Playwright Carla Ching takes a tried-and-true formula (best friends who can’t quite get it into their noggins that they are Made For Each Other) and turns it on its head in her World Premiere dramedy The Two Kids Who Blow Shit Up, not only L.A. theater at its intimate best but a textbook example of how #diversity works.
The “two kids” in question are Diana (Julia Cho) and Max (Nelson Lee), nine-year-old blended-family siblings when her dad and his mom begin a stormy cohabitation, and though literally speaking shit only gets blown up once (when Max detonates an unsuspecting snowman), their relationship is high-combustion indeed.
Eschewing chronological order, Ching first teases us with a brief prologue (Diana and Max at age thirty-eight following a four-year estrangement), then flashes us back to the aforementioned snowman incident, then ahead in time to the pair in their twenties, then back for a glimpse of their teen years, and so on, until we return full circle to age thirty-eight and the question we’ve been asking ourselves all along. Can lifelong friends become lifelong lovers, or are they forever doomed to remain at cross purposes?
Along the way, the twosome ponder career choices (Diana’s an artist with a fondness for oils, Max is a high school chemistry teacher with a fondness for sports gambling), rehash romantic entanglements (both have a propensity for dating—and marrying—partners who are all wrong for them), confront parental issues (stepdad and stepmom’s relationship is as tempestuous as relationships get), battle personal demons (her self-doubt, his particular brand of addiction), play Truth Or Dare (minus the Dare), and drink so much alcohol that it’s a wonder Ching didn’t title her play The Two Kids Who Guzzle Shit Down. (But I’ll leave their rehab for the sequel.)
In less accomplished playwriting hands, all this jumping about in time could leave theatergoers scratching their heads in confusion.
Fortunately, Ching has organized The Two Kids in such a way that there is never any doubt where we are in Diana and Max’s lives (pre-scene age announcements prove helpful in this respect) while at the same time keeping us on our toes (and on the edges of our seats).
Some scenes provoke a traditional response. (We know what’s already happened, we don’t know what’s ahead). Others feel like memory, like moments recalled with the knowledge and wisdom of hindsight.
And wonder of wonders, it all works, thanks to Ching’s ingenious script, her richly developed pair of characters, Jeremy Lelliott’s electric direction, and above all thanks to performances so deeply felt that you might think Cho and Lee were lifelong friends. (In fact, they had never met before rehearsals began.)
Whether as kids or teens or young adults, Cho’s feisty, vulnerable, passionate Diana and Lee’s dynamic, hard-edged, wounded Max blow shit up on the Lounge Theatre stage, and if you’ll excuse a brief political rant, though Ching has written her characters as Asian-American, even were there nothing in her script to suggest Diana and Max’s ethnic background, casting performers as gifted and charismatic as Cho and Lee simply because they’re as good as it gets needs to become the norm and not the exception, whether on an intimate stage or on the Hollywood big screen.
Scenic designer Se Oh’s ingenious set backs the action with an urban skyline Diana herself might have painted, and frames it with a pair of fluorescent-lit screens with a bit of an Asian flair. Alexander Le Vaillant Freer lights set and props (designer Oh did the latter as well) with appropriate flash and finesse. Jesse Mandapat’s sound design adds excitement and ambiance throughout. Most noteworthy of all are Emily Brown-Kucera and Rachel Stivers abundance of age-and-character-appropriate costumes. (Each character sports about a dozen and each one requires—and gets—lickety-split changes).
Jonathan Castanien is stage manager. Additional program credits are shared by Andrew Knight (dramaturg) and Donna Eshelman (movement specialist).
The Two Kids That Blow Shit Up further establishes Artists At Play as L.A.’s premier Asian-American intimate theater company, Ching as a playwright to watch, and Cho and Lee as stars on the rise. Talk about a late-summer treat!
Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Boulevard. Hollywood.
August 27, 2016
Photos: M Palma Photography