Fine performances, impressive design elements, and an absolutely stunning action sequence prove insufficient reasons for this reviewer to recommend a trip to the Geffen Playhouse for the American Premiere of Joanna Murray-Smith’s highly problematic dark comedy The Gift.

org_img_1359579211_L The first fifty minutes or so of The Gift’s ninety-minute running time take place a year in the past at an upscale ocean-side resort where wealthy middle-aged couple Ed and Sadie (Chris Mulkey and Kathy Baker) meet the considerably younger Martin and Chloe (James Van Der Beek and Jaime Ray Newman). Martin’s métier, “conceptual artist,” gets the couples talking about art and assorted matters in artificial-sounding dialog that mostly whooshed past this reviewer leaving me to wonder midway through what the heck I’d been listening to them chatting about. Was something lost in the translation of The Gift’s original Australian English into American?

Then the two couples go out on a boat and something dramatic happens, something I won’t describe except to say that it is an absolutely brilliant collaboration between scenic, lighting, projection, and sound designers, and almost makes the entire piece worth seeing.

org_img_1359578981_L Flash forward to a year later when the couples meet again in an extended scene which explains the play’s title in a way that roused my attention yet left me wondering: Are these people real? Would a real-life couple ever so nonchalantly offer the gift in question to friends they barely know, let alone to anyone, even assuming that their reasons and reasoning actually rang true to life?

With characters as off-putting as Ed, Sadie, Martin, and Chloe and dialog as pretentious as Murray-Smith gives them during the play’s first segment, staging The Gift as an 90-minute one-act does guarantee that more audience members will remain in their seats for the play’s considerably more compelling second half than had they been offered a intermission escape. Still, even when The Gift does take off in the two couples’ conversation-provoking one-year-later reunion, the abovementioned credibility issues reduce the play’s ultimate impact.

org_img_1359579320_L Under Maria Aitkin’s direction, Baker, Mulkey, Newman, and Van Der Beek manage to create surprisingly three-dimensional characters despite the artificiality of much of Murray-Smith’s dialog, and the improbability of the play’s second half. (Is Martin and Chloe’s gift really their only option?)

What cannot be quibbled about is Derek McLane’s striking scenic design, gorgeously lit by Peter Kaczorowski, with media designer Howard Werner’s projections taking us from one locale to another. John Gromada’s sound design is a winner too, and when the three designers join forces halfway through, the results are truly spectacular. Less effective is a curious girl-in-a-glass box projected coda not helped by Murray-Smith’s puzzlingly ambiguous last line of dialog. As for Laura Bauer’s costumes, they are precisely what we would expect Ed, Sadie, Martin, and Chloe to have chosen for themselves.

org_img_1359580299_L Mary Michele Miner is stage manager and Gary J. Breitbach assistant stage manager. Casting is by Phillis Schuringa. Amy Levinson is dramaturg.

I can’t help wondering what kind of play Yasmina Reza might have written about Murray-Smith’s characters. Her Art tackled some of the same themes, while God Of Carnage put a pair of married couples in similarly explosive situations to far more entertaining, engrossing effect. If only The Gift did the same.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
February 7, 2013
Photos: Michael Lamont

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