The title of Kevin Armento’s play, Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, is a reference to the old mnemonic device that is meant to help students remember the order of mathematical operations in solving equations, which I am sure all of you readers will remember as PEMDAS: parentheses, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction. It should be said that, of course, the operations should be done from left to right. I have the old phrase “every good boy does fine” welded in my brain from piano lessons as a help to remember the ascending notes on the lines of the musical staff—E, G, B, D, F.
The title serves to establish the relationship between a math student named Red and his female teacher. Red is a new student in the emotional throes of his parents’ divorce, while his teacher is in the doldrums of a relationship with an unemployed live-in boy friend that spends his time working on an app that will bring him riches. To say that both are disaffected would be an understatement.
In this production, the story of Red and his teacher and how they come to have a somewhat illicit relationship is narrated from a unique character perspective, that of the boy’s smart phone (Thomas Piper). Mr. Piper in a breathless, non-stop, tour de force performance of around seventy-five minutes, give or take, embodies all the characters as he relates the burgeoning affection between the boy and his teacher through their phones’ photographs, text messages, and the conversations he cannot help but overhear. Mr. Piper roams the stage with lively enthusiasm, expounding to the the audience directly as projections (designer Nick Santiago) representing computer functions are displayed on the spare, linear set designed by Pete Hickock. Visible upstage but in no way drawing attention away from Mr. Piper, the Foley artist and soundscape designer, Adam Smith, creates sound effects in real time, cunningly enhancing the performance impossible in any other way. At the curtain call, the two performers take their bows together.
Mr. Armento’s script takes no moral stand on the appropriateness of a quasi-intimate relationship between a student and his teacher. Eschewing a position of judgment, the playwright wants to show how such a relationship could evolve. Two emotionally needy people spend time together while being very aware of how others might view the relationship as wrong. And we, the audience, are sympathetic to them as well as to the loyal smart phone through which the story is told. Strange as it may seem, the smart phone is a uniquely compassionate character in a uniquely fascinating play.
The fast-paced direction of Peter Richards keeps the action rolling, as lighting designer Kelley Finn finds just the right amount of light to keep focus where it belongs, while letting the projections create a continuous, visible presence. And costume designer Kate Bergh’s choice of red suit and bare feet are just enough to establish the not-quite human nature of the Narrator.
Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, presented by Working Barn Productions and produced by Racquel Lehrman, Theatre Planners as a visiting production, runs through October 8 at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd. in Los Angeles.