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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Following on the heels of its bravura rendering of White's The Other Place in 2015, the Road once again establishes itself as a White house par excellence. But this go-round is a far different experience. Apart from sharing the playwright's laser-like insights into the vagaries of family dysfunction, the The Other Place and Stupid Kid are not even cousins. At the Road, the two productions also share a performer: Taylor Gilbert, the company's founder/ artistic director, whose portrayal of a supremely conflicted mother will rip the guts out of any theater-goer who possesses them.
Gigi, Gilbert's character, is damaged and her husband Eddie (played by Joe Hart) isn't doing much better. In fact, pretty much every character we meet in the hardscrabble eastern Colorado community where the play is set lives dangerously close to the edge financially, socially or psychologically. The return of anything-but-prodigal son Chick (Ben Theobald) sets the action in motion. Chick pled guilty to a murder when he was barely a teen-ager. Now thanks to the discovery of new evidence, he's home, with barely a set of clothes to his name and facing some terrible choices. Ironically, Chick is probably the most stable character on stage. A "stupid kid?" Maybe once. Now he's just plain exploited.
Chick's confession and imprisonment 14 years ago led to the family's collapse. Eddie wrecked his back and hasn't worked in years while Gigi &emdash; perceived as a murderer's mother &emdash; is basically a pariah. The family barely has five dollars to its name, leaving them uncomfortably dependent on the largesse of Gigi's brother, Unclemike (Rob Nagle) the town's former sheriff, now an aspiring judge. Unclemike brings groceries and rents a room in his sister's house which he uses for trysts with parolees that he has basically enslaved. Chick went to prison on Unclemike's legal watch. Now that the kid is back, and with the possibility of a new trial or even an exoneration, Unclemike is cooking up a scheme.
Chick comes home not to the embrace of parents who missed him, but to their distrust and fear that they may have to relive the nightmare of the crime all over again. A long hardened Gig is particularly conflicted. Her son proved to be a monster (maybe) and it's her brother who is presenting himself as a morally dubious savior. White smoothly dovetails the schematic plot with an examination of a family in crisis and laces the saga with a strain of dark humor. Watson's production gives the humor, the pathos and the cleverness equal weight. Even when it has you by the throat, Stupid Kid is hugely entertaining.
By the second act, as Gigi starts to face her son and the sacrifices she has made, Stupid Kid moves artfully into more deeply emotional waters. The discovery of, of all things, a Frankenstein doll, brings about a kind of reconciliation and when mother and son share a much needed embrace, we have been put through the wringer right along with Gigi.
In the wrong actor's hands, Chick becomes too much a victim, but Theobald shrewedly establishes Chick as neither rube nor pawn. With his quick-witted digs at Unclemike, Chick is living dangerously. Conversely, Theobald's scenes with Hart's broken down Eddie are shot through with plenty of understated tenderness. Eddie may be weak to the point of emasculation, but in Hart's lined face and undefeated smiles, we see the remnants of a man who still believes in the possibility of rebuilding.
The second act flips the action from the living room of the family's run down house outdoors to a porch that Gigi scrupulously avoids. The transformation of Jeff McLaughlin's nicely-realized set from indoors to out is accomplished quickly and with great deftness. Indeed, once they have moved into the open air, the characters all seem to look a lot less beaten down, Taylor's Gigi most notably. The exception is Unclemike who sadistically returns home in full sheriff's riot gear, terrifying Eddie and Chick for laughs.
Nagle is a big man, and his Unclemike moves and speaks with the assurance of a guy who is accustomed to successfully gaming the system. As charismatic as this actor can be, his character is utterly repulsive, something of a dramatic straw man in a play that underlines its socially conscious agenda. Still, when we reach a climactic fight (powerfully choreographed by Bjorn Johnson), we in the audience end up as hungry for blood as some of the characters.
Stupid Kid contains an epilogue that some might find too tidy. Yes, this play leans on an issue that the playwright clearly finds troubling (a portion of the production's proceeds will benefit the Innocence Project) and no, fringy dirt poor characters don't necessarily get their happy endings, even in plays. But the conclusion in no way ruins a solid evening. Stupid Kid is the second in White's trilogy of Colorado plays (following Anapurna. Here's hoping the third entry makes its way to the Road. Here's betting that whatever it is, Gilbert's company will know exactly what to do with it. .
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Stupid Kid by Sharr White
Directed by Cameron Watson
Cast: Ben Theobald, Taylor Gilbert, Joe Hart, Rob Nagle, Michelle Gillette, Allison Blaize.
Scenic Design: Jeff McGlaughlin
Lighting Design: Jared A. Sayeg
Sound Design Christopher Moscatiello
Costume Design: Kate Bergh
Stage Manager: Maurie Gonzalez
Fight Director: Bjorn Johnson
Plays through December 11, 2017 at the Road on Magnolia, 10747 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. (818) 761-8838, www.roadtheatre.org.
Running time: Two hours, with one intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson
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