“What is honour? A word. What is in that word honour? What is that honour? Air.” Falstaff — Henry the Fifth, Act 5, Scene 1.
In another age, in another time, Barack Obama would have been within his rights to challenge Donald J. Trump to a duel for the scurrilous lie Mr. Trump trumpeted on Twitter that POTUS 44 had “my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower.” How would that duel take place? Fisticuffs? Rapiers? Thumb wrestling? Intriguing to speculate, but the trajectory of history was changed when Aaron Burr gunned down Alexander Hamilton on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Dueling in history was a deadly serious matter.
Over millennia, rules of engagement have been applied both to personal combat and to war in general. Boxing has a set of rules. The quick draw showdown had protocol. In Ireland in 1777, a set of rules called the Irish Code Duello was set down for these affairs of honor. It soon was adopted in the United States.
John Pollono’s new play, Rules of Seconds, takes place in Boston in 1855. At the start of action, Nathaniel “Wings” Leeds (Matthew Elkins), along with his mother, Martha (Amy Brenneman), await the arrival of Walter Brown (Jamie Harris), a wealthy entrepreneur. All that is needed to clinch the deal for the sale of the family’s import/export business to Mr. Brown are the signatures of the two men. Besides timidity and a certain shyness, Wings is particular about his hands. In fact his mother tells him to keep his hands in his pockets when Mr. Brown arrives. All goes well until Brown, an insufferable, aggressive sort with pretensions of hauteur, insists on shaking hands to seal the deal. Wings trembles and inadvertently spills his full teacup, splashing the hot liquid on Brown’s elegant boots. Apologies are not enough. Dishonored at the refusal to shake hands and irate at the “damage” to his boots, Brown issues the challenge to a duel.
Wings calls on his estranged brother, James (Josh Helman), a very capable man, to be his second, and enlists a Chinese immigrant doctor, Albert Chang (Feodor Chin), to act as surgeon after the duel. Clad in black leather, Brown’s second is the ominous Señor Carranza (Leandro Cano), a big man with a quiet, threatening demeanor. Brown’s Irish house servant Hannah Leary (Jennifer Pollono), is short-fused and classically tart. The hapless Ron Bonnie (Andrew Lees standing in for Joshua Bitton) is miffed at being supplanted by George Dyett (Damu Malik) as Brown’s coachman. And serving as the Narrator, a kind of Shakespearean chorus à la Henry V, Ron Bottitta breaks the fourth wall from time to time to explicate the rules of dueling as set down in the Code Duello.
With the fuse lit, the play rockets on, with the pause of a ten-minute intermission, to the anticipated event in the second act. Along the way there is some Shakespearean comic relief delivered by supporting players, a flashback scene that explains some of the principals’ behavior, and a scene of intriguing intimacy that provides fuel for the explosive climax.
As directed by Obie Award-winner Jo Bonney, Rules of Seconds is an intense, comedy drama, at once horrifying and humorous. The cast is extraordinary, playing it big and rendering vivid, indelible characters who deliver their words in authentic dialects under the coaching of Paul Wagar.
The production is superb in all aspects. The scenic design by Richard Hoover, lit by Neil Peter Jampolis, is simple and fluid, with easily pulled curtains backing the playing area three-quarters of the way around the action. Almost all of the moveables are on wheels that allow for quick changes. The curtains also serve as screens for the projections by Hana Kim that increase the tension of the action as does the awesome sound design by Cricket S. Myers. I don’t recall ever seeing a credit for violence design, but certainly Ned Mochel puts the grand in grand guignol.
Rules of Seconds is produced by The Latino Theater Company in association with The Temblors, “a collective of seven diverse and acclaimed Los Angeles-based playwrights dedicated to shaking up local theater by debuting original world-premiere plays at the Los Angeles Theatre Center and supporting local voices.”
The few Shakespearean references above stem from a feeling I had watching the show. It feels like a production I might see at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I bet they would be very interested. Rules of Seconds runs through April 15 at The Los Angeles Theatre Center’s Tom Bradley Theatre, 514 S. Spring Street in Los Angeles.