The cast of "pool (no water)" at Flight Theatre at the Complex. (Jazmin Monet Estopin )
Mark Ravenhill, the English playwright best known for his play with the unprintable title (let's just call it "Shopping and Copulating"), isn't one for bromides and gooey sentiments. In "pool (no water)," now receiving its L.A. premiere at the Complex's Flight Theatre in a highly visceral Monkey Wrench Collective production, he exposes the darker side of the artistic underground. Suffice it to say, this isn't about the nobility of the creative calling.
The premise of this work, first performed in 2006, is attention-grabbing: A visual artist (serenely played by Jessica Lamprinos) who has hit the big time throws a party for her envious boho friends and has a horrific accident that the title vaguely prepares us for. While she struggles to recover in the hospital, these supposed chums look for ways to turn her tragedy into their next art project. They're hoping, under the guise of mining their experience, to capitalize on her mishap and perhaps turn the tables on her success.
This isn't your typically talky British drama of ideas but a movement-theater piece that expresses its scalding insights even more physically than verbally. Directed by Monkey Wrench Collective artistic director Dave Barton and choreographed by Angela Ann Lopez and Lee Samuel Tanng, the production unleashes its fiercely committed 11-person cast on David Scaglione's flexible, largely abstract set that's discreetly enlivened by Eric A. Wahl's video design.
The actors, often moving in unison, stampede and strike poses as their unnamed characters attempt, like decadent vampires, to suck the life out of each moment. They party with a vengeance and snipe mercilessly at their injured host while reveling in her largesse. At one point, in a frenzied mix of self-abasement and self-gratification, they disrobe and grope one another's bodies in a joyless scene of orgiastic pleasure that could serve as a new ring for Dante's "Inferno."
The production, a reprise of the company's 2010 U.S. premiere staging in Orange County that had a recent run at South Coast Repertory, may not be the most gracefully coordinated but it has naked grit and daring. It's admirable the way Barton's direction doesn't at all glamorize the dog-eat-dog subculture Ravenhill is satirizing, though there are times when the performers seem to be rubbing in their characters' self-important rottenness. (The word "smear" seems especially apt.) A lighter touch on occasion might make the critique sting all the more.
Still, there are pockets of generosity in the playwright's acidulous worldview, and this production captures the woundedness as well as the narcissism of those impelled to create something lasting out of the motley ephemera of their existences.