In a stylish but sterile white office suite, three well-dressed men are discussing what appears to be an assassination plot with a rather scruffy, tattooed visitor whom one surmises to be the prospective assassin.  The latter has qualms, not about the equipment he’ll be using, but about the pane of glass he’ll have to be shooting through. The window could affect the trajectory, he explains, adding that even humidity can affect a bullet’s course.  “I’d have to say you have a low chance of success,” he informs the others.  Since neither the time nor the place of the assassination can be changed, he concludes that a rifle is clearly not the answer.  “If you want to do it, you’ll have to bomb the whole room,” he suggests. Maybe do it with a missile?  The oldest of the three plotters has an even better idea—to put someone in the room who is willing to pay the price. He then volunteers to be that man.

Thus begins Men Of Tortuga, Jason Wells’ comedic thriller now being given its West Coast Premiere production by Pasadena’s Furious Theatre Company, and if its opening scene is an attention grabber, the scene which follows is more of a head scratcher.

With sound designer Doug Newell’s background score, a dramatic blend of martial and suspense themes, pulsating through the Carrie Hamilton Theatre, a pair of stage hands in custodial workers’ garb move some furniture and switch some flowers and knickknacks—and when the lights go up again, we find ourselves in another, almost identical office. Kit Maxwell (Dana J. Kelly, Jr.), the older man from the first scene, is meeting with a man we’ve not yet been introduced to, a younger, similarly well-dressed businessman type named Allan Fletcher (Michael Matthys), who explains his reason for being in Maxwell’s office. He’s come to counsel compromise, he announces, and hands Maxwell a phone book-sized compromise plan.

Just who Fletcher is or what this compromise might be never gets explained in Wells’ deliberately cryptic script.  (Even the play’s title is a puzzler, the Spanish word “Tortuga” not once mentioned by any of the characters.) For this reviewer at least, from this point on, interest in Men Of Tortuga rises or wanes depending on the clarity or ambiguity of the characters’ actions and motivations.

Men Of Tortuga scores points for its crackling dialog and darkly comedic moments, as when Maxwell balks at the idea of survivors. “If I’m going to die, they’re all going to die,” he growls. Later, to his consternation, Maxwell learns that he’s not going to be allowed to put his affairs in order, this being a sure way of arousing suspicion. Not long after, tattooed Taggert (Robert Pescovitz) arrives with his brainstorm concoction, a briefcase which conceals a dagger in its handle/lock mechanism. Taggert’s so-called solution to their dilemma is bad news to Maxwell. “I’m not sure I could stab somebody,” declares the gray-haired gent.  After all, a gun is one thing, but a knife? And blood? 

Fortunately, the knife-in-briefcase plan is jettisoned when the men realize that that the handle won’t fold down. Of course it won’t fold down, exclaims Taggert. If it did, it’d be impossible to hold the blade, he continues, clueless that the immobile handle would be a sure giveaway to building security. Taggert’s also none too pleased that not one of the men seems inclined to buy him a suit, to better fit in with their scheme.  “You could buy me a missile system,” he exclaims, “and not buy me a suit!?”

As with every Furious production I’ve seen, acting, direction (by Alexis Chamow), and production design are top-drawer.  Wells’ script too has many exciting, amusing moments, but its apparently intentional ambiguity proves a bigger enemy than the one its would-be killers want to assassinate. A play whose characters’ identities and motivations remain as abstruse as these do hardly encourages edge-of-seat involvement. Instead of following the plot and identifying with the characters, we’re spending valuable time trying to figure out who they are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it.  

On the plus side, Brooks, Kelly, Matthys, Pescovitz, and William Salyers as the final member of the assassination committee, all deliver rich, juicy performances that just keep getting better as the play hurtles forward.

Sara Ryung Clement’s white, black, and chrome set is the kind of terrific design we’ve become accustomed to in Furious Theatre productions. (One’s first impression is, “I could move in here.”)  Christie Wright’s lighting, Leah Piehl’s costumes, and Shannon Dedman’s props add to a very classy production design, and the background music is worth a soundtrack CD.

Theatergoers who aren’t frustrated by cryptic characters and plot will likely find little to gripe about in Men Of Tortuga. Confused I may have been, but not bored. All in all, I’d give the production a B+.  If I’d been able to explain to my guest what had been going on, or he to me, it would have scored a solid A. 

Furious Theatre Company, Pasadena Playhouse Carrie Hamilton Theatre, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
March 4, 2010
                                                                               Photos: Anthony Masters

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