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Life in the ‘Elevator’ playing at the Coast

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Okay, I’m going out on a limb here in assuming that Elevator, currently at the Coast Playhouse, is Michael Leoni’s first play.  If I am wrong or if right doesn’t matter overly much, because the seven character ‘elevator’ play certainly feels like one. I mean that in ways both positive and negative.

Nothing like a good, straight forward premise: Seven strangers step into an elevator at the start of the business day, but before any of them reach their intended floors…

—CLANG-BING-JANGLE-CLUNK-KACHINK-GNASH-THUD —

Our septet suddenly find that they are trapped and immobilized in Otis limbo with no rescue arriving anytime soon.

Now not the freshest of concepts.  The 1966 Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields musical Sweet Charity, with book by Neil Simon, used the same situation to spark romance. A.C.T.’s disturbing Stuck Elevator by Byron Au Yong and Aaron Jafferis took an actual incident as the root of their fusion opera a few years back, the 2010 film Devil trapped four sinners in an elevator with their cloven-hoofed karma, and playwright John Banack had a wonderful play a number of years ago about Clara Petacci, Mussolini’s mistress, and Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun being trapped in an elevator at the German dictator’s military headquarters, Wolf’s Lair.

Leoni, who also directs, presents a cross section of humanity in his piece; Business man (David Abed), Maintenance Man (William Stanford Davis), The Temp (Erica Katzin), the Hot Girl\Woman (Karsen Rigby), the Goth Girl (Kristina St. Peter), the CEO Woman (Deborah Vancelette), the Musician (Devon Werkheiser) with additional voices via the intercom provided by Tyler Tanner.

Elevator ensemble cast (The TVolution)

In Elevator at the Coast Playhouse (l-r) Deborah Vancelette, Devon Werkheiser, Karsen Rigby, David Abed, William Stanford Davis, Kristina St. Peter and Erica Katzin. (photo by Michele Young)

The piece moves along nicely with all the dramatic arcs arranged neatly as we go: the dickhead Alpha male comes to grips with the neurotic source of his aggressiveness and hubristic pride, the food-fixated temp discovers a new means of fulfilling her inner emptiness, the hot girl/woman becomes aware of her inner value, the orphan finds a family, the doomed soul hope, and the alexithymic harpy makes a human connection.  One of the work’s more pronounced failings is the tidiness of the redemptions the playwright provides his characters; as well as the lack of focus as to who is his main protagonist; both mistakes one expects of a nescient playwright.

Shakespeare loved to use a storm in his plays, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, Pericles, Comedy of Errors, Othello, The Winter’s Tale.  I think he recognized, in the righteous raging of a tempest, the kinship it has with a well-structured play, the build from darkening clouds to lashing torrents that spend themselves in their fury until languishing towards their finale and the rainbow denouement.

And key to both a satisfying storm and play is the proper balance of lightning and thunder.

Elevator has lightning aplenty.

With scenic and lighting design by David Goldstein, sound by Paul Seradarian, music by Mario Marchetti and Devon Werkheiser, and with a talented cast Leoni flings his blinding lightning bolts cleverly and with abundance.  The result is a work that is nothing if not stylish and sleek.  But Leoni unleashes his bolts with a bit too much abandon, initially concealing but inevitably accentuating the lack of a deep and resonating thunder.  This is not to say, that Leoni’s effort is without merit or he himself without talent.  The evening has two saving graces.  First Leoni’s cast must be acknowledged again, not only for their talents, but for giving their all.  Abed, Rigby and Vancelette all find some much needed “rumblings” in their characters, Werkheiser and Katzin provide their superb voices to musical interludes which distracts from the heaviness of their additions to the dramatic structure by the playwright.  St. Peter and Davis do very good work in roles that feel slightly under-thought and unnecessary.

The second saving grace of the evening is a quality that is a rarity nowadays, and one that—if Leoni manages to maintain as he hones his skills—will serve him well in future efforts.  For while his characters were a bit stock and their dramatic employment a bit too pat, when these shortcomings were put aside, you found that they were infused—if somewhat inelegantly, nevertheless sincerely—with a profound sense of humanity.

It comes through at points in rather insightful dialogue—

If you meet more than three assholes in a day, the asshole is probably you.

but primarily it is there as an undercurrent beneath his efforts.

Elevator ensemble-Coast Playhouse (The TVolution)

‘Elevator’ ensemble: Devon Werkheiser (the Musician), David Abed (the Businessman), Karsen Rigby (the Hot Girl), Deborah Vancelette (the CEO Woman), William Stanford Davis (the Maintenance Man), Kristina St. Peter (the Goth Girl), Erica Katzin (the Temp), Tyler Tanner is Cyrus (photo by Michele Young)

Despite their maladroit construction, Leoni’s characters connected with the audience the night I was in attendance to an intense degree.  Now, yes, the credit for some of this is due to his cast, but even the finest cast can’t burn brightly unless there is some spark for them within the material.  Even as I sat there, nitpicking the flaws and shortcomings of his mechanics I felt the surge and flow of his earnest intentions.

At the end of the show, I alone remained seated, while the rest of the audience rose in their ovation.  If you want, you can either blame it on my having exceedingly high standards or because it was back when we finally found ourselves in the presence of the wonderful Wizard, that I momentarily forgot that I had come all that way intending to request a heart and instead asked for a large pepperoni and onion pizza or… whatever.  But everyone else stood, including my lovely wife Marlene: who perhaps managed a far better assessment of the show than this entire review in her, off the cuff, remark as we walked back to our car: “How can you not love a play when at the end everyone comes out loving their lives?”

I gotta admit, she has a point.

♦     ♦     ♦

Elevator is playing now at

THE COAST PLAYHOUSE

8325 Santa Monica Blvd.

West Hollywood,CA 90069

for tickets and information

elevatortheplay.com


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An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, Among the Vipers was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist three times in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest's stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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