Although the duel of honor has been virtually extinct in America since the Civil War, the rigid social code it adjudicated is immediately grasped by every schoolboy who defends his dignity in a playground fistfight. What may be less understood in today’s schoolyards is the extent to which our adult forebears condoned achieving honor through the spilling of blood, as well as the brutal toll such extralegal combats exacted in the cause of preserving the privilege of gender.
Or at least that’s the history lesson in Rules of Seconds, the unruly, somewhat unwieldy black comedy by John Pollono that is getting its world premiere at the Los Angeles Theater Center.
The title alludes to the Code Duello, the 1777 etiquette book for mano-a-mano grudge settling, which, along with a brace of flintlock pistols, was considered de rigueur accouterments of early–19th century gentility. But it also refers to the fateful seconds of hair-trigger decisionmaking that, in Pollono’s heavily plotted script, steer momentary fits of manly pique onto irreversible courses of destruction.
Set in 1855 Boston, the story opens as the widowed Martha (the fine Amy Brenneman) and the effeminate, milquetoast "man" of the house, her son Nathaniel (Matthew Elkins), prepare to sell the foundering family business to the prosperous trader and notorious duelist Walter Brown (a delightfully swaggering Jamie Harris). But the deal is doomed from the outset. Unbeknownst to Martha, Brown has a mysterious ulterior motive connected to an incident from her distant past. And when the cowed Nathaniel nervously splashes tea on Brown’s prized Italian boots, the offended merchant demands satisfaction on the field of honor.
Caught between the rock of ruin should he refuse to fight and the hard place of certain death should he face off with the crack shot, Nathaniel appeals for help to his estranged brother, Jimmy (Josh Helman), a veteran duelist whose own sense of honor proves as exaggerated and bound up in the past as Brown’s.
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Pollono, whose blue-collar revenge comedy Small Engine Repair was a surprise hit for Rogue Machine in 2011, here likewise showcases his twin penchants for outlandishly Machiavellian antiheroes and improbable hairpin plot reveals, which it would be a spoiler to describe. Suffice it to say that the convoluted logic behind the play’s several duels gets thoroughly skewered in an evening whose satiric high points include Damu Malik and Andrew Lees (standing in for Joshua Bitton at the performance reviewed) in outrageously scatological, pre-act curtain raisers that lampoon the contortions ahead.
But if Rules of Seconds lands its ideological arguments, it also suggests that Pollono may have strayed too far from his working-class comfort zone. Though director Jo Bonney coaxes memorable individual performances from an ensemble of outstanding character actors (nicely supported by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s convincing period costumes, Neil Peter Jampolis’ sculpted lighting and Cricket S. Myers’ crack sound), too much of the play’s rigorous historical research feels distractingly unrooted while too many of its latent laughs fail to ignite.
It is no coincidence that the show’s singular casualty is also the play’s most egregious anachronism. Pollono composes Martha as a sort of modern Clytemnestra in what is essentially a contemporary comedy of manners plunged into the savage psychosexual terrain of Neil LaBute. But that puts Brenneman in the predicament of having to choose between playing the comedy of Act 1 or the grotesque pathos of Act 2. Bonney’s unhappy compromise satisfies neither, leaving Rules of Seconds to finally register as little more than the sum of its extravagant parts.
Los Angeles Theater Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown; through April 15. (866) 811-4111, thelatc.org.