The lives of three 20something New Yorkers intersect in Diving Normal, Ashlin Halfnight’s smart, funny, engrossing comedy-drama now getting its West Coast Premiere at the SFS Theatre under Neil H. Weiss’s astute direction.

Dana (Carly Pope) has just been roughed up when she meets former high school classmate Fulton (Philipp Karner) quite by chance one evening in the East Village nine years after graduation. That the “someone” who did this to her changes from male to female mid-story is but the first of several clues that all is not quite right with the pretty brunette. Add to that the pills Dana pops when Fulton exits his living room to allow Dana to change from her rain-soaked shirt into one of his, and the welts we see across her back, and you have the recipe for a complex and volatile relationship—to say the very least.

The first face Dana sees when she wakes up on Fulton’s couch the following morning is that of Gordon (Scotty Crowe), a strange but kind-eyed young friend of Fulton’s with a tendency to respond “True,” or “False,” where most people would say a simple “Yes,” or “No.” The formality of Scotty’s speech—“I waited patiently for you to come out of your sleep naturally”— and his habit of taking everything literally—“What are you, my dad?” “No. Your dad lives in Los Angeles. You have never seen him or met him.”—are further indications that Gordon is a bit … different. Still, he’s the kind of young man people are nice to, and if he doesn’t seem quite the sort of friend you’d expect a sharp, with-it guy like Fulton to have, buddies as loyal as Gordon are hard to come by in the big city, which may just explain why he is such a frequent visitor.

It doesn’t take long for Fulton and Dana to become lovers, with Gordon remaining a fixture in Fulton’s life, and by extension now in Dana’s as well.

Laughs come often in Diving Normal, as when Gordon reveals his “affinity for initials,” leading to his decision to “start reading all the writers with the initials C.B.” because “there are a lot of books in the New York Public Library system, and without a premeditated objective, it can be quite overwhelming.” Among Gordon’s favorite initials, he informs Dana, are “Y.M.C.A, for Young Men’s Christian Association,” because that’s where he goes every Sunday for diving lessons. “I’m working very hard at diving normal,” Gordon explains, and invites Dana to watch him dive, which she does, that Sunday and each Sunday that follows.

If only there weren’t the matter of Dana’s pills, and those bruises, and her jealousy upon discovering that Fulton is still in touch with his ex, a fellow graphic artist who keeps sending him photos of her private parts, or of her mouth on one of his. Whoever said the course of true love never did run smooth certainly had it right where Fulton and Dana are concerned.

Diving Normal world premiered as a ninety-minute one-act at the 2006 New York Fringe Festival. Film and TV actor Karner discovered Halfnight’s play while searching for one to produce and star in, and a fine fit it is for the handsome and talented young performer. Halfnight has fine-tuned and expanded Diving Normal for its West Coast Premiere, making for a production that both entertains and engrosses, as little by little each character’s darker sides come to light.

This first West Coast production offers its able young cast of TV/film regulars the chance to show off their acting gifts in small theater intimacy. Pope in particular has accumulated an impressive number of film and TV credits (she’s currently starring with Jimmy Smits in NBC’s Outlaw). It’s a treat to see her in her first stage appearance in seven years, particularly because, like her two castmates, she is doing live theater simply for the love of it. Pope’s Dana is a bundle of raw nerves, vulnerability, and self-defensiveness/destructiveness, a lost soul in the big city whose inner demons threaten always to take control. The beautiful young actress has great rapport with both of her costars, romantic and sexual with Karner, affectionate and endearing with Crowe, and does dramatic work that keeps gaining in power as the play progresses.

Karner’s considerable TV and indie film work includes his starring role in the romantic comedy Kiss The Bride and numerous guest shots. In Diving Normal, he proves equally adept at stage acting, combining leading man good looks, innate likability, and serious acting chops, particularly when Fulton discovers to his shock and rage that Dana is not the person he’d thought her to be.

Crowe’s résumé may be the shortest of the three stars, but he delivers a performance of absolute subtlety and grace, the actor taking a character that in other hands might strain credibility and making him, and his relationships with Fulton and Dana, utterly believable. Gordon is an oddball to say the least, someone who sounds like a book at one moment—“With people who are different from ourselves, we must resist the temptation to dehumanize them.”—and like a child the next—“You have poop on your wall.” Too intelligent to be mentally retarded, Gordon may well have a form of Asperger syndrome. Whatever the cause of his oddness, in Crowe’s hands, Gordon is so absolutely loveable, and the actor imbues him with such sincerity, warmth, and utter guilelessness, that we believe him, we embrace him, and we accept Fulton’s and Dana’s friendship with him entirely.

The scenes which Halfnight has added for this West Coast Premiere flesh out his original one-act, making its current two-act incarnation seem much more of a finished work, though the original’s more specific description of Dana’s mother’s infirmity, and the way Gordon’s Los Angeles meeting with his father is resolved, work better in the original. On the other hand, the play’s current, more ambiguous ending seems a more appropriate choice than the one-act’s.

Producers Crowe and Karner and co-producer Poppy Orphanides could not have chosen a better space than the SFS Theatre, with its hardwood floor stage, two conveniently located doors, and a window overlooking Melrose, making it easily convertible into Fulton’s apartment, particularly with the award-winning Jeff McLaughlin in charge of production design. Graphic artist/illustrator Leaeahd Goldberg’s terrific three-dimensional paintings fill two of the walls, and the furniture and appliances McLaughlin has chosen make for an absolutely believable, lived-in-looking space. David Raines’ sound design and The Newton Brothers’ original score enhance Diving Normal’s shifting moods, and Monica Cargile’s costumes suit each character to a T. Sarah Uplinger is stage manager, Wendy Shannon light board operator, and Michele Dawn Sweeney make-up artist.

Jason Francescon completes the cast in the cameo role of delivery guy and aids during blackouts in the play’s numerous scene changes. Though background music and McLaughlin’s subtle lighting make the scene shifts move as swiftly as possible, they prove the play’s weak point. There are simply too many of them, requiring costume changes both onstage and off, and too much time spent switching props.

Still, this is minor criticism in what proves a gratifying evening of fly-on-the wall theater. It’s a pity that there aren’t more film and TV actors willing to try their hand at live theater, simply for the joy and love of it. Fortunately, the trio of Diving Normal’s stars have taken the plunge and come out champs.

NOTE: Understudy Laura Jean Salerno is covering the role of Dana at Wednesday performances.

SFS Theatre, 5636 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
October 20, 2010

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