“This play is just about the swellest thing on paper.” That’s one example of the ’30s-style language in Kit Steinkellner’s new comedy, Adeline’s Play, which opened last weekend at the Powerhouse Theatre in a Los Angeles Theatre Ensemble production, which sneaks up on you and then won’t let go.

You’d think from the Capra-esque gloss of Steinkellner’s lingo and the genial perkiness of Amanda Glaze’s direction that we had entered a land somewhere between The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Yet the guts of the play, set in a small, dying Illinois town in 1934, land closer to Steinbeck and Odets for the way it pulls out the despondency born of chronic unemployment, and the underlying pain of people who don’t like each other very much. This contempt, which is self-contempt in disguise, has to do with the Great Depression rolling through the Midwest, with the last gasps of the garment factories in Flanagan, Illinois, and the fledgling, futile trade-union movement there. It’s hard to determine what’s worse: to be out of work or to be overworked, with rotten pay. Either way, bills aren’t getting paid. Did I mention this is comedy?

The “swellest thing on paper” refers to a play written by Buddy Walters (Isaac Wade), a twitchy fellow who’s never left town and has scribbled out a poem and a screenplay or two, as well as what appears to be this dreadful, unproduced stage play about a high-society love affair — a theme borrowed from movies he’s seen. Buddy’s opus is discovered by Adeline Danner (Coco Kleppinger), a local curly blond–haired beauty who’s just waltzed back into town after five years in L.A. They call her a movie star because she had a walk-on in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, in which she was able to touch Clark Gable’s hand. With gentle insistence, she notes that she was never a “Hollywood star” but a “Hollywood actress.”

That distinction is lost on the townsfolk, particularly on Adeline’s sister, Elna (Sarah Watson), seething at her own unfulfilled and unfulfillable life; at the cowardly men who populate Flanagan; and at her own exhaustion (one might call it “unutterable” exhaustion, except that she has entire speeches about it). She’s exhausted from working unendurable shifts sewing shirts at a factory that’s expected to close, while trying to organize a labor union there, in a town, and a country, as hostile to unions then as it is now. (Thirties union ditties are sung in the outdoor patio during intermission.) Everybody in town is subject to Elna’s hissing contempt, nobody more so than Adeline, who dared to leave Flanagan, and leave Elna, and who now dares to return as though life were, well, a movie or a play or something.

And if you’re wondering what the decorations of Michelle Neumann’s fine period costumes and the play’s gee-whiz expressions — as though lifted from a Woody Guthrie song — have to do with today, look at our unemployment stats, and what those stats are doing to “American optimism.” Wall Street may have bounced back somewhat in the past month or two, but nobody’s predicting the return of the robust employment figures of 2005. In a consumer society such as ours, optimism starts with employment; and giddy optimism comes with benefits and health care, which generally come from unions. This is why the odds of comprehensive national health care getting through are about the same as seeing unions return. Obama is only now starting to recognize that he’s starring in a Frank Capra movie. But that’s way better than Adeline, who only had a bit part.

Adeline’s Play is set entirely in the backroom of Flanagan’s community center — depicted in Nick Santiago’s perfectly disassembled set via a couple of wooden platforms and abandoned frames leaning against the back wall. For reasons that are not initially clear, Adeline wants to direct a community-theater production of Buddy’s “swellest thing on paper.”

Employing all of the five townsfolk who show up to audition, including Buddy the playwright, this little production, with rehearsals held in the predawn hours in order to accommodate work schedules, becomes a window onto the ambitions — real and crushed — of the community, as well as some Chekhovian riffs on subterranean, unrequited love.

Among the play’s many delights is probing to comprehend why bitter Elna, already exhausted from overwork, would show up in the middle of the night to rehearse an obviously terrible play, directed by her sister, for whom she can barely contain her fury. The world of the play, even a play as bad as Buddy’s, offers a place that’s an improvement on her own life. Such is Elna’s explanation, and the challenge of director Glaze and of Watson’s performance is to fill that argument with some kind of emotional credibility.

Watson is more than credible. Hers is a rare and great performance. Dowdy and often hunched, she cavalierly tosses out blasts of singeing power, emanating from a bitterness in the marrow that’s barely contained by a dignity about to burst. Watson’s Elna, without a spot of makeup in an era obsessed with ruby lips and eye shadow, is a walking cauldron. Her silent, blistering reaction to a kind word tossed in her direction, the crinkle in her pale forehead, her moist eyes, her twisted lip can break your heart. Her voice is in an alto/tenor range, husky and barbed. The words she spits out go beyond language. They’re venom, and venomously funny. Yet when her own sister, Adeline, is in trouble over a scandal, it’s Elna, and Elna alone, who stands beside her like a rock.

Kleppinger’s Adeline is also grand, but for all the inverse reasons. Where Elna has abandoned her physical appearance, Adeline glows with rouge and lipstick. She’s as chirpy as a sparrow, suave, elegant. Everything will be “fine,” she says in silky tones, with just enough of a hitch in her voice that you wonder if she believes her own words. Buddy’s awful play, in a production that’s even worse, just keeps getting “a little better” with each rehearsal. Her actors are not stupid. They’re fully cognizant of the shame that awaits them should this Titanic sail on schedule. That’s part of the production’s growing attraction in the town, that people can come to view a shipwreck.

Glaze has cast her ensemble perfectly. Ariel Goldberg is lovely as C.B. Baldwin, a coifed, pinstriped banker, slightly uncomfortable in his own skin, and the only player who actually believes (without reason) that he’s any good. He makes a strategic mistake by blurting out his contempt for FDR, triggering a hissing match with Elna, which becomes allegorical for the kind of political divide that continues to tug at the country. That rift almost destroys Adeline’s production. Kyle Cadman has both charm and charisma as the unemployed Frank Sherman, relentless in his romantic pursuit of Elna, whose heart snapped shut a while ago. Wade’s playwright, Buddy, squirms conspicuously at any kind of public appearance, and in many private ones as well. His inner strength is reserved for the pages he writes. And Dina Percia’s bubbly Dot is a teenage enthusiast of Buddy’s play, or of any play she can perform in, exuberant to the point of becoming a raw nerve for the adults in her presence.

Among the reasons the actors stay is Adeline’s core, American optimism that things are getting better.

If this play can improve in rehearsals, perhaps their lives can as well. It’s a test of sorts, and Adeline is the minister of this ramshackle congregation, espousing faith in the beauty of Buddy’s play, and faith in the possibilities of their own talents to give it life.

It’s all just a little bit like Obama saying, “Yes, we can,” and then sticking around to see if it’s true.

ADELINE’S PLAY | By KIT STEINKELLNER | Presented by the LOS ANGELES THEATRE ENSEMBLE at the POWERHOUSE THEATRE | 3116 Second St., Santa Monica | Through September 5. Tickets at latensemble.com

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