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Theater | THEATER REVIEW

Fine acting, humor bring tragic 'Los Muertos' to life

November 18, 2005|David C. Nichols | Special to The Times

Locals familiar with the crumpled theatrical flair of Timothy McNeil may be unprepared for "Los Muertos," produced by Elephant Stageworks. Uninitiated theatergoers should make reservations. Showing more audacious humor and unsparing insight into behavior than ever, playwright-actor McNeil ("Margaret," "Crane, Mississippi") combs the gritty contradictions of the Hollywood drug culture to locate its heart.

Set in symbolic apartment squalor (courtesy of director David Fofi and a tight design team), "Los Muertos" concerns Russian-born Yevgeny (McNeil), a bottom-rung drug dealer whose pragmatic violence and mercurial wit cover a dead soul.

He functions, barely, as a malevolent authority figure to his clientele, such as Ivy League-educated Edward (Sean Thomas), whose heroin-driven sensitivity doesn't keep Yevgeny from nearly crushing Edward's skull. Bedraggled hooker Blossom (Kate Ascott-Evans) teases Yevgeny and debases herself in his armchair for a fix.

Crucially, Yevgeny's lover, Guatemalan refugee Amina (the transcendent Denise Blasor), agonizes over them all from her makeshift cot. Wracked by end-stage stomach cancer, Amina has her own redemptive agenda. It climaxes with Maura McGuinness' febrile lights presenting a heart-stopping apparition of Amina's lost child (Aldo Gutierrez, alternating with Andres Londono).

At times, the graphic hilarity and poetic tension almost implode, and the subtext runs on pure sentiment. That just makes the masterfully assured way that McNeil builds to the moving finale doubly remarkable. Director Fofi keeps the quirks at bay, the stakes honest, and his vivid, committed players are superb.

As Yevgeny, McNeil gives one of the year's finest performances, and Blasor's Amina meets him (Monica Sanchez assumes the role starting next Friday). Thomas and Ascott-Evans are both first-rate discoveries. Maria Forero and Turen Robinson finish the roster of this idiosyncratic, involving tragicomedy. "Los Muertos" isn't pretty, but just try to look away.

*

'Los Muertos'

Where: Elephant Space Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays

Ends: Dec. 4

Price: $15-$20

Contact: (323) 960-7822 or www.plays411.com/losmuertos

Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes

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