ABOUT I5 YEARS AGO, WHEN he was turning 35, John Steppling was being touted by the local press as Los Angeles' most important homegrown playwright. Richard Stayton, writing for the Herald Examiner, went so far as to dub Steppling L.A.'s only playwright -- a reductive assessment, but also an indication both of the media's hunger to have a theater scribe to call its own, and of the excitement among L.A.'s underground literati over Steppling's uniquely terse, dank vision.
"Bud, you wanna cup a coffee, Bud?" a young woman says to a man waxing his surfboard in The Shaper, among Steppling's earliest plays. She drones on in this vein, sometimes shifting the sequence of key words, until the man looks up and stares at her blankly. Blackout. Meanwhile, for the transitions between such scenes in The Shaper's premiere production (directed by Steppling in 1985), an electric guitar riffed at deafening volume before abruptly cutting out for the next truncated scene between two human beings, half dead on meth and completely missing each other's signals.
I hated this bludgeoning production. And yet, almost two decades later, I haven't forgotten it.
Dog Mouth, Steppling's first full-length work to be produced here in ten years (for Padua Playwrights Productions and Evidence Room), feels as though it's populated by The Shaper's characters -- still on meth, still disconnected from everything and everybody around them, still making life-altering plans no more than two hours before acting on them, still dying. Yet, in many ways, Steppling's people have grown up and found something they want to say, to express in sardonic, reflective speeches as though in a play by Chekhov or Beckett. Most of Dog Mouth's characters are, like their author, around 50 years old. But while their bodies may be surrendering to time's ravages, the same is certainly not true of their wit -- which, in the case of the title character, Dog Mouth (Stephen Davies), is as feral as his name suggests:
I'll have to step off the sidewalk for this woman because this new expensive stroller is big, it's bigger than it needs to be, and it's big and I step off into the gutter usually, and there are times that as she passes the child will turn its head while seated in the stroller, turn its little head and look at me and then I'll make a terrible face, the most awful hideous face I know how to make and my tongue will come out and flap at this child and usually it happens that the child will start to cry.
The idea for the play stems from a newspaper story about a declining criminal fraternity of rail-hopping hobos in the Pacific Northwest, the leader of which (here, Dog Mouth) once matched pitbulls and is reputed to have pushed a man to his death from a moving train. And though Dog Mouth, wanted by the law, is now dying of cancer, he is followed, puppylike, by young runaway Nyah (Nia Gwynne), pregnant with his child. Thus, imminent birth and imminent death walk side by side across the play's brutal, outdoor Mojave Desert landscape. (A pair of train tracks traverses Jason Adams' open, epochal set, while the actors' feet audibly scrunch on the sand beneath them.)
The burly repartee between Dog Mouth and his sidekick, Becker (James Storm), briefly turns the play into a latter-day Waiting for Godot of the American West -- until, by the end of Act 1, it becomes clear that, rather than waiting for Godot, or God, or nothing at all, Dog Mouth and Becker plan to kill a man named Mueller, a violator of some loyalty code, the details of which are pointedly obscure. Act 2 ä opens in Phoenix, Arizona, physically suggested by the addition of a rusted oil drum and a roll of steel cable to the set's desert floor. Dog Mouth has arrived, he says, to buy a dog from an African-American named Weeks (Hugh Dane, who attacks the role with manic glee). Meanwhile, Nyah grows increasingly hysterical at the prospect and potential consequences of Mueller's assassination. (Even this self-detonating romantic recognizes that this is no way to start nesting.)
The play's subtext is a series of dogfights among this quartet of characters, a Pinteresque drama of menace (threats, retreats, occasional attacks to the throat and consequent yelping), a roundelay of dominance and submission that's sordidly entertaining, particularly in the hands of actors who bring so much frenzied energy to their roles. Steppling can thank Davies and Storm, especially, for embodying his distinction between a dog and a pet, between a beast that looks death in the eye and one that eagerly fetches balls. This refers, of course, not just to canines but to a human pool of ferocious independents, versus a mainstream of obsequious servants.
In Dog Mouth, Steppling shines as a poet of the grotesque, condemning -- from the desert brush -- our media-saturated culture of consumption, and doing it without a hint of stridency. For example, Dog Mouth's crimes, as well as his liaison with a much younger woman, have led to his being the subject of a TV interview, an event that's referred to throughout the play. The point? That television, with all its distortions and lies, has nonetheless made Dog Mouth identifiable as somebody, even out in Arizona. Elsewhere, one of Dog Mouth's speeches calls up the image of a teenager accidentally run over by a train, his head severed and settled -- after a bounce or two -- staring at his own "brand-new Nikes." Beyond that, no comment, and none is needed.
Perhaps the most telling evolution since The Shaper is Steppling's use of music in the scene transitions. Those screaming Hendrix-like bridges have given way to Karl Lundeberg's original music and sound design, based on an acoustic-guitar motif and accompanied by an ethereal chorus of train whistles that might have been sung by a canopy of angels. The music's mythic resonance conjoins with the grandiloquent set, a backdrop of three billboard panels creating a photographic scrim of rocky chaparral, against which Rand Ryan's lights play a chiaroscuro of harsh color and stark, black-and-white relief. All of which works as counterpoint to the perpetually annoyed, canine gruffness of Davies' Dog Mouth, and to the way Gwynne's precocious Nyah cowers when Dog Mouth is barking at her. This, with the artistry of Steppling's careful staging, turns the play into something as majestic and fragile -- as beautiful, comical and rare -- as a soap bubble.
So tenderly and impossibly fused are the elements holding Dog Mouth together through Act 1, it's no surprise when the bubble bursts in Act 2. A panicked Becker, returned from his homicidal assignment and dressed like a character in the movie Fargo (leather hunting cap, checkered jacket, mittens), lurches up and down in front of Dog Mouth like a jumping bean while reporting a botched job. This is where, yielding the authority of its delicately balanced vision, the play begins to feel derivative. (Pinter's The Dumbwaiter, Mamet's American Buffalo, Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and the collected works of Sam Shepard all spring to mind.) This is neither the actor's fault (Storm is excellent) nor the play's. The responsibility lies with Steppling the director, unwilling or unable to guide the bubble away from rough surfaces. The burlesque of Becker's attire and gestures belongs to a different play.
Yet there are times, even when a production fails to cohere, that the event is still more satisfying than some blander, less ambitious effort (which nonetheless hangs together). Dog Mouth is one such instance. Where a cruder work might have absorbed the tonal shifts, the reasons for this production's implosion are, paradoxically, a testament to its intricacy. Still, when Dog Mouth sings, as it does for much of the evening, its notes ring true. Maybe that's the most one can ask of a cultural investigator the likes of Steppling: Please don't lie to us. His new work may fib ever so slightly toward the end, but for the most part, Steppling is true to his words.
WHAT A PERNICIOUS AND HOLLOW DIStraction it is to name a developing playwright the Voice of a city -- someone who's still trying, after all, to accrue the experience and wisdom that will enable him to find a voice. At a post-play discussion of Steppling's Dream Coast, in 1990 at the Mark Taper Forum, one of the theater's artistic associates told a disgruntled subscriber that the Taper had chosen to do the play in order to help establish Steppling as a national playwright, a strategy that turned out to be in vain.
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Shortly before he left Los Angeles four years ago, Steppling directed two plays that he'd spun out of Shakespeare, Murdered Sleep: Meditations on Macbeth and The Cold White Virgin Snow: The Tempest Reconsidered. Those projects -- taut, sparse, yet bathed in fine language -- were the first tangible sign of Steppling maturing as a playwright, however dependent on Shakespeare. (There are worse pillars to lean on.)
In Dog Mouth, Steppling returns not as Shakespeare, not as Beckett, but as Steppling, in his smartest, most vulnerable, most honest incarnation so far. When Nyah asks Dog Mouth whether it's true he's killed before, as reported in the press, he addresses her question in words that are as much about playwriting as they are about murder:
What do you believe? . . . The answer can only be about what you believe, because people will say anything, people will say things because they are ignorant and know nothing and because their lives are empty and stupid and what people say isn't worth pissing on. What matters is what you think, the question here is what do you believe, deep in your heart, way down underneath all the bullshit and newspapers and TV and gossip is your heart which is pure and which contains the truth. Tell me, what is in your heart?
DOG MOUTH | Written and directed by JOHN STEPPLING | Presented by PADUA PLAYWRIGHTS PRODUCTIONS and EVIDENCE ROOM | At EVIDENCE ROOM, 2220 Beverly Blvd. (213) 381-7118 | Through February 17