Neil Landau is good at creating characters. One day he'll put a terrific play around them. It's what he tries to do in "Maps for Drowners" at the Tiffany Theatre, but it's not a perfect fit just yet.
The central idea that governs this comedy about eight people who all sublet the same New York apartment has merit. We can't give it away, but it provides two elements crucial to any play: second-act surprise and emotional impact. It's the getting there that needs more work. Such as filling in some necessary details.
Landau's good at setting up interrelationships, particularly that of Alan (John Scardone) and Nina (Kim Taylor). They're old friends, writing partners and gay. They find that fact liberating since sex can never become an issue between them. They've sublet this tiny one-bedroom New York apartment to get away from the madding Hollywood crowds--and write a screenplay on spec.
Things get strange when Rita (Lisa Kudrow) and Antony (Nicholas Chinlund) barge in. She's a poor little rich girl with a big mouth living off Dad's credit cards; he's her stud from Brooklyn who's all bod and no brains. They're in a rotten mood when they arrive and it only gets worse when they discover that the place is already inhabited. And it's legal besides. They all have keys and contracts.
This situation repeats itself as more strangers show up at the door: Connie (Barbara Stuart), an established novelist with a strong maternal instinct; Iris (Sharon Madden), a surly receptionist who walks around with a sign that says "Mug Me," for protection; Mercy (Ellen Plummer), a young woman with a phone connection to Jesus, and Tal (Ron Melendez), a latecomer to the pandemonium who may be one character too many.
The problems are mostly logistical. It's clear at the beginning that, like it or not, these people all have to squeeze into the apartment that first night because a convention has made hotel space nonexistent, there's a downpour outside and it's too late to call friends. Besides they're all going to clear up the mystery of the multiple rental first thing in the morning.
The premise starts to lose credibility when four days go by and they're still living there. Why is Connie, who has friends and an ex-husband in New York, not staying with them? Why is Rita, wealthy and spoiled, still sharing the window seat with her muscle boy? Why does Tal have to show up at all? He's so peripheral to the situation that the play would hardly miss him.
These unresolved aspects of the writing suggest that "Maps for Drowners" is still a work-in-progress. The plot would benefit from another round of buttoning up. The beginning of the second act has too many dead spaces in that lull when the situation is going nowhere and the big revelations haven't yet hit the stage. Director Allison Liddi juggles eight bodies on the limited floor plan with considerable success, but Landau needed an editor to ask some questions.
He has said, as the title implies, that this play is about fear--of life, of self, of writer's block, of rejection, of having babies, of terminal diseases. But his second act efforts to focus on these issues and bring these disparate people closer together (even as some of them are falling apart), are often forced and artificial.
Tal and Connie are the least interesting portraits, but Rita and Antony are vivid if not always believable, with enough raw language between them for the entire crowd. Madden's horsy Iris turns out to be a brick after all. And Nina and Alan manage to get into a shouting match over attitudes and gayness, while Mercy's beatific smiles sprinkle unendurable good will all around. None, however, ever becomes completely real.
The acting ranges from serviceable to excellent, with Kudrow and Chinlund the most colorful, and Madden the most human in the long run. But even the second act bombshell--the key to the mystery--is problematic. Though it's a nice one, it comes in the mail, and a letter is a passive device.
Production values are fine, especially Joshua D. Abramson's sound design. The problems, such as they are, lie elsewhere.
"Maps for Drowners," Tiffany Theatre, 8532 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. Thurdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Sept. 15. $16.50-$18.50; (213) 289-2999. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
'Maps for Drowners'
Kim Taylor: Nina
John Cardone: Alan
Lisa Kudrow: Rita
Nicholas Chinlund: Antony
Barbara Stuart: Connie
Sharon Madden: Iris
Ellen Plummer: Mercy
Ron Melendez: Tal
Producers Maura Minsky, Kristin Hahn. Director Allison Liddi. Playwright Neil Landau. Sets David Scaglione. Lights Lonnie Alcaraz. Costumes Bud James Thomas. Makeup/hair Sugano. Sound Joshua D. Abramson. Production stage manager Donald S. Fried. Stage manager Suzanne Waldman.