Bakersfield Mist — where to begin with this exhilarating piece of theatre. The actors? The script? The production? “In the beginning was the word,” so let’s start with Stephen Sachs’ brilliant, erudite script. The two-character play puts diametrically opposite people in delicious conflict. Maude Gutman (the effervescent, surprisingly athletic Jenny O’Hara), a recently fired bartender living in a decidedly downscale trailer park in the vicinity of the always maligned desert town of Bakersfield, swills Jack Daniels as she awaits the arrival of Lionel Percy (droll, arrogant Nick Ullett), an art expert with gold bond credentials, which includes a stint as the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Maude bought a big, ugly painting at a garage sale for three bucks as a gag present for her neighbor, who, appalled, refused to take it. The two soused ladies tried to shoot it up out in the street, but couldn’t find the bullets. Somewhere along the line, she learns about Jackson Pollak and becomes convinced that her painting is a lost work by that iconic artist. The condescending Lionel, dispatched by private jet to the California desert to verify or debunk the provenance of the painting, is not so sure. Great comedy always has a heart, so it is with Bakersfield Mist. The action is decidedly comic both verbally and physically. The characters spar with more than words. And as the life stories of the characters emerge, their individual tales leaven the action with emotional yeast.
The actors invest their large, fully rounded characters with detailed life, ranging from broad, fearless physicality to the subtlest twitch of an eyebrow. Their timing is flawless, their passion true. Like Lunt and Fontanne, O’Hara and Ullett are a husband and wife team, their performances honed by a long association with the show, which premiered at the Fountain in 2011. That Stephen Sachs wrote the script with them in mind can’t hurt.
Playwright Sachs directs the show with consummate skill. Jeffrey McLaughlin’s set design evokes the intimate confines of a low-end trailer house that reinforces the economic and educational gap between the two principals. Terri Roberts dresses the set with an endearing array of kitsch and tchotchkes. The sound design by Peter Bayne ushers in the audience with country music broadcast by a local DJ. At lights up, the music moves from the house to a vintage portable radio sitting atop a very old refrigerator. Fight director Edgar Landa gets some hilarious, acrobatic work out of his stars.
Bakersfield Mist, produced by Simon Levy and Deborah Lawlor, continues its run through February 26 at The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain Avenue in Los Angeles.