On the Rocks

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Deborah Brevoort's new play The Women of Lockerbie opens with a bang. Literally. The lights go down and we begin to hear the mundane sounds of a flight attendant reciting flying times and altitudes. Just when you instinctively think of putting back your seat or reaching for a free magazine--it happens. The huge bang. A sound effect meant to represent the explosion 31,000 feet above Lockerbie, Scotland.

189 Americans died when that 747 was destroyed in December of 1988--which made it the deadliest attack on US citizens until 9/11. Brevoort's play is ostensibly about one of the victims, Adam Livingston, a 20 year-old New Jersey native seated just above the bomb; but its real focus is the people who live on amidst the physical and emotional wreckage of Pan Am Flight 103.

Seven years after the bombing, Adam's parents make the trip to Lockerbie. Mrs. Livingston is an outward mess, wandering the Scottish hills looking for the remains of her son. Mr. Livingston puts on a better front, but he too has not come to terms with the loss of his son.

Brevoort wrote The Women of Lockerbie in the manner of a Greek Tragedy. The characters speak in lofty declaratives: "Grief needs to talk," and "our lives are made of choices." There's a Greek--or is it Scottish?--Chorus: the women of Lockerbie, who recount events to the audience. The staging is sparse: one dark, wooden slope serves as the backdrop for the whole play.

The only props are articles of clothing that fell from the sky. This literal baggage--and its subsequent cleansing--represents how both the women of Lockerbie and the Livingstons (notice the symbolism in the name) come to terms with what happened and move on.

Brevoort's play is neither subtle nor entertaining. It's 100 minutes of intense grief; but as rendered by the Actor's Gang it is effective and at times startling in its ability to force one to feel loss. Besides the opening bang, there were multiple times where the mixture of stagecraft and acting clearly affected the small audience.

The Women of Lockerbie is slow and gut wrenching--and perhaps better in theory than on stage. It is however a noble effort: creating serious drama by weaving classical forms and themes together with the tragic events of our times.

Equally grim in its depiction of human misery is the first play by Stephen Adly Gurgis titled In Arabia We'd All Be Kings. Also set in the late 1990's, Arabia depicts the dead-end lives of regulars at a Hell's Kitchen dive-bar. Their sketchy neighborhood is quietly transforming into Guiliani's Disneyfied Times Square, but these souls are oblivious as they squabble over peanuts, pills, and petty theft.

Arabia received significant acclaim when it opened in New York, as have the playwright's subsequent off-Broadway works Jesus Hopped the A Train and Our Lady of 121st Street--which made its LA debut earlier this year. In some ways, they're all indistinguishable from each other as this entire trilogy of ash-can realism features salty, slang dialogue, dingy, fringe-of-society settings and very little action. At times, these rough, chamber laments do strike a nerve; but mostly, Guirgis's plays feel like juicy study scenes for actors. This local revival, directed by David Fofi, offers some strong performances: Carolina Espiro, Stephen Schub and Jade Dornfeld--though the most haunting portrait of destitution is by Dan Gilvary who, besides muttering the play's title, barely speaks a word.

In Arabia We'd All Be Kings has been extended through April 21 at Elephant Theatre Company. The Women of Lockerbie runs at The Actors' Gang through May 12.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.