Los Angeles Theater Review: RULES OF SECONDS (Los Angeles Theatre Center)

by Jason Rohrer on March 25, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles

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GOOD FORM AND OTHERS

Most playwrights look like they’d rather kiss an ass than kick it. I like John Pollono because he looks like he came expressly to throw a beating, and so it is facile of me to observe that Pollono’s fun new play opened Thursday with the intention of knocking its audience around. Set in 19th-century Boston, Rules of Seconds revolves around the arbitrary and fatal constrictions we accept in order to align ourselves with value systems that enforce our misery. Pollono’s primary illustration is in the form of several absurd duels fought by the men of the Leeds family, and the impact of all this violence on the lives of people who for the most part don’t want any. The language is pleasingly prolix, and there’s a lot of blood and a lot of great acting.

Rules of Seconds is the first production of the L.A. playwrights collective The Temblors, and in several ways an impressive inaugural for Los Angeles theater in the new age of Actors’ Equity restrictions; opening night, celebrities studded the packed house and the production. Director Jo Bonney has been a big name since the early 90s. As Mrs. Leeds, the wonderful Amy Brenneman is the most famous actor in the cast, but familiar faces include Jamie Harris, Matthew Elkins and Josh Helman as, respectively, the vengeful industrialist who would punish the Leedses (ask mom why); the inoffensive and easily ruffled Leeds brother drawn into a terrifying affair of honor; and the youngest Leeds, the one you really don’t want to duel because he will, at least, cut off your finger.

Leandro Cano presents some of the deepest gravity in the cast, playing the very scary fellow you would want to be your second, or ideally your proxy, in any duel; Jen Pollono plays, with a very nice dialect, a sexy Irish maid and love interest. Ron Bottitta, Damu Malik and Joshua Bitton play swing roles with relish and specificity; one of Bottitta’s pleasures is to elocute his way through a series of orotund interstitial recitations from the Code Duello, a chivalric manual of Byzantine histrionics. These outrageous aphorisms on good conduct make a useful weft in a wide-ranging textual warp, cozying the narrative and covering scene changes. The performances are good enough that, for instance, although Bitton’s German accent was in and out, his characterizations were so sharp that I didn’t recognize him from one character to the other until after intermission.

The text typifies a type of not entirely coherent new-millennial period piece: Absurdity and melodrama share uncomfortable proximity with earnest political revisionism. Suffice to say that Pollono likes Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds a lot more than I do. In an 1855 where the villain would literally twirl his mustache if he had one, an interracial friendship between tough guys produces a by-the-way reverie about how they’d probably marry each other if it weren’t for the persecution they would suffer. Women punch men in the face and curse like sailors. Postmodern ironies dominate the thinking process of every hyper-literate character, from bootblack to gentlewoman, and yet these are the simplest possible people – their conflicts are without complication; subtext does not exist in this Boston. Revelations are almost exclusively restricted to the plot; the characters are straight lines. In such a Calvinist entertainment, the audience’s job is not discovery but sympathy. This kind of dramatic irony lends itself best to extremes of style, and Rules of Seconds is less a funny tragedy than a somewhat ponderous farce.

At least, the farcical elements of Pollono’s script are the ones that work best in this production because they are bold enough to stand up to Jo Bonney’s direction. I’ve seen Bonney make great hay of good and bad plays. Here she achieves shaky alliance between the script’s disparate stylistic constituents, resulting in timing and overall presentation grammar appropriate to television situation comedy. Her use of Cricket S. Myers’ raucous sound design feels like a Vice TV commercial break, self-consciously aggressive, almost desperate to heighten interest. But within the scenes, Bonney’s action is flattened, many of her moments undifferentiated. Only the strongest writing pops. Jokes that should be funny, poignancies that should pierce, often fall despite good writing and good delivery. Interestingly, in a strong cast, it was Amy Brenneman – capable of enormously moving nuance – who showed the least grounded investment opening night. At least, that’s what I saw from where I sat – and the physical plant takes no small part in this.

LATC’s Tom Bradley Theatre has among my least favorite venue set-ups, an acoustic nightmare of a barn combined with a shallow thrust stage. These richly experienced stage actors were uniformly defeated by a space that swallowed what was not shouted in my direction – in a house wrapped around the action, I had to imagine a significant amount of dialogue.

Aside from the Bradley’s acoustics I despise a thrust stage, and what it does to many directors and designers. It is such a drag to start every scene with the players sweeping furniture on casters into Playing Position One and, sometimes, Position Two, before trotting it all back behind the curtains for storage. And the curtains! Richard Hoover’s set design is essentially a shower liner untidily drawn across midstage so Hana Kim’s rudimentary projections have something to be propped up against. I see a little bit of theater, and I build a little bit of it, and I know intimately how hard it is to work with limited resources. But come on. These stage pictures reflect a poverty of idea and investment.

Despite being somewhat cheap-looking it is not an ugly show. Stephanie Kerley Schwartz has designed some of my favorite sets, and I wish she had designed this one, but her costumes find a good balance of period touch and (probably budget-enforced) anachronism, which works given the text’s modernist attitudes. Neil Peter Jampolis’s lights are appropriately unsubtle and make up for much of the blandness of the playing area. Ned Mochel’s violence keeps things colorful. Lilly Deerwater’s stage management is crisply invisible; if it doesn’t feel like a tight or completely realized production, it’s not her fault.

photos by Grettel Cortes Photography

Rules of Seconds
The Latino Theater Company in association with The Temblors
The Los Angles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring Street
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on April 15, 2017
for tickets, call 866.811.4111 or visit LATC

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