Matters of love, sex, faith, and family are explored with utmost originality in Kate Fodor’s engrossing, deeply moving 100 Saints You Should Know, now getting an impeccable West Coast Premiere at the Elephant Theatre Company under the inspired direction of Lindsay Allbaugh.

The less you know about Fodor’s much lauded play, the more you will enjoy its many unexpected twists and turns. It won’t hurt, however, to be introduced briefly to its five characters as they appear in the play’s first four scenes.

Scene One: 30something Catholic priest Matthew O’Malley (Brendan Farrell) accidentally interrupts the similarly aged Theresa (Cheryl Huggins) as she is cleaning the rectory toilet—a meeting that sets the play’s tone as it sets up its next two scenes.

Scene Two: Theresa arrives home to find her 16-year-old daughter Abby (Kate Huffman) foul-mouthed and fuming as always. Needless to say, Theresa is none too pleased with Abby’s attitude, nor is she with her daughter’s friendship with teen slut Katya, or her “Fuck it” attitude towards school. Then again, how can Theresa complain when she was an unwed teen mom herself?

Scene Three: A game of Scrabble between Matthew and his plucky Irish-born mother Colleen (Pamela Roylance) clues us in to their thorny relationship and causes us to wonder why Matthew has shown up on Ma’s doorstep, purportedly to “relax,” though our suspicions are aroused that he may not be telling his mother the whole story.

Scene Four: Gawky 16-year-old Garrett (Marco Naggar) happens upon Matthew outside Colleen’s house where the teenager has come to deliver a box of groceries ordered from his father’s store. In the course of conversation, Garrett bursts out with, “Are you a fag?” Then, to reassure the priest of his good intentions, the young man adds that he is “you know, interested in fags. To know what it’s all about,” to which Matthew replies, “I can’t help you,” though again we wonder if we are getting the whole truth.

And there you have the cast of characters whose lives will keep us on the edge of our seats for all of 100 Saints You Should Know’s two gripping acts. Other reviewers may give more away, but this one’s lips are sealed.

Suffice it to say that 100 Saints You Should Know is one of the very best plays—and productions—you are likely to see all year, one that will stick with you long after the lights have gone down, one that you will find yourself urging friends to see just as I urge you not to miss this exquisite example of Los Angeles 99-seat theater at its finest.

Without revealing any plot threads, here are some topics you might find yourself discussing with your fellow playgoers while exiting the theater, or with friends and/or family on the drive home:

Which mother loves more deeply, the one who loves unconditionally despite her child’s imperfections or the one whose love is conditional on her child’s meeting all her expectations? Whose faith is stronger, one who purports to believe but has doubts, or one who claims not to believe, but longs to cast doubts away? Can human beings live full lives if they are divorced from their God-given sexuality and need for intimacy?

100 Saints You Should Know will have you asking yourself all these questions even as Fodor’s script has you laughing so often (at least during the first act) that you may be tempted to call the play a comedy-drama or dramedy, terms that do not suggest the depth of emotions it explores in its characters and inspires in his audience.

Working with five of L.A.’s finest actors and a scenic designer who somehow manages to achieve the play’s dozen-plus scene changes without benefit of a revolving stage or hydraulics, director Allbaugh does some of her finest work yet, and some of the finest work you’re likely to see on any Los Angeles stage this year. Not only does Allbaugh bring out the best, and the most authentic, in all her actors; her understanding of the play’s central themes shines through again and again, no more so than in the last two scenes, which she has elected—brilliantly—to stage side by side.

As Matthew, Farrell gives a richly nuanced performance which reveals all of the priest’s doubts, confusions, and needs, no more so than in a superbly performed monolog which he delivers directly to us, his soul stripped bare. The wonderful Roylance gives us a mother whose outward warmth and humor hides a heart grown brittle, though perhaps not irreparably frozen. Huggins is a veritable force of nature as Theresa, a woman toughened by life yet possessed with a tigress’s love for a daughter who gives back so little in return. A sensational Huffman inhabits Abby’s rebellious, spiteful teenaged skin to perfection, yet somehow manages to make us care about the insubordinate teen even as we long to see her get a much needed slap.

Finally, there is L.A. theatrical newcomer Naggar, giving a performance likely to be one of the most talked and raved about of the year. Exhibiting the kind of natural talent that simply can’t be learned (you’d need dozens of shots to capture every one of Naggar’s priceless reactions), the Swiss-born-and-raised but thoroughly native-sounding young actor takes a more or less average teen and makes him something quite out of the ordinary, a painfully confused, socially inept boy on the verge of manhood who will endear himself to you and break your heart.

Scenic designer Jeffery Eisenmann, whose work I am seeing for the first time, has created a set made of see-through bookshelves and sliding panels that looks terrific, takes us from place to place to place, and does so (miraculously) on a 99-seat-plan budget. Eisenmann is aided and abetted by Joel Daavid’s outstanding lighting and projection design. Sound designer Peter Bayne has composed an original background score which matches Fodor’s style to a T, in addition to providing requisite, well-rendered effects. Louis Douglas Jacobs’ costumes are every bit as character-revealing as they should be. Staci Walters is associate set designer, Tony Gatto associate producer, Huggins assistant director, and Laura Perez stage manager. 100 Saints You Should Know is produced by David Fofi.

Over the past few years, Elephant Theatre Company has gifted Los Angeles audiences with one unforgettable theatrical experience after another, including 7 Redneck Cheerleaders, Anything, Block Nine, Parasite Drag, Supernova, and Tooth And Nail (to name just half a dozen reviewed here). 100 Saints You Should Know can easily vie with any of the above for best ever—and that is high praise indeed.

The Elephant Space, 6322 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood.
–Steven Stanley
May 27, 2011
Photos: Sven Ellirand

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