Depending on how you look at it, American Theatre Arts' West Coast premiere of "Full Hookup" is either the "Streetcar Named Desire" of the '80s or just another lousy evening in Hollywood.
Conrad Bishop and Elizabeth Fuller's tragedy, winner of the 1982 Louisville Great American Play Contest, in fact is something of both, a shattering depiction of domestic malaise that's as unforgettable in its impact as it is ugly in its presentation.
The title (a reference to the state-of-the-art mobile home where most of the action takes place) serves as an ironic counterpoint to the disconnected lives of the main characters.
There are two parallel stories, the first that of a battered wife and her near-psychotic husband, the other that of the girl's mother, a religious fanatic who is herself a battered wife.
While domestic violence provides the framework for the plot, Bishop and Fuller are interested in something more than a theatrical version of, say, "The Burning Bed." In a singularly cynical turn of events, mother and son-in-law are reconciled only after he bashes his young wife's brains out with a skillet, establishing a new--and even more chilling--victim/victimizer relationship.
Clearly, these aren't the sort of people one would invite over for dinner. But Bishop and Fuller are astute observers of aberrant psychologies, and it's to their credit that the characters never seem anything less than real--perhaps too much so. It's hard not to sympathize with the mother's employer (played with perfect slow-burn timing by Shea Doqui) when she screams, "I don't want to know people like that. I just don't have the time."
If "Full Hookup" is an often difficult show to like, it's also impossible to ignore.
Director Justin Lord's bold expressionistic staging has a raw, primal force, underscored by the stark black-and-white design of Don Eitner's set and R. L. Bross' costumes. After a while it becomes increasingly difficult to read the action as anything other than a morality play--a modern-day myth that rings with a terrifying truth.
The performers bring a similar intensity to their roles. As the mother, Babbie Green is immeasurably affecting in her inability to transcend her own insecurities (original star Jeanne Hepple returns to the part this weekend).
Elisa Abelleira makes the daughter at once pitiable and contemptible, and Keith Cox's wife-beater is horrifyingly matter-of-fact. Lending the proceedings a welcome note of normalcy is Floyd Levine as the mother's married suitor.
In the end, Fuller and Bishop suggest that these people are really no different from everyone else, that their actions are perhaps merely the outward manifestations of our own repressed emotions. It is a disturbing conclusion, and while its unsettling implications may not suit all tastes, for those with strong enough stomachs there isn't a more satisfying evening around.
Performances at 6240 Hollywood Blvd. run Wednesdays through Sundays, 8 p.m., Sundays 2 and 7 p.m., until Feb. 15; (213) 466-2462.