Orpheus with an iPhone

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

Let's tackle it right at the top. Jennifer Maisel's world premiere of @thespeedofjake by Playwright's Arena is a tough play.

The inciting incident that's the source of the play's drama is the death of a young son, Jake.

Now that alone makes the play challenging, especially for parents. The thought of burying one's child is so devastating, such a tragic abbreviation, that it's hard to join this world.

Our protagonist/antagonist rolled into one is Clark, Jake's dad. It's been three years since his son's accidental death and Clark can't let go. He's literally clinging to everything his son touched. His wife moved out, though she still has a set of keys. She wants to end it and Clark won't even open the mailbox to get the divorce papers. She's furious with him. He's pissed at the world for taking something so precious.

The first third of the play has the effect of keeping the audience at bay. After all, it's tough to hug an angry, grieving man. But it's also that the writing and directing don't fully plumb the depths of this tragedy. It feels like everyone is trying to find their way into this world - writer, director, and audience.

What allows Clark the freedom to become a shut-in, borderline hoarder is he's a tech genius who cashed out as employee number four at some unicorn start-up. With a pile of money in the bank, Clark can cling to the past without anyone kicking him out. His coding genius also provides the dramatic engine for the rest of the play.

Clark, like Orpheus or anyone who's suffered a tragic loss, longs to cheat death and reconnect. His deal with the devil takes a more technological turn that could fall under the banner "There's an app for that." Clark's determined to code his way into contact with his son - sort of Snapchat crossed with a Ouija board. So like any techie with a big idea, he launches a Kickstarter.

What keeps the play afloat is a mixture of timeless yearning and clever writing. Ms. Maisel is a smart playwright, chewing on big ideas like the neurological realities of love. Just when you think you're a step ahead of her, she writes her way into a surprising scene that keeps you thinking. That's both a blessing and a curse. While there are touching moments, we spend more time thinking than feeling.

The real gift of the production is artistic director Jon Lawrence Rivera's and Ms. Maisel's casting. They've taken a play that you'd expect to see with an all-white cast and added refreshing diversity without making the play about diversity. The actors in the extended family we circle around are Asian -- not because it's an Asian play -- but because it's a play about being human in the 21st century. In a time when our theater all too rarely reflects the diversity of our city, Mr. Rivera's artistic choice should serve as a beacon for others.

@thespeedofjake plays at the Atwater Village Theater through December 20.

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

Run time: 100 minutes without an intermission.

Photo: Blake Boyd