Monday, July 30, 2012

Mutually Assured Destruction by Peter Lefcourt

Brynn Thayer, Bobby Costanzo, Michael Caldwell

By Joe Straw

The billboard outside the Odyssey Theatre and, the cover of the program, exposes a group of adults, naked in bed, having a martini, eating Altoids, reading a book, and poking a calculator.  They are all very good friends, in the ways one or one may not think, and misbehaving badly in Theatre Planners's World Premier of Mutually Assured Destruction written by Peter Lefcourt, directed by Terri Hanauer, and marvelously produced by Racquel Lehrman at the Odyssey Theatre through August 26, 2012.

Okay, truth be told, there’s no bed, and no naked inhabitants, but there are boxes-on-coasters that move around the stage to give us all sorts of settings, the restaurant, the living room, the pool, Dodger Stadium, the Staple Center and possibly Moscow Square.  (Who knew?)

The play starts long ago, probably before the peek of the Cold War, when kids were told to “duck and cover” in case of an attack of nuclear weapons by a foreign country. The powers that be were trying to win the cold war without destroying the world as we know it and, in their quest to save humanity, they gave us paranoid humans beings that will stop at nothing to destroy each other.

Did I say this was a comedy?

It is. In fact, it is a wonderfully well-written comedy by Lefcourt.  In fact, between the laughs, I kept thinking to myself: OMG this is really good.  (And if I remember correctly I did not say the words, I said the letters.)  

Celine Diano, Scenic Designer, has a map of the world upstage center and this plays an important part in the play.  On the map, Velcro pieces are carefully placed around the world, Moscow, North Korea, Canada, South Korea, Patagonia and other strategic places. An enlarged Risk board game, if you will, to be played for and by adults.

Arnie (Kip Gilman) is a graphic designer who loves everything about the cold war.  Nothing is as titillating as the ideal of the USA and Moscow going at it without actually firing the big guns.  He salivates at the thought of Salt I, Salt II, and nuclear submarines. He loves the very idea of the Cold War. 

Arnie actually felt secure by the thought that everyone was scared and no one, in their right mind, was going to push the button. It was a Mexican standoff. To push the button meant it would be a mutually assured destruction (MAD) and no one wanted that.

The Cold War is analogous to Arnie’s story.  Things can quickly escalate out of control, just like the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The story starts when Arnie drives from the Westside to the Canoga Park, California to get an oil change.  For those of you that don’t live in California, this is a terrible drive on a good day and Arnie does so just to save twenty dollars. On his way back, he stops at La Casa de Pepe Mexican restaurant and sees his married friends, accountant Murray (Bobby Costanzo) and Eve (Brynn Thayer), having wine and making out.   The problem is that they are married to other people.

He sees them, they see him, and everyone stops what they are doing. Arnie runs out of La Casa de Pepe.  On their way out, Murray and Eve make up a story as to why they were there.

Arnie decides that he has obtained a nuclear weapon, should he decide to use it.

When Arnie visits Murray to prepare for his taxes, Murray acts as though nothing happened the previous day.  In fact, Murray is seemingly non-chalant when talking about the new tax structure, although he warns Arnie will require morphine rather than aspirin to alleviate the pain.  Murray views Arnie’s scattered receipts and suggests doing something illegal to avoid the taxes. He assures Arnie that if he gets caught; he has only a 1.2% chance of going to prison.  

Murray, trying to establish an alibi, says that he was in Canoga Park meeting with his lawyer.

Arnie, addressing the audience, takes a photo and tells us that Murray is Moscow complete with Red Square garb, and attaches it on the map.

Later, Arnie wants to explode with this knowledge and tell someone. But he doesn’t want to tell his wife, Carol, because then he would have to explain going to Canoga Park to save $20 and his wife will, once again, accuse him of being cheap.  

Carol (Gina Hecht) is home reading 50 Shades of Grey.  When Arnie enters, she quickly hides the book.

“… talked to Eve?” – Arnie

“Yesterday.” – Carol

“Are Herb and Eve happy?” - Arnie  

Arnie’s innuendo peaks Carol’s interest. This makes him the lowest rung on any security clearance ladder, bar none.  

Meanwhile Herb and Myrna (Gwendolyn Druyor) are playing housewife and the plumber guy who comes over to clean out “her pipes”.

“Let him with clean hands cast the first stone.” Eve on Arnie’s message machine.

Arnie suspects that Eve knows about his one-time unfulfilling extra-marital fling with Denise, an agent.  Eve has a nuclear weapon and she is a loose cannon. 

Eve is North Korea.

So now Herb (Stuart Pankin), Eve’s husband, invites his best friend Arnie to a Laker game. Arnie hesitates, not wanting to reveal the secret. But free tickets? Sure.

Meanwhile Eve and Carol meet in a coffee shop. The sardonic Barista (Michael Caldwell) mystically gives them what they need.  Carol asks Eve if everything is okay.

At the basketball game, Herb tells Arnie that he thinks his wife is having an affair. Herb feels “72 – 75% sure” that she is having an affair.

Herb is labeled as South Korea.

Later that night, Herb confronts Eve about where she goes.  Though feeling guilty, Eve denies everything. She is so mad at Arnie, who she believes to be the source of the security leak, that she sends him a photo-shopped photo of Denise and him lounging on a chair.

Later, Murray and Eve are together, and they are going for the record.

At the spa, Carol and Myrna, Murray’s wife, wait for a waxing. Carol learns that Myrna is a little sex pot and doesn’t seem to care what people do in bed.  And to top things off Myrna likes her wax hot and applied nastily by the attendant (Michael Caldwell).  (Some people have really good jobs.)

“You told Herb!” – Eve

“I didn’t!” – Arnie

Eve and Arnie meet at Le Casa de Pepe to clear the air. Instead they get entangled for a brief moment and a private investigator (Michael Caldwell) hired by Herb sees them and takes photos.

This is a fantastic cast of seasoned professionals that stop at nothing to give you a great performance and many laughs along the way.

l - r  Gwendolyn Druyor, Brynn Thayer, Kip Gilman, Bobby Costanzo, Stuart Pankin, Gina Hecht

Michael Caldwell is wonderful as the Waiter and Barista and other characters.  Each character is dramatically different: from the Mexican restaurant waiter, the Chinese Waiter, the bitter about life chai waiter, to Jeeves the butler who strains to lift his arms and speaks like a beaten dog on his last leg. Caldwell is very creative and tremendous in these roles.

Bobby Costanzo as Murray, the accountant, is quite magnificent with his tool belt and his New York accent. He sets the Cold War in motion by doing something he’s not supposed to be doing with someone wife he’s not supposed to be doing it with. He is clever about the ways in which he satisfies his partner(s) as well as his wife.  He is, in one word, insatiable.  (It’s always the accountant that gets the girls.)

Gwendolyn Druyor as Myrna is the lonely housewife.  The young petite thing at home waiting for her husband to come home from his romantic encounters. But we should not feel entirely sorry for her as she is a demander of love and she gets what she demands. There is a lot to be said about her performance. Her character is someone we have much sympathy for in the beginning but toward the end, we realize that she is in the game as well.  This was a job well done.

Kip Gilman as Arnie does the unthinkable. He travels from the Westside to Canoga Park to get a nineteen-dollar tune up because he is “so cheap”.  He needs to use the bathroom, stops at a Mexican Restaurant, and he happens to run into his friends who are having the affair. (Well for gosh sakes, they are practically doing it on the table at the Mexican restaurant. What is he suppose to say:  “Hi guys.” And then grab a chip?) Saying nothing turns out to be the same as inserting the keys into the ICBM missile hole. Gilman as the character Arnie breaks the fourth wall and lets loose a stream of conscience thoughts. He lets us in on what he is trying to do, how he is going to manage the predicament he has got himself into, and how he is going to keep his friendships and not destroy his marriage.  His performance is terrific.

Gina Hecht as Carol is the innocent bystander.  The wife who knows nothing about what has happened until her husband runs back and tells her.  Her curiosity gets the best of her and she confronts the guilty party and she casually asks the question that ignites the fires of the guilty. Hecht does a marvelous job.

Stuart Pankin as Herb does a remarkable job. He is outrageously funny and menacing in the same breath.  This is a character you do not want to cross because, if you do, death may be near.  And in a display of unspeakable horrors, he takes his box of Altoids and commits a heinous crime directed at his best friend, no less. Pankin gives a terrific comedic performance where one can’t help but laugh at his pain. 

Brynn Thayer as Eve is stunning and does a fantastic job. She is the catalyst for a myriad of problems in the numerous situations.  It is a grand physical performance and sympathetic as well.

Terri Hanauer, the director, does a fine job with the actors and keeping the action moving.  There are a lot of funny moments in this play and the direction was spot on.

Peter Lefcourt, the writer, has written a very funny play. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything like this, ever.  This play is so Los Angeles, all of the references ring true to LA: “I had to walk all the way from Culver City” to Montana.  The second act needs a specific resolution to get to the conclusion but anyone who has lived and loved in Los Angeles is going to love this show.

Go and take someone who loves Los Angeles people and stories.

No show would be successful without a marvelous crew and they are:

Michael Gend – Lighting Designer
Kristen Anacker – Costume Designer
Dino Herrmann – Sound Designer
Adam Haas Hunter – Scenic Builder
Tracy Silver – Choreographer
Mormon Boling Casting – Casting Director
Rita Cofield – Production Stage Manager

Reservation:  323-960-5772

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