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Arrested Developments

Photo by Desi Doyen"I think of doing stuff sometimes? But I get tired." To the unschooled ear this cri de coeur may sound like a California translation of French ennui, but those familiar with the sentiment will recognize it as a universal expression of dudespeak. This is the Esperanto of stoners, surfers, skateboarders and, in Adam Rapp's play Finer Noble Gases, of a pair of erstwhile musicians glued to a couch that is parked in front of a TV. It is a wintry night in New York's East Village, and Staples (Ed Goodman) and Chase (Scott Thewes) are frying on pills - specifically, from the three bowls of blues, pinks and yellows that sit on a table before them. We don't know much about these, except that the yellow ones are called pissers and all three pills are mighty powerful. Ask their roommate Speed (Michael Hampton), who lies glassy-eyed on the floor in his underpants, arms outstretched, a semi-comatose Christ. Like Vladimir and Estragon (or, if you will, inert gases), Staples and Chase are rooted to one locale by their own choice, but are periodically visited by others. Lynch (Joe Jordan) is the more mobile of the four roommates, a brooding mountain man who looks more like he stepped in from a Norwegian folktale than off the F train. His foot is slowly going numb, but he still kicks in the TV on a whim. This creates what dramaturges like to call a "turning point" - a crisis that forces Staples and Chase, who have been languidly speaking in juvenile non sequiturs, to make decisions that will bring another TV to them. Their most immediate opportunity arrives in the form of Grey (Brandon Clark), a downstairs neighbor, who, in his Hush Puppies and brown suit, looks like Webster's definition of "square" and ripe for the robbing - even as he maintains a collection of throwing knives and the belief that he is some kind of secret agent. Later, the peripatetic Lynch brings home Dot (Maggie Marion), a waifish 11-year-old who's been left alone in a park and only moves about on roller skates. Visually, Finer Noble Gases is familiar terrain - a frat-boy apartment landscape of moldy dishes and pyramided beer cans. This, combined with a drug-addled, Furry Freak Brothers worldview and Spicoli-inflected dialogue, presents the kind of bohemian send-up that pop culture has gleefully indulged in since TV took aim at beatniks. The dudespeak can get a bit thick at times - if, say, a character announces he's been in a nearby park, another needlessly clarifies by saying, "As in, the park park?") However, playwright Rapp, whose haunting meditation on guilt, Nocturne, played at the Black Dahlia Theater last year, merely uses this grungy milieu as a backdrop. His story, when you push away the sight gags and his characters' slack-jawed sophistry, is really a sad eulogy for the dreams of youth. For Staples, Chase, Speed and Lynch were once all part of a rock band. They still have their instruments, which, huddled in a corner, silently mock their owners - near play's end, the men "rewind" and replay a moment from the past when they were lucid and playing their guitars and drums. We never know what went wrong with the quartet to bring them to their near-catatonic state, but suspect that too much success didn't play a role. Perhaps the drugs brought them down, or maybe those bowls of pills came after the fall. Regardless, complaints of amnesia abound (Staples: "I used to . . . know a lot more stuff") along with confessions that the men feel they are turning into robots. Such feelings describe, though don't explain, their increasing detachment from the outside world. Staples and Chase, the two main characters, seem isolated even within their tiny apartment, marooned on the couch which they are loath to ever leave. Director Aaron Francis works magic with a solid ensemble; even the smaller parts of Marion's doll-like Dot and Clark's frazzled Grey command our voyeuristic attention when Rapp focuses on them. My one quibble with this Sacred Fools production is that Rapp's dialogue for Staples and Chase is clearly written for characters younger than Goodman and Thewes, who simply cannot pass for the kind of kids - even burnt out as they may be - that their naive conversation marks them for. (There is no way Staples' and Chase's wide-eyed wonder about the most ordinary things would survive past their 20s.) Still, Goodman and Thewes are the soul of this production, and few moments in recent theater have been funnier than their efforts to re-orient their tattered couch toward a new TV - with Goodman straining to stand on the floor while Thewes "helps" by trying to levitate off the sofa whenever his friend pushes. FINER NOBLE GASES | By ADAM RAPP | At SACRED FOOLS THEATER, 660 N. Heliotrope Drive, Hollywood | Through February 19 | (310) 281-8337