Theater Review: Stitching

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Is fantasy the new personal reality? This has been known to happen when people are deeply unsatisfied with the reality they're in or can't seem to make it work no matter how hard they try.

In "Stitching," Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson explores the psycho-sexual landscape surrounding this idea. Drawing on Edward Albee's and Harold Pinter's similarly game-themed dramas ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "The Lover"), Neilson carves out a drama of obsession and ambivalence entirely his own. The play, which has created a buzz in London and New York in recent years, isn't nearly as shocking as you may have heard, but it might be best to leave grandma home all the same.

Two damaged people, Stu (John Ventimiglia) and Abbey (Meital Dohan), are at the center of the story. When we first meet them -- no time or place is given -- they're trying to figure out what to do about Abbey's pregnancy. It's clear that communication and problem-solving are not their strong suits. When Stu asks Abbey if she's sure the baby is his, fireworks follow.

In the next scene, we flash back about 10 years to the couple's first meeting. Abbey is a college girl doing a little whoring on the side, and Stu is apparently her first john. The scene is amusing but also encapsulates some of the problems we've already seen. The worm of suspicion is already starting to gnaw at both of them.

And so it goes in a succession of alternating scenes in which each character tries to figure out what the other wants but never really succeeds. Stu is sexually kinky but doesn't entirely hide his emotional needs or tender affection for Abbey. Abbey is often confused by his kinkiness, but reveals unconventional needs of her own.

What gradually emerges is that the play isn't about sex but the difficulty of sustaining intimacy and love. The mounting fantasies are a substitute for a missing vital connection -- and commitment -- that neither character (especially Stu) is able to make. Love, they both admit at one point, is not enough without trust.

There's a certain one-note grimness about the story that hinders us from caring too much about the characters. We can only imagine the true back story that might help explain these troubled people. On the other hand, the deliberate withholding of personal histories points to a more complex explanation: a poisonous outside culture we don't see directly but whose alienating presence is everywhere. Both characters can be viewed as casualties in a gender war whose most serious damage takes place in the heart.

While the chemistry between Ventimiglia and Dohan is reasonably good, it's not always enough to overcome the schematic feel of the 75 minute drama. Paradoxically, the play is too well-mannered to push either character beyond a safe emotional point -- where all the good stuff is. Timothy Haskell directs.

Venue: Lillian Theater, Hollywood (Through April 5)
Cast: Meital Dohan, John Ventimiglia
Director: Timothy Haskell
Set designer: Garin Marschall
Lighting designer: Matt Richter
Costume designer: Louis Jacobs
Composer: Daron Murphy
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