For a snapshot of our bifurcated city through the lens of our 99-seat theater, see John Bunzel's money management farce 63 Trillion, presented by the New American Theatre at the Westside's Odyssey Theatre, and then head east to Boyle Heights to watch Emmanuel Deleage and Lorenzo Alfredo's earnest bio-drama An L.A. Journey: The Story of Lorenzo Alfredo, about an orphan child's journey, without papers, from Guatemala to L.A.
At the performances attended by this critic, both theaters were full. Like the actors, the audience at the Odyssey was entirely Caucasian, while over at Casa 0101, fellow critic Don Shirley and I were the only whites in the otherwise almost entirely Latino crowd. There, too, the performers' ethnicity matched the audience's. (That show was performed in English, with Spanish supertitles.)
Of the seven actors at the Odyssey, five were union members, whereas at Casa 0101, none of the 15 performers belonged to the union. This union presence at the Odyssey provided Bunzel's comedy with a performance and production sheen that were lacking at Casa 0101, where in preshow remarks board president Edward Padilla proudly referred to his "community theater." An L.A. Journey was a production by, of and for the community. Both shows garnered standing ovations at their curtain calls.
But more than these demographic and "professional" differences, the sensibilities and range of concerns in each production were similarly distinct, which proves nothing empirically but speaks volumes emblematically.
63 Trillion is a very broad farce, as directed by Steve Zuckerman, centered on a financial management company, about people playing with (uhm, "investing") other people's money. The jokes all stem from a global economic collapse — right after someone has just waxed all emotional on the market's innate resilience — and during which the company's executives, Tom (Ken Lerner), Frank (Robert Cicchini) and Kenny (Jack Stehlin), squirm like ants on a hotplate trying to save their own skins.
Adding to their woes, Nancy (Megan Gallagher), from the firm's legal department, shows up to usher them all through a government takeover, while Frank now faces federal charges of violating the Americans With Disabilities Act for yelling at a blind clerk in the mailroom — a video-captured abuse that's gone viral on YouTube. (That the company actually hired a sight-impaired mailroom clerk is, like several in this play, a joke-book quip that's more satirical than plausible.)
Meanwhile, Frank is trying to woo a billionaire for his funds, while Kenny is trying to determine how a brusque investor's (Jordan Lund) $10 million disappeared after being sent over a wire — a perversely amusing quandary.
The frequently maligned young assistant (Noah James) has a few tricks up his sleeve, as does wizard investor Dick (Jeffrey Jones, Ferris Bueller's Day Off's school principal), an eccentric who winkingly brandishes his numerous sexual fetishes.
It's a profane, scatological and cynical saga of vested and invested interests, all dressed up in shiny suits. The production's glee lies in the depths of anguish suffered by these mostly horrible people, and the comical presentation of that anguish by accomplished actors with theater, TV and film credits.
Its David Mamet–legacy humor stems from the presumption that people are essentially amoral, and have probably always been so. There's a certain righteous comfort to that view, that the money markets, which essentially govern all of our lives, are administered by sadists and greedy pond scum. This provides an easy — too easy — explanation for why the world is so sordid, and why financial and social inequity continues to expand so rapidly in the 21st century.
Money also dictates the behavior of the multitudinous characters in An L.A. Journey, the difference being that most of them don't have much of it to invest or to lose.
Co-writer Lorenzo Alfredo is the story's subject and he also acts in the show, as a pop singer, while other performers portray Alfredo's childhood and adult selves (child actors Yocani Tonatiuh and Olin Tonatiuh and adult actor Angel Lizarraga).
Evocative projection designs by Eddie Magaña, JJ Paredes and Paulina Bouyer-Magaña create various visual backdrops for the perilous journey of the tenacious, 11-year-old vagabond orphan. The performance follows his circuitous travels from Xojola, Guatemala, to Guatemala City, to Chiapas, Mexico, to Los Angeles — accompanied by his childless adoptive mother (Blanca Melchor), herself fleeing her sometimes kind, often abusive husband (Felix L. Hernandez).
Here, as in 63 Trillion, the world is fraught with physical dangers and human predators, but it also contains three elements strategically lacking in Bunzel's comedy: love, loyalty and honor.
Unlike 63 Trillion, there's nothing particularly sleek or urbane about Journey's performances or the sometimes sentimental production, yet it holds together — largely from the unvarnished authenticity of its endeavor to capture the nuances of harrowing experiences.
Perhaps its appeal also comes from the satisfaction of watching characters who actually work for their money, versus people who toy with the money of others. My money's on the former.
63 Trillion, New American Theatre at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; through June 7. (310) 477-2055, newamericantheatre.com.
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An L.A. Journey: The Story of Lorenzo Alfredo, Casa 0101 Theater, 2102 E. First St., Boyle Heights; through June 7. (323) 263-7684, casa0101.org.
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