This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
Morlan Higgins is one of those actors whose name you won't recognize from Broadway, television, or the movies. If you've heard of Morlan Higgins, its because you follow what goes on at small, Los Angeles theaters; and if you've seen Morlan Higgins at one of those theaters, you've probably gone back to see him again.
Higgins' last four major roles here in Los Angeles have been the Olivier of South Africa, Andre Huguenet, the alter egos of two 20th Century theater titans, Arthur Miller and Athol Fugard, and Theseus, the legendary King of Athens. Higgins was excellent good in each of these very different roles, but this versatility is nothing compared to the range he shows in his latest part. This month, Higgins can be seen in the West Coast Premiere of Stephen Belber's one-person monologue Finally, where the actor plays four different parts in the same play: an ex-football player who can't control his temper, a woman who watched her husband kill her father, a football coach who God chose to be a motivational speaker, and finally a dog named Syrup who quotes Lord Byron and Alfred Tennyson.
Needless to say, Finally, is an odd play, one that challenges the audience to juggle a fair deal of horror and humor. It's not quite clear if Belber is using the horror to soft peddle the humor, or the humor to make the horror go down easier; in fact, it's hard to pin down exactly what the play it's trying to say. In Finally, Belber has conjured up two days in the life of a family—one where the father touches his daughter inappropriately and takes out his self-loathing on the family dog and the other, where this father gets into a fight with the boy who has just impregnated his daughter. Are these events a bit melodramatic and convenient? Sure, but Belber's is never forced or schematic in the manner that Neil LaBute's dark, chamber dramas can be; instead, his laid back narrative style and his eye for detail work to suspend disbelief.
Most helpful though is the performance of Morley Higgins. Not only does Higgins play these parts so that you know which part he's playing -- no small feat since there's no family tree or breeding line to follow -- but he makes each character distinct and convincing. It's true I've never met a Golden Retriever that can quote 19th Century English poetry, but if I did, I would be disappointed if the pooch wasn't as charming as Higgins' Syrup.
Higgins' performance is the reason to see Finally, but the modest, yet thoroughly professional production adds to the experience. The set is simply a buzzing, sodium vapor street lamp, an overturned lawn chair and a backdrop with a Birdseye view of a suburban, freeway adjacent neighborhood. It's very minimal, but it works to evoke the Anywhere, USA setting and -- it's all shepherded with a light touch by director Matt Shakman.
Ultimately, Belber's play feels like an exercise, but the fact that it imparts some dramatic weight by the end and that it doesn't hit you over the head with the shocking elements of the plot, is testament to Higgins' ability to communicate the most interesting elements of the author's script straight to the audience. Many actors would overplay this material, making it loud and obvious in a tiny theater. Higgins knows how to play to a small crowd, and because of this, his performances always feel larger than theaters he plays in.
Steven Belber's Finally runs through July 6 at the Black Dahlia Theatre.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.
Photos: E.B. Brooks