The characters In Jonathan Caren’s contemporary comedy Need to Know use Facebook and the Internet to glean information about others, but while technology plays a pivotal role here, the playwright’s primary concern is ethics: specifically, how we treat the misfits among us—those who may not conform to conventional standards of beauty and behavior.
The play turns on an encounter between an attractive and moderately successful young couple and a lonely guy who lives next door. Steven (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe), an artist, and Lilly (Corryn Cummins), a published author, have recently relocated to Manhattan from Los Angeles to further Steven’s career.
They’ve only just moved into their tiny flat close to the Upper West Side when Mark (Tim Cummings), the fellow in the adjacent apartment, comes knocking. Impervious to Steven’s cool greeting he barges right in, chattering swiftly and volubly: praising Lilly’s first novel to the skies, and then introducing the topic of his own book for young adults, titled, rather weirdly, Deformed.
After he leaves the two have a laugh at Mark’s expense, then realize that the walls are thin and that he may have heard what they’ve said. There follows an uneasy guessing game: did he or did he not overhear their insulting remarks?
Is he a lost soul or, as Steven maintains, an untrustworthy creep? Are the cookies he brought for consumption a benign neighborly gift, or do they contain some unsavory ingredient that will make them throw up, or worse?
Unlike Caren’s earlier play, The Recommendation, about an unprincipled privileged young man whose moral contagion spreads to others, Need to Know is a circumscribed story, and not, initially, an interesting one. The problems of Steven and Lilly are bland and generic; as a couple, they are about as mesmerizing as the pet goldfish whose mating habits are a topic of idle conversation between them.
But from the moment he enters, Cummings—alternately comic or doleful or menacing, or perhaps all three—works like a match in a flammable space. Whenever he’s on, the production fires up.
Near-Verbrugghe, totally believable as a self-centered dick, makes for ho-hum watching until a confrontational scene with Mark near the end, where his character's vulnerabilities are finally exposed and the performer, free of script constraints, gets to show what he can do. As Lilly, Cummins has no such opportunity and stays unsurprising to the end.
Directed by Bart DeLorenzo, with artful scenic design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, the production is smartly executed on a small proscenium.
Rogue Machine Theatre, 5041 Pico Blvd., L.A.; through Dec. 13. www.roguemachinetheatre.com.