Friday, July 15, 2016

"The Rules"


The Rules
Dipika Guha


Amy Lazardo as Mehr, Karen Offereins as Julia & Sarah Moser as Ana
What are some of the dos and don’ts many of us carry around about dating, committing, or even marrying?  How deeply engrained in our subconscious and thus our habits, even in this era long past the ‘70s women’s liberation movement, are the norms of our parents and grandparents when it comes to male-female relationships?  What are the unspoken protocols when there appears to be a conflict between life-long friendships and a new, sexy heartthrob?  

These are just some of the questions that Dipika Guba addresses with earnestness but with varying success in her new play, The Rules, now in its world premiere as part of San Francisco Playhouse’s much-acclaimed Sandbox Series.  Even with a particularly strong cast of proven actors, the script and directorial choices somewhat lag behind the actors’ abilities to insure these implicitly posed questions are given their just due.

Mehr, Ana, and Julia are three long-term friends who meet in Julia’s office on Fridays for the first two to have a “session” with their psychotherapist pal.  While they talk about a lot of things -- especially how each is not exactly ecstastic about her current life – the one thing the three increasingly have trouble discussing is each one’s new fling with a handsome, mysterious (one might say intoxicatingly exotic) man who suddenly and unexpectedly popped into her life.  While Mehr comes to know that the man (whom she had never met, by the way) that she arranged for a blind date with Ana turns out to be the owner of her building and is now having an affair with both of them, she nor the other two yet have any idea that he is actually the bedmate of all three.  He is also the one who, unbeknownst to any of them, keeps texting all three at the same time whenever they are together, most likely with the same message copied to each.  

Clues begin to point that they all may be falling for the same hunk who has promised his eternal love and devotion to each.  The audience can almost see the ‘thought clouds’ rise above their puzzled, suspecting faces saying,  “How come the other two suddenly use the word ‘transmuting,’ which is a word Valmont only uses with me?”  Tensions rise, and it becomes do or die time for each to decide whom do I sacrifice:  My friends, myself, or my one shot at loving a man I thought I could never get?

Julia is a professionally proper (and frankly a bit prim) psychotherapist who dresses, talks, and acts with some reserve.  Karen Offereins tempers her expressions and sometimes counters the titters and chatter of her two girlfriends with a slight smile, a knowing nod, or a readjustment to sit taller in the chair behind her desk.  She also has a whole set of unexpressed but clearly governing rules that dictate much of her being, like exactly where the chair is to be placed in her office and how she should hold her tablet while taking notes.

She is visited by a bold (actually brash), strikingly handsome, potential client -- not ‘patient,’ as Mehr and Ana too often say and have to be once again corrected by her.  Her equilibrium is pushed off-balance by his suddenly interviewing her and making declarative statements as if he could see into her otherwise, hidden secrets.  As Julia becomes more enticed and aroused (and thus professionally confused and bothered), Ms. Offereins literally lets her hair down, loosens her blouses, and subtly makes shifts in stance and tone of voice, first to respond to his advances and then to become more the advancer herself – moves her girlfriends are also taking in their parallel trysts with the same guy.

Mehr (Amy Lizardo) is a power-tool-using, somewhat butch woman who moves with a swagger and laughs with big heart.  She looks with wide-smiled admiration at her two friends, whom she probably envies for what she sees as better looks and physique.  She constantly reminds others her own faults (like “I never finish anything” or “I am someone who tries and never makes the team”) without usually becoming too maudlin or concerned. 

But things change for her too when this dark, smooth-talking man with a perfect body and tempting lips shows up at her open door and offers to help fix up her apartment (stripping to his tight, white t-shirt).  Ms. Lizardo’s Mehr suddenly discovers her own sexiness, dresses in new ways more conforming to society’s norms for a woman on the hunt, and grabs with gusto her chance to dance in the arms of her Romeo.  But as her guilt rises that hers and Ana’s guy is one and the same (even before she knows about Julia’s), her Mehr again transforms, gaining increased sullenness as well as some cynicism.  Ms. Lizardo demonstrates with great skill a wide range of authentic emotions and manners as she rides the rapids of a love triangle (that is actually now a quadrangle), trying to follow rules that somehow no longer fit.

From the first minutes we meet her in the opening scene, Ana is an enigma in many respects.  A children’s music teacher, she is described by Mehr as “immune to disappointment” and “my little diamond.”  Sarah Moser uses a high-pitched voice that sounds more like that of a teenager than a teacher, that oozes at times with innocence, but that also transforms when around Mystery Man into a flirty, flighty sequence of sexy innuendos and suggestions.  Sometimes it is difficult to know how much her Ana is really comprehending the situations around her since typical it is for her to freeze frame with slightly weird smiles in the midst of conversations with others, finally to move on as if nothing happened after a rather pregnant pause.  But of the three women, it is Ana that undergoes some of the biggest transformations as she decides not just to follow rules but also to make a few new ones for herself.  Ms. Moser pulls off this newfound confidence and resolution believably, especially the parts where hurt and loss occur in terms of her friendships.

Johnny Moreno as Valmont
The center of this storm swirls around the man already described above multiple times in sultry, sensuous bits and pieces. Valmont is a supposed CEO of some venture and clearly (or at least, maybe) a man of some means.  Anyone who has seen Johnny Moreno in his many appearances throughout the Bay Area would probably also have cast him to play this seductive lover who employees his piercing eyes, tempting lips, and inviting raise of an eyebrow practically to hypnotize his prey.  But however attractive he is in luscious looks and debonair demeanor, there is also much that is suspicious, almost scary lurking in those eyes and in that deep, persuasive, but oh so quiet and calm voice.  Valmont has a set of rules that he expects his potential mates to follow; and part of those is that he makes the calls, the judgments, and the decisions.

While there is so much to like in the performances of these actors, what causes issues is that the play itself begins to lose steam and momentum about half way through its ninety minutes.  Part of this, I believe, is director-driven (Susannah Martin) as there become an over-abundance of slow-motion scenes full of sudden pauses/silences that do not go anywhere.  The scenes themselves sometimes end in such ways as to leave us almost in mid-sentence (either literally or figuratively), with my scratching my head wondering what just happened and why.  Those issues are probably more due to script than to director.   

We are also left with a mysterious man who appeared in these women’s lives without ever really understanding why he is there, why them, or what makes him tick.  We know nothing more about him in the end than we did in the beginning.  Maybe it is by design that he is there only to represent the male-dominated world of relationship rules, but I found his continued mystery after a while to be tiring.

Angrette McCloskey has created an intriguing set that immediately gets the audience’s attention upon entering the theatre.  Two levels of women’s clothes – all either white or pale in color and many in lace or loose knit – hang on poles across the entire stage.  Simple, also mostly white or faded furniture that can be moved as needed, form the basis for the many short scenes to follow.  Stark tubes of on-and-off-again florescent lighting rise on three levels and punctuate scenes and moods throughout the play, thanks to the design of Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky.  As he often does on Bay Area stages, Matt Stines has created an underlying sound track that, in this case, adds its own drama, tension, and support to the conversations and events on the stage. Ashley Holvick ensures the transformations of our three protagonists are reflected in what they wear and that Mr. Moreno gets to don and accentuate his sexy appeal scene after scene.

The Sandbox Series of San Francisco Playhouse is a gift to the world of Bay Area theatre lovers and to the world of aspiring playwrights.  Premiering new play after new play in a season is not without risk, but fortunately local audiences are more and more prone to pick theatre companies where this is more that norm than the exception.  Kudos to San Francisco Playhouse for exposing us to this rising playwright and to challenging us with an intriguing, if still not totally ready for prime time, The Rules.

Rating: 3 E

The Rules closes its month-long run this weekend, July 16th.  San Francisco Playhouse is staging this Sandbox production at The Creativity Theatre, San Francisco, CA.  Tickets are available at www.sfplayhouse.org or by calling 415-677-9596.

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