John Steppling's plays are hard to enjoy and hard to shake off. "The Dream Coast" at Taper, Too, drives you crazy with its drugged pace and its dank light. But this is a real writer exploring a real world.
In effect, it is an undersea world. Literally, its characters live in L.A.--downtown and in the Valley. But they're so sunk in inertia and pills that they could be sea turtles, drawing themselves through the murk.
What leads them on is some dim instinct to get it together. Weldon (Bob Glaudini) talks a lot about that. He has come to L.A. with a girl named Marliss (Elizabeth Ruscio) to find something better than what he had in Oklahoma City--maybe some sort of job with the movie industry. This is to be achieved by "getting organized."
Just for a few nights, Weldon will sleep on the couch of an old guy named Wilson (Alan Mandell), somebody he and his dad knew when they lived in L.A. years ago. Marliss will stay out in the Valley with a sullen couple named Drew and Lana (Michael Collins, Tina Preston.)
Drew and the old guy, Wilson, seem to have had some sort of business relationship together that has recently busted up. Maybe more than a business relationship. It's not spelled out (very little is, in Steppling's plays). At any rate, Drew has got it in for Wilson, and Wilson needs to have his building "torched" for the insurance money.
The torching is the play's central event; in fact, its only real event. Other scenes grope for event-hood, but don't achieve it, and that's part of Steppling's strategy, too. As usual, his people want to get it together. They try to make sense of their world. But it's beyond them to do so.
The men fake it. Drew swaggers around as if he really had connections somewhere, and Weldon imitates him in a rather fainthearted way. It helps to have a woman to brutalize, and both Lana and Marliss are too far down (especially Marliss) to fake it.
Old Wilson, however, is alone with some very bad memories, spoken by his dead wife's shade (Priscilla Cohen.) The only characters who like each other are a transvestite named Penny (Lee Kissman) and an auto mechanic named Bill (Robert Hummer.) They have a real old-fashioned marriage until Marliss comes along.
As bizarre as some of this may sound, the play's effect in the theater is one of monotony. This, too, is part of Steppling's strategy, although he'd probably resist the word. What he seems to be after, with all the pauses and dimness, is the feeling of a trance or a spell, reflecting the one that his characters are in.
That's hard to sustain for a full-length play. This production, staged by Steppling and Robert Egan, holds the attention more successfully than an earlier production on the Taper's New Theatre for Now "In the Works '85" series last year. But there are still sections where "The Dream Coast" seems as mannered in its groping silences as a Restoration comedy would be in its gab.
In other words, we're not drawn into the world of the play. Perhaps we can't be, to the extent that Steppling would like. We respond to stage characters with possibilities and his people are too far gone to have any.
Still, this needn't be as evident to them as it is to us. It would be interesting to give the play to a director who had had no consultation with the author--to see what a Steppling script would be like without the Steppling manner. Without adding false hope or false pep, it might have a tension that "The Dream Coast" doesn't have at Taper, Too.
The production also suffers from somebody's idea of putting a classical actor, Mandell, in a proletarian part. The rationale is that old man Wilson once had ambitions to be an actor. It doesn't justify this overly tragical, overly vocalized performance. Does John Gielgud talk about "broads"? Where is the Wilson who used to be in the costume shop at Warner's?
Actors like Glaudini and Ruscio and Kissman know Steppling's language to a fault, and sometimes it does seem a fault--she, especially, has never presented a more beaten and demoralized character. (The lighting by Paulie Jenkins is set high, emphasizing everybody's sags and wrinkles--there's sex in this show, but nobody takes any pleasure in it.)
A grim world. Steppling makes me believe in it, even when I don't believe in the performances. But after a half-dozen plays, it may be time for him to move on to another world. Catatonia is not a theme that admits of much variation.
'THE DREAM COAST' John Steppling's play, presented by the Mark Taper Forum at Taper, Too. Directed by Steppling and Robert Egan. Set design John Iacovelli. Costumes and hair design Nicole Morin. Lighting Paulie Jenkins. Original music and sound Daniel Birnbaum. Dramaturge Jack Viertel. Production stage manager James T. McDermott. Production assistant Hillary Fox. With Bob Glaudini, Alan Mandell, Elizabeth Ruscio, Michael Collins, Tina Preston, John Pappas, Lee Kissman, Robert Hummer, Priscilla Cohen. Plays Tuesdays-Sundays at 8 p.m. Closes Nov. 30. John Anson Ford Cultural Center, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East Hollywood. (213) 410-1062.