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Review: 'Focus Group Play' a darkly comic take on marketing research

September 05, 2012|By David C. Nichols
  • Caro Zeller, from left, Alissa Ford, Brian Hamill, Celia Finkelstein, Darcy Shean and Jen Drohan in "Focus Group Play."
Caro Zeller, from left, Alissa Ford, Brian Hamill, Celia Finkelstein,… (Heather Wynters )

The working title says it all in “Focus Group Play.” Carrie Barrett’s dark-tinged satire of nutritional marketing research gone awry skewers corporate product testing with agreeable, albeit predigested gusto.

Part of the LAb Works 2012 festival from Katselas Theatre Company, Barrett’s central conceit is basic. Five “random” archetypes sit in a conference room, being paid for their opinions on new meal replacement products.

Well, that’s the intent, anyway. The beleaguered moderator (Jen Drohan) tries without success to keep to the agenda, making increasingly harried trips to the other side of the two-way mirror.

Barrett has a knack for invective, though sometimes too clever by half, and she nails the milieu. Director Eric Hunicutt keeps things brisk -- actually, he could slow it down a tad -- and his cast is adroit.

Drohan, her initial shift from near-catatonia to mega-smiling politesse reaching hilariously enervated levels -- “Great! Great-great!” -- is a comic find.  Caro Zeller’s deadpan Chicana and Celia Finkelstein’s chirpy loser crystallize the extremes. Darcy Shean’s Christian trade-show model, Alissa Ford’s cynical agitator and Brian Hamill’s sole male aren’t quite as vivid, but they give it their all.

What’s less successful is an innately predictable course. While stabs at corporatism and individual subtexts are apt, the piece bites off more social comment than its structural schematics can digest. Nonetheless, audiences will laugh. With judicious rewrites (and an actual title), this high-end sitcom could outstrip Nutri Slim.

“Focus Group Play,” Skylight Theatre Complex, 1816 1/2 N. Vermont, L.A. Various dates and times. Ends Oct. 7. (702) 582-8587 or www.katselastheatre.com. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

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