Some of Hollywood’s busiest and best TV/film actors return to their stage roots in the West Coast Premiere of greedy, Karl Gajdusek’s dryly amusing though frustratingly cryptic dark mystery suspense comedy given about as fine a West Coast Premiere as can be imagined by the talented bunch who call themselves Red Dog Squadron.

Why the play’s title is spelled with a small g is but the first of its many riddles, the playwright doing his darnedest to keep his audience wondering (to quote Hal David’s lyrics for “Alfie”) “What’s it all about?”—and not always coming up with an answer.

Greedy centers on a pair of adult siblings, victims of a highly dysfunctional childhood who have gone on to pursue diametrically different directions in their lives. Older brother Louis (Brad Raider) is sharing a dingy, inordinately cluttered apartment with his hospital security guard wife Janet (Amanda Detmer) when prodigal younger sister Keira (Maggie Lawson) makes yet another return to the homestead, the better to sponge off her brother and scheme of a way to make a fortune through the titular deadly sin.

The plan Keira has come up with is a fiendishly clever one—to scam physician Paul (Kurt Fuller) into believing that five Hitler party badges left to her and Louis by their possibly Nazi, possibly Jewish father (each of which is worth $4000) are actually fifty … and then take the $100,000 and run. First, though, she has to convince Louis to go along with her scam, not the easiest task given that her brother would much rather pursue his pipe dream of becoming an inventor. (His latest contraption: the Kofi Box, a device designed to eliminate litter box odors from cat owners’ apartments and named after former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan.)

Over on the other side of the tracks, Paul’s Bosnian wife Tatiana (Ivana Milicevic) dreams of conceiving a child, a task which is proving considerably more difficult—and expensive—than anticipated, with required medical procedures amounting coincidentally to $100,000. Paul not only has his much younger wife’s baby obsession—as well as the possibility of acquiring a small fortune in Nazi memorabilia—to deal with, there’s also the matter of the malpractice suit filed against him by the accident victim he did his Good Samaritan best to help.

Meanwhile, Janet sits guard outside the hospital room of an abandoned baby as couple after couple come forth claiming that the child is theirs, the latest claimant a cunningly scheming Tatiana.

Oh, and it’s been raining nonstop for something like five or six months.

While greedy lovers are likely to rave about a play which “makes the audience think,” greedy haters will doubtless rant with equal volume about its deliberate, frustrating abstruseness. I find myself caught somewhat in the middle, enjoying the brain-teasing aspect of Gajdusek’s script, but annoyed that so much vital information ends up missed in the effort to figure out just who is who and what is what.

On the plus side, greedy can be as funny as all get out in its quirkily sly way. Speaking of his sister’s addictions, Louis declares deadpan, “Keira’s in AA, in NA, really in all of them.” Tatiana asks the mannish Janet, “Are you a lesbian,” to which Janet replies in all seriousness, “No, I just look like one.” Add to that the way Tatiana mangles her second language with malapropisms like “pull the wool over my skies” and you have plenty of laughs amidst the drama and suspense.

On the minus side, greedy’s intentional ambiguity may serve as a mask for plot holes and dropped plot threads, or at least leave the audience asking more questions than necessary once it’s come to its deliciously ironic, gasp-inducing climax.

What most everyone will likely be in agreement about is the level of talent present both onstage and off. Like last year’s Extinction, greedy situates Red Dog Squadron among the top echelon of Los Angeles intimate theater companies.

RDS co-founder James Roday proves himself far more than merely the topnotch comedic actor audiences have been enjoying for the past six seasons in his starring role on TV’s Psych, directing greedy with an edgy panache and a lickety-split pace entirely befitting the piece.

Roday’s Red Dog Squadron partner in crime, co-founder Raider, plays terrifically against leading man type as geeky, frustrated would-be inventor Louis, struggling to get out from under the thumb of two very strong women and not particularly succeeding. Lawson, Roday’s Psych costar, dazzles as Louis’s, deeply screwed up, instinctively lying sister Keira, particularly in scenes that have Lawson portraying Keira portraying “Elizabeth,” an entirely fictitious character she has concocted as part of her scam, a woman whose terrified tears make Keira every bit as fine an actress as the actress portraying her. As Paul, Fuller (performing Saturdays and Sundays) paints an entirely believable portrait of an uptight middle-aged man coping with the needs and demands of a much younger, drop dead gorgeous wife, the stress of a malpractice suit, and the greed “Elizabeth’s” offer has unearthed in him. Detmer has great fun (and garners many laughs) as black-uniformed security guard Janet, a woman so butch that she calls even babeolicious Tatiana dude and expresses affection for hubby Louis by bumping fists. Finally, as the seductive, ruthless, yet strangely likeable Tatiana, the stunning, statuesque Milicevic adds three dimensions and a droll humor to what in other hands might be just another Eastern European cliché.

Besides the tiptop performances of its stellar cast, the next best reason to see greedy is the all-around spectacular work of its award-winning design team, beginning with Kurt Boetcher’s meticulously detailed set—Louis’s dark, dingy, book-laden digs on the left, Paul and Tatiana’s elegant, upscale, neat-as-a-pin apartment on the right. Mike Durst’s moody lighting design complements Boetcher’s set to perfection, in addition to delineating which scenes are taking place outside the two rooms. John Zalewski’s sound design is one of his best, layering multiple effect tracks in suspenseful syncopation and adding some subtle auditory Chinese water torture for scenes taking place in Louis’s leaky-roofed apartment. Gali Noy’s costumes are a mostly perfect match for each character. Kudos go also to special prop designer Kerry Derizius for Louis’s Kofi Box and to videographer David Rodriguez for projections which simulate a film noiresque drive through rainy streets, as well as affording the audience glimpses of of pics being shot by Louis as part of Keira’s avaricious scam.

Completing the cast are Gemma Levinson and Kyle Hamilton as “Momma” and “Daddy” (the missing baby’s parents?) garbed in yellow raincoats and made up to look like corpses, who appear silently onstage before the play begins, then move props between scenes, thereby proving another of greedy’s unexplained mysteries.

greedy is produced by Andrew Crabtree. Jen Bendik is production stage manager, Steve Barr technical director, Rachel Jenkins assistant director, and Gemma Levinson assistant stage manager.

Whatever its script shortcomings, greedy’s performances and production values make it a worthy follow-up to last year’s Extinction, a play which besides garnering local raves managed the nearly unheard feat of an L.A.-to-off-Broadway transfer. With plans to continue staging at least one new production per year, Red Dog Squadron’s Roday has expressed a wish for “the day when all you need to hear are the words Red Dog Squadron to make you want to see us.” For this reviewer at least, that day is already here.

Note: Peter Mackenzie portrays Paul on Thursdays and Fridays

The El Centro Theatre, 804 El Centro Ave., Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
January 8, 2011
Photos: Kurt Boetcher

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