Los Angeles Theater Review: THE FACE IN THE REEDS (Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica)

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by Jason Rohrer on August 24, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles

THE RUBRICS OF FAITH

A play as well presented and satisfyingly written as most of Robin Uriel Russin’s new The Face in the Reeds deserves special mention. The Family Holiday Dramedy with Heart is normally a dismal category, rarely featuring characters this sharp or dialogue this funny. The genre has its limitations, and through prudence or overcaution Russin stays well within its boundaries. As an exploration of Jewish feminist identity, it’s mildly effective. As a credible investigation of problems common to any family, it is a little mushy. As drama, it falls rather short. But as a story of humans relating to each other in such a way as to dispose an audience charitably to the world around, it is a winner. And that is no small thing.

Hosting her first Passover Seder since her recent conversion from Catholicism, Christina (Stacey Moseley) deals with:

  • an alienated stepdaughter (Julia Arian), back from college to come out as a lesbian;
  • a mouthy 12-year-old son (Aidan Blain) preparing for his bar mitzvah;
  • a stoner father-in-law (Paul Zegler), in remission from cancer;
  • her husband’s goyish prospective business partner (Tom Berklund);
  • her devoted obstetrician husband (Chip Bolcik);
  • her own conflicts about the damage to her faith caused by her first marriage.

These are excellent actors with good stuff to do. It’s a good show. It would be even better if its writer and director had more faith in their materials.

Tom Berklund (as Patrick) and Julia Arian (as Rachel) in THE FACE IN THE REEDS.The script’s foundations would only be strengthened by removal of its unnecessary overt gestures toward theatricality, fourth-wall breaking monologues to an undefined listener (our role as the character’s confidant is not clear; why we should be privy to intimacy with this family occasion is, in this staging at least, utterly ignored). This happens sometimes: A writer writes speeches that explicate and metaphor-up a play’s given circumstances. Unfortunately, the speeches are more direct, corny, and on-the-nose than the play behind them. These speeches serve as a pander to the slowest in the audience, and look like lazy exposition more profitably worked into the dramatic action. They’re also written in a more sober, didactic tone than the rest of the show. The correct thing to do with such speeches is to cut them. This can still happen, and the show will be both funnier and more poignant for their absence.

Julia Arian (as Rachel), Tom Berklund (as Patrick), Stacey Moseley (as Christina), Chip Bolcik (as Barry), Paul Zegler (as Sol), and Aidan Blain (as Mose) in THE FACE IN THE REEDS.Similarly, director Sarah Figoten Wilson needs to trust that she’s got a good script, and suck the air out of this peppy play. Across the board, these good actors invest again and again in Playhouse 90 naturalism, emoting and taking their time with moments that are written to bounce back and forth like matzoh from a kitchen wall. The jokes and acting are well-crafted enough to play anyway, but those moments, and ultimately the evening, drag somewhat as a result of actors naturally steering their characters toward individual performance at the expense of the larger project. With a couple of brisk run-throughs for cue pick-ups, Wilson could solve this problem and also assist in pulling focus from the play’s weaker subplots. It’s easier for me to invest in questionable circumstances when I don’t have time to consider their logic or stakes.

Aidan Blain (as Mose) and Stacey Moseley (as Christina) in THE FACE IN THE REEDS.Moving the actors well, if not always creating the most interesting or informative stage picture, Wilson makes good use of a perfect middle-class Jewish home designed by Amy Ramirez. Mike Reilly’s lights are a little abrupt, but given the rudimentary equipment he has to work with he does a yeoman’s job. Katelin Phillips’s costumes are excellent storytelling tools, with the exception of one that, while flattering, is too generically Collegiate Slob to (as the script demands) announce a sexual orientation, or hint strongly at it. Overall, though Jewish families are among the most overrepresented comic fodder on American stages, this is a nice premiere of a play much closer to having its elements properly aligned than most.

photos by Ed Krieger

The Face in the Reeds
Ruskin Group Theatre
3000 Airport Avenue in Santa Monica
scheduled to end on October 11, 2014
for tickets, call (310) 397-3244 or visit www.ruskingrouptheatre.com

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