A “world premiere” always sounds really special and exciting. And it is! But truthfully when you take a seat at a world premiere of a play, you should know what you are getting into. Even when it’s an established award-winning playwright it can be a toss up as to its success, and if it’s a relatively unknown playwright, it’s just plain risky viewing. And exciting. Don’t forget exciting. You could be a witness to brilliance, or more often an intriguing show that still needs some work.
My experience at Atwater Village Theatre seeing An Undivided Heart, a Circle X Theatre Co. and Echo Theatre Co. partnership fell into the intriguing-but-still-needing-work category. I always have high hopes and expectations when Circle X is involved, but I’m well aware of the meaning of “world premiere” and how it will likely translate as a theatre experience. This production was no exception.
The play started off with a little girl (Ann’ Jewel Lee) with a knife in one hand holding a dead cat by the tail in the other, standing by a burning typewriter with dark and mysterious lighting (Rose Malone, lighting design). WOW. That’s quite an opener. For good or for bad, the rest of the production didn’t follow that lead. The play, written by Yusuf Toropov, does bring to light some hot topics: Child sexual abuse and inaction in the Catholic church, toxic chemical waste dump and its deadly impact on a small town, as well as broader Catholicism vs. Buddhism themes.
Here are the basics: Young Catholic Priest, Mike, (Matthew Gallenstein) has written a book promoting the notion that sexual abuse victims of Catholic Priests should come out and sue. The Cardinal (John Getz) predictably, is against the idea of him publishing the book. Meanwhile Mike’s Buddhist brother, Max, (Tim Wright) meets a very angry and pregnant Lynne (Alana Dietze) while his car is fenced in at the chemical waste dumpsite and takes her to the Emergency room to deliver her baby, who is born dead. Her husband died of cancer and mother is currently battling due to the leaking chemicals into the community. Max visits his Buddhist guru, Janice, (Tracey A. Leigh) to gain insight into his role of support in both Lynne and Mike’s lives. There are Buddhist riddles to solve and dream sequences throughout- that’s where the girl and the dead cat come in. Does that seem like a lot? It did to me too.
There are absolutely intriguing characters and highly topical themes addressed. I’d say there might be 2-3 plays in this play. That’s a problem. But let me be clear, Yusuf Toropov has written some riveting scenes. He touched on some important and compelling topics. And what’s really exciting is he added a whole heck of a lot of humor. Really? YES. An Undivided Heart has laugh out loud comedic scenes and moments throughout, including a “fill in the blanks” scene about how to put together a Catholic sermon, as well as an off-beat assistant to the Cardinal (Kaleb King) who sings “Stand by your Man”. Hilarious. There are some really great moments and scenes throughout. Big picture, the show still needs some work.
I would be irresponsible not to mention the first rate acting. The cast is solid to brilliant and the director, Chris Fields, keeps them moving along. You should be aware that there is an A and B cast. I’d have a hard time believing they aren’t both great. The show held my attention and is definitely worth a see as long as you are enthusiastically “in” for the “world premiere” experience.
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave, Los Angeles.
Mon 8 pm, Fri- Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm.
tickets: $34, Mondays are cheaper!
through April 22.
www.circlextheatre.org / www.EchoTheaterCompany.com
Running time: 2 hours. 1 intermission.