Los Angeles Theater Review: NEED TO KNOW (Rogue Machine Theatre in Theatre Theater)

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by Tony Frankel on October 28, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


Since moving into my six-unit apartment eight months ago, I have encountered the loveliest neighbors a man could hope for. But just two weeks ago, a tall, gangly, middle-aged man, who was watering the lawn at the four-unit building next door, saw my husband and I hurriedly entering the locked gate in a narrow wrought-iron fence that connects both of our buildings. Five minutes later, my poor husband’s birthday ruined, we stood in our own apartment panting with fear.

In 300 seconds, this strange man called out my first and last name (“I know who you are, Tony Frankel Tony Frankel!”), ran over and gave me a one-armed hip-hop hug (“This is how we hug, Tony Frankel”), got angry when I said we had to run–that it was my husband’s birthday (“Oh, yeah? Let me see his driver’s license. SHOW ME YOUR DRIVER’S LICENSE, JEFF! Yeah, I know YOUR name, too”), and, after we closed the gate behind us, entered with the garden hose still in hand using his own key (“Yeah, I got a key to this gate, Tony Frankel Tony Frankel, you can’t run. And even if I didn’t have a key, I could still getchya with water. Yeah, I’m gonna water you, Tony Frankel Tony Frankel”). Then he starts waving the hose non-threateningly but enough to get a few drops on me as I ran into my apartment.

I have discovered since that this man’s name is Paul; he lives in the next-door building and is the landlord’s son. Another tenant told me he’s a little crazy but harmless. I thought, “Harmless” meaning he’s not gonna shoot me but he’s going to spook the shit outta me and leave me a nervous wreck every time I see him? Since then, I’ve only seen Paul once, standing in the darkened alcove in front of his building; he gave me a head nod and uttered a very low “Frankel Frankel.” But that was still enough to make my sphincter snap.

I’m stymied as to the next course of action. Call the police? Find out where the owner of that building lives and tell her? Let it go and ignore Paul when I see him? Call a friend to beat the living crap outta him? None of the neighbors in my building–long-time residents–even know who Paul is, which freaks me out, too. My primary thought is that I don’t want to antagonize this guy, I just want him GONE.

Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Corryn Cummins and Tim Cummings in  NEED TO KNOW at Rogue Machine Theatre.

So I could really relate to Lilly and Steven, the protagonists in the world premiere of Jonathan Caren’s Need to Know. Caren crafts one of the creepiest nearby residents you have ever seen on stage, and Tim Cummings gives his best performance yet as Mark, the nightmare next-door neighbor who is pushy, intrusive, interrogative, and goofy to the point of Cuckoo’s Nest kooky (he also plays his music loud). Many of us have known this kind of neighbor, one who underneath is sad, lonely, and unfulfilled, so he becomes instantly and inappropriately chummy to the point of creepy. Caren also not-so-subtly comments on the internet’s dark side and the endless supply of information: Both parties haunt their neighbor’s Facebook page and google their past lives (wisely, that’s not what this play is about).

Especially as played by Corryn Cummins and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe, Lilly and Steven are attractive and charismatic. Although they are not socially awkward like the nut down the hall, they are nonetheless battling their own demons: She’s had writer’s block for years since she published a successful novel, and he’s an artist whose temper is getting in the way of a career. So when they believe Mark has overheard them belittling him through paper-thin walls, it sets into motion layers of mistrust and call-and-response stress involving tainted cookies and mutilated dolls.

Corryn Cummins, Tim Cummings, and Lucas Near-Verbrugghe in NEED TO KNOW at Rogue Machine Theatre.

Caren’s cat-and-mouse begins to lose its thriller aspect halfway through when Mark gets chummy with Lilly, and only works in fits and starts through to the unsatisfying ending. Missing from this great set-up is a craftier story that aids the not-everything-is-what-it-seems undertow (a similar issue marred Mr. Caren’s otherwise fascinating The Recommendation). This is by no means a rotten evening, but I found myself yearning for the work of Ira Levin (Deathtrap) and Frederick Knott (Dial M for MurderWait Until Dark). Bart DeLorenzo keeps the characters’ authenticity on track until Mark and Steven begin screaming dialogue, which doesn’t make sense–if the walls are paper-thin, what about the building’s other neighbors? Later in this (no surprise) 90-minute one-act, DeLorenzo’s directing is too straightforward to ratchet up the suspense; a knife is pulled out far too early in one scene and only serves to dissipate the tension (and reminded me of Chekhov’s Gun theory: if it’s not going to be fired…).

But that’s what I love about Rogue Machine Theatre: It is reminiscent of Chicago, where theater productions offer such magnificent acting, design and professionalism, that we are willing to forgive unrealized playwriting. Under John Perrin Flynn’s leadership, this company’s budgetary limitations are indiscernible when you see Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s gorgeous cutaway set, which still astonishes even though the apartments look as though they are architecturally in different buildings. And then there is Mr. Cummings’ master-class performance. He made me more than mildly uncomfortable while offering some extraordinarily funny line readings. Perhaps Need to Know taught me that I can look at my unsettling real-life neighbor and repeat “It’s only a play.”

photos by John Perrin Flynn

Need to Know
Rogue Machine Theatre
Theatre Theater, 5041 West Pico Blvd
Sat at 5; Sun at 7; Mon at 8
ends on December 13, 2015
for tickets, 855-585-5185 or visit Rogue Machine

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