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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

One of the best Off-Broadway plays of last year — one that hasn't made it to Los Angeles yet — was titled Becky Shaw. Written by veteran Law & Order writer Gina Gionfriddo, Becky Shaw was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and it offered a wonderful, dark look at modern love and relationships.

I mention Becky Shaw because the lead actress in that play, Emily Bergl, is now in a new play that's receiving its World Premiere at the Black Dahlia Theatre here in LA, one that's a short (almost) wonderful, dark look at love and family relationships. The play is called Forgiveness and it's written by David Schulner, a writer with a handful of television credits and a few theatrical commissions.

Schulner's seventy-minute drama (directed by Matt Shakman) is about a young couple who drive to Arizona so the fiancé (Ben, a fine deadpan neurotic, played by Peter Smith) can meet the parents of his intended, Jill (the captivating and complex Ms. Bergl). Of course, on the long drive there, Jill lets slip a shocking family secret which changes the tenor of what was going to be a friendly weekend. The bulk of the play is Ben trying to navigate his own reactions to this knowledge — and figure out who in Jill's family actually knows what happened.

Schulner also throws in a few flashbacks to Jill's youth, where we catch glimpses of what may have happened — though the playwright clouds all of this by having the Young Jill played by the same actress (a lively Kendall Toole) who plays Jill's stepsister, conveniently (or inconveniently) named Jillian.

All of this adds up to an odd, craftsman house of mirrors, where it's not quite clear who's in the deeper stages of repression or who's just plain delusional. As strong as Bergl and Smith are as the fresh, sincere young couple, the weight of the play is provided by Jill's father Sam (played by local standout Morlan Higgins) and her stepmother Penny (who's given a great sense of insecure, suburban sass by Lee Garlington).

Sam and Penny are both rebounding from mistakes in their past and their relationship is a tightrope-act. Schulner makes it clear in the text that they are both monsters, desperately trying to stay sober and reclaim some middle-class decency for themselves. Garlington and Higgins manage to effectively evoke Sam and Penny's darker sides, but they also bring out the characters' shabby, but earnest desire for a normal family.

Higgins in particular makes his character feel not only substantial, but also genuinely haunted. The actor clearly loves playing tortured souls, whether it's a ghost-seeing widower last year in the Conor MacPherson play, Shining City, or the season before that as an ex-football player in Finally (also at the Black Dahlia). Higgins is excellent in Forgiveness, and one of his best traits as an actor is his ability to let his co-stars shine. As in the acclaimed local revival of Arthur Miller's After the Fall almost a decade ago, where Higgins' underplaying allowed Tracy Middendorf (in the Marylyn Monroe part) to soar, here in Forgiveness, Sam is the biggest role in the piece. In a movie version he would be played by DeNiro or some other larger-than-life performer, but Higgins never tries to steal the spotlight. He understands that the lead role is Bergl's Jill. She is the one person in the family that can see beyond her own problems. She is the only character who seems to understand what the play's title, “Forgiveness,” actually means — not just in theory, but also in practice. Emily Bergl is an actress worth seeing — and this compact new drama is an exciting vehicle for Higgins, Bergl and this strong cast.

David Schulner's Forgiveness runs at the Black Dahlia Theatre through April 11.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.


Banner image of Kendall Toole, Morlan Higgins in Forgiveness: Kurt Boetcher

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