Friday, March 7, 2014

Wendy Graf's "Closely Related Keys" at the Lounge Theatre by M.R. Hunter

Playwright Wendy Graf’s compelling drama about a pair of unlikely half-sisters hits every note, just not always with equal measure in her world premiere at the Lounge Theatre in Hollywood.

Directed under the keen and sensitive eye of Shirley Jo Finney with Diarra Kilpatrick (LA Weekly and NAACP award-winner from last season’s hit “In the Red and Brown Water”) starring as Julia—a brash, workaholic corporate attorney, Graf has a veritable dynamic duo maintaining a pleasing rhythm, even when occasionally the play loses its own intrinsic tempo in its overpower.

Widely known and well-esteemed for portraying fiercely determined women in such works as “Behind the Gates,” and “No Word in Guyanese For Me” starring Anna Khaja (currently in the Fountain’s “My Name is Asher Lev”), Graf’s marked ability to illuminate the feminine psyche is matched by her intrepid fascination with differing cultures through the tension of the foreigner. Combined, it makes for an intoxicating social commentary about the ‘Other’ underscored by a rich veracity to her characters. In “Closely Related Keys,” all these elements are present, but instead of unfolding fluidly, the conflicts rival each other with unresolved satisfaction or nuance.

Bogged down by exposition and circuitous subplots, the overall through line driving the story is obscured by the emotive themes of empathy, anger and loss in a belaboring refrain. When Julia discovers she has a half-sister from Iraq, the revelation opens a gaping scar from her past as she tolerates Neyla by boarding the young, timid violinist wrestling with her own demons and tough, emotional  wounds. The two are a study in contrasts, both culturally and in their temperament, mirroring and reflecting each other’s pain as they try to reach mutual accord. Caught between them is their ineffectual father, Charlie (Brent Jennings), a morally ambiguous jellyfish drifting in his own loyalties and sense of paternal duty. Add Julia’s clandestine, bi-racial office affair with fellow partner Ron (Ted Mattison) and Neyla’s mysterious confidante Tariq (Adam Meir) who she secretly Skype’s, and while the women have much in common, there is also too much to orchestrate. Judicious pruning would streamline the unnecessary intrigues.

It’s the superfluous flourishes forcing the play to plunk at the piano keys with two-fingers. Neyla’s arc as a violinist never enters enough into the plot beyond a title reveal and a simplified aside on music being the universal language connecting people, regardless of their background. A music audition provides Neyla an impetus to come to the U.S., but quickly becomes a device rather than a fulfillment of insight into the gentle yet desensitized Muslim woman. An overburdened letter-recitation from an unseen character in Iraq grinds the pace to a halt, a formulaic scene concerning race and romance leads nowhere and a showy bond of sisterhood over contemporary music leaves much to be desired. These scenes challenge the main thrust.  

For all of the play’s weaknesses, Graf writes a quality, thought-provoking piece with ample room for the actresses to show their chops in their seemingly polar roles. Duality lies at the heart of Graf’s characters and in Julia and Neyla, it shines symbolically, aided by the passionate performances by Kilpatrick and last-minute replacement Yvonne Huff who takes on the role with grace, conviction and authentic appeal. In light of this, Huff deftly steals the show. Kilpatrick does a fine job as her character seethes in her own tumult and boiling resentment but there is little room for her to present the softer aspect of her grief and sorrow until the play’s touching, but hollowly satisfying close. Yet, in terms of duality, much is achieved in this work.

Graf isn’t one to hand us easy-baked characters and her women are always multi-faceted, contradictory and true heroines in the face of invisible obstacles. This may not be her strongest play to date, but it is still vital, complex, harrowing and sharply hewn, deep in context and tone.

Simple but elegant set and projection design by Hana Sooyeon Kim lends the play additional meaning with its cityscape background, double walls and clean-lined, modern architecture.

If Graf is to be faulted here, it is in the attempt to come too close to too much. Excellent playwrights with her kind of vision and ear for dialogue often make a classic blunder in imagining the world we live in to be the kind where people are better than they really are, speak candidly and reveal their innermost insecurities and pain succinctly and too eloquently. It is actions that speak volumes to all which goes unsaid, and while much is said here, not enough dramatic action happens to loft the harmony and counterbalance of what it means to be closely related.

“Closely Related Keys”
Runs through March 30
Thurs, Fri and Sat @ 8pm
Sundays @ 4pm
Lounge Theatre
6201 Santa Monica Blvd.
Hollywood, CA  90038
(just east of Vine)
Tickets: $25-$30
PH: 323-960-7774

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