What a discomfiting feeling it is to be reviewing a play in a theater with only two other people behind me — particularly a play about a theater critic. In Eat the Runt (which deserves a bigger audience), a critic called The Man (Peter Leake) — a name that serves up far more credit than is deserved — is kidnapped and brutalized for his scathing review in The Fresno Bee of a new work by a blowhard playwright named Buck Lone (Robert Riechel Jr., who did actually write this play). Mr. Lone may or may not have used a gun in the apprehension of the drama critic from his bed (he shows up in pajamas, blindfolded and gagged). We first see him being dragged into Lone’s grubby basement apartment (set by Adam Haas Hunter), which is punctuated by a poster of Samuel Beckett, who provides the scribe his dark inspiration. The Man is a smart, bitter fellow, an obit writer who takes occasional assignments as the paper’s drama critic. (The night before seeing this play, I heard a local arts critic in a theater lobby seething that his paper was now asking him to write obits — so, beyond the obvious metaphor for critics penning last rites, this is art imitating something that’s really occurring.) Lone’s oversexed, sadistic girlfriend, Hammer (Victoria Engelmaer), provides the third side of the triangle in Riechel’s hostage drama. Both the rudely portrayed Hammer (a smart, willing “slut”) and the evidently insane Lone give long-suffering drama critics a power that exists only in the hearts of self-absorbed playwrights who simply haven’t caught on yet that critics don’t make much difference. (That’s among the reasons their ranks across the nation are diminishing so quickly.) But Riechel hasn’t tried to write so much a mediation on the dire state of the arts as a comedy about the brooding imaginings of one deranged artist, which questions whether any creation can be fairly assessed beyond the narcissism of the creator and the cruelty of the judge. (Leake brings an impassioned credibility to his character’s deep conviction that the world would be a better place if only Lone would stop writing plays.) Riechel has pulled off the rare feat of directing and acting in his own play without running it off the rails. His performance is a terrifying portrait of the walking wounded, with little but vengeance for the critic in his head, along with visions of his play starring John Malkovich and being performed by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Hudson Guild Theater, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; through Dec. 13. (323) 960-7721.

Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m. Starts: Nov. 1. Continues through Dec. 21, 2008

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