ec•cen•tric ([ik-sen-trik, ek-)—adjective: (of a person or behavior) Unconventional and slightly strange, as in “No one writes eccentric characters quite like Laura Richardson.”

For proof of the above, head on over to Open Fist Theatre where Richardson’s latest, Life On This Couch, is delighting audiences with the playwright’s unique, quirky, and thoroughly entertaining take on life. Like the eccentrics in Richardson’s Do Do Love and Come Back Little Horny, the people who live on and around Cece Taylor’s sofa are folks you might not want to live with 24/7, but it sure is fun to spend a couple hours observing the habits, mating and otherwise, of this wild and crazy bunch.

There’s crabby, cynical, obsessive-compulsive Cece (Katy Tyszkiewicz), whose apartment you’d better not walk around wearing shoes since you’d be bringing in “all this junk from outside. Pesticides… dog poop…” For the past year or so, Cece’s been dating (and more recently living with) Skeez (Conor Lane), a barista slash pothead slash acupuncture student who’d rather spend the day whacking off then heading off to school. Complicating Cece’s day-to-day life in San Jose are her mother Mimi (Mary Linda Phillips), aka “Crazy,” for whom Dollar Days at Goodwill are manna from shoppers’ heaven; Mimi’s “big fat retired retard” boyfriend Chuck (Michael McGee), who no longer qualifies for the nickname “Chunk” since losing forty pounds; and Mimi’s sister Helen (Jacque Lynn Colton), who’s been dying for three years now and (more recently) having accidents which require borrowing one of Cece’s spare sheets to replace her soiled pants.

As if this menagerie weren’t already enough, who should show up on Cece’s doorstep today but chronically depressed older sister Desiree (Stephanie Erb), who’s left her life in L.A., “for a while” she claims, but like The Man Who Came To Dinner, it seems that Desi has no plan to leave any time soon.  This news doesn’t sit well with Cece, who’d like nothing better than to be left alone with her couch, spotless until today but getting more and more spotted by the minute.

Not much “happens” in Life On This Couch. It’s mostly the day-to-day conversations that make up life, albeit a crazier one than most of us live. Cece, Desi and the rest seem incapable of not being at each other’s throats, yet you sense that hidden under the sarcastic barbs, there’s plenty of love there—and when all else fails, leg wrestling to resolve an argument.

Richardson writes with considerable wisdom amidst the familial mayhem, as when Skeez opines that “each of us is messed up in our own special way,” or when Mimi comments that “there’s comfort in doing something kind for another,” or responds to Cece’s complaint that her couch has “poop, blood, and drool on it” with “It has life on it.”

Under Benjamin Burckick’s direction the cast give all give vivid performances, albeit at times a tad more broadly drawn than I might have preferred. Still, there is something positively endearing about Tyszkiewicz’s bitchy Cece and Erb’s down-in-the-dumps Desiree, both three-dimensional renderings. Phillips recalls Ellen Burstyn in her perky Mimi, and McGee is a scruffy, sleazy treat as Chuck.  Lane disappears completely into slacker Skeez, a fun change of pace for the Open Fist regular.  Richard Michael Knolla is downright terrific as Bob, formerly known as Ichobob, who shows up for a date with Facebook friend Desi only to discover that it’s Mimi who’s set up her daughter’s page and has been corresponding with him in cyber-disguise.  Finally, no one plays ditzy better than Colton, on a roll here following her recent performances at A Noise Within. (It’s worth seeing Life On This Couch just to watch Colton lick up her frozen yoghurt, or complain fifty years after the fact that her father made her go to her high school prom in her mother’s altered wedding dress.)

Life On This Couch looks quite good on the Open Fist stage, particularly for a play that shares it with several others in their First Look Festival. Donna Marquet’s scenic design, Peter Carlstedt’s sound design (and between-scene song choices), and Dan Reed’s lighting design are all first rate. Many of Colin Campbell’s costumes and Erb’s props look like they’ve been picked up at Mimi’s Dollar Days at Goodwill, and that’s just how they should look. Life On This Couch is produced by Laetitia Leon. Charlotte Chanler is production stage manager.

At a certain point, Aunt Helen advises Cece, “You shouldn’t be sarcastic about everything, honey. Some things in life are sweet.”  Sour as her characters can be at times, so too is Richardson’s latest play.

Open Fist Theatre Company, 6209 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
August 24, 2011

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