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The Direction of Divorce

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

One of the great American Urban myths is that 50% of all marriages in this country end in divorce. Some scrutiny suggests that this count is high, that it's probably closer to 35% to 40%; but one reason assessing that number is so difficult is that California--the biggest state in the nation--doesn't report divorce statistics to the National Center for Health. This matters, because some estimates peg Southern California's divorce rate at almost 75%.

If that's the case, perhaps the only thing more statistically difficult than keeping one's vows in Los Angeles, is staging a realistic and moving domestic drama in a 99-seat theater. It may sound easy, take a few actors, and add plots with repression and deception...maybe even throw a few glasses against the wall. But making marriages--even broken or breaking ones--come alive on stage is deceptively difficult. Two productions running here in Santa Monica are perfect examples.

The ambitious Open Fist Theatre Company--recently forced out of its Hollywood space--has set up shop at the Powerhouse Theatre and its first production there is Speaking in Tongues. This play was the basis for the acclaimed Australian film Lantana and it juxtaposes stories of couples on the brink. Overlapping dialogue and a somewhat experimental structure make Andrew Bovell's 1998 play interesting, but as seen at the Powerhouse, the work feels--like its characters--emotionally distant.

Speaking in Tongues seems to imply that people are genetically incapable of sustaining passionate relationships. However, the play is ultimately unconvincing, most likely because the subtle ticks and interplay that slowly erodes marriages aren't what make for good theater. Bovell's play exhibits big, shocking moments--which titillate briefly--but suggest that his characters are anomalies and not representative of most relationships.

The play Ascension, by Maurice Chauvet, currently receiving its world premiere (courtesy of the theater company, Apartment A) is another work about the breakdown of marriage. This new play is pretty straight forward--10 scenes, which unfold chronologically--but Chauvet's work feels more complex due to the playwright's attention to slight gradations of morality. His ear is perfectly tuned to what's kosher here in the Southland--and more importantly, what's socially acceptable even when it is inherently wrong.

Chauvet's Ascension is by no means a masterpiece--the dialogue, while well observed, is rarely poetic or profound--but it holds promise and is a good solid play. It may even be a great play, but it's hard to tell in this production. There are a number of entertaining performances, but little sense of an ensemble.

The clunky blocking and downright awkward scene changes make the experience of watching this new play an exercise in filling in the blanks. This is not intended to slam director Michael Angelo Stuno, but only to show how difficult putting on small shows in Los Angeles is. The aforementioned Speaking in Tongues boasts the directorial debut of Stephen Spinella, an excellent Broadway actor (recently seen here in the Taper's Stuff Happens), but even the two-time Tony winning performer isn't able to create a viable ensemble feel on stage at the Powerhouse.

Both these productions are certainly ambitious, but probably under-rehearsed and underfunded. These two things are probably the main reason that putting on a sterling piece of Showcase Theater is even tougher than staying married.

But this is not to say that small theaters can't ever meet their match--and keep the union going strong. Pacific Resident Theatre's excellent production of When They Speak of Rita has been extended again through this weekend. Daisy Foote's play probably isn't infinitely superior to these other works, but it feels like it thanks to the production's shrewd casting and effective staging.

All three of these shows, Open Fist's Speaking in Tongues, Ascension at the Electric Lodge, and PRT's When They Speak of Rita are within a five minute drive of each other, which means you can experience all of this marital drama in one weekend--and with a one-in-three success rate, that's pretty good odds for Southern California.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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