Black Dahlia Theatre
It’s no wonder American Theatre Magazine has referred to the Black Dahlia as “one of a dozen young companies you need to know” in America, but what an anomaly that makes this reverently regarded facility located thousands of miles west of most companies considered for such an honor. Then count in that the Dahlia is housed in a teeny-tiny 36-seat former storefront located on Pico a few blocks east of Fairfax, not the general spot one might first consider to launch a performing arts facility, and the legend continues to grow.
Even beyond the consistent quality of performance offered to greedy culture-starved LA audiences by artistic director Matt Shakman and staff producer Steven Klein, who started the upstart company a scant six years ago, is these founding partners’ ability to again and again choose amazing material to offer, from Austin Pendleton’s Orson’s Shadow the first year and on through the world premieres of subsequent globe-traveling productions of Geraldine Hughes’ Belfast Blues and Richard Kramer’s Theatre District, as well as the west coast debut of Rajiv Joseph’s Huck & Holden last year—multi-award winners all.
Now the Dahlia has brought us Angelenos another dynamic new local premiere with Tryst, a beguiling new play written by quickly rising Liverpool-born playwright and author Karoline Leach, best known as the controversial biographer of Lewis Carroll (In the Shadow of the Dreamchild). Set in Victorian London and beginning with classic stage thriller manners and set-ups, Leach spins the tale of a ruthless Bond-suave con artist (Gabriel Olds) who has made a proud career of marrying lonely women and then vanishing with their lifesavings—but only after deeming upon them one memorable night highlighted by a “bloody good shag” to help them remember him fondly after his disappearance sinks in.
But in pursuit of his new latest profitable Tryst, surprisingly this time out George meets his match in a shy and introverted millinery shop worker named Adelaide (Deborah Puette), who ultimately proves to be a lot less vulnerable than the seemingly endless sea of lovestruck predecessors floating around in George’s wake, women from whom George has “squeezed out the love like juice.”
Remarkably agile cohorts Olds and Puette give indelible performances under the sharply focused directorial eye of Robin Larsen, aided immensely by Craig Siebels’ gloriously versatile set which, as so many of his imaginative sets have before him in the Dahlia’s slim but deep performing space, opens deeper and deeper onto Pico Boulevard as the story becomes more intricately complicated. Mike Durst’s lighting and Audrey Fisher’s costuming also eerily help evoke the ghosts of this earlier era, although Joel Spence’s distracting and inconsistent sound design is in need of further tweaking. Still, above anything else conspiring to make this such a special presentation, truly the star here is Leach’s brilliant script, which works splendidly as a crowd pleaser in the most Agatha Christie-esque sense and also as a fascinatingly quirky character study delving into of the nature of love—and what can be overcome when basking in its early warmth.
Pico near Hauser might have been a risky spot for misters Shakman and Klein to set up shop back in 2001, but it’s clear that the hardworking Dahliaites and their signature ingenuity has been a significant boon to the neighborhood, easily evidenced by the ultra-cool designer furniture and unique gift store Home Grown, which moved in next door sometime over the past year or so. Now the Dahlia and their sharply cool retailing neighbor have joined forces at showtime with this production of Tryst, bringing the theatre box office right into Home Grown and making the entrance to their space accessible through the back of the store rather than walking around the building and entering through the previously utilized alley.
This partnership is another indication of the simple but innovative ideas which have made the Dahlia so special to everyone in the LA theatrical community—and watching the theatre’s patrons load up with goodies from the shop while waiting for the Dahlia to open makes me think this could be the start of a great new trend in art-inspired community cooperation. Simply, with this gem-quality mounting of Karoline Leach’s gem-quality Tryst, the Dahlia does it yet again.
Tryst has just been extended through May 20 at the Black Dahlia Theatre, 5453 W. Pico Bl., Los Angeles; for tickets, call 866.468.3399.
TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER has been writing about LA theatre since 1987 and as an actor has received LA Drama Critics Circle, Drama-Logue, ReviewPlays.com, and four Maddy Awards; NAACP, GLAAD, and five LA Weekly nominations; and numerous regional honors, including being up for Washington, DC’s Helen Hayes honors as Oscar Wilde in Oscar & Speranza. A veteran of six Broadway shows, as well as numerous national and international tours, he traveled in 2002-2003 playing his idol Tennessee Williams in Lament for the Moths, including a run at New Orleans’ Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, where he returned this year to perform in An Ode to Tennessee. As a writer, five of his plays have been produced in LA and his first, Surprise, Surprise, is about to hit the festival circuit as a feature film with Travis appearing in a leading role. His first novel, Waiting for Walk, was completed in 2005, put in a desk drawer, and the ever-slothful, ever-deluded, ever-entitled Travis can’t figure out why no one has magically found it yet, taken it out and published the goddam thing.