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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Go in cold to the play's L.A. premiere directed at East West Players by Tim Dang, and you'll likely find yourself drawn into a world — and a supposition — that is as eerie and discomforting as its title suggests. This is a world of young people, lost hours, days or even weeks; inexplicable nose bleeds and the seemingly too real prospect of alien abductions.
We begin the play with two people, a boy of 18, a woman of 32, for whom the very possibility of extra terrestrial encounters isn't just a possibility, it's a lifeline. Without this possible explanation, Avalyn Friesen, 32 who is holed up in her Kansas bedroom, would be in some serious existential trouble as well as being a lonely misfit.
As it turns out, the creepy, Halloween-worthy backdrop of things unknown is something of a dodge. There are grim, dark secrets to be unearthed in spooky abandoned houses, and two 18-year-olds living thousands of miles apart will have to meet and reconnect in order to bring them cathartically into the light, but they do not have to meet at Roswell. The likelihood, is that once these secrets are revealed, the result is a kind a shrug. Awful, but not earth-shattering, a kind of a standard issue revelation.
The build-up is something else entirely. In addition to being strongly cast, Dang's production embraces its dual subjects' creepiness and makes sure that the discomfort of Gomolvilas's characters are every bit our own. There is a first act closing scene, violent and as quease-inducing as anything placed on stage in recent memory followed — 15 semi merciful minutes later — by the play's revelation. Dang might have better opted to skip the mercy and stage Mysterious Skin without an intermission. Better, it seems, not to let an audience catch its breath.
Gomolvilas opens his play with the only person in Mysterious Skin who appears to have his foundation underneath him: Benjamin (played by Marcus Choi) an alien parapsychologist lecturing to explain the symptoms (or, if you prefer, the rules) of alien abduction. The likelihood, he argues, is that aliens exist. They operate by stealing time from their abductees (which the abductees never get back) and they implant some sort of tracking system within their contact-ee's skin.
Choi, who plays three or four other parts in the play, is all business. And then the expert disappears from the play leaving the potential followings of his teachings to figure things out for themselves. Which is precisely what Avalyn (Elizabeth Liang), a 32 year old community college student, has spent the better part of the last two decades doing. Possessed as she is with so much unaccounted for time, Avalyn works and reworks her hypotheses. Her glasses are too big even for 1991, and her clothes a bit outdated. She's a KIIS fan. Everything about her appearance, manners, etc. say "weirdo." She's looking for fellow abductees. In Kansas, where she lives, there aren't many, although you would think maybe with all those corn fields. . .. But in Kansas there is Bryan Lackey (Scott Keiji Takeda), 18, a New York transplant who does also in fact seem to have some missing time on his hands, who experiences nosebleeds and who is open to Avalyn's hypotheses. In her own semi subtle way, Avalyn takes to Bryan like a heroin addict to the needle. She's that lonely.
Back in New York, Neil McCormack, also 18, tells his "seriously pissed off fag hag" friend Deborah (Christine Corpuz) that he's been "going out again," meaning Neil's hustling, taking money for sex from older men. A bit of a thrill seeker, Neil can't really resist the temptation of the money. Deborah excepted, Neil has left plenty of things and people behind: family, past lovers a future. And aliens or no aliens, there are parts of his life he simply has no interest in remembering or revisiting. But this man who likes his connections casual will have to do some serious reconnecting, for Brian's sake as much of his own.
Neil proves to be a multi-layered character and Huynh creates a persona that is both fast and surprisingly vulnerable. Takeda's Brian is a character who is potentially even more lost, but Gomolvilas &mdash and his play &mdash are more concerned with Neil, the man with the answers.
About that afore referenced scene that closes Act 1. It's a hugely cathartic double seduction (more like two rapes, actually) taking place in bedrooms which are thousands of miles apart. Dang places the two encounters side by side, occurring simultaneously, permitting us to shift or avert our gaze when things start to get intense. Which is often.
Although we are eventually plunged into blackout, when the lights come out, we are left with two casualties who bruised and bloodied, and stumble agonizingly back into their clothes. The house lights are left on as this is happening, giving the proceedings an even more public and intrusive feeling. Once the stage is finally empty (house lights still on) it's finally intermission. Collective exhale.
Obviously, nobody can end a play like this. Mysterious Skin has a second act catharsis up its sleeve, one that is &mdash while horrifying &mdash easy to get one's mind around and not entirely unexpected. If it seems a little unfair to consider oneself cheated when the aliens don't arrive, well, there it is. The production makes effectively ominous use of the enormous moon-shaped projection surface center stage (set and projections are by Alan E. Muraoka) and John Zalewski's sound.