A 20something couple express their love by beating each other black and blue in Reverb, the latest—and darkest—of Leslye Headland’s Seven Deadly Plays, or at least of the three reviewed here.

Headland’s series of one-acts, each revolving around a Deadly Sin, began just over a year ago with Cinephilia, which centered on a “friendship with benefits” which She thought of as a relationship and He thought of as just a bit of fun. The play, based on the sin of Lust, managed to be both insightful and entertaining despite a decidedly unsympathetic lead male character. Bachelorette (Gluttony) upped the unsympathetic quotient by three with a trio of perhaps the meanest girls ever seen on the same stage at the same time.  

Now, following Assistance (Greed) and Surfer Girl (Sloth), Headland has created a pair of lovers so fucked up by their history of childhood physical abuse that the more they love, the more they feel the need to beat each other to the pulp.

Things begin benignly enough with ex-boyfriend/girlfriend Dorian and June meeting for coffee and discussing their former relationship, which Dorian claims fizzled out because, he tells June, “you didn’t support me so much as just didn’t get in the way.” June sees it differently, recalling how Dorian kept exchanging text messages with his exes throughout their dating. Dorian would seem to have turned over a new leaf, however, telling June now that “we were a part of each other.  I wanted to come inside you and make you the mother of my children.” A slap from June, and they make plans to meet again the following week.

A week later, Dorian’s sister Lydia interrupts her brother’s band practice with news of their dying father.  It seems that Lydia has reconciled with the S.O.B. thanks to having discovered Jesus and now that dear old Dad has only six months to live, sis wants bro to come home and help out with his care. “I can’t do this all by myself,” she tells him. Dorian calls Lydia a “professional victim.”  Lydia insists that “You’d forgive him if you saw him.” No way, insists Dorian, whose heart has turned as cold as ice. “I saved you,” he insists. “Not Jesus.”

Following Lydia’s departure, Dorian reveals to June how his mother abandoned her two kids when they were still small and recalls the physical abuse he endured from his father, the memories of which are so strong that he begins to pound his head with a notebook again and again.  When June attempts to comfort him, tenderness turns to violence.  “Hit me,” he orders her.  She does. Hard.  And then he returns the favor.

In the last of Reverb’s three scenes, Dorian must decide which is more important to him—saving his once again on relationship with June, moving past his horrendous childhood, or signing a record deal with Capitol.

Headland’s writing is, as always, sparked by flashes of sly, contemporary humor. When Dorian informs June that his album isn’t going well, she wonders, “Is that why you Facebooked me?”  Dorian’s band is called Ringfinger, following the rejection of Bridge On The River Why, among other names. When the sound of an old-fashioned phone ringing interrupts band practice, one of the members gasps in disbelief, “You have a land line??” 

Headland, who with Reverb has now directed four of her five Deadly Plays, has written for herself the plum role of self-involved Internet celebrity music blogger Ivy, a trippy, self-centered hipster who brags about the million page views she’s had since posting four of Dorian’s songs on her blog and declares “I mean Dorian—he’s like the answer.”  There’s also Laila Abad doing touching work as Lydia, whose reconciliation with her father has estranged her from a still bitter Dorian.  Brandon Scott shines as bandmate Hank, the play’s most “together” character, who tells June, “Dorian will never love another human being as much as something he’s created.”  In a small but amusing role, Patrick Graves plays Ringfinger member/stoner Shane.

Reverb, though, definitely belongs to its two leads. The charismatic Wes Whitehead matches his Best of 2007-8 performance in Cinephilia as Dorian, whose dry, almost monotonous delivery in early scenes masks an anger which explodes, to horrific effect, several times, each one steadily more violent. Opposite him is Melissa Stephens as June, her delicate blondness making the blows she receives from him (and gives back in equal measure) all the more shocking.  June’s Georgia drawl (whether Stephens’ own or a skilled replication) gives her an added sweetness, but like Whitehead, Stephens’ June is a well of repressed sadness and anger. Both actors give devastating performances.

One of the best scenes between Dorian and June is the one which explains the play’s title.  Dorian tells June about Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound in the Spector classic “Be My Baby,” which features a reverberation caused by echo over echo over echo, “a symphony out of chaos.”  Not accidentally, it is The Supremes’ “I Hear A Symphony” which accompanies Dorian and June’s ensuing slugfest.

There is, however, a fly in this otherwise heady ointment. Headland’s characters in Cinephilia and Bachelorette were selfish and cruel, but Dorian and June’s violent rages are not only hard to watch but take the characters to a realm of emotional sickness that diminishes audience empathy. It’s hard to care for people this screwed up, especially with Ned Mochel’s fight choreography and Hannah Hensley’s bruise makeup so shockingly realistic.

Leigh Allen’s lighting design is appropriately stark until a final, exquisitely rendered blackout, and Louise Munson’s costumes are well chosen to match each character’s personality, with special snaps due Ivy’s black spandex garb. Eric Saez’s sound design is good as well, whether the ringing of a “land line” phone or music coming from a laptop. The sole weak design element is Janicza Bravo’s set which unlike Cinephilia’s and Bachelorette’s (which looked “good on a budget”) just looks low budget.

Enjoyment of Sunday’s performance was lessened by the crowding of an additional dozen or so audience members into the 49-seat theater with chairs added two per row in the center aisle, blocking exit paths and sight lines to the stage. The temperature and stuffiness in the theater went up accordingly. Hopefully this was a one-time occurrence.

Reverb is worth seeing if only for the daring, committed performances of Whitehead and Stephens.  The pair looked thoroughly drained at curtain calls, and with good reason.  By play’s end, these two actors have gone through a physical and emotional wringer the likes of which most of us may never have seen on stage or off.  And thank goodness for that!

Working Stage Theatre, 1516 N. Gardner St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
January 25, 2009

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