Cody Henderson's new play, Wonderlust, at Theatre of NOTE, takes an almost scientific approach to the workings of the heart. Popular, youngish high school science teacher Andrew Goodspeed (Tristan James Butler) has students measure their pulse as it responds to interactions with other people, even with inanimate objects, in order to chart some empirical course of understanding the biology of attraction.
This is a scientifically sloppy idea, and Henderson is fully aware of the man's folly in trying to measure the immeasurable. But Goodspeed's folly is nonetheless dramatically viable because his course is really designed to understand his personal crisis. The man's wife left him for somebody "more adventurous." He recently got a postcard from her, with a photo of a glacier (that would be called making a point) and one scribbled word: "Sorry."
Goodspeed, and to a lesser degree Henderson, could be said to be following in the steps of Emile Zola, who studied anatomy and chemistry to better understand the workings of the heart. That case is further supported by the writings of Chekhov and Bulgakov, both students of medicine who wrote convincingly rich emotional characters. Nonetheless, all that they, and their literary descendants, such as Tennessee Williams, can do is show the behaviors of dominance, surrender and self-destruction that pass for romantic attraction, how love is both a life and a death force in a single breath. How can any of that be measured?
Goodspeed gets into trouble, paying a bit too much attention to a female student, Sharon (a nicely impish turn by Elia Saladana), a slightly peevish misfit who takes a liking to him. Though he does take her pulse by touching her neck, he never lets his hand caress her shoulder, nor does he ask her out, or meet with her in a room when the door isn't open. He could at worst be accused of favoritism. So the play, by this right, should stay off the turf of David Mamet's college sexual-harassment melodrama Oleanna, and yet it doesn't. Because as in Oleanna, there are militant shadows lurking just outside the classroom door.
Enter Congressman Trip Wilson (a pleasingly smug yet wise interpretation by Brad C. Light), who happens to be Sharon's uncle, pushing a faith-based educational agenda. Wilson becomes Goodspeed's Mephistopheles: Join the faithful or be crushed, and we're all the way back to Galileo.
The play contains one brilliant idea, so hot that even the playwright backs away from it: On one point the congressman is right, that Goodspeed's unorthodox experiment is a search for God, for an unknowable mystery. But Goodspeed won't budge from his pedantry, arguing against the dangers embodied by the likes of Rick Perry. Goodspeed suffers in the name of no greater idea than a shoddy science-club experiment — hardly the stuff of a tragic protagonist.
The postcard from his ex is apt — that glacier embodies Butler's performance, which makes entirely clear why his wife would have left him, but renders Sharon's attraction to him a bit difficult to fathom. Far worse are reports that his teachings have led to such an upswing in student horniness that they're masturbating each other in other classes — a dramatic contrivance that's as gratuitous as it is ridiculous.
The core problem, however, comes from Goodspeed's intransigence, in both performance and in the writing. This means dramatic momentum comes from offstage reports, while what's center stage in Barbara Lempel's fine classroom set floats to and fro, like a sailboat adrift at sea.
Director Amber Skalski compensates as best she can with images of heartbeats beamed onto the wall and Henderson's own evocative sound design. And Carl J. Johnson's crusty portrayal of Goodspeed's jealous older colleague is as nicely performed as it is written.
Across town, the Odyssey Theater is premiering Justin Tanner's best comedy in years, Day Drinkers. Set in the kind of downtown L.A. bar (set by Gary Guidinger) that has denizens pounding on the door at 9 a.m. to be let in and start drinking, the play is a deceptively facile look at what draws people to and from each other.
Old Mick (Tom Fitzpatrick) isenamored with Val (Danielle Kennedy), cashing out a retirement account to buy her a $7,000 ring, which Val pawns for a pittance and puts up little resistance to the seductions of Mick's son, Bradley (Jonathan Palmer). Meanwhile, barkeep Daniel (Todd Lowe) can't even get wife Jenny (Chloe Taylor) to kiss him anywhere near the lips, because of a recent fling she had with her stud brother-in-law, Caleb (Cody Chappel). Maile Flanagan and Melissa Denton pass through, as a pair of lesbians en route to a family gathering in Lodi — can their marriage endure the pressures of the trip, or of each other?
Beneath what looks like the stuff of almost nothing, couched in marvelous physical humor under Bart DeLorenzo's direction, and a string of very funny one-liners, emerges a clear and larger vision. This is a love story (or stories) in which so many core decisions are made from perceived opportunity and economics. Bradley shows up for the sole purpose of preventing his geezer dad from squandering the potential legacy of his last remaining funds. Despite what looks like a romantic reunion in a troubled marriage, Jenny tells Caleb that if she were 10 years younger, she'd leave her barkeep husband, but now she's put whatever money she had into the bar. Whether their marriage endures or doesn't, that bitter truth will underlie it, meaning her husband is doomed if he harbors any serious hope for reciprocated affections.
Despite the passions flying fast and furious around the bar, these people have as much calculation as teacher Goodspeed in Wonderlust has conviction.
That calculation is hardly news, but the way Tanner enmeshes it so subtly into romanticism makes it a sly novelty. If you read between the lines and the laughs, there's a fury at work, a rage at cold-hearted self-interest that is, and always was, the driving engine of most societies. The rest is garbage, and few writers can satirize garbage with Tanner's skill.
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It's hard to tell if the balance between comedy and anger that so delicately keeps insight from teetering into petulance comes as much from the writing as from DeLorenzo's taut staging.
As comedy ensembles go, the eight actors are like the well-oiled cylinders in a fine old gas-guzzling Caddie, blowing smoke in our eyes, masking roadkill and other horrors of the highway.
WONDERLUST | By Cody Henderson | Presented by Theatre of NOTE, 1517 Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. | Through Oct. 1 | (323) 856-8611 | theatreofnote.com
DAY DRINKERS | By Justin Tanner | Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. (added perfs Wed., Sept. 21, and Oct. 5, 8 p.m.) | Through Oct. 9 | (310) 477-2055 | odysseytheatre.com