The Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre is one of the best off-Broadway companies in New York, turning out productions year in year out that make a large impression. Their range is remarkable. Currently running there is the captivating charmer Buyer & Cellar, the one-man comedy starring Michael Urie as an out-of-work actor who takes a job working in the famed underground mall below Barbra Streisand’s house. They just closed The Revisionist, the sold-out hit with Vanessa Redgrave and its playwright Jesse Eisenberg. Getting to watch Redgrave in a tiny house was a highlight of the season and Eisenberg’s plot had a twist that still resonates months later. Earlier this season, 3C, the existential parody of Three’s Company, made waves not just from the critics’ and audiences’ strong reaction, both positive and negative, but also from obstructive actions (unmerited, in my opinion) taken by the TV show’s legal representatives.
Now the audacious company is setting down some stakes in LA. This is welcome news, made more emphatic by their fascinating first production here, Slipping. Written and directed by the company’s literary manager, Daniel Talbott, the play is a coming-of-age story that goes backwards and forwards with a fragmented timeline. The structure palpably evokes the pull of the past, but the herky-jerky strategy palls toward the end. Too many scenes feel like they’re covering the same emotional ground. The characters are running in place, and that starts to infect the play’s momentum. Still, Slipping gets a grip on our emotions.
The story is framed by Eli (Wyatt Fenner) and Jake (MacLeod Andrews) meeting up for a drink in New York. Lots of water has passed under the bridge for these two. Scenes of their friendship and burgeoning college romance are intercut with Eli’s more tortured bond with Chris (Maxwell Hamilton) back in high school. Complicating both is Eli’s difficult relationship with his mother Jan (Wendy vanden Heuvel), who’s a teacher at his Iowa college, and the death of his father.
Talbott builds his short scenes cinematically, featuring one plot point or bit of character revelation each. This puts pressure on the director to keep the multiple transitions fluid and fast. Fortunately, he’s working with a good one, Talbott himself. In concert with set designer John McDermott, he makes inventive use of the Lillian Theatre. Video and projection design by Kaitlyn Pietras, along with Leigh Allen’s lighting and Rachel Myers’ costumes, also impress.
The actors are an ingratiating lot. Fenner, who took over the role mid-run, doesn’t deny Eli’s prickliness, yet keeps us on his side. I wish he and Hamilton didn’t over-emphasize the physical discomfort of characters whose bodies can’t easily tamp down their unprocessed emotions. The hyper-tension verges on mannerism and keeps both of the talented actors from going to more interesting places.
Andrews’ Jake exhibits a more frisky physicality, which is charming. But the role is idealized. His abiding openness seems increasingly unbelievable as Eli starts to behave more destructively. Best of all may be vanden Heuvel, whose relaxation gives her the space to fill in the complexity of her character.
I look forward to more from Rattlestick LA and from Talbott, who seems interested in finding forms and language that respect the messiness of most experience while bringing clarity to it.
Slipping plays through May 5 at Elephant Stages’ Lillian Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way, Los Angeles, CA 90038 800-838-3006.