A Verdict without an Indictment

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater or KCRW.

Remember that morning back in 1995 when the OJ verdict came out?

David McMillan's new play Watching OJ is betting that not only do you remember that day, you probably still have some strong feelings about it.

As the title hints, Watching OJ is all about the Simpson trial and particularly the day of the verdict. Our setting is a strip mall off the 405. We bounce back and forth between a dry cleaner and an auto shop. The verdict's airing at 10am and everyone's anxious to hear what the jury decides. Not because they haven't made up their own minds but because everyone takes the case to be something of a racial litmus test.

The structure of the play, while not exactly classical, borrows a lot from the past. We meet the cast in a series of short two person scenes. The characters are both archetypes and, at moments, stereotypes. We have the young black man who's headed to the Million Man March in a couple of weeks; we've got the old Jewish store owner who's retiring and moving to Florida; there's the always accommodating black woman who's worked for him for years; there's the older, wiser black man who owns the auto shop; there's the wife of a cop who can't believe we don't respect the police; there's even the Asian med student whose parent’s store was destroyed after Rodney King . . . and the list goes on.

Like the verdict, you already know these people and what's going to happen.

What's interesting is that audiences are responding so positively. The show is playing to packed houses and came back for a one month extension after opening in the fall. So what's making this play work?

The shortest answer is the cast. While the outlines and dialogue feel a little thin, the cast mines it for all it's worth and adds a depth that is only hinted at on the page. We're lucky in LA to see a cast this good in a theater with barely 60 seats.

The longer answer is the play is tapping into something both very simple and very complicated. The simple side is it's giving an audience something familiar and non-threatening. We in the audience know more than the characters --- so when one of them says now they just need to be alive to see a black man elected president, we get both the joke and the irony.

Watching OJ is also working because it’s talking about something without really talking about something. The play evokes the current racial fault lines without, pardon the dark pun, any indictment. We stay safely removed from the drama and its melodramatic ending. The audience can feel like they’ve done the heavy lifting of grappling with race in America without really confronting our current moment.

But given how few plays are tackling our historical moment head on, maybe we should be happy with what we get.

Watching OJ plays through this weekend at EST/LA in Atwater Village.

For info on the show and to subscribe to the KCRW theater newsletter, check out: KCRW.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: Two hours and thirty minutes with one intermission.