Los Angeles Theater Review: THE SOLID LIFE OF SUGAR WATER (Deaf West Theatre at Inner-City Arts)

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by Tony Frankel on September 14, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


Phil and Alice are in love, the kind of messy, well-known, commonplace love that many couples are familiar with. They meet cute in a post office when a package full of sex toys meant for his brother bursts apart. But don’t think you are in for a romantic comedy. This candid and sometimes ruthless one-act is about that inconsolable space that occurs between couples when a tragedy occurs. Once that happens, their bed becomes a sexual dead zone, with their thoughts so graphic about each other’s sexual performance that they are said as voiceovers. In Deaf West Theatre’s production, the actors remain clothed during the vivid dialogue, but it still causes great discomfiture. Instead of words, this young couple — desperate to connect after a stillbirth — clumsily tries to relate to each other physically. There are plenty of bread crumbs that may have you wondering: Do they even belong together? His voiceover tells us what she likes in bed; her voiceover completely contradicts him. The play, then, is not about the tragedy, but how the couple handles it.

Deaf West goes a step further, as they once again have hearing actors say the dialogue while deaf actors sign while acting. While the production values are positively tremendous, this may not have been the best script for such a device. The British playwright Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) has written plays based on other material, so it makes sense that his original two-hander is pocked with poetry (the “sugar water” in the title is Phil’s reference to Alice’s breast milk) but lacks a dramatic arc. By nature of the writing, which is still very beautiful, the non-linear play interrupts itself and the lines are dripping in poetic-speak and pseudo-realism, as if to copy the way we really think and talk, but in a theatrical way. Because of this, I was never bored for the 80 minutes, but neither was I fully engaged.

Alice (the brutally luminescent Sandra Mae Frank) is Deaf, which Phil (the adorably gawky Tad Cooley) finds exotic. She finds him “terribly English” because of the way he keeps apologizing. But where are we? His voice (a magnificent, amazing find, Nick Apostolina) is British, but hers (the vulnerable yet cheeky Natalie Camunas) is American. There’s mention that she reads lips extraordinarily well, but his signing is pretty good. Meaning, this play — dramatic but dramatically slight — may have been better as it was written — a two-hander — so that the discomfort is upped even more.

While specificity lacks in that department, director Randee Trabitz has assembled, along with her terrific ensemble, a stunning design team. Set designer Sean Fanning’s bedroom is angled such that the audience appears to be floating over the bed eavesdropping; when Phil sets down a cuppa tea and it doesn’t fall over, the coup de théâtre actually got applause on opening night at the Inner-City Arts’ Rosenthal Theatre, a fantastic, safe oasis in the heart of Skid Row. Brilliantly integrated are Derrick McDaniel’s lights, Heather Fipps’ moving projections, and Noelle Hoffman’s spooky sound.

photos by Brandon Simmoneau

The Solid Life of Sugar Water
Deaf West Theatre
Rosenthal Theater, Inner-City Arts, 720 Kohler Street
Thurs – Sat at 8; Sun at 3
end on October 13, 2019
for tickets, call 818.762.2998 or visit Deaf West

{ 1 comment }

Sally September 14, 2019 at 1:03 pm

It’s a nuance that Deaf audiences will understand and hearing audiences won’t get, but Phil’s signing is not in fact “pretty good.” The way the ASL is scripted for this production, Phil’s ASL is intentionally awkward. Which perhaps gives credence to your assertion that this play should remain a two-hander…

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