Los Angeles: Snowy with Cold Shoulders, Followed by Emotional Meltdown

laphoto1Arriving in the Flea Theater’s downstairs space to watch Julian Sheppard’s new play Los Angeles induces some fairly strong cognitive dissonance. A show about sprawling, soul-sucking, terminally uncreative L.A. put on in a tiny, dark warren-like space by one of New York’s most innovative acting troupes? How can that possibly work? And yet, although Sheppard’s play itself sometimes falters on a compositional level, in terms of the writing and pacing, the cast’s outstanding acting and the sense of humor director Adam Rapp brings to the play give it a memorable bite.

The play takes place in a series of vignettes that, essentially, follow a young woman’s destruction, which is both self-inflicted and spurred by others. Katherine Waterston (daughter of Sam Waterston) plays the young woman, Audrey, with a desperate force that snowballs as the downward slope of her decline grows steeper; I was reminded of Ellen Burstyn’s astonishing performance in the film Requiem for a Dream, since Audrey also becomes addicted to uppers (straight speed, in her case) and that addiction ruins her financially and socially because of what she must do to maintain it and how it makes her behave. The first vignette, which shows how Audrey gets to L.A. in the first place – her boyfriend in Seattle, an actor, convinces her that she has to go there with him while he sees if he can make the big time – is probably the weakest, with the couple just sitting at a coffeeshop table talking about their lives and hopes and sounding too much like earnest actors at a script reading. But when that boyfriend becomes the first of many people to dump Audrey, she embarks on her ruinous path, and Waterston portrays her, abandoned and unwilling as much as unable to seek help, distressingly well; by the end of the show she was in real tears and I wanted to get up and go put my arm around her and try to comfort her.

That inclination brings me to one of the central issues in Los Angeles, which is that no one in that city has the heart or attention span to offer real aid to Audrey. Whether this is unique to L.A. is obviously arguable, but Sheppard mentions in the program notes that he spent some unsuccessful, unhappy years there, and this play seems at some points to have been written as a vehicle for venting his continued animosity toward it. The other people Audrey encounters – including a slick older guy hoping to pick up some extra-marital action; a hard-driving, bitchy ex-cokehead female producer; a drug dealer whose brain cell loss is painfully evident; an ambitious and almost amusingly egocentric actress – are largely caricatures, both by virtue of how Sheppard wrote the parts and also by way of the actors’ spin on them, since they clearly have no problem embracing and expanding on a script that heaps scorn on a city that chews performers up and spits them out unceremoniously. Audrey interests some people in L.A. briefly, mostly because of her beauty, but once they see how messed up she is, they run for the exit, sometimes just dumping her and sometimes pausing to inflict a little extra pain on her as they go, as with the female producer she works for at the start, who ensures that Audrey will not get another decent job after she fires her. Again, it’s not as though this sort of behavior is unique to L.A., but Sheppard convincingly evokes a vision of a hardhearted city through this array of characters whose superficial attributes, at least, are very L.A.

What saves the show from being just a petulant diatribe against the meanies of Hollywood is the way Audrey’s character develops: Waterston’s powerful display of her inability to get back on her feet, Sheppard’s refusal to grant her a happy ending, and the dark, mordant edge that Rapp’s direction puts on the movie-take-like scenes combine to save the play from being too easy, even if that means it ends up being quite depressing. The scenes, each of which has Audrey encountering a new person (who then doesn’t appear for the rest of the play, at least not physically), take place an indeterminate amount of time apart from each other, and at first I felt Sheppard was leaving too much unsaid about all that happened in the interim, because the jumpiness makes it more difficult to get into her life and feel sorry for her. I realized, though, that Sheppard likely wanted the audience to have that difficulty: it makes us just like everyone else in Audrey’s life, privy only to bits and pieces of gossipy news about her, which make us feel a little bad for her, but since we don’t get the whole terrible story in one chunk, we, like everyone else around her, half-blame her own weaknesses for what she suffers, and certainly don’t feel as moved as we might to reach out to her and offer a firm grip on reality. The only person who absorbs the cumulative weight of Audrey’s downfall is Waterston, and through her we do see it a little better thanks to how wild-eyed and unhinged she becomes.

Another thing that does connect the scenes, aside from Audrey’s continuously worsening condition, is the live music, provided by a lively trio of singer, pianist, and drummer, which seems to be an attempt to form a bridge between the vignettes. But even before I realized how the scenes’ disjointedness might work in the play’s favor, the injection of music in this way seemed a tad false and overreaching. The singer, Amelia Zirin-Brown, is pleasant to listen to and watch as she vamps it up while David Korins’s minimal set components are rearranged, but the music itself doesn’t do much for the play: it doesn’t distract us, as would be appropriate if we are supposed to be in the insensitive shoes of the Angelenos, because the songs are somewhat brooding and relate to Audrey’s downfall, but it also doesn’t help to advance the story or make us understand it any better. Without seeing the script, I can’t say for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Rapp, the director, were the one who added that musical component, since it is often an integral part of his own work (including, most recently, Essential Self-Defense, which just opened at Playwrights Horizons). Elsewhere his direction helps to make Los Angeles more edgy and engaging, but the music, whether his idea or not, is a puzzling addition.

Nevertheless, one is emotionally wrung out by the last scene, along with Waterston and Audrey. Los Angeles, in showing one young woman’s struggle to get it together in a famously unsympathetic city, demonstrates the difficulty people everywhere have with recognizing others’ needs. Los Angeles may be an archetypically self-centered city, but no matter where we live, most of us have known (or been) Audreys in some form or another, and know what it’s like not to want to, or be able to, offer help, especially when the person in need can’t figure out how to ask for it. – Mallory Jensen

Los Angeles runs through April 14 at The Flea Theater: 41 White St., NY NY (between Broadway and Church St., three blocks south of Canal St.)

mallory.jpgMs. Jensen is a writer in New York who works in book publishing when she is not attending an indie play/film/concert.