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REVIEW

Examining the geopolitical landscape

'Mayhem' posits the dangers of detachment in perilous times.

March 28, 2003|F. Kathleen Foley | Special to The Times

Chafing against the bonds of a failing marriage, a Los Angeles housewife finds sexual and intellectual fulfillment with a dashing journalist, who soon asks her to run away with him.

"The Bridges of Los Angeles County"? No, the drama is Kelly Stuart's "Mayhem," a world premiere at the Evidence Room. Don't judge the play based on that plot snippet. Stuart has larger aims than your standard romantic weepy. In fact, she intends nothing less than to tackle the geopolitical woes of the world, as filtered through the microcosm of one dysfunctional marriage.

Stuart doesn't always achieve that grandiose goal. But her play, written in part to expiate her own lingering horror at witnessing a gang murder, is straightforward, deftly executed and bitterly witty. And if not as intellectually cogent as it should be, it is always refreshingly wry in Bart DeLorenzo's fierce and funny staging, which features the virtuosic design elements -- Martin McClendon's set, Rand Ryan's lighting, John Zalewski's sound -- that are standard fare in Evidence Room productions.

Set on the cusp of the 2000 Democratic National Convention, the play revolves around Susan, underplayed to perfection by Megan Mullally, the Emmy-winning sidekick from the series "Will & Grace." A new mother and sometime author, Susan has been increasingly isolated by her demanding, sarcastic husband, David (acerbic Nick Offerman), a former junkie and punk rocker who's become a drug rehab counselor. One of the few friends willing to brave Susan's rundown Los Angeles neighborhood is Claire (stunningly funny Cheryl White), a bleeding heart whose knee-jerk self-righteousness alienates people in droves. All three have, or had, artistic pretensions; all three are obligatory leftists; and all three are desperately unhappy victims of their own shortcomings.

Into this moral drift drops a lodestone: Wesley (Jason Adams), a focused and magnetic journalist passing through town en route to Afghanistan. In short order, Susan confides her anguish over witnessing a gang murder in her old Echo Park neighborhood, and Wesley unloads his pain over a journalist pal's suicide. Granted, those seem scant reasons for Susan and Wesley's star-crossed attraction -- a trumped-up trigger for Susan's transformation from housewifely complacency to political radicalism.

Even though the characters' backgrounds and motivations are not always clear, major themes take shape. Stuart's main point concerns the danger of noninvolvement -- Susan and David's failure to intervene in the gang slaying; Wesley's inability to stop his friend's suicide; and the fatal disengagement of that friend (based on real-life photojournalist Kevin Carter), whose detachment from the suffering he chronicled plunged him into despair.

In the months since this play was written, the country has been plunged into a period of critical involvement, a high-stakes gambit that may well alter the geopolitical landscape forever. Keeping abreast of political trends in these parlous times would require a psychic playwright. Kelly is certainly not that. But if her voice, howling in the wilderness, is not always intelligible, it is always piercing.

*

'Mayhem'

Where: The Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles

When: Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m.

Ends: April 19

Price: $20-$25

Contact: (213) 381-7118

Running time: 2 hours

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