Global warming is both a matter of scientific concern and a metaphor for Sonia and Lawrence’s relationship in David Rambo’s The Ice-Breaker, now playing at Beverly Hills’ Theatre 40. Though ultimately too talky to hold this reviewer’s attention as much as I would have liked, the production is distinguished by fine acting, direction, and design.

Sonia Milan (Ashleigh Sumner), a brilliant Ph.D. candidate in Geology, has come to the Arizona Southwest on a pilgrimage—to convince the scientist she idolizes to read her thesis on global warming. Dr. Lawrence Blanchard (Robert MacKenzie), however, wants nothing to do with either Sonia or the humungous tome she has toted along with her.  Having abandoned his geological studies some twelve years ago out of frustration with the scientific community, Lawrence is living his life as a semi-recluse and wants things to stay that way.

Most of the The Ice-Breaker takes place over the course of a long and thunderstormy night during which Sonia and Lawrence discuss science, their past histories, their mutual nemesis (a certain Dr. Bob Chernoff, with whom Sonia had a brief, tumultuous affair), their body temperatures, and of course global warming.  (Playwright Rambo draws numerous parallels between the latter two.)  It should come as no surprise that sparks ignite between The Ice-Breaker’s two protagonists—intellectual, sexual, and romantic sparks.

Performances by the two stars couldn’t be better.  MacKenzie adds Lawrence Blanchard to the string of superb portrayals he’s racked up at Theatre 40 over the past few years.  Crusty and grizzled, but still vital and attractive, MacKenzie’s Lawrence is scientist (and man) enough to pique the attention of a fellow geologist young enough to be his daughter. Sumner, a young Jodie Foster, is clearly an actress who’s not merely pretending intellect, thus no matter how flighty Sonia can appear at times to be, Sumner keeps her grounded in intelligence.  Under Andre Barron’s nuanced direction, The Ice-Breaker’s two leads do everything possible to breathe life into Rambo’s wordy two-hander.

In these days of tightened budgets, there’s nothing theaters appreciate more than plays with only a handful of characters, and the fewer the better.  The best of these (Joanna McClelland Glass’s Trying and Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, to name two Colony Theatre hits) are comedies, or at least dramas with significant comedic moments, laughter going a long way towards keeping people alert and focused. It helps also that, at least in the case of these two two-handers, the action unfolds over a period of months, or even years, so that things actually happen.  

These are two of the reasons The Ice-Breaker left me rather colder than I would have liked.  There is much talk but little action, and though there are laughs here and there, much of Lawrence and Sonia’s talk is about ideas, scientific and/or philosophical, making it easy to get lost in the words.  Add to that the fact that most of the play unfolds after sunset, and a good chunk only in candle or moon light, and you have a potentially lethal combination somewhat akin to a scientific lecture with the lights turned down low.

Thank goodness MacKenzie, Sumner, and Barron do their darndest to maintain audience attention, and though the age gap is perhaps a decade more than Rambo intended, there’s no denying the chemistry that these two actors have onstage together.

The Ice-Breaker unfolds on Jeff G. Rack’s gorgeous Arizona adobe set, one of the very best of the many he has created for Theatre 40, with Lawrence’s somewhat messy living room on the left, an inviting outdoor patio to the right, all in warm desert Southwest tones.  I particularly liked the way lighting designer Dan Reed subtly brightened Lawrence’s stingily lit main room to approximate Sonia’s eyes becoming accustomed to the room’s dim lighting.  (If only Rambo’s script didn’t call for so much to be set in muted light.)  Bill Froggatt’s sound design deftly simulates the sounds of the desert, including a realistic thunderstorm designed in collaboration with Reed’s lighting.  Cristina Acosta has costumed Lawrence and Sonya just as they’d dress themselves, he rumpled, she in tomboy chic. Jeffrey Wilson serves as production stage manager.

Any fault I can find in Theatre 40’s production of The Ice-Breaker is with Rambo’s script itself. It’s simply too easy to get lost in the science and metaphors. The rest is beautifully done.

Theatre 40, 241 S. Moreno Dr., Beverly Hills.

–Steven Stanley
May 16, 2010
                                                                                 Photos: Ed Krieger

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