Theater Reviews

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Presented by South Coast Repertory
Segerstrom Stage, Costa Mesa, Calif.
Through May 4

The world premiere of Kate Robin's "What They Have" follows a harrowing year in the roller-coaster fortunes of two Hollywood couples. The successful film industry types (Marin Hinkle and Matt Letscher), who are suave and sophisticated, make intellectual, not emotional, connections. The poor artist types (Nancy Bell and Kevin Rahm), who struggle defiantly to the point of not owning a television, are constantly at each other's throats over issues of career and responsibility. Each couple in some measure desires what they perceive the other to have.

As the play progresses through its all-too-short 2 hours and 15 minutes, each of the four discovers, to her or his sometimes unpleasant surprise, that it is love they are looking for -- but that expecting and deserving love may or may not have anything to do with how things turn out.

Robin's script is consistently and often brilliantly funny ("New York is so expensive, you have to live in Philadelphia if you want to live in New York"), its cynical, professional edginess warmed by her affection for the two women and her grudging admiration for the two men. Not surprisingly, her characters use pop culture (the "universal" relevance of reality shows, the Mayan prophecy of apocalypse in 2012, visualization and other eternal "secrets" of life) and modern appurtenances (Ikea minimalism, Mac laptops and Googling) as their guiding stars.

But Robin herself draws on an impressive range of associations that leaves you thinking once the laughter wears off: Juxtapositions of Hitler and Buddhism, Marx and Bob Dylan, and a Jesus who "wanted to be immortal." The issue of hope in the Finnish episode of Jim Jarmusch's movie "Night on Earth" seems to be invoked during the climax preceding the bittersweet conclusion.

Using a beautifully designed series of interlocking walls on a revolving stage, director Chris Fields paces the action so that the initial series of self-consciously formal ensemble numbers -- including a virtuoso duet from Hinkle and Letscher and an amusing series of art-related charades by the quartet -- gradually evolves into a comfort zone of L.A. normalcy tempered by acceptance.

During the evolution, the characters, one by one, find a more flexible, human mode. Hinkle, whose Connie is a wonderfully modern comic creation, uses her face, voice and body exquisitely, exhibiting a wide range of expression and emotion.

The other three are no less impressive. Bell, in a magnificent crescendo of insight and unleashed rage (her "escape" from domesticity in Act II is a masterpiece), and Rahm, with unflagging energy that he masterfully channels into a semblance of emotional growth, eventually battle their ways to an approximation of compassion, for themselves and others. Letscher, in a dazzling portrayal of a super-bright writer who doesn't quite understand that thinking is not the same as doing, keeps his character movingly at bay from real feelings. As wonderful as each is separately, their ensemble work is absolutely superb.

If Costa Mesa is not on your radar for theatrical enjoyment, you might want to enlarge your cruising range. Making its debut during South Coast Repertory's 11th annual Pacific Playwrights Festival, "What They Have" is more than just a "Virginia Woolf" for the 21st century. It's set so organically and perceptively in its rich, Southern California cultural context that it may have you leaving the theater with an inspiring new perspective on your life, your relationships and the way you interact with the world around you.

WHAT THEY HAVE
Presented by South Coast Repertory
Credits:
Playwright: Kate Robin
Director: Chris Fields
Set designer: Christopher Barreca
Costume designer: Alex Jaeger
Lighting designer: Lap-Chi Chu
Original music/musical director: Michael Roth
Dramaturg: Megan Monaghan
Cast:
Suzanne: Nancy Bell
Connie: Marin Hinkle
Jonas: Matt Letscher
Matt: Kevin Rahm
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