Regional Reviews: Los Angeles
The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up
Their mainstage production for 2016 is a world premiere of The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up by Carla Ching. It's a well-acted, directed, and designed two-hander about the intertwined lives of two Asian-American millennials.
Diana (Julia Cho) and Max (Nelson Lee) meet at age 9 while building snowmen (or, in her case, a snowwoman). They grow up together and remain friends even after going to different colleges. Max's father eventually marries Diana's mother. Diana pursues a career as an artist. Max drifts, triesand failsto become a professional gambler, and ends up in rehab. Max is Diana's man-of-honor at one of her several weddings. The two of them try marriage to each other, but it doesn't work.
One of the rituals they develop to keep their relationship honest is a truth-telling game. The rules seemed to vary somewhat as they age (it becomes a drinking game at one point), but essentially, once the game is on, each person gets to ask the other a question, which that person must answer truthfully, even if the truth will hurt. It does, sometimes, but having the game available keeps the couple's focus in the moment when it might otherwise drift.
The play runs through fourteen scenes in 90 minutes. In each scene, the characters are a different age. The play starts near its end and flashes back to when the two first meet. It then skips around, age-wise, adding bits and pieces of information as it goes. The audience learns to listen intently, as there is likely to be a piece of information dropped that will either explain something that it has already seen or that will illuminate something it has yet to see.
Being forced to listen intently can be a good thing, but doing so can also lead to missing humor when it occurs. Ms. Ching doesn't insert many jokes, but when she does so, the response is loudly fraught with recognition. I loved those moments. I wish there were more of them, that the play were lighter on its feet.
Indeed, I thought a more accurate title would have been "The Shit That Blows Two Kids Up," as in many ways the play is about addiction and how it affects relationships. But, Ms. Ching is too sharp, both as a writer and as a storyteller, to let the play be only about addiction, and her dialog sometimes crackles with the kinds of literary references that will please anyone who experienced an excellent liberal arts education. I loved those references, too. I wished there were more of them.
Ms. Cho and Mr. Lee are both accomplished performers, and they have a chemistry that grows as the play progressed. Director Jeremy Lelliott has assembled a production that works well for the many scenes, most played in different locales, that go by in 90 minutes. He has also coaxed some lovely and sensitive interaction from his performers, a difficult thing to sustain between two people in the close quarters of a 99-seat theatre in Hollywood.
Se Oh has designed a simple playing space that can be made versatile on short notice. Alexander Le Vaillant Freer's lighting demarcates the scene changes and sets a new tone each time. Jesse Mandapat's sound design is quite busypop songs for the scene changes, background noises for the scenes. I could have done without some of the background noises, but I doubt that others were annoyed with them. And I wondered why there were two costumers (Emily Brown-Kucera and Rachel Stivers) for a two-character play, but because the scenes jump around in time, each character wears a different costume in most every scene. Like the scenic design and the lighting, the costumes work to establish time and place.
For a first production, Artists at Play does a lot of things right and avoids forced errors (including setting the play in Los Angeles, except incidentally, which holds down the temptation to engage in collective navel-gazing). It's a worthy night out in Hollywood, playing through September 4.
Artists at Play presents the world premiere of The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up through September 4, 2016, ThursdaysSaturdays at 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., at The Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90038. Tickets ($20$32 general admission) are available online at artistsatplayla.blogspot.com.
By Carla Ching, directed by Jeremy Lelliott, with Se Oh, scenic/properties design; Rachel Stivers and Emily Brown-Kucera, costume design; Alexander Freer, lighting design; Jesse Mandapat, sound design; Erin Walley, props coordinator; Donna Eshelman, movement specialist; and Andy Knight, dramaturg. Julia Cho and Nelson Lee constitute the cast.