Place: a laetrile clinic somewhere in Baja, on the edge of the Sea of Cortez. Time: now. Characters: standard of the breed. Among them: two doctors, one talkative, one narcissistic; two patients, both dying; two drifters, both lost; a fortuneteller and his translator. Events: time ticking away.
That's one way to describe John Steppling's new play, "Sea of Cortez," at the Cast Theatre.
Another is to say that while Steppling's locales change, his characters take on new names and their circumstances shift slightly, he is still writing the same play about the same people--usually an antiplay about society's losers, heavy on mood and isolated scenes in which characters either barely speak or won't shut up.
It is certainly true of "Cortez," in which the arid surroundings reflect the aridity of the characters. Tall, laconic Eddie (George Gerdes), a drifter, is visiting his stepfather Mance (John Horn), a former trafficker in pornography and now a patient at a laetrile clinic run by a garrulous Dr. Cousa (Harvey Perr) and his sidekick, the vain Dr. French (Mick Collins).
Mance and a dying young man named Russ (Ron Campbell) are the only patients we see and presumably the only ones at the suspect clinic. At a nearby cafe sits an old fortuneteller (Lee Kissman) who speaks only in monkey chatter translated by a dark-eyed voluptuary (Soumaya Akaaboune) who might be his daughter.
The fortuneteller seems never to leave his table, as if mandated to be there to remind Eddie of his mortality. He delights in aggressively grabbing Eddie's hand and poring over his palm, making those cryptic utterances that the voluptuary translates.
Eddie is in this Baja hellhole with an older friend named Malone (John C. McLaughlin), another drifter even less penetrable than Eddie. Malone is not only on society's fringe, but even on the fringes of the play. He is a former partner of Mance's who feels Mance swindled him out of a fair share of the business.
So why are they there? Ostensibly, to watch Mance die. Malone almost says so, protesting he wants nothing from Mance. Eddie, however, does want something--but what? Affection? A sign? A key to understanding life, his own in particular? Eddie's unable to articulate his need or elicit a response.
The frustration, the oppressive clinic, the heat, the stasis, the yammering of the moralizing Cousa and the hammering of the fortuneteller provoke a single, ugly gesture by Eddie that forecasts a grim and violent future.
One of Steppling's co-directors accurately described him once as "a dark, brutal, neo-realistic painter in the theater." He is endlessly fascinated by society's flotsam: the sleazy, the disturbed, the disenfranchised, the abused, the superannuated. His plays are nightmare landscapes of the shriveled soul, somnambulistic and unremittingly depressing.
No one thrives in his pathological kingdoms. Everything has an airless, ascetic symmetry and moves in detached slow motion.
It is profoundly subjective theater, powerful yet difficult to embrace because it is so terminally despairing and virtually humorless. In this sense, Steppling is the only writer in our midst to work in a rigorous, indelibly personal style that Eugene Ionesco has called anti-theater or theater that is blatantly anti-theatrical--inward, anticlimactic and barely linear.
Also repetitive. Even with co-directors helping him shape his images on stage (in this case the talented David Schweizer), Steppling has a stranglehold on the production of his plays equal to the one he has on the writing of them. This insistence on total control results in a sameness that is at once his hallmark and his limitation.
No matter how talented his actors--and the ones in "Cortez," particularly Kissman, Horn, Campbell and Gerdes, are very high-powered--the plays possess a disconcerting interchangeability.
Eddie is like the Midwestern drifters of Steppling's "The Dream Coast" (1986). Dr. Cousa is another version of the obsessively talkative dog breeder in "Standard of the Breed" (1988). Steppling's women, at all times, have been wretchedly submissive objects of male dominance. Here they barely exist.
Unquestionably, the voice is hardening and there is growing assurance. But there is no real evolution. After "The Thrill" (1990), one had hoped Steppling might break free, or at least freer, from his narrow bonds of vision and tone. There were welcome intimations of humor. There still are (in Cousa's divagations), but they are still only intimations.
"Sea of Cortez" is, yes, another play in Steppling's lexicon, but not different enough from its predecessors to be called new in any but the most superficial sense.
"Sea of Cortez," Cast-at-the-Circle Theatre, 800 N. El Centro Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends May 17. $15; (213) 462-0265. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. John Horn: Mance
Lee Kissman: Fortuneteller
Soumaya Akaaboune: Translator
George Gerdes: Eddie
Harvey Perr: Dr.Cousa
John McLaughlin: Malone
Mick Collins: Dr. French
Ron Campbell: Russ
Producers Diana Gibson, Jill Goldman, Claudia Lewis. Director David Schweizer, John Steppling. Playwright John Steppling. Sets and lights Kevin Adams. Costumes Lance Crush. Sound O-Lan Jones. Production stage manager Nancy Tanner Miccoli. Assistant stage manager Justin Tanner.