The Distance from Here
Santa Monica Playhouse
Dean of the current crop of brilliantly dark and twisted theatrical wordsmiths recording the ever-crumbling American dream is Neil LaBute, who puts the human flotsam and jetsam of contemporary culture right up there for all to see. Almost too obviously echoing Edward Bond’s notoriously grizzly late-50s crowd-stunner Saved, LaBute’s equally super-gritty The Distance from Here, now unfolding at the Santa Monica Playhouse’s Other Space, is perhaps his most disturbing, an almost claustrophobic look at a new generation of crippled citizens of the world learning all the wrong lessons from their equally dysfunctional and emotionally shredded parents.
It’s a grim existence facing LaBute’s incredibly angry teenaged grunge-era anti-hero Darell (a haunting Blake Hood), who careens through his depressed and depressing wasteland of modern suburban life by ditching school, taunting the equally caged real primates at the local zoo, copying homework, torturing his girlfriend Jenn (Katie Featherstone) with suspicions both grounded and not, and groveling for cash handouts from everyone he encounters in his grim little life.
Darell’s nightmarish dead-end existence living with his childlike bargirl mother Cammie (Jocelyn Towne) and her Gulf War-traumatized casualty of a boyfriend Rich (Matt Berg) is best exemplified by the kid’s constant mantra: “Whatever.” Darell’s life is a meandering blur of playing alpha-dog with his meek best friend Tim (Shaun Anthony), barely avoiding the amorous advances of his miserable baby-tethered half-sister Shari (Jen Bronstein), and without a doubt readying himself to pass on his disturbing emotional malnutrition to yet another future generation.
If anything hampers this production, it’s the feeling its youthful ensemble is a tad too scrubbed and Hollywood-healthy. Although every one of these actors is obviously capable of creating an indelible character and finding arresting moments, under Brian Frederick’s direction and with the exception of Anthony’s brittle and quietly heartbreaking Tim, the cast uniformly delivers performances seemingly unable to transform as the story unfolds; instead, there is a homogeneous sense of reliance on repetitious film-bred character traits that work so well when emoting in short takes oncamera.
Still, Hood in the demanding leading role and The Distance From Here’s committed supporting castmembers each offer incredibly frightening and desperately wrenching flashes of brilliance, often finding just the right buttons to push to chronicle the bitter future faced by a people overwhelmed by the millennium’s unbridled apathy, ravaged by political greed, and damned by disintegrating family values fostered by our society’s multi-leveled poverty.
Now all this gifted cast needs to do is dig a little bit deeper.
The Distance from Here plays through May 20 at Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica; for tickets, call (818) 986-9817.