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As I Die Lying

Photo by Catherine Just

I tend to avoid plays that I suspect are sentimental biographies or have been inspired by the Eagles. By its very name, Krista Vernoff’s one-act, Me, My Guitar & Don Henley, playing at 2100 Square Feet, would seem to offer a double dose of sweet poison, but she mostly manages to skirt the dramaturgical horrors the title’s six words might suggest. Instead, this evening of rockers and gypsies flows from the lives of believable people and not from a jukebox of theater clichés. The story is set in California, where a scattered family of women (who have previously never all been together in one room) gather around a gravely ill man who was husband to three of them and father to the rest. It’s told by a struggling musician named Leah (Michaela Watkins), who has a soft spot for the titular Henley — he of the sappy Los Angeles rock band that ruled the charts during the 1970s — and her father, who is, significantly, as absent from the stage as he was during Leah’s life.

Judging by her opening number, a haltingly delivered, folkie ballad about gray skies and relationships ("Sometimes I think back again, to the good old days with my old friends, when all we needed was love, love"), the 30-year-old singer doesn’t seem to have the chops to make it in the music business. Leah doesn't even bother to try playing the tune on her guitar because, she says, it is too difficult. She soldiers on, nevertheless, out of faith in music and herself. By the same token, her family’s story is one of flawed beliefs and self-delusions. Her father, Bob, was a musician knocking about L.A. during the late 1960s and early 1970s. First married to Judy (Rebecca Wackler), he fathered Sarah (Kate Anthony) before moving on to an astrologer named Isis (Suzanne Ford), who is mother to Leah and also, through an unnamed lover, Janelle (Beth Skipp). Eventually Bob left Isis and married a standup comic named Sunny (Sharonlee McLean). If the geometry of these arrangements sounds confusing, Leah helps things by unveiling an easel with a diagram explaining it all — which audience members will find themselves glancing at every now and then.

Guitar is not a fully plotted narrative. Instead, for about 80 minutes the women mostly recall moments when Bob either charmed or let them down — that is, when they are not fighting among themselves. Leah is closest to half sister Janelle, a down-on-her-luck actress living in New York who balances Leah’s nostalgic childhood recollections with more hardheaded assessments. Their bitter mother, Isis, while ethereally commenting on people’s moons and houses, is not above pointing out how Bob merrily abandoned them and never paid child support.

Sunny really does offer the sunny side of Bob’s legacy. She’s an Ethel Merman–like belter of bad gags and forced laughter who is the least attuned to the seriousness of Bob’s esophageal cancer. Occupying a housewifey middle ground of opinion are Sarah and Judy, who seem awkward misfits in this circle of entertainers and seekers. In fact, if this play is about anything, it is the faded afterlife of young bohemians turned grizzled never-beens. It’s easy to see Bob and his wives as low-rent versions of Don Henley and the Eagles — ex-groovers who never made a ripple in the entertainment world and whose precarious, middle-aged existence is the lot of most Americans who pursue artistic dreams at the expense of moneymaking careers.

You can also detect in Guitar a muted debate about the selfish insularity of California hedonism. Our image of Bob swings between that of a childish rascal and that of a dishonest prick, though it’s clear that Leah speaks for the playwright whenever she makes an excuse for his behavior. The show’s problem is that despite the spark of its contentious dialogue, it never involves us emotionally or intellectually — we just sit in our seats and watch six women fight over the memory of an unseen character who is lying in an ICU bed. Personally, if I were chatting with Leah and her family, I’d suggest yanking the IV out of Bob’s arm and giving his morphine to someone more deserving — but that’s just me.

Director Emily Simon’s production draws its strength from a fine cast, and, if it weren’t so heartfelt, Guitar would bear a suspicious resemblance to an actress showcase. Ford is especially formidable as the bitchy and bewitching astrologer, though it’s the interaction between Watkins and Skipp that forms the heart of the show’s performances. Watkins’ dark-haired Leah is the eternal optimist; Skipp’s Janelle almost walks away with the show as a frosty, Uma Thurman–like blond who distrustfully rolls her eyes to express more thoughts than a page of dialogue could.

ME, MY GUITAR & DON HENLEY | By KRISTA VERNOFF | Ace of Wands at 2100 SQUARE FEET, 5615 San Vicente Blvd. | Through February 12
(323) 850-8591