Los Angeles Theater Review: SUKIE AND SUE: THEIR STORY (Blank Theatre in Hollywood)

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by Samuel Garza Bernstein on May 2, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


A demon-possessed, bleeding-eyed, pyro-maniacal Raggedy Ann doll with pre-cum on her face is the vortex around which Michael John LaChiusa’s new comedy Sukie and Sue: Their Story swirls: it’s a flight of fancy that feels wickedly appealing, and he just about pulls it off. This new work, produced by the Blank Theatre Company, concerns two friends, Sukie and Sue, both nurses—Sukie works in pediatrics and Sue in the burn unit—who smoke a lot of pot, hang around with druggie friends, and slowly morph into one another while the doll (a gift from Sue’s mother) sets out to drive them insane or destroy them altogether, whichever comes first.

Samuel Bernstein’s LA Review of Suki and Sue at the BlankThere are some stage tricks that allow the doll to seem like it is moving under its own power, yet there are enough mixed messages to keep us unsure of whether the doll is truly possessed. (The bleeding from the eyes, for instance, seems a genuine paranormal event, while the pre-cum is an act of lurid silliness on the part of Sukie’s boyfriend, Sal.) A psychic shows up to help out—sort of a throwback to Madame Arcati from Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit—but only succeeds in upping the stakes; adding more fuel to the fire that ultimately consumes them all.

Samuel Bernstein’s LA Review of Suki and Sue at the BlankLaChiusa strives for a deadpan tone that allows the laughs to sneak up on you. This is anything but a rat-a-tat joke-fest, and there are a few moments of genuine sadness (a baby in Sukie’s care dies) as well as moments of genuine fear (a comatose burn patient channels the demon inside the doll and scares the hell out of Sue, and the audience as well). Yet the laidback tone sometimes works against the material having much staying power. You forget it while you’re watching it, searching afterward for some sign that you actually experienced anything.

Samuel Bernstein’s LA Review of Suki and Sue at the BlankAs Sukie and Sue, Lindsey Broad and Rae Foster are well-matched. Sue feels put upon and plays the martyr, feeling that Sukie sits around playing with babies all day in the pediatric unit, while Sue comes home smelling like the burn patients, whose screaming echoes in her head day and night. Sukie is sneaky: she rifles through Sue’s belongings, and then says straight-faced, “I didn’t touch your stuff.” Also, she passive-aggressively resents it when Sue smokes all the pot supplied by her boyfriend, played by Lenny Jacobson.

Samuel Bernstein’s LA Review of Suki and Sue at the BlankFoster has a great no-nonsense delivery. She breezily instructs her patients, “You gotta be positive.” There’s a particularly funny sequence where she’s eating a sandwich while ripping off a patient’s bandages, all the while chattering about the cleansing power of the recent snow. “You can get through it, eh?” She says, as she accidentally pulls off a patient’s new graft. She is less effective when she builds to moments of teary-eyed confusion. The joke is meant to be how abruptly she shifts from being emotional to being stony-faced. But we don’t believe the crying jag, or more importantly, that the other characters don’t seem to believe it, so the quick tonal shifts fall a bit flat.

Samuel Bernstein’s LA Review of Suki and Sue at the BlankLindsey Broad is great at letting her inner-kook breathe. She never overdoes it, never rushes things. She seems genuinely curious about the events happening around her, and when she calls in a priest to exorcise whatever demon forces are at play, it seems logical to her, so it’s logical to us. Father Canary (Eddie Driscoll) arrives in the middle of one night, in a black t-shirt, robe, and garter socks, and is amusing as he bitches about his Holy Water bottles never being refilled properly.

Samuel Bernstein’s LA Review of Suki and Sue at the BlankLenny Jacobsen is requisitely shaggy and simpleminded as Sukie’s pot head boyfriend, Sal. I like how he doesn’t look like what we expect actors to look like. (That’s a pet peeve of mine—I hate how in most projects every supporting character looks like he or she has just spent the morning doing Pilates and guzzling wheatgrass juice.) That said, Nick Ballard, who does indeed have the physique of a Friend of Pilates, is very funny as Sal’s dealer who hooks up with Sue. He trails after her like a puppy dog. “Sue, Sue, dressed in blue,” he croons, “looks… HOT. So, you deal with burned up people and that?”

Samuel Bernstein’s LA Review of Suki and Sue at the BlankRunning psychic interference, Mackenzie Phillips arrives breathlessly and is an undeniable presence. She has fun with the character’s inability to remember names, and her baritone delivery is almost as sexy as Lauren Bacall’s. Watching her do drugs on stage is weird though. Phillips has had such a very public struggle with addiction, and no matter how much we want to stay focused on her as the character she is playing, it’s difficult. I found myself admiring her as a person, for her perseverance, and then getting distracted.

Samuel Bernstein’s LA Review of Suki and Sue at the BlankDirector Kristen Sanderson is good with the actors, and she keeps the show simple and for the most part, real. I’m less taken with her staging. Sometimes the actors feel marooned, cut off by their inability to move freely or fluidly about the stage. Eric Broadwater’s set is not a success. There’s a flatness to the build-outs that gives it the look of a hastily improvised dorm room. Wooden crates make up a coffee table; a rather haphazardly constructed slipcover is draped over the couch; the side of the stair rail looks glued on. Perhaps he is going for a trippy dollhouse vibe, but it just seems slipshod. And in a play where the characters constantly watch television, the fact that a full third of the audience can see that the television isn’t actually airing anything other than a lighting effect, is problematical. Whether that’s down to Broadwater, or lighting designer Stephanette Isabel Smith, and/or technical director Stephen Weston, it is distracting.

Samuel Bernstein’s LA Review of Suki and Sue at the BlankMichael John LaChiusa is a veteran, award-winning storyteller, whose career has taken him to the heights of theater, opera, and television. I interviewed him way back in 1995 for a book of mine called “Uncommon Heroes,” and found him to be a curious, passionate, extraordinarily articulate man. He is definitely on to something here with Sukie and Sue, but I wish he embraced the weirdness of the subject matter more fully. The story is billed as being based on actual events. I don’t know whether that’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek or not. I, for one, would love to know more.

photos by Michael Geniac

Sukie and Sue: Their Story
The Blank Theatre in Hollywood (Los Angeles Theater)
through June 3
for tickets, (323) 661-9827 or www.theblank.com

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