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Theater Review (LA): ‘Derby Day’ at the Elephant Theatre

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Left to right: Jake Silbermann, Malcolm Madera and Robert M. Foster. Photo by Alex Moy.

It’s Derby Day in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and the death of their father prompts a reunion of the Ballard brothers. They’ve delayed the old man’s funeral for two weeks so they could hold it the morning of the Derby and spend the rest of the day at the Oaklawn Raceway.

The eldest, Frank (Robert M. Foster), is the big spender, paying for the funeral as well as a luxury box at the track. The youngest, Johnny (Jake Silbermann), fresh out of prison, is awestruck by the amenities in the suite. It’s obvious that Frank has an abiding affection for the naive young man. But middle brother Ned (Malcolm Madera) arrives with a considerably large chip on his shoulder—and the target of his animosity is Frank, whom he blames for abandoning his siblings at a time when they needed him most.

Over the course of the day, the brothers joust, carouse, and place bets. Johnny and Ned immediately get into heavy drinking, but recovering alcoholic Frank abstains. When Ned spikes his Coke with rum, however, he decides to throw caution to the wind and joins in the debauchery. Soon the beer cans are flying, furniture is destroyed, and searing truths are exposed.

Playwright Samuel Brett Williams grew up across the street from the actual Oaklawn Racetrack, so he has a natural ear for the way these character speak. Here, he creates a portrait of a nightmarishly dysfunctional family that squabbles over offenses both large and small, carrying grudges that lay dormant for years, only to suddenly explode into violence.

Coming from a mother who’d committed suicide and a father whom Ned and Johnny dubbed “Big Bastard” for the years of abuse he’d heaped upon them, these brothers don’t stand a chance. Their unhappy legacy seems to be continuing with a series of broken marriages and alienated children among them. And denial seems to be their main coping mechanism. When Johnny asks Frank if he really hasn’t had a drink in four years, his elder brother replies, “Not in public.” As if private drinking doesn’t count.

Silbermann and Madera were original cast members when the play premiered in New York in 2011, so they’re comfortable in their roles. Foster brings a sardonic, Kevin Spacey-ish edge to Frank, which is welcome. Alexander is fine as Becky, the hapless waitress caught in the middle of all the mayhem. She’s a woman who has been so ill-used by men that this roomful of out-of-control drunks is nothing she hasn’t dealt with before.

Derby Day is quite a violent piece, and Edgar Landa’s excellent fight direction is at times hair-raising. Joel Daavid’s set design utilizes furniture that’s so well-worn it doesn’t quite look like the luxury suite it was intended to evoke, but when one sees the abuse that it goes through during the performance, it’s understandable why it would look something less than showroom-new.

Directing his own work, Williams does good a job choreographing the action. As a playwright, if at times overwrought, he nevertheless delivers flesh-and-blood characters we can all relate to—even if we don’t necessarily want to know them. Derby Day plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 PM through March 22nd at the Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Reservations can be made online or by calling (323) 960-7779.

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About Kurt Gardner

Writer, critic and marketing expert whose passion for odd culture knows no bounds.