Los Angeles Theater Review: BLED FOR THE HOUSEHOLD TRUTH (Rogue Machine)

by Paul Birchall on November 25, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles

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WHAT WON’T YOU DO FOR A CHELSEA SUBLET?

Ambiguity and nuance are qualities in a play to be greatly desired and lauded – and yet, if you do not go “ick” at least four times while watching playwright Ruth Folwer’s increasingly disturbing drama, I’m not sure what can be done with you. This is a play that’s really rather hard to watch – and the more sensitive you are, the more likely you are to be put off by it.

On the other hand, you’ll have to admit that when a work of literature is able to craft a strong reaction, it is worthy of note – even if said reaction is wanting to leave the room because the folks on stage are so unsettling. On the other, other hand, given that Folwer’s writing might be an exercise in the fine art of not judging other people, this is a theater review, so judging is in fact the order of the day, and the people she creates are, for a variety of reasons, so very hard to watch.

Lonely, hard working Manhattan finance executive Keith (Benjamin Burdick) takes out a Craigslist ad offering a room in his palatial Chelsea sublet at a marginal rent – but with the condition that the tenant must be a beautiful young woman who will be willing to spend most of her evenings prancing around the pad in her underwear. Answering this ad is troubled beauty Pen (Alexandra Hellquist), an expat English girl who, having lost her apartment and struggling with Visa problems that prevent her from regular work, has few other options than to apply for Keith’s position.

A weird, perverse, and strangely tender relationship develops between the pair, as they gradually peel the onion-like psychological layers off each other. She battles alcoholism and addiction, as well as a startlingly abusive boyfriend (Nathaniel Meek) who – in one of the drama’s starkest sequences – shows up at the apartment to acquaintance-rape her. Meanwhile, Keith struggles with both his own intimacy issues and the well of loneliness that drives him to commit activities which substitute transactional sex for emotion.

Some might say that the real point of the piece is that it is worth doing whatever you need to get a Manhattan apartment. However, Fowler’s play feels ripped right from the headlines, confronting the current issues of men playing on the power dynamic against women, who are left with few choices aside from debasing themselves to get ahead. Given accusations of sexual misconduct against media heavyweights Harvey Weinstein, John Lassiter, and Charlie Rose, that this is a zeitgeist play is unquestionable. The writing is sharp and unsparing. It also possesses a pragmatic quality that, at times, is deeply depressing. Need an apartment? OK, I’ll strip for it. I have an apartment? Well, why not transform it into coin of the real to get some sugar.

The characters are simultaneously distasteful and oddly appealing. Keith is a perv and a creep – but he’s also oddly pitiable and has been through a number of tragic experiences that have left him the way he is. Pen (short for Penelope) is cheerful, funny, and quirky – but she falls prone to a number of self destructive influences that basically walk her into horrible situations that she’s more than partially responsible for. Are these good or terrible people? The answer is yes.

Director Cameron Watson hints that the audience is somehow complicit in the characters grim life choices, with a staging that emphasizes a voyeuristic mood: Scenic designer John Iavovelli’s living room set is bracketed by a pair of small rooms, with open slat blind-covered windows, so we can watch what happens in Keith and Pen’s bedrooms. It creates the sense that we’re as motivated by our lizard brains as the onstage characters are.

Performances are powerful and organic – though this doesn’t make them folks with what they call “rooting interest.” Hellquist’s artful turn as Pen suggests a woman driven by impulse who creates chaos and damage for herself, while Burdick’s Keith sometimes makes our skin crawl – even though you just sense he’s calling out for some kind of a connection that he’s simply not capable of making.

photos by John Perrin Flynn

bled for the household truth
Rogue Machine Theatre
MET Theatre,1089 N. Oxford Ave
Sat and Mon at 8:30; Sun at 3
ends on December 18, 2017
for tickets, call 855.585.5185 or visit Rogue Machine

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