Dermot Davis’ dark comedy is set in the elevator of an urban high-rise and performed on a proscenium stage 7 feet wide by 7 feet deep. That makes it unusually problematic to stage, though the challenge is ably met by director Tim Byron Owen and his game, two-person ensemble.
The story revolves around a chance encounter between Ruth, a successful attorney (Elizabeth Lande), and Joshua (Johnny O’Callaghan), a rumpled, soft-spoken Irishman whose background is something of a mystery.
Unlikely companions, Josh and Ruth suddenly find themselves trapped together in a confined space. Ruth’s frosty demeanor melts swiftly as a claustrophobic panic sets in. As the hours wear on, the pair distract themselves in a variety of ways: whiskey (Josh is carrying a bottle), dancing (he does a mean jig) and very hot sex.
Between the hedonistic diversions come heated arguments about religion; a man of faith, Josh is one for prayer while Ruth, a secular Jew, scorns all that. And it turns out (though this is no big surprise ) that each has a secret and a burning need for forgiveness.
A man and a woman trapped in an elevator is a classic setup for sketch comedy, but Davis has more ambitious aims — chiefly, posing the question: What happens when the masks and props we employ in our daily lives fall away and we confront the world as our naked selves?
O’Callaghan sports come-hither eyes and a beguiling manner, which makes him appealing from the start (though hard to buy as a Catholic priest, which it turns out Josh is). Lande, tasked with portraying (as written) a sharp-tongued feminist shouldering a very big chip, opts instead to exhibit Ruth’s vulnerabilities up front, side by side with her chilly, lawyerly cynicism. It’s a solid choice, though it does take the edge off their initial clash. The actress has some post–opening night tweaking to do before Ruth’s credibility is realized to its fullest.
Both performers contend admirably with the tiny playing space (especially constricting for Lande, whose Ruth is the more hysteric of the two). Their adeptness can be credited to Owen’s skillful directing, the sex scenes in particular. Lighting designer Brittany Cobb’s subtle tones and fades to black work nicely to indicate the passage of time and deepening levels of stress.
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The script, which starts out a bantering comedy, segues to weightier themes that include a look not only at who we are once social conventions are stripped away but how much responsibility we bear to help and heal others. Once that shift takes place, the play’s ambitions outrun its craft.
Watching Joshua get down with Ruth, it’s frankly hard to accept him as a Roman Catholic cleric. Some of the lengthier speeches are overwritten, and a final twist is arguably a cheat. There’s some very good stuff in this play but it could use streamlining and a thoughtful rewrite.
Theatre Banshee, 3435 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank; through Nov. 22. brownpapertickets.com/event/2181781, (800) 838-3006.