I want to flatly admit my fandom of City Garage in Santa Monica and of the playwright of Beach People, their latest production, Charles A. Duncombe.
Having said (or written) that, I am also a highly opinionated s.o.b. and have been disappointed by people I admire ere now.
Not this time. Having gone into the show on opening night with no specific expectations (save what I could glean from the title and the poster image), I sat in the theatre waiting to see what the next 80 minutes would bring. Think it safe to say I was startled. Who ever heard of an existentialist rom com?
Anna (Angela Beyer) and Paul (Henry Thompson) sit on lawn chairs near a beach in all their pale, soon-to-be burned glory with dark glasses and dark swim suits. The first line "It's hot" becomes a point of debate/discussion quickly going to almost absurd lengths. Anna likes the heat. Paul does not. From that point on, we see the problem--and the point of mutual comprehension--with this married couple. Paul, we soon realize, is afraid of his emotions and finds himself increasingly dazzled/horrified/challenged by a super-intellectualized concept of the universe. He ponders "infinity" and finds the whole idea personally upsetting. Yet Anna, her fears and obsessions are on the finite, the intimate, her own imagination spiraling into an avalanche of fears and vocabulary, mostly in reference to Diana (Naomi Helen Weissberg in the opening night performance, Marissa Ruiz in some others), totally gorgeous girl in a very scanty bikini that looks like it might, just might fall off at any moment.
It does not. This is not that kind of play. But Anna reacts badly to her presence, even as this gorgeous creature begins to offer some (potentially, maybe) useful advice about how to achieve happiness. Paul soon distracts with a lot of seemingly endless (ironic that) about infinity, summoning images and scenarios which (of course) he can only experience in the abstract.
They don't seem unhappy. Neither do they come across as happy. Meanwhile one wonders why these two palefaces are at the beach, especially as Diana and Rex (Kasey Esser), an equally bronzed and scantily clad waiter, wander in and out.
What happens next is a bit subtle. I got it. Not sure everyone would. Here it is, for those who might miss what happens next. Halfway through the play, time goes backwards. We suddenly are transported back to another day, when this beach first opened to the general public, when Anna and Paul first came there. When they met. When Anna's attempts at flirtation stumbled, her own initial reaction to Rex was almost precisely what she will accuse Paul of later. When Rex coaches her on maybe trying to find a way to attract this man's attention.
This is a fun idea. More, though, it is a funny show. Part of that, no doubt encouraged full bore by director Frederique Michel, lies in the physical comedy, both broad and subtle. For example, Beyer (whom so far I've always seen as a serene and self-assured beauty in her roles) successfully comes across as someone who cannot believe anyone sees her as attractive. (Oh, girl, I FEEL you!) Anna's attempts to be coquettish prove so over the top, yet in the end work! Likewise Thompson as Paul gloriously portrays a lot with a series of frustrating grunts and shrugs, eventually giving way to the anxiety driven egghead in search of meaning amidst a vast universe that doesn't have any!
Or does it? Most folks miss that about existentialism. If the universe has no inherent meaning, then we can create whatever meaning works for us. Is that not hope? Just as the angst of loneliness and fear, desire and frustration, trying too hard and getting it all wrong--is not that fact the whole reason why we are the only animal who laughs? After all, we're the critters who need to. Which, again, is hope.
Because this is not a play about despair. The possibility of despair exists, of course, but not the certainty. Anna and Paul connected once, and if they have stopped or gotten out of the habit, they can learn again. Indeed, watching them connect in the second half is genuinely delightful as well as silly (and painfully true).
Hence the closing lines, which seem almost to come out of nowhere and yet emerge absolutely out of all we have seen so far.
Watch the show and find out what those lines are. You might be as quietly intrigued and pleased as I was. It remains possible.
Beach People plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm until September 11, 2022 at the City Garage, Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Aveneu, Building T1, Santa Monica CA 90404.