Friday, April 11, 2014

"Recall" Needs a Recall by M.R. Hunter

The theater can rise up to meet almost any genre, but the realm of science fiction, no matter how psychological, is a difficult milieu to navigate. The Visceral Company rises to the challenges of Eliza Clark’s derivative, barely entertaining script with creative flourishes in its set, solid performances from some of the ensemble and a sensibility for the visual and suspenseful.

Unfortunately, director Dan Spurgeon and set designer Chris Bell can’t save a faulty play by a writer with a smattering of TV credits and too many positive reviews that are frankly undeserved.

Why? The play doesn’t offer anything new. It’s a cross-haired attempt at pre-cog recognition ala “1984,” “Minority Report” and similar storylines in both the sci-fi and horror genre. Fans of these tropes might enjoy seeing a play with valid quality elements as opposed to a blockbuster movie or Netflix night in but that’s about the most one can say in the positive realm of this play.

More disturbing is the lack of criticism for Ms. Clark’s play (not The Visceral Company). The play is a cop-out. It is not smart or enlightening. It is at best moody but compared to the Actor’s Gang “1984,” it is a D-list version of all the other “futuristic” plays that usually cannot find the appropriate staging on the boards. The play screams cheap DVD at $4.99 straight to release kind of script with stilted dialogue, flat characterization and plot holes to sink a semi truck ala “Duel.” That it’s on stage is bothersome and more troubling is the heavy preponderance of rave reviews rather than critical reception. What the hell is happening?

I revisit the question of why? In L.A., I will give major kudos to everyone at The Visceral Company for doing the best with what little they had to work with and they presented a fairly decent production in terms of all the important elements: quality, thought, and creativity. My charge isn’t aimed at them who picked up this sorry script from its well-received NY run, my problem is that this play passed muster at all. It feels like an underdeveloped pilot for a regurgitated TV show borrowing heavily from the greats before and offering little new in the after. Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of the genre and can see more easily the serious robbing from masters here to play out amateur-hour but I have to scratch my head when even Eric Grode of the N.Y. Times gave a cautiously mixed but leaning towards polite review of this play.

For those uninitiated of this brand of pre-cog genre, perhaps the plot struck you as unique. Well, it isn’t and it doesn’t bother to offer ethics, morals or something deeper under the surface. It’s an 85 minute, (no intermission) fluff piece at best and at worst it is a hack-eyed effort from one of the multiple writers of AMC’s “The Killing.” And I’m supposed to be impressed? By what exactly, Ms. Clark’s IMDB credits or the play itself?

There’s a benefit of the doubt infecting criticism and audiences alike in our current day of age. If one has been nominated for a Pulitzer or some other prestigious award, then what follows or perhaps the material praised must BE good. Uh…no. The former rule of thought USED to be that if someone has some serious credentials under the belt, much more was expected of them. Now, thanks to IMDB and other social media self-promoting websites, critics and audiences are FAR more lenient in giving a writer/actor/director praise based on the work preceding the one put in front of them. It is ridiculous. It is travesty. It is mega-mediocrity.

Now I see plays written by TV writers (big whoop) who follow the sort of canned guidelines that work for TV but not always for theater, bouncing around unimpeded. It’s uncouth to say something critical about THEM after all, they’re writing for “The Walking Dead.” It’s pure laziness on everyone’s part, both the critics and the audiences, but more essentially, the playwright who in the last few years seems to be suffering from a “It’s good enough” mentality and would rather churn out the pages rather than be a craftsman and spend the time to rewrite, rework and retool their play. Arthur Miller rewrote “The Crucible” after its initial opening and absconded with the director’s choices to make the play more minimalist. Art is never really finished, it is only abandoned but sadly, too many so-called artists are content with “satisfactory” rather than “sublime” and critics’ standards are being lowered to meet this attitude. And then we lament the current situation?

“Recall” the play is boring for anyone who’s already well-versed in the genre. It is at times tedious, predictable and labored even for a full one-act. There’s no insight or gut-wrenching moments beyond a gunshot and that has more to do with the loudness in an intimate space than the trigger pull itself. Ms. Clark got away with writing a half-baked script. Had she taken some real thoughtful care, it may have been developed into something powerful and significant. She went the “good enough” route and got kudos for her efforts at least critically speaking.

A new, emerging playwright with non-existent credits can hope for more leg room from me, but if you have some notches under your belt, bring it or go home and take your lumps like a pro. There’s no excuse for this play other than it should be a low-budget film. It doesn’t belong in the theater and I can only assume one of two things to explain the high praise: 1) critics aren’t familiar enough with the genre to know any better; 2) critics and audiences are swept away by the cinematic experience and can’t tell the difference between the immediate and the substantive. Either way, Ms. Clark received an undue pass I cannot give her. It isn’t a terrible play (I’ve endured much worse) but it isn’t informed, smart or novel enough to deserve staging.

Madeline Bertani is strong as the psychopathic teenage daughter Lucy and keeps the play interesting with her reptilian coldness. Kevin Grossman is extremely naturalistic in his role of Quinn, a misfit with serious misgivings. Mark Souza does very well juggling both sides of his friend or foe role in David. Karen Nicole and Lara Fisher lack realism or congruity in their roles, one an enabling mother and the other a stone-cold automaton. Neither flesh out the characters but Clark doesn't leave them much to work with either.

The Visceral Company did a commendable job of bringing the most they could hope for to a play with little to nothing to leave an impression. For what it is and for fans of the genre, I recommend seeing this play but for serious theatergoers, I would say pass in a hot minute. The story has been told before: pre-cog testing for violent behavior/teenage daughter is a psychopath/enabling mother/nice guy boyfriend receives the brunt of it/blah blah blah. It has an opening scene of a young girl washing away a blood stain in the carpet of a motel room to root for it but Ms. Clark didn’t take the time, effort or pride in nurturing this play into full cognition.

Because good enough is the name of the game and with a couple of credits under your belt, no critic or discerning audience member will cry foul, such is the world we live in ripe with weakness. This play was beneath The Visceral Company, not the other way around. I’m not the hardest critic in town, but the favors being thrown over THIS play? Seriously, this is why theater criticism, hell, quality control before it hits the stage doesn’t matter a hill of beans. Everything, including this review is just “good enough.” Heaven help us. I’m gonna go watch Netflix now.

Photo credit: Amelia Gotham

Runs through May 4
Fri & Sat @ 8pm
Sundays @ 3pm
The Lex Theatre
6760 Lexington Avenue
Hollywood, CA 90038
Tickets: $25

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