A would-be screenwriter attempts to navigate the shark-ridden Hollywood waters in Passion And Precision, the second of a matched set of one-acts by Joe Davis Massingill. That the first of the two, Passing Proper, just happens to be a staged version of the very screenplay the writer is hoping to sell is just one of several reasons to check out the two plays running on a single bill at Theatre 68.

Passing Proper stars Massingill and Forrest Lancaster as Bud and Will, a pair of Arizona outlaws who’ve hopped a California-bound freight train with five thousand dollars in stolen bills and no idea of what their next move will be. Before long, a Spanish-accented stranger named Carl (Ray Cosico) has popped into their car and explained the reason for the stacks of long-untouched boxes surrounding them. “Folks call this the ‘Ghost Train,’” Carl reveals. “This baby rolls back and forth across the Southwest, with twenty five cars that carry tons of nothing. Lost, roaming the desert, lost without a purpose.” Sort of like our ragtag pair of antiheroes.

Carl doesn’t stick around for long, and his place is soon taken by Lily (Alex Oliver), a pretty, guitar-strumming drifter who’s fallen in love with the ghost train and made it her home.

It takes only a short while for Lily to provide Bud with yet another reminder of what it’s like to be sidekick to a hottie like Will. (“Women choose to sleep with you, just for the joy of sleeping with you,” Bud has commented earlier on. “To sleep with me, she’s either gettin’ something else out of it, she loves me, or she’s making a mistake that she won’t realize till she sees me naked in the morning.”) With Bud still bleeding from a gunshot wound and sexual sparks a-smoldering’ between Will and Lily, anyone who expects the trio to ride off into the sunset together might want to rethink that notion.

Passion And Precision begins Film Noir style with screenwriter Trick (Massingill) flashing us back to his first meeting with up-and-coming literary agent Jake (Lancaster). “I had been in Los Angeles for six months, spinning my wheels,” he recalls. “I saw an ad on-line for a screenplay contest. The only thing I’d written was a play, about a ‘Ghost Train,’ so I adapted it, best I could. Never heard from the contest, but a couple weeks later, I get a call from a guy…”

The scene then shifts to Jake’s mostly unfurnished office as he interviews (and simultaneously hits on) Michelle (Oliver), a smart, sassy, sexy redhead who’s come about a job opening as his assistant. Since Michelle is not only a looker but can give as good she gets, it’s no wonder the job is soon hers.

Enter Trick, whose excitement about Jake’s interest in his work soon turns to disappointment when he learns what The Edge Network really has in mind—an hour-long dramatic series based on his screenplay. Unwilling to sacrifice his principles even if it means giving up big bucks and waiting another five years for his big break, Trick resists Jake’s every effort to wear him down, unaware that the agent’s motivations may well be even shadier than they seem.

Massingill’s dialog crackles, particularly in the Mametian second act, and he has written Lancaster, Oliver, and himself two terrific pairs of roles. Each play could stand some pruning, however, particularly the rather too talky Passion And Precision, whose length dilutes the impact of its nifty payoff. (A two-hour running time including intermission would be ideal for the two-play package.) This reviewer also found it hard to imagine how “Ghost Train” could be expanded into an episodic series, but then again, I’m not a network exec.

No quibbles can be made, however, about the cast’s crackerjack performances, honed razor sharp under Jamison Jones’ assured direction. Lancaster, like Alec Baldwin in his 20something days, possesses leading man good looks, a sexy edginess, and acting chops to match. Particularly in Act Two, the handsome 6-footer manages Massingill’s rapid-fire dialog with spontaneity, fire, and not a moment of uncertainty. Oliver’s folksy, sultry Lily and her smart, sassy Michelle reveal a promising, highly watchable young actress who can more than hold her own opposite any scene partner. She’s also quite a singer-guitarist (and co-wrote “Over The Border” with Massingill). Massingill is, like Jack Black, a character actor with leading man appeal who just happens to have written himself a bang-up acting showcase. Cosico is so dynamic and appealing as street-smart Carl that one wishes the playwright had figured out a way to use him in Act Two. (Poor guy doesn’t even get a curtain call.)

Danny Darst’s original background music enhances Massingill’s storytelling. Design elements are uncredited. Lighting, sound, and costume designs are all first-rate; however, intimate theater aficionados may be disappointed in the two plays’ merely workmanlike scenic designs. Angelica Santos is producer, Kourtney Sonntag stage manager, and Tanya Wilkins and Dan Hutchinson techs.

Though no writer enjoys deleting pages of dialog he’s worked hard to create (and no actor enjoys losing them), Passing Proper and Passion And Precision represent a case when less might add up to considerably more. Even at a longer than optimum running time, however, they introduce a talented new playwright to Los Angeles audiences and some exciting new L.A.-based performers as well.

Note: Sunday evening performances feature an alternate cast of seven actors, each playing a single role.

Theatre 68, 5419 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles.

– Steven Stanley
August 7, 2011

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