Pulitzer Prize nominee Jon Marans plays headily with time and space—and two couples’ lives—in his tantalizingly complex new play The Cost Of The Erection, masterfully directed at Hollywood’s The Blank Theatre by its founding artistic director Daniel Henning.

The two couples in question are a quartet of upscale New Yorkers—Mark and Susu (Michael E. Knight and Robin Riker) and Rod and Brenda (James Louis Wagner and Kal Bennett). Mark and Rod are architects, the former with a certain success and renown, the latter a promising young hotshot with a brilliance Mark seems to lack. To-the-manor-born Susu’s professional success as an architects’ press agent would seem also to have eclipsed that of her husband, whom she has perhaps not insignificantly elected not to represent. Susu’s pursuit of Rod as a client is therefore as unlikely to sit well with Mark as is her decision to have the two architects submit competing designs for the multi-million-dollar Manhattan apartment she’s bought for herself and hubby. As for Brenda, it seems that she and Susu were once the best of friends until, for some reason unknown to either Mark or Rod, that friendship ended in an instant.

All this we learn in The Cost Of The Erection’s highly involving first scene, played twice, the first time focusing on a downstage left Susu and Rod (with Brenda and Mark seen but mostly unheard in the upstage right corner), the second with positions and focus reversed. Staged with choreographed precision and panache by director Henning, this opening salvo is but the first of several time-and-space tricks playwright Marans has up his ingenious sleeve.

The Cost Of The Erection is best enjoyed without a whole lot of foreknowledge of what’s in store plotwise. Suffice it to say that with four volatile characters, all of whom find themselves frustrated in varying degrees with their lives and their marriages, fireworks are sure to ensue.

Still it would be remiss of me as a reviewer not to ooh and aah over Marans’ delicious audacity in following that flip-flopping opening scene with two more of equal dazzle. In the first, the playwright superimposes a Susu-Rod scene atop a Brenda-Mark scene, each taking place in a different office but played simultaneously on a single set with a pair of duplicate inboxes represented by a single lasagna tray atop a center-stage desk representing two different desks. (Got that?) In the second, a pair of conversations taking place in the same room at different times (one featuring Susu and Mark, the other Susu and Rod) are played simultaneously, with Susu at the center of both. If for no other reason than these three supremely inventive scenes, The Cost Of The Erection deserves to be seen.

Be prepared to spend much time post-performance discussing all three of them, along with the clever way Marans has of playing with words. His four protagonists do indeed pay a price for their erections, both architectural and sexual. (Note too that Rod’s name has both architectural and sexual connotations.) There are references to Shakespeare (the title comes from Henry IV Part 2: “Then must we rate the cost of the erection”) and allusions to Macbeth. And both couples’ marriages seem to be erected on foundations as precarious as a skyscraper built on quicksand.

Anyone wanting to sleep through an evening of theater had better look elsewhere than The Cost Of The Erection, which requires —and deserves—attention to be paid. Expect to be leaning forward in your seat throughout.

Though Marans’ script suggests that his two couples are rather closer in age than the roles have been cast at The Blank, in all other respects Henning’s casting choices could not be finer. With three daytime Emmys for his nearly three decades playing Tad Martin on All My Children, the still boyishly charming Knight is but the latest film and TV name to headline a Blank production to terrific effect. L.A. treasure Riker is never less than stunning in anything she does, and her seductive performance in The Cost Of The Erection is no exception. Sexy, talented new(er)comers Wagner and Bennett match Knight and Riker every step of the way in Marans’ vertiginous roundelay of secrets and lies. (This is one play where no performance could possibly ever be “phoned in” and have it work as marvelously as it does.)

Scenic designer Cameron Zetty makes the tiny Blank 2nd Stage look twice its size with the expansive-looking loft he’s designed, and like Marans, he too has tricks up his sleeve. Zetty’s lighting is equally striking and imaginative, as is Warren Davis’s sound design, which surrounds the audience with suspense-building music and assorted big city sound effects. Costume designer Rachel Engstrom deserves kudos for her character-defining outfits, and Henning for lending Rod some of his very own eye-catching signature sneakers.

Matthew Graber, Henning, and Noah Wyle are producers with Terena Cardwell, Nathan Frizzell, Rachel Landis, and Stephen Moffat associate producers. Nicki Gannon is stage manager, Martha Beggerly assistant stage manager, and Michael Askew technical director. Casting is by Scott David, Erica Silverman, and Bob Lambert.

In a case of life imitating art, Marans’ has two different theater companies simultaneously debuting The Cost Of The Erection three thousand miles apart and under completely different titles. A quick skimming of reviews suggests that Henning’s staging is by far the more successful of the two. Then again, that’s hardly surprising considering the talent onstage and off at the Blank.

The Blank 2nd Stage Theatre, 6500 Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
February 16, 2012
Photos: 1 & 2, Michael Geniac; 3 & 4 Rick Baumgartner

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