There Will Be Blood. What a title this would have made for playwright Steve Yockey’s latest creation had the name not already been taken. Or There Will Be Chills, or There Will Be Turmoil, or There Will Be Sex (or at the very least Foreplay), or There Will Be Laughs. Wisely, Yockey has simply called his newest devilish confection Wolves (as in Who’s Afraid Of The Big Bad …) and as its real and alternate titles suggest, the prolific stage scribe has confectioned one sexy, funny, dark, bloody fairy tale for adults.

426553_10151333107413597_1079931054_n Recent Ovation Award-wining Best Director (and 5-time Scenie-winning Director Of The Year) Michael Matthews reteams with Yockey as he did in Very Still And Hard To See (one of Matthews’ two current LA Weekly Award directorial noms), and as anyone who saw VS&HTS can well imagine, audiences at the Celebration Theatre are in for one superbly staged and performed rollercoaster ride.

Since every fairy tale must have its narrator, Yockey has provided us with Wolves’ very own, a smart, sexy, spike-heeled young redhead (Katherine Skelton) who interrupts the action whenever the urge strikes to quip or wink or smile knowingly, or to comment on the action with a sweetness that suggests honey spiked with acid.

We can, however, only guess at who this young woman is when we first catch sight of her being serenaded to by a boyishly handsome young man, strumming his guitar and looking about as sweet and harmless as a boy can be as we take our seats inside the Celebration.

Once introductions are out of the way, our luscious narrator informs us that the boy-next door guitarist is Ben (Nathan Mohebbi), a small-town lad who’s fled narrow minds and prejudices for an unnamed big city, one where he soon met—and briefly dated—sexy urban hunk Jack (Matt Magnusson), no longer his boyfriend but still sharing their fifth-floor walk-up as Ben continues to pine for an ex who’s got other pursuits (of the male variety) on his mind.

Whatever Ben’s mental state when the small-town newbie and the big-city native were in the honeymoon stage of their short-lived relationship, since their breakup it would seem to have reached the edge of paranoia, so fearful is Ben of anything outside his apartment’s protective walls and content to stay hermetically sealed inside, just so long as Jack is in there with him, even if platonically so.

Not surprisingly, this arrangement suits Ben considerably better than it does Jack, who finds himself stuck with a roommate so needy and possessive that it’s no wonder the boyfriend-turned-roomie longs for a night on the town.

WOLVES - 3 Try as he might to convince Jack that there are quite literally wolves prowling just outside their door, Ben’s pleas prove unsuccessful and before we know it, Jack has brought home a muscular bearded stud he’s nicknamed “Wolf” (Andrew Crabtree), despite the fact that a bit of pre-hanky-panky conversation reveals the lupine gent to be more nice guy loner than wolf—that is until sheep’s clothing (i.e. Wolf’s shirt—and Jack’s as well) comes off.

Meanwhile in the adjacent bedroom, Ben’s efforts at trying to shut out the sounds of foreplay prove ineffectual to say the least.

Can you say Recipe For Blood?

Only the least observant audience member will have failed to notice the ax embedded in a pile of wood just outside Ben and Jack’s door, and the metal bucket not that far away, part of Kaitlyn Pietras’s terrific scenic design, one which divides Ben and Jack’s apartment into rooms (and separates it from the outside world) with the white masking tape specified in Yockey’s script for reasons that will eventually become crystal clear.

WOLVES - 4 Peitras’s set is but one element in one of the year’s most striking, imaginative production designs, highlighted by Cricket S. Myer’s multi-ingredient sound mix which heighten the chill factor at every twist and turn, and by Tim Swiss’s dramatic lighting which, not surprisingly, makes apt and ample use of the color red. Costume-and-properties designer Michael O’Hara scores top marks for his character-appropriate outfits and the production’s multiple props (a number of which won’t last more than a single performance). Oh, and technical director Matthew Brian Denman gets double billed as Blood FX Supervisor… and how cool is that!

Still, even with a sensational design package, crackerjack writing, and brilliant direction, Wolves wouldn’t work nearly as well without a quartet of actors up to the challenge of bringing Yockey’s words and Matthews’ vision to life, and in this the Celebration Theatre has hit a grand slam homer.

Recent West Virginia-to-Hollywood transplant Mohebbi makes an auspicious L.A. theater debut as a young man whose boyishly handsome good looks mask one dangerously loose cannon and a powerful young actor capable of combining sweetness and vulnerability with a darkness and intensity that makes Mohebbi one to watch—and my number one choice to play Norman Bates should Psycho ever hit the musical theater stage.

WOLVES_-_2 Magnusson matches Mohebbi every step of the way, albeit as a considerably less complicated character (Jack just wants to get laid), that is until circumstances place his previously carefree existence into considerable peril. Following the triple-threat’s recent seductive turn in the musical Spring Awakening, Magnusson’s work here reveals an actor whose striking good looks and ability to be constantly “in the moment” bode well for a stellar stage and screen career ahead.

As Wolf, Crabtree follows his standout performances in The War Cycle: Gospel According To First Squad and Very Still And Hard To See with more topnotch work as a young man whose menacing exterior may hide a guy too nice for Jack’s tastes. Later, as the only male character who actually gets to interact with our narrator, the duo’s interchanges allow Crabtree to show off dry comedic chops as the pair inject laughs even as Wolves grows steadily darker.

Finally, there’s Crabtree’s stellar Very Still And Hard To See costar Skelton as our Girl-Next-Door Narrator With An Edge, quipping, flashing a wicked smile, freeze-framing the action whenever it takes her fancy, wandering about the apartment handing out props, and whispering into ears in a performance that recalls Desperate Housewives’ Mary Alice, except that this time we get to see our sexy, omnipotent narrator onstage throughout.

Completing Wolves’ creative and backstage team are assistant directors Ryan Bergmann and Rebecca Eisenberg, orchestrator Brian Morales, fight director Sondra Mayer, and stage manager Marcedes Clanton.

Matthews and Michael A. Shepperd are Celebration Theatre’s co-artistic directors. Wolves is produced by Andrew Carlberg and O’Hara, with Michael C. Kricfalusi and Shepperd serving as Wolves’ executive producers. Casting is by Jami Rudofsky.

Understudies Chasen Bauer, Aaron Goddard, Mary Ann Welshans, and Huntley Woods will take the stage in April in a pair of Wednesday performances, to be announced. (Kudos to the Celebration for this.)

This Celebration Theatre production marks the last of Wolves’ four “Rolling World Premieres” and one distinguished by the presence of one of L.A.’s most gifted directors, a cast drawn from the country’s vastest talent pool, and a design team par excellence. It’s also the first Wolves to be performed on a thrust-stage with the audience only inches from the action, making this Wolves the most screamingly up-close-and-personal of the bunch. In fact, if there’s any drawback to Celebration’s 2013 opener, it’s that at a mere sixty-five minutes, Wolves has its audiences exiting the theater at 9:15 with time left on their hands.

But no matter. For theatergoers with a post-performance game plan in mind, all that remains is to enter Wolves’ darkly comedic world of bloody good thrills and chills … and then sit back and enjoy the ride.

Celebration Theatre, 7051B Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
March 8, 2013
Photos: Matthew Brian Denman

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