The Monkey on Our Backs

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

With all the off-stage drama in 99-seat-theater of late, it's been easy to forget the art itself.

Trevor written by Nick Jones is the latest 99-seat gem from Circle X. It's as passionate an argument as any for why you should care about LA's small theaters.

Trevor's stuck living in a boondock town but dreams of Hollywood. You see, he had a gig here years ago. He was an actor: got a pilot with Morgan Fairchild -- never got picked up. But he caught the bug and now he's trying to figure out a way back. He's desperate for the relevance of being on TV. It's not just about being an actor, it's almost about being a man.

And that's the problem, and warning -- the spoiler, because . . . well . . . Trevor's a chimp.

If that sounds like a setup for little more than a goofy comedy, it's because you can't imagine the humanity that actor Jimmi Simpson brings to Trevor. Yes, it's a funny play and, yes, there's some 'monkey business' but Mr. Simpson's gift is restraint. Instead of playing for broad laughs, he plays Trevor's struggle for just that: an honest struggle. What could have been a dismissible farce becomes a satire on the brutality of an actor's dream.

Providing the other half of the gravitas is Laurie Metcalf who plays Trevor's mom/owner. If you're a theater person you know her from Steppenwolf and her many surprise appearances on LA's small stages. If you're more of a TV person, you remember her from Roseanne. Here, she plays a down on her luck woman who's just trying to keep her family together. You could say it's the same role she always plays -- but that's like saying Trevor's a play about a chimp. Ms. Metcalf mines these characters and finds a grounded nobility in their desperation.

You'd be hard pressed to find two better performances on any LA stage -- large or small.

That said, Trevor's a play built around a simple conceit. It's stunning that it's able to keep that conceit alive deep into act two. But eventually Mr. Jones runs out of steam. The scaffold of stage business and plot devices that's kept things moving, eventually takes over the story. What began as Trevor's journey for recognition and awareness ends with Trevor trapped by another reality. While there's something tidy about the ending, it lacks the brutal honesty it's earned. By the time you get to the tacked-on, awkward epilogue, you might find yourself scratching your head.

You'd never see this play at the Taper or the Geffen. Not because it's not a good play -- it is -- but because it doesn't speak to those audiences. Look around when you go see Trevor -- and you should -- and you'll see an audience at least a decade or two younger. If we lose Circle X and its 99-seat brethren, where does that audience go?

So if you want to feel why small theater in LA matters, why taking artistic risks is important to the whole theater ecosystem -- go see Trevor.

Trevor plays at Circle X in Atwater Village through April 19.

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

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes with an intermission.

Photo: Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging