A decade or so ago, Jim and Mary-Ellen were college lovers, though perhaps not exclusively. Both seemed headed toward success, he in business, she in journalism. Now Jim is racking up those frequent flyer miles, doing business in fifteen cities in ten states, married, the father of a young child, and the owner of a “starter” house he was able to purchase with a $50,000 cash down payment. Mary-Ellen, on the other hand, works 12-hour shifts at Urban Outfitters, lives in a cramped studio apartment, and is just about the only person she knows without a spouse and children, though you could hardly call her celibate …or a teetotaler.

 Jim and Mary-Ellen are the 30ish protagonists of Miles Brandman’s edgy World Premiere drama All Your Hard Work, a play that not only generates considerable dramatic tension and suspense but a surprising number of laughs amidst its twists and turns and surprises, all of this under Michael Matthews’ electric direction.

Brandman starts things off on a light note, with Mary-Ellen (Amy K. Harmon) making sure that Jim (Michael Grant Terry) stays put outside her cluttered apartment as she hurriedly turns on lamps and tries to arrange things in some semblance of order.

Before long, the one-time couple find themselves in a cat-and-mouse flirtation spiced with sexual innuendos, though which of the two is the cat and which is the mouse seems to change from moment to moment.

Each lets slip various tidbits about the other, while we in the audience try to put them together and solve the puzzle of what exactly is going on between them. Jim informs Mary-Ellen that she has “a very nice ass. That’s something I still think about.” Mary-Ellen recalls that Jim “always had a girlfriend, even when we were dating.” Jim appears cynical and even misogynistic, claiming that “90% of divorces are the woman’s fault.” Mary-Ellen shoots back with, “You are not happy. You hide behind your ‘starter house.’” And neither one, it seems, can forget that one time they had unprotected sex in a stairwell.

 Just why Jim chose this particular business trip to get in touch with Mary-Ellen doesn’t become clear until a good ways into All Your Hard Work’s intermissionless eighty minutes, and even then, playwright Brandman keeps his audience guessing. Suffice it to say that neither character ends up matching our first impression of him or her, or our second impression, or maybe even our third.

Brandman doesn’t quite know how to end All Your Hard Work. What appears at first to be its final scene seems abrupt and frustrating. A coda then ends it more satisfyingly, but suggests that an additional scene will follow. My guess is that someone associated with the play started the curtain call applause, since I at least was unsure if the play was over or not.

Fortunately, this is hardly a fatal flaw in a first-rate piece of writing, one that kept my theater guest and I in our seats rehashing the play for a good five to ten minutes after the lights had gone back up.

Brimmer Street Theatre Company made a savvy decision in bringing director Matthews on board the project, fresh from his triumphant stagings of a pair of night-and-day different productions, the musical smash The Color Purple and the scary/fun ghost story Very Still And Hard To See. Matthews proves himself every bit as fine a director here, albeit on a smaller scale. Joining forces again with young scenic design whiz Stephen Gifford, Matthews has opted to stage All Your Hard Work in the round, adding two small banks of seats opposite the Lillian Theatre’s usual V-shaped seating, and placing these added seats virtually on top of the action and the actors, thereby giving the production a tantalizingly voyeuristic feel.

Equally important to the success of this latest Brimmer Street production is the exciting work being done on stage by two of its company members (and Emerson College grads).

 All Your Hard Work reunites director Matthews and busy TV/film actor Terry, who starred in (and won an LA Weekly Award for) Stupid Kids at the Celebration Theater a few years back. Though now best known for his recurring work on Fox’s Bones, the talented, charismatic Terry is a theater actor at heart, burning up the stage as an older, though not necessarily more grown up, character than the teenager he played in Stupid Kids, his riveting performance revealing the insecurities lurking under Jim’s outward braggadocio.

Opposite Terry, the gorgeous Harmon positively sizzles as a young women who seems every bit as eager to seduce Jim as she is ambivalent about the reason for his surprise visit. Like her costar, Harmon lets us see beneath Mary-Ellen’s apparent self-assuredness to show us the character’s deliberately hidden wounds and her ever so human needs.

Gifford’s carefully detailed studio apartment set cues us in to just how different Mary-Ellen’s life is from the one described by the far more successful Jim, with additional kudos going out to prop master Jefferson Byrd. Lighting designer Tim Swiss makes us believe that Mary-Ellen’s apartment is lit by the table and floor lamps scattered about it, in addition to treating us to a pair of exquisite, evocative fadeouts. Cricket S. Myers’ expert sound design features music that both suits and enhances the tone of Brandman’s script, while Christian Svenson’s costumes reveal much about the people wearing them.

All Your Hard Work is produced by Ken Werther and Michael Bulger. Tyler Jenich is assistant director. Rebecca Eisenberg is stage manager, Robby Carver assistant stage manager, and David Jette production manager.

Understudies Emilia Richeson and Dan Gordon appear as Mary-Ellen and Jim on July 27 and August 9.

With its crackerjack creative team, including a promising young playwright, two busy Hollywood-based actors eager to return to their stage roots, and one of L.A.’s premier directors at the helm, All Your Hard Work is a textbook example of the talent and (dare I say?) All The Hard Work that goes into making the Los Angeles stage scene the exciting, vital, unique entity that it is.

Lillian Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
July 26, 2012
Photos: Michael Lamont

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