This Contract Limits Our Liability—Read It!
Theatre of NOTE
Kathy and Mark are an ordinary upwardly mobile LA-fractured couple whose relationship has gone familiarly stagnant in playwright Joshua Fardon’s twisted contemporary comedy This Contract Limits Our Liability: Read It!, now world premiering weeknights at Theatre of NOTE.
No matter how hot and heavy Kathy and Mark’s union might have once been in more idealistic days before they realized no one could ever “start a revolution in Sherman Oaks,” boredom has begun to overtake their lives together. This leads them to take out a swingers’ ad in a local free newspaper—you know, the kind guaranteed to stain your fingers with smudged ink in case you thought you could get beyond glancing at the massive boobies pictured on the front without anyone knowing you’d picked up such a rag.
It isn’t the first time Kathy and Mark (Kelsey Wedeen and Jonas Dickson) have asked another couple responding to their ad to join them for an evening of fun and games in the privacy of their tasteful suburban home, but it is the first time their guests had a darker agenda in mind beyond tickling their hosts’ individual fancies. What Vivian and Bob (Julia Prud’homme and Bill Robens) desire from the attentions of another couple isn’t sex, but an audience: someone to watch as they merrily shuffle off their respective mortal coils in the most civilized suicide pact since La Grand Bouffe. To top this, although they’ve loved one another and presumably have been married for quite some time, Vivian is steadfastly a virgin and Bob, still reeling from the fact that his folk album tanked, is basically gay.
Fardon’s sitcom-gone-awry of a script, though lacking any real point beyond making a rather noteworthy case extolling the benefits of suicide to worn out old Boomers like me as we collectively careen into obsolescence, is downright hilarious. With tongue placed firmly in cheek, director Kiff Scholl ups the ante here considerably; without someone in his position who shares a sense of humor as skewed as the playwright’s own, this short intermissionless piece of fluff—adult fluff, mind you, but fluff none the less—wouldn’t stand a chance.
This Contract Limits… also succeeds because of its ensemble of typically fearless Theatre of NOTE stalwarts, actors willing to abandon their sensibilities (along with their clothing) to prove they’re just as twisted as the show’s creators. Prud’homme and Robens are a riot in an early scene as Vivian and Bob cheerfully list the depressing reasons why they think it’s time to permanently check out (that folk album high on the list, of course), while Robens stands out in one knockout monologue as Bob relates to Kathy the graphic details of his one horrifying excursion into exterminating rodents.
Unfortunately, as talented as they both obviously are, Wedeen appears to never quite get comfortable with the comedic rhythms of the writing and direction, while Prud’homme tends to pull back rather than go for it to make Vivian’s situation as absurd as it needs to be. Without a doubt, it’s the men cast in this production who shine the brightest, leaving me to wonder if someone shouldn’t team the goofy, rubber-mugged Dickson with the methodically stone-faced Robens for a vehicle all their own—maybe some modern adaptation of something originally planned for Stan and Ollie, Bud and Lou, or even Jerry and Dean.
Perhaps the problem is that Fardon writes juicier roles for the men in his Contract, affording Wedeen and Prud’homme nowhere much to go with their characters while the boys frolic. Still, in her one brief scene as the marriage counselor Kathy and Mark call to help them decide what to do about the blissfully entwined dead bodies gracing their living room floor, Andrea Ruth exonerates her gender with a delightfully deadpanned, sufficiently confused performance as the shrink who’s been telling the couple to face their “Jungian shadows.” No matter what her charges are facing as they wonder how to explain their way out of their situation, Ruth’s perfectly positioned shrink only knows to ask the usual question: “So, how does that make you feel?” By the time her visit ends, however, the good doctor solidifies the reason why those in her profession no longer make house calls.
Still, the biggest conundrum for Contract’s debut performance wasn’t Fardon’s Follies or the characters he’s created; it was in the space itself. According to a NOTE-able source, the facility’s air conditioning was only inexplicably stopped working on opening night and hasn’t affected subsequent performances—or any of the other shows in the company’s prolific plethora of alternating schedules. Still, the lack of ventilation during our summer’s worst (so far) globally-warmed heat wave made that first night a difficult thing to endure. No matter how ready to be appreciatively raucous an audience might be when a performance begins, if the theatre itself is this stifling hot, making the play’s programs soon flutter en masse in the dark as everyone gathered desperately tries to create a little breeze for themselves, there’s no doubt the laughter is guaranteed to diminish along with the air supply.
Secondly, as clever as is Scholl’s staging throughout, it seemed surprising that such little consideration had been given here by any of the play’s designers and creative team members to compensate for the tiny space’s glaringly awful sightlines, particularly in the culminating scene when Kathy and Mark sit on the floor trying to decide their next—albeit final—move. Perhaps, I wondered, if everybody who croaks or contemplates croaking died on the upper level of the set, and the bedroom scene played out there where Vivian and Mark strip to pop her exceedingly ripe cherry, those of us eagerly congregated to watch wouldn’t have to strain our necks to see what’s going on. Only if Prud’homme and Dickson were suddenly replaced by Angelina and Brad would we as an audience feel as though we’d missed much.
This crisis, I was informed by the same worthy source, was due to the fact that the proper risers utilized for NOTE’s versatile playing space didn’t get set up in time for opening night and, again, the problem has since been solved without restaging. It was a shame several critics saw the piece premiere under such conditions but then again, they did inform us all right from the start that This Contract Limits Our Liability: Read It!
This Contract Limits Our Liability—Read It! plays through Aug. 7 at Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Bl., Hollywood; for tickets, call 323.856.8611.