Among the many advantages to New York City living, moving in next door to a man like Mark Manners is not one of them, or so a couple of L.A.-to-NYC transplants discover in Jonathan Caren’s seductively suspenseful comedy Need To Know, now getting a world-class World Premiere at Rogue Machine.
For 30something live-in loves Steven (Lucas Near-Verbrugghe) and Lilly (Corryn Cummins), the move back to the Big Apple means a new lease on lives-on-the-downturn, artist Steven having abandoned his vocation for a job in advertising, Lilly still resting on the glory of her debut novel published five years earlier.
The couple are still unpacking when who should show up at their door but Mark (Tim Cummings), a kind of pre-makeover Seth Rogan to their Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence and someone who’s doubtless seen countless next-door neighbors come and go over his fourteen years in the rent-controlled building.
Still, this may be the first time that aspiring novelist Mark has lived so close to a writer whose first book generated a good deal of literary buzz, and neither may he have had a hottie like Steven only a wall away.
Just how paper-thin this wall is becomes painfully clear to Steven and Lilly when, following a bit of Google research and Facebook stalking, they begin to suspect that Mark may have overheard them mocking his website, one that’s full of mockworthy personal details like “He’s single, gentlemen” (with a winky face), his upcoming novel Deformed (the young adult tale of a teenager who uses her amputated arm to fight off evil aliens), and his severe case of halitosis.
What follows is a provocative psychological cat-and-mouse game with some neat Hitchcockian touches, including a knife that might just possibly get used for more than chopping up veggies, as Steven and Lilly find their lives increasingly entwined with Mark’s and their psyches increasingly at his mercy.
Did I mention that Need To Know is a comedy?
It is, and one of the funniest in town, though Caren’s ever-darkening script does eventually allow all three actors to show off their dramatic chops.
As anyone who’s seen Caren’s The Recommendation (a recent Ovation Award-winning hit for IAMA Theatre Company) can tell you, the L.A.-to-New York transplant knows how to keep us guessing, and if I’ve refrained from revealing much of Need To Know’s plot beyond its initial setup, it’s because the less you know, the more you will enjoy its unexpected twists and turns.
Rogue Machine not only hit the jackpot in securing World Premiere rights to one of the country’s hot young playwrights (whose The Recommendation debuted at none other than The Old Globe), they lucked out equally in getting the very in-demand Bart DeLorenzo, recently showcased at A Noise Within, South Coast Rep, and The Geffen, to direct.
DeLorenzo knows just how far to take the comedy (and the sex) while keeping suspense high and characters believable, and in this he is aided and abetted by a couldn’t-be-better cast.
With a pair of Lead Actor Scenies and this past year’s Performance Of The Year Scenie under his belt, Cummings has already proven himself a dramatic actor extraordinaire. He now gets to show off his comedic chops as well, while never letting us forget that the creepy crawly Mark has feelings like the rest of us. Only an actor as gifted as Cummings can pull off a character as complex as Mark, and boy does he pull him off.
In Lilly, the always remarkable Cummins (herself a multiple Lead Actress Scenie winner) gets to forgo the intensity of Rogue Machine’s Blackbird and the preteen quirks of Boston Court’s The Missing Pages Of Lewis Carroll to reveal herself an engaging romcom-ready leading lady a la Zooey Deschanel or Emma Stone. (Casting directors take note.)
Finally, young Broadway vet Near-Verbrugghe ignites the stage with his sexy, richly-layered, and ultimately dramatically powerful star-is-born turn as Steven.
Need To Know takes place in Rogue Machine’s smaller space, quite possibly the most chameleon-like in town, transformed this time round by scenic designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz into a surprisingly spacious NYC pad and its matchbook-sized adjoining studio flat.
Bethany Taylor’s multiple props aid immensely, including some how-did-they-do-that trained goldfish and a nifty poster for Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo.
Chu-Hsuan Chang’s lighting design does much more than simply shine down on Schwartz’s set, focusing attention, revealing time of day, and enhancing suspense.
John Zalewski’s masterful sound design provides a pulsating soundtrack with one especially impressive sequence near the end that merits the adjective orgasmic.
Last but not least, E.B. Brooks’ costumes reveal much about the characters who wear them (and I’m not just talking about Steven’s skimpy briefs).
Casting is by Victoria Hoffman. Alternates Jeff Lorch and Peter James Smith cover the roles of Steven and Mark.
Need To Know is produced by John Perrin Flynn and Matthew Elkins. Ilana Rozin is assistant director. Daniel Coronel is stage manager. David A. Mauer is technical director.
It’s hard to imagine a finer follow-up to Rogue Machine’s recent Luka’s Room (my Scenie choice for World Premiere Play Of The Year) than Jonathan Caren’s Need To Know.
Should you Need To Know why, head on over to Rogue Machine for one rollercoaster ride of a play.
Rogue Machine at Theatre/Theater, 5041 Pico Blvd., Los Angeles.
October 26, 2105
Photos: John Perrin Flynn