I can't read Samuel Beckett's works about aging and mortality — even those written when the man wasn't yet 40 — without thinking about the old joke about the hypochondriac's epitaph, which reads, “See.” How sage is it to devote an entire oeuvre to our ending. Hardly prophetic when it comes to individuals. The idea that lingers, however, is whether or not the prophecy of our demise applies to our civilization — if one can call it that — and even to our planet.
What are the odds that Beckett is right? He was writing in the wake of nuclear detonations more than half a century ago, yet here we are, renegades still trying to persuade other renegades to disarm themselves of the kind of weapons that could do serious damage — even more damage than the bubonic plague, or the various strains of bird flus and choleras that keep defying antibiotics. What are the odds?
This is the question tackled by John Steppling in his latest play, Phantom Luck, a ruminative comedy that opened last week at the Lost Studio, presented by a company (Gunfighter Nation) run by Steppling and his son Lex. Though written without Beckett's economy of language, Phantom Luck nonetheless has the mature poetical flare of a playwright whose vision has aged into a richly textured sensibility, blending the wry and subtle humor of hope and hopelessness that skirts glibness and camp — the refuge of playwrights who have run out of original ideas.
Steppling hasn't run out of ideas at all. He's merely developing and enriching notions that have been fomenting since the mid-1980s, when he started having his plays produced in Los Angeles. He has since dabbled in indie films and lived and had plays produced in Eastern Europe as well as Paris.
He has always written about characters on the margins of society, often in Southern California. It's from the margins one can discern so little or so much about what's actually going on — free from the damning conformity and faux hipness of pop culture. It's the view from the wall between the palace garden, where one needs to please the king in order to avoid execution, and the forest beyond, where one's cries from exile can't be heard.
Four large cards — placards, really — form the backdrop to the otherwise sparsely decorated set (by Richard Hyatt), where two aging gamblers, Jerry and Anson (James Storm and George Gerdes) talk, sometimes to each other but mostly to themselves, or to us, or to the ghosts that float around them, respectively Johnny and Josepha (Mark Rolston and Kadina De Elejalde).
Jerry opens with an explanation of “odds” — everybody here tries to unearth the mystery of what's gone so terribly wrong. If you flip a coin 500 times and it always comes up heads, you'd put your money on tails, right? That's the thinking of a chump, because every new toss has 50/50 odds. Yet why should we believe Jerry, who once lost $47,000 in a losing streak? He tells a joke about a gambler who lost at hockey, lost on the NBA and lost on the horse races. “Why don't you try baseball?” a friend suggests. “Shit,” the guy says, “I don't know a thing about baseball.”
Meanwhile, Anson — a man similarly alone in the world — is dying of a terminal disease. With almost nothing to lose, they plan a heist — no, not a con, which would require some intelligence, but a robbery at gunpoint, at a gaming table, in order to secure something for their future. And this is the entirety of the plot, which unfolds with nary a scene, but mostly through monologues — co-directed by Steppling and Wes Walker — with the arch isolation of men living like snails, ensconced within their shells, and their memories, and their old jokes, and their fading hopes. They pull a gun on a group of innocents because they honestly have little better to do.
Had they actual scenes and tart repartee, the play would resemble David Mamet's early one-act American Buffalo, about a failed heist, but Steppling is after something wiser than a joke about idiots as a metaphor for the country's prevailing values. These characters analyze and rationalize how they function, though “function” is probably too flattering a word for these men's existence.
The question residing at the heart of the comedy is whether these men bear any resemblance to the rest of us. The answer is yes, which is what distinguishes the humanity of Steppling's play from the mere humor of Mamet's. There are as many reflections on the essences of love as on luck and aging.
“Let me explain about getting old,” Jerry tells us. “You get old, usually, without noticing it, without realizing it. You're aging and you don't think you are — or somehow you think it isn't important in your special case. But you get older each day. And your hair turns gray … and pretty soon young girls offer you their seats. That's a big one and all old guys remember when that happens. But other things happen, too. The biggest thing is this thing, it's hard to explain or describe. It's how you suddenly, one day, you sense you're running out of time for all those big schemes you have in mind. Suddenly you can't look 20 years down the road because you'll be fucking 90 in 20 years and eating out of a tube or some shit. You run out of time. [Silence] You run out of time. You think you'll always have time — but then you don't. You don't.”
Storm's Jerry has an appealing crustiness and rich timbre to his voice; Gerdes' shrugging, thin-voiced Anson works in counterpoint — they are the Mutt and Jeff of the California-Nevada desert, with more on their minds than in their brains.
Kadina De Elejalde haunts Anson with visions of life after death. She's a beauty from El Salvador with thick mascara and eternal verities to spare. Rolston's ghost Johnny circles around Jerry. He's a peacock gambler, just hanging around to watch, with a slicked-hair, '30s-noir style and echoes of Christopher Walken. Compared to Anson's compassionate ghost, Johnny is largely fueled by his contempt and disgust for how low his ward, Jerry, has fallen — a contempt entirely justified by Jerry's once expensive and now crumpled suit. Johnny is, perhaps, the vision of how Jerry once imagined himself. The contrast is striking.
The conceptual-theater director Lee Breuer recently argued that a new play should be presented exactly as the playwright intended for at least the first five productions. And one presumes that's what's being delivered here, since Steppling is the co-director. The play is so rich in concepts, however, that I long to see that sixth production, where the play turns visually and stylistically on any one of those concepts — love, remorse, aging, luck, death, immortality — rather than the text being merely illustrated. It is, however, a beautiful, smart, funny, absurdist and humane text, well rendered by the ensemble, and well worth a hearing.
PHANTOM LUCK | By JOHN STEPPLING | Presented by GUNFIGHTER NATION at the LOST STUDIO | 130 S. La Brea Ave., L.A. | Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m.; through Nov. 28 | (323) 933-6944