The vast gap between the have-littles and the have-everythings is brought vividly to life in Karen Rizzo’s new play, Mutual Philanthropy. Friends by way of an acquaintance made because their children attend the same stellar public elementary school, an economically struggling young couple come to dine at the home of a beyond-wealthy investment banker and his wife. Lee (Mark Carapezza), an amiable, talented sculptor and stay-at-home Dad, and bright, attractive and practical Esther (Xochitl Romero), a full time chef’s assistant and family breadwinner, just barely scrape by. Charles (James MacDonald), the money guy, is friendly in a buttoned-up sort of way. He plies Lee with outrageously expensive, single malt scotch, using five or six descriptors to analyze the character of detectable flavors. His wife, the beautiful, impeccably groomed and garbed Michelle (Paige Lindsey White), flows with chatter about the neighborhood, the children, her therapist and more. She is outspoken, brittle and painfully vivacious
The economic gap between the couples is apparent in their aspirations and experiences, in their lifestyles, in their concerns and in their expectations. Charles, a man not without charm, has a bottomless, insatiable desire for ever-increasing success and wealth and all that goes with it. He wants more and sees no reason why he should not have it, even if that something is Esther. When Lee repairs to the kitchen with Michelle to help prepare the bruschetta, there is a subtle uptick sexual tension.
With expensive wine uncorked and freely flowing, tongues loosen as the evening lurches into the realm of the bizarre. In the opening scene, the audience learns that Lee and Esther hope that Charles will buy Lee’s best piece of sculpture, a major work that might command four thousand dollars, which would relieve their immediate cash crunch. Charles and Michelle have a bigger plan that ratchets up the tension and sends the evening into a tense, boozy bacchanal.
Under the impeccable, detailed direction of Dan Bonnell, this cast is superb in realizing this absorbing, fascinating play. The tension created inspires uncomfortable laughter in some audience members, while others, this writer included, sit stunned by the pathos of it. It calls to mind Albee’s Virgina Woolf, while being in no way derviative of it. As Charles, James MacDonald is an enigma. Shark-like with his shaved head, he can be smooth, charming or erudite, then, in a blink, turn suddenly aggressive. Xochitl Romero’s Esther is the rock solid realist, tempted by Charles’ advances but firm in repulsing them. Lee, as played by Mark Carapezza, is the emotional heart of the play. Smart, kind and talented, he is out of his depth in a home of the .01 percent. The charismatic Paige Lindsey White dominates the stage when she is on, vocally and physically. Her white, patrician, well-maintained beauty stands in stark contrast to the Latina loveliness of Xochitl Romero.
Ensemble Studio Theatre’s production team—Amanda Knehans (Scenic Design), Chris Wojcieszyn (Lighting Design), Dave Marling (Sound Design), and Marly Hall (Costume Design)—have exquisitely shoehorned a modernist mansion in a small black box. Deft touches of set, props and lighting make believable a kitchen, dining room, living room and outdoor areas. The Brazilian music controlled by Charles’ remote is a nice touch.
Make yourself happy. See this terrific play while you can.
Mutual Philanthropy runs through September 25 at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles.