Some teenagers turn to sex. Others turn to drugs. Still others turn to rock ‘n’ roll. The teenagers in Mickey Birnbaum’s violent but exhilarating Backyard turn to wrestling, and so too do the adults in their lives.

Backyard_2 Highschooler Chuck (Ian Bamberg) relieves the tediousness of a life spent just a mile from the San Diego-Tijuana border by staging WWE-style backyard matches with his best friend Ray (Adan Rocha), combats he promotes on Facebook in hopes of attracting crowds come to cheer the “to-the-death” match-ups he’s got planned between “The Destroyer” (himself) and his evil nemesis “The King Of Tears” (his best buddy).

We first meet Chuck and Ray in preparation for their latest battle, one that involves body presses, elbow attacks, chops, drops, and a dramatic storyline featuring the feigned death of one of the participants—a mix of thrills and chills that would do World Wrestling Entertainment combatants proud.

Even Chuck’s single mother Carrie (Jacqueline Wright) gets to take part part in these backyard matches, though Mom’s outraged reaction to the news that it’s The Destroyer’s dad and not his mom who’ll come to his rescue reveals years of anger at having been abandoned by a deadbeat husband even as her son longs for a father he has never known.

Backyard_3 Meanwhile, Chuck’s bbf’s own “padre issues” become clear when we learn that Ray’s dad is not the deceased Spaniard Ray claims he is but an alive-and-kicking Mexicano (Richard Azurdia as Raymundo, Sr.), a former pro wrestler whose clandestine meetings with young Ray keep each of them stuck on his own side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence.

Backyard_5 Joining the two best friends in planning their upcoming backyard match is neighborhood girl Lilith (Esmer Kazvinova), a badass teen whose “I’m Not Nice” t-shirt says it all, or would if her bravado—and penchant for self-inflicted razor cuts—didn’t mask her own brand of angst and disenfranchisement.

As for those “viral” Facebook posts Chuck’s been bragging to Ray about, while they might not end up attracting the crowds he hopes for, they have brought a certain Ted (Hugo Armstrong) to Chuck and Carrie’s door.

At first, Chuck is only mildly curious about just who this Ted might be, despite the stranger’s claims of residing in a three-bedroom house in Phoenix, the kind Chuck can only dream of, and his obvious pride in having produced a car insurance commercial currently playing on “Judge Judy.”

Backyard_6 Then Ted blurts out the truth, and it becomes clear that however estranged he and Ray’s mother have been these past umpteen years, as Sam Cooke so aptly put it, “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Playwright Birnbaum’s previously produced plays (Big Death & Little Death at the Road and Bleed Rail at Theatre @ Boston Court) have revealed his gifts for mixing raw emotion, dark humor, and violence to powerful effect, and his latest World Premiere (for Echo Theater Company) does the same.

Though its milieu and protagonists are as specific as can be, the life issues they are dealing with are those shared by anyone who’s ever felt lonely or abandoned—or been a teenager, and though Backyard offers its fair share of the dramatic, Birnbaum’s characters keep an audience entertained with their assorted quirks and eccentricities. The Van Halen albums Ted left behind make for a great running joke, as does Ray’s insistence that he be allowed to portray, not the drearily named King Of Tears, but the more victory-prone “Comodo Dragon,” no matter that everyone insists on calling him the “Kimono Dragon.”

Backyard_4 Still, it’s the violence inherent in backyard wrestling—and therefore so much a part of Birnbaum’s Backyard—that audiences will be talking about for some time to come, and the production’s series of hand-to-hand (and occasionally teeth-to-skin) combats choreographed by Ahmed Best that make him a shoo-in for Fight Choreographer Of The Year. The blood may be fake, but the aforementioned body presses, elbow attacks, chops, and drops are so authentic—and so authentically painful looking—that audiences will surely find themselves asking, “How do they do that?” (Rocha in particular deserves a medal for the number of times he gets banged on the head with a folding chair.)

None of the above would work without a thoroughly committed cast under a director as expert as Larry Biederman, who coaxes finely etched performances from his stellar sextet even as Best’s combat moves appear to threaten imminent hospitalization for any and all.

No one plays cute, quirky, edgy, and intense better than the phenomenal Wright, a Best Actress Scenie winner for her work in House Of Gold, and the equally brilliant Armstrong makes for a worthy adversary (albeit one about three times her size), with Azurdia completing the adult cast to perfection.

Matching their elders every step of the way is a trio of young L.A.-based newcomers, beginning with the terrific Bamberg, giving us a Chuck whose enthusiasm is as contagious as his need is achingly palpable. As for Rocha, you won’t find a more appealing performance all year than the Boise-to-Los Angeles transplant’s, his Ray so true-to-life that you’d swear he got scouted at a San Diego high school. Finally, actual high school junior Kazvinova displays the power and pluck of a young Jodie Foster.

Scenic designer Stephen Gifford’s U.S.-Mexico border set is one of his most vividly imaginative, its movable border fence allowing some cleverly choreographed scenes between Raymundo Sr. and Ray. Lighting design whiz Matt Richter joins forces with Christina Robinson for yet another winning design.

Backyard_1 Costume designer Kathryn Poppen gets top marks for garb as varied as Carrie’s border cop uniform, the teens’ grunge wear, and some hilariously ingenious wrestling outfits, Ray’s Comodo Dragon a particular treat. (Check out its barbeque grill breastplate and its green rubber glove webbed feet.)

Most striking of all is Mike Hooker’s intricately woven sound design, featuring a blend of hard rock, wrestling match bells, Spanish-language fight commentary, an ice cream truck melody, blowing desert winds, a car alarm that won’t stop sounding, border patrol aircraft flying above, and more.

Backyard is produced by Rebecca Eisenberg and Chris Fields. Ben Shipley is production stage manager. Katherine Tanner is assistant director.

In this 21st-century theatrical world of 90-minute-no-intermission plays, the two-act Backyard does go on about fifteen minutes too long, probably the main reason this reviewer kept wondering during its last quarter hour, “Is this the final scene?” … only to find out that it, and the one after it, and maybe even the one after that, was not. Briefly put, some judicious trimming might make this exciting new play even better.

Still, the ending Birnbaum gives us is a satisfying one, a just-right finale to one thrilling evening of theater from one of L.A.’s most respected intimate theater companies. You probably won’t go home wanting to stage wrestling matches in your own back yard, but you will certainly have had an exciting time watching Chuck and company stage theirs.

Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave, Atwater Village. Through July 13. Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 7:00. (Dark July 4-6) Reservations: 301 307-3753

–Steven Stanley
June 2, 2014
Photos: Jeff Galfer Photography

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