Los Angeles Theater Review: THE COST OF THE ERECTION (Blank Theatre in Hollywood)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on February 23, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles

SUPER STRUCTURE

The Cost of the Erection: The title of Jon Marans’ new play sounds like one of those gay shows where comely actors get naked to pump up the box office. There is some veiled nudity here—integral to the plot—but this isn’t a Naked Boys Singing knockoff. While the title may be two-edged, clever, and sort of icky at the same time, this well-written play concerns two brittle marriages, a high-profile architectural job, and, as the title suggests, sex.

All My Children’s Michael E. Knight (in a funny, beautifully grounded, and oddly loveable performance) plays Mark, a fussy architect in a dangerously shaky marriage to heiress and publicist Susu (the stunning Robin Riker). She promotes rising stars of architecture, yet has never handled her husband’s career, which at first seems to be at the heart of their troubles. But their misconnections and betrayals run deeper than issues of career or self-esteem. What appears as an artistic block for him turns out to be a kind of existential terror.

At the start of the play, the issue is whether he will ever finish designing their wildly expensive apartment in a brand new iconic Manhattan building. She has loads of family money, and the apartment is meant to have the kind of grandiosity that gets it—and its owners—into the pages of Architectural Digest.

There is another strained married couple: architectural rising star Rod (the tremendously appealing James Louis Wagner) and his wife Brenda (a fearless Kal Bennett). Rod is Susu’s new client and starts as that stockiest of stock characters—the self-involved, hot, wildly talented artist who will seemingly do anything to get ahead. Brenda is the insecure, clinging wife who fears success will wrench her husband away, not just from her but from being true to himself.

Even though the couples already have a complicated history, Susu decides to pit the two men against one another, and makes the architectural assignment into a competition, winner take all – sexual insinuations included.

On its face, it sounds like the plot of an old movie, with Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart duking it out over Margaret Sullivan. But The Cost of the Erection has much more on its mind than straightforward narrative—which is what is so gratifying about Marans’ work. He uses shifting planes of time and perspective to bring us deep into metaphor, then utilizes that metaphorical connection to make the characters’ turmoil that much more meaningful and specific. For example, one scene is shown twice, focusing on different conversations, while another has the couples concurrently playing their scenes in contrasting places and times. You think you know where the play is headed, when suddenly it takes a hairpin turn to another destination altogether.

The cast is full of surprises. They layer their performances, teasing us by building fresh conceptions from familiar archetypes. As Mark, Mr. Knight has fear-filled shattering moments of surgical precision that evaporate as quickly as they arrive. It is unsettling and vivid. As Susu, Ms. Riker calls to mind Stockard Channing’s career-defining performance in John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation at Lincoln Center. Like Channing, Riker starts as someone you think is a one-dimensional rich bitch, but then unravels herself, layer by layer, until she breaks your heart. While the narrative’s resolution might seem to offer hope for Susu, Riker’s inner turbulence belies this, leaving us with a sense that she will course-correct back to her road of mutually assured emotional ruin. (Marans has also given this couple some of the most intimate dialogue I’ve ever heard about kissing—an act that can be far more telling than mere sex.)

The trajectory of Rod and Brenda has a contrapuntal symmetry to Mark and Susu, yet it’s strangely wonderful when their outcome (much sadder than the other couple) holds out a glimmer of hope for their future.

With a hungry grin, by turns relentless and lost, Rod is constantly turned on by himself. As played by Mr. Wagner, even his melancholy is in love with itself, energized by whatever new note of feeling it conjures. When Ms. Bennett comes unglued, her desperation slams into focus. She uses her supple body to great effect—so uncomfortable at times in her own skin, you think she might peel it off right in front of you. No wonder Wagner’s authentic sexual passion and affection towards Bennett is both palpable and torrid.

In a play this concerned about architecture, the set design is vital. Cameron Zetty’s main set, the unfinished space of Mark and Susu’s apartment, is perfect—giving us the suggestion of the grandeur the characters speak so much about. Graceful descriptions of circular curtains are alive with possibilities, but the transformation of the set late in the play, once Susu has declared the winner, almost sinks the whole ship. Suddenly the architecture is dreary and ordinary, like a hotel lobby, with an uninspired retro mid-century vibe, an orange sofa, and a monstrosity of a pink chair.

This is a very good play and Marans’ work is touching. Although we are left to imagine, with conflicting conclusions, what the future holds for these people, we care enough about the characters to ponder what will become of them.

If the result doesn’t quite live up to the tantalizing expectations created for me by Marans’ more eccentric The Temperamentals, a show that crackled with kinetic energy, or by director Daniel Henning’s last Blank Theatre effort, Dusk Rings a Bell, where his staging was a lyrical treat, The Cost of the Erection is still a terrific show.

photos by Rick Baumgartner and Michael Geniac

The Cost of the Erection
The Blank Theatre in Hollywood (Los Angeles Theater)
scheduled to end on March 18
for tickets, visit http://www.TheBlank.com

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