The Lost Studio
In the world premiere of his Angel Feathers, now playing at The Lost Studio, Greg Suddeth has created a fascinating dark comedy exploring the decidedly un-cheery subjects of cancer, suicide and impending death, a topic not usually handled with this much honesty and personal insight, as well as deliciously inappropriate humor.
Suddeth’s play was inspired, the program notes tell us, by a dinner party where everyone in attendance save one person had a history of cancer—including Suddeth and his wife—and that remaining guest had lost his wife to the disease. Welcome to 21st century America, where we all have become expendable as long as those heartless warmongers in authority are making fistfuls of money on our shoddy healthcare system, approving processed foods, and ignoring the polluted air guaranteed to kill us off, while they focus their attention instead on dominating others with resources to swell their already overflowing coffers.
That rant aside and back to the point, Angel Feathers is an impressively acted, produced and directed first pass, overflowing with clever dialogue and presenting an intelligent viewpoint about its unlikely subject for the piece’s welcomed levity. What’s needed now is for this promising work is to focus itself, to clarify and rarify its arguments, dump unnecessary characters, and not ramble off into too many directions or introducing extraneous peripheral characters.
Effectively played by the playwright, the leading character (named Roy Rogers, giving rise to a few strategically placed stuffed Trigger jokes), is a man convinced by the fluttering of angel’s wings only he can hear that both he and his old blind dog Bubbie are meant to shuffle off their respective mortal coils that same day. The timing’s perfect, as his life has, in his mind, run its course. “I’ve run out,” he tells his daughter. “I’ve run out of things to try. I’ve run out of words and gestures and good deeds and hope.” Sounds like time to call it a day to me, too.
Roy’s cancer is real enough, exacerbated by his secret refusal to go to radiation therapy or take any drugs besides his ever present jug of 7-Up and liquid morphine (“I didn’t go to treatment,” he admits, “I went to Starbuck’s”). But annoyingly for the guy, when all he wants to do is load his .22 and get a head start to the pearly gates for he and his pooch, finds himself surrounded by several ridiculously understanding survivors of cancer, including his wife and daughter, both beautifully played by Wendy Phillips and Jenny Dare Paulin.
Worse yet for Roy and his imminent exit plan for two, these people around him genuinely love him, something he obviously has a hard time showing in return. It’s difficult not to wonder if maybe Suddeth has the same problem displaying affection in real life, which might be the explanation for how much time is spent in his play repetitiously dealing with that subject. Repetition is the culprit in Angel Feathers in so many regards, a difficult problem when all the action of the play revolves acting workshop-style around a couch centerstage and the imminent suicide of s self-absorbed modernday Willie Loman.
Regardless of the expert directorial choices of Cinda Jackson and Mark Adair-Rios and some lovely, heartfelt performances all around, as scripted there’s nowhere to go in Roy’s miserable world except into the same points, repeated over and again in basically the same way. Granted, feeling sorry for oneself is a side effect of facing catastrophic illness, something I know about only too well as a four-time survivor of The Big C myself — which I unreservedly disclose might affect my objectivity here or may give me the ideal insight to point out these flaws — but that’s not enough to hold our attention for two acts without some transformative event for Suddeth’s character to help us relate to his struggle.
Add into the puzzlement of Roy continuously reiterating the same defeated mantas of disappointment (and yelling at a recording of his offstage barking dog) the recurring appearance of the resolute Jane George and Barry Livingston as the Rogers’ terminally Orthodox Jewish neighbors Sara and Alvin Rosten, and the early promise of Suddeth’s witty dialogue and interesting premise really begins take a downward turn.
Let is be said that George and Livingston do a remarkable job making the Rostens real and sincere in spite of the incredibly stereotypical look they’ve been given by some unacknowledged costumer—both sport fannypacks in front, she covers her head with a tucked-under scarf and he with a yarmulke the size of his whole head—and despite the scripted eye-rolling delivery of their oddly inconsequential characters’ lines, liberally peppered with every Yiddish slang word ever spoken (“Man comes into this world with an ‘Oy,’” declares Alvin at one point, “and he leaves with a gevalt”).
Oy is right.
All that said, there’s so much good stuff in Angel Feathers that one hopes the gifted Mr. Suddeth will go back to the drawing board to explore it. Trim off about 20 minutes of Roy’s Lomanesque whining, lose the neighbors and, while he’s at it, dump the equally unnecessary intermission, and future incarnations this play could prove it to be a truly important piece of contemporary theatrical literature.
Angel Feathers plays through Aug. 5 at The Lost Studio, 130 S. La Brea Av., Los Angeles; for tickets, call 323.651.5632.