Suspense dramas don’t much more edge-of-your-seat nor subject matter more hot-button than William Mastrosimone’s 1986 eco-terrorism thriller Cat’s Paw, updated by the author in 2011, more relevant than ever in 2017, and the terrific latest from Actors Co-op.

Unfolding over ninety minutes of increasingly tense real time in the warehouse lair of terrorist leader Victor (Sean McHugh) and his fellow “eco-warriors” Cathy (Ivy Beach) and Martin, Cat’s Paw opens with their hostage of the past five weeks, EPA official David Darling (Vito Viscuso), being prepped for a possible interview with famed TV journalist Jessica Lyons (Deborah Marlowe).

First, however, Victor must lay the groundwork with Jessica (think CNN’s Christiane Amanpour minus the accent), and so David is hustled out of the room to be held as bait should the journalist meet Victor’s demands.

The government official’s abduction may, after over a month of captivity, have been demoted to page 23 of the Post, but Victor’s gun-toting, chemical weapons-ready terrorists are once again today’s front page news, suicide bomber Martin having just taken out eleven United States Senators and injured countless others in the immediate vicinity.

Dueling protagonists Victor and Jessica now see it as their mission to insure that the truth behind the bombing (or the truth as each of them sees it) be made public, Victor vowing to make his case with a reporter for whom this interview could well mean a new level of journalistic stardom.

As to just who among its protagonists is the titular “cat’s paw,” defined as “a person who is used by another, typically to carry out an unpleasant or dangerous task,” only Mastrosimone’s play has the answer.

As the film Erin Brockovich and recent events in Flint, Michigan have made abundantly clear, the health risks posed by contaminated water combined with government and corporate disinterest in taking drastic measures to save lives add up to issues of growing concern.

By positing a more radical solution to the problem than the Brockovich team’s legal measures, Cat’s Paw forces audiences to view terrorism in ways not always fostered by the evening’s headlines. What about acts committed by those working in our own interest? Who among us wouldn’t want to be protected against water containing even the “acceptable” levels of “pesticides, bacteria, radioactivity, and turbidity” cited by David?

Factor in current efforts to dismantle the federal agency charged with protecting our environment, and Cat’s Paw couldn’t come at a more propitious time, nor could it represent a greater commitment by Actors Co-op to go beyond the play-it-safe fare of years past.

Under Stephen Rothman’s electrifying direction, Co-op members Beech, Marlowe, and McHugh do some of their finest work to date in roles that could not be more radically different from their delicious comedic turns two years ago in Pride And Prejudice, and joined by Co-op newcomer Viscuso, they hold audience members riveted for a breakneck hour and a half.

McHugh’s slick Victor and Marlowe’s gritty Jessica make them fitting adversaries, with Beech’s hardened Cathy and Viscuso’s justly agitated David proving equally mesmerizing as pawns in a cat-and-mouse game of earth-altering magnitude.

David Potts’ scenic design strips the blackbox Crossley Theatre to its bare-walls minimum, and with properties designer Lori Berg’s adding a multitude of terrorist-ready paraphernalia, the result gives audience members seated on three sides of Victor’s warehouse hideout a dramatically you-are-there experience enhanced by James Moody’s stark lighting design, Adam Macias’ surround-sound array of thrilling effects, and E.B. Brooks’ just-right costumes, with Collin Bressie completing the mix with his hair-raising fight direction.

Cat’s Paw is produced by Greyson Chadwick. Christian Eckels is stage manager.

Hard as it is to imagine 1986’s Actors Co-op having touched Cat’s Paw with a ten-foot pole, the world itself may not have been ready for William Mastrosimone’s eco-thriller back then. Its arrival at this moment in time not only proves propitious, it adds one more feather to the increasingly risk-taking Co-op’s hat.

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Actors Co-Op Crossley Theatre, 1769 N. Gower St., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
March 26, 2017
Photos: Lindsay Schnebly


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