So I get this frantic phone call on my cell from Nikki Desmond’s personal assistant. You don’t know who Nikki Desmond is? Oh, come on. Get real. Does the upcoming movie Good Cop, Dead Cop mean nothing to you? No? Where have you been living? Salt Lake City? Anyway, Nikki’s playing the lead.
Actually, the P.A. left a stream of messages ’cause she kept exceeding the limit. She sounded as if she were hyperventilating. Told me to meet her at a well-known Hollywood intersection at 2:30 on Sunday. Naturally, I was apprehensive, but curiosity and danger are their own intoxicants. “Don’t be late,” she said, obviously desperate.
I arrive at the specified location at 2:28 in a big, public place. A chill is in the air, crowds everywhere, tourists. Along with a group of about 10 other people who’d gotten similar messages, I find the landmark she’d alluded to. The P.A. (Liz Beckham) shows up at 2:30, shades, scarf. Very nervous. She speaks quickly and quietly. The group has to lean in just to hear her. She wants to get out of there — too many kids around. She hates kids, she says. Just then a family with kids walks by. The P.A. gasps and says she feels sick to her stomach.
Everybody promises not to say a word about what she is about to tell us. I promise, too. (Yes, I lied.)
Nikki has just been kidnapped by some terrorist organization demanding a $1 million ransom. Her P.A. then disseminates among the group a black cloth bag sealed with a combination lock, a tape recorder, an emergency phone number and a couple of maps. Only we can save Nikki, but we must decipher a series of clues, starting with words in the sidewalk, which we must decode. Then the P.A. disappears for a mani-pedi appointment that just can’t wait.
Tom Salamon and Betsy Salamon-Sufott’s interactive game-show/Hollywood tour/theater spectacle, Accomplice: Hollywood, is the latest in what they hope will be a cottage industry of interactive site-specific theater experiences in a number of cities with enough character to justify the event’s many twists and plot turns. A New York version, with an entirely different premise, got the program off the ground.
This is the logical extension of interactive spectacles, such as the noir mystery Tamara, which used to play at the Hollywood American Legion; Tony ’n Tina’s Wedding, which transforms the audience into guests; and I’m Gonna Kill the President, which summoned its audience to a secret location, where they became complicit in a threat to the White House, until the LAPD burst in, and you just couldn’t quite tell what was real and what was illusion. These are the great intersections of sketch comedy and performance art.
I’m not giving away any of the twists and turns of Accomplice, out of respect for the producers (the authors, along with Neil Patrick Harris). However, those twists and turns are not, for me, the main source of this event’s abundant pleasure. Something happens after about 20 minutes on the street, when you know you’re playing a game, but it becomes increasingly difficult in the hurly-burly of Hollywood — eccentrics hawking tours of celebrity homes here, homemade CDs there — to decipher who is involved in Nikki Desmond’s kidnapping plot, and who is not. Through this blurring comes a willing suspension of disbelief accompanied by a real sense of surrender to madness.
Salamon, who, following the performance, shows up to chat with audience members, says that one audience was delighted by the performance of the local bicycle cops, until they discovered that no one had been cast as police in the show.
The actors are brilliant. At one point, we find ourselves at a table with The Screenwriter (Jared Grey) of Good Cop, Dead Cop, script in hand, a swaggering dolt who insults the audience member from Salt Lake City: “So what movies are breaking out there? St. Elmo’s Fire? We do stuff here, you don’t do anything out there, that’s why you wouldn’t understand.” He then itemizes exactly what he’s been doing out here: accruing a series of lawsuits for plagiarism, ’cause everyone knows the movies that sell are recycled crap from recycled crap.
At an Internet café we meet The Blogger (Michael Serrato), a gossip columnist who makes his living drawing genitalia onto the faces of fallen or falling celebrities. “I love your bag,” he swishes to a patron sitting near him, hardly missing a beat before explaining his tawdry view on the plight of Nikki Desmond.
Great performances also by Kevin Bernston, vile as The Producer; and Jet Harp, Tanya McClure, Sara Giller and Jeris Lee Poindexter, in a gallery of cameos.
How can we tell that what we see is real? If what we see isn’t real, we’re seeing delusions. The inability to tell the difference is one definition of madness. Hamlet sees the ghost of his father and takes him for real at the start of a slow descent into lunacy. Hamlet’s problem is that the phantom makes more moral sense than the real world in which the dreamer resides. Macbeth reduces himself to a chattering loon during a banquet at the “sight” of Banquo, whom he has just murdered.
In his 1996 play, Molly Sweeney (now at Son of Semele Theatre) Irish dramatist Brian Friel applies this idea to the neurology of seeing and understanding, via the 41-year old woman of the title (Melina Bielefelt), who lost her sight at the age of 10 months, and has been doing just fine without it. But not fine enough for her gregarious, unemployed husband, Frank (Matthew McCallum), an enthusiast for life, a drifter and a master of failed schemes. In an attempt to get his wife to see, he plows into the Ballybeg office of a once maverick and now alcoholic optician, Dr. Rice (John Ross Clark). The characters nary interact in real time but tell the stories of their lives through intercut personal arias that are so rich in local color and composition, you almost forget that the dramatic action consists of isolated storytellers ruminating on the past. Director Randee Trabitz (a onetime Weekly contributor) sets her actors in front of and behind translucent scrims (designed by Sybil Wickersheimer) — amplifying the theme of hindered vision — and accompanies the speeches with John Zalewski’s hauntingly subtle, atonal sound design.
Molly Sweeney’s plight is that after surgery, when she can medically see, she’s incapable of processing the visual signals into something she can comprehend. Meanwhile, with sight comes the diminishment of her tactile senses, leaving her exiled to an ennui bordering on madness. (The play is based on a neurological case written about by neurologist Oliver Sacks.)
McCallum’s exuberance as Frank strains to the outer edges of bluster, juxtaposed against Clark’s somber, pained Rice. Sweeney is as much a victim of their egos as of her own complicity in their manipulations. Bielefelt’s Molly carries the play with a physically and emotionally detailed, intoxicating mix of intelligence and tenderness. She is driven insane because eventually she can’t tell the difference between what she’s seeing and what she’s imagining — much like walking down Hollywood Boulevard.
MOLLY SWEENEY By BRIAN FRIEL | At SON OF SEMELE THEATRE, 3301 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; through Dec. 20, Jan. 7-8, 10-17. (800) 838-3006. oasistheaterco.org.
ACCOMPLICE: HOLLYWOOD | Created by Tom Salamon and Betsy Salamon-Sufott | Various locations throughout Hollywood | AccompliceTheShow.com.