Pointless killings lie at the heart of playwright Brett Neveu's world. Through senseless murders, the author grasps for the purpose of life in an indifferent world. Perhaps without even meaning to, his latest play grapples with a fundamental shift in the way Americans see themselves. Through the construct of the comic book hero, the play looks at the end of American optimism.
Detective Partner Hero Villain (at NoHo Actors' Studio through May 24) is the latest example of how Chicago-based Neveu is one clever playwright but not in any conspicuous way. One might even say his plays are unprepossessing, trying not to draw too much attention to their own depth of perspective. His characters don't really discuss what his plays are about. Rather Neveu's deeper meanings creep out from between his characters and from under the floorboards.
L.A. was introduced to Neveu in Rogue Machine's first season, in 2008. That introduction came in a quasi-realistic drama called American Dead, about the varied qualities of grief for the various family members left behind in the wake of a supermarket robbery-killing.
Three years later, in 2011, SkyPilot Theatre Company presented Neveu's 2005 play, 4 Murders, a kind of roundelay of killings featuring a central character who, in four different scenes, met up with a stranger and stabbed the victim for no particular reason, just your garden-variety psychopathology. The poignancy of that play lay in the reactions of the victims after they'd been stabbed and how each understood that the rest of his or her life was seeping away. There wasn't so much panic as a kind of meditative complacency on their part. They had about five minutes of consciousness, at best, to assess the purpose of their lives and the meaning of their deaths. Jean Genet–like, pointless murder emerged as an allegory for the randomness of fate, of life and death, in nature as in society.
SkyPilot has now teamed with A Theatre Connection to present Neveu's 2013 Detective Partner Hero Villain, which is, in many ways, a summation of what Neveu had been wrestling with in his previous works.
As directed by Jonathan Price, it's a droll undertaking, beautifully acted, sort of funny but not entirely.
A detective named Bradley (Anthony Blackman) seeks to apprehend a serial killer, Villain (Jeff Alan-Lee), whose greatest delight is in taunting his pursuer. Initially it seems that Neveu has scribbled out a lighter-weight rendition of Silence of the Lambs.
Bradley works with a partner named Warren (Bob Rusch), who represents the saner, more empirical side of the crime-fighting duo. This discrepancy between the two emerges with the revelation that Bradley's second partner is a superhero named Fantastic Phenomenon (Paul A. Hicks), who, Superman- and Batman- and Spiderman-like, dresses in a comic book costume, and flies around the city nabbing evildoers. The problem for both FP and Bradley is that FP is suffering an existential crisis, as though he has just been stabbed himself, and as though his own cosmic power is oozing from him and prompting uncharacteristic ruminations on the meaning of his life, and life, in general. He hasn't been stabbed, by the way, he's just terribly depressed.
We've had in this country decades of popular literature based on the superhero. Lucifer fell out with God, fell out of heaven, and created his own kingdom in the underworld. From this mythology, from that separation of good and evil, came first the Passion Plays, and eventually, our own crime-thrillers, and Westerns, and comic books and video games, all dependent upon the separation of good guys from bad. It's from this mythology that we've always gone to war, as though we could save the world, because we were better than most of it. We lived better, we deserved better.
As The New York Times reported this weekend, that kind of optimism — that we can change the world for the better, that we're even on top of it, that our future will inevitably be an improvement on the present — is no longer part of the American consciousness. We're back in the land of the Ancient Greek playwrights, where good and evil are inexorably intertwined, and the most common outcome is tragedy.
In its own unprepossessing way, Detective Partner Hero Villain takes a hard look at just that transition, in our movies, tech and literature, as well as in our collective consciousness.
When a superhero is suffering from depression, you know something is changing in a big way.
DETECTIVE PARTNER VILLAIN HERO | By Brett Neveu | A Theatre Connection and SkyPilot Theatre Company at NoHo Actors Studio | 5212 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. | Through May 24. | (800) 838-3006 | www.atheatreconnection.com