Nate Rufus Edelman’s Desert Rats, a black comedy thriller is instantly intriguing. Performed in the small industrial Avalos Theatre of the Los Angeles Theatre Center and configured in three-quarter round, the audience is literally within arms reach of the players, at least this audience member was. I could have lit one of the actor’s cigarettes. All the action takes place in a Barstow motel that, to put it mildly, has long since seen better days. The desert heat is stifling and the room lacks an air conditioner. A tiny portable television doesn’t work. And two sweat stained brothers have planned the kidnapping of a teenaged girl, the daughter of a wealthy judge from Calabasas. Actually, it is the older brother, large, hulking, dominating Frank (Walt Gray IV), who has come up with the caper. Younger brother Jesse (Derek Chariton), who shows signs of ADHD, is smaller, wiry, and jittery. He hates being called a retard by Frank.
Why Barstow? That’s pretty far from Calabasas. It seems that the run-down motel is a place that Frank and Jesse’s father used to take them for vacations. In the first moments of the play, the scheme already seems doomed. Jesse, who hasn’t eaten for a very long time, is condemned to stay in the motel room while Frank drives to Calabasas to kidnap the girl. Jesse has nothing to do and only a deck of cards for amusement. As time goes by his nerves get stretched to the breaking point as he lights cigarette after cigarette. And these are real cigarettes that sometimes keep sending up whiffs in the ashtray after insufficient stubbing.
Eventually, Frank returns with the girl, an eighteen-year old cheerleader named Amber, (Lila Gavares). Amber is led in with a hood over her head and bound by ropes to a chair. Frank leaves the room to make the ransom demand, leaving Jesse in charge. Already the astute audience can see that things won’t go well and they don’t. Jesse starts talking to the girl, and Amber, dreadfully frightened, proves to be no fool. The balance of power shifts and complications ensue. Laser-eyed Jesse makes the mistake of engaging in conversation and, inevitably, for the sake of drama, the balance of power starts to shift.
There are plenty of skin-crawling laughs to be had in the absurdity of Desert Rats, as well as moments of incipient violence. Playwright Edelman has crafted a thoroughly absorbing scenario that commands the attention of an audience. The cast is focused and fascinating, and, under the smart direction of Angie Scott, given license to use the tool of anxious, silent expectation that heightens tension.
The design by set and lighting designers Cameron Mock and Emily MacDonald creates a very credible, low-rent motel room, and sound designer Ivan Robles supports the action with skillful subtly. Jakelinne Gonzalez’ costume design is ideal. Loved the cheer-leading outfit. The stage is managed with authority by Maricela Sahagun.
The Latino Theater Company production of Desert Rats continues through November 18 at The Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring Street in Downtown Los Angeles.