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Photo by Josh T. RyanTo many, the name Zombie Joe may suggest one of those somnambulant creatures who drone into cell phones while inching their shopping carts up the middle of aisles in Trader Joe’s markets. Theater locals, however, know it to be the nom de théâtre of an inventive writer-producer whose North Hollywood theater sits insouciantly among the neighborhood’s body shops and fast-food joints. His newest work, Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground, pulls the Russian novelist’s neurotic diarist from the winter gloom of Nevsky Prospect and drops him through L.A.’s smog onto Lankershim Boulevard. We’re tipped to this adaptation’s modern retrofit by its very first image — a tableau vivant of our narrator (Michael Blomgren), posed cringing beneath his menacing servant, Apollo (Chris Benton), as the room pulses with Joy Division’s “Atmosphere.” (It’s an odd moment, held a little too long, but one that could make sense if you were in a mood to view Apollo, who is wearing a long tattered coat, as Nicolai Gogol, and the tormented soul at his feet as his literary spawn.) “I am a sick man,” says the underground man, “I am a spiteful man.” With these words Dostoevsky almost single-handedly invented the existential anti-hero, a character so comically haunted and self-conscious that we can never fail to see ourselves mirrored in his bloodshot eyes. Zombie Joe distills Dostoevsky’s some 20 chapters into a little under an hour’s worth of stage time and, perhaps for narrative clarity, calls the novella’s unnamed speaker “Alex.” The show roughly breaks down into three parts: Alex’s audience-addressed ruminations about the shallowness of humanity; his disastrous dinner with former friends; and his relationship with the prostitute Liza (Charlotte Goor). These scenes faithfully display the narrator’s recurring moods in Dostoevsky’s story. When pontificating to us, Alex is boorish; when lecturing his friends, he nevertheless betrays a slight yearning for companionship; and just as he finally comes close to establishing an emotional bond with Liza, his contrarian nature rears up to dismiss her with withering scorn. Director Josh T. Ryan ably translates Dostoevsky’s verbose psychological study into a surprisingly visual evening. The eyes of his cast members are rimmed with liner, lending them the appearance of silent-film actors or, possibly, characters from an early graphic novel. None more so than Blomgren, who also appears bare-chested, with black-painted fingernails and a head of gelled-up hair that seems to form a permanent exclamation mark. Blomgren turns in a physically agile performance as he twists and squirms through Alex’s chronicle of insults and humiliation, a figure of nervous grace who is part Ben Stiller, part Nijinsky. Listening to Blomgren’s anguished delivery reminded me of David Abbott’s querulous 1986 solo performance as the asocial parking valet in Sonata for Rimbaud at Theatre/Theater. The show’s bounciest moments come when Alex invites himself along to an expensive dinner of former acquaintances whose chief ethical dilemma is whether to end their evening at Barney’s Beanery or the Viper Room. It’s a giddy exercise in voyeurism as we watch poor Alex try to maintain his inflated sense of self-worth in the face of his erstwhile friends’ barely repressed scorn. This is also where Zombie Joe has some fun modernizing Dostoevsky’s all-guy reunion into a mixed-gender pileup of Eurotrash clothing and clanking jewelry. For, while Alex is a kind of resentful Valley crank, his pals are loudly Russian-accented. Shanna Scheppner plays Simone as a shrieking, blue-tongued harpy, while Dan Pucul’s Zverkov is the type of open-shirted vulgarian whose day job might be that of a Fairfax Avenue contractor or Russian mafia don. (Kia Herman rounds out the trio as the fur-wrapped Ferfi.) While Blomgren’s victim-villain duality clearly emerges through both the dinner fiasco and his heartbreaking treatment of Liza, his grotesquely paranoid view of Apollo is the one relationship Zombie Joe and Ryan cannot adequately explain onstage. There’s certainly a vein of guilt running through Alex’s dealings with his underpaid employee, and a bit of master-slave reversal, but these moments never articulate just what is going on between the two. The porn-reading servant, played to freak-show exaggeration by Benton, flourishes a crippled hand and a flounder-eyed dismay at everything he sees, but we never know, beyond these physical twitches, why Alex is so morally defeated by his mere presence. Perhaps Apollo is just another gargoyle in what Zombie Joe’s Alex calls this “foul suburban night.” Playwright Tom Jacobson and director Jessica Kubzansky have given new meaning to the expression “laughing in church.” Kubzansky stages Jacobson’s comedy about his real-life Lutheran parish in, well, his real-life Lutheran parish. The Orange Grove is an ecclesiastical riff on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, but the contemporary update and shift from Russian provincial life to West Los Angeles does not force constant comparisons and parallels. Plot themes and individual characters are there in broad outline, but Jacobson’s story runs on its own narrative fuel. While the Russian sketched an extended dysfunctional family marching toward a historical abyss, the American’s portrait is more about the promise and failure of group politics. When the church’s pastor (Kevin Crowley) returns from a French retreat, he finds a parish whose numbers are dwindling and on the verge of bankruptcy. The clean lines and sensible archways of Westwood’s Lutheran Church of the Master provide Kubzansky’s stage, with most of the action occurring within the chancel, where the story’s choir meets for practice over the course of a year. Practice does not make perfect, however, as the choir becomes a contentious democracy in which clashing voices are raised over the church’s future. Jacobson’s pastor is a somewhat milquetoasty parson who would appear better suited to the quiet compromises of a country ministry than the hustles of city church life. He’s sloppy with the Sunday collection and employs Simon (Joshua Wolf Coleman), a mentally disturbed homeless man, to keep an eye on the property at night as a sinecure for sleeping in the church. But Simon not only speaks as a child, he thinks as one too, using the church’s predicament to focus attention on himself — much to everyone’s annoyance. Meanwhile, outsider Larry Yoshitoshi (Peter James Smith), who has only joined the church because of his Lutheran girlfriend (Emily Kosloski), comes up with the idea to sell the site. Located along a prime slice of Santa Monica Boulevard, the property, Larry figures, could be sold to establish an endowment while everyone joins a parish in Santa Monica. The plan is stubbornly resisted, not simply out of sentimentality but because the others have too much invested in the Church of the Master. Old Gustafina’s (Mary Cobb the night I attended) husband, whose ashes lay boxed behind the altar, founded the church 65 years ago. Another old-timer, Norbert (Don Oscar Smith), rebuilt the church’s altar; cancer patient Veronica (Bonita Friedericy) lives to bake for the remaining parishioners; while Lottie (Rebecca Metz), a Jew, does secretarial work for the Christians because they make her feel welcome. (Don’t ask.) And acting as a kind of lay counterauthority to the pastor is the prickly church choirmaster, Peter (Tom Beyer), whose creative and academic drift in life is balanced by the focus and purposefulness that his church activities provide. The Orange Grove is filled with fugues of overlapping dialogue and colliding temperaments, all persuasively orchestrated by Kubzansky, who makes good use of a space that proves surprisingly untheatrical. (Lighting designer Kathi O’Donohue keeps the nave brightly illuminated, which helps the view from the rear pews but diffuses the tension lurking in many scenes.) The acting is adequate, though the ensemble may suffer, again, from a venue that demands Bigger and Louder from a play that is about small people with quiet crises. The main problem is the emotional distance between audience and story, which gets back to the difference between Chekhov’s familial theatrics and Jacobson’s theatrical politics. Ultimately, for the viewer it becomes a matter of how invested one can feel about people swapping a religious home in Westwood for one in Santa Monica and losing a single metaphorical orange tree along the way — as opposed to Russians losing their ancestral identity and an entire orchard of cherry trees. The play ends with the kind of melancholy that audiences instinctively feel for characters crushed by financial reality, although here Jacobson is clearly preaching to the choir. DOSTOEVSKY’S NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND | Adapted from F.M. Dostoevsky by ZOMBIE JOE | At ZJU Theater Group, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood | Runs through February 19 | (818) 202-4120 THE ORANGE GROVE | BY TOM JACOBSON, based on Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard | At Playwrights Arena at the Lutheran Church of the Master, 10931 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles | Runs through February 20 | (213) 485-1631


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