It’s rare than a single performance can sink an otherwise mostly fine production, but such is the case in the Los Angeles Premiere of Neil LaBute’s In A Dark Dark House, a play consisting of three extended two-actor scenes revolving around a central character who only departs the stage during set changes. Unfortunately, since Aaron McPherson is not up to the challenges of bringing Terry to real, three-dimensional life, In A Dark Dark House fails to get the Matrix Theatre Guest Production it deserves.

In A Dark Dark House_1 It’s easy to see why McPherson would want to mount a production featuring a lead role as rich, multi-layered, and consistently centerstage as this adult tormented by a deeply-guarded secret. It also becomes clear early on why the actor would be unlikely to book the role had it been offered at an open casting call.

We first meet late-30something Terry on the grounds of the psychiatric facility where his several-years-younger brother Drew (Shaun Sipos) has been committed for alcohol/drug rehab following a drunk-driving arrest.

It takes most of the brothers’ heated, half-hour-long initial conversation for LaBute to reveal why Drew has asked for Terry’s visit. Eventually, however, it comes out that over the course of the younger brother’s therapy sessions, Drew has revealed to his psychiatrists a previously closely guarded secret, and he needs Terry to corroborate the long-ago presence in their lives of a certain Todd Astin, a hitchhiking college student who had roomed with the brothers’ family when Terry was fourteen and Drew eleven.

In A Dark Dark House_6 As to the reasons why Todd’s name has come up in Drew’s therapy, or the motivation behind Terry’s subsequent visit to a miniature golf course tended to by its owner’s fifteen-year-old daughter Jennifer (Annie Chernecky), to reveal any more than these basic facts would be to violate the reviewer’s oath to Never A Spoiler Be.

Then again, L.A. theatergoers might do better to read LaBute’s 2007 play rather than catch its Los Angeles debut, no matter how long-awaited, no matter how beautifully designed, no matter how fine the performance of McPherson’s talented male scene partner in all but the play’s middle segment.

In A Dark Dark House_3 LaBute writes dialog as crisp and sharp and authentic as any contemporary playwright, but you’d hardly know it from McPherson’s mechanical line readings, and though there is real emotion behind those line readings in the play’s final quarter-hour, even then they lack the in-the-moment spontaneity that wins an actor raves, awards, or even a simple thumbs-up. McPherson may be a successful acting coach around town, but even director Larry Moss, fresh from the triumph of Australian Theatre Company’s Holding The Man, seems stumped.

In A Dark Dark House_2 Sipos, whose multiple TV credits include recurring roles on Melrose Place, Life Unexpected, and The Vampire Diaries, is a different story, an exciting, charismatic, and (most importantly) talented young actor who would be doing even more powerful work at the Matrix were the actor playing opposite him giving back as good as he gets.

As for Chernecky, the 20something tries so hard to “play fifteen” that her performance ends up a caricature of teenage awkwardness and naiveté, though whether it’s actor or director at fault here I cannot say. Still, I can’t help wondering what real-life fifteen-year-old Brighid Fleming, so brilliant earlier this year in Day Trader, would have made of this role.

In A Dark Dark House_5 Designers don’t come any better than the team assembled for In A Dark Dark House, beginning with scenic designer John Iacovelli, who fills the extra-wide Matrix Theatre stage with yards and yards of grass, then transforms the set from psychiatric hospital lawn to Hole 13 of Buddy’s Miniature Golf to the grounds of Drew’s elegant home. Cricket S. Myers’ expert sound design fills the air with distant and not-so-distant outdoor noises. Lighting designer Watson Bradshaw bathes the stage in sunlight, costume designer Kimberly Overton insures that every single piece of clothing is vintage 2007, and prop masters Ina Shumaker and Bruce Dickenson provide assorted just-right paraphernalia.

Caitlin R. Campbell is producer for Broken Hand Productions. Christopher Basile is assistant director/stage manager. Casting is by Geralyn Flood.

The term “vanity production” is only apt when an actor, having secured a property in which to star, is unable to rise the task at hand. This reviewer has seen countless performer-generated productions every bit as fine as those mounted by any of our best 99-seat-plan theater companies. Unfortunately in the case of In A Dark Dark House, the term “vanity production” is the one that fits.

Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
July 26, 2014
Photos: Bobby Quillard

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