Copiously consumed whisky and wine fuel a dinner party for four as playwright Karen Rizzo puts a personal face on the social divide between the super-wealthy and the other 99% of us Angelinos in her explosive dark comedy Mutual Philanthropy, now getting an excitingly acted World Premiere by Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA.

2 Under normal circumstances, there’d be no reason for investment banker Charles (James Macdonald) and his socialite wife Michelle (Brea Bee) to meet just-scraping-by sculptor Lee (Mark Carapezza) and his chef’s assistant spouse Esther (Xochitl Romero).

The two couple’s children happen to attend the same “jewel” of an elementary school (“proof that public education can work”), however, and with Lee’s bronzework having caught Charles’s eye, the midwest-bred artist and his East L.A.-born wife find themselves invited over for drinks and dinner at Charles and Michelle’s multi-million-dollar Mount Washington home.

14115550_300306820347936_4686987260055522631_o The prospect of selling his latest, Reclining Man, for a cool four or five grand is a heady one for the barely-making-ends-meet Lee, and for Esther, who dreams of quitting her slave-wage job and opening her own bake shop. If only there were a fairy godmother (or godfather) to make all their dreams come true.

Let the dinner party begin.

It takes playwright Rizzo a good long while (perhaps a bit too long) to get around to revealing Charles and Michelle’s reason for schmoozing with the hoi polloi.

The first half of Mutual Philanthropy’s brisk seventy-five minutes is instead devoted to getting-to-know-you chit-chat about Lee’s sculpting methods, Charles’s love of fine art, Esther’s what-ifs should she ever happen to find herself with half-a-million in the bank, Lee’s time spent as Mr. Mom during Izzie’s pre-school years, the harmful effects of video-game violence, a former art-schoolmate of Lee’s who’s attained a level of fame and success the still-aspiring sculptor can only dream of, etc., etc., etc.

Then Charles and Michelle decide it’s time to “talk a little business.”

What happens next I’ll leave it to you to discover. Suffice it to say that whatever’s been smoldering during Mutual Philanthropy’s first half downright explodes once a certain proposition is made.

14095874_300306830347935_571134792038994977_n If nothing else, Rizzo’s play, impressively directed by Dan Bonnell, provides its cast with ample opportunities to strut their dramatic stuff—Bee’s deliciously pretentious Michelle, Carapezza’s sexy, scruffy Lee, Macdonald’s razor-edged Charles, and Romero’s electrifyingly earthy Esther—with some potentially adulterous sparks spicing the mix. (That all four actors convince us of their slowly, steadily increasing inebriation is a feat usually more easily attempted than achieved, and there’s even some salsa dancing and a mean duet of The Smiths’ “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” for added spice.)

3 Rizzo’s closeup look at financial/cultural divides is one likely to spark plenty of post-performance talk. (What, for example, would be your own response to Charles and Michelle’s proposal?)

Still, I imagine I won’t be the only one scratching his head about the presumably metaphorical significance of the bird-attacking feral cat that so fascinates Elliott, or wondering what the heck the play’s inconclusive ending is all about.

There’s nothing less than Grade-A about Mutual Philanthropy’s production design. Scenic designer Amanda Khehans has scaled down Charles and Michelle’s presumably palatial Mount Washington manse to matchbox-stage proportions in all its sleek, white elegance. Chris Wojcieszyn lights expertly, David B. Marling providing a just-right sound design mix of seductive musical underscoring and ambient effects. Marly Hall costumes each character to suit personality, style choices, and economic class.

Mutual Philanthropy is produced by Kevin Comartin and Marla DuMont. Roderick Menzies and Carole Real are executive producers.

Kay Foster is production stage manager and Bryanna Brock is assistant stage manager.

Though not as fully satisfying a play as Yasmina Reza’s God Of Carnage, which it somewhat resembles (I could seriously do without the cat), Mutual Philanthropy kept me engrossed, it kept me thinking, it kept me entertained, and kept me talking … and it’s not every play I can say that about.
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Ensemble Studio Theatre/LA @ Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater Village.

–Steven Stanley
September 3, 2016
Photos: Lew Abramson


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