A longtime teacher’s unexpected reaction to the impending closure/demolition of the beleaguered Chicago inner city school she has for decades called home serves as catalyst to Exit Strategy, playwright Ike Holter and the L.A. LGBT Center’s gripping, gut-punching follow-up to their 2015 critical/box-office smash Hit The Wall, and one of Fall 2017’s must-see productions.

No one has given more of her life to her students and her job than Pam (Jane Macfie), which is why 30ish assistant principal Ricky’s (Adam Silver) private-meeting announcement that due to “low test scores, unfavorable conditions, lots of … lots of, lots of, lots of stuff,” the current academic year will be the school’s last does not sit well with the Chicago Public Schools vet.

Not that Pam has been clueless to the writing on the wall, not in an institution where only forty percent of seniors make it to graduation day, not in a school where “even the paint’s trying to run away.”

Still, that doesn’t stop the battle-scarred teacher from giving the school’s latest spineless young administrator more than a piece of her mind before exiting with a bang.

So authentic is Holter’s writing that you’d swear he’d spent years teaching in the CPS (Chicago’s version of our own LAUSD), or at the very least as a fly on the wall as teachers like cynical recovering alcoholic Arnold (Darrett Sanders), Latino stoner Luce (Remy Ortiz), African-American fireball Sadie (LaNisa Renee Frederick), and bilingual beauty Jania (Maria Romero) struggle to make the best of the worst possible situation.

Enter black senior Donnie (Luke Tennie), almost certain to be suspended for hacking into the school computer in order to set up a Kickstarter campaign and raise funds for his besieged school, or at least he is until the most unlikely of alliances gets formed and “Team Winning” is born.

Unlike Chicago/New York stagings that separated actors from audience with an invisible fourth wall, ace director Deena Selenow and scenic design whiz Se Oh seat us on all four sides of the action, and if this makes for a less detailed, realistic set, there’s no denying the impact of being flies on this teachers’ room’s walls, and with sound designer Jesse Mandapat providing a pulsating soundtrack during intricately choreographed scene changes, even these add to the excitement.

Performances could not be finer, from the fiery Frederick’s burned but not yet entirely blasé Sadie to Ortiz’s sexy, laid-back Luce (who turns out to be a certain someone’s secret squeeze) to Romero’s passionate Jania (think a young Salma Hayek), and Hit The Wall star Silver once again proves himself one of the most dynamic, engaging actors in town.

Still, it’s a couple of L.A. stage vets and one fresh-out-of-AMDA newcomer who end up stealing every scene they’re in.

Macfie packs as much punch in her five-foot frame as six-footer Sanders does in his, making the revelation of Pam and Arnold’s best friendship at once startling and entirely logical, the powerhouse duo providing Exit Strategy with its unexpected but resolutely beating heart.

As for the great big teddy bear/firebrand that is Donnie, keep the name Luke Tennie in mind because a major career awaits this young Forest Whitaker, as watchable in his focused reaction to what he observes as he is in energized action to save his school.

Lena Sands (who costumes each character to spot-on perfection) and Matt Richter (who lights the Davidson/Valentini blackbox to electrifying effect) complete Exit Strategy’s top-drawer production design team.

Exit Strategy is produced by Jon Imparato for the Los Angeles LGBT Center and Silver for Sixth Avenue. Adam Earle is assistant director. Maggie Marks is production stage manager. Patricia Sutherland is production manager.

Like Hit The Wall, Deathtrap, and The Sonneteer before it, Exit Strategy once again reveals the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center as a force to be reckoned with in Los Angeles intimate theater. Expect to stand up and cheer.

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The Davidson/Valentini Theatre, L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center, The Village at Ed Gould Plaza, 1125 N. McCadden Place, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
October 15, 2017
Photos: Michael Lamont


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