A Broadway playwright (On Your Feet) and award-winning screenwriter (Golden Globe and Academy Awards for Birdman), Alexander Dinelaris has crafted a most unusual and very compelling romantic drama in his play, Still Life, now in its West Coast premiere at Rogue Machine Theatre. Just calling it drama means that the story is fraught and that the course of this true love does not run smooth. Jeffrey (Lea Coco) is a brilliant analyzer of current social trends working for ad executive Terry (Jonathan Bray), a high-powered, manipulative egoist whose behavior skirts the edge of the sociopathic. Coerced by Terry into attending a gallery showing of photos by Carrie Ann (Laurie Okin), Jeffrey is struck by the images she has snapped of dead animals. In conversation with Carrie Ann, he acknowledges that the pictures are stunning, yet he is offended that they make death beautiful. They connect, walking and talking for hours. Outside her apartment building, Carrie matter-of-factly asks him leading questions: “Do you want to kiss me?” “Do you want to come up to my apartment?” “Do you want to make love to me?” He answers yes to all the questions of desire, but refuses to go up. She is relieved. This is the start of a beautiful relationship.
Still Life is a Gordian-Knot of emotional dynamics. Carrie Ann’s father, Theo (Frank Collison), a photographer in his own right, has died leaving the woman conflicted about the past and her own artistic efforts to the point that she is unable to do her work. She butts heads with her former stepmother Joanne (a keen Susan Wilder), the abrasive head of a university photography department. As the relationship with Carrie Ann deepens into love, Jeffrey reveals his past and the conflicts there.
Under the perceptive direction of Michael Peretzian, the performances are fast paced and emotionally true. The three principal characters are people wounded in the past in ways that explain their behavior in the present. As the play unfolds the two lovers open up to each other, as they must, while Terry is shown as more than a crude horndog, revealing himself in a terrific scene of utter bacchanalian debasement.
Other characters appear in interesting ways as well, revealing not only themselves, but also the personalities and actions of the principals. Jessie (Tania Verafield) is a young photography student unsure of herself and in awe of Carrie Ann. (On the evening I saw the play, she also took on three other small roles, covering for the absent Alexandra Hellquist.) Jeffrey gets tremendous support from his old friend Sean (a deeply sympathetic Nardeep Khurmi) and his wife Mary (Jennifer Sorenson). Ms. Sorenson leaves behind the role of supportive wife and friend when she becomes the hard-bitten barmaid Michaeline in a scene I will not describe.
The production boasts a fine monochromatic, architectural set by Tom Buderwitz, with subtle, transparent lighting by Leigh Allen, that allows for rapid scene changes. Tall panels on either side of the set provide screens for the invaluable video design of Nicholas E. Santiago. Costumes by Halei Parker enhance and support character and action. The sound design by Christopher Moscatiello is, as always, excellent.
Rogue Machine’s Still Life runs through April 23 at Rogue Machine, which is located at The Met, 1089 N. Oxford Avenue in Los Angeles.