Alana Dietze, left, and Sean Thomas in "Under the Desert" by… (Matt Richter )
Dusty truck stop. Lonely waitress. Mysterious stranger. A hoary premise can come alive in expert hands, but in Raymond King Shurtz’s “Under the Desert” at the Lounge Theatre, familiarity doesn’t breed much freshness.
Ellie (Alana Dietze) slings hash to sunstroked tourists on some Southwest road to nowhere. But she’s all alone when Tom (Sean Thomas) stumbles in, looking like an extra from “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” This creepy customer starts killing her softly with his whispery voice, reminding her of sharp memories he shouldn’t have any notion of. He knows her. He sees things. “Great,” retorts Ellie. “Did you see my red sweater, I can’t find anywhere.” Who is this guy? A shaman, a psychopath or just a hippie with low electrolytes? And what does he want with Ellie?
Shurtz was apparently inspired by John Patrick Shanley’s apache dance, “Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.” But if “Danny” is angry rock 'n' roll, “Desert” plays as New Age. This earnest show is perilously self-reflexive, least compelling when its characters lapse into solemn musings about God and fate.
Still, director Kiff Scholl draws restrained performances from Dietze and Thomas, who develop a credibly vulnerable rapport. Joel Daavid and Marine Walton’s scenic design combines with Matt Richter’s evocative sound and lighting to create an eerie remoteness that feels like the edge of the world. If only this romance were as starkly drawn as its desert setting.
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“Under the Desert,” the Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. $20. (323) 960-7776 or www.plays411.com. Ends Sept. 30. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.