Non-American actors are forever teasing their American counterparts about the latter's need to find a motivation for a character. There was the time, for instance, when Dustin Hoffman went through painful preparation for a key scene in "The Marathon Man," and co-star Laurence Olivier asked him, "Why don't you just act?"
So it's a bit strange to notice how actor-playwright Jeff Koch, with every possible opportunity to actually provide motivations in his play, "Spike's," at the Limelight Playhouse in North Hollywood, leaves his catalytic character without a real reason for even being in the play. The announced reason for young, suburban Rick (John Ciccolini) to walk into Spike's, a seedy bar in a 42nd Street kind of neighborhood, and get involved with sleazoid peep-show owner Mickey is anything but motivation.
Rick says that he wants to see "the belly . . . the salt of the streets." Unfortunately, "Spike's" is chock-full of that kind of O'Neill-ified prose: purplish statements rather than dialogue, lines that tell rather than reveal. For a play concerned with examining the behavior of people willing to bring themselves down, it never examines Rick, without whom there's no play. Koch virtually admits as much when he has Rick say despairingly, "Why am I here?"
Indeed, the way Mickey comes on at first with his noxiously swaggering bravado, and the way owner Spike (Cosmo Canale) warns Rick what he's getting into gives Rick many, many more reasons to split right back to the 'burbs, and quickly.
Koch is trying to express various Catholic notions of temptation and redemption, with Rick as a close cousin to the good-but-damned guys in Martin Scorsese and Abel Ferrara movies. (Ciccolini even resembles Griffin Dunne's damned innocent in "After Hours.") Mickey terms himself "lost." Brenda (Collene Frashure)--the peep show star whom Mickey wants to turn into a porn film star--says she has "purged her demons." As thickly as this stuff is ladled on, Rick's own demons remain vague and undefined, causing a vacuum in the play's internal workings.
The other hole in "Spike's" is how it serves up a potentially intriguing group of archetypes--Spike as Wise Man, Rick as Innocent Man, Mickey as Devil's Agent, Brenda as Fallen Angel--but without archetypal resonance. Neither Koch's writing nor Jake Cofone's direction has the strength to make this a universal cautionary tale with spine-tingling dread. A good actor like Canale (he really feels at home behind the bar counter) is undone by a spew of mythic-sounding talk in his final confrontation with Koch's Mickey; a punch to the jaw would do.
Koch the actor is uncannily like Koch the writer, overacting his overwritten lines. His Mickey at first seems like just a harmless, hammy lush, but Koch can't take it that next step to Mickey the killer. He should be Mr. Intimidator, but Cofone's staging undermines this when Spike too easily grabs Mickey's switchblade from him. What? No gun?
Ciccolini smoothly conveys Rick's growing urge to match Mickey hustle for hustle, and always lets little glimmers of the suburban boy through the thickening skin. Frashure delivers Brenda's exhaustion with the life she has, but not at all her irrational subservience to Mickey: Frashure's Brenda seems strong enough to simply leave for good. That's a possible Brenda, but it's not the Brenda in this play.
Steve Epstein's lights have some expressive moments at the start of scenes, when vintage '50s Miles Davis can be heard. There's emotion in such wordless moments that most of this show is at odds with, but, deep down, aspires to.
WHERE AND WHEN
* What: "Spike's" at Limelight Playhouse, 10634 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood.
* Hours: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays.
* Price: $7 to $10.
* Call: (213) 466-1767.