masse. That was then, and this is now. Actually this is then (1957) looking back on another then (1920s). It's like a reflection of a reflection.
How will John's appearance and mission to temper the IRA's radical fringe, and his own feisty sister, Kate (Rebecca Tilney), play out? Well, like an old Irish political drama, very nicely performed by the game ensemble, in the staging by Wilson Milam (Broadway's The Lieutenant of Inishmore). Frank's crusty father (Nick Tate) greets his estranged son with the blessing, "Go feck yourself, you feckin' bastard. Go tell your fecking Churchill to get the feck out of Ireland." This is actually the shrew that John must try to tame.
The play raises questions on the nature of radicalism and appeasement that are more allegorical than immediate. Still, it takes you to another place and another time with considerable grace and humor.
Corktown '57 at Corktown Players at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; through May 3. (310) 960-5770, plays411.com/corktown
A Dog's House, IAMA Theatre at the Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; through April 26. iamatheatre.com
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Correction: An earlier version of this article had the wrong spelling of Nick Tate.
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