“Desert Rats” is not a Wasteland for Audiences

By Ernest Kearney  —  Desert Rats  by Nate Rufus Edelman is hardly the first play ever written about a kidnapping.  It stands in the shadow of Orphans by Lyle Kessler, though Edelman’s work is far better written.

Edelman’s kidnapping is not of a political nature like Frank McGuinness’ Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me or Two Rooms by Lee Blessing.

It touches on a slightly absurd, slightly humorous note like O. Henry’s timeless The Ramson of Red Chief.

There’s nothing found in the work’s narrative that’s historical like Garth Wingfield’s Flight that takes us from Charles Lindbergh’s Atlantic crossing to the kidnapping and murder of his infant son; or Abundance, Beth Henley’s awkward, unfolding saga of a pioneer woman taken by an Indian raiding party.

Neither is there any element of brutality such as permeates Sarah Kane’s Cleansed and Rebecca Gilman’s bleakest of the bleak The Glory of Living.

By specifying at the outset of this review what Desert Rats is lacking does not mean to imply the work is vacuous.  On the contrary it is a well-constructed effort with a surfeit of elements and nearly all of them praiseworthy.

It is a youthful work produced by a young playwright, and let me inject here again for the sake of clarity, I do not wish to give the impression that I am implying the piece suffers from an immaturity, but rather benefits from the freshness of its writer’s talents.  Desert Rats is crisp, bright and refreshing, if, a tad underdeveloped.

Two brothers arrive at a Barstow motel.  There’s no AC, the TV is broken, and there’s no Gideon Bible to be found.  Though I’ve no doubt if we looked there’d be a copy of Fools for Love somewhere.

“It’s a room in the middle of nowhere, that’s all you need,” bellows one brother to the other, a clever declaration of the playwright’s bravado masquerading as dialogue.

There’s the older, tougher sibling Frank (Walt Gray IV) and the younger, doe-eyed Jesse (Derek Chariton), * writer's hand * and they are here to carry out a kidnapping from which they expect to score big in terms of both cash and karma.

Lila Gavares (photo by Giovanni-Solis-of-bracer)

Grabbing their intended victim goes off without a hitch. It is Frank’s entrusting Amber (Lila Gavares) —a judge’s cheerleader daughter— to the care of the artless Jesse that sets things spinning off on the inevitable freeway South; travelling in the diamond lane at that.

The Latino Theater Company in the LATC complex downtown has done a first-rate staging of Edelman’s piece.  Cameron Mock and Emily MacDonald have devised a stylish and cost-efficient set and Director Angie Scott has shown herself an artisan in her employment of a soft touch firmly applied.

The cast consists of a trio of talented performers who meet the author’s demands with great aplomb, Chariton most of all as Jesse whose emotional neediness is the match to the fuse for Edelman’s dramatic powder keg. Gray and Gavares give more to the playwright than the playwright has given them, which is one of the weaknesses of the work.

Still, Edelman’s play displays intelligence, skill, excellent craftsmanship and an understanding of dialogue enriched by a cadence and rhythm that is not often displayed by younger playwrights.  The only fault to be found in the work is the most prevailing shortcoming in all the arts, the one that plagues all of the creative ranks: “It’s easier to set them up than knock them down.”

Edelman sets off on his narrative with vigor but shortly on, one comes up against a sense of repetition which is generally a sign that the playwright is unsure of his intended objective.  Edelman does bring his audience to a forceful conclusion, but one that is perhaps too forced and as such renders the arrival less satisfying than the journey.

Desert Rats has the interior dynamics to support a more ambitious climax.  This would necessitate a longer play or a restructuring of this one.  Perhaps opening on the kidnapping rather than building up to it.  One of Shakespeare’s tricks was to drop audiences into his plays at a point far down the dramatic road; a battle field with witches, a ghost in a castle, a ship sinking in a tempest.

But whether the game is worth the candle on this work is the playwright’s call.  My call is to announce Desert Rats as well worth seeing and Edelman as a talent well worth watching.

♦    ♦    ♦

* writer's hand * Frank, Jesse….  Ri-ight.  All young playwrights need to master the art of lobbing their cleverness, to reference Emily Dickenson, “on a slant.”  And not go hurling it at audiences like a custard cream pie pitched by someone in greased paint and wearing oversized footwear.

(NOTE: Featured Image — Performers, Derek Chariton and Walt-Gray-IV — Photo by  Giovanni-Solis-of-bracer)


♦     ♦     ♦

Desert Rats by Nate Rufus Edelman

Directed by Angie Scott

Starring Derek Chariton, Lila Gavares, Walt Gray IV

Produced by The Latino Theater Company

In a limited 3-week engagement through Jan. 20:

Saturdays at 8 p.m.: Jan. 5 and Jan. 12 Only

Sundays at 4 p.m.: Jan. 6, Jan. 13,  Jan. 20

Sunday at 7:30 p.m.: Jan. 20 Only


The Los Angles Theatre Center

Avalos Theatre

514 S. Spring Street

Los Angeles CA 90013

For Tickets and Information:

Call (866) 811-4111

or go to


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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. Kearney remains focused on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. His stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.

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