Los Angeles Theater Review: LAND LINE (Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA at Atwater Village Theatre)

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by Jason Rohrer on June 15, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


PETER LARNEY, PETER JAMES SMITH, KATHERINE CORTEZSteven Dierkes has written the play one thinks of writing after a friend gets a brain tumor.  Like a character in Land Line, I once was a guy who talked long-distance day after day to a sick friend who’d had to move back into his parents’ house; if you live long enough, you’re going to keep track of someone’s chemotherapy regimen and grieve before the fact with his family and wish you could take more time off work to travel and see him once again.  You’ll have to make the existential decisions that allow you to function in the face of everyday tragedy.  Unless you’re an empath, you probably won’t write a more heartfelt play about it than this one.  Dierkes does a lot of compassionate, accurate reportage in this play:  the attempt by the relatively healthy one (Peter Larney) to cheer the invalid (Peter James Smith); the invalid’s desperate attempt not to need cheer; the inability of the mother (Katherine Cortez) to accept her imminent loss; the gruff stoicism of the stepfather (John Dennis Johnston) who is as deeply affected as anyone; the inevitable self-loathing on everyone’s part.

JOHN DENNIS JOHNSTON and KATHERINE CORTEZCortez and Johnston root the play in warm comfort, an instantly recognizable American Gothic middle-aged marriage.  These actors fulfill all the potential of their parts, offering moving and nuanced performances that take advantage of the writer’s most assured passages.  But the parents are not the protagonists.  Less clear are the characters of the two gay men whose long-distance friendship converges with vacation days spent in a cancer ward.  Smith and Larney are fine actors making the most of their roles – Smith’s technical work embodying various states of incapacitation is superb.  Larney invests a laconic depressive with a rich inner life hard to put a finger on.  But their relationship is dramatically incomplete in the writing, as it’s not clear what either of these characters really wants.  They run through patterns of behavior, soon so predictable that these good actors’ line readings can seem a bit glib; their goals are tenuous and iffy, and not interestingly developed, even the most essential existentialist goal.  It’s hard to imagine the world outside of these four characters, and so what any of them have to live for is a difficult question.

PETER LARNEY and PETER JAMES SMITHThis script touches on many fascinating elements of human behavior, and the joy of the play is watching these surprises come up.  There is ample opportunity for drama, and the script makes sincere gestures toward conflict and obstacle, but director William Charlton, who moves actors and furniture and mood with competence, cannot exploit what’s not there in the writing.  The intersection of lives lived in fear and panic is not enough.  There is not a single active character, and not a shred of subtext.  A story does not satisfy until someone tries to do something and either succeeds or fails.  The central question of this play is a foregone conclusion for everyone far too soon, and nobody uses the new information to change significantly.

JOHN DENNIS JOHNSTON, KATHERINE CORTEZ, PETER JAMES SMITHAnd yet I thoroughly enjoyed the mood I was in after the play. Dramatic issues aside, for at least one member of the demographic at whom the Rabbit Hole-esque drama seems to aim, it’s a very pleasant reverie on familiar traumas.  It’s like going home at a comfortable remove, so much so that I accosted Katharine Cortez afterward and insisted on hugging her.  She let me.  I think she’s going to get a lot of that, and so is the whole cast, because you hug your family when you see them.

photos by Kevin Riggin

Land Line
Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA
Speakeasy at Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue
Sat at 5 pm, Sun at 7 pm, Mon at 8 pm
(check for exceptions)
scheduled to end on July 21, 2014
for tickets, call (323) 644-1929 or visit EST/LA or Brown Paper Tickets

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