Schenkkan, Not Stirred

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Robert Schenkkan is a playwright that Los Angeles has not forgotten. Schenkkan won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1992 for his sprawling work The Kentucky Cycle. It was a big hit on the west coast, first in Seattle and then here at the Mark Taper Forum. But it played on Broadway for only a few weeks and since then no Schenkkan play has been seen in America's theater capital.

Schenkkan has continued writing, both for the stage and screen. His scripts for TV and the movies have been well received, but his new stage work has not. In 2005, L.A. saw the world premiere of Schenkkan's Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates. A well-meaning history lesson about American intervention written in response to the Iraq war, the play was inert and unfocused — a Huffington Post-style rant stretched into a full-length play.

That same year, Schenkkan wrote another play, one that by its title and setting would also seem to be about American folly in the Middle East: By the Waters of Babylon. This two-person show premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but three years later it's washed up on the stage of the Geffen Playhouse.

babylon2.jpg The play takes place in Austin, Texas in 2003. A middle-aged widow, Catherine (played by Shannon Cochran) needs her large, unkempt garden spruced up, so she goes to the nearest big-box retailer and hires a Spanish-speaking gardener. Arturo (played by Demian Bichir) turns out not to be an ordinary illegal immigrant, but rather a Cuban exile who speaks French and knows how to make the perfect mojito. Since the play takes place in the early summer (just after U.S. forces have invaded Baghdad, if you're wondering about the title) down in southeastern Texas, temperatures get pretty hot in Catherine's garden — pretty soon this unlikely pair is downing Arturo's mojitos and heading upstairs to the bedroom.

The second half of the play deals with the afterglow of this supposed passion, as Catherine and Arturo wrestle with their demons. Despite the politically charged setting and title, there's little subtext. Maybe it's all a metaphor for Americans being unable and afraid to deal with foreigners, but if so, it's pretty murky. Babylon is ultimately a straight-forward two-hander, one that feels like a more heavy handed Desperate Housewives subplot as imagined by Lanford Wilson, whose Talley's Folly seems to have been an inspiration for this similar themed play.

babylon3.jpg Richard Seyd's simple, handsome production is not helped by the casting. Ms. Cochran is not as ease in the role of the sarcastic, depressive Catherine. Cochran can't find anything to latch onto, so she resorts to a sort of generic theatricality. This stands in complete contrast to Mr. Bichir, whose laid-back naturalism is reassuring and almost helps fill in the gaps of his superficial character. He's an actor clearly looking for — and deserving of — meatier material.

What's most missing from Babylon, as it was in Lewis and Clark Reach the Euphrates, is the playwright's talent for compact scenes filled with dramatic tension. A small company in the South Bay is currently mounting a revival of Schenkkan's Kentucky Cycle and seeing one night of that scrappy production put these newer works in even greater relief.

kentucky.jpg Trevor Biship's staging of The Kentucky Cycle is not revelatory, the acting is mixed and at best it feels like a really good college drama department effort; but Cal Rep's noble revival does manage to clearly convey the overarching message of The Kentucky Cycle which is: even when we want to, we shouldn't forget the past.

Robert Schenkkan's Kentucky Cycle runs through December 13 at the Armory in Long Beach; By the Waters of Babylon runs through Sunday at the Geffen Playhouse.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.