There’s no L.A. theater quite like The Theatre @ Boston Court for challenging audiences with plays that can, when things go as right as they do in Sheila Callaghan’s initially mystifying Everything You Touch, both stimulate the brain cells and touch the heart.
That’s not to say that Callaghan’s dark comedy doesn’t completely sidestep the pretentious, at least in its first act. Then again, with a lead character like fashion designer Victor Cavanaugh (who describes his profession as “the fraught dialogue of a naked woman with all the hexes and spells of my fabric” or asks one of his models if she can “make the sound of an ambulance siren with your pupils”), it’s easy to imagine your more hidebound theatergoers turning off—or even walking out—with words like “artsy fartsy” on their lips.
But give Callaghan’s latest a chance (or at least agree to come back after intermission) and you’ll likely find yourself leaving the theater feeling as pleased and rewarded as this reviewer did on opening night.
Everything You Touch tells a pair of parallel stories in each of which Victor (Tyler Pierce) plays the pivotal role. Cultural references (to the soon-to-end Vietnam War in one and to HTML and Chipotle in the other) tell us that we’re in two separate time zones, Then and Now. At the same time, a present-day Victor unchanged by the passage of three-plus decades may perhaps not be quite as real as the Victor we’re seeing in flashbacks.
Scenes set in the 1970s feature the Manhattan-based fashionista, his drop-dead gorgeous model/girlfriend Esme (Kate Maher), and a polyester-clad visitor from Little Rock named Louella (Amy French), who’s won a radio contest with a trip to NYC and visit chez Victor as the prize.
The 2010s introduce us to dot-com employee Jess (Kirsten Vangsness), whose unwashed hair, extra pounds, and slovenly attire make it clear that fashion à la Victor Cavanaugh is the last thing on her mind, and if the gorgeous Esme is precisely who you’d expect as Victor’s muse, then computer geek Lewis (Arthur Keng) seems to fit Jess like a flash drive in a USB port.
Whereas Louella’s visit to Victor’s atelier provides a refreshingly unpretentious breath of fresh air (“I just go to Dillards and buy what’s on the rack”), 21st-century Victor’s arrival in Jess’s world has quite the opposite effect, it being unlikely that someone like faithful puppy-dog Lewis would ever tell Jess that “Your ass is like two trash bags filled with sadness” or say things like “Jesus Christ I want to rape the ‘80s.”
As 1970s Victor finds himself increasingly (if unexpectedly) bewitched by the plain-spoken, plain-dressing Louella, our 2014 heroine plans a visit to a dying mother she hasn’t spoken to in seven years, a mom who just happens to live in Little Rock.
The latter fact is but one of the clues playwright Callaghan parses out ever so carefully in Everything You Touch’s first act. Still, if you’re anything like this reviewer, you may find yourself wondering at intermission just who is who and what is what.
Fortunately, there is indeed method behind Callaghan’s madness (or purpose behind Everything You Touch’s initial pretentiousness) as Act Two develops into a surprisingly moving look at family ties, even those that don’t particularly bind.
It helps too to have as splendid a cast as the one assembled at Boston Court, beginning with the charismatic Pierce, whose Scenie-winning performances in The Night Is A Child and How To Write A New Book For The Bible have signaled the arrival of an actor with a mix of power and versatility that bears comparison to a young Brando. Pierce’s lean-and-hungry Victor is electric, sexy, at once off-putting and irresistible, and yet another sensational performance from an actor who could well find stardom knocking on his door.
Aiding and abetting Pierce every step of the way is a terrific trio of leading ladies.
TV fans may flock to Boston Court (as they indeed should) to see Criminal Minds’ Vangsness as Jess, but stage is the TV series regular’s first love, and she is simply sensational as Jess, taking the character from lumpy to downright luscious, and exhibiting first-rate comedic/dramatic chops along the way.
No one plays “icy bitch” better than Maher (as her performance opposite Pierce in I’ll Be Back Before Midnight made amply clear), but the raven-haired beauty makes Esme far more than simply a gorgeous mean girl, and Maher is equally splendid as Act Two reveals in Victor’s muse a good deal more depth and poignancy than we might have expected.
French simply couldn’t be more delightful as the refreshingly down-home Louella, another character for whom Callaghan has surprises in store, and French plays the little lady from Little Rock’s darker corners for all they’re worth.
Keng has considerably less stage time than his four costars, but he gives a performance so authentic, you’d swear Lewis popped by Boston Court from nearby Caltech. That Keng manages to give the computer nerd a sexy charm not necessarily in the script scores the up-and-comer bonus points.
Completing the cast quite glamorously indeed are Allegra Rose Edwards, Chelsea Fryer, and Candice Lam as the “Model Chorus,” a trio of glamazons in flesh-hued body stockings who not only walk the catwalk with the best of them, they serve as both Greek chorus and set pieces, from gumball machine to steering wheel to Thai takeout box to ashtray. Seriously.
And speaking of fashion, has any designer come up with more thrillingly original gowns (and other assorted outfits) than Jenny Foldenauer has in Everything You Touch? (Stephen James shares design kudos for the Safari Collection headpieces.) François-Pierre Couture’s set is yet another ingenious creation from the young master scenic designer, and lighting designs don’t get any more exciting than Jeremy Pivnick’s, nor sound designs any more dramatic and powerful than those of John Zalewski, who’s also contributed an exhilarating original musical soundtrack this time round. Add to the above Adam Flemming’s snazzy projection design and John Burton’s properties filling both sides of the stage and you’ve got yet another Boston Court winner.
Casting is by Julia Flores, who has also come up with Everything You Touch’s topnotch understudy cast—Jennifer Christopher, Julia Davis, Matthew Grondin, Leela Loisel, Karen Jean Olds, Teya Patt, and Christian Prentice—who would ordinarily have understudies of their own.
Casey Kringlen is assistant director. Emilie Beck is dramaturg. Jenny Smith is production stage manager.
Everything You Touch is a co-production with Rattlestick Playwrights Theater.
It’s easy to imagine Everything You Touch going horribly wrong in the wrong hands. Callaghan’s script is, after all, about as challenging as scripts get. Fortunately, quite the opposite proves true at Boston Court.
It may you take a while to get into Everything You Touch, but by the end, if you’re anything like this reviewer, Callaghan’s play will prove Everything You Wish For in exciting, contemporary theater.
The Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena.
April 12, 2014
Photos: Ed Krieger