Los Angeles Theater Review: DAYTONA (Rogue Machine at the Met Theatre)

by Samuel Garza Bernstein on September 10, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles

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HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT

One of the brilliant things about Oliver Cotton’s Daytona, is how his dialogue both reveals and conceals at the same time. “Billy, are you in trouble?” Joe (George Wyner) asks his younger brother (Richard Fancy). “I’m 72 now,” is Billy’s answer, a response that says both everything and nothing. Upon learning of a shocking death, Joe’s wife, Elli (Sharron Shayne) decries the horrible actions that brought it about, but admits, “It brings a small and bitter glow to my heart.” So specific, so human.

In broad strokes (no spoilers here): It’s the early ‘90s. Joe and Elli are longtime Brooklynites and he is semi-retired. They are preparing for a seniors’ ballroom competition—a seemingly innocuous event. They seem prosaic at first. But when Billy arrives out of the blue after an unexplained 30-year absence, his appearance plunges their lives into sharper focus. Joe and Elli are literally and figuratively dancing on the edge of a mirage. Their marriage is steeped in lies, obfuscations, and brutal, half-buried truths.

All three of them survived the camps during the Holocaust. Joe and Billy were business partners. Billy’s disappearance all those years ago wasn’t what it seemed, yet neither Joe nor Elli is particularly surprised by the truth of why Billy left or by the terrible “gift” that motivates Billy’s return. They are stunned, appalled even, but unsurprised. They and Billy are driven by passionate longing and achingly tangible regret. Never mind that the play is set 30 years ago, and is primarily about events that started 50 years before that. Cotton has created characters and a narrative that feel urgent and modern.

Under Elina de Santos’ confident direction, the three veteran actors reveal layers beneath layers. The big dramatic moments have a laser-like precision, but de Santos also lets an awful possibility linger. Perhaps in so fully giving themselves over to their personal dramas, these characters are subconsciously recreating the emotional intensity of the past. Elli seems particularly ravenous, not just for change, but for catastrophe—as if she’s been distracting herself in the ballroom while waiting for a chance to fight for survival again, with emotional torture replacing the physical perils of the camps.

Billy is in the middle of a life-altering identity crisis, and Richard Fancy fully inhabits his confusion and desperation, while also allowing him to be funny and sexy. You don’t have to imagine how appealing he must have been 30 years ago, because he’s still adorable. Billy has assimilated completely into American life, so much so, that when the past slams into him, he is jolted back to life, back to himself.

Sharron Shayne doesn’t just embrace Elli’s many contradictions, she luxuriates in them as she peripatetically navigates the character’s wry observations, coquettish flights of fancy, physical combativeness, and love of the dramatic. She can ask something as simple as, “Can I get you more coffee?” and give it seventeen different meanings.

In the least flashy of the three roles, George Wyner isn’t afraid to be still and take his time. He slowly builds his outrage at both his brother, and ultimately his wife. By the time he flips out in the second act, he has earned the right to misbehave. Wyner gives Joe a delicate tenderness that makes his dilemma that much more heartbreaking. He and Shayne dance in several scenes, and are emotionally expressive together, if not quite as technically polished as the text describes.

In one sense, this is a play that “tells” rather than “shows,” violating popular admonishments to playwrights and screenwriters. What Cotton, de Santos, and the cast understand perfectly, however, is that sometimes, the way characters tell their tales can show everything about who they are. As Billy, Elli, and Joe separately and together talk of their desire to escape, the truth is, they are running toward trouble, toward feeling and life.

Their early lives in Europe were defined by random acts of evil, in a conflagration that was anything but random. In their middle years, they settled into a domesticity built on their perceptions of what was expected of them by others. Now? Playing charades is a bore. Until it isn’t. In the end, Joe and Elli retreat into their dancing, stung by the reminder that the mirage they’ve so painstakingly created isn’t optional—it’s the only thing keeping them alive.

photos by John Perrin Flynn

Daytona
Rogue Machine Theatre
MET Theatre,1089 N. Oxford Ave
Sat and Mon at 8:30; Sun at 3 (no performances Sep 25 and Oct 2)
ends on October 30, 2017
for tickets, call 855.585.5185 or visit Rogue Machine

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