Set at Starbucks, Café Society Is a Weak Study of a Social Media-Dreary Space That Once Brimmed With Warmth

Eric Myles Geller, left, Donathan Walters, Ian Patrick Williams, Chandra Lee Schwartz, Eric Wentz, Nick Cobey and Susan Diol in Café SocietyEXPAND
Eric Myles Geller, left, Donathan Walters, Ian Patrick Williams, Chandra Lee Schwartz, Eric Wentz, Nick Cobey and Susan Diol in Café Society
Photo by Ed Krieger

The premise of Peter Lefcourt’s world premiere Café Society, like its program's artwork, is attractive. Lefcourt wishes to explore disconnection in a world obsessed with gadgets and social media, especially when it comes to public spaces like cafés, which once brimmed with genuine human interaction. To explore this seems admirable, except when the effort doesn’t fulfill the promise.

This shortcoming is not for want of talent. The actors who populate the play include stars of Broadway as well as veteran film and TV actors. Director Terri Hanauer has screened a film at Cannes, and Lefcourt himself has won an Emmy for writing.

Yet the show, which presents a motley crew of West L.A. Starbucks customers held hostage by a bomb threat, is painfully hackneyed and sometimes offensive in its humor.

Darnell (Donathan Walters) works at the Starbucks, where he serves regular customer Anastasia (Ian Patrick Williams), a mentally ill man who believes he’s a Romanov princess. On this day, the café is also populated by costume-changing actress Kari (Chandra Lee Schwartz), atypically handsome screenwriter Jeff (Eric Wentz), love-seeking real estate agent Marilyn (Susan Diol) and libertarian money manager Bob (Eric Myles Geller).

These odd personae engage in flirtation, minor conflict and not-so-witty banter until the arrival of Martin (Nick Cobey), a “lone wolf” with a bomb in a bowling bag and a desire to speak to Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz.

The remainder of the action has some ups and downs, but in the end everything is resolved neatly, just like in a bad sitcom. The characters are types rather than fleshed-out human beings, and they often become mouthpieces for the author’s agenda, or his stereotyped version of alternate agendas.

Susan Diol and Eric WentzEXPAND
Susan Diol and Eric Wentz
Photo by Ed Krieger

Outside of Amanda Knehans’ set design, which transforms the stage into an authentic-looking Starbucks, the one positive aspect of the show is the frequent projection of the characters’ texts, emails and social media posts, which are displayed above the stage (with accompanying lighting cues) to constantly disrupt the action.

Lefcourt’s message here is clear, but even this creative device loses its potency as the show wears on.

Despite the show’s shortcomings, the opening-night audience’s laughter remained fairly consistent, even during the racial jokes, which was a bit troubling. It’s possible that the playwright intended the offensive humor as skewering commentary. Yet too often it seemed the audience in West L.A. was laughing with — not at — the white actress, who endlessly complained about actors of color taking roles that should have been hers.

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Adding to the insult was the fact that this joke was continually reused, as were so many others throughout the show.

In the end, such repetition without any real insight into "the human condition" (a phrase also regurgitated throughout the script) is what undermines the lofty aims of the show's creators.

Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; through Oct. 11. (323) 960-1055, plays411.net/cafe


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