“Manny from heaven” is how employers and pals of the generous protagonist
in James Christy Jr.’s play, Never Tell (Elephant Theater Co.),
should probably describe him. Cheerfully efficient, Manny (Christopher Game, in
a role double-cast with Daniel McCoy) toils away for a nameless corporation whose
management regards him with reptilian indifference until he designs a miraculous
software program for it. Manny also donates his free time editing video for a
gallery-owning friend in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood. This curator, Will (Robert
Foster), is the kind of urbanite who knows much about art and what he likes.
Here it’s a multimedia installation by a mysterious artist who has included an
eight-minute video of what appears to be the real-life rape of a very young woman.
(“This is where things are headed,” he offers in the exhibit’s defense.) Manny’s
new software application and Will’s controversial project set the story’s corporate
and art worlds drooling — and Manny’s downfall in motion.

To be fair, Manny’s got company, as many things collapse in Never Tell. Will’s marriage to his investment-banker wife, Anne (Marisa O’Brien) seems about to snap from the beginning and is not helped when she spends the night away from the installation’s opening-night party. While avoiding the exhibit she loathes, she meets a snarky venture capitalist named Hoover (Tito Ortiz) and later introduces him to her psychologically fragile girlfriend, Liz (Gia McGinley). Without anyone knowing it, all the dominoes are now lined up — and point toward Manny, who was once Liz’s lover and who also knows Hoover.

Liz, ironically, has recurring bouts of amnesia, while Manny is haunted by a photographic memory of their past together; maybe it only makes sense that Manny’s computer application is basically a memory strip of cyber flypaper that collects a user’s personal data and then predicts his future consumer and business choices. The aptly named Hoover is a kind of human analogue to this program, a person who searches people’s conversations for information to be used against them.

More than by love or money, the play is powered by the lust for control. There’s the obsessive quest of Manny’s clueless boss, Charkle (Brendan Connor), to maintain his corporate-executive status, and the greed of Hoover, who covets both Manny’s new software and his old flame, Liz. Charkle and Hoover reveal the hollow vacuum operating where a human heart should beat, but on a more disturbing level still is Will’s narcissist hunger for art-world fame and sexual dominance. (He blithely dismisses his wife’s objection’s to the rape tape, while conducting an affair whose bedroom scenes Will literally stage-directs.) Poor Manny’s sin seems to be his bland desire to be rewarded for his new software.

For all that, however, it’s hard to get a quick grasp on Christy’s play, let alone to easily cuddle up to it. Never Tell’s astigmatic narrative focus doesn’t allow audiences to figure out which characters to “root” for and which ones can be safely tuned out. Nor is the play a solid example of storytelling with a traditional orgasmic build, climax and release. Instead, it is a play that lives moment to moment while only disclosing the slightest clues of what is to come: the glimpse of a floppy disk here, the opening of a Tums bottle there. Perhaps the most straightforward moments are the characters’ flashback accounts of early sexual experiences, quiet scenes in which the actors are spotlit by flashlights.

Despite some unnecessarily long scenes and second-act drift, Never Tell is a play that lingers in the mind, partly because of its unrelentingly Manichaean view of relationships and its jaundiced look at art voyeurism, and partly because of some strong performances in director Lindsay Allbaugh’s smart production.

Game’s Manny is a likable, Jack Lemmony portrayal because his goateed, bespectacled character is not just another computer nerd to be mocked but a vulnerable intelligence who deserves more than he gets in life. Ortiz’s breezy Hoover is a fine example of the chatty American go-getter, while even Foster’s robotic gallery owner, Will, is frightening in his amoral cynicism. (“I stopped fearing the truth,” is how he explains his betrayal of his wife and friends.)

Besides deleting the intrusive indie rock score that covers the evening’s scene changes, Allbaugh might have paid more attention to the female characters to compensate for their being underwritten. Overall, though, this is a sincere, skillful production. Joel Daavid’s spare, mobile set features six panels that swivel on poles. It works best when bringing us into Will’s gallery, whose panels are hung with Jasper Johns–like assemblages that suggest both Yankee invention and antique kitsch. Bosco Flanagan’s dour lighting design sheds about all the illumination we need on Christy’s bleak landscape.

Between Us, Joe Hortua’s reversal-of-fortune play,
currently running at the MET Theater, looks at two couples whose separate marital
states turn 180 degrees in two acts. The story begins with dinner at the large,
rustic home of Joel and Sharyl (Andrew Hamrick and Lisa Welti) and ends with an
impromptu milkshake feast in the cramped Chelsea flat shared by their friends,
Carlo and Grace (Ruben C. Gonzalez and Onahoua Rodriguez). Joel is a successful
ad man and budding alcoholic; his old college chum, Carlo, is a photographer who’s
about to be included in a breakout exhibit.

At first the story merrily treads water with some reminiscences and much pouring of wine. An ominous undercurrent becomes evident, however, when Joel and Sharyl begin sniping at one another and we learn that they missed their guests’ wedding. By the time Joel switches to scotch, a shark fin has unmistakably appeared. Soon he and Sharyl are fighting over whether a window should remain open, and over exactly where a house plant should be placed. It escalates as Joel reveals an affair his wife has had, while she declares how much her husband repulses her.

All the while, Carlo and Grace stew in the most awkward stage silence this side of The Homecoming — they’d come to this fine place, with its track lighting, copper piping and wine basement, expecting to find encouragement in starting a family, only to encounter the prelude to a divorce and to find the crying of an offstage baby treated like an air-raid siren by Joel and Sharyl.

Things are quite different in Act 2. Now, two years later, we find Carlo and Grace in their own apartment. Turns out Carlo never made it into the exhibit that was to launch his career and Grace no longer venerates him as she had before. Instead, they have a baby, bills — and no assignments for Carlo. In a masochistic decorative touch, a giant, framed blowup of their infant glowers down at the couple like a dictator’s portrait. Joel and Sharyl, in New York for some shopping, drop in unannounced while their chauffeur remains parked outside. After lots of couples therapy and many AA meetings for Joel, they now make for a nauseatingly happy couple, the kind who shoot each other smiles and neck in front of other people.

Emotionally bruising plays that begin as “fun and games” evenings spent among
two couples are hardly new to theater and film (Who’s Afraid of Virginia
Woolf?, Your Friends and Neighbors
come to mind), but Hortua produces some
clever riffs here and there. He uses a four-way argument about how much to tip
a fast-food delivery man as a metaphor for guilt and ostentatious spending — so
much so? that it’s tempting to say the play is really about the delivery man whom
we never see. But it’s not.

Unfortunately, that’s too much of a leap of logic (or faith) to make, especially
since Hortua is reluctant to release his characters from the grip of sitcom. Just
as his story threatens to wander into any meaningful territory (as when Carlo
insists he deserves a $55,000 loan from Joel), the playwright cranks up the histrionics
knob to Potboiler.

In fact, much of Between Us sounds like a rough sketch of something deeper to come — even though the play has already traveled the salmon run from South Coast Rep commission to Mark Taper workshop to Manhattan Theater Club premiere. If there is no “there” in Between Us, the problem is exacerbated by director Alejandro Furth’s under-rehearsed cast and a black-box venue with unbelievably bad sightlines. (I was in the highest row and half the time felt I was listening to a radio play, for all I could see of the actors.) Even Jake Epstine’s set, which features a New York apartment door with no locks, seems whimsically phony. Most of the ensemble range from over the top to medicated — Welti alone doesn’t seem to be acting and pulls together a credible performance as a soldier in a war called marriage.

NEVER TELL | By JAMES CHRISTY JR. | Elephant Asylum Theater, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood | Through June 4 | (323) 962-0046

BETWEEN US | By JOE HORTUA | La Comuna at the MET THEATER, 1089 Oxford Ave., Hollywood | Through June 4 | (323) 957-1152

LA Weekly