StageSceneLA review – Cigs & Choc/Hang Up

Placing the emphasis on a playwright’s words and a cast’s gifts at bringing them to life, the latest from Pacific Resident Theatre proves an unexpected—and entirely unique—dramatic treat”StageSceneLA

CIGARETTES AND CHOCOLATE & HANG UP

And now for something completely different, Pacific Resident Theatre treats L.A. audiences to the West Coast Premieres of Cigarettes & Chocolate and Hang Up, a couple of Anthony Mighella-penned BBC radio plays from the ‘80s that add up to considerably more than a staged reading, slightly less than the “fully designed/staged production” that’s been advertised, yet one that’s every bit as gorgeously acted as PRT’s compelling best.

A nearly bare stage save some straight-back chairs, music stands, and a single armchair set conspicuously apart from the rest suggests a reading, announcements of the number of minutes remaining till air time seem to promise a radio broadcast, yet no reading or broadcast would have its actors completely off book, nor be as evocatively lit as these two one-acts turn out to be.

1987’s Hang Up provides a fifteen-minute introduction not only to English Patient Oscar-winner Minghella’s playwriting gifts but to the caliber of acting we’ll be witnessing under Michael Peretzian’s incisive direction.

Real-life marrieds Michael Balsley and Molly Schaffer share the stage, albeit at a conspicuous distance one from the other, as a pair of lovers for whom, it turns out, absence may not make the heart grow fonder.

Over the course of some conspicuously non-cellular phone conversations (this being the Margaret Thatcher ’80s after all), the equally terrific duo allow us to glimpse the couple’s pain, turmoil, longing, jealousy, and studiously repressed British anger as lies get found out and secrets revealed.

1988’s seventy-five-minute Cigarettes And Chocolate, a carefully detailed examination of the effect of one woman’s self-imposed silence on those around her, is the evening’s pièce de résistance.

A series of vapid voice mails expressing her friends’ confusion and concern serve as a prelude to Gemma’s (Marwa Bernstein) brief explanation as to why she’s gone incommunicado, though she keeps carefully hidden her reasons for giving up any form of verbal communication, writing included, for no one knows how long.

Frustrated by her silence, Gemma’s lover Rob (Matt Letscher) and her close friends Lorna (Ursula Brooks), Gail (Tania Getty), and Alistair (Jaxon Duff Gwillim) find no other solution but to fill it with their own words, monologs that end up revealing far more about their speakers than they ever would have done in everyday conversational give-and-take.

Lorna recalls a family member’s suicide attempts, Tania’s obsessive apartment hunting hints at something missing in her life, Alistair reveals a not-so-secret crush on Gemma, and Rob proves far more concerned with material things than with the woman he ostensibly loves.

And lest you think that Gemma herself has no secrets to be set free, think again.

Unlike, one presumes, Cigarettes And Chocolate’s radio debuts, director Peretzian has his off-book actors making eye contact, their interactions giving this hybrid of genres an authenticity that a mere reading would not, and all five leads are uniformly superb, each one gifted with a monolog delivered in a spot-on English accent that any actor would kill for, Balsley and Schaffer completing the ensemble with a couple of finely delineated cameos.

Andrei Borges’s subtle, performance-enhancing lighting is the evening’s design standout, and like Rebecca Kessin’s sound design and Audrey Eisner’s costumes helps fill in scenic designer Mallory Gabbard’s deliberately spare set.

Julian Corbett is assistant director. Jason Downs and Jeanette Driver are alternates. Morgan Wilday and Laurel Barham are stage managers. Betsy Zajko is dramaturg.

Cigarettes And Chocolate and Hang Up are produced by Susan Lang. Marilyn Fox is executive producer.

Placing the emphasis on a playwright’s words and a cast’s gifts at bringing them to life, the latest from Pacific Resident Theatre proves an unexpected—and entirely unique—dramatic treat.

Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd, Venice, Through September 10. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 3:00. Reservations: 310 822-8392.
www.PacificResidentTheatre.com

–Steven Stanley
August 18, 2017
Photos: Victor Marins