Sympathy-defying characters in credibility-challenging situations make D.G. Watson’s Unbound a less than riveting follow-up to IAMA Theatre Company hits like A Dog’s House, The Recommendation, and The Accidental Blonde.
Unbound asks us to swallow a big one from the get-go. That Kate (Laila Ayad) and Michael (Chris Gardner) have awakened half-naked in bed together, not only with no memory of what would appear to have been a night of wild, abandoned sex (okay, I can buy that considering how wasted they might have been), but when it turns out that the graffiti-tagged hotel room in which they find themselves is about three-hundred miles from Los Angeles (where they’ve just been part of 2012’s Occupy L.A. movement), we’re asked to believe that not only do they not remember getting there, they don’t even remember meeting while presumably still in unaltered states.
Fortunately throughout most of Act One, Kate and Michael’s sexually, politically-charged conversation is, if not entirely engrossing, at the very least not uninteresting, for Kate’s mother turns out to be a right-wing Tea Party-affiliated senator with White House aspirations and Michael’s Black Panther mentor (in whose shoes he hopes to follow) has only just been released from thirty-six years in the pen, twenty-five of them in solitary confinement.
Implausibility escalates in a pre-intermission twist that has Kate suddenly vetoing a political act she’s been gung-ho for while Michael, equally without warning, suddenly opposes her against his mentor’s stated wishes, ones he’s until now been intent on following.
And then …
I’ll leave it to you to discover the Act One-concluding whammy that seems more intent on setting up an entirely new post-intermission cast of characters than in credibility.
Act Two has senator Kate (Gates McFadden) arriving with a plan to pull off an Olivia Pope, not with Scandal’s trained professionals but instead with a decrepit old Black Panther (Ellis E. Williams as Ellis) as her sole helpmate.
Kate’s and Ellis’s opposing politics and past connection do provide some sparks as they set upon the rather improbable task at hand, but Dana is such an unpleasant character that I would gladly have had spoiled rich girl Kate back in her stead, and the Act Two grand finale is quite simply preposterous.
Under Jennifer Chambers’ direction, actors work hard to make the most of the script they’ve been given, one that might have been more effective a few years back when the idea of a right-wing Senator planning a Presidential run held dramatic stakes that now seem sadly passé.
Gardner in particular is an electric stage presence, a leading man who’s got everything it takes—looks, charisma, a sculpted physique, and real dramatic chops—to take off big-time. Ayad, Williams, and McFadden all have powerful moments, though the latter does too much film-appropriate whispering that doesn’t translate audibly to the extra-wide Hudson Backstage.
At the very least, scenic designer Se Oh has given Unbound a terrific hotel room set, with special snaps to prop master Courtney Sauls and prop assistant Bailey Humiston for filling it with abundant clutter. Ginevra Lombardo’s lighting, Dalmar Montgomery’s sound design, and Suzie Ford’s costumes are all first-rate, and Ahmed Best’s rough-and-tumble once again proves him one of L.A.’s premier fight directors.
Lara Myrene is stage manager and John Lavelle is assistant stage manager. Emily Rowan is assistant director. Ben Shields is technical director.
A playwright might get away with unsympathetic characters in a believable, compelling situation, or sympathetic characters in a less than fascinating one. Unfortunately in Unbound, a double negative does not add up to a positive.
Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6539 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.
November 19, 2016
Photos: Dean Cechvala