Paradise City

New York and Los Angeles have engaged in a scrappy rivalry for years. As the entertainment capitals of their respective coasts, they are the nexuses of the theater (NYC) and film (LA) industries, and are always dipping into each other's talent pools. Yet despite the surface differences, meteorological and otherwise, they share a common underbelly. Both attract scores of unconventional people who reject or are rejected by their hometowns. These cities are shaped by their large population turnover—by people coming to pursue their dreams, and people fleeing from the harsh realities involved in that pursuit.

A nonstop emigration from sorrow is the focus of Los Angeles, a dark, fish-out-of-water story by Julian Sheppard. The narrow, subterranean black-box stage of Downstairs @ The Flea is the perfect venue for this lurid, sex- and drug-filled tour of the fringes of the movie trade. Playwright Adam Rapp puts down the pen for a turn in the director's chair for this chilling mood piece.

Twenty-something Audrey reluctantly agrees to move with her boyfriend from Seattle to Los Angeles. What is supposed to be a "fresh start"—and an escape from the banalities (and some vaguely referred to problems) of Javatown—results in a jettisoned, skill-less Audrey fending for herself in an itty-bitty apartment.

Living in a big city without friends or money would be a tough situation for anyone. Unfortunately, Audrey is also coping with speed addiction, daddy issues, no ambition other than to be loved, and a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder. As she sinks lower and lower, unable to save herself or be saved, two thoughts comes to the perceptive viewer's mind: Has she gone through this before? How many times will she go through this again?

Onstage for the entire hour and 40 minutes, Katherine Waterston, in a fierce and vulnerable performance as Audrey, sheds the "daughter of Sam Waterston" label that is invariably attached to her name. The Flea's current crop of Bats (its resident acting company), who play the users and abusers that wander in and out of Audrey's life, create vivid portrayals without stealing focus from the main character.

The background characters come off as mostly remembered figures from a dream. Though the events play in chronological fashion, they seem to be told as a series of hallucinated flashbacks "narrated" by a growly female singer in a clingy black dress who comes on during scene changes. Amelia Zirin-Brown's sexy vocals about nonsensical things were backed by a pianist and drummer; the music's grunge-era sound provides an apt soundtrack for Seattle-expatriate Audrey's addled head.

The Flea's use of bright orange chairs and blue hand props, which are undoubtedly a concession to the eyes of elderly audiences in an all-black space, also contributed to the trippy environs. Rapp's staging, encompassing the full length and width of the playing space (even using the front of the seating section as a nightclub's bar), completes the pixilated picture.

Sheppard's script was slightly hampered by its protagonist. Sometimes the repetitiveness of Audrey's behavior and the low lighting had a numbing effect, making one question the length of the show. Also, an intervention and a father-daughter scene, while probably true to the story and accurately scripted, seemed a little tired.

It would've been interesting if the playwright had explored the idea of Audrey being trapped in a cycle of destructive behavior in different cities. Perhaps the scenes could be tampered with so that not all of the memories read as truthful ones. These are notions that could have vaulted a good show into great status.

During the curtain call, Waterston had difficulty getting out of character after 100 minutes in Audrey's skin. Los Angeles is also hard to shed. Days afterward, her performance and bits of dialogue linger like club smoke in the fibers of your coat—and make you glad that you're living in New York.

Click for print friendly PDF version of this blog post