A planeload of passengers jetting from New York to L.A. transports playwright Jonathan Caren into Sarah Ruhl territory in Friends In Transient Places, Caren’s experiment in magic realism that, while it may not have you glued to the edge of your seat as did his The Recommendation and Need To Know, offers its own unique pleasures.
Preshow announcements cue us in from the get-go to the Ruhlian whimsy ahead, our Flight Attendant (Amelia Phillips) advising us that “any electronic device that serves as a temporary escape from your uncomfortable proximity to strangers must be turned off at all time,” an extended flight of fancy quickly followed by “The Check-in,” a rap-rhymed “Musical Introduction” to passengers Ray (Barry Vigon), Elaine (Anastasia Coon), Oliver (Garrett Walters), Mitch (Michael Turner), Dahlia (Heather Boothby), Adnan (Rajan Velu), and Hannah (Audrey Cain) accompanied by drummer Quentin Jones, whose upstage presence throughout provides further proof that whatever reality we’re about to enter, it will be far removed from the gritty urban authenticity of Caren’s previous plays.
“The Gate” has teenage Elliott bonding with Dahlia over rock band trivia, a conversation situating him somewhere on the autism spectrum … and most likely quite a handful for single mom Elaine.
“The Ascent” takes us inside the heads of the solo-flying Mitch and Dahlia, a pair of recent failures (he in business, she in romance) who might just be made for each other, or prove yet another failed love connection.
“The Wait (Dance Of The Flight Attendant) has Jamie soliloquizing about youthful nights spent amateur dancing at “this bar in the meat-packing district called Daddy’s,” then reminiscing about a middle-aged passenger with a most suprising request.
“The Descent (Ghost Dog)” introduces us to Korean-American Hannah, unnerved by Pakistani immigrant Adnan’s appearance, accent, and manner until (as often happens in enclosed places like a plane, a train, or a stopped elevator) reserve is dropped and secrets are revealed.
“The Arrival (Who Is Ishmael?)” takes us cross-country to LAX, where Hannah’s boyfriend Ian né Ishmael (Jason Karasev) and Ray’s long estranged adult son Jason (Bradley Gosnell) discover a distant connection that lives on in shared anger, recriminations, and regret.
Katherine Vondy’s direction proves particularly imaginative, her ingenious touches including a human baggage-claims carousel, a canine cloud (kudos to scenic designer Katie-Bell Kenney), a sky filled with compact-disc stars (Kenny again), and a choreographed dream sequence that proves quite magical.
All around fine performances keep Friends In Transient Places grounded in reality even at its most fanciful. Boothby and Turner have you rooting for romance to bloom just as Gosnell and Vigon do for family bonds to be repaired. Coon and Walters reveal authentic mother-son chemistry, Cain and Velu bond in the most unexpected of ways, and Phillips makes for an engaging flight attendant.
As for Karasev, not only does the Best Actor Scenie winner show off new edges, he strums guitar quite niftily indeed, drummer-composer Jones providing expert accompaniment and effects all along the way. Oh, and Vigon does a neat Mick Jagger.
Scenic designer Kenney situates the action inside a white-backed limbo, folding chairs arranged in various configurations taking us from waiting room to plane to arrival terminal as puffy cotton clouds hang suspended from above.
Additional production design elements—Lauren Wemischner’s lighting, Melissa Trn’s costumes, Benjamin Robert Watt’s sound, and Carissa Pinckney’s properties—are first-rate, with special snaps for a trunk that hides whimsical wonders.
Friends In Transient Places is produced by Phillips, Boothby, and Fresh Produced’d L.A. Jonas Newhouse is stage manager.
Following the twin successes of The Recommendation and Need To Know, Jonathan Caren could easily have played it safe with more of the same. Friends In Transient Places may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but by the end, I must confess to having fallen under its spell.
Fresh Produced’d L.A. at Studio/Stage, 520 North Western Ave., Los Angeles. Through October 30. Fridays at 8:00. Saturdays at 4:00 and 8:00. Sundays at 7:00.
October 16, 2106
Photos: Quinn Boyle