Spin doctors can save clients, but not themselves.
Billed as “Veep” meets “House of Cards”, the Hollywood Fringe Festival production of “Dark Arts” crackles with witty dialogue, sharp political satire, and a surprisingly effective love story.
The one-act whisks audiences through the daily battles of this crisis PR firm – where spin doctors extraordinaire Andrew St. Jude (Playwright Lawrence Meyers, in his first lead) and Lyndsey Klein (Stephanie Hyden, “The Tension Experience”) battle a Deep State conspiracy against a small business owner.
Playwright Meyers picks up from where he left off with last year’s political freak show (“Porn Rock”), and assigns the spin doctors with the task of unraveling the real story behind a woman entrepreneur who has come under media and government assault. This comes in the form of Elizabeth Dement (“Porn Rock”, “Dreamboy”, “Guest Room”), playing a sympathetic, if somewhat batty, CEO of a skin tan product. Dement’s timing and delivery are just as sharp as they were in “Porn Rock”, and she delivers as the confused and lost little girl caught up in a government nightmare.
Meyers and Hyden are electric as the firm’s partners -- once romantically involved, now split, but obviously nutty in love with each other. They finish each other’s sentences, work their enemies like veteran crime investigators, and frequently throw knowing glances at each other that tell how much they love their work and each other. The chemistry is undeniable between these two. It's delicious, it's sexy, and it's a treat to watch.
Meyers offers a forceful presence, undergirded by a rakish charm, as the foul-mouthed strategist who is always three steps ahead – except when he isn’t, and he still manages to run circles around his opponents. This includes gossip reporter Sheryl Harrison, interpreted as a deceptively fresh-faced viper by Erika Quintana (veteran of the Geer Theatrical Botanicum). One can just feel her glee at getting even a wisp of dirt on a St. Jude client.
Hyden’s Klein is the balance – “He [St. Jude] sees the big picture and I see everything else”. She’s the tactician to St. Jude’s strategist, and Hyden pulls off a real trick – simultaneously striking an approachable and warm feminine presence while harboring a lioness ready to spring to back her mate at the drop of a hat. Hyden’s energy and concentration is a marvel to watch. She knows exactly when to shift gears, and plays Klein as the smartest gal in the room – yet one who cannot hide her deep affection for her partner no matter how hard she tries.
Between them lies the personal conflict – love vs. duty. St. Jude works too hard to the point of endangering his health. Klein wants him to take over a non-profit that would benefit from his drive and not force him into an early grave. All of this informs the interactions Klein and St Jude have with three imposing representatives of government bureaucracy and uncaring power.
First comes Bill Caterwaul, an FDA stooge. As portrayed by the gifted Terence Leclere (“Tension Experience, “Covell”, “Land of the Lost”), Caterwaul is the perfect useful idiot, a man so in love with his permanent job at the FDA that if “I didn’t find anything wrong with [a] product, then I would not have a job”. Leclere is hilarious, totally owning the role of the happiest-go-luckiest bureaucrat in history, and providing perfect fodder for Meyers’ swipe at an uncaring bureaucracy.
Next up is an OSHA lifer named Honey Rivlin, who despises her job as much as Caterwaul loves his. Veteran comedienne Toni Perrotta is as world-and-job weary as one would imagine, saddled with unwanted title “Expert Director of Research”, who finds herself on the wrong end of the spin doctors’ knives. Yet Rivlin is no dummy. Perrotta brings a savvy edge to the role, and delivers a scorching rebuke to the partners, as well as a little not-so-friendly advice.
Then comes Congressman Max Waters, who has apparently tangled with St. Jude in the past. There is serious bad blood between these two. British actor Damien Gerard (“The Tension Experience”, “Elder Scrolls:Legends”) is a veritable freight train, crashing Klein and St. Jude’s offices, playing it cool while simmering with hidden rage at St. Jude. Yes, it explodes, and yes, Gerard and Meyers practically set the theatre on fire in their confrontations. Gerard is a fierce presence with a smarmy politician's edge.
Director Gabriela Tagliavini (“Without Men”, “Ladies Night”) keeps the action moving briskly along, letting the fine cast shine, and using a minimum of lighting effects to enhance the emotional centers of the piece.
Meyers successfully builds on “Porn Rock”, moving away from the more didactic (although hilarious) skewering of government, and into more emotive and thoughtful territory. The core relationship of Klein and St. Jude address the issue of how easy it is to fall into the trap of putting work over loved ones, but also questions the wisdom of fighting wars of attrition, when so many other soldiers seem ready to die for the cause.
The question is not definitively answered. Instead, the play’s most wrenching moment throws the question right into the audience’s lap, as if to ask what abyss each of us are in danger of falling into – and if we have the wisdom to extricate ourselves from obsession before it is too late.
“Dark Arts” plays at the Ruby Theatre @ The Complex, 6476 Santa Monica Blvd, on June 10, 17, 21 and 23.
Tickets at: http://www.hollywoodfringe.org/projects/4649?tab=tickets
An immersive “finale” runs June 26-30, which promises to resolve certain plot elements that “go unresolved”. Tickets for “Finale” are available only at www.darkartsplay.com