Confine a group of strangers in an enclosed space and what do you get? Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential classic No Exit? Michael Leoni’s smash L.A. hit Elevator? TV’s Big Brother, now in its 14th season?

To this list Los Angeles theatergoers can now add Lanford Wilson’s Tony-nominated (for Best Play of 1982) Angels Fall, now getting a marvelous intimate staging by The Production Company, a 30th Anniversary revival which not only does ample justice to Wilson’s themes but does so in the most entertaining of ways.

 A small Catholic mission church is the enclosed space that Wilson has chosen for his cast of characters: a married couple, a pair of lovers, a young Native American medical student, and a 60something Catholic priest. The reason for their enforced proximity is, we are first told, a highway roadblock which prevents Niles and Vita Harris (Stewart Skelton and Danielle Doyen) from reaching the mental institution where Niles is scheduled for treatment, and Marion Clay (Penny Peyser) and her tennis pro boy toy Salvator “Zappy” Zappala (Michael Sanchez) from arriving in San Diego for Zappy’s latest tournament. Keeping them company with varying degrees of hospitality (or hostility as the case may be) are Father William Doherty (Carl J. Johnson) and his unofficial foster son Don Tabaha (Gabe Fonseca).

The newbies among them soon learn that “roadblock” is a local euphemism for what Father Doherty pooh-poohs as “some problem with the nuclear thing again,” which only makes matters worse for the already rushed Niles, Vita, Marion, and Zappy, and most particularly for college professor Niles, whose in-class meltdown is but one of the reasons for his current “sabbatical,” and whose erratic behavior amongst these strangers suggests that his school’s Board Of Governors may not have been ill-advised in sending him Out West for what’s euphemistically known as a “rest cure.”

 Over the course of conversation, certain facts are revealed:  how Niles met his quarter-century younger wife (she was his student, of course), what brought 40something widow Marion and the sexy tennis pro twenty years her junior together (while hubby was still alive no less), and why Father Doherty is none too pleased about the future Dr. Tabaha’s decision to abandon tribespeople so desperately in need of his aid for a cushier job doing cancer research at UC Berkeley.

In less talented hands than playwright Wilson’s, Angels Fall could easily have turned into either soap opera or a 1950s-style sci-fi thriller with “giant spiders” and “great amorphous blobs slithering across the sands.” (Niles’ words, not mine.) That’s not to say that there isn’t a sense of danger bordering on impending doom throughout much of Angels Fall. With the church so close to Rio Puerco, which “goes awash with some kind of waste every few months,” in addition to “the reactor at Los Alamos and the missile base down at White sands, and all kinds of things seeping into everyone’s water” (this time it’s Father Doherty speaking), it seems entirely possible at intermission that Wilson’s play may end up a case of Apocalypse Act Two.

 Fortunately, unlike the Wilson who wrote the relentlessly grim snoozer Balm In Gilead, Angels Fall gives us the playwright in more optimistic mode, and a whole lot funnier, though unlike say a Neil Simon comedy (which reads as hilarious as it plays), in Angels Fall it’s as much about performances as is is about words, and under Alex Egan’s pitch-perfect direction, The Production Company’s terrific cast guarantee almost as many laughs as Doc Simon’s justly famed one-liners, albeit with considerably more substance beneath.

TheProdCo members Doyen and Peyser are both excellent as women with their hands full, the former with a highly-strung (to put it mildly) husband nearly twice her age, the latter with a much younger lover the very antithesis of her brilliant late-lamented painter spouse. New company member Sanchez and recent Arizona-to-L.A. transplant Fonseca do fine work too as a) a grammatically challenged would-be tennis champ and b) a future doctor with a chip on his surly shoulder, and never more so than in a pair of scenes which reveal a) a young man with every bit as much of a vocation as the priest who offers them sanctuary and b) a physician with an unexpectedly warm and caring bedside manner when his own vocation calls.

 Still, if ever a play could be said to “belong” to a pair of actors, then Angels Fall is that play and Johnson and Skelton are that duo. The former is downright sensational as a priest with as many quirks as a rosary has beads, and so is the latter as a college prof this side of bonkers (though it could well be mostly a case of hypoglycemia). Both actors take roles that don’t read particularly funny on the printed page and make them the comedic, yet very real, very human heart of Wilson’s story.

August Viverito’s production design (set, lighting, and costumes by Nicoletta Kakaris) once again makes for a textbook example of what an L.A. theater artist can do on a budget, with especially high marks to Viverito’s austere but nicely detailed Arizona church set. Twolips Studios’ sound design provides a whole bunch of realistic effects, from police helicopters hovering just overhead to a motorcycle engine revving up and then fading into the distance.

Angels Fall is produced by T L Kolman and Viverito and assistant directed by Tricia Pierce. Jason Britt is production stage manager.

A worthy successor to the 2011-12 Scenie-winning The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, Working, Very Still And Hard To See, and The Return To Morality, this latest TheProdCo effort gives Los Angeles the rare opportunity to see a relatively infrequently-produced Lanford Wilson gem. Funny, compelling, thought-provoking, and ultimately uplifting, Angels Fall offers holiday season playgoers a welcome alternative to all those Christmas Carols and White Christmases that make up our usual November/December theatrical fare.

The Production Company at the Lex Theatre, 6760 Lexington Avenue, Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
November 23, 2012
Photos: T L Kolman

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