Thousands upon thousands of actors choose Los Angeles as their career base for the obvious reason; no other city offers them as many opportunities to do film and television work as L.A. does. Nevertheless, even many of the most successful choose to make regular stage appearances for the challenge and joy of performing before a live audience. The same holds true for movie and TV writers who, despite big and small screen success, continue to write for the theater, to the benefit of L.A. audiences.

There is no better example of this crossover work than the world premiere production of Kate Robin’s What They Have, now playing at South Coast Repertory.

The cast includes present and past series regulars Matt Letscher (Eli Stone), Marin Hinkle (Two And A Half Men), and Kevin Rahm (Judging Amy) along with regional theater vet Nancy Bell, the quartet performing in a new comedy-drama written by Kate Robin, two-time Emmy nominee for Six Feet Under.

What They Have is about just that, what other people have, and what we envy them for having.

For artist Suzanne (Bell) and teacher Matt (Rahm), the grass is far greener on their best friends’ side of the fence. Connie (Hinkle) is a hugely successful film producer and husband Jonas (Letscher) a TV writer with a currently airing hit series.  Not only that, but Connie is pregnant, a hard pill to swallow for childless Suzanne and Matt.

What They Have’s first act is mostly talk, but intelligent and funny talk it is, as we get to know the two couples. Having tried to be a professional musician for four years, Matt now teaches guitar in the public schools. It’s like being a musician, explains Matt, “but it’s not.”  Suzanne and Matt “try to watch” Jonas’ TV series, they say, but unfortunately they don’t have a TV.  Meanwhile Connie and Jonas obsess about reality TV, specifically Big Brother, because it’s “so much better than scripted dramas.” (Ironic words from people who make their money in scripted TV and films.)  “It’s closer to Beckett than anything I’ve seen on TV,” enthuses Jonas, though Matt finds Big Brother “proof that the world is spiraling to an end.” (Wikipedia and YouTube are two other fascinations of the “have it all” couple.) Suzy and Matt wouldn’t mind a move to the Big Apple but on their earnings “you have to live in Philadelphia if you want to live in New York.” “I’m not saying you should be as successful as Jonas,” Suzy tells her husband.  “I’m just saying you should make more money.”

This talk on assorted topics goes on for about an hour.  Sometimes the four are together, sometimes in different groupings.  Then, just before the Act 1 curtain, Connie receives some devastating news, which leads to a powerful and emotionally involving second act.  The tables are turned.  The “haves” have become the “have nots,” and all bets are off as to which couple will get the happy ending.

Robin is the same writer who just six months ago gave us the equally provocative Anon.  Thankfully absent here is the air of male-bashing which marred that otherwise praiseworthy comedy-drama. Robin’s dialog is clever and as topical as tonight’s TV lineup, and with Anon director Chris Fields helming What They Have, the cast of four all deliver sterling performances.

Letscher and Hinkle get the meatiest roles, and each has at least one powerful moment which only a gifted and trained actor could dig deep within and make  real.  If TV is better because of actors like these two, live theater likewise benefits from their talents.  Rahm and Bell don’t get quite the same chance to emote, but each creates a richly achieved characterization, in addition to both being given the bonus of a cameo, Rahm as a physician and Bell as a British therapist.

Christopher Barreca has designed an absolutely gorgeous set in whites and blues and built on a revolving stage, which allows many speedy scene and locale changes. Lighting designer Lap-Chi Chu follows his outstanding work in The Importance Of Being Earnest with an equally fine design, one which also proves helpful in making Rahm and Bell’s character changes work.  The fashionable L.A. costumes are by Alex Jaeger. Michael Roth’s original music sets the mood perfectly.

It took me till the second act to really get into What They Have, but once I was there, my interest and involvement never flagged.  The cast and writer may be better known for their film and TV work, but it is doubtful that their talents could get a better showcase than this excellent live stage production affords them.

South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
April 13, 2008
Photos: Henry DiRocco/SCR

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