Take a bunch of strangers and trap them in an enclosed space for a significant enough length of time and it’s a sure bet they’ll come out changed by the experience—if plays and movies are to be believed. Take the jurors in Twelve Angry Men, Tom Hanks and assorted others in You’ve Got Mail, or the high school kids in The Breakfast Club. Eleven jurors changed their verdict, Tom decided to leave Parker Posey for Meg Ryan, and the Princess, Jock, Brain, Criminal, and Basket Case all revealed themselves to be night-and-day different from our first impression of them and bonded in the process. Such is the stuff of stage and screen fiction.

Writer-director Michael Leoni takes this tried-and-true formula and comes up with another winner in Elevator, a live-stage expansion of his 10-minute short film Somewhere In Between.

As the title indicates, the enclosed space in question is what the Brits like to call “a lift,” something which the seven trapped strangers are most definitely in need of.

There’s the CEO Woman (Deborah Vancelette), a 40ish hypochondriac with an ever-present bottle of Valium; the Businessman (Alex Rogers), a foul-tempered lout never off his cell phone; the Assistant (Erica Katzin), a pretty but plus-sized low rung on the corporate ladder with an out-of-control food obsession; the Musician (Mikie Beatty), a rosy-cheeked cutiepie of a singer-songwriter come to Hollywood in search of a career in The Industry; the Hot Girl (Karlee Rigby), a gorgeous model-type who probably doesn’t have a brain in her beautiful blonde head; the Goth Girl (Rachael Page), a black-garbed teen who appears to have taken Ally Sheedy’s Breakfast Club Basket Case as role model; and the Maintenance Man (William Stanford Davis), an older African American who may have been at his job even longer than the CEO Woman has been alive.

Clearly each of these seven is as much an archetype (some would say stereotype) as those Breakfast Club kids, and the trapped-in-a-small-space setup is a stage/screen formula (some would say cliché) that’s been done time and time again.

What makes Elevator transcend stereotype and cliché is its spot-on dialog, absolutely perfect casting, electric direction, and most importantly, the way each character turns out to be about as different from our first impression as can be imagined.

If the characters themselves have pegged each other as this or that “type,” then we in the audience are equally guilty of doing just that. The Businessman must be an asshole, the Hot Girl a dumb bunny, and the Maintenance Man a nobody from South Central.

Thus, much of the pleasure of watching these seven strangers in their high rise cage is in the jolt we feel as each one’s unexpected truths are revealed. There’s also the enjoyment in seeing once again the truth of Barbra Streisand’s musical assertion that “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world,” for if ever there were seven people in need of other people in their lives, they are the seven sharing an elevator in Elevator.

There’s not a weak link in the cast. Beatty, Davis, Katzin, Page, Rigby, Rogers, and Vancelette so thoroughly become the characters they’re playing that it’s hard to believe writer/director Leoni didn’t find them all in an office building elevator. In addition to their acting gifts, Beatty proves a fine singer/guitarist, Rigby a terrific dancer, and (at the risk of a plot spoiler) Katzin shows of those sensational pipes she first revealed in Leoni’s The Playground.

Sharing star billing with Leoni and his ensemble is Mario Marchetti’s pulsating original music and Marchetti’s and sound engineer Ryuichi Lee’s sound design, one of the best of the year, which has us hearing the characters’ inner thoughts as well as the various sounds you’d expect on an elevator, whether in functioning or non-functioning mode. Matt Richter’s lighting enhances Elevator’s suspense. Bailey C. Scott’s set design is simple in the extreme and entirely right for the play and the space in which it’s being performed. David Johnson is stage manager assisted by Nick Pumroy, casting is by Kara Sullivan Casting, and Michelle Kaufer and Schoen Smith are the show’s producing team.

Elevator is a perfect example of the kind of quality production one can find just under the radar in this theater-packed city of ours—proof positive that it’s not just the higher profile 99-seat companies that offer audiences a memorable night at the theater. There’s talk of an extension beyond the Hollywood Fringe Festival, of which Elevator is a part. This is one show that most definitely deserves a longer run.

Hudson Guild Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd , Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
June 20, 2010

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