A VERY COLD WAR BETWEEN THE SEXES
I was a huge fan of Peter Lefcourt’s 1999-2001 Showtime series Beggars & Choosers. It was something of a bomb financially but a great favorite of those who work in the entertainment industry, who delighted in its dark yet fizzy take on the business of television—the Beggars were those who create television, the Choosers those who work for the networks who buy it. Of course, now in the age of YouTube, everyone gets the chance to be both Beggar and Chooser, in what is often a lose-lose proposition.
The show was so smart it crackled with fierce energy. So I was very much looking forward to seeing Lefcourt’s new play, Mutually Assured Destruction, which just opened at the Odyssey. At its heart is a clever enough conceit: The good old days of the Cold War provide metaphor for a series of nuclear-scale lies, crimes, and misdemeanors among a group of six Los Angeles friends who don’t quite like, let alone trust one another.
In a dreadful Mexican restaurant in Canoga Park, a man happens upon a luncheon tryst between his accountant and the wife of a friend. This secret he witnessed forms the beginning of the man’s nuclear arsenal; he can destroy his friends if he chooses to. So begins the arms build-up—a process that involves lies about other possible affairs, the Kama Sutra, tax fraud, Fifty Shades of Grey, and the inability of any of the characters to tell the truth about anything—even when it would be easy, painless, and save everyone a whole lot of fuss.
My heart sank almost from the very beginning, when I realized that the idea of lunching in Canoga Park is presumed, in and of itself, to be hysterically funny just by the very fact that it is in the Valley. For a largely west side crowd, that may be so. But for me, it is unimaginative and snarky, and it relies on the sloppiest sort of comic invention, one that wrings jokes out of hatred for Time-Warner Cable. Talk about fish in a barrel. For the record, I do not live in the Valley, nor do I take umbrage at poking fun at Canoga Park. What bothers me is the smug laziness of the gag.
And it goes down from there. Why this man would bring down his friends, why the cheating couple would imagine he might do so, and why anything that ensues should remind anyone of actual human behavior goes unexplained. It is an evening of stilted, agonizingly long and unfunny sex-play; intemperate racial observations by and about restaurant workers; and toothless verbal sparring. The cast is comprised largely of talented veterans, including the great Stuart Pankin and the charming Kip Gilman, both of whom, as well as most of the rest of the actors, have appeared to much better effect in dozens of television series through the years.
In the play’s press materials, Lefcourt makes much of the fact that he regards books and theater as his true vocation—though his television experience extends all the way back to the brilliant Cagney and Lacey. This begs the question of how the youth-obsessed television business may have been treating him of late, and it questions the often held assumption among the artistically inclined that theater is somehow a superior art form to television—as if we haven’t been blessed by the weekly excellence of Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, 30 Rock, The Middle, or Cougar Town, let alone something as giddily idiosyncratic as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Terri Hanauer directs with welcome swiftness on a simply conceived set by Celine Diano that puts everything on wheels.
The largely white, largely middle-aged to elderly audience at the Odyssey seemed happy enough with what was on offer. However, I did notice a few people leaving at the intermission, never to return. If it hadn’t been my responsibility to stay, I would have been one of them.
photos by Ed Krieger
Mutually Assured Destruction
presented by Theatre Planners at The Odyssey Theatre in West L.A.
scheduled to end on August 26, 2012
for tickets, visit http://www.plays411.com/destruction