Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Pieces (review - again)

Spoilers ahoy!

Very rarely I get the pleasure of seeing the world premiere of a play (or at least its initial run) and then a later production of the same work. This last weekend I got to have such a treat, with Pieces by Adam Neubauer at Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre.

The whole premise of this show screams "dark comedy." John (Matt DeNoto) has plunged into drunken, half-crazed grief after his girlfriend Chrissy leaves him without warning. His almost entirely female circle of friends gather round to offer support. They rightly fear he'll do something desperate. Alas, their fear remains a tad off target. Once a delusion enters into his head that all his friends have pieces very much like Chrissy's, a sick and psychotic solution to the break-up rises to the surface of his none-too-stable mind.

Think Frankenstein.

What follows could easily become grand guignol grostesque, but never quite does. Never even reaches the stage of Sweeney Todd. More like Little Shop of Horrors but minus any hint of alien carnivorous plantlife. Minus as well the lonely sweetness of the loser Seymour. Rather, John turns out to be someone with some genuinely serious issues--and the humor works most because his issues remain pretty much identical to those of his friends. An inability to connect. A certain selfishness, sometimes passive aggressive, sometimes not, but often fueled by projection instead of listening. They all seem lonely, all wanting more, none of them really having a good idea what to do about it--but John cranks up their failures and foibles all the way to eleven and tosses away every marble he may have possessed in the bargain!

Photo Credit:  Jim Eshom
Something like this demands a nice balancing act between genuine humanity and a certain remove. If we care too much about the characters, the play turns into softcore torture porn. If we don't care all, ditto. Generally the script accomplishes what it needs to, and very well. The cast help. A lot! Consider for example Adam Gibson as Gus, John's seemingly lone male friend who's also quite gay, quite bitchy, and morally rather dark himself when all ends up said and done. Gus shows a certain flamboyant edge, without going all drag queen or over-the-top. Yet we don't quite believe in him, which is rather the point. Comedy usually (with rare exceptions) depends on a certain amount of alienation between us and the cast. When he finds his friend John murdered Patty (Courtney Drumm) the reaction needs to fit with the rest of the play. Not too casual. Not genuinely real (lest we think him a sociopath). But slightly cartoon, with a
Photo Credit:  Jim Eshom
few dashes of musical theatre and/or sitcom. Just as Drumm needed to be both the most naturalistic yet also least rounded or sympathetic of the friends. Her death helps us start leaving the Real World behind.

Emily Cunningham plays the slutty but curiously vulnerable Megan, Annie Milligan as Heather the cheerful friend who seems both very nice and very shallow, with Cassidy Schiltz as someone who doesn't go gentle into that good night.

But this story rests squarely on whoever ends up playing the characters of John himself and the genuinely nicest, most caring of his friends, Mary (Sasha Snow). Everybody else was fine. All entertained. Each one did their jobs with competence (that is anything but a put-down, plenty of paid professional actors fail to manage that level). Yet it is DeNoto and Snow upon whom the play depends, especially during the climax. For one thing, Mary creates a comparison, leading us to not care too much about the others. For another,
Photo Credit:  Jim Eshom
Snow has to make the finale (which reminds me of the very end of Rocky Horror) work in its eerie power. In a twist worthy of the Twilight Zone, John's creation lives--and the consequences are of course nothing at all as he expects. In a weird way, it even feels hopeful. And just. Kudos to Kevin Van Cott for the music that plays at the end, which adds to that finale's power.

At the same time DeNoto provides nearly all the humor and gets the most stage time. He frankly made me burst out laughing as his descent into madness took the form of just paying attention to certain body parts. Doesn't hurt that DeNoto has piercing dark eyes.

The final result is a bit more than simply a dark comedy, because by the time the show ended I had done more than laugh.

Pieces plays Sundays at 7pm until November 16, 2014 at ZJU, 4850 Lankershim Blvd (just north of Camarillo, across the street from KFC) North Hollywood 91601. Tickets are $15. Call (818)202-4120 or visit www.zombiejoes.com for reservations.

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