Los Angeles Theater Review: REPLICA (Urban Theatre Movement at Asylum Lab)

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by Jason Rohrer on August 8, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


I hate it when people talk about the need to “support” a good cause. Guilt is simply bad salesmanship. It kills it for me. It killed Save-the-Whales, and it sure didn’t work in time for Cecil the Lion. I heard part of a KPFK pledge-drive recently that demanded a weep-track to underscore its reproaches. Guilt doesn’t work on a population as entitled as Americans. We like merit. Tell me about Cecil’s usefulness; tell me he was a good provider for his kids, that he helped the Zimbabwean economy, and maybe I’ll do more than click “like” on his picture. Tell me the 14 remaining blue whales are keeping the seas safe for democracy, tell me Black Lives Matter because you know what, cops are gonna run out of black people eventually and shoot me out of spite. But for god’s sake don’t appeal to my sense of virtue or fair play. That shit doesn’t work. I’m a taxpayer; make it worth something to me.

REPLICA by Urban Theatre Movement.

And Urban Theatre Movement (UTM) has a stated mission I find uninteresting in just this way. You’ve heard it from other idealistic young theaters—a diversity-positive, serve-the-underserved, voice-of-the-voiceless, good-intentions line. The problem is that in my experience lots of people mean well, but it is a rare artistic collective whose earnestness can transcend the lack of talent, training and experience that marks most young companies. Rare is the point, isn’t it? Quality is rare, or it’s not quality.

All I’ve seen of UTM is their excellent revival of Miguel Piñero’s Short Eyes a couple of years ago, and their current production of Paul Tully’s new Replica. But on short acquaintance I believe this is the kind of joint that deserves support. Not because it’s falling down, and not because this creaky old art form is so precious that we need to reward everybody who tries hard. Not not NOT because UTM gives a voice to the voiceless, but for the only reason that matters: Because it’s doing good work. All those fine intentions can only be served if the work itself is worth a damn—otherwise, what are we talking about?

Urban Theatre Movement's REPLICA.

Paul Tully’s decision to play double-debutant on Replica—first-time director of his first-ever play—turns out not to have been the best possible decision, but he’s earned it; he helped found the company of which he’s now president. And his work here far from sucks. A better director would do more justice to his extremely promising play, but there’s really good stuff despite the production’s shortcomings, and even occasionally because of them. It’s easy to give your heart to a production that overreaches itself in the right direction, that isn’t satisfied with staying within its competency. This show is hungry, and if the acting is sometimes too raw for its own good, the well-written moments sometimes staged flatly or awkwardly, the script purple or threadbare in spots, that just makes it easier for me to cheer for these scrappy bastards.

I use the male form on purpose—there’s a lot of testosterone at this company that likes plays about prison and pimpin’ and just basically being a bad motherfucker (in this play, even the women will happily kick your ass). Replica is about a scumbag Los Angeles speed dealer who gets in over his head, who falls in love, who loses faith and finds it again. There’s suspense, mounting jeopardy, redemption. There are scary bad guys and scarier worse guys. There’s a double handful of funny, poignant characters. Much of the acting is quite nice. And there’s a whole lot of very good writing.

REPLICA by Urban Theatre Movement

The first act, during which the dealer Mickey (Spencer Weitzel) digs his own grave with a meth pipe for a backhoe, is a perfectly constructed arc of rising action. Scenes from a flophouse motel spin out with ever-increasing abandon, ever-heightened consequences, into almost a screwball-comedy universe that executes a surprisingly assured change of tone and tempo before the act break. It’s the kind of first act that leaves you nervous at intermission, daring to hope. The second act is more predictable and less satisfying, losing momentum and story focus, not quite sure of where the climax is. The characters don’t do quite enough that surprises us. But it’s still a compelling and fascinating ride.

So much for the script, which if it were a wine would boast hints of David Rabe and a strong Steven Adly Guirgis nose. Tully’s direction is best before intermission, and he gets a lot of moments right—the show is scattered with loving details and grace notes, the first act declension is just lovely, and much of the staging is pretty and helpful. But he mishandles several moments and speeches that should either 1) not be staged as a series of showstoppers or 2) be cut altogether, some of them. Tully is not (yet, at least) one of those unicorn directors who can present his own writing to best advantage. I kept thinking what this script deserved was the hand of a Leo McCarey or Howard Hawks to heighten and maintain the Marx Brothers anarchy of nine junkies, whores, killers and illers during a 3-day debauch involving multiple substances, delivery systems, and sexual inclinations (although this show skews hard toward the blowjob).


Tully’s ensemble is not uniformly well cast—all the actors are game, but not all are convincing as vicious street hustlers. Moments of personal discovery go missing across the board, which speaks more to direction than to individual acting choices. But there’s a lot of strong work here. Weitzel is hyped-up and fidgety and checked-in at all times, rarely letting the external demands of performance distract from his intentions. He has to drive the show, and to borrow an allusion made by his character, it’s a neat piece of lead actor-as-quarterback stage generalship. Gisla Stringer gives a performance both busy and smart (they don’t always go together) as a would-be actress fresh from the Hollywood Greyhound station, and Aaron Lyons brings a detailed, rounded one-scene personage. (Triple-threat Lyons also did the effective lighting of Abdul K. Al-Khalili’s persuasive shithole set and, with Weitzel, the best sound design I’ve heard at the Asylum Lab, which can feel limited, technically.) And Cris D’Annunzio, with his usual all-in gravity, here gives my favorite of his four performances that I’ve seen.

The play itself is the star of the evening. Paul Tully is instantly a playwright of interest. With some script trimming, and some hard choices about the wants and needs of the lead characters, the last third of Replica will honor the urgency and clarity of the first half, and resolve with integrity a story that now rather hurriedly dissipates. But I don’t know which I want more—for Tully to rewrite this one and make it as good as it can be, or for him to move immediately forward and write a second, and better, play. Probably finishing his work here is the writer’s right step, developmentally. But I don’t like to wait. I want to see, and to support, the next one.

Urban Theatre Movement's REPLICA

photos by Charlie Jake Sanchez

Urban Theatre Movement
Theatre Asylum Lab
1078 Lillian Way in Hollywood
ends on August 23, 2015
for tickets, visit Brown Paper Tickets
for more info, visit Urban Theatre Movement

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