Penelope Lowder’s new play, West Adams, now running at the Skylight Theatre, is justifiably touted in the press release as a dark comedy. When I think of dark comedies, I think of “War of the Roses,” the 1989 film that starred Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner as a bitterly divided married coupled, and Danny DeVito as their lawyer. They feud to the bitter, literal end as they die beneath a two hundred dollar chandelier that produces grim laughter as the audience thinks, “It’s what they get!”
West Adams does get lots of ha-ha laughs…at first. The brilliant, disciplined cast (kudos to director Michael A Shepperd) kicks off the action with a rousing rendition of the National Anthem, led by a vigorously voiced Andrés M. Bagg (as Edward) who is soon joined by Allison Blaize (as Sarah), Clayton Farris (as Michael), and Jenny Soo (as Julie), two thirty-something married couples. They do the “Star Spangled Banner” proud in spiffy, shiny costumes and impeccable choreography. The two couples are rehearsing to get a shot to perform in a neighborhood block party. They are spritely, happy, white and full of themselves for having moved into classic houses in the historically black neighborhood of West Adams, located just south of Downtown Los Angeles.
Michael is in business renting bounce houses. His wife, Jenny, gives piano lessons. Edward, a Peruvian immigrant, works for Michael. His wife, Sarah, is in the third trimester of pregnancy. They aspire to join the neighborhood council. Cracks start to open in their bliss when a wealthy doctor and his wife renovate a house across the street. At first, they are giddy and excited when they see the extent of the new owners’ opulence—expensive cars, a Bösendorfer piano worth no less than $256,000, landscaping in front, a big backyard with a pool and a patio with all the amenities anyone could enjoy, including a big screen television and a full kitchen. It’s a big improvement for the neighborhood. Then they see the new owners arrive. They are African Americans. And there goes the dream of an upwardly mobile, gentrified neighborhood.
In degrees, the racial bias grows, and it grows ever uglier. The laughs turn bitterly ironic, or are of the “I-can’t-believe-they-are-actually-saying-and-doing-these-things” ilk. The audience in the auditorium groans, or responds vocally. On stage, the two couples start to feud between themselves. The audience has to laugh at the absurdity of what is shown them. The action is painful to see and hear. My heart clenches at the memory of it as I write this. Some of the nastiest racial tropes emerge. Sadly, this is a play of our times. As painful as it is to watch, this extraordinary play must be seen. The laughter generated by this black comedy, what laughter there is, is a painful release from the ultimate grimness onstage.
West Adams is superbly mounted by Stephen Gifford (Scenic Design), Mylette Nora (Costume Design), Donny Jackson (Lighting Design), Jesse Mandapat (Sound Design), David Murakami (Projection Design), Michael Teoli (Original Music), and Michael O’Hara (Properties). The stage is deftly managed by Christopher Hoffman.
West Adams is produced by Gary Grossman and Michael Kearns for Skylight Theatre Company, and runs through March 8 at Skylight Theatre 1816 1⁄2 North Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles.