Thank Heavens for Western Playwrights

Leigh Kennicott Reviews - Theater
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Two plays are presently showing in tandem at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, and they are the sort of sit-up-and-take-notice plays we should be proud to have coming out of Southern California.  Members Only by Oliver Mayer offers us less a play than a world.  It continues the story of Pedro Quinn, who killed an opponent in the ring in Blade to the Heat, turning the entire boxing world against him.  Now a retired champion feeling the effects of all his fights, he has to confront his past in order to move forward.

In the Avalos Theatre, the smaller production of Desert Rats unveils the ugly undertone beneath hip, happy SoCal life.  Written with authority by Nate Rufus Edelman, the play portrays a kidnapping and pits two dysfunctional brothers against the wiles of their upper-class, teen-aged hostage.  Both are staged to maximum effect in their respective spaces at the LATC.

Although Mayer’s play reunites us with the same actor, Ray Oriel, as Quinn, many other characters are portrayed as older and more firmly entrenched in their views.  Sarita (Marlene Forte) has shifted her allegiance to Vinal (Jon Huertas), who arranged the fateful fight between Quinn and his older opponent, and now sets out to humiliate and expose Quinn.

Members Only refers to an 80s fight club that rejected the encroachment from young upstarts and women.  When Quinn takes a budding female fighter under his tutelage, he gives her the pass to the club’s inner sanctum, and that sets in motion the exposé that will eventually bring him down. Mayer’s play echoes the ancient woes of King Oedipus, as his injuries deepen into blindness even as reality comes to light.

In this LATC/Latino Theatre Lab production, artistic director José Luis Valenzuela utilizes Theatre 3’s expansive, thrust stage to facilitate the cinematic flow of places and scenes. Overhead, black-and-white fight footage reminiscent of 50s TV boxing matches unspools over identical choreography onstage. Valenzuela also utilizes the pit and side aisles to help tell the story, giving the sense of an encroaching, wider world.

All the technical aspects are sparing, from the set by Francoise Pierre Couture to incrementally 80s costumes by Carlos Brown.  Pablo Santiago’s Lighting respects the important projections designed by Yee Eun Nam, and sound (John Zalewski) and fight choreography by Ramon Espada fill in scenic milieu.

Unlike the choreographic Members Only, Desert Rats by Nate Rufus Edelman harks back to pressure-cooker plays like Sam Shepard’s True West. Guided by director Angie Scott, the play explodes onto the stage and does not let up until the fireworks at the end.

Frank (Walt Gray IV) and Jesse (Derek Chariton) return to a childhood hide-out in, of all places, Barstow.  Their abusive Dad once brought them there on a “vacation.”  When it is revealed, Frank’s “plan” to kidnap a rich teen involves brother Jesse holding down the fort in the dilapidated motel room. Edelman handles Jesse’s boredom supremely.

Are we meant to sympathize with him?  That question becomes the backbone of the ensuing action when Frank captures Amber (Lila Gavares), a nubile cheerleader complete with cheering togs, and she and Jesse develop a relationship built on mutual emotional need.

In the small Avalos Theatre, audiences surround the threadbare room, set against a stylistic background, both lighting and sets curated by designers Cameron Mock and Emily McDonald. Key sound design by Ivan Robles and choreography by Libby Letlow are indispensible.

Members Only and Desert Rats continue Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Sundays at 3:00 pm through November 18th, at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 Spring Street Los Angeles 90013. Tickets range from $24.00 to $60.00.  Purchase by phone at  (866) 811-4111 or online at http://thelatc.org.