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Theater Review

Swept by Irony in the Desert

John Steppling's 'Dog Mouth' ventures into the stark, arid existence of a man whose disconnection from human emotion is the key to his survival.

January 18, 2002|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's been said that all great travelers wind up in the desert. Nature at its most unchanging, the desert is a pure and ferocious landscape with few distractions, where the mind's eye can be cast inward.

After many literary peregrinations, John Steppling ventures into the desert in "Dog Mouth," a play set in an arid wasteland somewhere outside of Phoenix. One of L.A.'s most distinctive home-grown playwrights, Steppling has spent the last few years in Europe, a fugitive from the soulless grind of the California dream machine. For Steppling, the play's current production at the Evidence Room proves both a homecoming and a departure.

Many of Steppling's past plays, such as "The Shaper" and "Dream Coast," were indigenous L.A. dramas inextricably linked to Hollywood and its environs. Down-and-outers scrabbling on the margins of Hollywood, the characters in those plays were typically sub-literates defined by their consumerist longings, whose drug abuse and criminal behavior brought them no closer to their shallow, shining dream.

The setting of "Dog Mouth"--the Arizona desert--is, in itself, a statement of intent for Steppling, a stripping away of the "Steppling-esque" elements that define his work. In this stark desert landscape, there is no there there--nothing to covet and little to desire--just a train track and sand, the central components of Jason Adams' strikingly spare set.

Dog Mouth (Stephen Davies), the protagonist of the play, lives an existence as bare as the country he inhabits. Gone too is the drug-fueled incoherence of Steppling's earlier heroes. Towering and lucid, Dog Mouth is almost Shakespearean in his utterances.

The head of a murderous hobo gang, Dog Mouth entertains no apparent need for human connection, save for his criminal conniving with scruffy underlings such as Becker (James Storm) and the occasional roll in the sand with Nyah (Nia Gwynne), his pregnant young girlfriend. Once a noted breeder of fighting dogs, Dog Mouth is considering buying a pit bull from Weeks (Hugh Dane), yet he wants nothing to do with Nyah or her child.

The irony is obvious. Steppling dabbled with similar themes in "Standard of the Breed," which also used fighting dogs as an operative metaphor. Here, dogs serve as a feral emblem for the disconnection that is essential to Dog Mouth's survival. When he brushes too close to human emotions, when Nyah asks him to "feel" their child moving in her womb, Dog Mouth must pull back--or suffer a fatal fall. A have-not with a vengeance, he's an elemental figure--Lear on a sandy heath, cast out by his own design.

*

"Dog Mouth," Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd., L.A. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Ends Feb. 17. $20. (323) 692-2652.. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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