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THEATER REVIEW

No way to treat a king

Those living on society's margins have a tough time in `In Arabia We'd All Be Kings.'

February 02, 2007|Charlotte Stoudt | Special to The Times

Packed into the tiny Elephant Space Theatre, even the audience in the back row could call out a drink order to the bartender on set designer Joel Daavid's shabby Hell's Kitchen watering hole.

Not a bad idea -- a cocktail might take the sting out of being occupied. As the title of Stephen Adly Guirgis' play suggests, "In Arabia We'd All Be Kings," but in late 1990s Manhattan, things aren't so sweet with Rudy Giuliani sweeping the undesirables off midtown streets to make way for Walt Disney. Tough times for ex-con Lenny (Jason Warren), who can't even get a gig hustling credit card fliers, or Skank (Steven Schub), bargaining sex to pay for a morning smoke. Meanwhile, Charlie (Torrance Jordan) is all torn up over Skank's girlfriend, Chickie (Jade Dornfeld), on the streets trying to teach teenage mother Demaris (Carolina Espiro) the finer points of tricking.

Even their one safe zone, the neighborhood bar, won't survive this wave of gentrification. In "Arabia," prosperity's got a hard heart; as one character puts it, "Disney's spreading, just like the AIDS." The only trickle-down around here is the leak in the men's room sink.

This Elephant Theatre Company staging, produced in association with VS. Theatre Company, marks the L.A. premiere of the play that put Guirgis (and LAByrinth Theater Company cohort Philip Seymour Hoffman) on the map. Guirgis has gone on to write gritty, character-driven dramas and has honed a style that burrows through the profane to grasp at the sacred. His protagonists may be junkies and parolees, but they're no different from us. Life comes down to a series of small, desperate negotiations, whether it's for a pack of mini-doughnuts or a last chance at love.

David Fofi, one of L.A.'s best directors, keeps his exceptional cast grounded in each moment; their comedy and heartbreak feels equally earned, and the artistic discipline on view here finds strong chemistry with the play's outsized rhythms.

Guirgis isn't much for narrative momentum or closure but "Arabia" carries an undeniably cumulative power. When the actors stand onstage together for the curtain call, they don't break character and take a bow but merely regard us. Their stillness gives space to a fragile sense of community that is Guirgis' fever dream of connection, of true love among the ruins.

*

`In Arabia We'd All Be Kings'

Where: The Elephant Space Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays

Ends: March 3

Price: $20

Contact: (323) 960-4410

Running time: 2 hours

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