Los Angeles Theater Review: CREDITORS (Odyssey Theatre in West Los Angeles)

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by Tony Frankel on October 21, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


August Strindberg, the “father of modern psychological drama,” told his publisher that Creditors, a drama that he prized as much as he did his masterpiece Miss Julie (also written in 1888) was “humorous, loveable, all of its characters sympathetic.” Nothing could be further from the truth – as David Trainer’s supple staging of David Greig’s adaptation amply proves.

But that doesn’t make Odyssey Theatre and New American Theatre’s all-absorbing co-production any less worthy. On the contrary, like Strindberg’s much more assured Miss Julie, this one-act drives home the author’s almost misogynistic Jack Stehlin, Burt Grinstead in Creditors photo: Ron Sossiobsession with the psychology of sex and the malleability of human will.

The benign setting for this “Swedish noir” is a seaside hotel, which is one reason, besides the play’s focus on ex-lovers’ unfinished business, that Creditors amazingly anticipates Noel Coward’s Private Lives some 40 years later. A former painter now turned sculptor, Adolf (Burt Grinstead), has recently married the somewhat older Tekla (Heather Anne Prete), a novelist and flirt whom he loves all too uncritically. (The background of Thomas A. Walsh’s beautiful set happens to be an impressionistic painting of the shore behind the lounge of this hotel.)

Adolf, symbolically and literally on crutches, recently befriended an older hotel guest, a supposed doctor named Gustav (Jack Stehlin). The play opens with them in mid-conversation as Gustav counsels the impressionable sculptor who happens to be molding a clay figurine of his naked wife. Gustav worries that Adolf’s new marriage might have given him “epilepsy” and “anemia” because, having observed Tekla on the prowl, he pronounces her an emasculating harridan, no “doll wife” á la Ibsen as Adolf seems to prefer. She is a predator of passion and no one man can be quarry Heather Anne Prete (as Tekla) and Jack Stehlin (as Gustav) in CREDITORS.enough. Love, Strindberg implies, is the first stage of betrayal – and marriage is a virtual minefield.

It’s fascinating to watch this Svengali-like Gustav perform what he brazenly calls an “autopsy on a human soul.” With smooth-faced assurance, he proceeds to undermine Adolf’s illusions about love and art. When Tekla finally appears, we see her through Adolf’s doubts, even as she presents herself as a bold and independent free spirit who gives her husband no credit for her own success. Of course, we suspect the masterly manipulator Gustav has his own agenda of revenge: We discover it in an astonishing last-minute twist that leads to a tragedy that’s much less convincing.

Heather Anne Prete, Jack Stehlin and Burt Grinstead in Creditors photo by Ron SossiTrainer’s trio carries out this dark, neo-Darwinian comedy with effortless efficiency, a polish that makes the crude psychodynamics all the more repellent. Burt Grinstead is quickly becoming one of my favorite L.A. actors, displaying the smitten but suspicious Adolf with a lost boy’s soul; Mr. Grinstead is constantly in discovery and his sweet and gullible Adolf is heartbreaking. The lovely Ms. Prete’s Tekla is a superb mixture of conceit, overbearingness and just a hint of uncertainty. As the proverbial serpent in the garden (and a sort of Nietzschean “superman” and 19th century Iago), Stehlin is Machiavelli himself as he sinisterly turns a happy husband into a haunted casualty; however, I found myself suspecting him of no good far too early. Trainer could have supplied a bit more cat-and-mouse to this naturalistic road-to-ruin tragicomedy in which Strindberg is almost warning what happens when we allow relationships to be suffused with indebtedness.

photos by Ron Sossi

a  co-production of Odyssey Theatre Ensemble & The New American Theatre
Odyssey Theatre, 2055 South Sepulveda Blvd.
scheduled to end on December 15, 2013
for tickets, call (310) 477-2055×2 or visit http://www.odysseytheatre.com

for more information, http://www.NewAmericanTheatre.com

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