While surfing the Internet, Chris Quiñones makes a shocking discovery—someone with the very same name as his, a Chris Quiñones who graduated with very same high school class, has the same date, place, and even hospital of birth, the same Columbian father and Jewish mother… The very same Chris Quiñones, yet subtly different in small details like the fact that for one Chris a particular time of import is a.m. but for the other p.m. Chris stays online all night searching, until finally the trail left by Chris II ends about a year ago, in Djibouti, after which his doppelganger has seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth.

Sound like Matt Damon’s latest Hollywood thriller?

Absolutely, except what we have here is Michael John Garcés’ The Web, a suspense thriller written expressly for the stage, for the intimate stage no less, the latest entry of the award-winning needtheater, now playing at Hollywood’s Art/Works Theatre.

“I think they’re after him,” Chris tells work buddy David the next day, and when David accuses him of having made a “vanity search,” Chris protests. “My name just kept coming up,” he explains, adding that his Chris Quiñones search kept popping up with mysterious acronyms (for secret government organizations?). He even found Top Secret information despite not having the proper access codes. “It’s like they wanted me to find out about him,” Chris continues, “and now the browser is gone, like it never was there.”

Before long Chris has been visited by a stranger who seems to know everything about Chris’ life, a man who introduces himself as Kapesh and claims to be from FESA (the Federal External Security Administration). “We’ve been watching you for the last several weeks,” Kapesh informs Chris, before taking him off to an office where he is interrogated over the course of several hours, then set free.

If that weren’t already enough, who should show up at Chris’ door but a man who identifies himself as Arrowsmith of the NYPD—with a pointed gun to prove it. “I want you to tell me where you really were today” Arrowsmith demands, and if Chris knows nothing about his visitor, Arrowsmith certainly knows a lot about him, including bank account number, balance, latest deposit, everything. “You’ve got me confused with someone else,” Chris protests. “Somewhere else, there’s this guy who’s me.”

Like every thriller worth its salt, there are mysteries aplenty to be solved in The Web. Chris claims that he entered the confidential websites thanks to a flash drive he found in a bag given to him by David, but David insists he knows nothing about this and that the bag Chris is holding isn’t the same one. No matter, the bad guys want to know what was in that bag and how Chris really managed to hack into their websites. As to the office where Chris was interrogated, Arrowsmith informs him that if he goes back to look for it, it will have disappeared. To complicate Chris’ life even further, he has a girlfriend, Stephanie, who doesn’t seem all that devoted to him and a femme fatale, Lina, whom he meets in his search for the other Chris and who keeps turning up in different places with different accents.

Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Who can Chris trust in this web of conspirators who surround and pursue him? And what the heck is all this about?

Like just about any other Hollywood (or stage) mystery thriller with the requisite convoluted plot, probably only the most attentive audience member will be able to put all the threads together and come up with the right answers, and there’s always that nagging question, “Couldn’t the bad guys have come up with a lot simpler way to get what they wanted without involving our poor, harried hero?”

None of this matters a whit in The Web, as it didn’t really matter in Mulholland Drive (though I did once find an online explanation of David Lynch’s deliberately cryptic movie). What matters is the excitement of the ride, and the question, “What would I do if I found myself in the hero’s shoes?”

For any film or stage thriller to come alive, what matters equally is having a director with the vision to bring the screenwriter/playwright’s vision to life, and in Alyson Roux, needtheater has found just such a director. A longtime X Files fan, Roux knows how to keep the action swift and the mystery mysterious. She also manages to maintain tension even during the cleverly choreographed Spy-Vs.-Spy scene changes, which in less adroit hands could have stopped the show dead in its tracks.

The Web could also have fallen apart without precisely the right leading man. Fortunately, Ian Forester fits the It-Could-Be-Me lead role to a T. He’s just the kind of guy who might be working unobtrusively in the cubicle-next-door, a buddy you might meet after work for drinks, not at all the kind of man you’d expect to be running for his life from a team of deadly killers. Absolutely natural and completely in-the-moment, Forester makes us believe that this is happening to him, and to us, and besides the very real confusion-turned-fear-turned-terror he (and we) experience, the young actor also undergoes the most physically demanding role I’ve seen in many a moon. The fights designed by Edgar Landa are so real, the punches and kicks so absolutely authentic (and painful to imagine) that it’s a wonder Forester and his fellow combatants can survive from performance to performance.

Among the supporting cast, Amanda Zarr is a perfectly cast mystery woman, gorgeous to behold with acting chops to boot. As henchman Warner, Justin Huen has a good deal less to do here than in his Scenie-winning star turn in Oedipus El Rey, but his quiet menace (and some believably sadistic boot kicks) make him another standout. Of the villains, Stan Kelly (Arrowsmith) does best at the kind of cold, almost deadpan menace required by the genre. Completing the cast are Tony Sancho as David, fight director Landa as Kapesh, and Betsy Reisz as Stephanie.

Corwin Evans gets three thumbs up for his dramatic, clever sound design, his suspense-enhancing original music, and his striking projection designs, the latter of which feature animated computer webs and shadow figures haunting the streets of New York. Unfortunately, Evans’ projections are sabotaged by scenic designer Alex Gaines’ otherwise effective but detrimentally flimsy set, which sets the images a-shakin’ whenever a door opens or closes, immediately destroying whatever effect or mood Evans has worked so hard to achieve. Ariel Boroff gets high marks for costumes and makeup design, including some very believable black eyes and bruises. Sara Gunderson is stage manager, assisted by Samantha Young.

Under Matt Wells’ astute artistic direction, needtheater’s 2008 production of Fatboy won the company three LA Weekly Theatre Awards and last year’s Mercury Fur scored them an Ovation Award nomination for Best Ensemble. Whether lightning will strike a third time for The Web is anyone’s guess. On the other hand, if the company can get the word out to thriller fans, they may well find themselves with the kind of popular hit that fills seats with folks who would under other circumstances never set foot in a “legitimate” theater, and that is indeed something to shout about.

Art/Works Theater, 6567 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
September 17. 2010
Photos: Lisa Gallo

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