An Essential Black, and Blue, Comedy

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

Erik Patterson's world premiere at the Echo Theater Company, One of the Nice Ones is a work play. It's a nasty work play.

Nasty because the work itself is manipulative and a little gross. We're at the offices of Tender Form Weight Loss Systems. It's a telemarketing shop with monthly quotas that tries to keep you on the phone until you agree you're pathetic and sign up for year of weight loss programs.

It's also nasty because as a playwright Mr. Patterson takes a particular joy in being sexually provocative and pushing taboos. This is not a play for those with fragile ears or strict morals. Think Neil LaBute's world of In the Company of Men but slightly more subversive.

The play begins in Tracy's performance review. She's nervous because she hasn't been hitting her sales quota and there are rumored layoffs. Things don't start well. She talks too much. Her boss, Roger, is a jerk in a kind of testosterone-driven-motivational-speaker-narcissistic sort of way. Things get messy. Layoffs are coming so Tracy offers to sleep with him, right there on his desk, right now, to try and ensure a little job security. So that happens and as Roger is helping Tracy back into her wheelchair -- oh yeah, did I mention she uses a wheelchair? She flips the tables on him and tells him she intends to blackmail him. Believe it or not, it's after that that things start to slide down the moral slippery slope.

Suffice it to say there's not a sympathetic protagonist in the bunch and that's part of the undeniable attraction. These are deeply flawed people saying outrageous things.

The acting is superb and the direction is walking a tightrope between dark black comedy and biting satire. There's a temptation to say it's all too much, but in a year where a narcissistic reality TV star with complicated sexual politics is the GOP nominee, One of the Nice Ones feels all too topical.

Assuming you can get beyond the graphic anatomical references and sexist language -- I'm talking about the play not the campaign -- Mr. Patterson confronts us with difficult moral territory. Our heroine, such as she is, wants us to embrace an act of self-negation and then shows us the world that could bring a person to such a dark place. That's frightening and uncomfortable for an audience.

But as the recent string of plays at the Echo Theater Company has proved, it's also one of the fundamental roles of the theater. Whether it's confronting the graphic reality of teenage abortion in Dry Land or a hard-ass woman losing her connection to the world in A Small Fire, the Echo Theater Company is choosing challenging plays with unlikely protagonists. They're asking their audience to confront the dark sides of humanity that don't make easy entertainment.

This isn't 'feel good' theater, it's essential theater. It's drama that asks us to listen differently, to feel deeply, and to reconsider the world around us. It's begging for a difficult empathy for stories and characters we might rather avoid.

One of the Nice Ones isn't easy or perfect but it is important.

One of the Nice Ones plays at the Echo Theater Company in Atwater Village through August 21.

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

Running time: 90 minutes without an intermission.

Photo: (L-R) Rodney To, Graham Hamilton and Rebecca Gray in a scene from One of the Nice Ones, (Darrett Sanders)