Stephen Gifford's elegant, troubling set signals that the Road Theatre production of Craig Wright's "Lady," now at the Lankershim Arts Center, will take us into uncertain territory. Framing the jagged, raked stage are panels depicting trees in various stages of autumnal change: some green, some vibrant orange, others fading into brown. Then you realize the panels are shaped like dog tags.
Wright sets up a juicy premise: The embittered Dyson (Shawn Michael Patrick) and sweet stoner Kenny (Matt Kirkwood) are waiting for Graham (Mark Doerr), a former classmate turned congressman, to show up for a reunion/hunting trip. As the morning wears on, Dyson reveals he's got more than fur in his target range: It seems Graham's recent patriotic speech about exporting freedom to the world has inspired Dyson's son to enlist. If the politician can't talk the kid out of the recruitment office, Dyson plans to kill him.
When Graham appears, a gun does go off -- but just who is to blame for what opens up into a painfully complicated history? Wright, who is also the creator of TV's "Dirty Sexy Money," has a curious way of turning our expectations inside out. What looks to be a schematic debate about the validity of the Iraq war twists into a meditation on middle age -- individual and national. What does one do with a life, or an empire, after it has followed a path beyond return? And who is the Lady of the title -- Kenny's lost dog, or Liberty herself?
Scott Allan Smith directs his solid trio with clarity. The play could be longer -- Wright's characters earn our curiosity. The three men are tied by an early, near-death experience, but we don't get a visceral sense of that incident. And Dyson's philandering, central to the play's conflict, is never explored in any depth. Still, "Lady" is the kind of intense theater that can make small performance spaces in Los Angeles cause for celebration.
Where: Road Theatre at Lankershim Arts Center, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood
When: 8 pm. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Ends: June 14
Contact: (866) 811-4111
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes