Rules of Seconds
Reviewed by Gray Palmer
Los Angeles Theatre Center
Through April 15
John Pollono’s new comedy of menace, Rules of Seconds — without adding up any new sums — does deliver some incidental, mean pleasures. Sympathies are quickly engaged by the story’s variously feminine, queer, and racialized colonial subjects as they face the nasty antagonist. The characters, punished at every turn, are marshaled into a hopping “line-dance-of-the-abused” until the narrative abruptly pops the last vengeful blood-bag.
We’re in Boston, 1855. “Honor can only be restored by the spilling of blood,” says the narrator-lecturer (Ron Bottitta), holding up a copy of the Code Duello, the universally accepted manual for a gentleman’s satisfaction. “Let the lesson begin.”
A bootblack (Joshua Bitton), before dawn, removes horseshit from a walkway so that the boots of his employer, Walter Brown (Jamie Harris), shall not be soiled. Another servant (Damu Malik) holds a lantern. Their conversation, ornate, obscene, hateful, tells us several things about the play: All characters, bright or dim, can attain rhetorical lift-off (often lunatic, never malapropos); power is used in a mean way; and anything goes (we begin with race hatred and jokes about the finer points of self-respect during interspecies sex).
At the conclusion of this introductory scene, Walter Brown walks silently from one side of the stage to the other on his way to the carriage, followed by an associate in black (Leandro Cano); they vanish into the wings, having revealed nothing (it’s a star entrance). A maid (Jennifer Pollono) says, “Ya may unclench thy ass cheeks, Mr. Bonnie. His beloved boots remain untarnished.”
Martha Leeds (Amy Brenneman), widowed owner of an unsuccessful shipping company, lives with her barely functional, manifestly OCD adult son, Nathaniel (Mathew Elkins). Their financial problems are to be relieved, they think, by Brown, expected at any moment to sign papers for the purchase of the business. But when Nathaniel, terrified of touching a stranger, attempts to shake hands, he spills tea on Brown’s boots. And that’s that.
The challenge is delivered by post the next day. Nathaniel must find a second for the duel. His seeks his estranged brother, James (Josh Helman), whom he finds in a tavern — engaged, at that moment, in his own grisly duel. And on and on…
Pollono’s script is heavily plotted with delayed revelations that increase the danger; violence is calculated for maximum shock (the property table backstage must look Jacobean). The action has a final twist.
Even so, Rules of Seconds isn’t a straight-ahead melodramatic thriller. The genre machinery hums along, doing the expected, while we are incidentally served the real business of satire — savoring absurd situations, clever talk, and the idiocy of a social target, in this case, revenge and masculine honor.
The four principals, Harris, Brenneman, Elkins and Helman, are great, likewise all the members of the ensemble. (The actor Joshua Bitton, when performing a second character, had me fooled. I searched the program in vain for an extra cast member.)
Direction is by Jo Bonney, whose fine production of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home From the Wars played at the Taper last season, simple scenic design is by Richard Hoover, outstanding costumes by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, great lighting by Neil Peter Jampolis, sound by Cricket S. Meyers, projection by Hana Kim, impressive violence designed by Ned Mochel, excellent dialect coaching by Paul Wagar, choreography by Daniel Ponickley, and the all-important properties were designed by Ilana Molina.
Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., Downtown LA; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.; through April 15. (866) 811-4111, http://thelatc.org. Running time: two hours with intermission.