Chinese Coffee

Playwright Ira Lewis' 1992 drama, making its West Coast debut, hails from an era of manly Manhattan-centric plays in which a pair of gentlemen brawl like scalded cats over matters of honor and art. As a work of theater, the play's talkiness, which borders on self-indulgence, clearly indicates why the piece is rarely performed. However, as a tour de force for the two actors, it compellingly showcases a wide range of emotions. One icy night, scruffy, starving New York writer Harry (Guy Camilleri) barges into the tiny Greenwich Village apartment belonging to his old pal Jake (Matt Chait). Jake supposedly has been reading Harry's manuscript, but has been curiously quiet about what he thinks. When Harry forces his pal to declare his true feelings about the novel, the unexpected reaction tests the pair's relationship. Lewis' drama is a philosophical debate — the conflict between a true artist, who might well wind up penniless, and the artistic wannabe who lacks talent and drive. But it's also about the peculiarly fragile nature of friendship, particularly the tepidly lukewarm bond between friends who share adversity and little else. Director Jack Heller's staging crackles with ferocious energy, elevating the potentially clunky dialogue, but the slight plot does not effectively justify why the pair agree to continue talking and remain in the same room after it's clear they hate each other. Still, the acting is robust and movingly organic. Chait's turn as the embittered, ironic artistic failure is compelling: Is he sad or angry that his friend has created a work of art when he himself cannot? Camilleri portrays his rumpled oaf of a starving writer with a neurotic mildness that at first suggests shyness; as the play's events unfold, however, it's clear his anxiousness belies an artistic confidence and iron will that his friend can't possibly ever reach. Flight Theatre at the Complex, 6472 Santa Monica Blvd, Hlywd. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; thru Feb. 13. (323) 960-7792.
Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Starts: Jan. 8. Continues through Feb. 13, 2011

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