Los Angeles Theater Review: BREAKING AND ENTERING (Zombie Joe’s Underground)

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by Tony Frankel on November 29, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

WITHOUT TRUTH, EXISTENTIALISM IS INCOHERENT

The premise of Colin Mitchell’s Breaking and Entering, which just ended its seven-performance run, is the best element of an existential play that ends up being far less profound and accessible than intended. Milly, a young woman and obsessive fan, breaks into the mansion of WJ Trumbull, a hermetic novelist who has written only one great novel (think Catcher in the Rye). Milly desires a written introduction to her own tome—the only copy of which she has at hand; via cat-and-mouse maneuvering, she persuades this curmudgeonly baseball-loving recluse to read her novel, one which eerily reveals itself as a play-by-play of the events happening at the moment.

BreakingAndEntering@ZJU_PHOTO_1Truths are revealed about Trumbull and his connection to Milly, including murder and plagiarism. She is clearly a prescient prognosticator, but is she flesh-and-blood, a spirit, or perhaps even his conscience? Muddying the circumstances are two comic-relief baseball announcers commenting on Trumbull’s life during a live telecast of the World Series.

Reminiscent of O. Henry, Ira Levin and The Twilight Zone, this terrific idea is hampered by a stiff production at Zombie Joe’s, but also by Mitchell’s obvious, dense and clunky dialogue (as Rod Serling said, “Coming up with ideas is the easiest thing on earth. Putting them down is the hardest”). In telling his fascinating pulling-back-the-layers-of-an-onion tale, there are many facts that arise regarding Trumbull’s past, but they are often written in esoteric, impenetrable prose. One particular monologue has Trumbull giving backstory about a child he had with his first wife, but the attempt at a Beckettian stream-of-consciousness sans humor began to numb my brain (I’m still trying to figure out what he means by saying that he ends up “one foot to the right”).

BreakingAndEntering@ZJU_PHOTO_5The script contains memorable bon mots and axioms (“Without truth, life is fiction”), but they are negated by juvenile dialogue unworthy of a playwright with higher aspirations: When Milly goes off on a tirade, Trumbull attempts to silence her with “Milly,” “Milly,” “Enough,” “Enough” and “Oh, for God’s sake.” Other superficial interjections throughout such as “What?” “Excuse me?” “Shut up!” “What?” “Excuse me?” “Shut up!” were like nails pounded into my forehead.

The play needs serious rethinking but it has potential. Unfortunately, it was bestowed a production that lacked believability at most every turn. As Milly, the lovely Katherine Canipe had a captivating urgency to start, but she soon became suffocated by Sebastian Muñoz’ astoundingly stilted direction which underutilized the small black box theater: The two leads stand center for interminable lengths of time, often staring straightforward. There was precious little sense of space, and never once for a moment did I believe this was Trumbull’s home, not helped by Redetha Deason and Muñoz’ weird set design which had two pennants alongside a shoji screen with Van Gogh’s Starry Night painted on it.

BreakingAndEntering@ZJU_PHOTO_4As the grumpy old novelist (you know, the type that talks back to the TV), Matthew Sklar displayed no remorse and no pain as one who is ostensibly at the end of his rope. With his wooden performance and stature, Mr. Sklar may well win Best Garden Gnome of the Year. Mr. Mitchell rightfully foregoes any “Save the Cat” moment (a cinematic trick where a charitable act makes an irascible character more likable); it is therefore up to Sklar and Muñoz to find some relatable aspect of an odious character who, as Milly’s novel dictates, is so regretful that blowing his brains out may be the only option.

The surrealism at hand is never chilling or threatening (if Trumbull isn’t scared, why should we be?), and the lack of character development on the part of both production and script nullifies the possibility of audience empathy. Whether intentional or not, the fact that both leads sound like they’re reading from a novel doesn’t work. If I wanted a book-on-tape, I would have stayed home.

BreakingAndEntering@ZJU_PHOTO_2The announcers are a device to heighten the supernatural aspect as they actually appear in Trumbull’s living room, occasionally interacting with him. The Vaudevillian sportscaster’s banter is a delightful welcome in an opaque 60 minutes, but their presence confuses and ultimately serves to diffuse the attempt at tension. It’s unclear why the actors appeared on stage versus just being heard as if they were on the radio; for me, hearing voices is far spookier than seeing silly sportscasters live. I enjoyed Jerry Chappell and Jason Britt as the Bob-and-Ray-type announcers, even though their dialogue could have been funnier and more plausible.

Loose ends too numerable to mention abound, but one sticks out: A baseball in a tiny glass box is introduced at the start. It appears that Milly, who confiscates it upon entering the room, is going to steal it. But nothing comes of it. Paraphrasing Chekhov: If a baseball is introduced, it better be batted before the play is over.

With no curtain call, the theater management scurried us out into the lobby. A friend was wary of going outside, wondering if the play was going to continue somehow. No, the play is over. I simply believe this production, so lacking in verisimilitude, utterly failed to realize the script’s potential. However, I invite Mr. Mitchell to continue working on it.

BreakingAndEntering@ZJU_PHOTO_3

photos by Muñoz-Weitzman

Breaking and Entering
Zombie Joe’s Underground
ended on November 29, 2013
for future events, call (818) 202-4120 or visit www.ZombieJoes.com/

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