Friends (and friends of friends) find themselves Looking For Love In Los Angeles in Carole Real’s funny, perceptive new comedy Doesn’t Anybody Know What A Pancreas Is?, now getting a sparkling World Premiere production by Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA.

 30ish protagonist Jason (Ian Alda) comes to the conclusion that folks really don’t know what a pancreas is based on friends’ reaction to a bit of rather dismaying news he’s gotten at a recent doctor’s visit. “Something” has been found on his pancreas, something the doctors “think” isn’t cancer (the 99% fatal kind), but something that will necessitate surgery regardless. If only the pancreas were something a tad less indispensable for human life—like say the appendix (which most people seem to think the pancreas is).

Though Jason’s pancreatic “something” turns out to be entirely benign, this health scare prompts a major life decision which he announces to best friend Anthony (Will McFadden): “I have to find someone. I must find someone. I am not going to die before I find someone!” Hence Jason’s resolution to not only sign up for three online dating services but also to “drop all my physical requirements!”

 Meanwhile over in another part of L.A., 40something Josh (William Duffy) is doing what he does best—inadvertently driving his girlfriend Laura (Liz Ross) bonkers with his utterly unintentional yet almost complete lack of sensitivity to her feelings. After all, what self-respecting girlfriend wants to hear that her beau is attracted to “what’s on the inside” or that he prides himself in “never once [having] dated a woman who was my type.”

Conversely, looks appear to be number one on the prerequisite list of Laura’s younger, drop-dead-gorgeous gal pal Miranda (Heather Robinson), who blithely informs Laura that despite having just learned that her latest suitor spent time in the slammer for fraud and possession of cocaine with intent to sell and insider trading, she’s still going to Palm Springs with him next week because “it’s just so rare that I ever meet someone I’m interested in!”

Miranda does at least agree to take time off from the most recent in her series of loser boyfriends to go out on an Internet date with Jason, who can’t believe his luck in meeting the kind of woman who, as Miranda modestly confirms, gets asked out all the time “in the grocery store. The gym. That kind of thing.” Unfortunately for Jason, who should happen to show up mid-date than “total gym rat” Anthony, who takes one look at Miranda and she at him and it’s “Buh-bye” to any chance of Jason and his date ever hooking up, that and the fact that the tubing still inside Jason’s abdomen starts leaking pinkish blood at a very inopportune moment.

 Completing the cast of major characters in playwright Real’s romantic roundelay is Candace (Annika Marks), Jason’s latest Internet date, whose love of hedgehogs (combined with some stunning good looks) bodes well for a serious relationship, that is if she can have better luck with Jason than with her previous steady, performance artist Aardvark, whose “performances involved masturbation and so he was always kind of wrung out when we would get together.” There’s also the matter of the seven years Candace spent as a slave in a Buddhist cult, that and the fact that the mere mention of her “slave name Candy” is likely to provoke a public meltdown.

Despite its rather off-putting title (one which suggests none of the pleasures this ninety-minute one-act has to offer), Doesn’t Anybody Know What A Pancreas Is? turns out to be a delight from start to finish and its author a female cross between Neil Simon and Woody Allen. There’s nothing groundbreaking or earthshaking about Real’s multi-character romcom, but she knows how to create interesting, quirky characters we end up caring about even as we laugh at their all too human foibles.

It helps considerably that director Jenny O’Hara brings her own unique comedic touch to the proceedings, and that Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA has assembled an almost perfect cast to bring Real’s words to life.

Alda is so all-around terrific as Jason (think a young Jack Lemon with a dash of a young Uncle Alan thrown in) that his charm, charisma  and absolute mastery of the role as a last-minute cast replacement bodes extremely well for future film, TV, and stage work. A tiptop McFadden makes for precisely the kind of best friend any Jason would want to have, were he not so darned fit and handsome. Ross and Duffy are absolute dynamite together, he with his clueless faux pas and she with her dry dismay at those involuntary goofs, as when Josh presents Laura with a photograph of a diamond ring as a birthday present, then informs her that the real thing will probably only fit on her pinky. (Ouch!) Marks’s once again dazzling work proves that her Best Featured Actress and Best Actress Scenies (for Behind The Gates and Mlle God) were no flukes and that she is as equally gifted at comedy as she is in dramatic roles. An excellent Patty Cornell makes a strong impression in the play’s final scene as a visiting Canadian who knows all too well what a pancreas is. Only the miscasting of Robinson (a fine actress but wrong for Miranda) prevents Doesn’t Anybody Know What A Pancreas Is? from an ensemble clean sweep.

Director O’Hara does her utmost with the challenges offered by Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA’s new Speakeasy space with its six-foot deep wrap-around stage. Set designer Michael McGee does take excellent advantage of the stage’s length in creating several “permanent rooms” and one central area that transforms rather quickly from café to restaurant to café depending on which painting is face-out. Derrick McDaniel’s expert lighting, Martín Carillo’s contemporary adult rock sound design, and the cast’s costumes make Doesn’t Anybody Know What A Pancreas Is? look and sound as good as it does, though one can’t help wishing EST/LA had given it their mainstage space rather than the Speakeasy.

Doesn’t Anybody Know What A Pancreas Is? is produced by Gates McFadden and Cornell. Priscilla Miranda is stage manager, Jamie Sara production manager, and Zack Belec Guiler technical director.

I fell in love with Doesn’t Anybody Know What A Pancreas Is? earlier this year at a Blank Theatre Living Room Series reading directed by O’Hara and featuring a number of its current cast members. I thought at the time, “If only it had a different title, this play could go somewhere.” I still think that its unwieldy, publicity-unfriendly title has got to go. As for the play itself, however, it’s a winner, and its World Premiere production a quite winning one indeed.

Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
November 5, 2012

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