A man arrives at another man’s home for an evening of drinks, food and conversation. The two are strangers, connected only through the host‘s wife, who has been delayed on her way from work. The visitor, Dain (Max Koch), and the husband, Glenn (playwright Brett Robert Pearson), are initially awkward around each other as they await Michelle’s arrival, although expensive Scotch and talk about Dain‘s future career as a psychologist begin to ease the apparent tension. Still, something’s not quite right. What is tonight‘s occasion — will Michelle simply introduce Dain to her husband, or is some extramarital affair to be confronted here? (Glenn’s stoic demeanor and his banal statements about never knowing how to act in these kinds of situations produce more than an echo of Pinter‘s lesson in sexual role-playing, The Lover). Then again, isn’t it a little off that Dain would study to be a shrink, as he claims, simply to have enough money to produce what he calls fantasy films?

Things get downright weird when Dain‘s momentary exit is quickly followed by the arrival of Michelle (Jeni Verdon) and her friend Davis (Michael Porter) — the real guest whom Glenn had been expecting at the play’s start. Who was that other guy, everyone is left wondering.

So begins Pearson‘s intriguing thriller, Stranger, in which Dain, like some spectral dream-walker, willfully crosses paths again and again with the story’s other characters, while Michelle suffers increasingly violent nightmares. The only place where the seemingly disparate strands of this 90-minute one-act come together is Davis‘ consulting office, a room visited not only by Michelle and Dain but also by a bartender named Gail (Sydney Bennett), who relates a harrowing tale of sexual submissiveness that is somehow tied to the couple.

Is Stranger’s stalker an actual person or a wandering incubus? Is the play, running at Theatre Theater, a reality-based entertainment or a psychotic fantasy? Most of the fun of watching Pearson‘s kinky play lies in the guessing, even if we ultimately feel let down by its pat ending. To his credit, Pearson doesn’t always spell out everything that‘s alluded to onstage, and in Dain he has created a complex figure of menace and vulnerability. He also treads on aberrant territory not usually glimpsed on the boards, a world in which sadists videotape savage beatings and their victims rent porno films of women being punched in the stomach and fucked while unconscious.

Director Joshua Biton has no problem finding Stranger’s submerged comedy, but he could let the play breathe a little by allowing his actors more time to absorb what they‘ve been discussing. The cast is creditable, with Bennett approaching moments of near-depravity as she rapturously describes being beaten and raped on the floor of a men’s room.

While David Flad‘s gloomy lighting plot never lets us forget the play’s dark recesses, Stranger‘s perfunctory and uncredited set design has the unintended effect of appearing to be built to five-eighths scale. A story like this one could probably benefit from a stage that either chokes on the details of yuppie clutter or one that is starkly expressionistic. (At the very least, it should facilitate the play’s too-many scene changes better than it does here.)

Pearson is on to something frightening and daring, but he should consider going back to the drawing board and further develop his script. Even if he wants Stranger to be taken as a literal crime story, there are ways to wrap it up that are less like Extremities and more like Night Must Fall.

In Sarah Daniels‘ The Madness of Esme and Shaz, Esme (Patricia Fraser) is a pious London pensioner harried by a complaining neighbor whenever she plays her piano in the middle of the afternoon. The meek may inherit the Earth, but for now this old lady has nothing to look forward to except the enforced quiet of her suburban flat. Which, Christian charity aside, is undoubtedly why she shows an interest in her long-estranged brother’s daughter, Sharon (Annmarie Hehir), when a social-services rep sounds Esme out about boarding the 33-year-old. Sharon, or “Shaz,” has spent the last 13 years in a Broadmoor mental institution for committing infanticide. She turns out to be a bundle for the prudish aunt who takes her in: A profane, chain-smoking lesbian, Shaz picks up a new girlfriend right on the train back from Broadmoor, much to Esme‘s disapproval. Worse, Shaz refuses to wear a bra.

What follows at the Celebration Theater is a kind of odd-coupledyke-out-of-water dramedy that sparkles in Act 1 only to virtually evaporate as viable theater after intermission. The evening’s first half concerns itself with Shaz‘s experiment with freedom (“Throw me to the Christians!” she tells her doctor) and Esme’s brittle acceptance of her misfit niece‘s ways. It is in this period of tenuous adjustment that the story captivates, especially when Esme and Shaz confront both their shared demons of past sexual abuse and an unsmiling bureaucracy in the form of the Department of Social Services and a prickly cop. Shaz’s confrontations with both land her back in the bin.

All of Madness‘ characters are women, lending its scenes a protective insularity that is ominously countered by an implied coercive male world beyond. This works to good effect at first, but by Act 2, when everyone seems to come down with mad-cow disease, it merely plays as silly, especially when the local bobby — or rather, bobbie — played by Kara Dahl Russell natters on about Patsy Cline. But her obsession with Cline is nothing compared with Esme’s completely loony (and unbelievably successful) efforts to spring Shaz from Broadmoor and escape with her to the Mediterranean. For one thing, Esme‘s change in character (she now swears and spikes her tea with booze) is totally unsupported by anything we’ve seen onstage. For another, the few bureaucratic and psychological obstacles to her plans magically melt away.

From The National Health to Cathy Come Home, the British stage and screen have been filled with stories of little people smashing up against the iron curtain of welfare-state bureaucracy, a world whose jumped-up clerks are not merely content with denying people their dreams but insist on making them feel stupid as well. But here that curtain conveniently parts whenever Esme really needs something, making it hard to imagine why she feels the need to decamp to a Greek island associated with a certain female poet. (Because England is inhospitable to homosexuals? Sure.)

Even though director Betsy Burke can only do so much with this material, she still has a hard time capturing the play‘s Brit milieu — she would have been greatly aided by a dialect coach. Her decision to paint most of Donna Marquet’s set gray (apparently to instill an institutional drabness) only comes off as a Cape Cod design choice gone terribly wrong. Her ace in the hole is Hehir, who creates such a sexy, goofily engaging Shaz that the show lights up whenever she appears in a scene. Fraser, who looks a little like the grandmotherly figure in Kent Twitchell‘s Freeway Lady mural, is suitably starchy in her early scenes, but, as with the rest of the cast, isn’t given enough reason to truly inhabit her role. In the end we can ignore this production‘s wavering accents, we can overlook its grim and confusing set design, but we can’t forgive Daniels throwing away a promising story for the sake of a few easy laughs.

STRANGER | By BRETT PEARSON | At TheatreTheater, 6425 Hollywood Blvd. | Through July 20

THE MADNESS OF ESME AND SHAZ | By SARAH DANIELS At Celebration Theater, 7051-B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood Through July 21

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