Playwright Alex Burkart takes a grieving teenager, the girl he’s lost for eternity, his desperate parents, and a drug-dealing high school buddy, stirs in the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, and mixes these ingredients to often powerful effect in his World Premiere drama Atlas Pit, or The Garbage Man’s Son, the latest from The Los Angeles New Court Theatre.
It’s hardly fun to have your life uprooted at any age, but it’s particularly tough at the start of your senior year of high school, or so Ozzy Black (Josey Montana McCoy) discovers when his garbage collector dad (Herman Johansen) and Latin prof mom (Nancy Stone) relocate to Janesville, Wisconsin.
Ozzy’s folks’ motives may be pure (Janesville offers their autistic second son Special Ed programs unavailable in the smaller town they’ve called home), but tell that to Ozzy, who’d far rather nap outside the school grounds than attend his first afternoon of classes.
The next thing we know, Ozzy’s locked himself inside a seedy apartment, refusing his anguished mother’s attempts to bring him back from the abyss he’s plunged himself into since Gray’s death of causes revealed straight away in publicity blurbs but which the playwright himself wisely keeps unspoken until Garbage Man’s life-or-death finale.
Atlas Pit alternates between glimpses of Ozzy’s bleak present and flashbacks (or are they heroin-induced hallucinations?) of his budding romance with Gray, the latter increasingly concerned that, for the boy she loves, an occasional joint may no longer be enough.
All this could easily veer into Afterschool Special territory in less talented or ambitious hands than those of playwright Burkart, who weaves in references to Greek mythology throughout. (Like the grieving Orpheus before him, Ozzy seeks to bring his own Eurydice back to life, even if it means journeying down into his own personal, drug-induced underworld.)
The hope and innocence of Ozzy’s scenes with Gray stand in stark contrast to a grim present interrupted by a trio of visits to the trashy rented room he now calls home—a mother at the end of her wits, a friend who looks more like the rosy-cheeked slacker next door than a dealer of illegal substances, and a father with a deliberately concealed darkness of his own.
Other than an overly drawn out Ozzy-Gray conversation about the relative merits of black, white, and gray, Burkart’s writing proves both compelling and thought-provoking, and never more so than when A Stranger (Michael Chandler) shows up in Atlas Pit’s gut-punching penultimate scene.
Director Beth Lopes keeps things moving seamlessly back and forth from past to present, Toranj Noroozi’s lighting making it instantly clear which time zone we’re in, and the performances Lopes has elicited from her cast are all-around terrific, particularly that of her revelatory lead.
McCoy’s boyish likeability makes Ozzy’s resolute surliness towards those who love him all the more shocking and heartbreaking even as Kyle Acheson’s indy-folk-rock original songs provide insight into Ozzy’s thoughts while giving McCoy the chance to show off some nifty picking and singing.
Chunrau’s radiance provides McCoy’s Ozzy with abundant reason to mourn her loss, Stone captures both a mother’s frustration and her despair, and Johansen digs deep into a man’s carefully hidden skeletons.
As Ozzy’s heroin-dealing school chum Mark, Daniel Braunstein reveals the seemingly harmless face of evil (or at least as the “Just say no” folks would paint it) in marked contrast to Chandler’s more blatantly nefarious Stranger.
Scenic designer Morgan Lindsey Price plasters Ozzy’s apartment walls with discarded trash bags and fast-food wrappers, a clever touch for a play subtitled The Garbage Man’s Son, with Emily A. Fisher’s just-right costumes and Isaiah Howard’s dramatic sound design completing Atlas Pit’s striking production design.
Potent and provocative, Atlas Pit, Or The Garbage Man’s Son marks fledgling playwright Burkart as one to watch while further establishing The Los Angeles New Court Theater as one of the finest young companies L.A. has to offer.
Working Stage Theater, 1516 N. Gardner Street, Hollywood.
October 7, 2016
Photos: Alex Burkart