Those who follow Los Angeles theater likely know about playwright-director John Steppling and his plays about snubbed, wasted lives. Like any strong-willed artist, he has supporters and detractors. The long-held knock against him: Snubbed, wasted lives can lead to snubbed, wasted plays.
What has been largely missed in evaluations of Steppling's works (more than a dozen in fewer years) is his consistency in exploring facets of his chosen world and in refining the steadily paced rhythms of his scenes and language.
It is because of this pacing that Steppling has always insisted on being his own director. With his new production, "Teenage Wedding," at the Cast Theatre, Steppling's intentions and executions have come to powerful fruition.
His plays are almost always in Los Angeles or the surrounding desert--the artificial and true environments, at war with each other. "Teenage Wedding" is situated in a kind of phony ecology: the Salton Sea, now a dying lake formed by a Colorado River flood. Dee (Suzanne Fletcher), a woman belonging to an Italian drug dealer named Carlo--women here tend not to lead independent lives--sums up the locale when she remarks that "this is the kind of place that makes you forget why you came here."
That is not dramatic writing for people who like their characters to reveal themselves primarily through action. But for those who like to listen to characters staking out their position in an absurd world (think of Hamlet, or Samuel Beckett's people), "Teenage Wedding" provides the genuine article.
Dee's remark also sums up the dilemma of several of the characters here, particularly odd since Carlo (Robert Glaudini) and the motel owner he is doing business with, Spicy Pabst (Richard Riehle), are deep into a drug deal. This requires concentration and follow-through, as Spicy might put it, but the heat seems to be dissipating everyone's stamina.
So Steppling carefully unreels a tale of male impotence, structured by a series of snapshot scenes. They're not short; in fact, they're longer and more developed than in many of his past plays. But given the stark diorama effect of Nick Flynn's and Erika M. Brich's fine two-room set, the creepy, dirt-mustard tone of Erika Bradberry's lights and Steppling's way of beginning and ending scenes in a freeze, we're observers on a world we want to keep a distance from.
This phenomenon is what distinguishes Steppling's work from the bulk of "new, original" plays, where the author's yearning for us to identify with the main character can verge on a sales pitch.
Spicy Pabst is loathsome, declining from a scummy Oceanside detective to a scummier drug trader. But with the sculpted dialogue and Riehle rumbling through the part like a hilariously overweight bull in a china shop, Spicy is oddly funny in his Hawaiian shirt or talking about golfing at Pebble Beach. Trash, but fascinating.
These motel rooms, to be sure, have sympathetic beings in them. Megan Butler's Helen has a very felt monologue about how boys in the low Southern California desert learn violence. Lola Glaudini's teen-age Debbie is like a small deer that has wandered off into coyote country. Jim Storm's Joe is every would-be artist who has lost his career track--the prototypical character from a writer who keeps on his own track like a bloodhound.
At 800 N. El Centro Ave., Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 7 p.m., through Aug . 6. Tickets: $12-$15; (213) 462-9872.