Rattlestick Branching Out: A New York Theatre Company Goes National

Written by Doug Strassler on . Posted in Arts & Film, Theater.


Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

Daniel Talbott’s ‘Slipping’ is the first LA production for the NYC company

The Off-Broadway theatre community isn’t a geographical location as much as a mental one, a notion that Rattlestick Playwrights Theater has embraced wholeheartedly as it expands its base all the way from New York’s West Village to Hollywood.

Slipping, the well-received play written and directed by Daniel Talbott, runs at the Lillian Theatre through May 5, marking the first Los Angeles production for the Obie-winning New York company. The goal is for Rattlestick – a compendium of well-trained artists unafraid to explore truths in challenging, occasionally controversial works – to further the creative dialogue between its members and the entertainment community-at-large.

“Rattlestick is not only thrilled to bring some of its innovative New York productions to Los Angeles audiences,” says Rattlestick Artistic Director David Van Asselt, “but we are also seeking to collaborate and intercross with the remarkable entertainment communities in Los Angeles.”

This isn’t the first instance of Rattlestick spreading its wings. Just last summer, Talbott – one of Rattle stick’s literary managers – wrote Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, America, Kuwait, which was performed at the American Conservatory Theatre’s Costume Shop in San Francisco. “Los Angeles is a vital city,” Van Asselt explained, “open to experimentation and full of creative mavericks. We are very interested in exploring that, opening up a line of communication, and seeing what’s possible.”

In transporting Slipping, Rattlestick has carried over one of its more storied homegrown productions. It is an unconventional but emotionally trenchant work about Eli (Seth Numrich), a malcontent gay teen adjusting to a new life in Iowa with his mother, Jan (Wendy vanden Heuvel) after enduring a tragedy back home in San Francisco. Each thread of hope of starting anew – embodied by naïve, confused shortstop Jake (MacLeod Andrews) – is entwined by paralyzing memories of a past love, Chris (Maxwell Hamilton), which haunt him.

One of the distinguishing characteristics between Slipping and other shows is just how clear-headed it is, even as it suggests a world of dualities. While Eli’s pain is portrayed in an elliptical fashion (Leigh Allen’s lighting and Janie Bullard’s sound design aid these transitions immeasurably), slowly letting the audience understand both how Eli’s tough outer shell was formed as well as how Jake might be able to crack it, Talbott empowers his characters, who each speak in dialogue that flirts with poetry while remaining both realistic and individually character-appropriate. The playwright also never condescends or punishes his characters for behavior that might appear cruel or self-serving. All four of his characters make believable choices that the audience intuits on a mental level, even if some of the motivations remain enigmatic in the moment. And the result is a work that looks at human folly at its most heartbreaking, but also amusing.

Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

And at the preview performance I caught at the Lillian, Slipping gets the production Angelinos deserve. Talbott’s staging was taut while allowing plenty of space to let his actors perform their characters’ internal hopscotch. While Numrich and Andrews reprise their roles from the 2009 New York run, Brett Donaldson essayed the role of Eli at my performance, and the young actor had a kung fu grip on the teenager’s complexities. He’s brave enough to push against audience sympathy at all costs, trusting that the play itself will fill in more of the character’s inner hurt. In fact, Rattlestick’s family will only continue to increase out west, as Wyatt Fenner will take over the role of Eli for Numrich, himself a Rattlestick regular (and star of such Broadway shows as Golden Boy and War Horse) who departs for a West End revival of Sweet Bird of Youth opposite Kim Cattrall.

Though Slipping is, of course, no one-man show. Hamilton walks the line between sleazy tease and stunted teen as Chris, putting Eli in situations that feel simultaneously dangerous and exciting for the young man. Their scenes together illuminate the way human damage is both learned and taught. Meanwhile, Jake balances out the other side, depicting how clumsy but enticing young crushes can be, and Andrews is pure genius at contrasting the more fun, freer side of young love to contrast with the cost that Eli bears. Vanden Heuvel offers a master class in subtle nuance as Jan both grieves and recovers in her own way. John McDermott’s clever set design also shows how one’s home can be both a place of refuge and of demons.

Quirky, challenging, and full of riches, Slipping isn’t your typical traveling show. Which makes it all the more appealing a choice to help Rattlestick as it establishes a bicoastal presence.

“We’re excited to bring Slipping to the West Coast and believe Los Angeles audiences will really respond to this material,” Van Asselt said. “Talbott’s writing is vital, wise beyond its years and unafraid to give us characters who are fierce, passionate, and yet with an underlying core of honesty and sincerity in an age when jaded cynicism is de rigueur.”

For more information about Slipping, please go to http://www.rattlestick.org/rattlestick-la/

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