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Baby Killers

Photo by Craig Schwartz
IN IBSEN'S 1890 HEDDA GABLER (IN A CLASSY YET COLLOquial adaptation by Jon Robin Baitz), lethally romantic Hedda (Annette Bening) hands a pistol to her former flame, Lovborg (Patrick O'Connell), and -- for her own peace of mind -- goads him to suicide with the words "But do it gloriously." Across town at Silver Lake's Glaxa Studios, in Wesley Walker's pitch-black comedy The Conception, a woman named Scissors (Dana Wieluns) expresses a contrary view of romanticism with the lament "All things beautiful prick my numbness back to pain." These may just be lines plucked from a couple of plays written on opposite sides of the globe and separated by a century, but they're also emblematic of a tectonic attitudinal divide.

Though both plays are studies in degradation, the escape hatch for Hedda is the idea of a beautiful death. She may toy with the professional competition between her academic-dolt husband (Byron Jennings) and the brilliant Lovborg, on the bounce back from a life of debauchery. She may burn Lovborg's cherished manuscript and shoot at family acquaintances. She is, nonetheless, a romantic at heart, an idealist whose dreams of a noble and extravagant existence have been driven to their knees by a shrinking bank account, a distracted (if adoring) husband, his tedious aunts, and a lech who is blackmailing her. "I'm so bored," she intones at least three times, sounding more like a character from Chekhov than Ibsen. The difference is that she acts upon her boredom. She destroys with monstrous and, yes, romantic gestures.

In an age in which ancient codes of honor have been replaced by codes of opportunism, in which an American president's calls to war are increasingly perceived as just another cynical marketing ploy, Hedda's lofty ideals seem somehow quaint, despite our familiarity with her kind of wrath. Which may render Hedda unplayable at this time in history.

"With vine leaves in his hair" is how she imagines Lovborg's noble return from a men's club at which he plans to present his treatise on the future of civilization. Perhaps Bening has no choice but to singe the line with sarcasm, as she does so many of Hedda's volleys; otherwise, the woman would sound ridiculous. After all, Hedda may contain fascinating contradictions, but -- through our cultural prism, at least -- for her to speak earnestly of Lovborg's heroic crown of foliage (after she's brandished a gun at a neighbor) more or less qualifies her for the loony bin, pushing Ibsen's play into self-parody.

No, this Hedda isn't that crazy. She's just worn down. Despite Bening's stylish, statuesque beauty, her rich, melodious voice, her great gowns (by Dunya Ramicova) and her ferocious intelligence, her interpretation is generally morose and icy, slipping past the heart of the tragedy. Given Hedda's hateful actions, the challenge is to find the ache behind them, wherein lies Ibsen's indictment of his society. Bening transmits the ache only fitfully, which shrinks Hedda down to a frustrated housewife-turned-bitch -- a type found quite often on daytime soaps. And considering O'Connell's constipated portrayal of Hedda's spiritual icon, Lovborg, the magnetism between them is among the unsolved mysteries of Daniel Sullivan's prosaic if visually opulent staging -- mitigated by Jennings' tender buffoon Tesman and Paul Guilfoyle's subtle rendition of that scum Judge Brack.

THE CHARACTERS IN THE CONCEPTION DON'T NEED TO cherish the idea of a glorious death; they're already dead, and know better. They were conceived in the long shadow of two World Wars and reared in a modern school of German playwriting whose graduates include Botho Strauss and Heiner Müller. Walker's riveting Genet-like odyssey marks the impressive debut of Oxblood, a collective of Padua Hills alums.

On a moonlit date with Scissors up on Mulholland Drive, an inept magician (Gill Gayle) suffers a seizure brought on by a paper cut, but recovers sufficiently to be transported to a Hancock Park estate and spend the rest of the play in a dress, wearing an implanted vagina and following the orders of a strict earth mother (Shawna Casey). Meanwhile, Scissors enslaves herself to a mild-mannered sadist, Doheny (Jack Kehler); we find her collared and lapping milk from a dish on the floor, listening pensively to Doheny's twisted reflections.

Walker constructs his saga as a series of short episodes that jump between the two stories. Most of the scenes consist of eloquent streams of loathsome images (animal torture, infanticide and the like), soliloquies against which other characters mutely gaze with varying degrees of astonishment. This may sound pretty bleak, but it's also pleasingly wry -- perhaps because the violence is entirely verbal and the characters' perversity so matter-of-fact. After giving an extended and gruesome description of birthing twins, Scissors casually remarks to her date, "In answer to your question, yes, I am single."

Walker's dramaturgical architecture is mythic -- characters morph into beasts, and the culminating epiphany follows the haunting logic of a dream. Yet The Conception shows how dreams can speak larger truths than facts, and can also be funnier. This psychic portrait of Los Angeles -- directed by Walker with flair -- shows the sadism and gender confusion that fester in pools just beneath our prettiest tree-lined streets.

HEDDA GABLER | By HENRIK IBSEN | Adapted by JON ROBIN BAITZ | At the GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood | Through April 18

THE CONCEPTION | Written and directed by WESLEY WALKER | Presented by OXBLOOD at GLAXA STUDIOS 3707 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake | Through May 1


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