The La Jolla Playhouse is doing whole seasons with only world premieres. From musicals (artistic director Christopher Ashley won a Tony Award for his direction of the Playhouse’s Come From Away) to drama (Rebecca Taichman and Christopher Akerlind won Tonys for direction and lighting of the Playhouse’s Indecent). At this year’s Tonys, the Playhouse had ten nominations, all for brand-new work.
Rachel Bonds’s At the Old Place is another Playhouse world premiere. On the surface, the set-up’s conventional: existentially floundering, early-middle-aged woman returns to childhood home to find bearings. Revelations ensue. Plays with this format appear every year in bunches. But inside the standard situation, At the Old Place turns out to be experimental.
At first we know nothing about Angie. She’s like the pieces of a puzzle strewn across the floor. In the first scene, she enters, mute, rolling her luggage on a crunching gravel walkway. She stops and stares at a small, strawberry-rose colored house amid an unkempt garden and near the world’s most decrepit magnolia tree. She’s been here before; she knows a key’s hidden under a watering can. She’s also obviously irritated. There’s a nervous, butterfly uncertainty in her step. About what isn’t clear.
Ninety minutes later, Angie and two early-20s neighbors from down the street, Will and Jolene, come together, somewhat, and changes occur. These are small, at best — so small, in fact, they make a play by Chekhov seem almost operatic.
Except for one long scene, At the Old Place has no formal exposition and refuses to explain what it’s about in any familiar way. Instead, it requires the audience to become detectives with sharp eyes and ears for stray clues — and remain alert, since some information only comes once.
Angie, we learn in various ways, is a 40-ish teacher of poetry at a small school in central Massachusetts. Her husband, Richard, is in Africa doing research. She left him (in Africa? not clear) and took a six-month sabbatical from school. When her mother died a while back, Angie didn’t attend the funeral. They had issues. Now she’s returned to her childhood home, near Richmond, Virginia. She’s been “flailing profoundly” and wants to sort out the “mess” of her past 20 years.
When Angie arrives, Will and Jolene are already there. The house, at the end of the street, has become their “sanctuary, sort of” (okay, the play provides explanations, even oversells some). In their early 20s, both work at an unnamed electronics store — and just hate it. He’s a gay, African-American; she’s a firebrand forced to curb her attitude on the job. The three share one fact in common. Their lives are nowhere near how they dreamed them in their youth.
They connect, alcohol-laced sessions revealing crucial details along the way (Will’s brother may be in prison for defending him; men harass Jolene continually). Angie reads poetry — Frank O’Hara’s “To the Harbormaster,” Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” There’s a deus ex UFO moment, and the curtain comes down. Some things have changed. What, and to what degree, isn’t quite clear. But whatever it is, it won’t be easy to label.
This is no play for those requiring instant replay. I like that about the script. In some ways it’s the opposite of conventional theater, where struggles get overcome, redemption reigns, and you can sum up the evening in a sentence. Here, the more one pays attention, the clearer some things become.
One example: in the beginning Jolene recounts a hellish evening she spent at a coffee shop, where a poet, in her view, spilled his guts out grotesquely. Toward the end, after Angie reads a poem, a relaxed Jolene asks her to read another. So Jolene’s made a shift: how seismic, or how long it will last, remain ambiguous.
Another plus: no devices — no smartphones, iPads, texting, or emails. These three communicate unmediated by technology. What a concept! And the play’s Mamet-like, fractal dialogue is often brilliant. Will and Jolene have technical expertise and rarely complete a sentence, as if face-to-face English were a foreign tongue.
In effect, the script works on the puzzle and assembles some sections. The Jaime Castenada–directed production follows suit. Castenada’s actors provide subtle physical clues. And the cast — Heidi Armbruster (Angie), Brenna Coates (Jolene), Benim Foster (Harrison), and Marcel Spears (Will) inhabit their characters as far as they can. But do they have depth?
The technique’s more interesting than the characters. Except for Coates’s Jolene, who enlivens scenes with heartfelt histrionics, the others feel manipulated. In a long dull interlude, Harrison supposedly drove nine hours to pledge his love to Angie (they’ve apparently been lovers back at school). But he doesn’t pledge hard enough (which might be too dramatic, for this “post-dramatic” piece). Instead he provides some background information and exists only to add pieces to the puzzle.
At the Old Place could use some rethinking. It’s quite static and could stress deeper subtexts, so that the characters, not their traits, would draw us in. That said, what seems like a soft, three-and-a-half hander turns out to be quite experimental, even daring in an age allergic to first-hand observation.
2910 La Jolla Village Drive, UCSD
At the Old Place
by Rachel Bonds.
Directed by Jaime Castaneda; cast: Heidi Armbruster, Marcel Spears, Brenna Coates; scenic design, Lauren Helpern, costumes, David Israel Reynoso, lighting, Lap Chi Chu, sound, Melanie Chen.
Playing through July 31: Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. lajollaplayhouse.org