Mabel (Bonnie Hunt), a naive Des Moines housewife, calls a graveyard-shift salesman named Joe in Los Angeles (Timothy McNeil), to order an expensive watch for her son’s 18th birthday. She can’t yet go through with the purchase — her loutish husband (Tony Gatto) says the boy (Edward Tournier) doesn’t deserve it, and once we meet him, we agree. But these two strangers both have a black hole of loneliness, and she keeps calling Joe back until both allow themselves a sharp sliver of hope that they might still redeem the mess they’ve made of their lives. McNeil’s play flags under slow plotting, but he has a merciless, intuitive ear for how bullies manipulate their prey. In nearly every scene, Gatto, Tournier and a sales boss played by Micah Cohen (alternating the role with James Pippi) destroy these two secret sweethearts, as well as Mabel’s divorcée neighbor Gina Garrison, who’s insecure enough to start her own secret affair with the teen. These three villains are so terribly good, it’s a miracle that a rattled audience member hasn’t slashed the actors’ tires during intermission. And when Mabel and Joe cling to each other on the phone, we’re happy they’re happy. Director Lindsay Allbaugh’s fantastic ensemble sells us on each individual scene, even if the play as a whole doesn’t add up to more then some well-acted catharses. Kelly Elizabeth and Joe Wiebe join in for the furious climax as two fellow high schoolers who bear witness to what even the adamantly optimistic Mabel admits is the world’s worst birthday party. Elephant Space Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through June 20. (323) 962-0046.

Fridays, Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Starts: May 22. Continues through June 20, 2010

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