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Overheard In The Bathroom

July 4, 2007

A rotating cast with one-dimensional characters and little time for rehearsal — not a recipe for good theater

I should have paid closer attention to the warning signs. The play had run for eight months in Los Angeles, but despite boasting "rave online reviews," had not once been covered in the press. The plot summary featured the phrases "uninvited party guest," "for mature audiences only," and "toilet." The production was originally conceived not for the stage but as an experimental film script.

Yet I was intrigued enough by the process behind Eavesdropper to want to drop in to the Off-Market Theater to witness the production for myself. Billed as "L.A.'s Currently Longest Running Play," this dark comedy produced by the Los Angeles-based Renegade theater company recently evolved into a twin-town affair. Through a partnership with San Francisco's Combined Art Form Entertainment (C.A.F.E), there are now productions of Eavesdropper running concurrently here and in L.A. The cast changes nightly — or twice-nightly, to be precise. In S.F., there are two shows on Fridays and Saturdays, resulting in up to four different ensembles per week. And, most intriguingly, the production has resulted in an unusual exchange between Southern and Northern California-based actors. S.F. cast members regularly act in the L.A. version, while L.A. performers take on roles in the play over here.

Now, I'm all for cross-fertilization in the theater. Without the coming together of artists from different backgrounds, the world would never have had the privilege of experiencing British director Declan Donnellan's Russian-language Shakespeare productions or the multicultural Mahabharata of Peter Brook. But at least as far as this latest marriage of geographically disparate theatrical sensibilities is concerned, local audiences might have been better off in recent weeks if gasoline prices in California had risen so high that the actors couldn't afford to drive or fly anywhere.

It's rarely that I identify as closely with a character on stage as I did with the eavesdropper, a young man unfortunate enough to find himself trapped in a bathtub for the entire duration of S. Lamar Jordan's play. On the run from the cops (though the reason for his flight is never quite made clear), the suspect ducks into a nearby house only to discover a party raging around him. As the intruder cowers behind the hostess' shower curtain, wondering when he might be able to escape, various party guests stumble into the bathroom to powder their noses and reveal their most intimate secrets and desires.

It turns out to be the longest night of the eavesdropper's life — not to mention ours. For more than 1 1/2 excruciating hours, we watch with growing agitation and disbelief as, among other things, a pair of pouting Valley Girls screech at each other about sex; a bare-chested gay man leaves endless, whining messages on his ex-boyfriend's voice mail; and a lapsed AA member has vanity-tableside conversations with his trusted confidante — a poker chip named "Chip." About a third of the way through the play, the man in the bathtub quietly falls asleep, his slumber rudely interrupted every now and again by a rape, a beating, and several fights. I briefly considered borrowing the hostess' razor, jumping into the tub with the eavesdropper, and turning on the hot tap.

If Eavesdropper feels like an improv class aimed at aspiring television soap and sitcom actors rather than a fully developed stage play, it's probably partly due to the fact that the cast members don't have much of a script to work with. The characters are so one-dimensional that it's almost as if the playwright had given each actor a single personality trait like "angry lesbian," "bored cop," or "oafish frat boy" and simply told them to get up on stage and act out the clichés. The unripe, improvisational atmosphere is further underlined by the fact that all the action takes place in a narrow wedge of space in the middle of the cluttered stage. The right side is reserved throughout for the bathtub and its unwitting bather, while clusters of actors at assorted levels of drunkenness and debauchery mill about distractingly in "party mode," stage left.

Far from enriching the theatrical experience, the constantly changing cocktail of L.A. and S.F. cast members only serves to exacerbate the flawed script and monosyllabic blocking. According to Matthew Quinn, C.A.F.E.'s producing artistic director (though not the director of the play itself — that honor befalls Andrew Libby), the L.A. run was conceived much like a TV soap opera, with a revolving cast and therefore very little rehearsal time. It was originally mounted in roughly two weeks, with new actors coming on board with as little as a couple of days' rehearsal. "The actors basically learn their lines, walk the scene through once or twice, and then just get up and do it," Quinn explained in a phone conversation the other day.

But no matter how accustomed an actor might be to delivering a performance under these challenging conditions, the soap opera approach isn't necessarily an asset, especially for a theater production that involves fluctuating casts from differing backgrounds. Eavesdropper isn't a vehicle for a couple of TV stars, with supporting actors popping in and out according to the demands of a weekly script. It's a live piece of ensemble theater, and as such, requires extreme synergy from everyone on stage. It's pretty difficult for actors to achieve the necessary repartee among their characters or understand the dynamics of the drama if they don't get to rehearse or perform with the same scene partners on a consistent basis. And without that crucial sense of ensemble, the relationships cannot remain anything but stupefyingly superficial.

This exchange between Southern and Northern California actors doesn't quite work on stage, but it's apparently proving fertile off it. According to Quinn, performers at both ends of I-5 are learning new techniques from their counterparts up north or down south. Quinn says that S.F. actors are discovering ways to "just get up and do it" while L.A. actors are acquiring renewed dedication to their craft. These sound like gross generalizations to me — S.F. actors are every bit as capable of thinking on their feet as L.A. performers, and Southern California actors know just as much about acting technique as we do up here. Still, I do buy the notion that the project is providing wonderful opportunities for networking between the two camps. It's just a shame that it takes paying members of the public to act as a catalyst for the conversation.



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