Los Feliz's Skylight Theatre has become the home for L.A. scribe Shem Bitterman, who's had his plays staged in this city for decades. His latest, a real estate mystery named Open House, premiered last week.
Before getting to Open House, it's worth perusing Bitterman's past writings, which reveal patterns applicable to his most recent work.
Bitterman, both smart and wise, is a dramatist of the American conscience and a moralist, though the indignation that runs through many of his characters doesn't squeeze his plays into screeds. Like the works of Arthur Miller, Bitterman's contain dashes of Greek classicism in which clashing characters each get arguments and circumstances that arouse empathy.
For example, The Circle (2004) — presented by Circus Theatricals (since renamed the New American Theatre), Bitterman's home before the Skylight — focused on a grieving father trying to understand the motives and character of a boy who killed the man's daughter in a school shooting. Intricately complex relations between fathers and daughters recur in Bitterman's plays, including Open House.
His 2006 Man.Gov (Circus Theatricals) concerned a senior arms inspector whose life went haywire after he was accused of leaking government secrets to a celebrity reporter. Yes, this was 2006, seven years before Edward Snowden arrived on the international stage.
In Harm's Way (2007, Circus Theatricals), a U.S. Army officer, having returned from the war in Iraq, cleaned his gun while visited by his emotionally unhinged daughter. The play was a thoughtful and compassionate meditation on behavior stemming from the darkest psychic recesses.
His 2010 drama Influence (at the Skylight) included a man who ran the World Bank and was responsible for some programs and policies that would delight progressives — such as food programs for Third World nations — and others that would delight, well, other types — such as arms dealers. Add to the mix a crusader, a new bank employee out to make the world a better place, and you have a play built of conundrums.
Bitterman chooses politically and socially charged situations plucked from the headlines. He then attempts to stab through those headlines with his pen, to move beyond the platitudes served up in the news cycles into comparatively perplexing and ambiguous terrain, where what start as moral debates melt into existential crises, where what's right or wrong yields to the larger questions of what's real and what's invented. His plays lull you into an initial impression of watching a slice of political or social realism. By play's end, you may feel you've entered some Salvador Dali landscape.
This is certainly the case in Open House, languorously staged by Bitterman's longtime director, Steve Zuckerman. A handsome, meticulously coiffed middle-aged man, Chuck Baker (Robert Cicchini), sits in the vacant living room of a small Fairfax District home. From the moment the stage light reaches his face, his eyes form the center of a hangdog expression of desperation.
Set designer Jeff McLaughlin's furnishings include a card table and a couple of chairs. Chuck's file folder sits under the table, on the scratched hardwood floor. Upholstered window seats reveal a certain period elegance to the house, which Chuck is trying to sell.
The first few scenes are tableaux. Chuck, alone, sits waiting in one of those chairs, listening to a motivational tape on how to close a deal. In another tableau he thumps a pack of Marlboros. In the next, the thumping has picked up in pace. In the next, he stands against one wall, scratching his back with a pencil, still waiting.
In yet another, we see the light through the window cross the stage as an entire afternoon passes, as Chuck waits. The real estate market is booming, so what's wrong with this house?
We will learn more about Chuck through his staccato cellphone conversations with his estranged, grown daughter, and with another daughter — a child — who wants him to visit. But he can't explain because Mommy won't let him until he brings something in. Don't cry, he pleads with the girl.
Eventually a buyer — one buyer, Martha Tucker (Eve Gordon) — appears.
Chuck is probably the worst real estate agent in Southern California — disingenuous, oily, way too eager and, worst of all, presumptuous about Martha and what she's looking for. Gordon's eyes flicker with suspicion from the get-go. The play will become a theatrical pas de deux, a cat-and-mouse game between the pair concerning a house that's been on the market for a month, and has no offers on it. Martha expresses her unambiguous lack of interest in the house, and in him. After she reluctantly puts her contact information into his log book, he assures her that nobody will call her.
He then calls her three times, telling her, “I see you in this house,” that kind of thing.
She eventually will write him checks for earnest money and the down payment. This act, we can surmise, is a consequence of her own personal tragedies and tormented past. She is, in fact, in love with the house. She literally makes love to it. That sexual charge between her and the house, and between the pair, can only be explained by a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder brought on not by war but by life and death and the fallout of the foreclosure crisis.
Can't reveal more without spoiling things. Let's just say Salvador Dali wins the day, in that nobody in this play is what they seem and there's an enigma residing even within the conclusion.
Despite the Mametian rhythms to much of the dialogue, and despite Chuck's sell-at-any-cost motive, this is no Glengarry Glen Ross. The real estate market is not on trial here, nor particularly what it does to people. Despite his often grandiose themes, Bitterman is a minimalist, probing the frayed ligaments that barely hold his characters' psyches together. He creates psychological portraits of profoundly unraveled specimens, who say whatever needs to be said to get them to the next moment. Yet they seem to believe their own words. And he crafts these transitions meticulously.
Zuckerman's studied production remains absorbing through its 90 minutes, thanks in large part to the actors' capacity to make pathology and heartbreak so credible.
One day, Bitterman is going to write a play that will speak to our age like no other play by anybody else. This isn't that play, though the production offers a fine time in the theater.
OPEN HOUSE | By Shem Bitterman | Skylight Theater, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through Aug. 25 | (323) 666-2202 | skylighttheatrecompany.com